Extreme Fear is Now the Return Driver

A professional investment adviser recently passed along some materials and asked for my opinion about a “tactical model” offered by another money manager. I was surprised that they expect great results from their model when it said something like:

“As investors become more risk-averse, the model becomes more defensive and vice versa.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.

As investors become more risk-averse, the model becomes more defensive. When investors become more risk-seeking, the model becomes more offensive.

That surprises me because investor sentiment is usually used as a countertrend indicator, not as a trend following indicator. Investors often get overly optimistic after prices have trended up and investors get more afraid after prices have trended down.

They went on to say they also use economic indicators as their signal to increase and decrease exposure. I am always concerned when I hear of someone using anything other that the direction of the price trend itself. Other indicators like credit spreads or perceived risk premiums are derivatives of price and it’s the directional movement of the price trend itself we really want. If the price gains 5%, we make money. If the price loses 5%, we lose money. If the price does nothing and the ratio or spread you rely on goes up or down, it did nothing for you. If you use something that is a derivative of the price itself, you have the potential to stray far from the price trend itself.

All blow-ups in history started that way.

Investor sentiment is usually wrong. It isn’t something I’d want to follow. If anything, I’d want to do the opposite of investor sentiment when it reaches an extreme. I occasionally point out my observations when investor sentiment reaches an extreme. When I do, I’ll highlight a simple sentiment gauge that is publicly available on the CNN Money website. Now, that gauge doesn’t actually have a signal that says when it has reached an extreme. It’s just a gauge to swings from one extreme to the other and spends a lot of time in between. It isn’t what is telling me to share my observations – it’s not my signal. I have other systems for actually doing that, but my systems often coincide with extreme readings in the Fear and Greed Index.

investor sentiment fear driving stocks

source: Fear and Greed Index

 

As of Friday, fear is driving stocks. A few weeks ago I pointed out “It’s official: extreme greed is driving the stock market”. Prices had been rising and investors became more and more optimistic. Stocks have now fallen about 3 – 4% and investor sentiment quickly shifted from “Extreme Greed” a few weeks ago to “Extreme Fear” now. The stock market had gone months without a 1% move, so a -2% down day got their attention.

stock market decline investor fear

source: http://www.stockcharts.com

Investor sentiment isn’t necessarily and indicator I use to increase and decrease exposure, but instead one that is useful to help investors understand problems in their behavior. If you find yourself getting more aggressive after prices have already made a big move, or scared after price declines, you may find it useful to monitor the Fear and Greed Index to help adjust your behavior. That money manager may be one of them.

If anything, you may find increasing and decreasing exposure to risk is best done opposite of sentiment extremes, not along with it. Investor sentiment is usually wrong, not right. Extreme fear occurs at lows, extreme greed at highs.

 

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