Investor Sentiment into the New Year 2019

Investor sentiment measures may be used as contrarian indicators. We expect the market to do the opposite of what the indicators are saying when they reach an extreme level of bullish/greed/optimism or bearish/fear/pessimism.  Identifying extreme levels of positive or negative sentiment may give us an indicator of the direction the stock market is likely to trend next.

I observe when sentiment reaches overly optimistic levels like it did late 2017 into January 2018, the stock market trend trends down or at least sideways afterward. In reverse, after investor sentiment becomes extremely pessimistic, the stock market tends to trend back up.

Although extreme investor sentiment may be used as a contrarian indicator, I do not base my investment or tactical trading decisions on it by itself. I use investor sentiment measures and indicators to indicate and confirm my other signals of a potential trend change. For example, when bullish investor sentiment is rising from a lower level but not yet reached an extreme high, it’s just confirming trend following. However, when bullish sentiment reaches an extreme it warns me to be prepared for a potential countertrend. All those who want to buy may have bought, so buying enthusiasm may be exhausted. That’s what I observed in January 2018. After prices fall investor sentiment shifts to bearish and they fear more loss. Once the level of fear reaches an extreme it begins to suggest those who want to sell have sold and we could see selling become exhausted and a selling climax.

We have two types of investor sentiment measures: Polls and indicators.

Investor sentiment polls actually survey investors to ask them what they believe about the market. The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey has become a widely followed measure of the mood of individual investors. Since 1987, AAII members have been answering the same simple question each week:

“Do you feel the direction of the market over the next six months will be up (bullish), no change (neutral) or down (bearish)?”

The results are then consolidated into the AAII Investor Sentiment Survey, which offers us some insight into the mood of individual investors.

Bearish investor sentiment is negatively correlated with stock market index returns. Below I created a chart of the S&P 500 stock index with an overlay of the % bearish investor sentiment. On the bottom, I added the correlation between the S&P 500 and the % bearish investor sentiment. We can visually see there is a negative correlation between investors getting more bearish as stock prices fall. For example, few investors were bearish in 2014 into 2015 until the stock index fell -12% in August 2015, then the % of bearish investors spiked up. We also saw the % of bearish investors extremely low in January 2018 as the stock index reached an all-time high. After the stock index declined -20% at the end of 2018 we saw the % of bearish investors spike up again. As we enter 2019, the % of bearish investors is at a historical extreme high level so we may be observing a selling climax as the desire to sell gets exhausted.

Bearish Investor Sentiment is Negatively Correlated with Stock Index Returns

Bullish investor sentiment is positively correlated with stock index returns, except after stock prices fall, then investors lose their optimism. In the chart below, we see the % of bullish investors trending up along with stocks 2014 into 2015, but then as prices fell late 2015 into 2016 they lose their optimism for stocks. We saw another spike to an extreme level of bullishness late 2017 into 2018 as the stock index reached all-time highs. The % of bullish investors declined with great momentum after prices fell sharply. As we enter 2019, the % of bullish investors is very low, leaving much room for the desire to buy to take over.

Bullish Investor Sentiment is Positively Correlated with Stock Index Returns

Investor sentiment surveys like AAII are useful tools to get an idea of extreme sentiment levels when selling pressure or buying enthusiasm may be becoming exhausted. However, their potential weakness is they are ultimately just polls asking people what they believe, not what they are actually doing. Regardless, they do seem to have enough accuracy to be used as a guide to confirm other indicators.

As I’ve observed extreme levels of investor sentiment and participation in the 2018 downtrend in global markets, I’ve shared these indicators several times. As we saw in the investor sentiment survey, the VIX spiked in 2015, then spiked again but to a lower high in 2016 as the stock index fell. The VIX spiked again in February 2018 as the S&P 500 quickly declined -10%. After prices trended back up implied volatility contracted all the way to the low level of 12. The stock index started to decline again, so the VIX once again indicated a volatility expansion. As we enter 2019, the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index VIX is at 25.42, just over its long-term average of 20. The VIX implies an expected volatility range of 25% over the next 30 days.

VIX VXX VXXB 2018 VOLATILITY EXPANSION TRADING INVESTMENT ADVISOR.jpg

I’ve shared several observations the past few months of the Put/Call Ratio. The Put/Call Ratio is a range bound indicator that swings above and below 1, so reveals a shifting preference between put volume to call volume. When the level is high, it indicates high put volume. Since puts are used for hedging or bearish trades, I consider it a contrary indicator at extremely high levels.

