Here comes the volatility expansion

Nine days ago in VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility I shared an observation that the implied volatility VIX, a measure of expected future volatility that is implied by option prices, had reached an extremely low point. I explained what that means and how I use it:

When the market expects volatility to be low in the next 30 days, I know it could be right for some time.

But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near.

Today we have some volatility expansion.

The VIX Volatility Index has gained 35%. It implies the market now expects higher volatility. Specifically, the market expects the range of prices to spread out over 15% instead of 12%.

VIX $VIX Volatility Expansion asymmetry asymmetric convexity divergence

The popular stock indexes are down over -1% for the first time in a while.

stock market asymmetry asymmetric risk

As I said nine days ago, it should be no surprise to see some volatility expansion. Volatility is mean reverting, which means it tends to oscillate in a high and low range and reverse back to an average after its reaches those cycle highs and lows.

Implied volatility had reached its historical low end, so it’s expanding back out. Stock prices are also spreading out and declining so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more movement in prices in the coming weeks.

At around the same time volatility was contracting and calm, my momentum indicators were signaling stock indexes and many individual stocks were reaching short-term extreme levels that often preceded a short-term decline. These systems prompt me tactically reduce exposure to stocks to dynamically manage our risk.

Only time will tell how it all plays out. We’ll see how it unfolds from here.

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

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. 

VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility

Volatility is a measure of the frequency and magnitude of price swings up and down in a market or stock over a period of time.

  • Lower volatility is when prices are calmer and don’t swing up and down as much.
  • Higher volatility is when price movement spreads out, and prices swing up and down in a wider range.

We can measure volatility using two general methods:

  • Realized Volatility: based on actual historical price data. For example, we can see realized volatility by looking at historical standard deviation or average true range.
  • Implied Volatility: is a measure of expected future volatility that is implied by option prices. For example, the VIX Index is a measure of expected future volatility.

The VIX Index measures the market’s expected future volatility based on options of the stocks in the S&P 500® Index. The VIX Index estimates expected volatility by aggregating the weighted prices of S&P 500 Index put and call options over a range of strike prices.

The last observation I shared of the trend and level of VIX was VIX Trends Up 9th Biggest 1-day Move. I pointed out the VIX level had been very low, and it was an observation of complacency. The VIX spiked up nearly 300% – a volatility expansion. Actually, we could call it a volatility explosion.

The current level of the VIX index has settled down to a lower historical level suggesting the market expects the future range of the price of the S&P 500 to be lower. Below is the current level relative to the past year.

Looking at the current level of 12 compared to history going back to its inception in 1993, we observe its level is indeed near its lowest historical low.

The VIX Index is intended to provide a real-time measure of how much the market expects the S&P 500 Index to fluctuate over the next 30 days. The VIX Index reflects the actual order flow of traders.

Since investors tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future, they usually expect recent calm markets to continue and violent swings to persist.

After the stock market declines and volatility expands, investors extrapolate that recent experience into the future and expect volatility to continue. Sometimes it does continue, but this time it gradually declined as the price trend became calmer.

When markets have been calm, traders and investors expect volatility to remain low. Before February, the VIX implied volatility had correctly predicted low realized volatility for months. But, both realized and expected volatility was so low that many investors were shocked when stock prices fell sharply, and volatility expanded.

When the market expects volatility to be low in the next 30 days, I know it could be right for some time. But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near. It’s just a warning shot across the bow suggesting we hedge what we want to hedge and be sure our risk levels are appropriate.

 

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

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

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

 

What trends are driving emerging markets into a bear market?

In Emerging Markets Reached a Bear Market Level we noted the emerging markets index has declined -20%, which is considered to be in bear market territory. The emerging markets index includes 24 countries classified as emerging countries.

