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

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

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

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

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

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

– George Santayana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold Isn’t Always A Hedge or Safe Haven: Gold Stock Trends Have Been Even Worse

For several years we often heard investors suggesting to “buy gold”. We could throw in Silver here, too. They provide many theories about how gold bullion or gold stocks are a “safe haven”. I’ve written about the same assumption in Why Dividend Stocks are Not Always a Safe Haven.

In fact, the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF website specifically says about the gold stock sector:

“A sector that has historically provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”.

Source: http://www.vaneck.com/gdx/

When investors have expectations about an outcome, or expect some cause and effect relationship, they expose themselves in the possibility of a loss trap. I will suggest the only true “safe haven” is cash. 

Below is a 4 year chart of two gold stock ETFs relative to the Gold ETF. First, let’s examine the index ETFs we are looking at. Of course, the nice thing about ETFs in general is they are liquid (traded like a stock) and transparent (we know what they hold).

GLD: SPDR Gold “Shares offer investors an innovative, relatively cost efficient and secure way to access the gold market. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to offer investors a means of participating in the gold bullion market without the necessity of taking physical delivery of gold, and to buy and sell that interest through the trading of a security on a regulated stock exchange.”

GDX: Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF: “The investment seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index. The fund normally invests at least 80% of its total assets in securities that comprise the Gold Miners Index. The Gold Miners Index is a modified market-capitalization weighted index primarily comprised of publicly traded companies involved in the mining for gold and silver.”

GDXJ: Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the Market Vectors Global Junior Gold Miners Index. The Index is intended to track the overall performance of the gold mining industry, which may include micro- and small capitalization companies.

Gold stocks vs Gold

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

Clearly, gold has not been a “safe haven” or “provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”. It has instead demonstrated its own extreme volatility within an extreme downward price trend.

Further, gold mining stocks have significantly lagged the gold bullion index itself.

These ETFs have allowed for the trading of gold and gold stocks, SPDR Gold explains it well:

“SPDR Gold Shares represent fractional, undivided beneficial ownership interests in the Trust, the sole assets of which are gold bullion, and, from time to time, cash. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to lower a large number of the barriers preventing investors from using gold as an asset allocation and trading tool. These barriers have included the logistics of buying, storing and insuring gold.”

However, this is a reminder that markets do not always play out as expected. The expectation of a “safe haven” or “hedge against extreme volatility” is not a sure thing. Markets may end up much worst that you imagined they could.  As many global and U.S. markets have been declining, you can probably see why I think it’s important to manage, direct, limit, and control exposure to loss. Though, not everyone does it well. It isn’t a sure thing…

______

For informational and educational purposes only, not a recommendation to buy or sell and security, fund, or strategy. Past performance and does not guarantee future results. Please click the links provide for specific risk information about the ETFs mentioned. Please visit this link for important disclosures, terms, and conditions.

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.

– Chinese Proverb

The person who says it cannot be done Should not interupt the person doing it

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/chinese-proverbs/

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.

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

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.

Human judgment, good and bad, will drive investment decisions and financial-market outcomes for the rest of our lives and beyond.

Source:  http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/will-computer-algorithms-replace-humans-in-financial-markets-by-robert-j–shiller-2015-07#hmXdmoDjMyvHOw9U.99

Why Dividend Stocks are Not Always a Safe Haven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Random Walker on Stock and Bond Valuation

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

By

BURTON G. MALKIEL

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

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

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

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

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

Long term treasury yield valuation spreads asymmetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Allocation Balanced Fund Drawdowns

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

Bond market risk drawdowns

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

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

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

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

Where is the Inflation?

