Stock pickers market? Sector rotation with stocks for asymmetric reward to risk

After yesterdays 1.1% gain for the S&P 500, it is back in positive territory for the year. It’s been a very volatile start for 2018 with an abnormally strong trend in U.S. stocks late 2017 continued in January only to be wiped out in February. Below is a visual representation, showing the period November 2017 to the low last month. I point that out to show how quickly a trend can change and prior gains of 12% in just a three-month time frame and be erased in a -10% decline over 9 days. Most of the decline was in two days over that period.

With that said, as the broad stock market is lagging in its third month of the year so far, two sectors are leading. Consumer Discretionary (XLY)  and Technology (XLK). At Shell Capital, we monitor global market trends at the broad market level like the S&P 500 which is diversified across 500 stocks that are a part of 10 sectors. These sectors are tradable via ETFs. We can quickly get broad exposure to the overall stock market, or we can get more granular and get exposure to a sector in a low-cost structure with Sector ETFs.  I also monitor the individual stocks inside the sector ETF. When the overall market is in a positive trend, most of the stocks in a sector should be trending up. But, when the overall market has struggled to trend up, like this year-to-date, fewer stocks are trending up inside a sector.

The popular narrative becomes “it’s a stock pickers market.”

I don’t say that myself, I just observe when it is “a stock pickers market” naturally through my daily quantitative research. Here are some examples of my observation.

I pointed out yesterday in Buying demand dominated selling pressure in the stock market that only 32% of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 are above their 50-day moving average. After yesterdays stock market gain, the participation increased to 40%. The 50-day moving average is a short-term trend indicator, so if 60% of the stocks are below that trend line, we can infer “most stocks are in short-term downtrends.” As of yesterdays close, only 203 (40%) of the S&P 500 are above their 50-day moving average, which means 297 are below it. You can probably see if the price trend continues up, we should see more and more stocks participate in the trend. In fact, if we don’t see more stocks participate, it necessarily means only a few stocks are driving the broad index trend up. I would consider that “a stock pickers market.” Of course, the trick is to see this in advance, or early enough in the stage to capitalize on it. We don’t have to know in advance what’s going to happen next, and we don’t, we just need to observe it soon enough to capture some positive asymmetry (P>L).

I like a visual representation, so here is the chart of the S&P 500 Percent of Stocks Above 50 Day Moving Average. I colored the top part of the chart red and labeled it “Higher Risk Zone” and the lower part green with the label “Lower Risk Zone”. The observation is when 80% of stocks are already trending positive that momentum is a good thing, but as a skilled risk manager, I begin to prepare for change. After most stocks are already trending up, the stock market has been trending up, so a skilled risk manager prepares for a countertrend reversal that is inevitable at some point. As I shared in my observation near the low, Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500  when nearly all the stocks were already in negative trends as a skilled risk-taker, I look for that to reverse, too.


This is only a small glimpse at what I look at for illustration purposes to make the point how I can quantify a “stock pickers market.” After 83% of stocks were already in downtrends I shifted from a risk manager stance to risk-taker mode looking. That is, shifting from a reversal down in January after prices had already trended up to an extreme, to preparing for the decline to end after the stock index quickly dropped -10% and my many indicators were signaling me when and where to pay attention. I shared this to represent that I was not surprised to see certain stocks lead a trend direction when so many had shifted from positive trends to negative trends in a short-term time frame.

This leads me to my main point, which is very simple. A simple way to observe a “stock pickers market” is to see that certain stocks are leading the trend. Because so may stocks were in short-term downtrends, it isn’t a surprise to see a few strong relative strength leaders inside a sector. For example, in the Sector ETF performance table below, two leading sectors are Consumer Discretionary (XLY)  and Technology (XLK). They are up about 6-7% as the broad stock index is up 1.77%. Let’s see what is driving their stronger relative momentum.

Looking inside the Sector for the Leading Stocks 

Reviewing the holdings of the Consumer Discretionary $XLY ETF, Inc $AMZN is 20.69% of the Consumer Discretionary Sector and has gained +30.28% for the year. A 20% weighting of a stock that has gained 30% results in a 6% contribution to the portfolio return. That is, this one large position has contributed 100% of the sectors return year-to-date. There are 84 stocks in the ETF. This doesn’t mean the other 83 stocks are flat with no price change. Instead, some of them were also positive for the year and some are negative. So far this year, they have offset each other. Some stocks in the sector have gained more than Amazon, but it makes the simple example because it’s exposure is the largest at 20%. Netflix $NFLX, for example, is the sector ETFs biggest gainer up 64%, but it’s 4.63% of the portfolio. However, because it’s gain is so strong this year its contribution at the portfolio level is still significant at 3% of the 5.66% YTD gain in the sector ETF. That is an extreme example. Why is it extreme? Let’s look at price charts of the year-to-date price trend, then the drawdown, which expresses the ASYMMETRY® ratio. The ASYMMETRY® ratio is a ratio between profit and loss, upside vs. downside, or drawdown vs. total return.

First, we observe the price trend for 2018 of the Consumer Discretionary Sector ETF $XLY, Netflix $NFLX, and Amazon $AMZN. The divergence is clear. But, you may notice they all had a drawdown a few weeks ago. All to often I see the upside presented, but not enough about the path we would have to endure to achieve it. To get a complete picture of asymmetric reward to risk, we want to see the drawdown, too, so we understand the ASYMMETRY® ratio.

Those are some big impressive short-term gains in those stocks. Clearly, this past performance may not be an indication of future results.  Too bad we can’t just know for sure in advance which is going to trend up with such velocity.  We can’t catch every trend, but if we look in the right way we may find some. In order to take a position in them, we’d have to be willing to experience some downside risk, too. As a portfolio manager, I decide how much my risk is in my positions and at the portfolio level by predefining when I’ll exit a losing position. But, to understand how much downside is possible in stocks like this and the sector ETF, I can examine the historical drawdown. We’ve seen a drawdown in the stock market already this year. Below we see the Consumer Sector ETF drawdown was about -8% a few weeks ago. Amazon wasn’t more, even though it’s gain is much more than the sector. That’s what I’m calling positive asymmetry and good looking asymmetric reward to risk in regard to the trend dynamics. Netflix declined -13%, but its gain is much higher. This is what leading stocks are supposed to look like. They have their risk and they could decline a lot more than the market if investors lose their enthusiasm for them, but we can manage that risk with our exit and drawdown controls.

I often say that it doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved. To better understand that, I want to show two more charts of these stocks. Below is what the YTD price change looked like at the February low. If investors watch their holdings closely and have emotional reactions, you can see how this would be viewed as “I was up 45% and now only 30%.” Many investors (and professional advisors) have difficulty holding on to strong trends when they experience every move.

One more chart to illustrate how it doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved. I don’t believe we can just buy and hold and reach our objective of asymmetric reward to risk. I believe risk must be managed, directed and controlled. To make the point, below are the historical drawdowns that have been -60% to -90% in these three. It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved! To extract positive asymmetric reward to risk, we must necessarily do something different than buy and hold.

This may make you wonder: Why buy a sector ETF if you can buy the strongest stocks?

The divergence isn’t normally this wide. In a trending market, more of the other stocks would normally be participating in a trend. This is why I first explained that in an upward trending market we normally see the majority of stocks eventually trending together. When that is true, the sector ETF provides good exposure and limits the selection risk of just one or two stocks. Make no mistake, individual stocks are riskier. Individual stocks are more subject to negative news like disappointing earnings reports, negative product outlook, or key executives leaving the company, etc. So, individual stocks are more volatile and subject to trend in much wider swings both up and down. But for me, I apply the same risk management systems to predefine my risk at the point of entry drawdown controls as the trend unfolds in the stock, up or down.

Yes, it’s been a “stock pickers market” so far and that trend may continue. It just means that fewer stocks are leading the way for now and in a healthy trend more stocks will participate if the short-term uptrend continues to make higher highs and higher lows. As a tactical portfolio manager, my focus is on what seems to offer the positive ASYMMETRY® of a positive asymmetric reward to risk.


Mike Shell is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

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Investment results are probabilistic, never a sure thing. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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