To see the country exposure, we examine the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF holdings. China is about 31%, South Korea is about 15%, Taiwan is over 12%, so the top three countries make up 58% of the country exposure. Add India at 10% and the top four countries is a dominant 68% of the exposure. Clearly, we’d expect the drift of these top holdings to dominate the trend.

what countries are emering markets ETF ETFs

Below we see the 2018 price trends of the emerging markets ETF and the top four countries that make up 68% of the emerging markets index ETF exposure. We see that South Korea and China are the primary downtrends that are trending close to the emerging markets index ETF. Taiwan and India have stronger relative momentum.

emerging markets $EEM china $FXI india south korea 2018 trend

To get a better understanding of what is driving the downtrend, we draw the % off high charts to see the drawdowns. From this observation, we can see what is really driving the trend. Of the top four countries in the index, the negative momentum of China and South Korea are driving the trend down. China is down -24% over the past year as South Korea is down -17%.

emerging market ETF trends

Taiwan and India have stronger relative momentum since they have trended up more recently since July. Prior to July, they were trending closer to China and South Korea.

You can probably see why I include the individual countries in my global universe rather than just the broad emerging markets index ETF that includes 24 countries. I want to find potentially profitable price trends, so I increase my opportunity to find them when I give myself more options.

There are 24 countries represented in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index and we’ve looked at the top 4 because they are given 68% of the exposure. That leaves only 32% in the other 20 countries. So, in regard to understanding what is driving the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, viewing the trend of the top holdings is enough to get an idea of the countries driving returns. But, in wanting to go find potentially profitable price trends, I research all the countries trends.

What about the rest of the emerging markets countries? 

Looking at the other 20 countries classified as emerging markets, I’ll divide them into groups. First, we’ll look at the other countries that are down -10% or more year-to-date. Then, I’ll draw a chart of those that are down this year,  but not as much. We’ll end with the few that are positive in 2018.

Emerging markets countries down the most year-to-date include Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Philippines, Chile, Poland, and Peru. Priced in U.S. dollars, these countries are down between -14% and -52%. Turkey is down the most.

emerging markets countries down 2018 $EEM

Looking at their % off high shows us the drawdown over the past year, which is a different perspective. If you had held one of these ETFs, this is the amount it would be down from its highest price over the past year.

Emerging markets countries down the most 2018

Clearly, these emerging countries are in downtrends and a bear market if we define a bear market as a -20% decline. Keep in mind, these ETFs are foreign stocks priced in U.S. dollars, so to U.S. investors, this is what the trends of these countries look like.

Next, we observe emerging markets countries that are down less than -10% in 2018. Russia, Columbia, Thailand, and Malasia are down between -3% and 8% so far. Their trends are generally down: lower highs and lower lows.

emering markets year to date 2018

We can see the downtrends in a different perspective when we view their drawdowns as a % off high over the past year.

emering market countries percent off high asymmetric risk reward

I saved the best for last. The strongest trending top momentum emerging markets countries so far in 2018 are Mexico, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Saudi Arabia was previously classified as a smaller frontier market, but, this summer MSCI announced it will include the MSCI Saudi Arabia Index in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

top momentum emerging markets countires 2018

Hearing names like Mexico, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar may highlight home country bias for some investors. Home country bias is the tendency for investors to favor companies from their own countries over those from other countries or regions.

I don’t have a home country bias. I am open to finding potentially profitable price trends in any country around the world. We encourage investors to be open to global trends and not limit their choices, but if our clients don’t want exposure to any specific country, we are able to exclude it in our ASYMMETRY® Managed Portfolios.

While the United States is the single largest economy in the world, according to JP Morgan it accounts for only a small fraction of global GDP and just over 35% of the world’s capital markets. Yet, studies show that U.S. investors have nearly 75% of their investments in U.S.-based assets. As we’ve shown here, there has been a good reason to avoid emerging countries for now, but as we explain in Emerging Markets Reached a Bear Market Level there are times when these countries present strong relative momentum over U.S. stocks.

This is why I tactically shift between global markets based on their directional price trends rather than a fixed buy and hold global asset allocation.

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The week in review shows some shifts

Much of the observations I shared last week are continuing to be more apparent this week.  So, in case you missed it, this may be a good time to read them.

Earnings season is tricky for momentum growth stocks

I discussed how earnings season can drive a volatility expansion in stocks, especially high growth momentum stocks. The stock market leaders can become priced for perfection, so we never know how investors will react to their earnings reports. To achieve asymmetric returns from momentum stocks, we need a higher magnitude of positive reactions than adverse reactions over time. On a quarterly basis, it can be tricky. The gains and losses as much as 20% or more in the most leading momentum stocks like Facebook ($FB), Google ($GOOGL), Twitter ($TWTR), Grub ($GRUB), and NetFlix ($NFLX) have since provided a few examples.

