Is the economy, stupid?

Many investment professionals admit they are unable to “time the market.”

What is “market timing,” anyway? Wikipedia says:

Market timing is the strategy of making buy or sell decisions of financial assets (often stocks) by attempting to predict future market price movements. The prediction may be based on an outlook of market or economic conditions resulting from technical or fundamental analysis.

One reason they “can’t time the market” is they are looking at the wrong things. The first step in any endeavor to discover what may be true is to determine what isn’t. The first step in any endeavor to discover what may work is to determine what doesn’t.

For example, someone recently said:

“A bear market is always preceded by an economic recession.”

That is far from the truth…

The gray in the chart is recessions. These recessions were declared long after the fact and the new recovering expansion was declared after the fact.

The most recent recession:

“On December 1, 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) declared that the United States entered a recession in December 2007, citing employment and production figures as well as the third quarter decline in GDP.”

So, the economist didn’t declare the recession until December 1, 2008, though the recession started a year earlier.

In the meantime, the S&P 500 stock market index declined -48% as they waited.

While the recession officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, it took several years for the economy to recover to pre-crisis levels of employment and output.

The stock market was below it’s October 2007 high for nearly six years.

Economists declared the recession had ended in June 2009, only in hindsight do we know the stock market had bottomed on March 9, 2009. The chart below shows the 40% gain from the stock market low to the time they declared the recession over. But, they didn’t announce the recession ended in June 2009 until over a year later in September 2010.

Don’t forget for years afterward the fear the economy will enter a double-dip recession.

If you do believe some of us can predict a coming stock market decline or recession, it doesn’t seem it’s going to be based on the economy. Waiting for economics and economic indicators to put a time stamp on it doesn’t seem to have enough predictive ability to “time the market” to avoid a crash.

I suggest the directional price trend of the stock market itself is a better indicator of the economy, not the other way around. Then, some other signals begin to warn in advance like a shot across the bow.

But, for me, it’s my risk management systems and drawdown controls that make all the difference.

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Is this correction and volatility normal?

With perfect hindsight, we now all know that January 26th was the recent price peak in the U.S. stock market. Since then, the S&P 500 has declined about -10% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average about -12%. For simplicity, I’m going to focus on U.S. stock market here.

I wasn’t surprised to see the decline and am not surprised to see “more volatility,” because it would be getting back to “normal.”

But I see recent price action has sure gotten the attention of many on social media. Some even seem dazed and confused.

I’m not surprised about that, either.

On January 11, before stock market declined prices started swinging up and down (volatility), I shared an observation with my friends on Twitter and a warning:

On January 24th, I again warned of complacency. The message was clear:

At this point, this is a normal and expected “correction” of what was an upside overreaction in the prior months. The stock index has declined about -10%, regained some of the loss in March and more recently retested the February 8th low. As long as the lows hold, I consider this a normal correction.

stock market spx

Sure, the decline was sharp and fast, but that’s no surprise for me after such an upside move. I said it was “expected” because, as I pointed out above, 2017 was very abnormal because it lacked the typical -5% to -10% declines we normally see over most 12 month periods in the stock indexes.

Another way I define a “normal correction” is a simple trend line drawn under the price over the past 12 months. Without adding a lot of complicated looking indicators to express it, below we see the stock index has just “reverted to its trend.” The peak in December and January was an abnormal overreaction on the upside, which I pointed out as it was happening. The recent -10% decline has simply put the trend back in a more normal range.

stock market normal correction trend

What is normal, typical, or expected? 

I’m observing a lot of commentaries as if this correction and volatility isn’t normal.  The fact is, many people often include their emotions and feelings along with price action.

Investors perceive what they believe is driving a price trend and what they believe is always true for them.

The February decline was commonly blamed on “the machines,” which got a little silly.

This time, it’s geopolitics.

I believe it’s just the market, doing what it does, and there are so many drivers at the same time I don’t bother to attempt such a narrative. My narrative is simple; the force of sellers took control and outweighed the enthusiasm of buyers.  It is just the market, doing what it does.

I’ve been seeing and experiencing these trends so closely for so long and I remember the regime shifts. I want to share with you my observations of what have been “normal” corrections in terms of drawdowns. A drawdown is the % decline from a prior price high to its low. I show only the period of the past 9 years, which is one of the longest bull markets in history (without a -20% decline).

stock market historical bear market length drawdowns

As you can see, since April 2009, we’ve seen four declines of -15% or more and it took them several months to recover.

These declines of -15% or more are why many people have been unable to hold on to the stock market since the March 2009 low with any meaningful allocation to stocks. When prices fall -10%, investor sentiment shifts from greed to extreme fear. Some of them may even begin to tap out by selling their stock holdings for fear of more losses.

To be sure, here is an investor sentiment indicator at the February 8, 2018 low.

Investor sentiment Februrary 8 2018

In fact, investment managers like me who have dynamic risk management systems may even sell to reduce exposure to loss as an intentional drawdown control. But this time, as I pointed out, the stock market was already at risk of a reversal before this decline. So, a robust risk management system may have reduced exposure before the decline, not after.

We find that declines over -10% get more attention, especially when they get down to -15%. Those can also be more hostile conditions for trend systems, too, as risk management systems cause us to exit and later re-enter.

The point is, over the past 9 years a -15% decline has been a “normal” occurrence and there are many -5% (or more) declines too.

It is only at a -10%, so far, and that’s not unusual.

I intentionally used the last 9 years. Not to show an arbitrary 9 year period, but instead to intentionally leave off March 2009. I did that because the first three months of 2009 was a -24% decline, a continuation of the 2008 waterfall decline. The stock market was still in the bear market that began October 2007. So, this wouldn’t be complete without a reminder of what that period looked like before I go on to show the pre-2008 period.

All bear markets do necessarily begin with declines of  -10%, -15%, -20% . They are actually made of many swings up and down along the way. We often hear people speak of the last bear market as “2008” as though the only loss was the -37% decline in the S&P 500 in 2008.

That is far from reality.

The decline was -56%.

2008 stock market drawdown length of bear market

The drawdowns we’ve seen since 2008 are more than twice what we saw in the bull market from 2003 to 2008 after the “tech wreck.” Below we see the typical decline then was closer to -5% with only a few getting into the -7% or more range. 2004 to 2008 bull market low volatility

Clearly, it was a lot easier to hold a larger allocation of stocks, then.

What is normal and what has changed?

The last 9 years has been more hostile for passive asset allocation investors to hold on to their stock positions because the declines were -15% or so and take months to recover. It’s also been more challenging for active risk managers since a drawdown control system necessarily reduces exposure as prices fall with the intent to control drawdown.

But, to define what is normal today, a -10% to -15% decline is within a normal corrective drawdown.

The recent past matters simply because that’s what investors and traders anchor to. Most people put more emphasis on the recent past. Our experience and how much we’ve studied and observed the trends determine how much we can recall easily. I’ve been an investment manager most of my life, over two decades now. For me, it hasn’t been a hobby or part-time venture, it’s what I do and who I am. So, my memory of these trends and intuitions about what is normal, or not, is what it is.

If you are wondering, here are the drawdowns for the S&P 500 going back about 70 years. I highlighted the -15% declines or more, which obviously gets investors attention.

stock market bear market length and dradowns

Clearly, there are a lot of -15% or greater declines. In fact, there are several -30% and three in the -45% or larger drawdowns.

Knowing this, it’s why I say:

We believe world markets require active risk management to avoid large losses and directional trend systems to position capital in profitable price trends.

And, I also say:

It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the downside risk is so high you tap out before it’s achieved.

But at this point, you can probably see that the current -10% decline is so far within a “normal correction.”

Though, as I shared in The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy March 19, 2018, I expect to see more swings (volatility) than last year, and that would be “normal” too.

I define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition.

Markets decline to a low enough point to attract buying demand. Only time will tell how it all plays out from here.

If you enjoyed this, I encourage you to read “What About the Stock Market Has Changed? A Look at Ten Years of Volatility” 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

What’s going to happen next?

S&P 500 has declined to the 200-day moving average. I don’t trade the moving average, but include it as a reference for the chart. More importantly, the stock index is also near its low in February.

By my measures, it’s also reached the point of short-term oversold and at the lower price range that I consider is within a “normal” correction.

I know many traders and investors were expecting to see a retest of that low and now they have it. So, I expect to see buying interest next week. If not, look out below… who knows how low it will need to go to attract buying demand.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right.

The is no guarantee that any strategy will meet its objective.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The observations shared are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Apparently there was more enthusiasm to sell

The U. S. stock market as measured by the S&P 500 declined -2.57%.

The shorter-term investor sentiment measures suggest fear is driving the stock market. That may be a positive signal since investor sentiment gets it wrong at extremes.

I don’t have anything more to share beyond what I wrote earlier this week, which I have reprinted below:

My systems define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition. It is useful for me to identify the market regime because different trend systems have different results based on the situation. For example, non-trending volatile market conditions can be hostile situations for both passive and trend following strategies. However, countertrend systems like the swings of a non-trending volatile market.

Trend following systems thrive in markets that are trending and smooth. When a market is trending and smooth, the trend following system can earn gains without having to deal with significant adverse price action. When a market trend shifts to non-trending and volatile, the trend following signals can result in whipsaws. A whipsaw is when the price was moving in one direction (and the trend follower buys) but then quickly reverses in the opposite direction (and maybe the trend follower exits with a loss). Even if the trend following system doesn’t enter and exit with a loss, in a non-trending volatile market the trend follower has to deal with the same hostile conditions as a passive investor as the market swings up and down.

My U. S. equity exposure since early February has come from my shorter term countertrend systems. My focus and the focus of my systems isn’t to predict the direction of markets but instead to identify when a market is undergoing a regime change or shifts to a distinct environment. I don’t analyze the markets to try to predict what it will do next. I look at what the market is actually doing and react to it.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter @MikeWShell

The is no guarantee that any strategy will meet its objective.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

 

The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy March 19, 2018

The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy. The S&P 500 stock index closed down -1.42% today. Stocks trended down most of the day and at 2:35pm it was down -2%. As you can see on the chart, it reversed up in the last 90 minutes and closed with positive directional movement. It almost closed above its Volume Weighted Average Price (VWAP).

There are many notable economic reports out this week, so maybe investors are concerned about to the jobs report and the Fed FOMC Meeting. The options market has priced in a 94% chance of a rate hike, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. But, this week is the first FOMC meeting for the new Chairman Powell.

Implied volatility in recent weeks is one of many signals that suggest a volatility regime change. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index®) is a key measure of market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by S&P 500 stock index option prices. The VIX® doesn’t seem to want to go back to those prior low levels, so the expectation is higher volatlity.

At this point, the decline today was nothing too abnormal. The stock index is -3.% off it’s high a few weeks ago and -5.4% off its all-time high. However, as you can see below it is within a normal trading range. Speaking of trading range, notice the bands of realized volatility I added to the chart are drifting sideways rather than trending up or down. I see higher lows, but equal highs in the most recent trend and lower highs looking back to January. The VIX is expected volatility, the blue bands are realized volatility.

My systems define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition. It is useful for me to identify the market regime because different trend systems have different results based on the situation. For example, non-trending volatile market conditions can be hostile situations for both passive and trend following strategies. However, countertrend systems like the swings of a non-trending volatile market.

Trend following systems thrive in markets that are trending and smooth. When a market is trending and smooth, the trend following system can earn gains without having to deal with significant adverse price action. When a market trend shifts to non-trending and volatile, the trend following signals can result in whipsaws. A whipsaw is when the price was moving in one direction (and the trend follower buys) but then quickly reverses in the opposite direction (and maybe the trend follower exits with a loss). Even if the trend following system doesn’t enter and exit with a loss, in a non-trending volatile market the trend follower has to deal with the same hostile conditions as a passive investor as the market swings up and down.

My U. S. equity exposure since early February has come from my shorter term countertrend systems. My focus and the focus of my systems isn’t to predict the direction of markets but instead to identify when a market is undergoing a regime change or shifts to a distinct environment. I don’t analyze the markets to try to predict what it will do next. I look at what the market is actually doing and react to it.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter @MikeWShell

The is no guarantee that any strategy will meet its objective.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

When I apply different trend systems to ETFs

In my portfolio management, I primarily want to identify trends and get positioned with that trend. As long as there is uncertainty, we’ll see trends. Investor sentiment and expectations underreact to information causing the price to adjust gradually and that’s what produces a trend. The trend following systems I wrote about in My Introduction to Trend Following are designed to buy an asset when its price trend goes up, and sell when its trend goes down, expecting price movements to continue.

We also see the overreaction of investor sentiment and their expectations. After price keeps rising, investors may become overly enthusiastic, which causes prices to overreact and move up to an extreme that matches their sentiment. We saw that the last part of 2017 and it continued in January. We say these markets have become “overbought” and mathematical indicators can signal a countertrend.

We also sometimes see investor sentiment and their expectations plunge as they panic when prices are falling. We say these markets have become “oversold” and mathematical indicators can signal a countertrend. Looking back over the past two months, we may have seen an overreaction on the upside, then an overreaction on the downside. I say that because the stock market very quickly dropped -10%, then recovered most of it a few weeks later.

Someone asked recently “Do you invest and trade in all ETFs and stocks using the same trend system?” The answer is “not necessarily.” As I described above, trend following and countertrend systems are very different. Trend following systems can be multiple time frames, but usually longer trends of at least several months to years. Countertrend moves are normally shorter term as a market may get overbought or oversold, but it doesn’t usually stay that way a long time. For example, the S&P 500 was overbought the last few months of 2017 and that was an anomaly. It was one of the most overbought periods we’ve seen in the stock indexes. So, it was no surprise to see a fast -10% decline.

My point is, different trend systems can be applied to markets. Both trend following and countertrend are trend systems, they just intend to capitalize on a different trend in behavior – overreaction or underreaction.

When I apply my countertrend systems to markets, a great illustration is the high dividend yield market. A great example is the Global X SuperDividend® ETF $SDIV which invests in 100 of the highest dividend yielding equity securities in the world.

Below is a price chart in blue and it’s dividend yield in orange over the past five years. As you can see, the price trend and dividend yield have an inverse correlation. As the price goes up, the dividend yield from that starting point goes down. That is, if we invest in it at higher prices, the dividend yield would have been lower. But, as the price goes down, the dividend yield from that starting point goes up. If we invest in it at lower prices, our future income from dividend yield is higher.

 

For example, I highlighted in green the price was at its low when the yield was also at its highest at 8%. Investors who bought at the lower price earn the higher yield going forward (assuming the stocks in the index continue paying their dividend yields). If we invested in it in 2014 the yield was 6%. High yielding stocks are not without risks. High yielding stocks are often speculative, high-risk investments. These companies can be paying out more than they can support and may reduce their dividends or stop paying dividends at any time, which could have a material adverse effect on the stock price of these companies and the ETFs performance. You can probably see how an ETF that includes 100 of these stocks may be more attractive to gain exposure rather than risking a few individually.

This is an example of when we may use a countertrend system. As I am more inclined to invest in positive trends, this is an example of a situation I may be more willing to buy low. But, I always focus on Total Return. All of my systems include Total Return data that includes the dividend yield, not just the price trend. So as I explain this, keep in mind we still apply my risk management and trend systems but we consider and account for the high yield that makes up its total return.

Below is a chart of the Global X SuperDividend® ETF $SDIV from the low point in 2016 (I highlighted in green above). I charted both the price trend by itself as well as the Total Return which includes dividends. Had someone invested in it at the low, we saw above their yield would be 8% and the impact is evident in the difference. With the dividend yield included, the return was 36% and 18% without it. In other words, the dividend was half the return over this period. The higher the dividend yield at the point of entry, the more it can have an impact on Total Return.

As a special note for our investment management clients who are invested in ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical. We do not reinvest dividends. Instead, we want the cash dividends to go into the cash portion of our portfolio. Since we usually have some positions that generate a monthly yield, it provides the cash balance we need to cover any slippage between trades, investment management costs, as well as provide cash for other investments. I mention this, because any position we hold like this with a high yield may not appear to have as large of a percentage gain since it only represents the price return, not the total return. That is simply because we are using the cash instead of reinvesting the dividends.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

 

My Introduction to Trend Following

I have noticed more investors are talking about “trend following” these days and more traders and advisors are calling themselves trend followers. As a professional portfolio manager who has been applying trend systems to global markets for two decades, one of the most common questions I get asked is “how did you get started?” Specifically, how my investment strategy, risk management, and trend systems evolved over time. I’ll explain it here, so you know where I am coming from.

