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.

What is the VIX Suggesting about Investor Complacency and Future Volatility?

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. Since its introduction in 1993, theVIX® Index has been considered by many to be the world’s premier barometer of investor sentiment and market volatility.

The VIX® historically trends between a long-term range. An extreme level of the VIX® will likely reverse … eventually. The chart below we show the price level of the VIX® since its inception in 1993. We can visually observe its long-term average is around 20, but (I highlighted in red) its low range is around 12 and it has historically spiked as high as 25 or 60.

VIX Since its introduction in 1993, the VIX Index has been considered by many to be the world's premier barometer of investor sentiment and market volatility

The CBOE Volatility Index®  is an index that cannot be invested in directly, however, there are futures, options, and ETN’s that attempt to track it. Its level is commonly used as a gauge of investor sentiment. An extremely high level of the VIX® means that options traders are paying high premiums for options because they are fearful of future volatility and maybe lower stock prices. Options traders and investors are buying options to hedge their portfolios and their demand drives up the “insurance premium”.

Just the opposite is the driver of an extremely low level of the VIX® like we see today. It means that options traders are paying low premiums for options because they are not so fearful of future volatility and lower stock prices. They are unlikely buying options for hedging and their low demand drives down the “insurance premium”. 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. Or, in the short term volatility could trend even lower and reach an even more extreme low level for a while. But the VIX® isn’t an index that trends for many years in one direction. Instead, as we see in the above chart, the VIX® oscillates between a low and high range so can expect it to eventually trend the other way.

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

We’ll see…

There is much more to the VIX® , such as it’s term structure, but the scope of this article is to point out its extreme low level could be an indication of future change.

If you are like-minded, believe what we believe, and want investment management, contact 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.

The markets always go back up?

Someone recently said: “the markets always go back up!”.

I replied: “Tell that to the Japanese”.

The chart below speaks for itself. Japan was the leading country up until 1990. The NIKKEI 225, the Japanese stock market index, has been in a “Secular Bear Market” for about 25 years now. I believe all markets require active risk management. I suggest avoiding any strategy that requires a market “always go back up” because it is possible that it may not. Or, it may not in your lifetime

Long Term Japan Stock Market Index NIKKEI

Source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/japan/stock-market

PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO GUARANTEE OF FUTURE RESULTS. Investing involves risk a client must be willing to bear.

Actively Managing Investment Risk

The global market declines in early August offered a fine example of the kind of conditions that cause me to exit my long positions and end up in cash. For me, this is a normal part of my process. I predefine my risk in each position, so I know my risk across the portfolio. For example, I know at what point I’ll sell each position if it falls below a certain point in which I would consider it a negative trend. Since I know my exit in advance for each position, I knew in advance how much I would lose in the portfolio if all of those exits were reached due to market price movements trending against me. That allowed me to control how much my portfolio would lose from its prior peak by limiting it to my predefined amount. I have to take ‘some’ risk in order to have a chance for profits. If I took no risk at all, there could be no profit. The key for me is to take my risk when the reward to risk is asymmetric. That is, when the probability for a gain is much higher than the probability for a loss.

The concept seems simple, but actually doing it isn’t. All of it is probabilistic, never a sure thing.  For example, prices sometimes move beyond the exit point, so a risk control system has to account for that possibility.  More importantly, the portfolio manager has to be able to actually do it. I am a trigger puller. To see the results of over 10 years of my actually doing this, you can visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

With global markets in downtrends, this is a great time to listen to my interview with Michael Covel on February 19, 2015. I talked about my concepts of actively directing and controlling risk in advance. It’s now available on Youtube:

Gold Isn’t Always A Hedge or Safe Haven: Gold Stock Trends Have Been Even Worse

For several years we often heard investors suggesting to “buy gold”. We could throw in Silver here, too. They provide many theories about how gold bullion or gold stocks are a “safe haven”. I’ve written about the same assumption in Why Dividend Stocks are Not Always a Safe Haven.

In fact, the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF website specifically says about the gold stock sector:

“A sector that has historically provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”.

Source: http://www.vaneck.com/gdx/

When investors have expectations about an outcome, or expect some cause and effect relationship, they expose themselves in the possibility of a loss trap. I will suggest the only true “safe haven” is cash. 

Below is a 4 year chart of two gold stock ETFs relative to the Gold ETF. First, let’s examine the index ETFs we are looking at. Of course, the nice thing about ETFs in general is they are liquid (traded like a stock) and transparent (we know what they hold).

GLD: SPDR Gold “Shares offer investors an innovative, relatively cost efficient and secure way to access the gold market. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to offer investors a means of participating in the gold bullion market without the necessity of taking physical delivery of gold, and to buy and sell that interest through the trading of a security on a regulated stock exchange.”

GDX: Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF: “The investment seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index. The fund normally invests at least 80% of its total assets in securities that comprise the Gold Miners Index. The Gold Miners Index is a modified market-capitalization weighted index primarily comprised of publicly traded companies involved in the mining for gold and silver.”

GDXJ: Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the Market Vectors Global Junior Gold Miners Index. The Index is intended to track the overall performance of the gold mining industry, which may include micro- and small capitalization companies.

Gold stocks vs Gold

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

Clearly, gold has not been a “safe haven” or “provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”. It has instead demonstrated its own extreme volatility within an extreme downward price trend.

Further, gold mining stocks have significantly lagged the gold bullion index itself.

These ETFs have allowed for the trading of gold and gold stocks, SPDR Gold explains it well:

“SPDR Gold Shares represent fractional, undivided beneficial ownership interests in the Trust, the sole assets of which are gold bullion, and, from time to time, cash. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to lower a large number of the barriers preventing investors from using gold as an asset allocation and trading tool. These barriers have included the logistics of buying, storing and insuring gold.”

However, this is a reminder that markets do not always play out as expected. The expectation of a “safe haven” or “hedge against extreme volatility” is not a sure thing. Markets may end up much worst that you imagined they could.  As many global and U.S. markets have been declining, you can probably see why I think it’s important to manage, direct, limit, and control exposure to loss. Though, not everyone does it well. It isn’t a sure thing…

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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. Please click the links provide for specific risk information about the ETFs mentioned. Please visit this link for important disclosures, terms, and conditions.

The Trend of the U.S. Stock Market and Sectors Year-to-Date

As of today, the below table illustrates the year-to-date gains and losses for the S&P 500® Index (SPY) and the 9 Sector SPDRs in the S&P 500®. We observe the current and historical performance to see how the U.S. Sectors match up against the S&P 500 Index.

So far, the S&P 500 Index is down -5.68% year-to-date. Only the Consumer Discretionary (XLY) and Health Care (XLV) are barely positive for the year. Energy (XLE) has entered into its own bear market. Materials (XLB) and Utilities (XLU) are in double-digit declines.

year to date S&P 500 and sector returns 2015-09-10_11-31-05

Source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker

The trouble with a table like the one above is it fails to show us the path the return streams took along the way. To see that. below we observe the actual price trends of each sector. Not necessarily to point out any individual trend, but we can clearly see Energy (XLE) has been a bear market. I also drew a red line marking the 0% year-to-date so point out that much of this year the sectors have oscillated above and below it and most are well below it now.

year to date stock market sector trends 2015-09-10_11-32-40

Source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker

Speaking of directional price trends is always in the past, never the future. There are no future trends, today. We can only observe past trends. In fact, a trend is today or some time in the past vs. some other time in the past. In this case, we are looking at today vs. the beginning of 2015. It’s an arbitrary time frame, but still interesting to stop and look to see what is going on.

As many global and U.S. markets have been declining, you can probably see why I think it’s important to manage, direct, limit, and control exposure to loss. Though, not everyone does it well as it isn’t a sure thing…

Bonds Aren’t Providing a Crutch for Stock Market Losses

In Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want and What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends I suggested that bonds may not provide a crutch in the next bear market.

It seems we are already observing that. So far this year, bond indexes have declined along with other markets like stocks and commodities.

Below is a chart of 4 different bond index ETFs year-to-date. I use actual ETFs since they are tradable and present real-world price trends (though none of this is a suggestion to buy or sell). I drew the chart as “% off high” to show the drawdown – how much they have declined off their previous highest price.

Bond ETF market returns 2015

The long-term U.S. Treasury bonds are down the most, but even the others have declined over -3%. That’s certainly not a large loss over a 9 month period, but bond investors typically expect safety and stability. Asset allocation investors expect bonds to help offset their losses in other market allocations like stocks, commodities, or REITs.

Keep in mind: the Fed hasn’t even started to increase interest rates yet. If you are an asset allocation investor, you have to consider:

What may happen if interest rates do start to increase sharply and that drives down bond prices?

What if both stocks and bonds fall in the next bear market?

Bonds haven’t provided much of a crutch this year for fixed asset allocators…

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.

