VIX Trends Up 9th Biggest 1-day Move

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

VIX biggest moves

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

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

Here is what it looked like.

VIX 9th biggest one day move

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

Stock market down Korea

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

FANG stocks downSource: Google Finance

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

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

Is this the Inflection Point for Stocks?

As if the election result wasn’t enough, the U.S. stock market has surprised most people by trending up since last November.

But, it has been stalling since March. The S&P 500 drifted down about -3% into March and April.

The stock market seems to be at an inflection point now.

Understanding the market state is an examination of the weight of the evidence.

The weight of the evidence seems to suggest defense.

My first indicator is always the actual price trend itself. If we want to know what is going on, there is no better observation than the actual price trend. The price action tells us what force is in control: supply or demand. And, we can see the potential for the inflection point – when the direction is changing. In the chart below, I highlight a recent point of “resistance”. I call it resistance because the stock index hasn’t broken above the March high and is instead drifting sideways.

average age of bull market top

Investors sometime assume a prior price high will automatically become “resistance” just because it’s the price range they expect to see the price trend stall. Resistance is the price level where selling is expected to be strong enough to prevent the price from rising further. We can see that recently in the chart. As the price advances towards the prior peak, supply may overcome demand and prevent the price from rising above resistance. For example, it may be driven by investors who wished they had sold near the prior peak and had to wait as the price recovered again. They anchor to that prior high. Once it gets back to the prior peak, they exit. Prior highs don’t always become “resistance” as expected. Sometimes demand is strong enough to break through and keep trending up. At this point, we see there has been some resistance at the prior high. I highlighted it in yellow in the chart above. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the price decline if this resistance holds for a while. Or, it could be an inflection point.

The S&P 500 stock index is mainly large companies. Smaller companies tend to lead larger companies. Their price trends move in a wider range and they sometimes move faster, so they get to a point sooner. That’s why we say small company stocks “lead” large company stocks. In that case, I highlight below that the small company stock index, the S&P 600 Small Cap ETF, reached its prior, but found resistance and reversed down. The soldiers may lead the way for the Generals.

Small Cap

It seems that the stock index is stalling at a time when investors are complacent. When investors are complacent or overly optimistic an inflection point is more likely. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index)  is very low. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index®) is a key measure of market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by S&P 500 stock index option prices. The VIX® historically trends between a long-term range. When the VIX® gets to an extreme, it becomes more likely to eventually reverse. In the chart below I show the price level of the VIX® since its inception in 1993. We can see its long-term average is around 20. I highlighted in red its low range is around 12 and it has historically spiked as high as 25 or 60. This means the traders of options are expecting lower volatility in the weeks ahead at a time when other things seem to suggest otherwise.

As I continue sharing some observations, I’m going to get farther away from my main decision maker which is the directional price trend, but you’ll see how these indicators help to quantify the state of the trend and the potential for an inflection point. As we keep going, keep in mind that indicators are a derivative of the price at best or a derivate of something unrelated to the directional price trend. In the case of the VIX® Index index above, it’s a measure of options (a derivative) on the stocks in the S&P 500. When we start looking at things like economic growth and valuations we are necessarily looking at things that are a derivative of price, but not as absolute as the price trend itself. The direction of the price trend is the arbiter.

Another signal of an inflection point is breadth. That is, what percent of stocks are rising or falling. Since I have mentioned the S&P 500 stock index, I’ll show the S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index below. The Bullish Percent is a breadth indicator based on the number of stocks on Point & Figure buy signals. Developed by Abe Cohen in the mid-1950s, the Bullish Percent Index was originally applied to NYSE stocks. Cohen was the first editor of ChartCraft, which later became Investors Intelligence. BP signals were further refined by Earl Blumenthal in the mid 70’s and Mike Burke in the early 80’s. The S&P 500 Bullish Percent shows a composite of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 index that are in a positive trend. The S&P 500 Bullish Percent recently reversed to a column of O’s from a high point of 80, which means about 80% of the S&P 500 stocks were in a positive trend and about 8% of them are now in a negative trend. In addition to the direction, the level is important because we consider the level above 70% or 80% to be a higher risk (red zone) and the levels below 30% to be lower risk (green zone). So, more and more stocks within the index are starting to decline. This weak “breadth” or participation could be a signal of a change in trend.