In How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment? and bond prices… I pointed out that even the Fed expected their monetary policy to eventually lead to inflation. The problem with economics and economist is they expect a cause and effect, and often their expectations don’t come true. Remember all those newsletters advising to buy gold the last several years? Gold trended up a while, then down. Applying a good trend system to gold may have made money from it, but buying and holding gold is probably a loser. Inflation was supposed to go up and gold was supposed to be a shelter. However, inflation has instead trended down: The U.S. Inflation Calculator  presents it best:

Current US Inflation Rates: 2005-2015

The latest inflation rate for the United States is -0.1% through the 12 months ended March 2015 as published by the US government on April 17, 2015. The next update is scheduled for release on May 22, 2015 at 8:30 a.m. ET. It will offer the rate of inflation over the 12 months ended April 2015.

The chart, graph and table below displays annual US inflation rates for calendar years 2004-2014. Rates of inflation are calculated using the current Consumer Price Index published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For 2015, the most recent monthly data (12-month based) will be used in the chart and graph.

Historical inflation rates are available from 1914-2015. If you would like to calculate accumulated rates between different dates, the US Inflation Calculator will do that quickly.

Inflation Rate 2015-05-04_19-44-49

Source: http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/current-inflation-rates/

However, as you can see in the chart, like market prices, economic data trends directionally too. This trend of declining inflation may continue or it may reverse.

How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment? and bond prices…

Straight from the Federal Reserve website titled How does monetary policy influence inflation and employment?

In the short run, monetary policy influences inflation and the economy-wide demand for goods and services–and, therefore, the demand for the employees who produce those goods and services–primarily through its influence on the financial conditions facing households and firms. During normal times, the Federal Reserve has primarily influenced overall financial conditions by adjusting the federal funds rate–the rate that banks charge each other for short-term loans. Movements in the federal funds rate are passed on to other short-term interest rates that influence borrowing costs for firms and households. Movements in short-term interest rates also influence long-term interest rates–such as corporate bond rates and residential mortgage rates–because those rates reflect, among other factors, the current and expected future values of short-term rates. In addition, shifts in long-term interest rates affect other asset prices, most notably equity prices and the foreign exchange value of the dollar. For example, all else being equal, lower interest rates tend to raise equity prices as investors discount the future cash flows associated with equity investments at a lower rate.

In turn, these changes in financial conditions affect economic activity. For example, when short- and long-term interest rates go down, it becomes cheaper to borrow, so households are more willing to buy goods and services and firms are in a better position to purchase items to expand their businesses, such as property and equipment. Firms respond to these increases in total (household and business) spending by hiring more workers and boosting production. As a result of these factors, household wealth increases, which spurs even more spending. These linkages from monetary policy to production and employment don’t show up immediately and are influenced by a range of factors, which makes it difficult to gauge precisely the effect of monetary policy on the economy.

Monetary policy also has an important influence on inflation. When the federal funds rate is reduced, the resulting stronger demand for goods and services tends to push wages and other costs higher, reflecting the greater demand for workers and materials that are necessary for production. In addition, policy actions can influence expectations about how the economy will perform in the future, including expectations for prices and wages, and those expectations can themselves directly influence current inflation.

In 2008, with short-term interest rates essentially at zero and thus unable to fall much further, the Federal Reserve undertook nontraditional monetary policy measures to provide additional support to the economy. Between late 2008 and October 2014, the Federal Reserve purchased longer-term mortgage-backed securities and notes issued by certain government-sponsored enterprises, as well as longer-term Treasury bonds and notes. The primary purpose of these purchases was to help to lower the level of longer-term interest rates, thereby improving financial conditions. Thus, this nontraditional monetary policy measure operated through the same broad channels as traditional policy, despite the differences in implementation of the policy.

Up until now, the Long Term Treasury bond has typically gained in price on days the U.S. stock market is down. The recent price action may be a sign of changing inter-market dynamics between the Long Term Treasury and U.S. Stocks now that the Fed isn’t buying these bonds as they have for several years. As you can see in the chart below, the iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond Index was down -1.7% today as stocks were also down. It’s also in a shorter term downtrend since January. This could be a sign that may not offer the “crutch” for falling stocks they have in the past. In the next bear market, bonds may go down too.

TLT long term treasury

Created with http://www.stockcharts.com

 

 

 

Recent Observations: Stock Market, Volatility, Absolute Returns

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

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

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

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Why So Stock Market Focused?