Front-running S&P 500 Resistance

In Front-running S&P 500 Resistance I shared an observation that many market technicians incorrectly say support and resistance appear before it actually does. We won’t know if resistance to a price breakout exists until the price actually does pause and reverse. I suggested the S&P 500 may indeed pause and reverse, but not because the index drives the 500 stocks in it, but instead because my momentum indicators suggested the $SPY was reaching a short-term overbought range “So, a pause or reversal, at least some, temporarily, would be reasonable.” As of today, the S&P 500 has paused and reversed a little. We’ll see if it turns down or reserves back up to continue an uptrend.

Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?

asymmetry of loss losses asymmetric exponential

In Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk? I showed a simple table of how losses compound exponentially. When losses become greater than -20%, it becomes more exponential as the gains required to recover the loss are more and more asymmetric.  This simple concept is essential and a cornerstone to understanding portfolio risk management. Buy and hold type passive investors who hold a fixed allocation of stocks and bonds are always fully exposed to market risk. When the market falls and they lose -20%, -30%, -50% or more of their capital, they then face hoping (and needing) the market to go back up 25%, 43%, or 100% or more just to get back to where they were. This can take years of valuable time. Or, it could take a lifetime, or longer. Just because the markets have rebounded after being down for four or five years from their prior highs doesn’t guarantee they will next time. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Trend following applied to stocks

In Trend following applied to stocks, the message was short and sweet: gains are produced by being invested in stocks or markets that are trending up and losses are created by stocks trending against us. Investors prefer to be in rising stocks and out of falling stocks. But, as I showed in Earnings season is tricky for momentum growth stocks the trick is giving the big trends enough room to unfold. In fact, applying trend following and momentum methods to stocks is also tricky. It’s a skill that goes beyond just looking at a chart and it’s not just a quantitative model.

Stock market investor optimism rises above the historical average

About two weeks ago,  the measures of investor sentiment showed a lot of optimism about future stocks prices, so we shouldn’t have been surprised to see some stocks fall. When a lot of enthusiasm is already priced in, investors can respond with disappointment when their stocks don’t live up to high expectations.

Much of the momentum and trend following in stocks is driven by an overreaction to the upside that can be accompanied by an overreaction to the downside. A robust portfolio management system factors these things in.

 

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

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

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

Trend following applied to stocks

A stock must be in a positive trend to earn a huge gain…

A stock must be in a downtrend to produce a large loss…

The common factor? the direction of the trend…

That’s what investors like about the concept of trend following.

We want to have capital in trends that are rising and out of trends that are falling.

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

Stock market investor optimism rises above historical average

“Optimism among individual investors about the short-term direction of the stock market rebounded, rising above its historical average.”

AAII Investor Sentiment Survey

The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey is a widely followed measure of the mood of individual investors. The weekly survey results are published in financial publications including Barron’s and Bloomberg and are widely followed by market strategists, investment newsletter writers, and other financial professionals.

It is my observation that investor sentiment is trend following.

Investor sentiment reaches an extreme after a price trend has made a big move.  After the stock market reaches a new high, the media is talking about and writing about the new high, which helps to drive up optimism for higher highs.

When they get high, they believe they are going higher.

At the highest high they are at their high point — euphoria.

No, I’m not talking about cannabis stocks, I’m just talking about the stock market. Cannabis stocks are a whole different kind of high and sentiment.

A few years ago, I would have never dreamed of making a joke of cannabis stocks or writing the word marijuana on a public website. Who had ever thought there would be such a thing? But here I am, laughing out loud (without any help from cannabis).

Back to investor sentiment…

Excessive investor sentiment is trend following – it just follows the price trend.

Investor sentiment can also be a useful contrarian indicator to signal a trend is near its end. As such, it can be helpful to investors who tend to experience emotions after big price moves up or down.

  • Investor sentiment can be a reminder to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
  • Investor sentiment can be a reminder to a portfolio manager like myself to be sure our risk levels are where we want them to be.

Although… rising investor optimism in its early stages can be a driver of future price gains.