The Equity Put/Call Ratio measures the put and call volume on equities, leaving out indexes. The Equity Put/Call Ratio spiked to a high level of put volume when it reached 1.13 on December 21, 2018, as the stock index was declining. The high Equity Put/Call indicated options trading volume was much higher for protective puts than call volume. The Equity Put/Call Ratio is considered to be mostly non-professional traders who tend to be more bullish, so it keeps call volume relatively high and the ratio low. Its high level has so far turned out to be a reliable short-term indicator of a short-term low in stocks. As we enter 2019, the Equity Put/Call Ratio is at .60, which is at a normal range. We normally see more call volume than put volume in the Equity Put/Call Ratio, so the ratio is its normal level as you can see in the chart.

equity put call ratio 2018 spx spy

The CBOE Index Put/Call Ratio is applied to index options without equity options. We believe professional traders and portfolio managers mostly use index options for hedging or directional positions. The total volume of the Index Put/Call Ratio is asymmetric toward puts for hedging purposes. As we can observe in the chart below, the current level at the beginning of 2019 is 1.09 dropping about 35% from it’s December peak at 1.67.

INDEX PUT CALL RATIO CBOE 2018

We can visually see the tendency in Index Put/Call is around 1 as the Equity Put/Call Ratio is around 0.60. Equity Put/Call Ratio has a more optimistic/bullish tendency as individual stock options are used more for bullish bets as index options are used more as for hedging.

The CBOE Total Put/Call Ratio combines both equity and index options to create a range bound oscillator that swings above and below 1. With the Total Put/Call Ratio, I believe the put bias in index options is offset by the call bias in equity options. The Total Put/Call Ratio spiked to its highest ever reading of 1.82 on December 20, 2018, as the stock index was entering the -20% “bear market” level. I consider a level above 1.20 to be bullish as it indicates an extreme in put volume over call volume. A reading below 0.70 is more bearish since there is an asymmetry between call volume over put volume. Above 1.20 is an elevated put trading volume. As a bet that stock prices will fall or hedge against them, buying put options is a bearish sentiment. Of course, some of the volume could have been traders selling puts which are a very speculative bullish bet, but since I pointed it out the stock indexes reversed up sharply, so I believe it turned out to be a reliable short-term indicator of a short-term low in stocks. As we enter 2019, the Total Put/Call Ratio is at .98 which is still high. We usually see more call volume than put volume, so the ratio is typically well below 1 as you can see in the chart.

total put call ratio spx comparison

There is no better indicator of a shift in investor sentiment than price action. No one believes that any more than me. The direction of the price trend is the final arbiter, and I’ve believed it over two decades. Any indicator that is a derivative of price or non-price trend economic data has the potential to stray far from the reality of the price trend. The price trend determines the value and the outcome of a position. As we enter 2019, the S&P 500 stock index has declined -20% off it’s September high and after a sharp reversal up since December 24th, it’s currently in a short-term downtrend, but at a level, the countertrend back up may continue.

spy spx stock index 2018 bear market

Even if you don’t observe investor sentiment measures as an indicator or trade signal, it’s still useful to observe the extremes to help avoid becoming overly bullish or overly bearish and part of the herd. The herd tends to be wrong at extremes, and most investors tend to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. If I am to create better results, I must necessarily do the opposite of most investors.

As a tactical investment manager, I identify changes in price trends, inter-market relationships, investor sentiment, and market conditions aiming for better risk-adjusted returns. My objective is asymmetric investment returns, so I necessarily focus on asymmetric risk/reward positions, and that includes focusing on asymmetries between bullish and bearish investor sentiment.

 

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 on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell 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. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

Observations of the stock market downtrend

Observations of the stock market downtrend

In the last observation I shared about the stock market, “The stock market trends up with momentum,” we saw the stock market reverse back up with strong momentum. The S&P 500 stock index had declined about -7% from its high, then reversed back up 3%. I discussed how investor behavior and sentiment drives market prices. Many investor sentiment measures signaled investor fear seemed to be in control, driving down prices. Volatility had spiked and then started to settle back down. Many individual stocks in the S&P 500 had declined enough to signal shorter-term downtrends, but then they reversed up. I closed by saying:

In summary, today was a strong upward momentum day for the stock market and most stocks participated in the uptrend. After sharp declines like we’ve seen this month, the stock market sometimes reverses up like this into an uptrend only to reverse back down to test the low. After the test, we then find out if it breaks down or breaks out.