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

Diversification Alone is No Longer Sufficient to Temper Risk…

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

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

Asymmetric Sector Exposure in Stock Indexes

My 2 Cents on the Dollar, Continued…

In My 2 Cents on the Dollar I explained how the U.S. Dollar is a significant driver of returns of other markets. For example, when the U.S. Dollar is rising, commodities like gold, oil, and foreign currencies like the Euro are usually falling. A rising U.S. Dollar also impacts international stocks priced in U.S. Dollars. When the U.S. Dollar trends up, many international markets priced in U.S. Dollars may trend down (reflecting the exchange rate). Many trend followers and global macro traders are likely “long the U.S. Dollar” by being long and short other markets like commodities, international stocks, or currencies.

Below was the chart from My 2 Cents on the Dollar last week to show the impressive uptrend and since March a non-trending indecisive period. After such a period, I suggested the next break often determines the next directional trend.

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

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

Keep in mind, this is looking closely at a short time frame within a larger trend. Below is the updated chart today, a week later. The U.S. Dollar did break down so far, but by my math, it’s now getting to an even more important point that will distinguish between a continuation of the uptrend or a reversal. This is the point where it should reverse back up, if it’s going to continue the prior uptrend.

U.S. Dollar

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

This is a good example of understanding what drives reward/risk. I consider how long the U.S. Dollar I am (by being synthetically long/short other markets) and how that may impact my positions if the trend were to reverse. It’s a good time to pay attention to it to see if it breaks back out to the upside to resume the uptrend, or if it instead breaks down to end it.

That’s my two cents on the Dollar… How long are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has changed over the past 10 years?

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

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

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

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

Standard Deviation

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

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

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

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

Why So Stock Market Focused?

Most investors and their advisors seem to speak mostly about the stock market. When they mention “the market” and I ask “what market?” they always reply “the stock market”.

Why so stock market centric?

It must be that it gets the most media attention or stocks seem more exciting?. After all, other markets like bonds may seem boring and few know much about the many commodities markets or the foreign exchange markets. There are many different markets and two sides to them all.

If it’s risk-adjusted returns you want, you may be surprised to find where you should have invested your money the past 15 years. To make the point, below is a comparison of the total return of the Vanguard S&P 500 stock index (the orange line) compared to the Vanguard Bond Index (the blue line). Yes, you are seeing that correctly. Using these simple index funds as a proxy, bonds have achieved the same total return as stocks, but with significantly less volatility and drawdowns. This is why we never look at just “average” return data without considering the path it took to get there. A total return percentage gain chart like this one presents a far more telling story. Take a close look at the path they took.

stocks vs. bonds

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

I showed the chart to one investment advisor who commented “It looks like the stock market is catching up”. If that’s what you think of when you view the chart, you may have a bias blind spot: ignoring the vast difference in the risk between the two markets.

Looking at the total return over the period identifies the obvious difference in the path the two return streams took to achieve their results, but below we see the true risk difference. Drawdowns are declines from a higher value to a low value and a visual representation of how long it took to recover the lose of capital. When we observe a drawdown chart like the one below, it’s like a lake. These charts together also help illustrate the flaw of averages. The average return of the stock and bond index have ended at about the same level and have the same average return, but the bond index achieved it with much less drawdown. You wouldn’t know that if you only looked at average returns. If you tried to walk across the stock market lake, you may have drowned if you couldn’t handle swimming in 40′ of water for so long. If that one didn’t get you, the 55′ may have. The stock index declined about -40% from 2000 – 2002 and took years to recover before it declined -55%.

stock and bond market risk historical drawdowns

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

You have to be wondering: why didn’t you just invest in bonds 15 years ago? Maybe you were focused on the prior period huge average returns in stocks?

Before I continue, let me place a very bold disclaimer here: PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE RESULTS. Another way that is stated is that PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO ASSURANCE OF FUTURE RESULTS. One more version is PAST PERFORMANCE MAY NOT BE AN INDICATION OF FUTURE RESULTS. If you remember, the 1990’s were a roaring bull market in stocks. People focus on the past expecting it to continue. That’s probably why you never thought to invest in bonds instead of stocks.