Falling optimism and rising pessimism can drive prices down.

So, I believe investor sentiment is both a driver of price trends, but their measures like investor sentiment polls are trend following.

For example, below I charted the S&P 500 stock index along with bullish investor sentiment. We can see the recent spike up to 43% optimistic investors naturally followed the recent rise in the stock price trend. investor sentiment July 2018

However, in January we observed something interesting. Investor sentiment increased sharply above its historical average in December and peaked as the stock market continued to trend up.

Afterward, the stock market dropped sharply and quickly, down around -12% very fast.

Maybe the investor sentiment survey indicated those who wanted to buy stocks had already bought, so there wasn’t a lot of capital left for new buying demand to keep the price momentum going.

The S&P 500 is still about -2.4% from it’s January high, so this has been a non-trending range-bound stock market trend for index investors in 2018. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was last years more gaining index and it is still -6% from its high.

stock market 2018 level and drawdown

The stock index will need some buying enthusiasm to reach its prior high.  We’ll see if the recent increase in optimism above its historical average is enough to drive stocks to new highs, or if it’s a signal of exhaustion.

Only time will tell…

I determine my asymmetric risk/reward by focusing on the individual risk/reward in each of my positions and exposure across the portolio. For me, it’s always been about the individual positions and what they are doing.

 

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

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

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

 

Sector ETF Changes: Indexes aren’t so passive

Sector ETF Changes: Indexes aren’t so passive

Index funds and ETFs are often called “passive”, but in reality, they aren’t. Indexes change as their committees add and remove stocks or bonds from them. Though we generally know the exposure we can expect from an index ETF and we can see its holdings, we never know for sure in advance what stocks they’ll add or remove.

Not that we need to, we don’t.

But if we did know, we could front run them. Stocks that get added to an index trend up as all the index funds tracking that index have to buy the stock.

The opposite is true for stocks removed from the index.

General Electric (GE) was the last original Dow stock and was recently removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So, the 30 stocks in that index are completely different today than the stocks it held when it started.

Alternative investment strategies are sometimes criticized for being too “black box”, implying the systems and methods are proprietary and are not disclosed to investors. The truth is, we can say the same for the most popular stock indexes. Indexes are also a black box since we don’t know what they’ll do next.

There are reasons they keep some things a secret, just as some of us keep the finest details of our systems and strategies private. Some things are intellectual capital and if you want to invest with someone who has it, well, you’ll just have to settle for not knowing every precise detail. If you don’t like it, don’t invest.

The U. S. Sector indexes have some changes coming.

In November 2017, S&P Dow Jones and MSCI announced that the Global Industry Classification Standard, or GICS, telecommunication services sector would be broadened and renamed “communication services.” The communication services sector will add select media, entertainment, and consumer Internet stocks from the consumer discretionary and information technology sectors to its current telecommunication services constituents.

In mid-January 2018, SPDJI/MSCI released a list of the largest companies affected by the GICS update. SPDJI/MSCI plans to release a full list of affected securities on July 2, 2018, and provide a finalized list of affected securities on Sept. 3, 2018, before the GICS update takes effect after the market closes on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. This classification change will impact index funds that focus on the telecommunications, information technology, and consumer discretionary sectors.

Here is a diagram of the changes.

STOCK MARKET STOCKS SECTOR ETF ETFS SPDR SPY

Sector SPDRs has already launched their ETF for the communications sector.

Communication Services Sector $XLC is designed to reflect modern communication activities and information delivery mechanisms. Industries include Telecommunications, Media, Wireless, Entertainment and Internet Media. Components include Alphabet, Disney, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Netflix.

The media talks about the so-called “FANG” stocks, which is Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Well, this ETF is almost the FANG ETF.

fang stocks in xlc communication sector

So, we’ve adjusted our sector systems accordingly to adapt to these new changes.

 

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

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

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

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

Sector SPDRs are subject to risk similar to those of stocks including those regarding short selling and margin account maintenance. All ETFs are subject to risk, including possible loss of principal. Sector ETF products are also subject to sector risk and non-diversified risk, which will result in greater price fluctuations than the overall market.

Is the economy, stupid?