Bullish Percent

I’m not necessarily a big user of economic indicators. I believe the stock indexes are the leading indicator for the economy, so that’s my guide. However, I have a strong sense of situational awareness so I like to understand what in the world is going on. The total return of stocks is a function of three things: earnings growth + dividend yield + P/E ratio expansion or contraction. Since earnings growth has made up nearly 5% of the historical total return of the S&P 500 since 1926, it does matter in the big picture in regard to expected return. Today, we observe the headline in the Wall Street Journal:

GDP Slows to Weakest Growth in Three Years

The U.S. economy’s output grew at the slowest pace in three years during the first quarter, underscoring the challenges facing the Trump administration as it seeks to rev up growth.

The New York Times says:

G.D.P. Report Shows U.S. Economy Off to Slow Start in 2017

■ The economy barely grew, expanding at an annual rate of only 0.7 percent.

■ The growth was a sharp decline from the 2.1 percent annual rate recorded in the final quarter of last year. It was the weakest quarterly showing in three years.

■ Consumption, the component reflecting individual spending, rose by only 0.3 percent, well below the 3.5 percent rate in the previous quarter.

The Takeaway

The first-quarter performance upset expectations for a Trump bump at the start of 2017.

If you want an economic catalyst for why prices could stall or reverse down, there you go. You see, earnings growth of stocks is part of GDP. GDP is the sales of all U.S. companies, private and public. The earnings growth of the S&P 500 is the earnings of those 500 companies. In other words, GDP of the economy is highly connected to EPS of an index of 500 stocks.

This recent stall in the price trend and economic growth along with a dash of complacency comes at a time when stocks are “significantly overvalued”, according to my friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research:

“In the first quarter the stock market surged 5.5%, well more than underlying economic growth. As a result, normalized P/E increased to 29.4—significantly above the level justified by low inflation and low interest rates. The current status remains “significantly overvalued.” The level of volatility plunged over the past quarter and is now in the lowest 4% of all periods since 1950. The trend in reported earnings for the S&P 500 Index reflects a repeating pattern of overly-optimistic analysts’ forecasts. Earnings and volatility should be watched closely and investors should heighten their sensitivity to the risks confronting an increasingly vulnerable market.”

Oh, and one more thing: Monday will be May. I’m not a huge fan of using seasonality as an indicator to enter or exit the stock market, but there is some tendency for certain periods to gain or lose value historically. For example, a common seasonality is “Sell in May and go away”. Depending on the historical time frame you look and which index, some periods show a “summer slump”. One theory is many investors and traders go on vacation in the summer, so volume is light. They return after the summer and take more action.

So, maybe this will be a good time to sell in May and go away. Not because it’s May, but instead because the weight of the evidence suggests this could be an inflection point.

We’ll see.

How Future Losses Erase Prior Gains

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

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

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

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

Open profits aren’t yet realized.

Open profits may never be realized.

Open profits may be evaporated by later losses.

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

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

Only in hindsight do we know what happened next.

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

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

That is, losses compound even more than gains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– George Santayana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs

I consider On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs from the book, On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, to be essential. It is absolutely necessary to understand the concepts so that we know who we are, where we fit in, and how we interact with each other. 

on-sheep-wolves-and-sheepdogs

On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (reprinted with permission)

“Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?”

– William J. Bennett
In a lecture to the United States Naval Academy
November 24, 1997

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me: “Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident.” This is true. Remember, the murder rate is six per 100,000 per year, and the aggravated assault rate is four per 1,000 per year. What this means is that the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another.

Some estimates say that two million Americans are victims of violent crimes every year, a tragic, staggering number, perhaps an all-time record rate of violent crime. But there are almost 300 million Americans, which means that the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year. Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million.

Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.

“Then there are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” Or, as a sign in one California law enforcement agency put it, “We intimidate those who intimidate others.”

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath–a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

The gift of aggression

“What goes on around you… compares little with what goes on inside you.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Everyone has been given a gift in life. Some people have a gift for science and some have a flair for art. And warriors have been given the gift of aggression. They would no more misuse this gift than a doctor would misuse his healing arts, but they yearn for the opportunity to use their gift to help others. These people, the ones who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and a love for others, are our sheepdogs. These are our warriors.