Why do you think we learn math by hand before using a machine? We learn to do the math manually because it teaches us the basics before we use a computer. We learn to ask the right questions, turn problems into math formulas, then do the calculations. By working it out manually by hand, we get a feel for the math, an instinct for it. I learned trend following the same way.

What is trend following?

Trend following or trend trading is a trading strategy according to which one should buy an asset when its price trend goes up, and sell when its trend goes down, expecting price movements to continue.”

My first introduction to the term “trend following” was John Murphy‘s Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets: A Comprehensive Guide to Trading Methods and Applications published by New York Institute of Finance in 1999. It was the first book I read clearly dedicated to charting price trends and technical analysis.

In the early 1990’s the first book I read on investment and trading was How to Make Money in Stocks: A Winning System in Good Times and Bad by William J. O’Neil. He described a systematic quantitative approach to screen for stocks with high relative price strength, high earnings growth, and then determine the entry and exit viewing a price chart. O’Neil’s research discovered the best stocks display seven common traits just before they make their biggest gains.  O’Neil calls his strategy the CAN SLIM® Investment System. The CAN SLIM® system for deciding what to buy is based on things like strong earnings growth, which is believed to be the primary driver of a stocks price trend. Once he has screened for this criteria, O’Neil applies trend following to stocks because he requires them to be in a positive trend.

After researching and applying his investment system for years in the late 1990’s, I wanted to create my own system that fit me.  My first interest was to become more advanced in the understanding and identifying directional price trends. Naturally, that was the beginning of my extensive research that began with studying every book I could find on technical analysis and doing every training program I could do.

I went on to read over 500 books covering a broad range of portfolio management topics including trading, technical analysis, and maths like probability and statistics. I wanted to understand how markets interact with each other, what typically drives trends, and what trends look like. Studying price trends naturally led me to investigate investor sentiment, trading psychology, and investor psychology. I have always had a strong interest in math and I think in terms of systems and algorithms, so fifteen years ago I shifted from looking at charts visually to testing and developing trading systems based on price trends.

By 2006, I had already begun testing and developing quantitative computerized trading systems, but I was still also working on the craft of charting and CAN SLIM®. In 2006, I flew out to Santa Monica, CA to attend the first CAN SLIM® Masters Program training with O’Neil and his portfolio managers and passed the exam for the CAN SLIM® Masters certification. I also had become skilled at all kinds of charting including bar charts, point & figure charting, and candlestick charting. I believe becoming a craftsman at all of these different methods provided me with unique skills to understand price trends, how markets interact, and developing computerized trading systems.

I have spent over two decades fully immersed in learning about methods of identifying trends and systems and how to trade them across multiple time frames and multiple markets. My own experience started with basic charting, evolved with more technical analysis tools, then I developed computerized trading systems based on the knowledge and skills I cultivated. Reading books (or writing them) only discovers knowledge. The only way to develop skill is through the intentional practice of actually doing it.

Before I share one of the first things I read on trend following, I want to explain there is more than one way to execute a trend system.  Whether you are an investor who invests in an investment program or a trader who makes the portfolio management decisions in an investment program, you have to choose which fits you and your own beliefs. I can only tell you what I believe. What you believe is true, for you. As I have been successful doing what I do, I can only tell you that the key to success if finding what fits you. Reading information like this is intended to help you decide what you believe and what you don’t believe.

I see tactical traders applying two main methods for trend following. Some of them say they are “rules-based” others say they are “systematic”, but we don’t often see them say they are “discretionary” even if they are. Here is how I see it.

Discretionary trend following trading and investment decisions can include a wide range of operations, but I’m specifically talking about a discretionary trend follower. A discretionary trend follower is someone who looks at a chart, sees the signal, sees that it looks right, and pulls the trigger. The discretionary trend follower may be rules-based and may have a systematic process, but the discretionary trend follower is ultimately making the decision to buy or sell.

Systematic trend following trading and investment decisions apply a set of rules and procedures for trading and investment decisions. To me, a trend follower can be systematic but also be discretionary. A systematic “discretionary” trend follower may be still discretionary but has rules and a process. For example, they look at a chart, see the signal, see that it looks right, and pulls the trigger. Or, a trend follower can be systematic and automated by a computerized trading system that generates the signals. However, when the professional investment industry says “systematic trading” or “systematic trend following” we usually mean more automated and mechanical.

Automated Systematic trend following is necessarily systematic because it’s when we use a computer program to generate the signals automatically. But, a fully systematic trend follower who is automated has a program that not only generates a trend following signal but also generates trade instructions to the broker. A fully mechanical and automated trend following system is computerized to the point that it enters the trades.

I explained these operational methods so you will know where I am coming from as you read about trend following in a technical analysis book. Which of these you believe in is up to you. I believe that either discretionary trend following or systematic with automation can both work. It’s just a matter of which method fits you. There are potential advantages and disadvantages of both and depending on your personal preference, you’ll see them that way. If you are an investor in an investment program, you need to invest with a portfolio manager that fits your preference. If you are a trend following trader, you may lean toward one or the other.

Some traders simply like looking at charts and making their decision that way. They need to see the signal and see that it looks right according to their rules to get the confidence to execute. Others may not be so skilled at seeing the signal on a chart, or maybe they don’t want to spend their time doing it so we can program a computerized system. It seems many new systematic traders weren’t good at discretionary decisions using charts, so their backtesting makes them feel more confident. Only time will tell if these newer systematic traders will be able to follow their automated systems when they invariably don’t perform as they hoped all the time.

Ultimately, it comes down to beliefs and confidence. If you aren’t confident in your ability to see the signal and execute from a chart consistently, then an automated system may help. Some trend followers gain more confidence seeing the signal and pulling the trigger. Those same trend followers would likely have difficulty executing system generated trades.

I often hear things like “our systematic model removes the emotion”, which is far from the truth. Anyone who believes an automated system will remove their emotional issues will eventually experience a whole new set of emotions they may not have felt yet. But, some have a real problem with pulling the trigger, so an automated system may help if they have someone else execute the trades. For example, a professional money management firm like mine has professional traders who execute our trades. But, this still doesn’t assure anyone the trend follower will be able to follow the system through different market conditions.

If someone lacks the self-discipline required to pull the trigger, execute the trades, and follow whatever systems they follow, no method or automation will help. If a trader or investor lacks self-discipline, that issue has to be resolved another way before they’ll find success.

I know at least 100 or so professional investment managers who have been tactical trading including trend following for a decade or a few decades. I’ve seen a range of experiences and outcomes. I can tell you that it isn’t easy. The only people who will say it is are those who aren’t actually doing it. Developing an edge either personally as a discretionary trader or through an automated trading system requires a tremendous amount of knowledge, skills, and self-discipline. Few have it, but some of us do. I believe in human performance because I’ve experienced it first hand. It’s like hockey or Indy racing. Anyone can attempt it, but only the most dedicated will achieve long-term success. Rest assured, discretionary or systematic, it’s still a human endeavor as long as it’s their money.

By now, you may be wondering what I believe and what I do. I do a combination of these. I am Man + Machine. I started charting over two decades ago and applied what I knew to developing computerized systems fifteen years ago. I still enjoy drawing charts like I share here on ASYMMETRY® Observations to see how trends are unfolding. I have several systems that are fully automated that trade all kinds of markets. I’ve learned a lot from just operating them for so long. But ultimately, I use my systems to inform decisions and generate signals and I have the necessary discipline to pull the trigger by sending instructions to my professional traders who execute my trades. That’s what works for me. What works for others may be different. I know where I am sitting right now and it’s where I want to be.

Without further ado, I present one of the first things I read on trend following published in 1999. As you will see, trend following and technical analysis are related. Trend following uses technical indicators like trend lines, moving averages, directional movement, and momentum to generate signals for following trends.

John Murphy is a well-known technical analyst whose books I have read for over two decades. His first book I read was Technical Analysis of the Futures Markets published in 1986 which was charting applied to commodities futures. One of my first introductions to the “trend following” strategy was John Murphy’s Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets published in 1999. I share the following with permission from John Murphy. He starts with the philosophy or rationale of technical analysis, which has an objective of following trends in hopes they will continue. The rest of the book describes many ways to actually identify trends.

Except from Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets:

_______________________

There are three premises on which the technical approach is based:

  • Market action discounts everything.
  • Prices move in trends.
  • History repeats itself.

The statement “market action discounts everything” forms what is probably the cornerstone of technical analysis. Unless the full significance of this first premise is fully understood and accepted, nothing else that follows makes much sense. The technician believes that anything that can possibly affect the price— fundamentally, politically, psychologically, or otherwise— is actually reflected in the price of that market. It follows, therefore, that a study of price action is all that is required.

All the technician is really claiming is that price action should reflect shifts in supply and demand. If demand exceeds supply, prices should rise. If supply exceeds demand, prices should fall.

The technician then turns this statement around to arrive at the conclusion that if prices are rising, for whatever the specific reasons, demand must exceed supply and the fundamentals must be bullish. If prices fall, the fundamentals must be bearish.

Most technicians would probably agree that it is the underlying forces of supply and demand, the economic fundamentals of a market, that cause bull and bear markets. The charts do not in themselves cause markets to move up or down. They simply reflect the bullish or bearish psychology of the marketplace.

As a rule, chartists do not concern themselves with the reasons why prices rise or fall. Very often, in the early stages of a price trend or at critical turning points, no one seems to know exactly why a market is performing a certain way.

While the technical approach may sometimes seem overly simplistic in its claims, the logic behind this first premise— that markets discount everything— becomes more compelling the more market experience one gains.

It follows then that if everything that affects market price is ultimately reflected in market price, then the study of that market price is all that is necessary.

By studying price charts and a host of supporting technical indicators, the chartist in effect lets the market tell him or her which way it is most likely to go. The chartist does not necessarily try to outsmart or outguess the market.

All of the technical tools discussed later on are simply techniques used to aid the chartist in the process of studying market action.

The chartist knows there are reasons why markets go up or down. He or she just doesn’t believe that knowing what those reasons are is necessary in the forecasting process.

Prices Move in Trends

The concept of trend is absolutely essential to the technical approach. Here again, unless one accepts the premise that markets do in fact trend, there’s no point in reading any further.

The whole purpose of charting the price action of a market is to identify trends in early stages of their development for the purpose of trading in the direction of those trends. In fact, most of the techniques used in this approach are trend following in nature, meaning that their intent is to identify and follow existing trends.

There is a corollary to the premise that prices move in trends— a trend in motion is more likely to continue than to reverse. This corollary is, of course, an adaptation of Newton’s first law of motion. Another way to state this corollary is that a trend in motion will continue in the same direction until it reverses.

This is another one of those technical claims that seems almost circular. But the entire trend following approach is predicated on riding an existing trend until it shows signs of reversing.

__________________________

He explained the philosophy or rationale of technical analysis, which has an objective of following trends in hopes they will continue. The rest of the book describes many ways to actually identify trends. As I see it, trend following uses technical indicators to generate signals for following trends.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Betting on price momentum

“Don’t fight the tape.”

“Make the trend your friend.”

“Cut your losses and let your winners run.”

“These Wall Street maxims all mean the same thing—bet on price momentum. Of all the beliefs on Wall Street, price momentum makes efficient market theorists howl the loudest. The defining principle of their theory is that you cannot use past prices to predict future prices. A stock may triple in a year, but according to efficient market theory, that will not affect next year. Efficient market theorists also hate price momentum because it is independent of all accounting variables. If buying winning stocks works, then stock prices have “memories” and carry useful information about the future direction of a stock.”

James O’Shaughnessy, What Works on Wall Street: A Guide to the Best-Performing Investment Strategies of All Time 1st Edition (1996) 

 

Investment management can take many years of cycles and regimes to understand an edge.

It takes at minimum a full market cycle including both bull/bear markets to declare an edge in an investment management track record.

But we also have different regimes. For example, each bull market can be different as they are driven by unique return drivers. Some are more inflationary from real economic expansion driving up prices. Others are driven by external manipulation, like the Fed intervention.

I’ve been managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical for fourteen years. It’s an unconstrained, flexible, adaptable, go-anywhere global tactical program without the limitations of a fixed benchmark. I pursue absolute returns applying dynamic risk management and unconstrained tactical trading decisions across a broad universe of global currency, bonds, stocks, and commodities.

So, I can tell you the bull market 2003-07 was a regime of rising commodities, foreign currency, and international producers of commodities. In this bull market, U.S. equities have dominated. We can see that in the chart below. If your exposure up until 2008 was only U.S. stocks, you would be disappointed as Emerging Markets countries like China and Brazil were much stronger as was commodities. We can also see how those markets have lagged since the low in 2009.

Everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, so this too shall change eventually.  Those who believe the next decade will be like the past do not understand the starting point matters, the return drivers, and how markets interact with each other. Past performance is never a guarantee of future results.

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

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

 

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,  Amazon.com 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.

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

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

Selling pressure overwhelms buying demand for stocks for the third day in a row

Well, I guess by saying on Tuesday I’m planning to write a comment when the stock index closes up or down 1% or more I’ve turned myself into a regular ole Mark Twain.

If you’ve ever read the “about” page, I poke some fun:

Mark Twain’s mother once said:
“I only wish Mark had spent more time making money rather than just writing about it”.

I go on to say:

Today there is no shortage of writings about the capital markets and portfolio management. Many who write about money and the management of it provide no evidence to suggest their beliefs are useful. That is, they do a lot of talking and writing, a lot less doing. We are left to wonder if they have good results. The author of ASYMMETRY® Observations is no Mark Twain.

Ok, so March isn’t getting off to the best start so far. The stock market as measured by the S&P 500 closed down -1.45% today. Below is the intraday chart. This index was down most of the day, but it did trend up off of its low after 2PM.

stock market spx spy march 1 2018

Zooming out to a few months instead of intraday, the SPY didn’t care at all that I drew that black line to show the prior low. It traded right below it. Of course, we don’t own this index at Shell Capital, so I am just sharing this as an observation.

stock market index asymmetry

We can get more granular by looking at the individual sector changes instead of the broader S&P 500 index that includes some of them all. Below, I show that the Utility sector was the only sector in the green (barely), which is no surprise since it has been the laggard for a while.

sector trend rotation march 2018

We can drill down even more into the sectors and see the ETF subsectors. Here we see some shades of green.

sector trend following

Next, we could look at stocks within the sectors, but that’s enough detail for now.

I will add that today was a global market decline as several other countries stock markets participated. Japan declined more while Mexico, Peru, and Egypt gained. The emerging markets index which includes Mexico only declined -0.19% today.

global ETF trend outlook march 2018

Finally, below is the same table of bar charts I used earlier in February Global Market Trends, but this one is only the past three days. The U.S. stock market has declined the past three days, so I wanted to see what other markets have done over the same period. Let’s just say that a diversified portfolio of global asset allocation wouldn’t have helped since many markets are down like commodities and international markets.

global asset allocation trend

If you haven’t read February Global Market Trends I encourage you to. Near the end, I discussed if an investor should pay too much attention to daily market swings. My purpose of writing this is to summarize what happened and that is always necessarily in the past. The future may be different.

How does this affect us at Shell Capital? I predefine my risk by knowing in advance when I’ll exit my positions if they decline. I do it to control my risk in each position and for drawdown control at the portfolio level. So, I respond accordingly.

If this keeps up, it looks like I’ll be eating dinner at my desk every evening, typing away like Mark Twain 🙂

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

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

February Global Market Trends

After a very positive January for U.S. and international stocks, in February it only took 10 days for the S&P 500 to decline -12% intraday and a -10% drawdown based on closing price.

stock market decline drawdown februrary 2018

Yet, February ended with the S&P 500 only down -3.5% after that -12% intra-month drawdown.  For the month, International (MSCI EAFE) and Emerging Markets declined the most viewing the below board based indexes. The U.S. Dollar gained 1.8%.

global market returns february 2018 loss drawdown

Next, we view February global market returns relative to the S&P 500 stock index by holding it constant. This visual shows us how much markets gained/lost net of the S&P 500, Though in the absolute trend table above I showed bonds declined in absolute return, they gained relative to the S&P 500,

global market trend returns relative to spx spy S&P 500

Of course, one month isn’t a trend. In fact, I’m going to explain how this is an intentional logical inconsistency. Speaking of one time period in isolation, be it a month, year, or series of years is just an arbitrary time frame. What’s worse is viewing just the result over a time frame, like the month of February above, in just a table format.

