The S&P 500 is once again fighting to gain back some lost ground in the past week. That move higher has been able to lift sentiment slightly, but overall tones remain historically pessimistic. The American Association of Individual Investors weekly sentiment survey showed bulls crawl back up to 18.9% from a historic low of 15.8% reached last week. With less than a fifth of respondents bullish, this remains in the bottom 2% of all weeks on record.
Of course, with bullish sentiment historically depressed, bearish sentiment is historically elevated at 43.9%. That is down from much higher readings of the past year that eclipsed 50% but remains just off the upper decile of its historical range.
As such, bears continue to outnumber bulls by 25 full percentage points. Given the contrarian nature of sentiment indicators, that would still be taken as a positive sign for forward performance of equities as we highlighted on page 6 of last week’s Bespoke Report.
Taking into account other sentiment indicators shows a similar picture. The NAAIM Exposure Index currently sits at 74.05 which is off of the low of 30 from early March while the Investors Intelligence survey saw the first negative bull-bear spread reading in a month this week. Combining these readings, our Sentiment Composite has come off the lows but is still at one of the weaker readings of the past decade. Click here to view Bespoke’s premium membership options.
Heading into this week, bullish sentiment on the part of individual investors, measured by the weekly AAII survey, was already depressed with less than a quarter of respondents reporting optimistic sentiment. One week later with the S&P 500 continuing to move lower and a couple of hot, but not exactly unexpected, inflation readings in the interim, bullish sentiment has collapsed another 8.9 percentage points to the lowest level since the week of September 3rd, 1992. That’s right, bullish investor sentiment never got this low even at the depths of the pandemic, during the Global Financial Crisis, or during the Dot Com bubble burst. This week marks one of only 35 weeks since the survey began in 1987 that bullish sentiment was below 20%; the most recent being only back in February when it fell to 19.2%.
As could be expected, the huge drop and the historic low in bullish sentiment was met with a coincident increase in bearish sentiment. Bearish sentiment rose 7 percentage points to 48.4%. While that is an elevated reading, there have been a couple of even more elevated readings as recently as March 17 (49.8%), February 24 (53.7%), and January 27 (52.9%).
Even though bearish sentiment is not at a new high, the still-elevated reading on pessimism paired with the extremely depressed reading on bullishness has resulted in the bull-bear spread to fall much deeper into negative territory. Only two weeks ago, bulls actually outnumbered bears. Today, bears outnumber bulls by 32.6 percentage points. The 37 point drop since that positive reading marks the largest two-week decline in the bull-bear spread since April 2013. It is also the lowest level of the spread since that same period.
While bearish sentiment picked up, not all of those gains came from the decline in bulls. Neutral sentiment was slightly higher rising 1.8 percentage points to 35.7%. That is a few percentage points above the historical average, but it is also well below the multiple highs of the past year. You can read Bespoke’s full analysis of investor sentiment and its contrarian aspects with a two-week trial to Bespoke Premium.
The last couple weeks of the first quarter have seen equities reverse a sizable portion of this year’s losses and sentiment has rebounded in sync, though, bullish sentiment turned slightly lower this week in spite of the S&P 500’s move higher. From the weekly AAII sentiment survey, bullish sentiment shed 0.9 percentage points coming in at 31.9%. Even after that decline, the current level of reported optimism remains above all others (outside of last week) since early January, but bullish sentiment still would need to rise another 6 percentage points to move back up to its historical average.
While more investors are not reporting much optimism, fewer are outright bearish. Bearish sentiment fell for a second week in a row falling another 7.9 percentage points to 27.5%. With a little over a quarter of respondents reporting as bearish, this sentiment reading is at the lowest level since November. That is also now the biggest two-week decline in bearish sentiment (22.3 percentage points) since November 2009 when it had fallen 23.74 percentage points in a two-week span.
Finally, we would note that given bearish sentiment has plummeted at a historic rate without much of an increase in bullish sentiment, neutral sentiment has picked up the difference. That reading clipped above 40% this week for the highest level since January 2020.
Other sentiment surveys like the Investors Intelligence one and NAAIM’s Exposure Index have also pivoted more bullish this week. As a result, our sentiment composite is close to zero meaning across these three indicators, sentiment is now only just slightly below the historical average. Click here to view Bespoke’s premium membership options.