One day doesn’t make a trend, but for those who are in risk taker mode with stocks, so far, so good.

The part I bolded with italics has turned out to be the situation this time.

Below is a year to date price trend of the S&P 500 stock index. As of today, my observation “the stock market sometimes reverses up like this into an uptrend only to reverse back down to test the low” is what we are seeing now.

stock market trend

I’ve always believed investment management is about probability and possibilities, it’s never a sure thing. The only certainty is uncertainty, so all we can do is stack the odds in our favor. As I said before, “After the test, we then find out if it breaks down or breaks out.” 

The positive news is, investor sentiment measures are reaching levels that often precede short-term trend reversals back up.

The bad news is if the current trend becomes a bigger downtrend these indicators will just stay at extremes as long as they want. We have to actively manage our exposure to loss if we want to avoid large losses, like those -20% or more that are harder to overcome.

Down -10% is one thing, down -20% is another. Any investor should be willing to bear -10% because they will see them many times over the years. Only the most passive buy and hold investors are willing to bear the big losses, which I define as -20% or more.

Nevertheless, I see some good news and bad, so here it is. I’ll share my observations of the weight of the evidence by looking at relatively simple market indicators. I don’t necessarily make my tactical decisions based on this, but it is instead “market analysis” to get an idea of what is going on. Observations like this are intended to view the conditions of the markets.

Fear is the dominant driver. 

The Fear & Greed Index tracks seven indicators of investor sentiment. When I included it a week ago, it was at 15, which is still in the “Extreme Fear” zone. The theory is, the weighting of these seven indicators of investor sentiment signals when fear or greed is driving the market. Clearly, fear is the dominant driver right now.

fear greed index investor sentiment behavioral finance

At this point, we can see investor sentiment by this measure has now reached the low level of its historical range. In this chart, we can see how investor sentiment oscillates between fear and greed over time in cycles much like the stock market cycles up and down.

fear and greed back test over time investor sentiment indicator

I believe investor behavior is both a driver of price trends, but investors also respond to price trends.

  • After prices rise, investors get more optimistic as they extrapolate the recent gains into the future expecting the gains to continue.
  • After prices fall, investors fear losing more money as they extrapolate the recent losses into the future expecting them to get worse.

Investor sentiment and price trends can overreact to the upside and downside and the herd of investors seems to get it wrong when they reach an extreme. We observe when these kinds of indicators reach extremes, these cycles are more likely to reverse. It is never a sure thing, but the probabilities increase the possibility of a reversal. But, since there is always a chance of a trend continuing longer in time and more in magnitude, it is certainly uncertain. Since there is always a chance of a bad outcome, I  have my limits on our exposure to risk with predetermined exits or a hedge.

Speaking of a hedge. 

I started pointing out my observation several weeks ago of a potential volatility expansion. If you want to read about it, most of the past few weeks observations have included comments about the VIX volatility index. Over the past few days, we’ve observed a continuation in the volatility expansion.

vix hedge volatility expansion asymmetric hedge asymmetry

Implied volatility has expanded nearly 100% over in the past 30 days.

vix volatility expansion trading

As a tactical portfolio manager, my first focus is risk management. When I believe I have defined my risk of loss, I become willing to shift from risk manager to risk taker. I share that because I want to point out the potential for hedging with volatility. Rather than a detailed exhaustive rigorous 50-page paper, I’m going to keep it succinct.

My day job isn’t to write or talk about the markets. I’m a professional portfolio manager, so my priority is to make trading and investment decisions as a tactical investment manager. I’m a risk manager and risk taker. If I never take any risk, I wouldn’t have any to manage. The observations I share here are just educational, for those who want to follow along and get an idea of how I see things. I hope you find it helpful or at least interesting. It’s always fun when it starts new conversations.