A return stream is precisely that; a stream. A return stream is a continuous price trend in a continuous specified direction. Continuous is forming an unbroken whole; without interruption. So, I like to view return streams as price trends on a chart so I can see how the trend really unfolded over the period. Observed as a visual price trend, we see both the good and the bad of the price action along the way. You can probably see how it does that better than a simple performance table, monthly return % of the period or the bar chart above.

stock market decline februrary 2018

In the chart above, we see how much the price trends of those markets declined along the way before closing the month yesterday. I wrote about the short-term risk reversal in Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500 suggesting it may reverse back up at least temporarily and retrace some loss and it did.

Now, what is essential about looking at performance data and trends is what the investor experiences. Investors experience what they choose to experience. For example, suppose and the investor is fully invested in the stock market, they could experience the month one of three ways.

  • If the investor only looks at his or her month-end statement, they would experience either the month end “-3.5%”.
  • If the investor watches their account or market indexes closely every day, they experienced every daily move and the full -12% decline and then some recovery.
  • Some may not pay any attention at all either because they are disinterested or they have an investment manager they trust to manage their risk-taking and risk management for them.

Investors and traders get to choose what time frame they watch things. I’ve always observed that “watching it too closely” can lead to emotional mistakes for many. For me, I’m paying attention and may zoom in and pay more attention when trends get more volatile or seem to reach an extreme. But, I’m a tactical portfolio manager, it’s what I do. I can view short term or long term trends alike with self-discipline. I have an edge that has been quantified by a long track record of 14 years in the current portfolio I manage.

I said this recently on Twitter:

If the investor doesn’t like to see such losses like those experienced in many markets in February, they may choose to instead not be fully invested in stocks all the time. That’s what I do. I’m not invested in any specific market all the time. My exposure to risk and return increases and decreases over time based on trends and my risk systems. I intentionally increase and decrease my exposure to the possibility of loss and gain. I’m also unconstrained so I can do it across any global market like bonds, currency, stocks, commodities, or alternatives like REITs, inverse (shorting), or volatility.

According to the American Association of Individual Investors, the decline was so quick most individual investors didn’t seem to respond:

Majority of Investors Avoided Taking Action in Recent Market Correction

“This week’s Sentiment Survey special question asked AAII members what portfolio action, if any, they took in response to the recent market correction. The majority of respondents (62%) said they didn’t make any change or only made a small change. Many of these respondents described themselves as being focused on the long term, viewing this month’s correction as being only temporary in nature or not severe enough to warrant any action. A few of these respondents described the correction as lasting too short of a time for them to take advantage of it. Nearly 33% respondents said they took advantage of the decline to buy stocks or funds. Some said they took advantage of the reduced prices to either add to current positions or buy new holdings. Just 7% of respondents said they sold stocks during the correction. A small number of respondents said they sold some positions and then bought new positions.”

I say investors should find and do what helps them, not make it worse. Know yourself, know your risk, and know your risk tolerance. That’s what we do.

So, that is what happened during the month of February, and a little asymmetric observation to go with it.

 

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

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

The most important rule of trading is to play great defense, not great offense.

It is fascinating to read Market Wizards: Interviews With Top Traders published in 1989 again and see how much the portfolio management strategy of another ole boy from Tennessee is nearly identical to my own. I read the book the first time in the early 1990’s so it may have had an impact on me as a young tactical trader as I evolved over time.

“The most important rule of trading is to play great defense, not great offense. Every day I assume every position I have is wrong. I know where my stop risk points are going to be. I do that so I can define my maximum possible drawdown. Hopefully, I spend the rest of the day enjoying positions that are going in my direction. If they are going against me, then I have a game plan for getting out.”

Paul Tudor Jones in Market Wizards: Interviews With Top Traders (p. 123). Wiley. Kindle Edition. Schwager, Jack D..

 

Asset Class Returns are Driven by Sector Exposure

The popular U. S. stock indexes closed in the red for the year Monday, erasing their big starting gains in January. As I mentioned many times; quick gains can be lost even faster. The financial news has mostly been quoting the Dow Jones Industrial Average because it had gained the most year-to-date. It had gained over 7% in January, but lost that gain, and then some, in two days. After just a few days, the Dow Jones dropped -14% in the futures market and -8% on a closing basis. That was enough to wipe out recent gains and mark the index down nearly -2% for the year.

I discussed the market risk in our portfolio commentary for our investment management clients, and we were positioned for it. I also explained it in In remembrance of euphoria: Whatever happened to Stuart and Mr. P? and In the final stages of a bull market. So, it should have been no surprise.

But, when I looked at the asset class performance table, I saw some interesting divergence. Large Cap Growth is still outperforming Small Value. As most of the U.S. equity asset classes were in the red, Large Growth remained positive on the year. I thought I would share a look as to why.

I am a tactical portfolio manager, so my focus is on finding trends and shifting to the trends I want and avoiding those I don’t. That’s a lot different than “asset allocation.” Financial advisors who create asset allocation models for their investment clients normally allocate into funds in the asset class style box. This is also typical with 401(k) plans. They offer funds that provide broad exposure to an asset class style box, rather than the individual stock market sectors I prefer to focus on. So, we often hear style box asset classes quoted like “Large Growth is beating Small Value” or “Large Caps ard leading Small Caps.”

According to Morningstar:

The Morningstar Style Box is a nine-square grid that provides a graphical representation of the “investment style” of stocks and mutual funds. For stocks and stock funds, it classifies securities according to market capitalization (the vertical axis) and growth and value factors (the horizontal axis).

Below is a recent performance for the equity markets. As you see, U.S. Large Growth was leading with a 2.89% gain year-to-date, Small Value was down -4.83%.  When we observe such a divergence, it makes us curious what is causing it.

 

To understand what is driving the return, we take a look inside to see “what is different.” Below is the sector exposure breakdown of Large-Cap Growth.  We can understand the sector exposure of the iShares Morningstar Large-Cap Growth ETF. Clearly, the big standout is heavy exposure to Information Technology. The other two larger exposures are Consumer Discretionary and Health Care.

Large Growth Stocks Outperform Small

Next, we observe the sector exposure of the Small Value asset class. We can see the sector exposure in the holdings of iShares Morningstar Small-Cap Value ETF.

The Small Value index has 22% exposure to Financials since many financial sector stocks are smaller companies. The other top sector exposures are Industrials, Consumer Discretionary, Real Estate, and Energy.

Small Value Stocks Underperforming Why are

What is different?

Clearly, the single largest difference is that Large Growth is very heavily exposed to the trend in Technology sector. Technology is 50% of Large Growth while it’s only 8% of Small Value. On the other hand, Financials is only 5% of Large Growth but its the largest exposure in Small Value at 22% of the index.

Stock market asset class returns are driven by their sector exposure. Recently, the Tech sector has been one of the mightiest trends, so it’s helped Large Growth also appear more dominant over equity styles that hold less of it. I would preferably look inside and find out what return driver is causing the difference, then get exposure to that trend in momentum.

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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

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

In the final stages of a bull market

In the final stages of a bull market, we normally see a parabolic move to the upside, a final blowoff that gets in the last investors. Buying demand is the response of investor euphoria like I pointed out last week.

An indication of a parabolic move is seen in price channels and confirmed with momentum oscillators. Only time will tell if this is it, but in the chart, I highlight the S&P 500 stock index broke out above an upper moving average channel.

spy spx trend

Price trends usually peak with volatile swings up and down before a larger leg down. Some swing tighter than others, but there is normally a period of “indecision” that precedes an intermediate trend change or drawdown. A drawdown is a decline in the value of an investment or market below its all-time high. Below is the period leading up to the -15% drawdown in the stock index late 2015 – 2016. In the green box, I show the price trend entered a period of swings up and down before breaking an upward trend, drifting more sideways, then a-15% decline.

 

spy eem stock market

Next is the swings in the S&P 500 entered into what became a -18% decline in 2011. My point here is that larger legs down don’t necessarily happen all at once, there are indecisive swings that eventually fall apart.

spy 2011 decline

The top in 2007 presented much larger swings and of course ended up declining -56% over nearly two years afterward. I believe these swings up and down before a larger trend unfolds is indecision among traders and investors. Again, my point here is that larger legs down don’t necessarily happen all at once, we instead observe indecisive swings that eventually fall apart.

spy spx 2007 stock market top

Lastly, here is the 1999 – 2000 peak that also presented wings like the previous peaks. The stock market trend broke above a simple channel a few times before entering a -50% bear market.

stock market top 1999

The current trend just recently stretched above the channel and at the same time, was very overbought for months as measured by the momentum oscillators. This happened at the same time bullish investor sentiment measures was reaching record highs and volatility at historical lows. However, as seen in observations above, the U.S. stock market could just now be entering into a phase of swings up and down that could last for months or years, or it could fall apart sooner. Either way, I make this point for situational awareness.

As a portfolio manager, I don’t need to know for sure what’s going to happen next.  I just know what I’ll do next as trends unfold.

Only time will tell if this is the early stages of an end of an aged bull market or just an interruption of a euphoric “melt up”. We don’t need to know when a major top is in. It doesn’t require an ON/OFF switch. When a big bear market does come, it will be made up of many swings up and down along the way over many months. People will crave to be in, out, in out, in, out, as it all unfolds.  Adaptability is essential: the consistent willingness and ability to alter attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors to appropriately respond to actual or anticipated change in the environment.

Clearly, it’s the swings we have to be prepared for… if we want to avoid a loss trap.  In a loss trap, investors get caught in a loss and have a hard time getting out. When they lose more than they can afford or more than their risk tolerance, they are prone to tap out after large declines. To avoid the loss trap, know your risk tolerance and actively manage risk within that tolerance.

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

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

 

In remembrance of euphoria: Whatever happened to Stuart and Mr. P?

I have recently found myself reminiscing about the late 1990’s – specifically the grand euphoric year of 1999. If you aren’t sure why then maybe you aren’t paying attention. Sometimes not paying attention is a good thing if it prevents you from following a herd off a cliff.

The four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different.” – John Templeton

Lately, I’ve been reminiscing about the tech stock bubble, the .com’s, and how the Nasdaq QQQ replaced the Dow Jones Industrial Average as the favorite index by 1999. Then there were all the infamous statements like “you don’t understand the New Economy”. We’ve been talking about the funny commercials from the baby trader to the college-age guy helping the mature executive start trading online, to “Be Bullish”.

Do you remember Stuart and Mr. P? Back in 1999, there were traditional “stockbrokers” who were registered with a brokerage firm, who bought and sold stocks, bonds, and options for individual and institutional clients. If you were a stockbroker back then, like I was, you probably remember it well. Online trading was the beginning of the end for the traditional “stockbroker” firms earning a $200 commission to buy or sell 100 shares. The great thing about the evolution of online trading is it lowered trading costs dramatically. For someone like me who wanted to be a tactical money manager anyway, that was a great thing. I embraced it and went on to start my investment management company. But the point of this observation is the investor sentiment in 1999. The video below is amazing to watch 20 years later. But what fascinates me the most is how it reminds me of today; different subjects, same sentiment.

Watch:

 

That may remind you of some of the things we hear today.

Those type of commercials flooded the financial news and evening news channels in 1999. To be sure, below is a WSJ article printed about the “Let’s Light This Candle” ad on December 7, 1999. I’ll tell ya what… that’s about as close to the top as you can get.

So, I wondered, what happened to Stuart and Mr. P? 

Stuart was helping Mr. P buy Kmart stock online. Kmart was then one of America’s leading discount retailers. The Kmart Corporation was the second largest U.S. discount retailer and major competitor to Walmart. Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2002. Just two years after Stuart helped Mr. P buy shares online it filed for the largest ever retail bankruptcyKmart was later bought by Sears, which is now a failing company. At least Mr. P was wise enough to only buy 100 shares, young Stuart wanted him to buy 500 shares! They had no position size method to determine how much to buy based on risk, which would include a predefined exit. It is unlikely Mr. P had a predefined exit in place to exit the stock to cut the loss short. During that time, investors were only thinking about what to buy. They rarely considered how and when to exit a stock with a small loss to avoid a larger loss. After such a strong bull market, who is thinking about the risk of loss?

For those of us who remember, in the late 1990’s most investors weren’t just buying the largest retailers – they were buying technology. In hindsight, that period is now referred to as the “tech boom” or “tech bubble”. That’s because almost everyone wanted to buy tech stocks. Literally, even the most conservative seniors were cashing out bank CD’s to buy tech stock.  And… I’m not even going to get into the .com stocks, most of which no longer exist from that time.

Whether you remember the trend as my friends and I do or not, we can use historical price charts to see what happened. Below is the Technology Select Sector SPDR® ETF  since its inception 12/16/1998 to today. I’m starting with the full history to see the initial gain, before the waterfall decline. The Technology Select Sector SPDR® Fund seeks to:

“Provide precise exposure to companies from technology hardware, storage, and peripherals; software; diversified telecommunication services; communications equipment; semiconductors and semiconductor equipment; internet software and services; IT services; electronic equipment, instruments, and components; and wireless telecommunication services.”

Those were the most popular sectors, aside from the actual Internet stocks.

Below is what happened from December 9, 1999, when WSJ printed the article about the ad because it was so interesting and popular, to now. After nearly 20 years an investor buying the diversified tech sector would have just recently realized a profit, assuming they held on for 19 years.

Here is what that -80% drawdown looked like that lasted 19 years.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. “

George Santayana

 

This is a kickoff of a series of articles on this topic I have in queue on current global market conditions. Stay tuned…

Mike Shell is the founder of Shell Capital Management, LLC, a registered investment manager and portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

All Eyes are Now on the Potential Government Shutdown

If the U. S. Government shuts down, it will be the 19th time. Looking at the table below, it doesn’t seem a big deal. The table shows the 18 prior government shutdowns going back to 1976. It lists the start and end date of the shutdown and the gain or loss for the S&P 500 stock index. The average is only a -0.60% loss from beginning to end of the shutdown.

But, here are some considerations: 
1. It is too small of a sample size to draw a statistically significant inference. Basic probability needs 30 data points.
2. It only shows the gain/loss from beginning and end of the shutdown.
3. It doesn’t show what happened before and after those dates. Was there more movement/drawdown before or after?
4. It doesn’t show what happened in between the start and end date so it may have been worse.
5. It doesn’t consider market stage at the time of shutdown. Was it overvalued and overbought? Or was it undervalued and oversold?

The truth is; anything can happen.
We don’t know for sure how it will play out. With such a small sample size of prior events and without factoring in the market conditions at the time, what it did in the past doesn’t provide us with a good expectation.

The current condition: if the government shuts down this time:
1. It will be when the U.S. stock market is at the second most expensive fundamental valuation, ever.
2. When investor and advisor bullish sentiment has reached record highs, at this point a contrary indicator.
3. As recent momentum indicators are at the highest levels ever seen before, at this point a contrary indicator.

My solution? always be prepared that anything can happen.
I know how much risk I’m willing to take given the possible outcomes and define my risk by knowing when I’ll hedge or exit.

 

Mike Shell is the founder of Shell Capital and the Portfolio Manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

What do wealthy people do differently?

This morning a financial planner who knows we are the investment manager to wealthy families asked me a great question:

“What do wealthy people do differently?”

I thought I would just sit here and write it out. These are my own observations over a few decades.

First, let’s define “wealthy”.

I’m going to define “wealthy” as someone who has already achieved “freedom”. Notice I said “freedom”, not just “financial freedom”. I’ve asked thousands of people over the past two decades “what is important about money to you?”. Ultimately, the question leads to one single word: “freedom”. So, there doesn’t seem to be a need to add “financial” in front of “freedom”. But, that isn’t to say you can’t have plenty of money without much freedom. You could say “Some people have far more money than they ever need but they still don’t enjoy their freedom because they keep working for more”. You may consider that person is still getting what they want. Some people just want to produce, and they never stop. They are still free. They have the freedom to keep doing what they love doing. In fact, some wealthy people are driven to create more wealth for a charity. No matter what our goals are in life, traveling, relaxing, time with family and friends, helping others, having enough capital to do what we want seems essential.

