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'Tis the season to make forecasts for stock markets in 2013.

But this year I think a focus on the course of markets in 2013 risks missing the forest for the trees. Two longer-term questions are much more important to investors than whether the indexes finish 2013 flat with the end of 2012, or up (or down) 10%.

Those questions? Is the cyclical bull market that began in 2009 due to end this year or next?

And how long can we expect the secular bear market that really began in 2000 to run?

Here's my shot at answering those questions in a way we can put to use.

Optimistic for now

The differences of opinion about the duration of the secular bear market -- that's simply a long-term bearish trend -- make the distance between optimists and pessimists on market performance in 2013 look very, very small. And, of course, the duration of the current secular bear market is far more powerful in determining the returns that investors will experience over the next decade than getting the direction of 2013 right.

From a short-term perspective, both the optimists and pessimists seem optimistic about 2013. The estimates in Barron's annual year-end survey of forecasters cluster in the range of 1,550 to 1,600 for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) at the year's conclusion. That's a gain of 8.7% for the pessimists versus a gain of 12.2% for the optimists. The top of the range is 1,660 and the bottom is 1,434. The bottom would leave the S&P 500 pretty much where 2012 ended, at 1,426.

Jim Jubak

Jim Jubak

The real disagreement for 2013 seems to be about volatility, with most of the worry concentrated in the first half of the year. Some of that is clearly a reflection of a belief that the battle over raising the debt ceiling, fixing the automatic budget cuts scheduled to kick in (the "sequester") and agreeing to fund the government past the end of February with either an actual budget or another continuing resolution will whipsaw emotions and the indexes. (I described this threefold crisis in my column, "Forget the cliff; beware the ceiling.") And then, of course, there's the possibility that the eurozone debt crisis isn't really over, with a potential revival of fear over Spain and Italy on tap for 2013.

The most pessimistic views I've seen call for the current rally to yield to a major sell-off in late spring, with a return to end-of-2012 market levels by the end of 2013. Under that scenario, while the net gain/loss on the index wouldn't add up to much, 2013 would present plenty of opportunities to buy high and sell low.

But this disagreement over gains/losses in 2013 is dwarfed by the chasm between bulls and bears over what happens after 2013.

Bears and bulls we can't beat

At the core, this argument is over whether we're still in a secular bear market that began in 2000, or whether a new secular bull market began in 2009.

The kind of cyclical bull and bear markets that forecasters are talking about when they talk about what will happen in 2013 are relatively short in duration. According to Ned Davis Research, the average length of the cyclical bull market from 1900 to March 2009 was 2.1 years. Five lasted longer than that -- an average of 3.6 years. The average cyclical bear market lasts for about a year.

On the other hand, secular bull markets can stretch on for a decade or two. The most recent secular bull market ran from 1982 to 2000, for example. Secular bear markets can also last for a decade or more. The most recent secular bear market ran from 1966 through 1982.

The bull market that began in March 2009 has now been running 3.8 years. That's considerably longer than the average cyclical bull market and longer than the average for the five longest cyclical bull markets.

I think you can see why the question of whether this is a cyclical bull on its last legs or a secular bull just getting started might be important.

The school that holds that we began a new secular bull market in March 2009 is looking for a correction from the current market highs, but it expects that the secular bull market will resume relatively quickly. How quickly? I've seen forecasts that say just six months and others that look for a cyclical bear to last from sometime in mid-2013 to sometime in 2014.

The other school, the one that holds that we're still in a secular bear market, also sees this cyclical bull market ending in 2013 but believes that this end won't be short-lived but will instead usher in a resumption of the secular bear market that began in 2000.

Beyond the technical

The differences between these two schools of thought can quickly head into very technical discussions of patterns in the market and what they might mean.

The secular bull market folks, for example, point out that none of the downside volatility since the S&P 500 hit a bottom of 683 in March 2009 has taken the index below that March low. Yes, the 14% drop from July 21, 2011, to Sept. 28, 2011, but at 1,156, the bottom was well above the March 2009 bottom. The same is true of the drop of 14.6% from April 20, 2010 to June 30, 2010. That drop took the market back to 1,031, still above the March 2009 low.

What the market has demonstrated since March 2009 is the pattern of higher lows and higher highs that defines a bull market.

I think that argument is valid. But saying we're still in a bull market that began in March 2009 (as evidenced by this higher highs/higher lows pattern) doesn't tell us whether this is a secular or cyclical bull. To get a solid answer to that question, I think you need to look at the fundamentals behind the rally from the 2009 bottom and see what we can tell about those fundamentals in the relatively near term.

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