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.

– Chinese Proverb

The person who says it cannot be done Should not interupt the person doing it

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/chinese-proverbs/

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Hasn’t Managed Downside Risk

 shares an interesting observation in Fortune ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff“. He points out that Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A or BRK.B) is tracking the U.S. stock indexes on the downside. He says:

“…during the worst of the downturn from mid-July to the end of August. That represents a 10.3% drop. The good news for Buffett: His, and his investment team’s, performance was likely not much worse than everyone else’s. During the same time, the S&P 500 fell 10.1%.”

Comparing performance to others or “benchmark” indexes is a what I call a “relative return” objective. Comparing performance vs. our own risk tolerance and total return objectives is an “absolute return” objective. The two are very different as what I call “relativity” is more concerned about how others are doing comparatively, while “absolute” is more focused on our own situation.

The article also said:

“If you are invested in an index fund, you may have outperformed the Oracle of Omaha, slightly.”

Let’s see just how true that is. Since the topic is how much Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has lost during this stock market decline, I’ll share a closer look.

A picture speaks a thousand words. As it turns out, the guru stock picker is actually down -13.4% off it’s high looking back over the past year. That’s about -4% worse than the SPDR® S&P 500® ETF (SPY) that seeks to provide investment results that, before expenses, correspond generally to the price and yield performance of the S&P 500® Index. I am using actual securities here to present an investable comparison: SPY vs. BRK.B.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Lost compared to stock index

As we observe in the chart, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway began to decline off it’s high at the end of last year while the S&P 500® Index started last month. I have observed more and more stocks declining over the past several months. At the same time, more and more International markets have entered into their own bear markets. So, it is no surprise to see a focused stock portfolio diverge from a broader stock index.  points out some of the individual stock positions in ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff

Below is the total return of the two over the past year. We can see the high in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B was in December 2014.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Lost compared to stock index total return

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.

Chart source: http://www.ycharts.com

Read the full Fortune article here: ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff

Stock Market Decline is Broad

We typically expect to see small company stocks decline first and decline the most. The theory is that smaller companies, especially micro companies, are more risky so their value may disappear faster.  Below, we view the recent price trends of four market capitalization indexes: micro, small, mid, and mega. We’ll use the following index ETFs.

Vanguard ETFs small mid large micro cap

Since we are focused on the downside move, we’ll only observe the % off high chart. This shows what percentage the index ETF had declined off its recent highest price (the drawdown). We’ll also observe different look-back periods.

We first look back 3 months, which captures the full extent of the biggest loser: as expected, the micro cap index. The iShares Micro-Cap ETF (IWC: Green Line) seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of micro-capitalization U.S. equities. Over the past 3 months (or anytime frame we look) it is -13% below its prior high. The second largest decline is indeed the small cap index. The Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB: Orange Line) seeks to track the performance of the CRSP US Small Cap Index, which measures the investment return of small-capitalization stocks. The small cap index has declined -11.5%. The Vanguard Mega Cap ETF (MGC) seeks to track the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of the largest-capitalization stocks in the United States and has declined -9.65%. The Vanguard Mid-Cap ETF (VO) seeks to track the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of mid-capitalization stocks and has declined -9.41%. So, the smaller stocks have declined a little more than larger stocks.

Small and Micro caps lead down

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

Many active or tactical strategies may shift from smaller to large company stocks, hoping they don’t fall as much. For example, in a declining market relative strength strategies would rotate from those that declined the most to those that didn’t. The trouble with that is they may still end up losing capital and may end up positioned in the laggards long after a low is reached. They do that even though we may often observe the smallest company stocks rebound the most off a low. Such a strategy is focused on “relative returns” rather than “absolute returns“. An absolute return strategy will instead exit falling trends early in the decline with the intention of avoiding more loss. We call that “trend following” which has the objective of “cutting your losses short”. Some trend followers may allow more losses than others. You can probably see how there is a big difference between relative strength (focusing on relative trends and relative returns)  and trend following (focusing on actual price trends and absolute returns).

So, what if we look at the these stock market indexes over just the past month instead of the three months above? The losses are the same and they are very correlated. So much for diversification. Diversification across many different stocks, even difference sizes, doesn’t seem to help in declining markets on a short-term basis. These indexes combined represent thousands of stocks; micro, small, medium, and large. All of them declined over -11%, rebounded together, and are trending down together again.

stock market returns august 2015

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

If a portfolio manager is trying to “beat the market” index, he or she may focus on relative strength or even relative value (buy the largest loser) as they are hoping for relative returns compared to an index. But a portfolio manager who is focused on absolute returns may pay more attention to the actual downside loss and therefore focuses on the actual direction of the price trend itself. And, a key part is predefining risk with exits.

You can probably see how different investment managers do different things based on our objectives. We have to decide what we want, and focus on tactics for getting that.

Low Volatility Downside was the Same

In Low Volatility and Managed Volatility Smart Beta is Really Just a Shift in Sector Allocation I ended with:

“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.

As a follow-up, below we observe the  PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio declined in value about -12% from its high just as the SPDRs S&P 500® did. So, the lower volatility weighting didn’t help this time as the “downside loss of capital ” was the same.

SPLV PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio

Source: http://www.ycharts.com

U.S. Sector Observation

I don’t often comment on a day’s price action in the stock market, but thought I would. The U.S. stock market reversed up somewhat today. Market trends swing up and down on their way to a larger trend. Notice at 3pm the stock indexes almost lost all their gain for the day.

stock market 2015-08-27_16-17-41

Source: https://www.google.com/finance

The interesting observation today was the leadership. Energy and Basic Materials have been the biggest losers the past three months and they moved up the most.

sector rotation returns ETF

Source: https://www.google.com/finance

Below are the U.S. sector returns over the past 3 months after todays close. You can see the two biggest losers were today’s winners.

ETF sector rotation

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

It will be interesting to see if this is an oversold bounce or it reverses to a lower low.

Trends unfold as swings up and down over time. They don’t go straight up or down…

Global Markets Year to Date

This is a quick year to date observation of some global market trends. First, we start with the popular U.S. stock market indexes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down -9.6% YTD. S&P 500 is down about -7%. A simple line chart shows a visual representation of the trend and the path it took to get there.

stock index return year to date

Source of Ycharts in this article: Shell Capital Management, LLC drawn with http://www.ycharts.com

I like to look at the asymmetry ratio of the trend, so I observe both the upside total return and the downside drawdown. Below is a chart of the % off the highest price these indexes reached to define the drawdown from its prior peak. This is how much they’ve declined from their highest point so far this year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down -12.8% from it’s high, the S&P 500 is down 10.8%.

stock index drawdown chart

Below are the sectors year to date. Healthcare remains the leader and the only one positive at this point.

sectors year to date

Source:Shell Capital Management, LLC  drawn with  http://finviz.com

Looking at a few more broad based alternatives, below is the iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Indexed Trust (GSG: blue) which seek to track the results of a fully collateralized investment in futures contracts on an index composed of a diversified group of commodities futures. The red line is Gold (GLD) and the orange line is the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of the total U.S. investment-grade bond market. Bonds are flat (including interest), gold is down -3%, and the commodity index is down -24%.

bonds commodities year to date

We are beginning to observe that a fixed asset allocation to these markets, no matter how diversified, may be very negative this year.

What about International stocks? Below we see some material divergence so far between developed International markets (EFA) and emerging markets (EEM). The iShares MSCI EAFE (EFA) seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of large- and mid-capitalization developed market equities, excluding the U.S. and Canada. Those countries index is down -2.9%. The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets (EEM) seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of large- and mid-capitalization emerging market equities. It is down -18.6%.

international emerging markets year to date

What about global stock markets? A few are positive year to date, most are very negative.

global stock markets year to data

Source:Shell Capital Management, LLC  drawn with  http://finviz.com

What about individual commodities, interest rates, and volatility? The VIX was low most of the year, but now that markets have declined the implied volatility of stocks has spiked.

world markets year to date

Source:Shell Capital Management, LLC  drawn with  http://finviz.com

I believe world markets require active risk management and defining directional trends. For me, that means predefining my risk in all of them, not just a fixed allocation.

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.

 

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.

What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends

There is a lot of talk about interest rates and bonds these days – for good reason. You see, interest rates have been in a downtrend for decades (as you’ll see later). When interest rates are falling, the price of bonds go up. I wrote in “Why So Stock Market Focused?” that you would have actually been better off investing in bonds the past 15 years over the S&P 500 stock index.

However, the risk for bond investors who have a fixed bond allocation is that interest rates eventually trend up for a long time and their bonds fall.

This year we see the impact of rising rates and the impact of falling bond prices in the chart below of the 20+ year Treasury bond. It’s down -15% off its high and since the yield is only around 2.5% the interest only adds about 1% over this period for a total return of -14.1%. Up until now, this long term Treasury index has been a good crutch for a global allocation portfolio. Now it’s more like a broken leg.