Having enough money to do what we want, when we want, seems to be the primary goal of most of us.

So, I define “wealthy” as someone who has already achieved “freedom”, regardless how he or she chooses to enjoy his or her freedom.

What do these people do differently than those who haven’t accumulated enough capital to say they are “wealthy”?

1. They save and invest money. The first thing that I have observed is that they simply save part of their income and invest it.

a. Save: They save it because they don’t spend more than they should. They save a large amount of themselves to use later. Even if they earn $X a year, they don’t the most they can for their home or carts. For example, a person earning $1 million a year may live in a $1 million neighborhood and a neighbor who earns $200,000 a year. Who do you think will be “wealthy”? One is stretched, the other is saving.

b. Invest: People who achieve “freedom” and the “wealthy” status don’t stop and just saving money in a bank account, they invest it. Wealthy people take the time to invest their money. Most of them invest with an investment manager who is fully committed to investment management.

2. Wealthy people care about their money. I know a lot of wealthy people, and I know just as many who aren’t. Those who are wealthy save and invest money, those who don’t spend it. As investment management clients, wealthy families are the first to complete forms, etc. as needed because they care about their money. They also appreciate investment managers who are on top of things as they would be.

3. Wealthy people are focused on that ONE thing they do best. Just like the book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results says: they are focused. If they are a Physician, they focus on being a great Physician. If they own a company, they focus on their business. If they are a country music artist, they focus on being the best they can be. If they are an engineer, that’s their focus. They do what they do best and they find other people to do the things they don’t want to do like lawn maintenance or whatever. If you want to earn more money to save and invest, focus on what earns you the most and pay others for the things you aren’t so great at or don’t want to do.

4. They take some risks and manage their risk. To achieve wealth, we have to be both risk-takers and risk managers. If we take no risks in life, we’ll have no chance of reward. Not graduating from college has some risks, but so does attending. Who we marry, how we title our assets, how we insure our assets, and how we manage our assets all have risks and the potential for reward. Wealthy people tend to take risks in that one thing they are best at. They go “all in”. But wealthy people also direct and control their risks. They try to take good risks that are worth taking. It doesn’t matter how much wealth we accumulate if we aren’t able to keep it. For example, many people can remember how much wealth they created on paper up to 2000 only to see it cut in half. They did it again up to 2007 through 2009, and it took years to break even. Wealthy people know to realize a real profit, you have to take a profit. To avoid a large loss, we have to cut losses off at some point. Proper planning and risk management are essential.

5. Everything is relative, but yet it isn’t to them. I know business owners as well as Physicians who I consider wealthy as well as musicians, and athletes. But, you don’t have to earn $500,000 a year all your life to become wealthy. You don’t have to earn it all in a short time, either. I know people who have a total $500,000 invested who are wealthy. They have “enough”, for them. Depending on the lifestyle, others may not become wealthy until they have over $5 million if they spend a few hundred thousand a year traveling, etc. I also know families with several hundred million. Everything is relative, but wealthy people don’t compare their wealth and assets to others. They aren’t “keeping up with the Joneses”. People who do that often have large debts because they buy things they can’t afford with money they don’t have. Or, they save and invest less.  Wealthy people don’t buy a new car or house because their friend does, or compare their investment account to others. Wealthy people may be more introverted when it comes to personal finance – their focus is on their own family needs.

What do the wealthy do differently? They discover how much capital they need to enable the freedom to do what they want when they want, whatever that may be. Income alone, or the neighborhood we live in, or the cars we drive, or memberships don’t signal that we are wealthy. Some wealthy people are still operating their business, practice,  or “working”. A distinction is that they want to and they could choose to do something else with their time if they want. Wealthy families have saved and invested enough money to have achieved freedom. To do that, they focus on the thing they do best. They delegate the other stuff to someone else. They care about accumulating and managing their money and managing their risks. They appreciate investment managers and wealth managers who help them do it.

Resolving Conflicts with Relative Strength

In “Relative Strength can be a source of conflict for Tactical Traders” I explained how two different momentum indicators are in conflict with each other and can lead to conflict in tactical trading decisions. Tactical traders may use many different indicators and methods to determine whether to enter, hold, or exit a position. If we look at two conflicting indicators like this, we have to avoid becoming conflicted ourselves.

To avoid the conflicts, define clearly what they are and how to use them. To do that, I’m going to mix up a bowl of Physics and Psychology.

The indicators essentially represent the same thing. They apply a different algorithm, but both are momentum measures that determine the speed of change in price movements. A key difference is that the basic Relative Strength I used is a simple price change over a period. That simple Relative Strength algorithm simply compares the price change over a period to determine which trends are stronger and which are weaker. Tactical Traders using this method of Relative Strength expect the stronger trends will continue to be stronger and the weaker trends will continue to be weaker. A trend in motion is expected to continue in that direction until some inertia comes along and changes it. You may recognize this from Physics:

Newton’s first law of motion states that “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Objects tend to “keep on doing what they’re doing.” In fact, it is the natural tendency of objects to resist changes in their state of motion. This tendency to resist changes in their state of motion is described as inertia.

Inertia: the resistance an object has to a change in its state of motion.

We can say the same about investor behavior and beliefs when we look at confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

That psychological bias is similar to the physics law of motion;

“Objects tend to keep on doing what they’re doing. In fact, it is the natural tendency of objects to resist changes in their state of motion.”

Investor and trader behavior and Confirmation Bias seems to agree with the first law of motion.

You can probably see how we may develop our beliefs because of our environment. If we observe over time the natural tendency of objects to resist changes in their state of motion then we may expect a trend to continue.

It gets more interesting. According to The Physics Classroom:

Newton’s conception of inertia stood in direct opposition to more popular conceptions about motion. The dominant thought prior to Newton’s day was that it was the natural tendency of objects to come to a rest position. Moving objects, so it was believed, would eventually stop moving; a force was necessary to keep an object moving. But if left to itself, a moving object would eventually come to rest and an object at rest would stay at rest; thus, the idea that dominated people’s thinking for nearly 2000 years prior to Newton was that it was the natural tendency of all objects to assume a rest position.

So, up until Newton’s first law of motion, people believed trends would eventually end instead of continue. In that same way, some people look for and expect recent price trends to change rather than continue.

We have discovered two different beliefs.

  • A trend in motion will stay in motion with the same speed and direction (unless acted upon by an unbalanced force).
  • A trend will eventually stop moving (a force is necessary to keep an object moving).

A Tactical Trader using Relative Strength based on the rate of change assumes that trend speed and direction will continue into the future. This is more in agreement with Newton’s first law.

A Tactical Trader using the Relative Strength Indicator, an oscillator,  assumes that trend speed and direction will oscillate between a range. If it reaches “oversold” it may reverse back up and if it reaches “overbought” it may reverse back down. This is more like the Physics beliefs prior to Newton’s first law when they expected a trend or motion to change.

To avoid conflicts between these two concepts and indicators, I define them separately as Trend Following and Countertrend.

Trend Following systems are methods that aim to buy securities that are rising and sell securities that are declining. Trend following is directional – it focuses on the direction of prices. Not all measures of Relative Strength are directional, but the one I used is. I simply ranked the sectors based on their price change over 3 months. That is an absolute ranking, but also a relative ranking. I may require the price change to be positive to enter a position. Some Relative Strength methods are only relative, so they don’t require a positive trend. They may enter the sectors that have the better price change over the period even if it’s negative.

Countertrend systems aim to bet against the recent price trend for the purpose of pursuing a capital gain or for hedging. In a strongly rising market, a countertrend strategy may believe the price is more likely to reverse. For example, the RSI is “overbought.” In a  declining market, a countertrend strategy may indicate the trend is likely to reverse back up. For example, RSI is “oversold.” The risk is, an oversold market can keep trending lower and an overbought market may keep trending up!

I believe there are directional trends that are more likely to continue than to reverse – so I apply Trend Following to them. That necessarily means I believe investors may underreact to new information causing the price trend to drift gradually over time to match supply and demand.

I also believe that trends can reach an extreme, especially in the short run, by overreacting to information or extremes in sentiments like fear and greed. Because I have observed trends reaching an extreme, I may apply overbought and oversold methods for countertrend trading.

When I see the chart below, I think:

“The trend is up, it has moved up fast enough to be overbought in the short term, so it may pull back some and then the trend may resume to the upside”.

I combine the two, rather than them necessarily being in conflict with each other. I believe the high RSI number is confirming the strong trend, but I also believe it suggests it may not be the best entry point if you care about entering a position that may decline a few percent after you enter it.

So, I believe both of these systems can be applied at different times depending on the market state of the trend type. When a price trend is oscillating up and down over time but not necessarily making a major new high or low, a Countertrend method may capture profits from those swings. When a trend is moving up or down for a prolonged period that same Countertrend system may catch some of the profits and miss some as well. That is because it expects the trend to reverse at certain points and it doesn’t. However, a Trend Following system may better capture the overall trend when it keeps trending. But, none of them are perfect. If a Trend Following system captures the bigger trend it also means it will likely participate in a drawdown when the trend does end. If the Trend Following algorithm is loose enough to ride the trend without whipsaws, it will also be loose enough to lose some gains when the trend does change to the other direction.

If Tactical Traders and investors have useful definitions like these and can apply these different methods to different types of markets, with the right mindset and expectations we can avoid the conflicts.

Relative Strength can be a source of conflict for Tactical Traders

Relative Strength can be a source of conflict for Tactical Traders. I was talking to another tactical trader who manages a hedge fund. He said:

“Industrials are a leading sector, but it’s overbought”.

Relative Strength is a simple measurement to determine which stock, sector, or market has trended up the most over a period of time.  For example, when we rank U.S. sectors over a period of 3 months to see which sectors have been trending the strongest, we see sectors like Financials, Energy, Materials, and Industrials have been the leaders over the past three months. Of course, past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate it will continue into the future. As with any trend indicator, Relative Strength is always looking at the past, never the unknowable future.

To see a different visual, below is how those same sectors appear in a line chart over the past 3 months. We observe that most of the sectors have trended in a wide range over the past few months.

 

When ranked by Relative Strength, the Industrial Sector is a leader compared to other sectors and its directional trend can also be seen in its price chart.

No, wait.

Now that I’ve pulled the chart up: The Industrial sector is overbought right now based on the Relative Strength Index. I highlighted the indicator over 70 with the red line.

So, one “Relative Strength” indicator says it’s in a strong relative trend, the other suggests its “overbought”.

These two indicators sound the same, but they are different, but also the same. It depends on what you think it represents. Both of them actually represent the same thing, but the expectation from them is the opposite.

Relative Strength as I used above, is just a simple comparison of the price trends over the past 3 months, or whatever time frame you want to use.

The Relative Strength Index is a momentum oscillator that measures the speed and change of price movements. That doesn’t sound much different than Relative Strength. The equation is different. The way it is used is different. RSI oscillates between zero and 100. The default time frame is only 14 days. Without writing a book on it, I’ll share that RSI is intended to capture the shorter term swings in a price trend. Since it’s using 14 days, it’s assuming a cycle of 28 days.

When the RSI exceeds 70 it’s considered “overbought” because, mathematically, it has moved a little too far, too fast. When it gets “overbought” it’s expected to either drift sideways for some time or reverse back down. We may indeed observe the price trend stalling at overbought levels. The trouble is, it isn’t perfect. A strong trending price with a lot of inertia can continue trending up and just get more and more overbought. I find that investors who pay a lot of attention to it are concerned their profit will be erased, so they are looking to take profits when it appears overbought.

When the RSI declines below 30 it’s considered “oversold” because, mathematically, it has moved down a little too far, too fast. When it gets “oversold” it’s expected to either drift sideways for some time or reverse back up. We may indeed observe the price trend stalling at oversold levels. The trouble is, a waterfall declining price trend with a lot of inertia like panic can continue trending down and just get more and more oversold. Buying oversold markets, sectors, or stocks can lead to profits, but it’s like catching a falling knife. When I buy oversold markets, I focus on the high dividend yield positions whos yield gets higher as the price falls.

Tactical traders use many different indicators and methods to determine whether to enter, hold, or exit a position. If we look at two conflicting indicators like this, we have to avoid becoming conflicted ourselves. Many tactical traders may experience Confirmation Bias, looking for an indicator that agrees with what they already believe.

So, let’s look at that chart again. On the one hand, it’s trending up! On the other hand, it’s overbought! Will the trend continue or will it reverse down?

We don’t know, but different tactical traders use different methods to enter, hold, and exit positions. I know tactical traders who use only Relative Strength. I know others who mainly use RSI. They are buying and selling each other’s positions and both of them could be profitable overall. If you don’t like to enter a position that may decline in the weeks ahead you may want to avoid high RSI “overbought” markets if you believe they may decline in the short term. If you are a trend following purist who loves to buy new breakouts you’ll ignore the RSI and instead realize a high RSI indicators a strong trend and go for it. Said another way: do you fear missing a trend or fear losing money short term.

It’s easy to say “Don’t get conflicted and biased!” but another to shed more light on the conflict.

Tomorrow I’m going to share with you how I see it.

Stay tuned.

Read Part 2: Resolving Conflicts with Relative Strength

FANG Stocks were the Leaders but now the Laggards

The so-called “FANG” stocks are Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX), and Google (GOOG). These are some of the most talked about stocks in the market the last several years.

If you notice, every bull market has some catchy phrase or acronym the media likes to focus on.

The Nifty 50 was a group of 50 stocks that were most favored by institutional investors in the 1960s and 1970s. Companies in this group were usually characterized by consistent earnings growth and high P/E ratios. Examples of nifty-50 stocks were companies like IBM,  Coca-Cola, and General Electric. The list also included companies that have been had challenges the past decade, like Xerox and Polaroid.

The FANG stocks are popular for good reason. They are some of the best companies in the world. I say that based on the things or services they provide, but also their earnings growth. Earnings growth is the key driver of a stock price. For example, the Investors’ Business Daily shows a EPS Rating of 98, which means NFLX EPS growth rate is above 98% of other stocks. The RS rating is relative strength and means the stock has outperformance 93% of other stocks.

However, in recent months these stocks have shifted from market leaders to laggards. As the overall market has been flat recently, these stocks have declined -5% or so.

We’ll see if they continue to drift down or reverse back up.

VIX Trends Up 9th Biggest 1-day Move

About a week after a hedge fund manager who is popular with the media but has a poor track record of managing risk said “please stop talking about the low VIX”, it gains 44.4% in a single day – its 9th biggest 1-day move. He was suggesting the low VIX wasn’t an indication of high risk. If you have followed my observations, you know that I disagree. I’m one who has been talking about the low VIX and suggesting it is one of many indications of complacency among investors. That is, investors hear “all time new highs” and get overly optimistic instead of reducing their risk or being prepared to manage downside loss.

VIX biggest moves

I point out the hedge fund manager’s comment because I believe a low VIX is an indication of complacency because it measures expected implied volatility for options on the S&P 500 stocks. When implied volatility gets to historical low points, it means options traders aren’t paying high premiums for hedging “protection”. Others can believe what they want to believe. I don’t just point out observations at extremes. I actually do something.

As I pointed out recently in “No Inflection Point Yet, But… ” the VIX was at an extreme low. About a week later this other fund manager implies it may not be meaningful. That’s exactly what we expect to hear when the expected volatility gets to such an extreme low. We expect to see it shift the other direction at some point. I like to follow trends until they reach an extreme – and reverse.

Here is what it looked like.

VIX 9th biggest one day move

More importantly, here is what the stock indexes looked like on Google Finance after the close:

Stock market down Korea

Another observation I shared in “No Inflection Point Yet, But…” is that leading stocks can sometimes be more volatile and yesterday was no exception. While the stock indexes were down around -1.5% some of the most popular stocks were down about twice as much:

FANG stocks downSource: Google Finance

Of course, this is all just one day. We’ll see if it continues into a longer trend.