Some of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world have done that very thing over this period and longer. But, they didn’t just invest in bonds. They leveraged bonds. We’ve seen in this example that a bond index fund has achieved just as much total return as stocks. If you are a stock market centric investor: one that likes the stock market and makes it your focus, then you necessarily had to be willing to endure those -40% to -55% declines and wait many years to recover from the losses. If you are really willing to accept such risk, imagine if you had used margin to leverage bonds. The bond index rarely declined -10% or more. It was generally a falling interest rate period, so bonds gained value. If you were willing to accept -40% to -55% declines in stocks, you could have instead leveraged the bonds 400% or 500%. If you had done that, your return would be 4 or 5 times more with a downside more equal to that of stocks.

Why so stock centric?

Of course, at this stage, the PAST PERFORMANCE IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO REPEAT INTO THE FUTURE. Just as the roaring stocks of the 1990’s didn’t repeat. To see why, read Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market and Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?.

From my observations of investors performance and their advisors, most people seem to have poor results the past decade or so, even after this recent bull market. An investment management consultant told me recently that investors and their advisors who are aware of the current stage of stocks and bonds feel there is no place to turn. I believe it’s a very important time to prepare to row, not sail. For me, that means focus on actively managing risk and look for potentially profitable trends across a very global universe of markets; currency, bonds, stocks, commodities, and alternatives like volatility, inverse, etc . That’s my focus in 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?

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets YTD

As of today, global stock, bond, commodity markets are generating asymmetric returns year to date. The graph below illustrates the asymmetry is negative for those who need these markets to go “up”.

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets 2015-04-10_10-52-47

source: http://finviz.com

 

Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion:

“In prospect theory, loss aversion refers to the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are as much as twice as psychologically powerful as gains. Loss aversion was first convincingly demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.”

For most people, losing $100 is not the same as not winning $100. From a rational point of view are the two things the same or different?

Most economist say the two are the same. They are symmetrical. But I think that ignores some key issues.

If we have only $10 to eat on today and that’s all we have, if we lose it, we’ll be in trouble: hungry.

But if we have $10 to eat on and flip a coin in a bet and double it to $20, we may just eat a little better. We’ll still eat. The base rate: survival.

They say rationally the two are the same, but that isn’t true. They aren’t the same. The loss makes us worse off than we started and it may be totally rational to feel worse when we go backwards than we feel good about getting better off. I don’t like to go backwards, I prefer to move forward to stay the same.

Prospect Theory, which found people experience a loss more than 2 X greater than an equal gain, discovered the experience of losses are asymmetric.

Actually, the math agrees.

You see, losing 50% requires a 100% gain to get it back. Losing it all is even worse. Losses are indeed asymmetric and exponential on the downside, so it may be completely rational and logical to feel the pain of losses asymmetrically. Experience the feeling of loss aversions seems to be the reason a few of us manage investment risk and generate a smoother return stream rather than blow up.

To see what the actual application of asymmetry to portfolio management looks like, see: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

asymmetry impact of loss

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Absolute returns investment strategy fund

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

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

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

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

Absolute Return Investment Manager

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

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

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

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

Absolute Return as an Investment Strategy

Absolute Return Investment Strategy Fund Manager

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.

In “Absolute Return as an Investment Objective” I explained that absolute return is 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, it is focused on the actual total return the investor wants to achieve and how much risk the investor will willing to take, rather than a focus on what arbitrary market indexes do.

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.

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.

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

Sectors Showing Some Divergence…

So far, U.S. sector directional price trends are showing some divergence in 2015.

Rather than all things rising, such divergence may give hints to new return drivers unfolding as well as opportunity for directional trend systems to create some asymmetry by avoiding the trends I don’t want and get exposure to those I do.