To keep the concept of hedging short and to the point for my purpose today, I’ll just share a simple chart of the price trend of the stock index and the volatility index over the past 30 days. The stock index has declined -8.3% as the implied volatility index expanded over 95%. You can probably see the potential for a hedge. However, it isn’t so simple, because these are just indexes and we can’t buy or sell the VIX index.

vix volatility as a hedge stock market risk management

The purpose of a hedge is to shift the risk of loss from one thing to another. The surest way to reduce the possibility of loss is to simply sell to reduce exposure in the thing that is the risk. That’s what I do most of the time. For example, when I observed a potential volatility expansion, I reduced my exposure to positions that had the possibility of loss due to increased volatility. Once prices fall and volatility contracts, maybe we increase exposure again to shift back to risk-taking. If we take no risk at all, we would have no potential for a capital gain. So, tactical portfolio management is about increasing and decreasing exposure to the possibility of gain and loss. If we do it well, we create the kind of asymmetric risk/reward I aim for.

So, any hedging we may do is really just shifting from one risk to another, hoping to offset the original risk. Keep in mind, as I see it, a risk is the possibility of loss. I’ll share more on hedging soon. I have some observations about hedging and hedge systems you may find interesting.

Most stocks are participating in the downtrend. Below is an updated chart of the percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 that are above their 50-day moving average. If you want to know more about what it is, read the last observations. The simple observation here is that most stocks are declining.

stock market breadth risk indicator

Much like how we saw investor sentiment cycle and swing up and down, we also see this breadth indicator oscillate from higher risk levels to lower risk levels.

  • After most stocks are already in uptrends, I believe the risk is higher that we’ll see it reverse.
  • After most stocks have already declined into downtrends, it increases the possibility that selling pressure may be getting closer to exhaustion.

The good news is, at some point selling pressure does get exhausted as those who want to sell have sold and prices reach a low enough level to bring in new buying demand.

That’s what stock investors are waiting for now.

These are my observations. I don’t have a crystal ball, nor does anyone. I just predetermine my risk levels in advance and monitor, direct, and control risk through my exits/hedging how much I’m willing to risk, or not. We’ll just have to see how it all unfolds in the days and weeks ahead.

Only time will tell if this is the early stage of a bigger deeper downtrend or just another correction within the primary trend.

I hope you find my observations interesting and informative.

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 on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell 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. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion

Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion

On September 25th I shared in VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility when I pointed out a low level of expected volatility as implied by the VIX index.

I said:

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.

I went on to explain my historical observations of volatility cycles driven by investor behavior:

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.

I shared the chart below, showing implied volatility at the low end of the cycle over the past year:

Since that date, we’ve indeed witnessed a volatility expansion of more than 90% in the VIX index and a decline in the S&P 500 stock index over -6%.  Implied volatility has expanded and stocks declined. As implied volatility is now starting to contract, below we can see the recent expansion as it trended from 12 to 24. Today its back to its long-term average of 20.

Stock market indexes, both U. S. and international, have declined 6 – 7% from their highs.

At this point, this has been a normal short-term cycle swing in an ongoing uptrend that is frequently referred to as a “correction.”

To be sure, we can see by looking at the % drawdowns in the primary uptrend that started in March 2009.

Markets cycle up and down, even within overall primary uptrends. As we see over a nine-year period, the current decline is about average and half as deep as the largest declines since 2009.

You can probably see what I meant by situational awareness of the markets cycles, trends, and volatility levels.

It isn’t enough to just say it or write about it. My being aware of the situation helps me to do what I said, which is worth repeating:

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.

As far as the stock market condition, I like to see what is going on inside. Just as volatility swings up and down in cycles, so do price trends. As I’ve pointed out before, I observe prices swinging up and down often driven by investor behavior. For example, many investors seem to oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money.

“The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.” – Warren Buffett

One visual way to observe the current stage is the breadth of the stock market as I shared last week in The Stock Market Trend. Below is the percent of stocks in the S&P 500 index trending above their 50 day moving averages often used as a short-term trend indicator. This is a monthly chart since 2009 so we can see how it oscillates up and down since the bull market started. At this point, the number of stocks falling into short-term downtrends is about what we’ve seen before.

stock market breadth asymmetric risk

The risk is: this continues to be an aged old bull market, so anything is possible. That is why my focus every day is situational awareness. But, there is always a risk of a -10% or more decline in the stock market, regardless of its age or stage.

The good news is, we’ve now experienced some volatility expansion, stocks have now pivoted down to the lower end of their cycles, so maybe volatility will contract and stock prices resume their uptrend.

We’ll see.

All that is left to do is observe, be prepared, and respond tactically as it all unfolds.

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 on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell 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. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

%d bloggers like this: