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. 

The markets always go back up?

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

I replied: “Tell that to the Japanese”.

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

Long Term Japan Stock Market Index NIKKEI

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

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

Actively Managing Investment Risk

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

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

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

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

Low Volatility Downside was the Same

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

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

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

SPLV PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio

Source: http://www.ycharts.com

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.

What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Allocation Balanced Fund Drawdowns

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

Bond market risk drawdowns

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

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

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

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

Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market

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

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

Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research explains it best:

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

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

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

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

My 2 Cents on the Dollar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s my two cents on the Dollar…

How long are you? Do you know?

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Absolute returns investment strategy fund

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

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

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

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

Absolute Return Investment Manager

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

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

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

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

Absolute Return as an Investment Objective

Absolute Return objective fund strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversification Alone is No Longer Sufficient to Temper Risk…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanguard DFA BlackRock PIMCO Asset Allcation

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

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

PIMCO Total Return Bond Vanguard Total Bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

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

Click the titles to listen.

Episode 1

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

Direct links:

Episode 1

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

 

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

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

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

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

To listen, click: Mike Shell Interview with Michael Covel

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

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

 

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell Capital Management Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stock index asymmetric distribution and losses

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

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

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

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

symmetry normal distribution bell curve black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is the Alternative?

Alternative Investment Strategy

Anything beyond buying and holding stocks and bonds is called “alternative” investments,  alternative investment strategies, or alternative trading strategies.

What is “alternative”?

  • offering or expressing a choice
  • not usual or traditional
  • existing or functioning outside of the established society
  • different from the usual or conventional

Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alternative

I like it.