Sector ETF Divergence 2015-03-04_11-24-54

For more information about ASYMMETRY®, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

Chart source: http://www.finviz.com/groups.ashx

 

 

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 2

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

“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

Listen: Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 2

 

Direct links:

Episode 2

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

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

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/

 

Asymmetric Alpha? Completely Different Measures and Objectives

Asymmetric Alpha

I was talking to an investment advisor about ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical and the objective of asymmetric returns when he mentioned “asymmetric alpha”. I explained the two words don’t go together.

Asymmetric is an imbalance, or unequal. Asymmetric returns. For example, is an asymmetric risk/reward profile: one that is imbalanced or skewed toward the upside than the downside. I believe that some investors prefer to capture more of the upside, less of the downside. Others seem to mistakenly prefer symmetry: to balance their risk and reward. When they balance their risk and reward it results to periods of gains followed by periods off losses that results in no real progress over time. If that has been your experience the past decade or so, you may consider what I mean by ASYMMETRY® .

Alpha is the excess return of the fund relative to the return of the benchmark index or an abnormal rate of return. The term alpha was derived by  the academic theory “Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). I believe CAPM has many flaws and is incapable of actively managing risk as necessary to produce asymmetric returns.

The two terms, asymmetric and alpha, are very different and probably should not be used together. The first is about absolute returns. The later is about relative returns. So, I believe we have to pick one of the other, rather than use them together. Asymmetric returns and alpha are completely different measures and objectives.

For information about the application of absolute and asymmetric returns visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Tony Robbins on Asymmetrical Risk Reward

Just last week I posted my article Asymmetrical Risk Definition and Symmetry: Do you Really Want Balance? about asymmetric risk reward and how we want imbalance between profit and loss, not balance. That is, we want asymmetry, not symmetry. Tony Robbins has a new book out, mentioning the very concept of asymmetric risk and asymmetric payoffs. I’ve always been a big fan of Tony.

Richard Feloni interviews Tony Robbins about his first new book in over 20 years, “MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom,”. In an article in Business Insider titled “Tony Robbins Reveals What He’s Learned From Financial Power Players Like Carl Icahn And Ray Dalio”.

Below is a piece of the interview of Robbins explaining he learned about asymmetric risk reward, which used a link to ASYMMETRY® Observations for the definition of asymmetrical risk reward.

“You’ve gotta be obsessed because you know when you lose 50%, you have to make 100% to get even.

[Warren Buffett’s advice mentioned in the book] came from Ben [Graham], his teacher. It’s, “What’s rule number one in investing? Never lose money. What’s rule number two? Don’t forget rule number one.”

That would be boring if that was the only universal piece besides the other one, which I find fascinating, was that they’re not giant risk takers, most of them. They believe in asymmetrical risk reward. It simply means they take the smallest risk possible for the largest return possible.

The average person goes out and invests a dollar hoping to make 10% or 20%, if they’re lucky — so if they’re wrong they’re in the hole majorly. Paul Tudor Jones [had a principle he used to use] called 5:1. And 5:1 is this: If he invests a dollar, he doesn’t part with that dollar he’s investing unless he feels certain he’s going to make five. He knows — he’s not stupid — he knows he’s going to be wrong [sometimes] so if he loses a dollar and has to spend another dollar, spending two to make five, he’s still up $3. He can be wrong four out of five times and still be in great shape.

Most everybody thinks that if I want to get big rewards I need to take huge risks. But if you keep thinking that, you’re gonna be broke.”

Asymmetrical Risk Definition and Symmetry: Do you Really Want Balance?

Asymmetric is imbalance, uneven, or not the same on both sides.

Risk is the possibility of losing something of value, or a bad outcome. The risk is the chance or potential for a loss, not the loss itself. Once we have a loss, the risk has shifted beyond a possibility to a real loss. The investment or position itself isn’t the risk either, risk is the possibility we may lose money in how we manage and deal with it.

Asymmetrical Risk, then, is the potential for gains and losses on an investment or trade are uneven.