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

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

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

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

For example, someone recently said:

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

That is far from the truth…

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

The most recent recession:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Market Trends

Looking at broad indexes for global macro trends, global stocks are flat for the year, bonds are down as much as 6%, commodities are recently trending up.

At this point, U.S. stocks continue to look like a normal “correction” within ongoing higher highs and higher lows (a bull market). In this case, a correction is just a countertrend of “mean reversion” that has “corrected” the prior upside overreaction.

What would change the trend? changing from a normal “correction” within ongoing higher highs and higher lows (a bull market) to lower lows and lower highs. In that scenario, it would be a change in the dominant trend.

Only time will tell how it all plays out.

 

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

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

What’s going to happen next? continued

The stock market is getting a lot of attention this past week since the global stock market indexes were down as much as -4% for the MSCI EAFE Developed Countries index to the most significant decliner in the U.S. was the NASDAQ (represented below by PowerShares QQQ), which declined over -7%.

I said in What’s going to happen next? on Friday, the most important factor is the stock index is near its prior low in February when it declined -10% sharply. To reemphasize the rest of what I said:

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

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

As expected, so far today stocks have indeed found some buying demand at the prior low as we see in the chart below. As I suggested, this second low could bring in buyers who were waiting for this retest of the low in February.

Only time will tell how much buying enthusiasm we see from here. It could be enough to eventually drive prices to new highs, and this -10% correction forms a “W” pattern and the correction quickly forgotten.

Or, the buying interest we see now may not be enough to continue a sustainable upward trend.

Ultimately, the price trend of our individual positions is the final arbiter. My decisions are made based on what the price trend is actually doing.

But, I have other quantitative and technical measures that can be a useful guide to update expectations as trends unfold. I look at these trends because I enjoy it and share my observations, so you get a glimpse of how I see trends unfold over time.

This could change any moment, but at this point, I see today’s gains are relatively broad as all the U.S. sectors are positive with Financials, Consumer Discretion, and Technology leading the way. Past performance does not guarantee future results, but Sector strength in the more cyclical Financials, Consumer Discretionary, and Technology leading the way is a good sign.

Getting more technical and quantitative,  I want to update the breadth indicators I shared at the lows on February 9th in Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500 

At the lows, in February I pointed out the % of stocks in the S&P 500 had shifted from what I consider the “Higher Risk Zone” to the “Lower Risk Zone.” Though that could have been the early stage of a bear market because it could have got much worse, but those stocks instead reversed up from that point. Last weeks downtrend pushed them even deeper in what I consider the “Lower Risk Zone.”

S&P 500 STOCKS BULLISH PERCENT ABOVE MOVING AVERAGE

As we see in the chart above, half of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 stock index are trending below their own 200 day moving average and half are trending above it. I used the Point & Figure method to clearly express the % of stocks in the S&P 500 that are above their 200 day moving average.

If you think about how long 200 trading days is, it’s about 10 months. If a price is trading above its moving average, it’s considered to be in a positive trend, if it’s trending below the average it is trending down. My trend signals are generated from more robust proprietary systems, so I do not trade using this moving average, but it can be a simple guide to illustrate a trend.

To be precise, at the February low 56% of the 500 stocks were trading in a positive trend after they had reached what I consider a “Higher Risk Zone” in January when most of the stocks, 82%, were in a positive trend. After many stocks trended down, they reversed up to the point that 71% were above their 200-day average during the countertrend. Now that prices have fallen again, even more stocks are in a downtrend.

It may seem a contradiction for this to be potentially bullish because it shows half the stocks have been trending down (and it is), but I’ve been observing this indicator for two decades and what I see in the most simple terms is:

  • When most stocks had already trended up as they had in January when 82% were in positive trends, we are likely to see a countertrend and mean reversion at some point.
  • When most stocks have already trended down to negative trends, we are likely to see a countertrend and mean reversion.

Guess what mean reversion is?

About halfway…

For those who aren’t as mathematically inclined, that would be the 50-yard line. The 50% on the chart above…

Now, keep in mind, it’s only at 51% down from 82% in January. It could go to 5 or 10%, which would take a significant decline from here. But, so far, the ball is on the 50. Which end zone it reaches next will depend on who is stronger; the buyers or the sellers.

If you want more detail and to better understand where I am coming from, revisit what I wrote in February: Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500.

Risk management is the common characteristic among all the best traders/investors who have lasted over the many significant up and down market cycles of the past decades. I decided I was going to be one of them over two decades ago. No matter how you choose what and when to buy, it is essential to control the size of your potential loss. If you want to learn what I mean by that, read the previous ten or twenty observations I’ve shared here. This is not individual investment advice. The only individuals who get our advice are clients who have an investment management agreement with us. If you have any questions, contact us.

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

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

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

 

What’s going to happen next?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Apparently there was more enthusiasm to sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

My Introduction to Trend Following

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

I’ll explain it here, so you know where I am coming from.

Why do you think we learn math by hand before using a machine?

We learn to do the math manually because it teaches us the basics before we use a computer. We learn to ask the right questions, turn problems into math formulas, then do the calculations. By working it out manually by hand, we get a feel for the math, an instinct for it.

I learned trend following the same way.

What is trend following?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before I share one of the first things I read on trend following, I want to explain there is more than one way to execute a trend system.

Whether you are an investor who invests in an investment program or a trader who makes the portfolio management decisions in an investment program, you have to choose which fits you and your own beliefs. I can only tell you what I believe. What you believe is true, for you. As I have been successful doing what I do, I can only tell you that the key to success if finding what fits you. Reading information like this is intended to help you decide what you believe and what you don’t believe.

I see tactical traders applying two main methods for trend following.

Some of them say they are “rules-based” others say they are “systematic”, but we don’t often see them say they are “discretionary” even if they are. Here is how I see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By now, you may be wondering what I believe and what I do.

I do a combination of these. I am Man + Machine.

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

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

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

Excerpt from Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prices Move in Trends

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

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

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

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

 

He explained the philosophy or rationale of technical analysis, which has an objective of following trends in hopes they will continue. The rest of the book describes many ways to actually identify trends.

As I see it, trend following uses technical indicators to generate signals for following trends.

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

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

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

Asymmetric force was with the buyers

In Asymmetric force direction and size determines a trend, I explained how the net force of all the forces acting on a trend is the force that determines the direction. The force must be asymmetric as to direction and size to change the price and drive a directional trend.

The asymmetric force was with buyers as they dominated the directional trend on Friday.

Friday’s gain helped to push the stock market to a strong week and every sector gained.

The S&P 500 stock index is about -3% from it’s January high and closed slightly above the prior high last week. I consider this a short-term uptrend that will resume it’s longer-term uptrend if it can break into a new high above the January peak.

After declining sharply -10% to -12%, global equity markets are recovering. The good news for U.S. stocks is the Russell 2000 small company index is closest to its prior high. Small company leadership is considered bullish because it suggests equity investors are taking a risk on the smaller more nimble stocks.

As you can see in the chart, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and International Developed Countries (MSCI EAFE Europe, Australasia and Far East) are lagging so far off their lows but still recovering.

So far, so good, but only time will tell if these markets can exceed their old highs and breakout into new highs, or if they discover some resistance force at those levels and reverse back down. As we discussed in Asymmetric force direction and size determines a trend it’s going to depend on the direction and size of the buyers vs. sellers.

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

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

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

Asymmetric force direction and size determines trend

In physical science, force is used to describe the motion of a push or pull. Newton’s first law of motion – sometimes referred to as the law of inertia. Newton’s first law of motion is stated as:

“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” —Newton’s First Law of Motion

Unbalanced force? well well, there’s another asymmetry.

A push or pull is a force. To define a force, we must know its direction and size. It works similar to supply and demand on market prices. If there is enough size in a direction, a price will move in that direction. If there isn’t enough price size in a direction, the price will stay the same.

There are two kinds of forces:

Symmetrical (balanced) forces are equal in size, but opposite in direction. Symmetric forces are balanced, so they lack the direction and size to cause a change a motion. The push and pull are equal and offsets each other. Applying the concept of force to price trends in the market, when balanced forces act on a market price at rest, the market price will not move. When buying enthusiasm and selling pressure are the same, the price will stay the same.

Asymmetrical (unbalanced) forces are not equal and are opposite in direction, so they cause a change in the motion. The size of one directional force is greater than the other, so it’s going to trend in that direction. Some examples of these unbalanced forces can be observed in physical science.