But, that’s not my main point today. Let’s look at the bigger picture. Below is the yield (interest rate) on the 10-Year U.S. government bond. Notice that the interest rate was as high as 9.5% in 1990 and has declined to as low as 1.5%. Just recently, it’s risen to 2.62%. If you were going to buy a bond for future interest income payments, would you rather invest in one at 9.5% or 1.5%? If you were going to lend money to someone, which rate would you prefer to receive? What is a “good deal” for you, the lender?

I like trends and being positioned in their direction since trends are more likely to continue than reverse, but they usually do eventually reverse when inertia comes along (like the Fed). If you care about managing downside risk you have to wonder: How much could this trend reverse and what could its impact be on fixed bond holdings? Well, we see below that the yield has declined about -70%. If we want to manage risk, we have to at least expect it could swing the other way.

One more observation. Germany is one of the largest countries in the world. Since April, the 10-year German bond interest rate has reversed up very sharp. What if U.S bonds did the same?

As I detailed in “Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want” bonds are often considered a crutch for a global asset allocation portfolio. If you care about managing risk, you may consider that negative correlations don’t last forever. All trends change, eventually. You may also consider your risk of any fixed positions you have. I prefer to actively manage risk and shift between global markets based on their directional trends rather than a fixed allocation to them.

The good news is: by my measures, many bond markets have declined in the short term to a point they should at least reserve back up at least temporarily. What happens after that will determine if the longer trend continues or begins to reverse. The point is to avoid complacency and know in advance at what point you’ll exit to cut losses short…

As they say: “Past performance is no guarantee of the future“.

Seasonal Alpha? The Real Probability and Expectation of “Sell in May and Go Away”

Here is the trouble with a seasonal strategy. According to Standard & Poors, the S&P 500 has gained 1.05 % in May, though it was a volatile month. So, “sell in May and go away” just missed out for no other reason other than it was May.

The second problem is best explained in the chart below. According to Standard & Poors, since 1946 (68 years) the S&P 500 has actually been positive during the “sell in May and go away” period May – October 64% of the time with an average gain of 1.3%. So, the expectation for the period is actually a positive return of .83% May to October.

Seasonal Sell in May and Go Away Strategy

Another interesting observation in the chart is after a positive “up” May, the May to October period tends to increase 87% of the time an average of 3.5%. So, the expectation is 3.04%. Based on the probability and expectation, we would expect 2% more through October. Of course, the trouble is this stock index is trading at 27 times EPS which is overvalued territory, so this time could instead be the 13% of the time it declines instead, but the probability and expectation is what it is and we want to invest with it, not against it. I would rather focus on the actual direction of trends rather than what month it is.

One month or series of months is an arbitrary time frame, which is why a strategy based on specific time frames like “Sell in May and Go Away” are arbitrary – no matter what story is told to make it sound good.

This May it turned out it most of the other global markets were down materially in May like the Emerging Markets index -4.1%, Commodity Index -2.17%, and even the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond declined -1.12%. So, anyone who was globally positioned across multiple markets during May did experience declines. Those who shifted from the S&P 500 index to bonds at the beginning of May actually lost what the stock index gained…

I prefer to focus on the actual direction of global price trends, no matter when they are. You can see what that looks like here.

Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want

That was the lesson you learned the last time stocks became overvalued and the stock market entered into a bear market.

I believe holding and re-balancing markets doesn’t give us the risk-adjusted returns we want. In all I do, I believe in challenging that status quo, I believe in thinking and doing things differently. The way I challenge the status quo is a focus on absolute return, limiting downside risk, and doing it tactically across global markets. Why do I do it?

In a Kiplinger article by Fred W. Frailey interviewed Mohamed El-Erian, the PIMCO’s boss, (PIMCO is one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world) he says “he tells how to reduce risk and reap rewards in a fast-changing world.” This article “Shaking up the Investment Mix” was written in March 2009, which turned out the be “the low” of the global market collapse.

It is useful to revisit such writing and thoughts, especially since the U.S. stock market has since been overall rising for 5 years and 10 months. It’s one of the longest uptrends recorded and the S&P 500 stock index is well in “overvalued” territory at 27 times EPS. At the same time, bonds have also been rising in value, which could change quickly when rates eventually rise. At this stage of a trend, asset allocation investors could need a reminder. I can’t think of a better one that this:

Why are you telling investors they need to diversify differently these days?

The traditional approach to diversification, which served us very well, went like this: Adopt a diversified portfolio, be disciplined about rebalancing the asset mix, own very well-defined types of asset classes and favor the home team because the minute you invest outside the U.S., you take on additional risk. A typical mix would then be 60% stocks and 40% bonds, and most of the stocks would be part of Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.

This approach is fatigued for several reasons. First of all, diversification alone is no longer sufficient to temper risk. In the past year, we saw virtually every asset class hammered. You need something more to manage risk well.

But, you know, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Since we are talking about downside risk, something that is commonly hidden when only “average returns” are presented, below is a drawdown chart. I created the drawdown chart using YCharts which uses total return data and the “% off high”. The decline you see from late 2007 to 2010 is a drawdown: it’s when the investment value is under water. Think of this like a lake. You can see how the average of the data wouldn’t properly inform you of what happens in between.

First, I show PIMCO’s own allocation fund: PALCX: Allianz Global Allocation Fund. I include an actively managed asset allocation that is very large and popular with $55 billion invested in it: MCLOX: BlackRock Global Allocation. Since there are many who instead believe in passive indexing and allocation, I have also included DGSIX: DFA Global Allocation 60/40 and VBINX: Vanguard Balanced Fund. As you can see, they have all done about the same thing. They declined about -30% to -40% from October 2007 to March 2009. They also declined up to -15% in 2011.

Global Allocation Balanced Fund Drawdowns

Going forward, the next bear market may be very different. Historically, investors consider bond holdings to be a buffer or an anchor to a portfolio. When stock prices fall, bonds haven’t been falling nearly as much. To be sure, I show below a “drawdown chart” for the famous actively managed bond fund PIMCO Total Return and for the passive crowd I have included the Vanguard Total Bond Market fund. Keep in mind, about 40% of the allocation of the funds above are invested in bonds. As you see, bonds dropped about -5% to -7% in the past 10 years.

Bond market risk drawdowns

You may notice they are recently down -2% from their highs. Based on the past 10 years, that’s just a minor decline. The trouble going forward is that interest rates have been in an overall downtrend for 30 years, so bond values have been rising. If you rely on bonds being a crutch, as on diversification alone, I agree with Mohamed El-Erian the Chief of the worlds largest bond manager:

“…diversification alone is no longer sufficient to temper risk. In the past year, we saw virtually every asset class hammered. You need something more to manage risk well.”

But, don’t wait until AFTER markets have fallen to believe it.

I just don’t believe holding and re-balancing markets is going to give us the risk-adjusted returns we want. In all I do, I believe in challenging that status quo, I believe in thinking and doing things differently. The way I challenge the status quo is a focus on absolute return, limiting downside risk, and doing it tactically across global markets. Want to join us? To see what that looks like, click: ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts

On Actively Managing Risk… and Persistence

Don't beg anyone to get on the ark just keep building and let everyone know the rain is coming

Source: https://image-store.slidesharecdn.com/c3d3d5ae-e2eb-4e80-9d4c-88e2344b5572-original.jpeg

I just keep doing what I do…

Where is the Inflation?

In How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment? and bond prices… I pointed out that even the Fed expected their monetary policy to eventually lead to inflation. The problem with economics and economist is they expect a cause and effect, and often their expectations don’t come true. Remember all those newsletters advising to buy gold the last several years? Gold trended up a while, then down. Applying a good trend system to gold may have made money from it, but buying and holding gold is probably a loser. Inflation was supposed to go up and gold was supposed to be a shelter. However, inflation has instead trended down: The U.S. Inflation Calculator  presents it best:

Current US Inflation Rates: 2005-2015

The latest inflation rate for the United States is -0.1% through the 12 months ended March 2015 as published by the US government on April 17, 2015. The next update is scheduled for release on May 22, 2015 at 8:30 a.m. ET. It will offer the rate of inflation over the 12 months ended April 2015.

The chart, graph and table below displays annual US inflation rates for calendar years 2004-2014. Rates of inflation are calculated using the current Consumer Price Index published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For 2015, the most recent monthly data (12-month based) will be used in the chart and graph.

Historical inflation rates are available from 1914-2015. If you would like to calculate accumulated rates between different dates, the US Inflation Calculator will do that quickly.

Inflation Rate 2015-05-04_19-44-49

Source: http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/current-inflation-rates/

However, as you can see in the chart, like market prices, economic data trends directionally too. This trend of declining inflation may continue or it may reverse.

