Have we hit the bottom yet?

Yesterday was among the worst days that global stock markets have ever seen. After such hefty falls, investors’ minds often turn to bargain-hunting. But is it really time for contrarians to start filling their boots?

Yet another Black Monday. As Manoj Ladwa at ETX Capital put it, they "used to be a once-in-a-decade event now they're coming along more regularly than London buses."

The FTSE 100 saw its largest-ever points fall yesterday, sinking nearly 400 points to 4,589. It's also the biggest percentage fall since the crash of 1987. It was by no means the only stock market to take a hammering. In the US, the Dow Jones closed down 3.6%, while the Russian market had to be closed (yet again) after falling 19%.

Of course, it could be worse. You could be living in Iceland, where the economy itself is on the verge of going bust (more on this on the website later).

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There's one big question that pops into investors minds after a fall like this. Is it time to buy? Plenty of people so far have called the point of maximum pessimism just read your weekend papers for a whole slew of 'cheap' stock tips, every one of which became even cheaper yesterday.

But could this be capitulation point?

After a fall like this - is it time to buy?

This kind of colossal fall tends to bring out the bargain-hunting instinct, particularly when it happens this early into a downturn. Despite all that's happened, a sizeable number of people are still in "buy the dips" mode. So everyone's asking - are we at the bottom yet?

Jim Cramer, the excitable American TV stock-tipper reckons not. In fact, yesterday he warned his many viewers to take any money they'd need in the next five years out of the market. He reckons the Dow Jones could fall another 20% from here. "I do not care where stocks have been, I care where they're going, and I don't want people to get hurt in this market."

Let's just point out here, by the way, that Mr Cramer isn't saying anything particularly radical. Five years is a pretty short-term horizon for the stock market. If you know you're going to need a specific sum in the next five years, and you can't afford to risk it, it shouldn't be in the stock market anyway, regardless of what point in the business cycle we're at.

But even so, the sight of a normally bullish stock commentator looking solemn and telling them to get out of the market would have unnerved a lot of US investors. And as we all know, when financial stories break into the mainstream news in a big way like this, it usually pays to take the opposite view. As financial commentator Barry Ritholz put it on his 'Big Picture' blog, "Damn if that headline doesn't smell like a giant buy signal."

And there are other signs that things are likely to rebound. The Vix index Wall Street's fear gauge hit an all-time high of more than 55. And after a fall this significant, we were almost certain to see a bounce in any case the FTSE 100 is already up nearly 100 points this morning.

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Why we're nowhere near the bottom yet

But while there's every chance we'll see a short-term rally, I don't think this is anywhere near the bottom. Why? Because the areas where the problems really lie the banking sector and the property market are nowhere near bottomed out yet. That's partly because no one's yet come up with a solution to the banking crisis that anyone believes will work; and also because even when they do, we're still going to have to live with a world where credit is much tighter and asset prices much lower.

I want to go into this in more detail later this week, but the basic problem is that banks have overstretched themselves hugely. They're now hoarding cash because they realise they're going to need it. Hank Paulson's big 'Tarp' bail-out plan doesn't really help much with this - James Ferguson explains why in the current issue of MoneyWeek.

And with no loosening up in credit conditions in sight, we're going to see the property market continue to fall, on both sides of the Atlantic. For as long as that continues, banks will see no end to the potential damage to their overstretched balance sheets, and therefore will not feel able to increase lending again.

How long will that take? That's a question we'll be taking a look at in the next issue of MoneyWeek, out on Friday. If you're not already a subscriber, you can subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

But put it this way while the traders out there might want to be betting on a short-term bounce, I wouldn't be putting any of my long-term investment money into a FTSE 100 tracker right now.

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John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.