Momentum stocks are stocks that show high upside momentum in their price trend. Momentum stocks are trending not only regarding their absolute price gains but also relative strength vs. other stocks or the stock market index.
Momentum stocks are usually high growth stocks. Since momentum stocks are the strongest trending stocks, their trends are often driven by growth in sales and earnings. Growth stocks are companies that are growing earnings at a rate significantly above average. Growth stocks have high increases in earnings per share quarter over quarter, year over year, and may not pay dividends since these companies usually reinvest their strong earnings to accelerate growth.
Now that we have defined what I mean by “momentum stocks,” we can take a look at some examples of momentum stocks and their characteristics like how their prices trend.
Grubhub Inc. ($GRUB) is an online and mobile food-ordering company that connects diners with local restaurants. GrubHub is a great example today of a high momentum growth stock. GrubHub stock has gained 24% today after smashing Wall Street’s expectations. Earnings grew 92% to 50 cents a share, marking the fifth quarter in a row of accelerating EPS growth. Revenue soared 51% to $239.7 million, a quarterly best.
Before today, GrubHub stock was in a positive trend that developed a flat base since April (highlighted on the chart). GRUB had already gained 60% year to date, but after such as explosive uptrend in momentum, it trended sideways for a while.
It is earnings season, which can be tricky for the highest momentum stocks. Once a stock has already made a big move, it could already have a lot of good news expectations priced in. That concerns some momentum stock traders. In fact, I know some momentum stock traders who exit their stocks before their quarterly earnings announcements. If they had exited GrubHub, they would have missed today’s continuation of its momentum. However, they would avoid the downside of those that trend in the other direction.
I’ve been trading momentum stocks for over two decades. Over the years I’ve observed different regimes of how they act regarding trend strength and volatility. There are periods of volatility expansion and contraction and other periods when momentum is much stronger.
Volatility is how quickly and how far the price spreads out. When price trends are volatile, it’s harder to stick with them because they can move against us. We like upside volatility, but smart investors are loss averse enough to dislike downside volatility that leads to drawdowns. To understand why the smart money is loss averse, read: “Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?“.
Strong upward trending stocks are sometimes accompanied by volatility. That’s to be expected because momentum is a kind of volatility expansion. Upward momentum, the kind we like, is an upward expansion in the range of the price – volatility.
That’s good vol.
But, strong trending momentum stocks necessarily may include some bad volatility, too. Bad volatility is the kind investors don’t like – it’s when the price drops, especially if it’s a sharp decline.
I mentioned GrubHub had gained 60% YTD. I like to point out, observe, and understand asymmetries. The asymmetry is the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, I prefer to skew them positively. What I call the Asymmetry® Ratio is a chart of the upside total return vs. the chart of the downside % off high. To achieve the gain for GrubHub, investors would have had to endure its price declines to get it. For GrubHub, the stock has declined -10% to -15% many times over the past year. It has spent much of the time off its high. To have realized all of the gains, investors had to be willing to experience the drawdowns.
I point this out because yesterday I wrote “Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?” where I discussed the mathematical basis behind the need for me to actively manage the downside risk. To achieve the significant gain, we often have to endure at least some of the drawdowns along the way. The trick is how much, and for me, that depends on many system factors.
Earnings season, when companies are reporting their quarterly earnings, is especially tricky for high momentum stocks because stocks that may be “priced for perfection” may be even more volatile than normal. Accelerating profit growth is attractive to investment managers and institutional investors because increasing profit growth means a company is doing something right and delivering exceptional value to customers. I’m more focused on the direction of the price trend – I like positive momentum. But, earnings are a driver of the price trend for stocks.
Earnings can trend in the other direction, too, or things can happen to cause concern. This information is released in quarterly reports.
Another example of a momentum stock is NetFlix. By my measures, GrubHub is a leading stock in its sector and NetFlix (NFLX) is the leader in its industry group, too, based on its positive momentum and earnings growth. As we see in the chart below, NFLX has gained 88% year to date. That’s astonishing momentum considering the broad stock market measured by the S&P 500 has gained around 5%, and its Consumer Services Sector ETF has gained 11%.
However, NetFlix stock regularly declines as much as -15% as a regular part of its trend. It has fallen over -10% five times in the past year on its way to making huge gains. The latest reason for the decline was information that was released during its quarterly earnings announcement. The stock dropped sharply afterward.
But, as we see in the chart, it’s still within its normal decline that has happened five times the past year.
While some of my other momentum stock trader friends may exit their stocks during the earnings season, I instead focus more on the price trend itself. I predefine my risk in every position, so I determine how much I’ll allow a stock to trend to the downside before I exit. When a stock trends down too far, it’s no longer in a positive trend with the side of momentum we want. To cut losses short, I exit before the damage gets too large.
How much is too much?
A hint is in the above charts.
If we want to experience a positive trend of a momentum stock, we necessarily have to give it enough room to let it do what it does. When it trends beyond that, it’s time to exit and move on. We can always re-enter it again it if trends back to the right side.
Sure, earnings season can be tricky, but for me, it’s designed into my system. I’m looking for positive Asymmetry® – an asymmetric risk/reward. What we’ve seen above are stocks that may decline as much as -15% as a normal part of their trend when they fall, but have gained over 50% over the same period.
You can probably see how I may be able to create a potentially positive asymmetric risk/reward payoff from such a trend.
Mike Shell is the Founder, and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Managed Portfolios and ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.
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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.