How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment? and bond prices…

Straight from the Federal Reserve website titled How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment?

In the short run, monetary policy influences inflation and the economy-wide demand for goods and services–and, therefore, the demand for the employees who produce those goods and services–primarily through its influence on the financial conditions facing households and firms. During normal times, the Federal Reserve has primarily influenced overall financial conditions by adjusting the federal funds rate–the rate that banks charge each other for short-term loans. Movements in the federal funds rate are passed on to other short-term interest rates that influence borrowing costs for firms and households. Movements in short-term interest rates also influence long-term interest rates–such as corporate bond rates and residential mortgage rates–because those rates reflect, among other factors, the current and expected future values of short-term rates. In addition, shifts in long-term interest rates affect other asset prices, most notably equity prices and the foreign exchange value of the dollar. For example, all else being equal, lower interest rates tend to raise equity prices as investors discount the future cash flows associated with equity investments at a lower rate.

In turn, these changes in financial conditions affect economic activity. For example, when short- and long-term interest rates go down, it becomes cheaper to borrow, so households are more willing to buy goods and services and firms are in a better position to purchase items to expand their businesses, such as property and equipment. Firms respond to these increases in total (household and business) spending by hiring more workers and boosting production. As a result of these factors, household wealth increases, which spurs even more spending. These linkages from monetary policy to production and employment don’t show up immediately and are influenced by a range of factors, which makes it difficult to gauge precisely the effect of monetary policy on the economy.

Monetary policy also has an important influence on inflation. When the federal funds rate is reduced, the resulting stronger demand for goods and services tends to push wages and other costs higher, reflecting the greater demand for workers and materials that are necessary for production. In addition, policy actions can influence expectations about how the economy will perform in the future, including expectations for prices and wages, and those expectations can themselves directly influence current inflation.

In 2008, with short-term interest rates essentially at zero and thus unable to fall much further, the Federal Reserve undertook nontraditional monetary policy measures to provide additional support to the economy. Between late 2008 and October 2014, the Federal Reserve purchased longer-term mortgage-backed securities and notes issued by certain government-sponsored enterprises, as well as longer-term Treasury bonds and notes. The primary purpose of these purchases was to help to lower the level of longer-term interest rates, thereby improving financial conditions. Thus, this nontraditional monetary policy measure operated through the same broad channels as traditional policy, despite the differences in implementation of the policy.

Up until now, the Long Term Treasury bond has typically gained in price on days the U.S. stock market is down. The recent price action may be a sign of changing inter-market dynamics between the Long Term Treasury and U.S. Stocks now that the Fed isn’t buying these bonds as they have for several years. As you can see in the chart below, the iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond Index was down -1.7% today as stocks were also down. It’s also in a shorter term downtrend since January. This could be a sign that may not offer the “crutch” for falling stocks they have in the past. In the next bear market, bonds may go down too.

TLT long term treasury

Created with http://www.stockcharts.com

 

 

 

My 2 Cents on the Dollar, Continued…

In My 2 Cents on the Dollar I explained how the U.S. Dollar is a significant driver of returns of other markets. For example, when the U.S. Dollar is rising, commodities like gold, oil, and foreign currencies like the Euro are usually falling. A rising U.S. Dollar also impacts international stocks priced in U.S. Dollars. When the U.S. Dollar trends up, many international markets priced in U.S. Dollars may trend down (reflecting the exchange rate). Many trend followers and global macro traders are likely “long the U.S. Dollar” by being long and short other markets like commodities, international stocks, or currencies.

Below was the chart from My 2 Cents on the Dollar last week to show the impressive uptrend and since March a non-trending indecisive period. After such a period, I suggested the next break often determines the next directional trend.

dollar trend daily 2015-04-23_16-05-04

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

Keep in mind, this is looking closely at a short time frame within a larger trend. Below is the updated chart today, a week later. The U.S. Dollar did break down so far, but by my math, it’s now getting to an even more important point that will distinguish between a continuation of the uptrend or a reversal. This is the point where it should reverse back up, if it’s going to continue the prior uptrend.

U.S. Dollar

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

This is a good example of understanding what drives reward/risk. I consider how long the U.S. Dollar I am (by being synthetically long/short other markets) and how that may impact my positions if the trend were to reverse. It’s a good time to pay attention to it to see if it breaks back out to the upside to resume the uptrend, or if it instead breaks down to end it.

That’s my two cents on the Dollar… How long are you?

Why So Stock Market Focused?

Most investors and their advisors seem to speak mostly about the stock market. When they mention “the market” and I ask “what market?” they always reply “the stock market”.

Why so stock market centric?

It must be that it gets the most media attention or stocks seem more exciting?. After all, other markets like bonds may seem boring and few know much about the many commodities markets or the foreign exchange markets. There are many different markets and two sides to them all.

If it’s risk-adjusted returns you want, you may be surprised to find where you should have invested your money the past 15 years. To make the point, below is a comparison of the total return of the Vanguard S&P 500 stock index (the orange line) compared to the Vanguard Bond Index (the blue line). Yes, you are seeing that correctly. Using these simple index funds as a proxy, bonds have achieved the same total return as stocks, but with significantly less volatility and drawdowns. This is why we never look at just “average” return data without considering the path it took to get there. A total return percentage gain chart like this one presents a far more telling story. Take a close look at the path they took.

stocks vs. bonds

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

I showed the chart to one investment advisor who commented “It looks like the stock market is catching up”. If that’s what you think of when you view the chart, you may have a bias blind spot: ignoring the vast difference in the risk between the two markets.

Looking at the total return over the period identifies the obvious difference in the path the two return streams took to achieve their results, but below we see the true risk difference. Drawdowns are declines from a higher value to a low value and a visual representation of how long it took to recover the lose of capital. When we observe a drawdown chart like the one below, it’s like a lake. These charts together also help illustrate the flaw of averages. The average return of the stock and bond index have ended at about the same level and have the same average return, but the bond index achieved it with much less drawdown. You wouldn’t know that if you only looked at average returns. If you tried to walk across the stock market lake, you may have drowned if you couldn’t handle swimming in 40′ of water for so long. If that one didn’t get you, the 55′ may have. The stock index declined about -40% from 2000 – 2002 and took years to recover before it declined -55%.

stock and bond market risk historical drawdowns

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

You have to be wondering: why didn’t you just invest in bonds 15 years ago? Maybe you were focused on the prior period huge average returns in stocks?

Before I continue, let me place a very bold disclaimer here: PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE RESULTS. Another way that is stated is that PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO ASSURANCE OF FUTURE RESULTS. One more version is PAST PERFORMANCE MAY NOT BE AN INDICATION OF FUTURE RESULTS. If you remember, the 1990’s were a roaring bull market in stocks. People focus on the past expecting it to continue. That’s probably why you never thought to invest in bonds instead of stocks.

Some of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world have done that very thing over this period and longer. But, they didn’t just invest in bonds. They leveraged bonds. We’ve seen in this example that a bond index fund has achieved just as much total return as stocks. If you are a stock market centric investor: one that likes the stock market and makes it your focus, then you necessarily had to be willing to endure those -40% to -55% declines and wait many years to recover from the losses. If you are really willing to accept such risk, imagine if you had used margin to leverage bonds. The bond index rarely declined -10% or more. It was generally a falling interest rate period, so bonds gained value. If you were willing to accept -40% to -55% declines in stocks, you could have instead leveraged the bonds 400% or 500%. If you had done that, your return would be 4 or 5 times more with a downside more equal to that of stocks.

Why so stock centric?

Of course, at this stage, the PAST PERFORMANCE IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO REPEAT INTO THE FUTURE. Just as the roaring stocks of the 1990’s didn’t repeat. To see why, read Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market and Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?.

From my observations of investors performance and their advisors, most people seem to have poor results the past decade or so, even after this recent bull market. An investment management consultant told me recently that investors and their advisors who are aware of the current stage of stocks and bonds feel there is no place to turn. I believe it’s a very important time to prepare to row, not sail. For me, that means focus on actively managing risk and look for potentially profitable trends across a very global universe of markets; currency, bonds, stocks, commodities, and alternatives like volatility, inverse, etc . That’s my focus in ASYMMETRY® | Managed Accounts.

Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market

In The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market last year I pointed out different measures used to determine the average length of a bull market. Based on that, whether you believe the average bull market lasts 39 months, 50 months, or 68 months, it seems the current one is likely very late in its stage at 73 months. It’s one of the longest, ever.

I normally don’t consider valuations levels like P/E ratios, but they do matter when it comes to secular bull and bear markets (10 to 20 year trends). That’s because long-term bull markets begin at low valuation levels (10 or below) and have ended at historically high levels (around 20). Currently, the S&P 500 is trading at 27. That, along with the low dividend yield, suggests the expected return for holding that index going forward is low.

Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research explains it best:

The stock market gyrated since the start of the year, ending the first quarter with a minimal gain of 0.4%. As a result, normalized P/E was virtually unchanged at 27.3—well above the levels justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status remains near “significantly overvalued.”

In addition, the forecast by Standard and Poor’s for 2015 earnings per share (EPS) recently took a nosedive, declining 17% during one week in the first quarter. Volatility remains unusually low in its cycle. The trend in earnings and volatility should be watched closely and investors should remain cognizant of the risks confronting an increasingly vulnerable market.

Source: The P/E Report: Quarterly Review Of The Price/Earnings Ratio By Ed Easterling April 4, 2015 Update

It’s always a good time to actively manage risk and shift between global markets rather than allocate to them. To see what that looks like, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?

No where to turn? This time, it isn’t just that the U.S. stock indexes are very aged in one of the longest bull markets in history and trading in bubble territory at 27 times EPS.

In “Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?” Deutsche Bank says:

“We do think bonds are starting to exhibit bubble tendencies with very little value for investors trying to create long-term real returns”

Source: Long – Term Asset Return Study: Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?

We’ll see…

It’s always a good time to actively manage risk and shift between global markets rather than allocate to them. To see what that looks like, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

The Volatility Index (VIX) is Getting Interesting Again

In the last observation I shared on the CBOE Volatlity index (the VIX) I had been pointing out last year the VIX was at a low level and then later started trending up. At that time, many volatility traders seemed to think it was going to stay low and keep going lower – I disagreed. Since then, the VIX has remained at a higher average than it had been – up until now. You can read that in VIX® gained 140%: Investors were too complacent.

Here it is again, closing at 12.45 yesterday, a relatively low level for expected volatility of the S&P 500 stocks. Investors get complacent after trends drift up, so they don’t price in so much fear in options. Below we observe a monthly view to see the bigger picture. The VIX is getting down to levels near the end of the last bull market (2007). It could go lower, but if you look closely, you’ll get my drift.

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

Next, we zoom in to the weekly chart to get a loser look.

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

Finally, the daily chart zooms in even more.

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

The observation?

Options traders have priced in low implied volatility – they expect volatility to be low over the next month. That is happening as headlines are talking about stock indexes hitting all time highs. I think it’s a sign of complacency. That’s often when things change at some point.

It also means that options premiums are generally a good deal (though that is best determined on an individual security basis). Rather than selling premium, it may be a better time to buy it.

Let’s see what happens from here…

My 2 Cents on the Dollar

The U.S. Dollar ($USD) has gained about 20% in less than a year. We observe it first in the weekly below. The U.S. Dollar is a significant driver of returns of other markets. For example, when the U.S. Dollar is rising, commodities like gold, oil, and foreign currencies like the Euro are usually falling. A rising U.S. Dollar also impacts international stocks priced in U.S. Dollar. When the U.S. Dollar trends up, many international markets priced in U.S. Dollars may trend down (reflecting the exchange rate). The U.S. Dollar may be trending up in anticipation of rising interest rates.

dollar trend weekly 2015-04-23_16-04-40

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

Now, let’s observe a shorter time frame- the daily chart. Here we see an impressive uptrend and since March a non-trending indecisive period. Many trend followers and global macro traders are likely “long the U.S. Dollar” by being long and short other markets like commodities, international stocks, or currencies.

dollar trend daily 2015-04-23_16-05-04

Chart created by Shell Capital with: http://www.stockcharts.com

This is a good example of understanding what drives returns and risk/reward. I consider how long the U.S. Dollar I am and how that may impact my positions if this uptrend were to reverse. It’s a good time to pay attention to it to see if it breaks back out to the upside to resume the uptrend, or if it instead breaks down to end it. Such a continuation or reversal often occurs from a point like the blue areas I highlighted above.

That’s my two cents on the Dollar…

How long are you? Do you know?

Conflicted News

This is a great example of conflicted news. Which news headline is driving down stock prices today?

Below is a snapshot from Google Finance::

conflicted news 2015-04-17_10-21-43

Trying to make decisions based on news seems a very conflicted way, which is why I instead focus on the absolute direction of price trends.

Absolute Return vs. Relative Return

Absolute Return investment manager fund

Absolute: viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things; not relative or comparative.

Relative: considered in relation or in proportion to something else.

Return: to go or come back, as to a former place, position, or state.

Oops… we don’t want to “return” do we?

Rate of Return: The gain or loss on an investment over a specified period.

So, an Absolute Rate of Return: is the the gain or loss viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things; not relative or comparative.

Many people seem to have a problem with what I call “relativity“. For example, they love their home, until someone builds a larger and nicer one across the street. Or, they love their car, until their friend drives up in one that seems even better.

You can probably see how these simple words and their meaning leads to many issues people deal with.

To see an absolute return program applied in real life, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets YTD

As of today, global stock, bond, commodity markets are generating asymmetric returns year to date. The graph below illustrates the asymmetry is negative for those who need these markets to go “up”.

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets 2015-04-10_10-52-47

source: http://finviz.com

 

Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion:

“In prospect theory, loss aversion refers to the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are as much as twice as psychologically powerful as gains. Loss aversion was first convincingly demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.”

For most people, losing $100 is not the same as not winning $100. From a rational point of view are the two things the same or different?

Most economist say the two are the same. They are symmetrical. But I think that ignores some key issues.

If we have only $10 to eat on today and that’s all we have, if we lose it, we’ll be in trouble: hungry.

But if we have $10 to eat on and flip a coin in a bet and double it to $20, we may just eat a little better. We’ll still eat. The base rate: survival.

They say rationally the two are the same, but that isn’t true. They aren’t the same. The loss makes us worse off than we started and it may be totally rational to feel worse when we go backwards than we feel good about getting better off. I don’t like to go backwards, I prefer to move forward to stay the same.

Prospect Theory, which found people experience a loss more than 2 X greater than an equal gain, discovered the experience of losses are asymmetric.

Actually, the math agrees.

You see, losing 50% requires a 100% gain to get it back. Losing it all is even worse. Losses are indeed asymmetric and exponential on the downside, so it may be completely rational and logical to feel the pain of losses asymmetrically. Experience the feeling of loss aversions seems to be the reason a few of us manage investment risk and generate a smoother return stream rather than blow up.

To see what the actual application of asymmetry to portfolio management looks like, see: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

asymmetry impact of loss

A Tale of Two Conditions for U.S. and International Stocks: Before and After 2008

In recent conversations with investment advisors I notice their sentiment has shifted from “cautious and concerned” about world equity markets to “why have they underperformed”. Prior to 2013, most investors and investment advisors were concerned about another 2007 to 2009 level bear market. Now, it seems that caution has faded. Today, many of them seem to be focused on the strong trend of U.S. stocks since mid 2013 and comparing everything else to it.

Prior to October 2007, International stocks were in significantly stronger positive directional trends than U.S. Stocks. I’ll compare the S&P 500 stock index (SPY) to Developed International Countries (EFA). We can visually observe a material change between these markets before 2008 and after, but especially after 2013. That one large divergence since 2013 has changed sentiment.

The MSCI EAFE Index is recognized as the pre-eminent benchmark in the United States to measure international equity performance. It comprises the MSCI country indices that represent developed markets outside of North America: Europe, Australasia and the Far East. For a “real life” example of its price trend, I use the iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA). Below are the country holdings, to get an idea of what is considered “developed markets”.

iShares MSCI EAFE ETF Developed Markets exposure 2015-04-05_17-14-43

Source: https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239623/EFA

Below are the price trends of the popular S&P 500 U.S. stock index and the MSCI Developed Countries Index over the past 10 years. Many investors may have forgotten how strong international markets were prior to 2008. Starting around 2012, the U.S. stock market continued to trend up stronger than international stocks. It’s a tale of two markets, pre-2008 and post-2008.

Developed Markets International stocks trend 2015-04-05_17-22-22

Charts courtesy of http://www.ycharts.com

No analysis of a trend % change is complete without also examining its drawdowns along the way. A drawdown measures a drop from peak to bottom in the value of a market or portfolio (before a new peak is achieved). The chart below shows these indexes % off their prior highs to understand their historical losses over the period. For example, these indexes declined -55% or more. The International stock index nearly declined -65%. The S&P 500 U.S. stock index didn’t recover from its decline that started in October 2007 until mid 2012, 5 years later. The MSCI Developed Countries index is still in a drawdown! As you can see, EFA is -24% off it’s high reached in 2007. Including these international countries in a global portfolio is important as such exposure has historically  provided greater potential for profits than just U.S. stocks, but more recently they have been a drag.

international markets drawdown 2015-04-05_17-30-00The International stock markets are divided broadly into Developed Markets we just reviewed and Emerging Countries. The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) tracks this index. To get an idea of which countries are considered “Emerging Markets’, you can see the actual exposure below.

emerging countries markets 2015-04-05_17-13-31

https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239637/EEM?referrer=tickerSearch

The Emerging Countries index has reached the same % change over the past decade, but they have clearly taken very different paths to get there. Prior to the “global crisis” that started late 2007, many investors may have forgotten that Emerging Markets countries like China and Brazil were in very strong uptrends. I remember this very well; as a global tactical trader I had exposure to these countries which lead to even stronger profits than U.S. markets during that period. Since 2009, however, Emerging Markets recovered sharply but as with U.S. stocks: they have trended up with great volatility. Since Emerging Markets peaked around 2011 they have traded in a range since. However, keep in mind, these are 10 year charts, so those swings up and down are 3 to 6 months. We’ll call that “choppy”. Or, 4 years of a non-trending and volatile state.