When I speak of asymmetric risk, I may also refer to the probability for gains and losses that are imbalanced, for those of us who can determine probability. If the probability of losing something or a bad outcome is asymmetric, it means the risk isn’t the same as the reward.

Asymmetric risk can also refer to the outcome for profits and losses that are imbalanced, after we have sold a position, asset, or investment.

Some examples:

If we risk $10, but earn $10, the risk was symmetrical.

  • We risked $10
  • We earned $10 – we just broke even (symmetry).

Symmetry is the outcome when you balance risk and reward.

If we risk $10, but earn $20, the risk was positively asymmetric.

  • We risked $10
  • We earned $20

If we risk $10, but lose $10, the risk was symmetrical.

  • We risked $10
  • We lost $10 – we lost the same as we risked.

If we risk $10, but lose $20, the risk was an asymmetric risk.

  • We risked $10
  • We lost $20 – we lost even more than we though we risked.

Strangely, I often hear investment advisers say they want to balance risk and reward through their asset allocation.

Do you?

It was when I noticed my objective of imbalancing profit and loss, risk and reward, was so different from others that I knew I have a unique understanding and perception of the math and I could apply it to portfolio management.

You can probably see how some investors earn gains for years, then lose those gains in the following years, then earn gains again, then lose them again.

That’s a result of symmetry and its uncontrolled asymmetrical risk.

You can probably see why my focus is ASYMMETRY® so deeply that the word is my trademark.

How is the market doing? Global Deflation

How are the markets doing this year?

Well, it depends on what market you mean. So far 2014 has had only a few gains in world markets: coffee, cattle, cocoa, pork bellies, 30 year treasury bond, the U.S. Dollar,. The Dow Jones Industrial average is flat.

Most commodities prices have fallen materially. It looks like “global deflation”, which means prices are falling. I bet it’s getting the Feds attention. Deflation isn’t a good thing.

global deflation

Chart courtesy of FINVIZ

Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies

Asymmetric Risk

Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies is another attempt to explain the excess returns of momentum using the Capital Asset Pricing Model. The paper discusses a theory of risk asymmetry in momentum risk/reward, but not how to gain an edge from it.

Abstract:

I provide a novel risk-based explanation for the profitability of global momentum strategies. I show that the performance of past winners and losers is asymmetric in states of the global market upturns and downturns. Winners have higher downside market betas and lower upside market betas than losers, and hence their risks are more asymmetric. The winner-minus-loser (WML) momentum portfolios are subject to the downside market risk, but serve as a hedge against the upside market risk. The high return of the WML portfolios is a compensation for their high risk asymmetry. After controlling for this risk asymmetry, the momentum portfolios do not yield significant abnormal returns, and the momentum factor becomes insignificant in the cross-section. The two-beta CAPM with downside risk explains the cross-section of returns to global momentum portfolios well.
Source:Dobrynskaya, Victoria, Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies (March 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2399359 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2399359

 

My INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY® Interview and Portfolio Management

Portfolio Management is about buying and selling many different positions over time, not just one “pick”. I often say it’s like flipping 10 coins at the same time with each having a different payoff and profit or loss. It could be a completely random process (like flipping a coin), but if we can positively skew the payoffs (asymmetric payoffs) we end up with more profit than loss (asymmetric returns). And, as a portfolio manager I may flip that coin 100 or 500 times a year. The fact is: if the expectation for profit is positive we want to do it as often as possible.

Picking just one position is like flipping the coin just once. Its outcome may have an expected probability and payoff that is positive, but will be determined by how it all unfolds. We can never control the outcome at the point of entry. It’s the exit that always determines the outcome. We can say that same whether we are speaking of stocks, bonds, commodities, and currencies or buying and selling private businesses: if you actually knew for sure the outcome would be positive you would only need to do it once – but you don’t. So deciding what to buy is a small part of my complete portfolio management process. It’s what I do after I’m in a position that makes it “management”. To manage is to direct and control. If all you do is “buy” or “invest” in a position, you have no position “management”.