One career police officer wrote to me about this after attending one of my Bulletproof Mind training sessions:

“I want to say thank you for finally shedding some light on why it is that I can do what I do. I always knew why I did it. I love my [citizens], even the bad ones, and had a talent that I could return to my community. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I could wade through the chaos, the gore, the sadness, if given a chance try to make it all better, and walk right out the other side.”

Let me expand on this old soldier’s excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.

Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn’t tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, “Baa.”

Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog. As Kipling said in his poem about “Tommy” the British soldier:

While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind,”
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.

The students, the victims, at Columbine High School were big, tough high school students, and under ordinary circumstances they would not have had the time of day for a police officer. They were not bad kids; they just had nothing to say to a cop. When the school was under attack, however, and SWAT teams were clearing the rooms and hallways, the officers had to physically peel those clinging, sobbing kids off of them. This is how the little lambs feel about their sheepdog when the wolf is at the door. Look at what happened after September 11, 2001, when the wolf pounded hard on the door. Remember how America, more than ever before, felt differently about their law enforcement officers and military personnel? Remember how many times you heard the word hero?

Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed right along with the young ones.

Here is how the sheep and the sheepdog think differently. The sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of the sheep, that is, most citizens in America said, “Thank God I wasn’t on one of those planes.” The sheepdogs, the warriors, said, “Dear God, I wish I could have been on one of those planes. Maybe I could have made a difference.” When you are truly transformed into a warrior and have truly invested yourself into warriorhood, you want to be there. You want to be able to make a difference.

While there is nothing morally superior about the sheepdog, the warrior, he does have one real advantage. Only one. He is able to survive and thrive in an environment that destroys 98 percent of the population.

There was research conducted a few years ago with individuals convicted of violent crimes. These cons were in prison for serious, predatory acts of violence: assaults, murders and killing law enforcement officers. The vast majority said that they specifically targeted victims by body language: slumped walk, passive behavior and lack of awareness. They chose their victims like big cats do in Africa, when they select one out of the herd that is least able to protect itself.

However, when there were cues given by potential victims that indicated they would not go easily, the cons said that they would walk away. If the cons sensed that the target was a “counter-predator,” that is, a sheepdog, they would leave him alone unless there was no other choice but to engage.

One police officer told me that he rode a commuter train to work each day. One day, as was his usual, he was standing in the crowded car, dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt and jacket, holding onto a pole and reading a paperback. At one of the stops, two street toughs boarded, shouting and cursing and doing every obnoxious thing possible to intimidate the other riders. The officer continued to read his book, though he kept a watchful eye on the two punks as they strolled along the aisle making comments to female passengers, and banging shoulders with men as they passed.

As they approached the officer, he lowered his novel and made eye contact with them. “You got a problem, man?” one of the IQ-challenged punks asked. “You think you’re tough, or somethin’?” the other asked, obviously offended that this one was not shirking away from them.

“As a matter of fact, I am tough,” the officer said, calmly and with a steady gaze.

The two looked at him for a long moment, and then without saying a word, turned and moved back down the aisle to continue their taunting of the other passengers, the sheep.

Some people may be destined to be sheep and others might be genetically primed to be wolves or sheepdogs. But I believe that most people can choose which one they want to be, and I’m proud to say that more and more Americans are choosing to become sheepdogs.

Seven months after the attack on September 11, 2001, Todd Beamer was honored in his hometown of Cranbury, New Jersey. Todd, as you recall, was the man on Flight 93 over Pennsylvania who called on his cell phone to alert an operator from United Airlines about the hijacking. When he learned of the other three passenger planes that had been used as weapons, Todd dropped his phone and uttered the words, “Let’s roll,” which authorities believe was a signal to the other passengers to confront the terrorist hijackers. In one hour, a transformation occurred among the passengers–athletes, business people and parents–from sheep to sheepdogs and together they fought the wolves, ultimately saving an unknown number of lives on the ground.

“Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself after that?” 

“There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men.”
– Edmund Burke

Reflections on the Revolution in France

Here is the point I like to emphasize, especially to the thousands of police officers and soldiers I speak to each year. In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.

If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay, but you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you. If you want to be a wolf, you can be one, but the sheepdogs are going to hunt you down and you will never have rest, safety, trust or love. But if you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path, then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.