Emerging Markets trend 10 years 2015-04-05_17-21-06

Once again, no analysis of a trend % change is complete without also examining it’s drawdowns along the way. A drawdown measures a drop from peak to bottom in the value of a market or portfolio (before a new peak is achieved). The chart below shows these indexes % off their prior highs to understand their historical losses over the period. For example, these indexes declined -55% or more. The Emerging Market stock index  declined -65%. The S&P 500 U.S. stock index didn’t recover from its decline that started in October 2007 until mid 2012, 5 years later. The MSCI Emerging Countries index is still in a drawdown! As you can see, EFA is -26% off it’s high reached in 2007. As I mentioned before, it recovered sharply up to 2011 but has been unable to move higher in 4 years. Including these Emerging Markets countries in a global portfolio is important as such exposure has historically  provided greater potential for profits than just U.S. stocks, but more recently they have been a drag.

emerging markets drawdown 2015-04-05_17-52-19

Wondering why the tale of two markets before and after 2008? The are many reasons and return drivers. One of them can be seen visually in the trend of the U.S. Dollar. Below is a 10 year price chart of the U.S. Dollar index. Prior to 2008, the U.S. Dollar was falling, so foreign currencies were rising as were foreign stocks priced in Dollars. As with most world markets, even the U.S. Dollar was very volatile from 2008 through 2011. After 2011 it drifted in a tighter range through last year and has sense increased sharply.

Dollar impact on international stocks 2015-04-05_18-05-02

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

The funny thing is, I’ve noticed there are a lot of inflows into currency hedged ETFs recently. Investors seem to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, they’ll want to hedge their currency risk after its already happened, not before… It’s just like with options hedging: Investors want protection after a loss, not before it happens. Or, people will buy that 20 KW generator for their home after they lose power a few days, not before, and may not need it again for 5 years after they’ve stopped servicing it. So, it doesn’t start when the need it again.

You can probably see why I think it’s an advantage to understand how world markets interact with each other and it’s an edge for me.

To see my 10 years of actual global tactical trading, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Stock Market Year-to-Date and First Quarter

So far, the U.S. stock market isn’t doing so well. And, the gains and losses over the past quarter have been asymmetric. Consumer Discretionary (12.6% of the S&P 500 index) and Healthcare (14.8% of the S&P 500 index)  have barely offset the losses in four other sectors.

Below are the YTD gain and losses for the popular S&P 500 index and each sector in the index.

stock market first quarter performance 2015-04-02_12-38-10

source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker

But, that’s just one data point compared to another data point. Such a table would be incomplete without considering the path those gains and losses took to get there.

sector returns 2015 2015-04-02_12-41-15

source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker/charting

To see the results of asymmetric exposure and risk management in action across a global universe of markets, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Performance is historical and does not guarantee future results; current performance may be lower or higher. Investment returns/principal value will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

“It is impossible to produce a superior performance unless…

Sir John Templeton

source: http://www.templeton.org

A great quote from my fellow Tennessean, Sir John Templeton:

“It is impossible to produce a superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.”

Sir John Templeton

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Absolute returns investment strategy fund

Absolute Return in its basic definition is the return that an asset achieves over a certain period of time. This measure looks at the appreciation or depreciation (expressed as a dollar amount or a percentage). For example, a $50 stock drifts to $100 is a 100% absolute return. If that same stock drifts back from $100 to $50, its absolute return is -50%.

Absolute Return as an investment objective is one that does not try to track or beat an arbitrary benchmark or index, but instead seeks to generate real profits over a complete market cycle regardless of market conditions. That is, an absolute return objective of positive returns on investment over a market cycle of both bull and bear market periods irrespective of the direction of stock, commodity, or bond markets. Since the U.S. stock market has been generally in a uptrend for 6 years now, other than the -20% decline in the middle of 2011, we’ll now have to expand our time frame for a full market cycle to a longer period. That is, a full market cycle includes both a bull and a bear market.

The investor who has an absolute return objective is concerned about his or her own objectives for total return over a period and tolerance for loss and drawdowns. That is a very different objective than the investor who just wants whatever risk and return a benchmark, allocation, or index provides. Absolute returns require skill and active management of risk and exposure to markets.

Absolute return as a strategy: absolute return is sometimes used to define an investment strategy. An absolute return strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers aiming to compound capital positively and to avoid big losses to capital in difficult market conditions. Whereas Relative Return strategies typically measure their success in terms of whether they track or outperform a market benchmark or index, absolute return investment strategies aim to achieve positive returns irrespective of whether the prices of stocks, bonds, or commodities rise or fall over the market cycle.

Absolute Return Investment Manager

Whether you think of absolute return as an objective or a strategy, it is a skill-based rather than market-based. That is, the absolute return manager creates his or her results through tactical decision-making as opposed to taking what the market is giving. One can employ a wide range of approaches toward an absolute return objective, from price-based trend following to fundamental analysis. In the ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts, I believe price-based methods are more robust and lead to a higher probability of a positive expectation. Through my historical precedence, testing, and experience, I find that any fundamental type method that is based on something other than price has the capability to stray far enough from price to put the odds against absolute returns. That is, a manager buying what he or she believes is undervalued and selling short what he believes is overvalued can go very wrong if the position is on the wrong side of the trend. But price cannot deviate from itself. Price is the judge and the jury.

To create absolute returns, I necessarily focus on absolute price direction. Not relative strength, which is a rate of change relative to another moving trend. And, I focus on actual risk, not some average risk or an equation that oversimplifies risk like standard deviation.

Of course, absolute return and the “All Weather” type portfolio sound great and seem to be what most investors want, but it requires incredible skill to execute. Most investors and advisors seem to underestimate the required skills and experience and most absolute return strategies and funds have very limited and unproven track records. There is no guarantee that these strategies and processes will produce the intended results and no guarantee that an absolute return strategy will achieve its investment objective.

For an example of the application of an absolute return objective, strategy, and return-risk profile, visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Absolute Return as an Investment Strategy

Absolute Return Investment Strategy Fund Manager

In “Absolute Return: The Basic Definition”, I explained an absolute return is the return that an asset achieves over a certain period of time. To me, absolute return is also an investment objective.

In “Absolute Return as an Investment Objective” I explained that absolute return is an investment objective is one that does not try to track or beat an arbitrary benchmark or index, but instead seeks to generate real profits over a complete market cycle regardless of market conditions. That is, it is focused on the actual total return the investor wants to achieve and how much risk the investor will willing to take, rather than a focus on what arbitrary market indexes do.

Absolute return as a strategy: absolute return is sometimes used to define an investment strategy. An absolute return strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers aiming to compound capital positively and to avoid big losses to capital in difficult market conditions. Whereas Relative Return strategies typically measure their success in terms of whether they track or outperform a market benchmark or index, absolute return investment strategies aim to achieve positive returns irrespective of whether the prices of stocks, bonds, or commodities rise or fall over the market cycle.

Whether you think of absolute return as an objective or a strategy, it is a skill-based rather than market-based. That is, the absolute return manager creates his or her results through tactical decision-making as opposed to taking what the market is giving. One can employ a wide range of approaches toward an absolute return objective, from price-based trend following to fundamental analysis. In the ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts, I believe price-based methods are more robust and lead to a higher probability of a positive expectation. Through my historical precedence, testing, and experience, I find that any fundamental type method that is based on something other than price has the capability to stray far enough from price to put the odds against absolute returns. That is, a manager buying what he or she believes is undervalued and selling short what he believes is overvalued can go very wrong if the position is on the wrong side of the trend. But price cannot deviate from itself. Price is the judge and the jury.

Of course, absolute return and the “All Weather” type portfolio sound great and seem to be what most investors want, but it requires incredible skill to execute. Most investors and advisors seem to underestimate the required skills and experience and most absolute return strategies and funds have very limited and unproven track records. There is no guarantee that these strategies and processes will produce the intended results and no guarantee that an absolute return strategy will achieve its investment objective.

For an example of the application of an absolute return objective, strategy, and return-risk profile,  visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Absolute Return as an Investment Objective

Absolute Return objective fund strategy

In Absolute Return: The Basic Definition, I explained an absolute return is the return that an asset achieves over a certain period of time. To me, absolute return is also an investment objective.

Absolute Return as an investment objective is one that does not try to track or beat an arbitrary benchmark or index, but instead seeks to generate real profits over a complete market cycle regardless of market conditions. That is, an absolute return objective of positive returns on investment over a market cycle of both bull and bear market periods irrespective of the direction of stock, commodity, or bond markets.

Since the U.S. stock market has been generally in a uptrend for 6 years now, other than the -20% decline in the middle of 2011, we’ll now have to expand our time frame for a full market cycle to a longer period. That is, a full market cycle includes both a bull and a bear market.

The investor who has an absolute return objective is concerned about his or her own objectives for total return over a period and tolerance for loss and drawdowns. That is a very different objective than the investor who just wants whatever risk and return a benchmark, allocation, or index provides. Absolute returns require skill and active management of risk and exposure to markets.

Rather than a long article, this is going to be a series of smaller parts, building up to what absolute return really means.

For an example of the application of an absolute return objective, strategy, and return-risk profile,  visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

US Government Bonds Rise on Fed Rate Outlook?

I saw the following headline this morning:

US Government Bonds Rise on Fed Rate Outlook

Wall Street Journal –

“U.S. government bonds strengthened on Monday after posing the biggest price rally in more than three months last week, as investors expect the Federal Reserve to take its time in raising interest rates.”

My focus is on directional price trends, not the news. I focus on what is actually happening, not what people think will happen. Below I drew a 3 month price chart of the 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT), I highlighted in green the time period since the Fed decision last week. You may agree that most of price action and directional trend changes happened before that date. In fact, the long-term bond index declined nearly 2 months before the decision, increased a few weeks prior, and has since drifted what I call “sideways”.

fed decision impact on bonds
Charts created with http://www.stockcharts.com

To be sure, in the next chart I included an analog chart including the shorter durations of maturity. iShares 3-7 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEI) and iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF). Maybe there is some overreaction and under-reaction going on before the big “news”, if anything.

Government bonds Fed decision reaction
Do you still think the Fed news was “new information“?

Dazed and Confused?

Many investors must be dazed and confused by the global markets reaction to the Fed. I’m guessing most people would expect if the Fed signaled they are closer to a rate hike the stock and bond markets would fall. Rising interest rates typically drive down stocks along with bonds. Just the opposite has happened, so far.

Markets seems to have moved opposite of expectations, those people have to get on board (increasing demand).

A few things I wrote before and after the Fed decision:

A One-Chart Preview of Today’s Fed Decision: This is what economists are expecting

Fed Decision and Market Reaction: Stocks and Bonds

Trends, Countertrends, in the U.S. Dollar, Gold, Currencies

Diversification Alone is No Longer Sufficient to Temper Risk…

That was the lesson you learned the last time stocks became overvalued and the stock market entered into a bear market.

In a Kiplinger article by Fred W. Frailey interviewed Mohamed El-Erian, the PIMCO’s boss, (PIMCO is one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world) he says “he tells how to reduce risk and reap rewards in a fast-changing world.” This article “Shaking up the Investment Mix” was written in March 2009, which turned out the be “the low” of the global market collapse.

It is useful to revisit such writing and thoughts, especially since the U.S. stock market has since been overall rising for 5 years and 10 months. It’s one of the longest uptrends recorded and the S&P 500 stock index is well in “overvalued” territory at 27 times EPS. At the same time, bonds have also been rising in value, which could change quickly when rates eventually rise. At this stage of a trend, asset allocation investors could need a reminder. I can’t think of a better one that this:

Why are you telling investors they need to diversify differently these days?

The traditional approach to diversification, which served us very well, went like this: Adopt a diversified portfolio, be disciplined about rebalancing the asset mix, own very well-defined types of asset classes and favor the home team because the minute you invest outside the U.S., you take on additional risk. A typical mix would then be 60% stocks and 40% bonds, and most of the stocks would be part of Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.

This approach is fatigued for several reasons. First of all, diversification alone is no longer sufficient to temper risk. In the past year, we saw virtually every asset class hammered. You need something more to manage risk well.

But, you know, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Since we are talking about downside risk, something that is commonly hidden when only “average returns” are presented, below is a drawdown chart. I created the drawdown chart using YCharts which uses total return data and the “% off high”. The decline you see from late 2007 to 2010 is a dradown: it’s when the investment value is under water. Think of this like a lake. You can see how the average of the data wouldn’t properly inform you of what happens in between.

First, I show PIMCO’s own allocation fund: PALCX: Allianz Global Allocation Fund. I include an actively managed asset allocation that is very large and popular with $55 billion invested in it: MALOX: BlackRock Global Allocation. Since there are many who instead believe in passive indexing and allocation, I have also included DGSIX: DFA Global Allocation 60/40 and VBINX: Vanguard Balanced Fund. As you can see, they have all done about the same thing. They declined about -30% to -40% from October 2007 to March 2009. They also declined up to -15% in 2011.

Vanguard DFA BlackRock PIMCO Asset Allcation

Charts are courtesy of http://ycharts.com/ drawn by Mike Shell

Going forward, the next bear market may be very different. Historically, investors consider bond holdings to be a buffer or an anchor to a portfolio. When stock prices fall, bonds haven’t been falling nearly as much. To be sure, I show below a “drawdown chart” for the famous actively managed bond fund PIMCO Total Return and for the passive crowd I have included the Vanguard Total Bond Market fund. Keep in mind, about 40% of the allocation of the funds above are invested in bonds. As you see, bonds dropped about -5% to -7% in the past 10 years.

PIMCO Total Return Bond Vanguard Total Bond

Charts are courtesy of http://ycharts.com/ drawn by Mike Shell

You may have noticed the end of the chart is a drop of nearly -2%. Based on the past 10 years, that’s just a minor decline. The trouble going forward is that interest rates have been in an overall downtrend for 30 years, so bond values have been rising. If you rely on bonds being a crutch, as on diversification alone, I agree with Mohamed El-Erian the Chief of the worlds largest bond manager:

“…diversification alone is no longer sufficient to temper risk. In the past year, we saw virtually every asset class hammered. You need something more to manage risk well.”

But, don’t wait until AFTER markets have fallen to believe it.

Instead, I apply active risk management and directional trend systems to a global universe of exchange traded securities (like ETFs). To see what that looks like, click: ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 1 & 2

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

As I approach the 10-year milestone of managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical as a separately managed account, I wanted to share my recent interview with Top Traders Unplugged. Niels Kaastrup-Larsen is the host of Top Traders Unplugged in Switzerland. Niels has been in the hedge fund industry for more than twenty years, working for some of the largest hedge funds in the world. He asks a lot of outstanding questions about life and how I offer a global tactical strategy that is normally only offered in a hedged fund in a separately managed account. And with experience comes depth of knowledge, so our conversation lasted over two hours and is divided into two episodes.

Click the titles to listen.

Episode 1

Why You Don’t Want Symmetry in Investing | Mike Shell, Shell Capital Management | #71

“It’s not about trying to make all the trades a winner – it’s about having the average win be much greater than the average loss – and that is asymmetry.” – Mike Shell

Episode 2

He Adds Value to His System | Mike Shell, Shell Capital Management | #72

“In the second part of our talk with Mike Shell, we delve into the specifics of his program and why most of his clients have 100% of their investments with his firm. He discusses backtesting, risk management, and the differences between purely systematic systems and systems with a discretionary element. Listen in for an inside look at this fascinating firm.” – Niels Kaastrup-Larsen

Direct links:

Episode 1

http://toptradersunplugged.com/why-you-dont-want-symmetry-in-investing-mike-shell-shell-capital-management/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/why-you-dont-want-symmetry/id888420325?i=335354134&mt=2

Episode 2

http://toptradersunplugged.com/when-systematic-programs-arent-fully-systematic-mike-shell-shell-capital-management/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/he-adds-value-to-his-system/id888420325?i=335582098&mt=2

 

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

As I approach the 10-year milestone of managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical as a separately managed account, I wanted to share my second interview with MIchael Covel on Trend Following with Michael Covel.

Many studies show that most investors, including professionals, have poor results over a full market cycle of both bull and bear markets. That necessarily means if I am creating good results, I must be believing and doing something very different than most people. In this 33 minute conversation, Michael Covel brings it out!

This is my second interview with Michael Covel, a globally famous author of several outstanding books like “Trend Following: How Great Traders Make Millions in Up or Down Markets“. I was his 4th interview when he started doing audio interviews 3 years ago and now our 2nd follow up is episode 320! For all his hard work and seeking the truth, “Trend Following with Michael Covel” is a top-ranked podcast around the world. He is in Vietnam during our interview. In 33 minutes, we describe what a true edge really is, which is how I’ve been able to create the results I have over these very challenging 10 years. And, what investors need to know today.