More than one force can be acting at the same time, so the forces are combined into the net force. The net force is the combination of all the forces acting on a trend. The net force determines the direction. If forces are trending in opposite directions, then the net force is the difference between the forces, and it will trend in the direction of the larger force. You can probably see how that is visible in a chart of a price trend.

If buyers are willing to buy more than sellers are willing to sell, the buying pressure is a force that forces up the price until it gets high enough to push sellers to sell.

If sellers are ready to sell more than buyers are willing to buy, the selling pressure is a force that pulls down the price until it gets low enough to pull in buyers to buy.

So, Newton’s first law of motion and inertia is related to Economics 101: When the size of the force of buyers or sellers is larger in one direction, the price will trend. We can observe who is more dominant by simply looking at a price trend chart or quantifying it in a trading system.

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Watch:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Santayana

 

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

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

All Eyes are Now on the Potential Government Shutdown

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Counting down to the New Year

Doesn’t it seem the years are flying by?

It’s partially just math. It’s asymmetric!

We perceive that time seems to pass faster as we age because, at four years old, a year was 25% of our life. At 40 a year is only 2.5% of our life. The older we get, we perceive the years go by faster because each year is relatively less of our life.

Maybe we can’t control time, but we can make each year BETTER!

Or… maybe we can control our time?

As we get older, we tend to become more stable, so life can become routine. The more familiar we become with our day-to-day activities, the faster the days seem to pass by.

Want to slow down time? and have more fun?

Change things up! Create new experiences! Do new things!

Resolving Conflicts with Relative Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gets more interesting. According to The Physics Classroom:

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

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

We have discovered two different beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I see the chart below, I think:

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

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

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

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

Relative Strength can be a source of conflict for Tactical Traders

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

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

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

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

 

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

No, wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

Read Part 2: Resolving Conflicts with Relative Strength

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.

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

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

That is, losses compound more exponential than gains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asymmetric Volatility

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

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

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

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

asymmetric-volatility

Source: MyRadar

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

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

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

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

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

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

What matters is what we want to experience.

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

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

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

We get to decide what we experience.

Asymmetry in the Business Cycle

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

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

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

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

The problem is the MAGNITUDE, not length.

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

long-summer-short-winters-economic-expansion

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

strength-of-economic-expansions

 

 

Investor Optimism is Reaching Extreme

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

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

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

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

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

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

cnn-fear-greed-index

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

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

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

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

 

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

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

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

What emotion is driving the market now? Extreme Greed

Investors 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.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Max Planck

Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Max_Planck

 

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 four most dangerous words…

Every new moment is necessarily unique – we’ve never been “here” before. Probabilities and potential payoffs change based on the stage of the trend or cycle. For example, the current decline in stocks is no surprise, given the stage and magnitude of the prior trends. A few see evidence of the early stages of a bigger move, others believe it’s different this time. We’ll see how it all unfolds. I don’t have to know what’s going to happen next – I am absolutely certain of what I will do given different conditions.

To quote from fellow Tennessean, Sir John Templeton:

“The four most dangerous words in investing are, it’s different this time.”

Sir John Templeton

Sir John Templeton

source: http://www.templeton.org

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.

 

 

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

What is the Phillips Curve?

There’s a lot of talk about the “Philips Curve” in regard to the Fed decision. What is the “Philips Curve”?

First, keep in mind it is an economic theory. A theory an is idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true. A theory is a general belief about something works.

Investopedia explains the “Philips Curve”:

“An economic concept developed by A. W. Phillips stating that inflation and unemployment have a stable and inverse relationship. According to the Phillips curve, the lower an economy’s rate of unemployment, the more rapidly wages paid to labor increase in that economy.

The theory states that with economic growth comes inflation, which in turn should lead to more jobs and less unemployment. However, the original concept has been somewhat disproven empirically due to the occurrence of stagflation in the 1970s, when there were high levels of both inflation and unemployment.”

Source: Investopedia

Another great explanation from Khan Academy if you have 9 minutes to watch:

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.

Using the Month of September to Understand Probability and Expectation

probabilty-coin-flip

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, let’s define probability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

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