But when Trang Ho at INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY®recently asked me “What ‘s the one position you would choose over the next several months and why”, I gave her the first position I thought of – and the most recent position I had taken. I primarily get positioned with the current direction of the trend and stay with it until it changes. That may be labeled “trend following”. I define the direction of the trend (up, down, sideways) and then get in that direction until it changes. Trends don’t last forever. There is a point when the probability becomes higher and higher of a reversal. I call that a “counter-trend”. I developed systems that define these directional trends more than a decade ago and have operated them for-profit since. What I can tell you from my experience, expertise, and empirical evidence is that stock market trends, like many other market trends, cycle up and down over time. So, portfolio management is a daily routine of position management that includes predefining risk at the point of entry, taking profits, and knowing when to exit to keep losses small. That exit, not the entry, determines the outcome.

You may consider these things as you read my recent interview in Investors Business Daily titled: Market Strategists: 5 Contrarian ETF Investing Ideas.

Read More At Investor’s Business Daily: http://news.investors.com/investing-etfs/090613-670234-contrarian-etf-investing-ideas-stock-market-strategists.htm#ixzz2gNp8bWUT

Understanding Hedge Fund Index Performance

I am often fascinated by investor perception and behavior. I notice it everywhere and study it always. What a person believes makes their world what it is and how they see things. It can also explain their own poor results. You see, if the majority of individual investors and professional investors actually have poor performance over long periods (as evidenced by Dalbar and SPIVA®)  they necessarily must be doing and believing the wrong things.

I just came across something that said “Why are hedge fund indexes performing so poorly?”. My first thought was “Are they?”. There are a few different hedge fund indexes, but I use the Barclay Hedge Fund Indices because it can include more than 1,000 funds each month across a wide range of strategies.

The Barclay Hedge Fund Index is a measure of the average return of all hedge funds (excepting Funds of Funds) in the Barclay database. The index is simply the arithmetic average of the net returns of all the funds that have reported that month.

As you can see below, the Barclay Hedge Fund Index, which is the average return of all hedge funds in the Barclay database, has gained 5.22% year to date through August. Is 5.22% a “poor” return when the risk free rate on short-term T-Bills, money markets, and CD’s are near zero? I don’t think so. But, if you compare it to the highest returning index you can find maybe you’ll perceive it as “poor”. For example, the stock market indexes are so far “up” double digits this year, but they can reverse back down and end the year in the red. Stock indexes are long-only exposure to stocks so their results reflect a risk premium earned for owning stocks with no risk management to limit the downside. I don’t know anyone who thinks the stock indexes have created the kind of risk adjusted return they want after declining more than -50% twice the past several years. If they want to compare “hedge funds” to a long-only stock index they should consider focusing on hedge funds that focus on stocks.

As you can see below, the hedge fund index includes a wide range of alpha strategies. The Equity Short Bias is one of only two that are down year to date and that is expected: they are short stocks and stocks have gained this year, so these strategist that short stocks  have lost money. Emerging Markets is the other that is down, which is not terribly surprising since most emerging markets are down. They have still managed risk: through August the Emerging Markets Hedge Fund Index is down -1.73% while the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF is down -13.17%. I’m sure any of those hedge fund managers who are down don’t think that’s “good”, but its just a short period of time.

Barclay Hedge Fund Indices

Source: http://www.barclayhedge.com/

Investment managers are to compare their performance to something to illustrate the general market and economic conditions over a period. Since my investment programs don’t intend to benchmark any indexes, we often use the Barclay Hedge Fund Index as a comparison of this “alpha index” to our programs.