For example, many officers carry their weapons in church. They are well concealed in ankle holsters, shoulder holsters or inside-the-belt holsters tucked into the small of their backs. Anytime you go to some form of religious service, there is a very good chance that a police officer in your congregation is carrying. You will never know if there is such an individual in your place of worship, until the wolf appears to slaughter you and your loved ones.

I was training a group of police officers in Texas, and during the break, one officer asked his friend if he carried his weapon in church. The other cop replied, “I will never be caught without my gun in church.” I asked why he felt so strongly about this, and he told me about a police officer he knew who was at a church massacre in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1999. In that incident, a mentally deranged individual came into the church and opened fire, gunning down 14 people. He said that officer believed he could have saved every life that day if he had been carrying his gun. His own son was shot, and all he could do was throw himself on the boy’s body and wait to die. That cop looked me in the eye and said, “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself after that?”

Some individuals would be horrified if they knew this police officer was carrying a weapon in church. They might call him paranoid and would probably scorn him. Yet these same individuals would be enraged and would call for “heads to roll” if they found out that the airbags in their cars were defective, or that the fire extinguisher and fire sprinklers in their kids’ school did not work. They can accept the fact that fires and traffic accidents can happen and that there must be safeguards against them. Their only response to the wolf, though, is denial, and all too often their response to the sheepdog is scorn and disdain. But the sheepdog quietly asks himself, “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself if your loved ones were attacked and killed, and you had to stand there helplessly because you were unprepared for that day?”

The warrior must cleanse denial from his thinking. Coach Bob Lindsey, a renowned law enforcement trainer, says that warriors must practice “when/then” thinking, not “if/when.” Instead of saying,“If it happens then I will take action,” the warrior says, “When it happens then I will be ready.”

It is denial that turns people into sheep. Sheep are psychologically destroyed by combat because their only defense is denial, which is counterproductive and destructive, resulting in fear, helplessness and horror when the wolf shows up.

Denial kills you twice. It kills you once, at your moment of truth when you are not physically prepared: You didn’t bring your gun; you didn’t train. Your only defense was wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy. Denial kills you a second time because even if you do physically survive, you are psychologically shattered by fear, helplessness, horror and shame at your moment of truth.

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot and first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, says that he knew he could die. There was no denial for him. He did not allow himself the luxury of denial. This acceptance of reality can cause fear, but it is a healthy, controlled fear that will keep you alive:

“I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.”

– Brigadier General Chuck Yeager
Yeager, An Autobiography

Gavin de Becker puts it like this in Fear Less, his superb post-9/11 book, which should be required reading for anyone trying to come to terms with our current world situation:

“..denial can be seductive, but it has an insidious side effect. For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn’t so, the fall they take when faced with new violence is all the more unsettling. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run, the denying person knows the truth on some level.”

And so the warrior must strive to confront denial in all aspects of his life, and prepare himself for the day when evil comes.

If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. No one can be “on” 24/7 for a lifetime. Everyone needs down time. But if you are authorized to carry a weapon, and you walk outside without it, just take a deep breath, and say this to yourself… “Baa.”

This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between. Since 9-11 almost everyone in America took a step up that continuum, away from denial. The sheep took a few steps toward accepting and appreciating their warriors, and the warriors started taking their job more seriously. The degree to which you move up that continuum, away from sheephood and denial, is the degree to which you and your loved ones will survive, physically and psychologically at your moment of truth.

 

Asymmetric Volatility Phenomenon

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

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

We observe asymmetric volatility in equity markets, too.

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

asymmetric-volatility-phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an example you may remember.

stock-market-crash-2008

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

That’s the very move you want to avoid.

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

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

It wasn’t just 2008.

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

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

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

stock-market-bear

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

2009-stock-market-decline

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

They are the same people who will experience it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Investors Were Indeed Complacent…

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

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

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

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

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

vix-september-2016

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

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

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

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

September Worst Month for Stocks?

“October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.” – Mark Twain

I’m not a fan of “seasonality” for use with tactical decisions… but if when it’s considered along with other issues like investor complacency and an overvalued stock market it can be more interesting.

Seasonality is a characteristic in the data experiences regular changes that seem to recur every calendar year. Any change or pattern in a time series that recurs or repeats over a one-year period can be said to be “seasonal”.