It’s always a good time to manage risk, but sometimes it’s more obvious than others.

How Future Losses Erase Prior Gains

Someone was talking about how much the stock market is “up”.

However, it’s the exit that determines the outcome.

When someone talks about being “up” that doesn’t mean anything unless they have sold to realize the profit.

If they haven’t sold, it’s the markets money. The market may giveth, but it can also taketh away. Market gains are just market gains. To realize a profit, we have to sell.

Open profits aren’t yet realized.

Open profits may never be realized.

Open profits may be evaporated by later losses.

Closed profits are ours. When we exit and take a profit, we’ve realized the gain and have the cash to show for it.

To be sure, let’s look at the last 20 years. It’s hard to believe that a data point of 1997 is now 20 years ago! It seems like yesterday to me. Talking about 1997 may sound ancient now, but it wasn’t so long ago. The late 1990’s was one of the strongest cyclical bull markets in history. The S&P 5oo stock index gained over 200% in five years! The sharp gains of the late 1990’s inspired even the oldest bank savers to cash in CD’s that were paying 5% to 7% for the chance for high profits.

Only in hindsight do we know what happened next.

The essential concept investors must understand is not only how capital compounds, but also the math of loss.

Losses are asymmetric. In fact, losses are more asymmetric than gains.

That is, losses compound more exponential than gains.

Losses are exponential. As they get larger, it takes more gain to recover the loss to be back to even.

That’s why we don’t have to capture 100% of a gain to result in the same or better return if the downside loss is limited. When we avoid much of the downside, we simply don’t need to risk so much on the upside to compound capital positively. And, if we don’t have large losses on the downside investors are less likely to tap out with losses. Those concepts are essential to understand. It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the downside is so large they tap out before the gain is realized.

In the chart below, we can see how the math works.

A -10% loss takes +11% to recover. A 20% loss takes +25% to recover. Beyond -20%, the losses become more asymmetric and exponential. A -30% loss needs a +43% to get back to even. At -40% you need +67% to regain. That’s why losses in the -50% range as we’ve seen twice over the past 15 years are so devastating to life plans. At -50% you need +100% just to recover the loss and get back to breakeven. If your loss is -60%, it’s +150% to recoup. So when you hear people bragging about the stock market gains since 2009, don’t forget the other side of the story. It’s the other side the makes all the difference. How many years of staying fully invested in risky markets did it take to recover the loss?

Let’s look at how this matches up with real price trends we’ve observed over the past 20 years.

Below we see the late 1990’s gains more than erased by the sharp decline from 2000 to 2002. But keep in mind, while the decline was a sharp one at -50%, the decline was made up of many swings up and down along the way. The swings of lower highs and lower lows swayed many investors back “in” as those swings up along the way made them think the low was in and it was a “buying opportunity”. They did that just in time for the next down move. Avoiding bear markets isn’t as simple as exiting near the peak and reentering near the low. It’s far more complicated. Investors fear missing out during every 10% to 20% upswing, then they fear losing more money after every -10% to -20% downswing. But, the point here is that the large uptrend was erased by the later downtrend. What happens along the way brings additional challenges.

After the low around 2003, a new cyclical bull market began. As we know in hindsight, it lasted until October 2007. In October 2007, investors were pretty optimistic again and maybe a little euphoric. Stocks had gained over 100% from the bear market low and they wanted more stocks. It didn’t take long for a decline large enough that more than erased all the gains they were so excited about.

In fact, not only did that bear market erase the gains of the cyclical bull market that started in 2002, it also erased all of “The Tech Bubble” gains going back to 1995! By 2009 the past fourteen years was at a loss for stock index investors.

Even the largest uptrends have been erased by the later downtrends. This has happened many times in stock market history.

It doesn’t matter how much the stock market had gained. It only mattered if the profits were realized. Otherwise, it was just a rollercoaster.

You can probably see why I say that markets have profit potential, but because they don’t always go up, they require risk management. It’s why I actively manage risk and apply directional trend systems intended to capture profits and avoid significant losses.

March 9th is the Bull Market’s 8-Year Anniversary

I observed many headlines pointing out that March 9th is the 8th anniversary of the current bull market in U.S. stocks.

The rising trend in stocks is becoming one of the longest on record. It is the second longest, ever.

Looking at it another way, March 9, 2009 was the point that stock indexes had fallen over -50% from their prior highs.

Since most of the discussion focuses on the upside over the past 8 years, I’ll instead share the other side so we remember why March 9, 2009 matters.

 ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

– George Santayana

When investors speak of the last bear market they mostly call it “2008” or “o8”.

However, the end of the last bear market was actually March 9, 2009 and the beginning was October 2007.

Below is a chart of the S&P 500 stock index from October 9, 2007 to March 9, 2009. The price decline was -56%.

No one knew that March 9, 2009 was the lowest it would go. It could have gotten much worse.

Talking only about the gains since the low leaves out the full story.

When we research price trends, we must necessarily consider the full market cycle of both rising and falling trends. For example, below is the price trend since the peak nearly 10 years ago on October 9, 2007.  Even after such a large gain, the Risk-to-Reward Ratio isn’t so good if you had to hold through the big loss to achieve it. That is, investors had to experience -56% on the downside for how much gain?

It isn’t the upside that causes so much trouble, it’s the downside.

That’s why we must manage risk to increase and decrease exposure to the possibility of gain and loss.

Asymmetric Volatility Phenomenon

In Asymmetric Volatility, I used the range of weather temperatures to show that volatility is how far data points are spread out.

While it’s 72 degrees and sunny in Florida it can be below freezing in Boston with snow on the ground.

We observe asymmetric volatility in equity markets, too.

The equity market tends to crash down, but drift up. That is, uptrends tend to drift slower and less steep, and downtrends tend to fall faster and sharper and can become waterfall declines.  We observe fewer geysers than waterfalls.

asymmetric-volatility-phenomenon

The drivers of this market dynamic seem to be mainly based on behavior and a reaction to price trends.

I could add that leverage has an impact, too. As markets have gone up for a while investors are more likely to use leverage to “get more aggressive”. Leverage levels tend to be highest at peaks. But, leverage and volatility feedback tend to be linked to panic selling leading to selling pressure. Prices fall more because they are falling.

I believe that upward price trends are primarily driven by underreaction to information. Even if we all get the same information at the same time, but we respond to it differently and at different times. Some get in the trend sooner, others enter later, some even wait until the end (and use leverage!).

Investors may underreact in downtrends, too. Many investors may not react to a loss of  -5%, but -10% they may start to pay more attention and -20% some may panic. The deeper the fall, the more investors are likely to tap-out. By the time the stock market is down -20%, many may be selling to cut their loss. As selling pressure builds, selling leads to more selling as prices fall. If you are bold and -20% isn’t enough to tap you out, maybe -50% is.

If you are bold and -20% isn’t enough to tap you out, maybe -40% is. Or, -50%. I think everyone has a tap-out point. It could be losing it all.

Here is an example you may remember.

stock-market-crash-2008

As the price trend made lower highs and lower lows, selling pressure continued and it led to a waterfall panic level decline. This kind of decline is what many “risk measurement” systems fail to acknowledge. Actually, they intentionally ignore them.  If you use a risk measurement system that says it has a “95% Confidence Level”, these downtrends are the 5% it ignores.  It acts like they won’t happen. It even does it on purpose.

That’s the very move you want to avoid.

You can probably see why I believe it is necessary to actively manage risk and apply drawdown control.

For the record, the period above wasn’t the full downtrend. I often see that period misquoted as “2008”.

It wasn’t just 2008.

The S&P 500 was just down -37% in the calendar year 2008.

The full decline was actually -55%. It began at the peak in October 2007 and didn’t end until March 2009.

It began at the peak in October 2007 and didn’t end until March 9, 2009.

stock-market-bear

2009 ended positive, so many people don’t include it when they speak of this last bear market. Below is January 1, 2009, to March 9, 2009. It continued to decline nearly -30% in those two months after 2008.

2009-stock-market-decline

Beware of those who understate the historical downside and the potential for downside.

They are the same people who will experience it again.

Asymmetric Volatility

Volatility is how quickly and how far data points spread out.

Asymmetric is not identical on both sides, imbalanced, unequal, lacking symmetry.

This time of year we are reminded of asymmetric volatility in the weather. The wide range in the temperature is highlighted in the morning news.

This morning, it’s 72 degrees and sunny down south and below freezing and snowing up north.

asymmetric-volatility

Source: MyRadar

Some of the news media presents the variation in a way that invites relative thinking. Just like the financial news programs that show what has gained and lost the most today, the weather shows the extreme highs and lows.

Those who watch the financial news may feel like they missed out on the stock or market that gained the most, then be glad they weren’t in one that lost the most. Some feelings may be more asymmetric: they feel one more than the other.

Prospect Theory says most of us feel a loss much greater that we do a gain. It’s another asymmetry: losses hurt more than gains feel good (loss aversion).

If you are up north trying to stay warm, you may wish you were down south sitting on the beach.

If you are down south trying to stay cool, you may wish you were up north playing in the snow!

It really doesn’t matter how extreme the difference is (the volatility). The volatility is what it is. Volatility is just a range.

What matters is what we want to experience.

If we want to experience snow we can fly up north.

If we want to experience sunny warmth we can fly down south.

If we want less volatility, we could live down south in the winter and up north in the summer.

We get to decide what we experience.

Asymmetry in the Business Cycle

The current U.S. economic expansion is now 90 months old.

It is the fourth longest of the 23 expansions since 1900.

The history of the U.S. business cycle is one of long summers and short winters.

The average expansion has lasted 46 months – 3x longer than recessions.

The problem is the MAGNITUDE, not length.

The business cycle, like the stock market, can be asymmetric: it crashes down, but slowly drifts back up. That could be an overreaction on the downside, but an under-reaction on the upside.

long-summer-short-winters-economic-expansion

To be sure, the chart below shows a sharp recession after the 4th Quarter 2007, and though the trend has since been long in length, it has been the slowest growth. Magnitude is more important than length.

strength-of-economic-expansions

 

 

So Goes January, So Goes the Year?

 

Focusing on an arbitrary time frame is called “reference dependence.” It regards the comparative nature of human perception. It also concerns the tendency of people to compare things to some reference point. Perception of an outcome depends on the reference point that a person chooses. The reference point or time frame is arbitrary and is based on random choice or personal whim.

The idea of reference dependence reminds me of when I watched Arkansas play Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl last week.

After the first quarter, Arkansas was beating Virgina Tech 17-0. If we judged the game at that reference point, the score was so one-sided that it seemed like Arkansas was going to decimate Virginia Tech.

arkansas-virginia-tech-first-halfSource: http://secsports.go.com/scores/football/arkansas-razorbacks

By halftime, the score was 24-0. Arkansas was ahead by three touchdowns and a field goal. The momentum was evident. The game appeared to be a terrible mismatch. If we placed bets, it would have been for Arkansas to win the game. At that point, this outcome was most probable.

When a game is close, fans “watch it closely.” However, when the score broadened to 24- 0, many fans probably stopped paying attention and expected Arkansas to be the winner.

Yet football has four quarters, not just two.

Three touchdowns and a field goal are a tough lead to overcome. It would require Virginia Tech first to play very well with their defense so as to prevent Arkansas from scoring more points against them. Then, they would need their offense to score many touchdowns and field goals just to catch up.

In the third quarter, that’s exactly what they did.

arkansas-virginia-tech-final-score

By the end of the third quarter, Virginia Tech had scored 21 points to make the score 21–24. In the final and fourth quarter, they scored another 14 points to take the lead 35–24. They scored 35 points, and their defense held Arkansas to zero in the second half. It was a high-volatility game – swinging from one extreme in one period to another extreme in the next.

Now, look at it from the perspective of a Virginia Tech fan. By halftime, they were losing 0–24. All hope was gone. They may have stopped watching. If they were at the game, they might have left at halftime.

The end of the game was the only time frame that mattered.

Global markets operate in the same way. Our perception is just the result of our reference point – the time frame we choose. Below is the S&P 500 stock index over 18 months from January 2015 to June 2016. Overall, it was non-trending and volatile.

non-trending-stock-market-period

It wasn’t just U.S. stocks. Developed countries and Emerging Markets countries declined even more as they trended in wider swings.

global-market-trends-returns-asymmetric

 

You can probably see why very few people invest all their money all the time in the stock market. It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk is so high that you reach your uncle point before it’s achieved. At some point, investors decide to look, and when they do, their perceptions depend on the reference point they choose. For this reason, global markets require risk management, and investors need behavioral management. If the swings of 10% to 25% observed over the past two years aren’t enough to shake out every investor, the declines of -50% or more that we’ve seen the past fifteen years probably are.

Much like the Belk Bowl, the stock index was down and out for most of the period but ended the year positively in the final quarter.

last-quarter-spy

 

As investors, our most important reference point is, ultimately, our full investment time horizon. For most people, that means their entire lifespan. For those who establish trusts, foundations, or endowments with their money, their reference point goes beyond their own lives. Investment management is different from football in that the score compounds for as long as you have money invested. It is not just one season, or one quarter, or a single game.

The end is the only time frame that matters. Everything in between is just you deciding to compare one reference to another.

I titled this observation, “So Goes January, So Goes the Year.”

You can probably see how arbitrary it is to say that.

By the way, you can see on the chart that the stock market dropped sharply last January, but it ended positively for the year.

“So Goes January, So Goes the Year”?

Not always.

The end is the only time frame that really matters.

Investor Optimism is Reaching Extreme

As it often does, the U.S. stock market trended the complete opposite of what market pundits expected after the election.

Clearly, a Presidential election can be the blame for volatility we saw this year before the election. However, instead of crashing down U.S. stocks regained their previous losses quickly. Along with that, investor sentiment shifted from fearful a month ago to much more optimistic as prices trended up. At this point, investors have probably forgotten how volatile markets were the first part of 2016. Once the losses are regained, they eventually forget the stock indexes were down -12% or more in January and February.

Investors tend to get optimistic (or even greedy) after prices have gone up and then fearful after prices go down.

I am not necessarily a contrarian investor. I mainly want to be positioned in the direction of global markets and stay there until they change. But markets sometimes get to an extreme – increasing the probability of a reversal. At this point, a tactical trader can hedge, reduce exposure, realize profits, or wait until an actual reversal to respond.

My purpose of pointing out these extremes in investor sentiment (fear and greed) is to illustrate how investors’ feelings oscillate between the fear of missing out (if global markets have gone up and they aren’t in them) and the fear of losing money (if they are in global markets and they are falling). Fear and greed is a significant driver of price trends. When stock market investor sentiment reaches an extreme, it often reverses trend afterward.

Indicators suggest that investors are pursuing higher risk strategies and that investor optimism has reached a short-term extreme. I like to use the Fear & Greed Index that is a simple snapshot for anyone to see. Below is the reading as of yesterday as it reached “Extreme Greed.”

cnn-fear-greed-index

We shouldn’t be surprised to see the recent upward price trend reverse down, at least temporarily.

Along with that, we could see investor sentiment reverse from “Extreme Greed” to “Fear” as prices fall.

It’s OK to feel and experience your feelings… if you feel the right feeling at the right time.

Indicators like this can help investors observe how they tend to feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

 

To learn more, below are some of my previous observations about sentiment reaching an extreme greed level of optimism.

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

It’s official: extreme greed is driving the stock market

What emotion is driving the market now? Extreme Greed

Investors feel and do the wrong thing at the wrong time…

Many studies show that investors have poor results over the long haul including both bull and bear markets. For example, DALBAR has been conducting their annual Quantitative Analysis Of Investor Behavior study for 22 years now.

DALBAR’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB) has been measuring the effects of investor decisions to buy, sell and switch into and out of mutual funds over both short and long-term time frames. The results consistently show that the average investor earns less – in many cases, much less – than mutual fund performance reports would suggest.

Their goal of QAIB is to improve investor performance by pointing out the factors that influence behaviors that determine the outcome of investment or savings strategies. They conclude individuals have poor results for two primary reasons:

  1. Lack of capital investment.
  2. Investor Psychology.

If someone doesn’t save and invest some of their money, they’ll never have a chance to have good long-term results. However, they find the biggest reason for poor results by investors who do invest in the markets over time is investor psychology. Investors tend to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, especially at market extremes.

The chart below illustrates how investors tend to let their emotions lead them astray. The typical “bull market” for stocks may last four or five years. After investors keep hearing of rising market prices and headlines of “new highs” they want to invest more and more – they become euphoric. The may get more “aggressive”. However, those gains are in the past. Market trends are a good thing, but they can move to an extreme high (or low) and then reverse. Investors feel euphoria just as the stock market is getting “overvalued” at the end of a market cycle.

Look at that chart: what big trend do you think happens next? 

do-your-emotions-lead-you-astraySource: Investing and Emotions

On the downside, investors panic after large losses. There are many ways that investors get caught in this loss trap. For example, some are told to “stay in the market” so they hold on beyond their uncle point and then tap out. After they sell at much lower prices, they are too afraid to “get back in.”  They are “Panic-Stricken.” They don’t discover the actual risk of their passive asset allocation until it’s too late and their losses are larger than they expected.

Investors need to know their real tolerance for loss before the loss happens. Then, they need to invest in a program that offers a matching level of risk management, so they don’t lose so much they tap out and lock in significant losses. If they reach their uncle point and tap out, they have an even more difficult challenge to get back on track.

You want to be greedy when others are fearful. You want to be fearful when others are greedy. It’s that simple. – Warren Buffett

The chart above shows twenty-one years of the historical return of the S&P 500 stock index. Look at the graph above to see the points this happens. It shows an idealized example of investor emotions as prices trend up and down. As prices trend up, investors initially feel cautious, then hopeful, encouraged, positive, and as prices move higher and higher, they feel confident and thrilled to the point of euphoric. That’s when they want to get “more aggressive” when they should be doing the opposite. The worst investors actually do get more aggressive as they become euphoric at new highs, and then they get caught in those “more aggressive” holdings as the markets decline -20%, -30%, -40%, or more than -50%.

After such investment losses investors first feel surprised, then as their losses mount they feel nervous, then worried, then panic-stricken. But this doesn’t happen so quickly. You see, larger market declines often take a year or two to play out. The most significant declines don’t fall in just a few months then recover. The significant declines we point out above are -50% declines that took 3 – 5 years or more to get back to where they started. So, they are made up of many swings up and down along the way. If you look close at the chart, you’ll see those swings. It’s a long process – not an event. So few investors notice what is happening until it’s well in the past. They are watching the daily moves (the leaf on a tree) rather than the bigger picture (the forest).

So, investors get caught in a loss trap because the swings along the way lead them astray.  Their emotions make them oscillate between the fear missing out and the fear of losing money and that’s why investors have poor results over a full market cycle. A full market cycle includes a major peak like the Euphoric points on the chart and major lows like the Panic-Stricken points. Some investors make their mistakes by getting euphoric at the tops, and others make them by holding on to falling positions too long and then panicking after the losses are too large for them.

At Shell Capital, I manage an investment program that intends to avoid these mistakes. I prefer to avoid the massive losses, so I don’t have panicked investors. And, we don’t have to dig out of large holes. That also necessarily means we don’t want to get euphoric at the tops. I want to do the opposite of what DALBAR finds most people do. To do that, I must necessarily be believing and doing things different than most people – a requirement for good long term results. But, creating exceptional investment performance over an extended period of ten years or more isn’t enough. We also have to help our investor clients avoid the same mistakes most people make. You see, if I am doing things very differently than most people, then I’m also doing it at nearly the opposite of what they feel should be done. Our investors have to be able to deal with that, too.

If you are like-minded, believe what we believe, and want investment managementcontact us. This is not investment advice. If you need individualized advice, please contact us  

 

Source for the chart: BlackRock; Informa Investment Solutions. Emotions are hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only. The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged index that consists of the common stock of 500 large-capitalization companies, within various industrial sectors, most of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Returns assume reinvestment of dividends. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The information provided is for illustrative purposes only.

Investors Were Indeed Complacent…

A month ago I wrote “What is the VIX Suggesting about Investor Complacency and Future Volatility?” suggesting that options traders are paying low premiums for options because they are not so fearful of future volatility and lower stock prices. I pointed out that:

We could also say “investors are complacent” since they aren’t expecting future volatility to increase or be higher.

These levels of complacency often precede falling stock markets and then rising volatility. When stock prices fall, volatility spikes up as investors suddenly react to their losses in value

We shouldn’t be surprised to see at least some short-term trend reversals; maybe stocks trend down and the VIX® trends up…

A month later, the VIX® has gained 50% and 40% in a single day yesterday as the S&P 500 dropped -2.4%.

vix-september-2016

Ten days ago I also wrote “September Worst Month for Stocks?” pointing out the historic expected return for U.S. stocks in the month of September. I showed a chart that illustrates the mathematical expectation for the expected return for each month based on the past 66 years. Since 1950, the month of September has historically been the worst month for stocks.

You can probably see how the weight of the evidence of multiple factors paints a picture of the current market state. We could add that this is a very, very, aged and overvalued bull market. The normalized P/E is 26.7—well above the level justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status remains “significantly overvalued.” 

Investors should actively manage their downside risk and prepare for continued swings in market trends. 

If you are like-minded, believe what we believe, and want investment managementcontact us. This is not investment advice. If you need individualized advice please contact us  or your advisor. Please see Terms and Conditions for additional disclosures.

Essence of Portfolio Management

Essence of Portfolio Management

“The essence of investment management is the management of risks, not the management of returns. Well-managed portfolios start with this precept.”

– Benjamin Graham

The problem is many portfolio managers believe they manage risk through their investment selection. That is, they believe their rotation from one seemingly risky position to another they believe is less risk is a reduction in risk. But, the risk is the exposure to the chance of a loss. The exposure is still there. Only the perception has changed: they just believe their risk is less. For example, for the last thirty years, the primary price trend for bonds has been up because interest rates have been falling. If a portfolio manager shifts from stocks to bonds when stocks are falling, bonds would often be rising. It appears that trend may be changing at some point. Portfolio managers who have relied on bonds as their safe haven may rotate out of stocks into bonds and then their bonds lose money too. That’s not risk management.

They don’t know in advance if the position they rotate to will result in a lower possibility of loss. Before 2008, American International Group (AIG) carried the highest rating for an insurance company. What if they rotated to AIG? Or to any of the other banks? Many investors believed those banks were great values as their prices were falling. They instead fell even more. It has taken them a long time to recover some of their losses. Just like tech and telecom stocks in 2000.

All risks cannot be hedged away if you pursue a profit. If you leave no chance at all for a potential profit, you earn nothing for that certainty. The risk is exposure to an unknown outcome that could result in a loss. If there is no exposure or uncertainty, there is no risk. The only way to manage risk is to increase and decrease the exposure to the possibility of loss. That means buying and selling (or hedging).  When you hear someone speaking otherwise, they are not talking of active risk management. For example, asset allocation and Modern Portfolio Theory is not active risk management. The exposure to loss remains. They just shift their risk to more things. Those markets can all fall together, as they do in real bear markets.

It’s required to accomplish what the family office Chief Investment Officer said in “What a family office looks for in a hedge fund portfolio manager” when he said:

“I like analogies. And one of the analogies in 2008 brings to me it’s like a sailor setting his course on a sea. He’s got a great sonar system, he’s got great maps and charts and he’s perhaps got a great GPS so he knows exactly where he is. He knows what’s ahead of him in the ocean but his heads down and he’s not seeing these awesomely black storm clouds building up on the horizon are about to come over top of him. Some of those managers we did not stay with. Managers who saw that, who changed course, trimmed their exposure, or sailed to safer territory. One, they survived; they truly preserved capital in difficult times and my benchmark for preserving capital is you had less than a double-digit loss in 08, you get to claim you preserved capital. I’ve heard people who’ve lost as much as 25% of investor capital argue that they preserved capital… but I don’t believe you can claim that.Understanding how a manager managed and was nimble during a period of time it gives me great comfort, a higher level of comfort, on what a manager may do in the next difficult period. So again it’s a it’s a very qualitative sort of trying to come to an understanding of what happened… and then make our best guess what we anticipate may happen next time.”

I made bold the parts I think are essential.

If you are like-minded and believe what we believe, contact us.

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

When someone asks me why I hold so much cash or against a market decline, it always corresponds to extreme optimism readings in the most basic investor sentiment indicators. Investors have poor long-term results because they feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time. They feel optimistic after price gains just before they decline. They fear more losses after they hold on to losing trends, and their losses get large.

After the stock market declined and then reversed back up to make headlines investor sentiment has reached the level of “Extreme Greed” once again. I don’t use the CNN Fear & Greed Index as a trading signal as my systems focus on other things, but I think it’s a publically available source that is useful to help investors avoid feeling the wrong feeling at the wrong time.  For example, the CNN Fear & Greed Index uses eight indicators of investor sentiment to determine Fear or Greed. The reading oscillates between Extreme Fear, Fear, Neutral, Greed, and Extreme Greed. If you feel optimistic about future prices and the reading is at Extreme Greed, you are probably wrong. If you feel fearful about future prices and the reading is at Extreme Fear, you are probably wrong. You see, most investors feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

As you see below, it has reached the “Extreme Greed” point, and that often signals high risk and eventually precedes at least a short-term trend reversal.

CNN Fear Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

 

Below is a chart of the past 3 or so years of the Fear & Greed reading. As you see, the levels of fear and greed do indeed oscillate from one extreme to the other over time. I think we observe these readings indicate the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

Fear and Greed over time investor sentiment

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

The most obvious extreme level is the extremely low level of expected future volatility. Maybe they are right, but when the VIX Volatility Index reaches such as extreme low it often signals at least a short-term stock market peak that reverses down.

VIX Volatility Index.jpg

I like directional trends, but I also believe they sometimes reach extremes at a point and then reverse.

We’ll see how this one unfolds in the weeks and months ahead…

You can probably see why it’s prudent to actively manage risk and hedge at certain extremes.

To learn more, contact us.

What in the World is Going on?

The trend has changed for U.S. stocks since I shared my last observation. On January 27th I pointed out in The U.S. Stock Market Trend that the directional trend for the popular S&P 500®  U.S. large cap stock index was still up, though it declined more than -10% twice over the past year. At that point, it had made a slightly lower high but held a higher low. Since then,  theS&P 500® declined to a lower low.

First, let’s clearly define a trend in simple terms. A trend is following a general course of direction. Trend is a direction that something is moving, developing, evolving, or changing. A trend is a directional drift, one way or another. I like to call them directional trends. There is an infinite number of trends depending on the time frame. If you watch market movements daily you would probably respond to each day’s gain or loss thinking the trend was up or down based on what it just did that day. The professional traders who execute my trades for me probably consider every second a trend because they want to execute the buy or sell at the best price. As a tactical position trader, I look at multiple time frames from months to years rather than seconds or a single day.  So, trends can be up over one time frame and down over another.

As we observe the direction of  “the trend”, let’s consider the most basic definitions over some specific time frame.

  • Higher highs and higher lows is an uptrend.
  • Lower lows and lower highs is a downtrend.
  • If there is no meaningful price break above or below those prior levels, it’s non-trending.

Below is the past year of the S&P 500® stock index, widely regarded as a representation of large cap stocks. Notice the key pivot points. The top of the price trend is lower highs. The bottom of the range is lower lows. That is a “downtrend” over the past year. It could break above the lower highs and hold above that level and shift to an uptrend, but for now, it is a downtrend. It could also keep swinging up and down within this range as it has the past year, or it could break down below the prior low. At this moment, it’s a downtrend. And, it’s a downtrend occurring after a 7-year uptrend that began March 2009, so we are observing this in the 7th year of a very aged bull market. As I said in The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market, the average bull market lasts around 4 years. This one was helped by unprecedented government intervention and  is nearly double that length.

stock market downtrend

Another interesting observation is the trend of small and mid-size company stocks. In the next chart, we add small and mid-size company stock indexes. As you see, they are both leading on the downside. Small and mid-size company stocks have made even more pronounced lower highs and lower lows. Market trends don’t always play out like a textbook, but this time, it is. For those who want a story behind it, small and mid-size company stocks are expected to fall first and fall more in a declining market because smaller companies are considered riskier. On the other hand, they are expected to trend up faster and stronger since a smaller company should reflect new growth sooner than a larger company. It doesn’t always play out that way, but over the past year, the smaller companies have declined more. Large companies could catch up with them if the declining trend continues.

small and mid cap underperformance relative strength momentum

What about International stocks? Below I included International indexes of developed countries (EFA) with exposure to a broad range of companies in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Far East. I also added the emerging markets index (EEM) that is exposure to countries considered to be “emerging” like China, Brazil, and India. Just as small U.S. stocks have declined more than mid-sized and mid-sized have declined more than large companies, emerging markets and developed International countries have declined even more than all of them.

global market trends

What in the world is going on?

Well, within U.S. and International stocks, the general trends have been down. This could change at any time, but for now, it is what it is.

You can probably see why I think actively managing risk is so important. 

 

This is not investment advice. If you need individualized advice please contact us or your advisor. Please see Terms and Conditions for additional disclosures. 

Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing so wide diversification is only required when investors are ignorant.”  – Warren Buffett

 

quote-risk-comes-from-not-knowing-what-you-are-doing-so-wide-diversification-is-only-required-warren-buffett-125-94-63

Sourcce: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1259463

 

 

The U.S. Stock Market Trend

When we define the direction of a trend, we consider the most basic definitions.

  • Higher highs and higher lows is an uptrend.
  • Lower lows and lower highs is a downtrend.
  • If there is no meaningful price break above or below those prior levels, it’s non-trending.

Below is the past year of the S&P 500® stock index, widely regarded as a representation of large cap stocks. Notice a few key points. The top of the price range is just that: a range, with no meaningful breakout. The bottom is the same. The price trend has dropped to around the same level three times and so far, has trended back up. What’s going to happen next? At this point, this stock market index is swinging up and down. It would take a meaningful break below the prior low that holds to make a new “downtrend”. It could just as well trend up. We could put an exit point below those prior lows and let it all unfold.

Stock market trend

Of course, as I’ve mentioned a lot the past several months, other global markets and small company U.S. stocks and mid-cap stocks have been much weaker than large U.S. stocks and certain sectors within the U.S. You can read the details of this in The Stock Market Trend: What’s in Your Boat? As I pointed out then, in the chart below we can see the mid-size and small cap stocks have actually declined much more. But, the capitalization-weighted indexes are driven by their sector exposure.

small cap mid cap stocks

Some U.S. sectors are still holding up and still in uptrends. Below is the Technology sector index, for example. I consider this an uptrend, though volatile. Less volatile trends are easier to hold, more volatile trends are more difficult unless we focus on the directional trend.

Tech Sector Trend

Below is the U.S. Healthcare sector. It’s down, but not out. It’s still so far holding a higher low.

healthcare sector

The really weak markets that have been in more clear downtrends are the commodity related sectors like Energy and Basic Materials.  This could signal the beginning of a larger move down in other sectors if they follow, or not. But if we focus on “what’s in our boat” we are focused only on our own positions.

Energy Sector basic materials

The key to tactical decision-making is sometimes holding exposure to potentially positive trends and giving them room to see how they unfold: up or down. The other key is avoiding the clearest downtrends. Then, there comes a point when those trends change and reverse. Even the downtrends eventually become uptrends. We can be assured after that happens everyone will wish they had some exposure to it!

Never knowing for sure what will happen next it always involves uncertainty and the potential for a loss we must be willing to bear. I think the edge is predefining risk by knowing at what point to exit if the trend has really changed, accepting that, then letting it all unfold.

 

Extreme Fear is Now Driving Markets

On October 27th I wrote in Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings that:

The CNN Fear & Greed Index shows investor fear and greed shifted to Extreme Fear a month ago as the popular U.S. stock indexes dropped about -12% or more. Many sectors and other markets were worse. Since then, as prices have been trending back up, Greed is now the driver again. I believe fear and greed both drives market prices but also follows price trends. As prices move lower and lower, investors who are losing money get more and more afraid of losing more. As prices move higher and higher, investors get more and more greedy. If they have reduced exposure to avoid loss, they may fear missing out.

Since global markets declined around August and some markets recovered much of their losses by November, global markets have declined again. Below are charts of U.S. stocks, International stocks, U.S. bonds, and commodities. Even the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF that seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. investment grade corporate bonds is near -8% from its peak. Small and mid companies U.S. stocks are down more than -20% from their peak. Commodities and emerging countries are down the most.

global markets 2016-01-15_13-59-45.jpg

This all started with investors being optimistic in late October as I mentioned in Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings. So, it is no surprise that today is just the opposite. As markets have declined investors become more and more fearful. As of now, Extreme Fear is the driver of the market.  Below is the current reading of the CNN Fear & Greed Index.

Fear and Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index 

As you see in the chart below, it’s now getting close to the Extreme Fear levels that often signal at least a short-term low.

Fear and Greed Over Time

Another publicly available measure of investor sentiment is the AAII Investor Sentiment Survey. The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey measures the percentage of individual investors who are bullish, bearish, and neutral on the stock market for the next six months; individuals are polled from the ranks of the AAII membership on a weekly basis. The most recent weekly survey shows investors are very bearish and again, such pessimism occurs after price declines and at such extremes sometimes precedes a reversal back up.

Survey Results for Week Ending 1/13/2016

AAII Investor Sentiment January 2016

Source: AAII Investor Sentiment Survey

I say again what I said in October: This is the challenge in bear markets. In a bear market, market prices swing up and down along the way. It’s these swings that lead to mistakes. Above was a chart of how the Fear and Greed Index oscillates to high and low points over time. Investors who experience these extremes in emotion have the most trouble and need to modify their behavior so they feel the right feeling at the right time. Or, hire a manager with a real track record who can do it for them and go do something more enjoyable.

The public, as a whole, buys at the wrong time and sells at the wrong time. The average operator, when he sees two or three points profit, takes it; but, if a stock goes against him two or three points, he holds on waiting for the price to recover, with oftentimes, the result of seeing a loss of two or three points run into a loss of ten points.”

idowcha001p1

Charles Dow 

(November 6, 1851 – December 4, 1902) was an American journalist who co-founded Dow Jones & Company

The Stock Market Trend: What’s in Your Boat?

The stock market trend as measured by the S&P 500 stock index (the black line) has had a difficult time making any gains in 2015. SPY in the chart below is the SPDR S&P 500 ETF seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of large-capitalization U.S. equities. It’s the stock index most people talk about.

But, what is more interesting is the smaller companies are even worse.

The red line is the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of small-capitalization U.S. equities.

The blue line is the iShares Micro-Cap ETF (IWC), which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of micro-capitalization U.S. equities. This index provides exposure to very small public U.S. companies.

Small Cap Laggards

Clearly, smaller companies are having an even more difficult time attracting enough demand to create a positive trend lately. This may be the result of a very aged bull market in U.S. stocks. It could be the very early stages of a change in the longer term direction.

We’ll see…

I don’t worry about what I can’t control. I instead focus only on what I can control. My focus is on my own individual positions risk/reward. I defined my risk/reward.  If I want to make a profit I have to take some risk. I decide when to take a risk and when to increase and decrease the possibility of a loss.

Successful investment managers focus less on what’s “outside their boat” and focus on what’s “inside their boat.”

The Starting Point Matters

For long term investors who buy and hold, the risk/reward expectations are sometimes very, very, simple.

If you bought the long term U.S. Treasury index via the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (Symbol: TLT) about 12 years ago your yield is around 5% and the total return has been 100%.

Keep in mind, the total return is price appreciation + interest (or yield).

At this starting point, if you are buying it today, your yield is 2.6%… so the expected future total return from the yield is half.

Bond Return Rising Rates

Clearly, the expected total return for bonds is much lower today than just over 10 years ago.

Since the yield is lower, the risk/reward payoff isn’t as positive. The lower yield limits the upside for price appreciation.

There may be times this long term U.S. Treasury is the place to be and times it isn’t.

But over a longer expectation, it’s much less attractive than it was.

No market or security performs well in all conditions, so traditional allocation often holds positions with a negative risk/return profile.

You can probably see why I think it’s critical to be unconstrained and flexible rather than a fixed allocation that ignores the current condition.

Time frames can be arbitrary and meaningless, or very useful in defining direction

I sometimes find myself having odd conversations about arbitrary time frames. Most people pick a time frame arbitrarily, so it doesn’t’ really make sense if they don’t know what they are doing. For example, if we want to know the direction of a trend, we need to be able to determine a time frame the defines the direction. Some time frame needs to identify it as up, down, or sideways if you want to know its direction.

As I was looking at some data, I thought this would make a great observations of what I mean. It doesn’t matter what this is, just focus the fact that it’s the same exact data over the same time period (May to November), but a different time frame.

Below is a daily time frame of the data. Notice, it’s hard to see much of a trend, except their appears more activity prior to August. See a directional trend? Not really.

DAILY ASYMMETRIC RETURNS 2

Next, we observe the same data, but on a weekly time frame. Starting to see a little direction. A little more so than daily. The more recent period seems down a little relative to the prior period.

Weekly asymmetric returns

Finally, we observe the same data, but on a monthly time frame. Yes, the directional trend is now clearly down…

monthly asymmetry

Same exact data over the same exact time frame, very different observations of its direction.

Time frames can fool you and some can be completely useless. Or, they can define the direction with more clarity.

Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings

Investors are driven by fear and greed. That same fear and greed drives market prices. It’s Economics 101 “Supply and Demand”. Greed drives demand, fear drives selling pressure. In fact, investors are driven by the fear of losing more money when their account is falling and fear missing out if they have cash when markets go up. Most investors tend to experience a stronger feeling from losing money than they do missing out. Some of the most emotional investors oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money. These investors have to modify their behavior to avoid making mistakes. Quantitive rules-based systematic models don’t remove the emotion.

Amateur portfolio managers who lack experience sometimes claim things like: “our quantitive rules-based systematic models removes the emotion”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Those who believe that will eventually find themselves experiencing feelings from their signals they’ve never felt before. I believe it’s a sign of high expectations and those expectations often lead to even stronger reactions. It seems it’s the portfolio managers with very little actual performance beyond a backtest that make these statements. They must believe a backtested model will act to medicate their feelings, but it doesn’t actually work that way. I believe these are the very people who over optimize a backtest to make it perfectly fit historical data. We call it “curve-fitting” or “over-fitting”, but it’s always “data mining”. When we backtest systems to see how they would have acted in the past, it’s always mining the data retroactively with perfect hindsight. I’ve never had anyone show me a bad backtest. If someone backtests entry and exit signals intended to be sold as a managed portfolio you can probably see how they may be motivated to show the one that is most optimized to past data. But, what if the future is very different? When it doesn’t work out so perfectly, I think they’ll experience the very feelings they wish to avoid. I thought I would point this out, since many global markets have been swinging up and down. I’m guessing some may be feeling their feelings.

The CNN Fear & Greed Index shows investor fear and greed shifted to Extreme Fear a month ago as the popular U.S. stock indexes dropped about -12% or more. Many sectors and other markets were worse. Since then, as prices have been trending back up, Greed is now the driver again. I believe fear and greed both drives market prices but also follows price trends. As prices move lower and lower, investors who are losing money get more and more afraid of losing more. As prices move higher and higher, investors get more and more greedy. If they have reduced exposure to avoid loss, they may fear missing out.

CNN Fear and Greed IndexSource: http://money.cnn.com/data/fear-and-greed/

This is the challenge in bear markets. In a bear market, market prices swing up and down along the way. It’s these swings that lead to mistakes. Below is a chart of how the Fear and Greed Index oscillates to high and low points over time. Investors who experience these extremes in emotion have the most trouble and need to modify their behavior so they feel the right feeling at the right time. Or, hire a manager with a real track record who can do it for them and go do something more enjoyable.

Fear and Greed Over time investor sentiment

Source: http://money.cnn.com/data/fear-and-greed/

The Trend of the U.S. Stock Market

When I say “The Trend” that could mean an infinite number of “trends“. The general definition of “trend” is a general tendency or course of events.

But when I speak of “The Trend” I mean a direction that something is moving, developing, evolving, or changing. A trend, to me, is a directional drift, one way or another. When I speak of price trends, I mean the directional drift of a price trend that can be up, down, or sideways.

Many investors are probably wondering about the current trend of the U.S. stock market. So, I will share a quick observation since one of the most popular U.S. stock indexes seems to be right at a potential turning point.

Below is a 6 month price chart of the S&P 500 stock index. The S&P 500® is widely regarded as a gauge of large-cap U.S. equities. Clearly, prior to late August the stock index was drifting sideways. It was oscillating up and down in a range of 3% to 4% swings, but overall it wasn’t making material higher highs or lower lows. That is, until late August when it dropped about -12% below its prior high. Now, we see with today’s action the stock index is attempting reach or breach it’s very recent peak reached on August 27th. If the index moves above this level, we may consider it a short-term uptrend. We can already observe the index has made a higher low.

S&P 500 stock trend

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

You can probably see how the next swing will determine the direction of the trend. If it breaks to the upside, it will be an uptrend as defined by “higher highs and higher lows”. Although, that is a very short-term trend, since it will happen within a more intermediate downtrend.

My point is to observe how trends drift and unfold over time, not to predict which way they will go, but instead to understand and define the direction of “the trend”. And, there are many different time frames we can consider.

If this trend keeps going up, supply and demand will determine for how long and how far. If it keeps drifting up, I would expect it may keep going up until some inertia changes it. Inertia is the resistance to change, including a resistance to change in direction.

But if it instead goes back down to a new low, I bet we’ll see some panic selling driving it even lower.

The real challenge of directional price trends is if this is the early stage of a larger downward trend (like a bear market), there will be many swings along the way. In the last bear market, there were 13 swings that ranged from 10% to 27% as this stock index took about 18 months to decline -56%.

Below is the same stock index charted with a percentage chart to better show the percent changes over the past 6 months. You can probably see how it gives a little different perspective.

S&P 500 stock index percent chart average length of bear markets

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

I don’t necessarily make my tactical decisions based on any of this. I enjoy watching it all unfold and I necessarily need to define the trend and understand it as it all plays out. I want to know what the direction of the trend is based on my time frame, and know when that changes.

I believe world markets require active risk management and defining directional trends. For me, that means predefining my risk in advance in each position and across the portfolio.

______

For informational and educational purposes only, not a recommendation to buy or sell and security, fund, or strategy. Past performance and does not guarantee future results. The S&P 500 index is an unmanaged index and cannot be invested into directly. Please visit this link for important disclosures, terms, and conditions.

Using the Month of September to Understand Probability and Expectation

probabilty-coin-flip

September is the month when the U.S. stock market’s three most popular indexes usually perform the poorest. So say the headlines every September.

I first wrote this in September 2013 after many commentators had published information about the seasonality of the month of September. Seasonality is the historical tendency for certain calendar periods to gain or lose value. However, when commentators speak of such probabilities, they rarely provide a clear probability and almost never the full mathematical expectation.  Without the mathematical expectation, probability alone is of little value or no value. I’ll explain why.

For those of us focused on actual directional price trends it may seem a little silly to discuss the historical probability of gain or loss for a single month. However, even though I wouldn’t make decisions based on it, we can use the seasonal theme to explain the critical importance of both probability and mathematical expectation.

“From 1928-2012 the S&P 500 was up 39 months and down 46 months in September. It is down 55% of the time in September…”

“Dow Jones Industrial Average 1886-2004 (116 years) 49 years the Dow was up in September, in 67 years the Dow was down in September. It’s down 58% of the time in September…”

Those are probability statements. But they say nothing about how much it was up or down.

First, let’s define probability.

Probability is likelihood. It is a measure or estimation of how likely it is that something will happen or that a statement is true. Probabilities are given a range of value between 0% chance (it will not happen) and 100% chance (it will happen). There are few things so certain as 0% and 100%, so most probabilities fall in between. The higher the degree of probability, the more likely the event is to happen, or, in a longer series of samples, the greater the number of times such event is expected to happen.

But that says nothing about how to calculate probability and apply it. One thing to realize about probability is that it is the math for dealing with uncertainty. When we don’t know an outcome, it is uncertain. It is probabilistic, not a sure thing. Probability provides us our best estimation of the outcome.

As I see it, there are two ways to calculate probability: subjectively and objectively.

Subjective Probability: assigns a likelihood based on opinions and confidence (degree of belief) in those opinions. It may include “expert” knowledge as well as experimental data. For example, the majority of the research and news is based on “expert opinion”. They may state their belief and then assign a probability: “I believe the stock market has a X% chance of going down.” They may go on to add a good sounding story to support their hypothesis. You may see how that is subjective.

Objective Probability: assigns a likelihood based on numbers. Objective probability is data-driven. The popular method is frequentist probability: the probability of a random event means the relative frequency of occurrence of an experiment’s outcome when the experiment is repeated. This method believes probability is the relative frequency of outcomes over the long run. We can think of it as the historical tendency of the outcome. For example, if we flip a fair coin, its probability of landing on heads is 50% and tails is 50%. If we flip it 10 times, it could land on heads 7 and tails 3. That outcome implies 70%/30%. To prove the coin is “fair” (balanced on both sides), we would need to flip it more times to get a large enough sample size to realize the full probability. If we flip it 30 times or more it is likely to get closer and closer to 50%/50%. The more frequency, the closer it gets to its probability. You may see see why I say this is more objective: it’s based on actual historical data.

If you are a math person and logical thinker, you may get this. I have a hunch many people don’t like math, so they’d rather hear a good story. Rather than checking the stats on a game, they’d rather hear some guru’s opinion about who will win.

Which has more predictive power? An expert opinion or the fact that historically the month of September has been down more often than it’s up? Predictive ability needs to be quantified by math to determine if it exists and opinions are often far too subjective to do that. We can do the math based on historical data and determine if it is probable, or not.

As I said in September is statistically the worst month for the stock market the data shows it is indeed statistically significant and does indeed have predictive ability, but not necessarily enough to act on it. Instead, I suggest it be used to set expectations of what may happen: the month of September has historically been the worst performance month for the stock indexes. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if it ends in the red. It’s that simple.

Theory-driven researchers want a cause and effect story to go with their beliefs. If they can’t figure out a good reason behind the phenomenon, they may reject it even though the data is what it is. One person commented to me that he didn’t believe the September data has predictive value, even though it does, and he provided nothing to disprove it. Probabilities do need to make sense. Correlations can occur randomly, so logical reasoning behind the numbers may be useful. For example, one theory for a losing September is it is the fiscal year end of many mutual funds and fund managers typically sell losing positions before year end to realize losses to offset gains.

I previously stated a few different probabilities about September: what percentage of time the month is down. In September is statistically the worst month for the stock market I didn’t mention the percent of time the month is negative, only that on average it’s down X% since Y. It occurred to me that most people don’t seem to understand probability and more importantly, the more complete equation of expectation.

Expectation

There are many different ways to define expectation. We may initially think of it as “what we expect to happen”. In many ways, it’s best not to have expectations about the future. Our expectations may not play out as we’d hoped. If we base our investment decisions on opinion and expectations don’t pan out, we may stick with our opinion anyway and eventually lose money. The expectation I’m talking about is the kind that I apply: mathematical expectation.

So far, we have determined probability of September based on how many months it’s down or up. However, probability alone isn’t enough information to make a logical decision. First of all, going back to 1950 using the S&P 500 stock index, the month of September is down about 53% of the time and ends the month positive about 47% of the time. That alone isn’t a huge difference, but what makes it more meaningful is the expectation. When it’s down 53% of the time, it’s down -3.8% and when it’s up 47% of the time it’s up an average of 3.3%. That results in an expected value of -0.50% for the month of September. If we go back further to 1928, which includes the Great Depression, it’s about  -1.12%.

The bottom line is the math says “based on historical data, September has been the worst month for the stock market”. We could then say “it can be expected to be”. But as I said before, it may not be! And, another point I have made is the use of multiple time frames for looking at the data, which is a reminder that by intention: probability is not exact. It can’t be, it’s not supposed to be, and doesn’t need to be! Probability and expectation are the maths of uncertainty. We don’t know in advance many outcomes in life, but we can estimate them mathematically and that provides a sound logic and a mathematical basis for believing what we do.