To listen, click: Mike Shell Interview with Michael Covel

Or, find Episode 320 in iTunes at “Trend Following with Michael Covel

For more information about my investment program, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

 

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 2

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

“In the second part of our talk with Mike Shell, we delve into the specifics of his program and why most of his clients have 100% of their investments with his firm. He discusses backtesting, risk management, and the differences between purely systematic systems and systems with a discretionary element. Listen in for an inside look at this fascinating firm.” – Niels Kaastrup-Larsen

Listen: Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 2

 

Direct links:

Episode 2

http://toptradersunplugged.com/when-systematic-programs-arent-fully-systematic-mike-shell-shell-capital-management/

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 1

“It’s not about trying to make all the trades a winner – it’s about having the average win be much greater than the average loss – and that is asymmetry.” – Mike Shell

Does anyone recognize this guy? this is the first episode of my 2 hour interview with Niels Kaastrup-Larsen in Switzerland on “Top Traders Unplugged” who has been part of the hedge fund industry for more than twenty years, working for some of the largest hedge funds in the world.

For those unsure what a “top trader” means, my 10 year performance is at the bottom of this link: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

I encourage you to to listen to the interview as it’s as much about life as trading. You can listen directly on the website or the podcast in iTunes. click: Mike Shell Interview with Top Traders Unplugged

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell Capital Management Interview

This is When MPT and VaR Get Asset Allocation and Risk Measurement Wrong

I was talking to an investment analyst at an investment advisory firm about my ASYMMETRY® Managed Account and he asked me what the standard deviation was for the portfolio. I thought I would share with you and explain this is how the industry gets “asset allocation” and risk measurement and management wrong. You see, most people have poor results over a full market cycle that includes both rising and falling price trends, like global bull and bear markets, recessions, and expansions. Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior, SPIVA, Morningstar, and many academic papers have provided empirical evidence that most investors (including professionals) have poor results over the long periods. For example, they may earn gains in rising conditions but lose their gains when prices decline. I believe the reason is they get too aggressive at peaks and then sell in panic after losses get too large, rather than properly predefine and manage risk.

You may consider, then, to have good results over a long period, I necessarily have to believe and do things very different than most people.

On the “risk measurement” topic, I thought I would share with you a very important concept that is absolutely essential for truly actively controlling loss. The worst drawdown “is” the only risk metric that really matters. Risk is not the loss itself. Once we have a loss, it’s a loss. It’s beyond the realm of risk. Since risk is the possibility of a loss, then how often it has happened in the past and the magnitude of the historical loss is the mathematical expectation. Beyond that, we must assume it could be even worse some day. For example, if the S&P 500 stock index price decline was -56% from 2007 to 2009, then we should expect -56% is the loss potential (or worse). When something has happened before, it suggests it is possible again, and we may have not yet observed the worst decline in the past that we will see in the future.

The use of standard deviation is one of the very serious flaws of investors attempting to measure, direct, and control risk. The problem with standard deviation is that the equation was intentionally created to simplify data. The way it is used draws a straight line through a group of data points, which necessarily ignores how far the data really spreads out. That is, standard deviation is intended to measure how far the data spreads out, but it actually fails to absolutely highlight the true high point and low point. Instead, it’s more of an average of those points. Yet, it’s the worst-case loss that we really need to focus on. I believe in order to direct and control risk, I must focus on “how bad can it really get”. Not just “on average” how bad it can get. The risk in any investment position is at least how much it has declined in the past. And realizing it could be even worse some day. Standard deviation fails to reflect that in the way it is used.

Consider that as prices trend up for years, investors become more and more complacent. As investors become complacent, they also become less indecisive as they believe the recent past upward trend will continue, making them feel more confident. On the other hand, when investors feel unsure about the future, their fear and indecisiveness is reflected as volatility as the price churns up and down more. We are always unsure about the future, but investors feel more confident the past will continue after trends have been rising and volatility gets lower and lower. That is what a peak of a market looks like. As it turns out, that’s just when asset allocation models like Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) and portfolio risk measures like Value at Risk (VaR) tell them to invest more in that market – right as it reaches it’s peak. They invest more, complacently, because their allocation model and risk measures tell them to. An example of a period like this was October 2007 as global stock markets had been rising since 2003. At that peak, the standard deviation was low and the historical return was at it highest point, so their expected return was high and their expected risk (improperly measured as historical volatility) was low. Volatility reverses the other way at some point

What happens next is that the market eventually peaks and then begins to decline. At the lowest point of the decline, like March 2009, the global stock markets had declined over -50%. My expertise is directional price trends and volatility, so I can tell you from empirical observation that prices drift up slowly, but crash down quickly. The below chart of the S&P 500 is a fine example of this asymmetric risk.

stock index asymmetric distribution and losses

Source: chart is drawn by Mike Shell using http://www.stockcharts.com

At the lowest point after prices had fallen over -50%, in March 2009, the standard deviation was dramatically higher than it was in 2007 after prices had been drifting up. At the lowest point, volatility is very high and past return is very low, telling MPT and VaR to invest less in that asset.

In the 2008 – 2009 declining global markets, you may recall some advisors calling it a “6 sigma event”. That’s because the market index losses were much larger than predicted by standard deviation. For example, if an advisors growth allocation had an average return of 10% in 2007 based on its past returns looking back from the peak and a standard deviation of 12% expected volatility, they only expected the portfolio would decline -26% (3 standard deviations) within a 99.7% confidence level – but the allocation actually lost -40 or -50%. Even if that advisor properly informed his or her client the allocation could decline -26% worse case and the client provided informed consent and acceptance of that risk, their loss was likely much greater than their risk tolerance. When the reach their risk tolerance, they “tap out”. Once they tap out, when do they ever get back in? do they feel better after it falls another -20%? or after it rises 20%? There is no good answer. I want to avoid that situation.

You can see in the chart below, 3 standard deviations is supposed to capture 99.7% of all of the data if the data is a normal distribution. The trouble is, market returns are not a normal distribution. Instead, their gains and losses present an asymmetrical return distribution. Market returns experience much larger gains and losses than expected from a normal distribution – the outliers are critical. However, those outliers don’t occur very often: maybe every 4 or 5 years, so people have time to forget about the last one and become complacent.

symmetry normal distribution bell curve black

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/68%E2%80%9395%E2%80%9399.7_rule

My friends, this is where traditional asset allocation like Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) and risk measures like Value at Risk (VaR) get it wrong. And those methods are the most widely believed and used . You can probably see why most investors do poorly and only a very few do well – an anomaly.

I can tell you that I measure risk by how much I can lose and I control my risk by predefining my absolute risk at the point of entry and my exit point evolves as the positions are held. That is an absolute price point, not some equation that intentionally ignores the outlier losses.

As the stock indexes have now been overall trending up for 5 years and 9 months, the trend is aged. In fact, according to my friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research, at around 27 times EPS the stock index seems to be in the range of overvalued. In his latest report, he says:

“The stock market surged over the past quarter, adding to gains during 2014 that far exceed underlying economic growth. As a result, normalized P/E increased to 27.2—well above the levels justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status is approaching “significantly overvalued.”

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised to eventually see rising interest rates drive down bond values at some point. It seems from this starting point that simply allocating to stocks and bonds doesn’t have an attractive expected return. I believe a different strategy is needed, especially form this point forward.

In ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical, I actively manage risk and shift between markets to find profitable directional price trends rather than just allocate to them. For more information, visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

Asymmetric Alpha? Completely Different Measures and Objectives

Asymmetric Alpha

I was talking to an investment advisor about ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical and the objective of asymmetric returns when he mentioned “asymmetric alpha”. I explained the two words don’t go together.

Asymmetric is an imbalance, or unequal. Asymmetric returns. For example, is an asymmetric risk/reward profile: one that is imbalanced or skewed toward the upside than the downside. I believe that some investors prefer to capture more of the upside, less of the downside. Others seem to mistakenly prefer symmetry: to balance their risk and reward. When they balance their risk and reward it results to periods of gains followed by periods off losses that results in no real progress over time. If that has been your experience the past decade or so, you may consider what I mean by ASYMMETRY® .

Alpha is the excess return of the fund relative to the return of the benchmark index or an abnormal rate of return. The term alpha was derived by  the academic theory “Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). I believe CAPM has many flaws and is incapable of actively managing risk as necessary to produce asymmetric returns.

The two terms, asymmetric and alpha, are very different and probably should not be used together. The first is about absolute returns. The later is about relative returns. So, I believe we have to pick one of the other, rather than use them together. Asymmetric returns and alpha are completely different measures and objectives.

For information about the application of absolute and asymmetric returns visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

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