I don’t expect these seasonal patterns to always play out. However, the average gain or loss over a 66 year period can be statistically significant. It’s just not a “sure thing” – but nothing ever is. The fact is, the chart below does illustrate the mathematical expectation for the expected return for each month based on the past 66 years. If the average return for a month is down nearly -1%, then that is the expectation. But it’s based on the “average” of the sample size; it says nothing about the probability or magnitude of outliers. The bottom line is: it will not always play out this way because the probability of an event is the measure of the chance that the event will occur.

Since 1950, U.S. stocks are often weak May to October and then a counter-trend rise occurs in July.

Then comes September…

Chart of the Day shows worst calendar month for stock market performance over the past 66 years has been September…

We’ll see…

September Stock Market

Source: http://www.chartoftheday.com/20160831.htm?H

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.

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.

Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?”

– William J. Bennett

In a lecture to the United States Naval Academy

November 24, 1997

Source: http://www.killology.com/sheep_dog.htm

 

Essence of Portfolio Management

Essence of Portfolio Management

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

– Benjamin Graham

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

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

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

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

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

I made bold the parts I think are essential.

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

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

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

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

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

CNN Fear Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

 

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

Fear and Greed over time investor sentiment

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

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

VIX Volatility Index.jpg

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

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

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

To learn more, contact us.

Situational Awareness

Chuck Yeager was a famous test pilot and the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. He understood the risk, so he was prepared.

Chuck Yeager

“I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.”

– Brigadier General Chuck Yeager
Yeager, An Autobiography

Image source: http://www.chuckyeager.com/

 

What in the World is Going on?

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

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

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

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

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

stock market downtrend

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

small and mid cap underperformance relative strength momentum

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

global market trends

What in the world is going on?

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

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

 

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

Extreme Fear is Now Driving Markets

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index 

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

Fear and Greed Over Time

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

Survey Results for Week Ending 1/13/2016

AAII Investor Sentiment January 2016

Source: AAII Investor Sentiment Survey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Cap Laggards

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

We’ll see…

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

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

The 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:

The Trend of the U.S. Stock Market

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

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

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

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

S&P 500 stock trend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______

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

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.

Dauntless Courage and Confidence to Get it Done

Know: be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information.

Two observations from the video below:

1. Know where you’ll be when you get where you’re going.

2. Know the parts of the process that is the risk of a bad outcome; then manage it, and accept it…

From that comes dauntless courage and the confidence to get it done.

Press play to watch this:

He has it…

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.

Why Index ETFs Over Individual Stocks?

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

Biogen BIIB

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

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

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

Market Risk, Sector Risk, and Stock Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPDR Biotech vs CELG AMGN BIIB GILD REGN

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

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

iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF exposure allocation

Source: www.ishares.com

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

iShares Healthcare Index ETF exposure allocation

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

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

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

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

Uncharted Territory from the Fed Buying Stocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Global Stock Market Trends

Stock Market Decline 2015-06-29

Stock markets around the world declined -2% or so arguing over which flag to fly. It was a good day for a cash position, or something other than U.S. and International stocks. Below is a table of U.S. stock sectors.

Stock Market Sectors 2015-06-29

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

But it wasn’t just U.S. stocks. Equity markets around the globe were down. The graphic below shows much of the world  stock markets down around -4%. Spain and Germany were down the most.

Global Stock Market Trend 2015-06-29_16-02-23

Source: http://www.etf.com

The big news came over the weekend that Greece closed banks to head off chaos as bailout talks break down. Greece owes lenders $242.8 billion Euros in total and $1.7 billion tomorrow. Germany is its largest creditor.

The Greek stock market is closed, but the ETFs are not. The Global X FTSE Greece 20 ETF (GREK) was down nearly -20%. The Global X FTSE Greece 20 ETF tracks the FTSE/ATHEX Custom Capped Index, which is designed to reflect broad based equity market performance in Greece. The index is comprised of the top 20 companies listed on the Athens Exchange by market capitalization.

GREK Greece ETF 2015-06-29_16-33-16

Much of the world is in great debt…

One day isn’t much of a trend, but -2% days like this are notable, so we’ll see if it is the beginning of a trend. The year-to-date total return (including dividends) is negative for both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the IBoxx $ Invest Grade Corporate Bond ETF.

stock and bond market 2015-06-29_17-14-43

 

The stock market is risky and that includes the loss of capital. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

 

 

Why Dividend Stocks are Not Always a Safe Haven

We often hear that high dividend stocks are a “safe haven” in market downtrends. The theory is the yield paid from dividend stocks offset losses in their price. Another theory is that money rotates out of risky assets into those perceived to be less risky: stocks that pay high dividends tend to be older cash rich companies that pay out their cash as dividends. In theory, that sounds “safer”.

I like to point out logical inconsistencies: when beliefs contradict reality.

The above may be true in some cases and it sounds like a good story. In reality, everything changes. The universe is transient, in a constant state of flux. This impermanence, that things are constantly changing and evolving, is one of the few things we can be sure about. It’s a mistake to base too much of an investment strategy on something that has to continue to stay the same. It’s an edge to be adaptive in response to directional trends.

Below is the year-to-date chart iShares Select Dividend ETF that seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of relatively high dividend paying U.S. equities. Notice that I included both the price change by itself (blue) and the total return that includes price plus dividends (orange). The “help” from the dividend over the past six months has helped a little. The price is down -3% but factoring in the dividend leaves the index down -2.33% for the year. The 0.7% is the dividend yield so far.

What has probably gotten investors attention, however, isn’t that their dividend stocks are down over -2% for the year, but that they are down over -4% off their high. That doesn’t sound like a lot: unless you are a conservative investor expecting a “safe haven” from high dividend yielding stocks…

In contrast, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 1% over the same period  – counting dividends. You may be wondering what is causing this divergence? Below is the sector holdings for the iShares Select Dividend ETF.

The position size matters and makes all the difference. Notice in the table above the Utilities, Consumer Staples, and Energy Sectors are the top holdings of the index. As you see below, the Utilities sector is down nearly -9% year-to-date, Energy and Staples are down over -1%. They are the three worst performing sectors…

Source: Created by ASYMMETRY® Observations with www.stockcharts.com 

Wondering what may be driving it? For the Utility sector it’s probably interest rates. You can read about that in What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends. I prefer to rotate between sectors based on their directional price trends rather than just allocate to them with false hope they may do something they may not. 

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“.

A Random Walker on Stock and Bond Valuation

Burton Malkiel is a passive buy and hold investor who believes markets are random. To believe markets are random is to believe there are no directional trends, or high or low valuations. He is the author of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street“.  But in today’s Wall Street Journal even the ” Random Walker” sees that stock valuations are high and future expected returns low, but believes if there is a bubble it’s in bonds.

By

BURTON G. MALKIEL

June 1, 2015 6:58 p.m. ET

“Stock valuations are well above their average valuation metrics of the past, and future returns are likely to be below historical averages. But even as Ms. Yellen talks of gradually ending the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policy, interest rates remain well below historical norms. If there is a market bubble today, it is in the bond market and the Fed is complicit in the “overvaluation.”

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/janet-yellen-is-no-stock-market-sage-1433199503

When someone invests in bonds for the long term they mainly intend to earn interest. So, bond investors want to buy bonds when yields are high. In the chart below, I show the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond index ETF that seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. dollar-denominated, investment grade corporate bonds. The blue line is its price trend, the orange line is the index yield. We observe the highest yield was around 5.33% during a spike in 2008 when the price declined. Fixed income has interest-rate risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Since 2008, interest rates and the yield of this bond index has declined. Clearly, the rate of “fixed income” from bonds depends on when you buy them. Today, the yield is only 2.8%, so for “long term allocations” bonds aren’t nearly as attractive as they where.

bond yield valuation bubble
Another observation is the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF, which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. Treasury bonds with remaining maturities greater than twenty years. So, this index is long term government bonds. Below we see its yield was 4.75% a decade ago and is now only 2.27%. Buying it to get a 4.75% yield is a very different expected return than 2.27%.

Long term treasury yield valuation spreads asymmetry

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t tactically rotate between these bond markets trying to capture price trends rather than allocate to them.

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

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

 

 

 

Recent Observations: Stock Market, Volatility, Absolute Returns

In case you missed them, here is a list of popular observations I’ve shared recently:

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

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

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Why So Stock Market Focused?