We’ve made a whole lot of the month of September, but I think it made for a good opportunity to explain probability and expectation that are the essence of portfolio management. It doesn’t matter so much how often we are right or wrong, but instead the probability and the magnitude. Asymmetric returns are created by more profit, less loss. Mathematical expectation provides us a mathematical basis for believing a method works, or not. Not knowing the future; it’s the best we have.

Rather than seasonal tendencies, I prefer to focus on the actual direction of global price trends and directly manage the risk in individual my positions.

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Why Index ETFs Over Individual Stocks?

A fellow portfolio manager I know was telling me about a sharp price drop in one of his positions that was enough to wipe out the 40% gain he had in the stock. Of course, he had previously told me he had a quick 40% gain in the stock, too. That may have been his signal to sell.  Biogen, Inc (BIIB) recently declined about -30% in about three days. Easy come, easy go. Below is a price chart over the past year.

Biogen BIIB

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

Occasionally investors or advisors will ask: “Why trade index ETFs instead of individual stocks?“. An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges, much like stocks. Until ETFs came along the past decade or so, gaining exposure to sectors, countries, bond markets, commodities, and currencies wasn’t so easy. It has taken some time for portfolio managers to adapt to using them, but ETFs are easily tradable on an exchange like stocks. Prior to ETFs, those few of us who applied “Sector Rotation” or “Asset Class Rotation” or any kind of tactical shifts between markets did so with much more expensive mutual funds. ETFs have provided us with low cost, transparent, and tax efficient exposure to a very global universe of stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and even alternatives like REITs, private equity, MLP’s, volatility, or inverse (short). Prior to ETFs we would have had to get these exposures with futures or options. I saw the potential of ETFs early, so I developed risk management and trend systems that I’ve applied to ETFs that I would have previously applied to futures.

On the one hand, someone who thinks they are a good stock picker are enticed to want to get more granular into a sector and find what they believe is the “best” stock. In some ways, that seems to make sense if we can weed out the bad ones and only hold the good ones. It really isn’t so simple. I view everything a reward/risk ratio, which I call asymmetric payoffs. There is a tradeoff between the reward/risk of getting more detailed and focused in the exposure vs. having at least some diversification, such as exposure to the whole sector instead of just the stock.

Market Risk, Sector Risk, and Stock Risk

In the big picture, we can break exposures into three simple risks (and those risks can be explored with even more detail). We’ll start with the broad risk and get more detailed. Academic theories break down the risk between “market risk” that can’t be diversified away and “single stock” and sector risk that may be diversified away.

Market Risk: In finance and economics, systematic risk (in economics often called aggregate risk or undiversifiable risk) is vulnerable to events which affect aggregate outcomes such as broad market declines, total economy-wide resource holdings, or aggregate income. Market risk is the risk that comes from the whole market itself. For example, when the stock market index falls -10% most stocks have declined more or less.

Stock and Sector Risk: Unsystematic risk, also known as “specific risk,” “diversifiable risk“, is the type of uncertainty that comes with the company or industry itself. Unsystematic risk can be reduced through diversification. If we hold an index of 50 Biotech stocks in an index ETF its potential and magnitude of a  large gap down in price is less than an individual stock.

You can probably see how holding a single stock like Biogen  has its own individual risks as a single company such as its own earnings reports, results of its drug trials, etc. A biotech stock is especially interesting to use as an example because investing in biotechnology comes with a unique host of risks. In most cases, these companies can live or die based on results of drug trials and the demand for their existing drugs. In fact, the reason Biogen declined so much is they reported disappointing second-quarter results and lowered its guidance for the full year, largely because of lower demand for one of their drugs in the United States and a weaker pricing environment in Europe. That is a risk that is specific to the uncertainty of the company itself. It’s an unsystematic risk and a selection risk that can be reduced through diversification. We don’t have to hold exposure to just one stock.

With index ETFs, we can gain systematic exposure to an industry like biotech or a sector like healthcare or a broader stock market exposure like the S&P 500. The nice thing about an index ETF is we get exposure to a basket of stocks, bond, commodities, or currencies and we know what we’re getting since they disclose their holdings on a daily basis.

ETFs are flexible and easy to trade. We can buy and sell them like stocks, typically through a brokerage account. We can also employ traditional stock trading techniques; including stop orders, limit orders, margin purchases, and short sales using ETFs. They are listed on major US Stock Exchanges.

The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF objective seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of biotechnology and pharmaceutical equities listed on the NASDAQ. It holds 145 different biotech stocks and is market-cap-weighted, so its exposure is more focused on the larger companies. It therefore has two potential disadvantages: it has less exposure to smaller and possibly faster growing biotech stocks and it only holds those stocks listed on the NASDAQ, so it misses some of the companies that may have moved to the NYSE. According to iShares we can see that Biogen (BIIB) is one of the top 5 holdings in the index ETF.

iShares Biotech ETF HoldingsSource: http://www.ishares.com/us/products/239699/ishares-nasdaq-biotechnology-etf

Below is a price chart of the popular iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF (IBB: the black line) compared to the individual stock Biogen (BIIB: the blue line). Clearly, the more diversified biotech index has demonstrated a more profitable and smoother trend over the past year. And, notice it didn’t experience the recent -30% drop that wiped out Biogen’s price gain. Though some portfolio managers may perceive we can earn more return with individual stocks, clearly that isn’t always the case. Sometimes getting more granular in exposures can instead lead to worse and more volatile outcomes.

IBB Biotech ETF vs Biogen Stock 2015-07-29_10-34-29

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

The nice thing about index ETFs is we have a wide range of them from which to research and choose to add to our investable universe. For example, when I observe the directional price trend in biotech is strong, I can then look at all of the other biotech index ETFs to determine which would give me the exposure I want to participate in the trend.

Since we’ve observed with Biogen the magnitude of the potential individual risk of a single biotech stock, that also suggests we may not even prefer to have too much overweight in any one stock within an index. Below I have added to the previous chart the SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) which has about 105 holdings, but the positions are equally-weighted which tilts it toward the smaller companies, not just larger companies.  As you can see by the black line below, over the past year, that equal weighting tilt has resulted in even better relative strength. However, it also had a wider range (volatility) at some points. Though it doesn’t always work out this way, you are probably beginning to see how different exposures create unique return streams and risk/reward profiles.

SPDR Biotech Index ETF XBI IBB and Biogen BIIB 2015-07-29_10-35-46

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

In fact, those who have favored “stock picking” may be fascinated to see the equal-weighted  SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) has actually performed as good as the best stock of the top 5 largest biotech stocks in the iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF.

SPDR Biotech vs CELG AMGN BIIB GILD REGN

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

Biotech indexes aren’t just pure biotech industry exposure. They also have exposures to the healthcare sector. For example, iShares Nasdaq Biotech shows about 80% in biotechnology and 20% in sectors categorized in other healthcare industries.

iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF exposure allocation

Source: www.ishares.com

The brings me to another point I want to make. The broader healthcare sector also includes some biotech. For example, the iShares U.S. Healthcare ETF is one of the most traded and includes 23.22% in biotech.

iShares Healthcare Index ETF exposure allocation

Source: https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239511/IYH?referrer=tickerSearch

It’s always easy to draw charts and look at price trends retroactively in hindsight. If we only knew in advance how trends would play out in the future we could just hold only the very best. In the real world, we can only identify trends based on probability and by definition, that is never a sure thing. Only a very few of us really know what that means and have real experience and a good track record of actually doing it.

I have my own ways I aim to identify potentially profitable directional trends and my methods necessarily needs to have some level of predictive ability or I wouldn’t bother. However, in real world portfolio management, it’s the exit and risk control, not the entry, the ultimately determines the outcome. Since I focus on the exposure to risk at the individual position level and across the portfolio, it doesn’t matter so much to me how I get the exposure. But, by applying my methods to more diversified index ETFs across global markets instead of just U.S. stocks I have fewer individual downside surprises. I believe I take asset management to a new level by dynamically adapting to evolving markets. For example, they say individual selection risk can be diversified away by holding a group of holdings so I can efficiently achieve that through one ETF. However, that still leaves the sector risk of the ETF, so it requires risk management of that ETF position. They say systematic market risk can’t be diversified away, so most investors risk that is left is market risk. I manage both market risk and position risk through my risk control systems and exits. For me, risk tolerance is enforced through my exits and risk control systems.

The performance quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. Investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when sold or redeemed, may be worth more or less than the original cost. Current performance may be lower or higher than the performance quoted, and numbers may reflect small variances due to rounding. Standardized performance and performance data current to the most recent month end may be obtained by clicking the “Returns” tab above.

Uncharted Territory from the Fed Buying Stocks

I remember sometime after 2013 I told someone “The Fed is buying stocks and that’s partly why stocks have risen so surprisingly for so long”. He looked puzzled and didn’t seem to agree, or understand.

The U.S. Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) has been applying “quantitative easing” since the 2007 to 2009 “global financial crisis”. Quantitative easing (QE) is a type of monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective. The Fed implements quantitative easing by buying financial assets from banks and other financial institutions. That raises the prices of those financial assets and lowers their interest rate or yield. It also increases the amount of money available in the economy. The magnitude they’ve done this over the past seven years has never been experience before. They are in uncharted territory.

I was reminded of what I said, “the Fed is buying stocks” when I read comments from Bill Gross in “Gross: Fed Slowly Recognizing ZIRP Has Downside Consequences”. He says companies are using easy money to buy their own stock:

Low interest rates have enabled Corporate America to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars “but instead of deploying the funds into the real economy,they have used the proceeds for stock buybacks. Corporate authorizations to buy back their own stock are running at an annual rate of $1.02 trillion so far in 2015, 18 percent above 2007’s record total of $863 billion, Gross said.

You see, if we want to know the truth about market dynamics; we necessarily have to think more deeply about how markets interact. Market dynamics aren’t always simple and obvious. I said, “The Fed is buying stocks” because their actions is driving the behavior of others. By taking actions to increase money supply in the economy and keep extremely low borrowing rates, the Fed has been driving demand for stocks.

But, it isn’t just companies buying their own stock back. It’s also investors buying stocks on margin. Margin is borrowed money that is used to purchase securities. At a brokerage firm it is referred to as “buying on margin”. For example, if we have $1 million in a brokerage account, we could borrow another $1 million “on margin” and invest twice as much. We would pay interest on the “margin loan”, but those rates have been very low for years. Margin interest rates have been 1 – 2%. You can probably see the attraction. If we invested in lower risk bonds earning 5% with $1 million, we would normally earn 5%, or $50,000 annually. If we borrowed another $1 million at 2% interest and invested the full $2 million at 5%, we would earn another 3%, or $30,000. The leverage of margin increased the return to 8%, or $80,000. Of course, when the price falls, the loss is also magnified. When the interest rate goes up, it reduces the profit. But rates have stayed low for so long this has driven margin demand.

While those who have their money sitting in in bank accounts and CDs have been brutally punished by near zero interest rates for many years, aggressive investors have borrowed at those low rates to magnify their return and risk in their investments. The Fed has kept borrowing costs extremely low and that is an incentive for margin.

In the chart below, the blue line is the S&P 500 stock index. The red line is NYSE Margin Debt. You may see the correlation. You may also notice that recessions (the grey area) occur after stock market peaks and high margin debt balances. That’s the downside: margin rates are at new highs, so when stocks do fall those investors will either have to exit their stocks to reduce risk or they’ll be forced to exit due to losses. If they don’t have a predefined exit, their broker has one for them: “a margin call”.

Current Margin Debt Stock MarginSource: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/charts/markets/nyse-margin-debt.html?NYSE-margin-debt-SPX-since-1995.gif

If you noticed, I said, “They are in uncharted territory”. I am not. I am always in uncharted territory, so I never am. I believe every new moment is unique, so I believe everyone is always in uncharted territory. Because I believe that, I embrace it. I embrace uncertainty and prepare for anything that can happen. It’s like watching a great movie. It would be no fun if we knew the outcome in advance.

 

Low Volatility and Managed Volatility Smart Beta is Really Just a Shift in Sector Allocation

There is a lot of talk now days about “Smart Beta”. Smart beta refers to an investment style where the manager passively follows an index designed to take advantage of perceived systematic biases or inefficiencies in the market. Smart beta defines a set of investment strategies that emphasize the use of alternative index construction rules to traditional market capitalization based indices.

Low volatility or managed volatility, for example, is considered a version of “smart beta” because its weights the stocks (and therefore sector exposure) differently:

The PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio (Fund) is based on the S&P 500®Low Volatility Index (Index). The Fund will invest at least 90% of its total assets in common stocks that comprise the Index. The Index is compiled, maintained and calculated by Standard & Poor’s and consists of the 100 stocks from the S&P 500® Index with the lowest realized volatility over the past 12 months. Volatility is a statistical measurement of the magnitude of up and down asset price fluctuations over time. The Fund and the Index are rebalanced and reconstituted quarterly in February, May, August and November.

I bolded the main difference between this index ETF and the traditional capitalization-weighted S&P 500. The S&P 500 everyone knows about weights is 500 stocks holdings based on market capitalization, so the largest stocks are the largest positions in the index.

The Low Volatility Portfolio is really a play on sector allocation. Because it creates its position size based on each stocks past 12 months volatility, it’s weighting will simply depend on what was less volatile the past year. And, it will look back to rebalance and reconstitute quarterly in February, May, August and November. So, you may consider what it really does is shifts the position size and sector weighting.

Below is the index sector allocation for the S&P 500 like what is used for SPDR® S&P 500® ETF so we can see which sectors have the largest position size.

S&P 500 SPY sector weighting

Source: https://www.spdrs.com/product/fund.seam?ticker=spy

Now we observe the sector allocation of the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio. Notice is is heavily weighted in Financials (36%) and Consumer Staples (21%). That’s simply because those sectors stocks have demonstrated less realized volatility as measured by standard deviation over the past 12 months.

PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio SPLV

Source: https://www.invesco.com/portal/site/us/financial-professional/etfs/product-detail?productId=SPLV

Now, let’s observe the difference in return streams. Below is a relative strength comparison of the two since inception of  PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio in May 2011. As you see, the low volatility index did have a smaller drawdown in 2011, but overall they’ve tracked the same most of the time. The real difference was the lower drawdown from the sector weighting helped reduce the loss in 2011 and that helped smooth out the returns for a few years. Since 2013 U.S. stock volatility declined, so that explains why the two indexes have trended more closely since.

S&P 500 low volatility vs capitalization

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC with http://www.stockcharts.com

Over the past year, there is a little more divergence at times as we see below.

S&P 500 Low Volatility

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC with http://www.stockcharts.com

You may consider that past realized volatility may not repeat into the future. In fact, it could reverse. But the real difference between these is the trailing realized volatility weighting changes the sector weighting. The sectors are the driver. Which sectors have the lowest 12 month historical volatility will determine the exposure to a volatility weighted index or fund. The risk to volatility weighting is the volatility of markets sometimes reach its lowest point at its peak in price as investors become more and more complacent and less indecisive, which is what causes a wider range in prices. I explained this in This is When MPT and VaR Get Asset Allocation and Risk Measurement Wrong.

Though the widening range of prices up and down gets our attention, it isn’t really volatility that investors want to manage so much as it is the downside loss of capital. I really manage volatility by actively increasing and decreasing exposure to loss.

Human judgment, good and bad, will drive investment decisions and financial-market outcomes for the rest of our lives and beyond.

Source:  http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/will-computer-algorithms-replace-humans-in-financial-markets-by-robert-j–shiller-2015-07#hmXdmoDjMyvHOw9U.99

Fear is Driving Stock Trend…

Fear is now driving the stock market. As prices fall, investor sentiment indicators suggest that fear increases as prices fall. When sentiment gets to an extreme it often reverses, or it can become contagion and drive prices even lower as people sell their positions. Now that most sentiment gauges are at short term “Extreme Fear” readings, don’t be surprised to see prices trend back up. If they don’t, then it could be the early stages of a larger decline as fear and greed can always get even more extreme.

A simple gauge for investor sentiment is the CNN Money Fear & Greed Index.

Fear and Greed Index

Source: http://money.cnn.com/data/fear-and-greed/

It’s always a good time to manage, direct, and control risk. I do that by predefining my exits and knowing how much potential loss that represents in each position and across the portfolio.

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