What About the Stock Market Has Changed? A Look at Ten Years of Volatility

Diversification Alone is No Longer Sufficient to Temper Risk…

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

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

Asymmetric Sector Exposure in Stock Indexes

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?

What About the Stock Market Has Changed? A Look at Ten Years of Volatility

When asked to sum the Buddha’s teachings up in one phrase, Suzuki Roshi simply said, “Everything changes.”

The universe is transient, in a constant state of flux. This impermanence, that things are constantly changing and evolving, is one of the few things we can be sure about. Whatever it is today, it will evolve and eventually change. I believed this, so I embraced change and uncertainty. That led me to deeply study rates of change, magnitude of change, and probability of change.

So when I speak about volatility, I am necessarily talking about “how much it has changed”. Volatility is the range of change. If there is no volatility, there is no change. If the range is very wide, the range of outcomes is wide.

In statistics, standard deviation is a measure that is used to quantify this amount of range, variation, or dispersion of a set of data. In finance, it’s used to measure the range of prices. Many use it as a risk measure.

As of this month, I have been managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical as a separately managed account program for 10 years. Ten years is somewhat an arbitrary time frame, but it’s also a meaningful milestone given the range of change over this period. This past decade has been unique in that it included a range of change few have experienced or observed before. It’s really just change doing what it does.

What has changed over the past 10 years?

In A Tale of Two Conditions for U.S. and International Stocks: Before and After 2008 I pointed out the material change in the directional trends of the U.S. stock market vs. international stocks. Prior to 2008, the international stock market indexes were materially stronger trends than U.S. stocks. Since 2008, the U.S. stock market rate of change has been stronger than the global markets.

Another very significant change has been volatility. The change in volatility is critical to understand as I pointed out in This is When MPT and VaR Get Asset Allocation and Risk Measurement Wrong. Below, I will illustrate visually how volatility has changed and what it means today.

Historical standard deviation is commonly used in investment models as an input for  volatility and is often considered a measure of ‘risk”. In some ways that is true, in other ways I disagree. When prices trade in a wide range up and down, it tends to get attention. Investors start to watch it closely. If a portfolio goes up 10% and then down -10% over a period of time, it gets the investors attention. If that portfolio declines -20%, then gains 10%, then declines -15%, they may have a reaction. We call the actual decline “drawdown”, but the widening range and how fast the values move up and down is called “volatility”.

The chart below is the S&P 500 stock index (blue line) and the historical volatility as measured by standard deviation with a 1 year look-back. As you can see, historical volatility as measured by standard deviation tends to decline after the price trend rises such as 2005 to late 2007 and again starting in 2013 to now. We can also observe it increasing significantly after the stock index declined. Historical volatility stayed very high after 2008 and observing from a 1 year look-back, it remained very high until late 2013. Investors dislike volatility because it’s more difficult to hold on to a trend when its range up and down is high. If investors don’t like volatility, then you can see why they had such a hard time holding stock positions for several years.

Standard Deviation

Clearly, investors who don’t like volatility had a very difficult time holding the stock market up until recently. The past decade has shown us material changes in volatility from the low and decreasing period pre-2008 to the extreme high volatility up until late 2013. Some investors may now even be thinking of getting “more aggressive”, now that the wide price swings have become a distant memory. But you may consider that low volatility is a sign of less indecision. After prices trend up for years, investors become more complacent and therefore volatility declines. Just as we saw in 2007, we shouldn’t be surprised to see volatility very low at the price peak.

You can probably see how this is a real problem. On the one hand, if we want investors to be able to handle the volatility of a investment program, the risk and volatility necessarily needs to be managed so they don’t experience it. An active risk management system with an absolute return objective like I operate wants to have less exposure during highly volatile periods investors prefer to avoid. Yet, you may see how many investors who apply conventional asset allocation and risk measures, like Modern Portfolio Theory and Value at Risk that use standard deviation as an input, are likely to have models that get them more exposure at the peaks and less exposure at the lows. That is, at the peaks their models expected return is at its highest and its expected variance is at its lowest. After a major decline in price just the opposite is true: their expected return based on historical return is at its lowest and expected variation is the highest.

The past 10 years was a very challenging period anyway we slice it. But an investment program like ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical that avoided large drawdowns as well as avoided such radical swings, allowed investors to stick with the program and compound capital positively rather than panic out or deal with large losses and drawdowns.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No same man could walk through the same river twice, as the man and the river have since changed.” I think we can be sure about only one thing: the next price trend and volatility will be different, so I embrace it and am prepared for however it unfolds.

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/

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.

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

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 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/

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

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

Trends trend to continue and are even more likely to continue than to reverse, because of inertia. Inertia is the resistance to change, including a resistance to change in direction. It’s an important physics concept to understand to understand price trends because inertia relates to momentum and velocity. A directional price trend that continues, or doesn’t change or reverse, has inertia. To understand directional price trends, we necessarily need to understand how a trend in motion is affected by external forces. For example, if a price trend is up and continues even with negative external news, in inertia or momentum is even more significant. Inertia is the amount of resistance to change in velocity. We can say that a directional price trend will continue moving at its current velocity until some force causes its speed or direction to change. A directional trend follower, then, wants keep exposure to that trend until its speed or direction does change. When a change happens, we call it a countertrend. A countertrend is a move against the prior or prevailing trend. A countertrend strategy tries to profit from a trend reversal in a directional trend that has moved to such a magnitude it comes more likely to reverse, at least briefly, than to continent. Even the best long-term trends have smaller reversals along the way, so countertrend systems try to profit from the shorter time frame oscillations.

“The one fact pertaining to all conditions is that they will change.”

                                    —Charles Dow, 1900

One significant global macro trend I noticed that did show some “change” yesterday is the U.S. Dollar. The U.S. Dollar has been in a smooth drift up for nearly a year. I use the PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish (UUP). Below, I start with a weekly chart showing a few years so you can see it was non-trending up until last summer. Clearly, the U.S. Dollar has been trending strongly since.

u.s. dollar longer trend UPP

Next, we zoom in for a closer look. The the PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish (UUP) was down about -2% yesterday after the Fed Decision. Notice that I included a 50 day moving average, just to smooth out the price data to help illustrate its path. One day isn’t nearly enough to change a trend, but that one day red bar is greater in magnitude and had heavy volume. On the one hand, it could be the emotional reaction to non trend following traders. On the other, we’ll see over time if that markets a real change that becomes a reversal of this fine trend. The U.S. Dollar may move right back up and resume it’s trend…

U.S. Dollar Trend 2015-03-19_08-21-35

chart source for the following charts: http://www.stockcharts.com

I am using actual ETFs only to illustrate their trends. One unique note about  PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (Symbol: UUP) is the tax implications for currency limited partnership ETFs are subject to a 60 percent/40 percent blend, regardless of how long the shares are held. They also report on a K-1 instead of a 1099.

Why does the direction of the U.S. Dollar matter? It drives other markets. Understanding how global markets interact is an edge in global tactical trading. Below is a chart of Gold. I used the SPDR Gold Trust ETF as a proxy. Gold tends to trade the opposite of the U.S. Dollar.

gold trend 2015-03-19_08-22-41

When the U.S. Dollar is trending up, it also has an inverse correlation to foreign currencies priced in dollars. Below is the CurrencyShares Euro ETF.

Euro currency trend 2015-03-19_08-23-03

Foreign currencies can have some risk. In January, the Swiss Franc gaped up sharply, but has since drifted back to where it was. Maybe that was an over-reaction? Markets aren’t so efficient. Below is a chart of the CurrencyShares Swiss Franc to illustrate its trend and countertrend moves.

swiss franc trend 2015-03-19_08-23-23

None of this is a suggestion to buy or sell any of these, just an observation about directional trends, how they interact with each other, and countertrend moves (whether short term or long term). Clearly, there are trends…

To see how tactical decisions and understand how markets interacts results in my real performance, visit : ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts

Fed Decision and Market Reaction: Stocks and Bonds

So, 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. Not the case as of 3pm today. Stocks were down about -1% prior to the announcement, reversed, and are now positive 1%. Even bonds are positive. Even the iShares Barclays 20+ Yr Treas.Bond (ETF) is up 1.4% today.

So much for expectations…

Below is snapshot of the headlines and stock price charts from Google Finance:

Fed Decision and Reaction March 18 2015

Source: https://www.google.com/finance?authuser=2