In the chart below, we have compared over a full market cycle the Barclay Hedge Fund Index, Dow Jones Global Moderate (a monthly rebalanced index of an allocation across 14 global indexes that are 60% global stocks, 40% global bonds), and the S&P 500 stock index The blue line is the Barclay Hedge Fund Index. Keep in mind that the hedge fund index is net of hedge fund fees while the S&P 500 stock index and Dow Jones Global Moderate does not reflect any fees.  If an investor used an adviser, they would pay a management fee, index fund fees, and trading cost, so the net return would be less. Recently, it has “lagged” the other two, but over the full cycle, its risk/reward profile is significantly superior. Though they all ended with about the same total return, the Barclay Hedge Fund Index declined -24% peak to trough during the 2007 – 2009 bear market. That -24% is compared to -38% for the Dow Jones Global Balanced 60/40 index and -55% for the S&P 500 total return (including dividends). That is the advantage of “active risk management” many hedge funds attempt to apply. Look closely at the chart below and decide which experience you would have rather had. And then, consider that it’s important to view the full picture over a full market cycle rather than focus on short-term periods.

Hedge Funds vs. Asset Allocation and Stock index

As to why the Barclay Hedge Fund Index has lagged stocks lately?

They are supposed to. Hedge funds as a group, as measured by a composite index, are investing and trading long and short multiple strategies across multiple markets: bonds, stocks, currency, commodities, and alternatives like volatility, real estate, etc.

You may also consider that hedge funds are generally risk managers (though not all have that objective). If you look at the end of the last bull market in stocks (late 2007) the hedge fund index lagged 100% stock indexes then, too. You may consider that risk managers are actively managing risk and they could be right in doing it now considering the stage in the cycle.  It’s probabilistic, never a sure thing. It worked the last time. Some hedge fund strategies begin to reduce their exposure to high risk markets like stocks after they have moved up to avoid even the early stage of the decline. By doing that, they “miss out” on both the final gains but also the initial decline after a peak. Others wait until stocks actually reverse their trend, which means they’ll participate in some of the initial decline when it happens.

You may also consider that people bragging about the gains to long-only stock indexes that have no downside protection may be another sentiment indicator. Historically, it seems that about they time they get to bragging and become complacent the trend turns against them…

Note: you cannot invest directly in any of these indexes.

Using September to Understand Probability and Expectation.

probabilty coin flip

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

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

Those are probability statements. 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 value between 0 (0% chance or will not happen) and 1 (100% chance or will happen). 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 it that is the math for dealing with uncertainty. When we don’t know an outcome, it is uncertain. It is probabilistic, not a sure thing.

As I see it, there are two ways to calculate probability: subjective and objective.

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 can probably 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 tendency of the outcome. For example, if you flip a fair coin, its probability of landing on head is 50% and tail is 50%. If you flip it 10 times, it could land on head 7 and tail 3. That outcome implies 70%/30%. To prove the coin is “fair” (balanced on both sides), we would need to flip it more times. 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 can probably see why I say this is more objective: it’s based on historical data.

If you are a math person and logical thinker, you probably 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 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: 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. But, it does.

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 probably and more importantly, the more complete equation of expectation.

Expectation

There are many different ways to define expectation. We probably 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 you base your investment decisions on opinion and expectations don’t pan out, you may stick with your opinion anyway and eventually lose money. The expectation I’m talking about is the kind I apply: mathematical expectation.

We have determined above the 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 significant 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 data 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, isn’t 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 for believing.

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 you are right or wrong, but instead the magnitude. Asymmetric returns are created by more profit, less loss. And that provides us a mathematical basis for believing a method works, or not. Not knowing the future; it’s the best we have.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Connect on Linkedin and Follow me on Twitter by clicking the buttons on the right.

Fear is the Current Return Driver

As I said in “Investor Sentiment is Bearish“, I’ll point out my observations about investor sentiment when it gets to an extreme and asymmetrically skewed to fear or greed. I pointed out the most recent AAII Investor Sentiment reading is bearish. Another simple gauge of investor sentiment is the Fear & Greed Index. As you can see, it hasn’t gotten to the extreme fear point, but fear has recently been the driver for stocks. Its reading was Greed just a month ago. Stock prices fell, investor sentiment shifted to fear. I believe many investors oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money and I’ll share the observations as they occur as empirical evidence. When investor fear increases, eventually the last seller has sold and it pendulum swings back the other way.

Image

Investor Sentiment is Bearish

I will point out observations of investor sentiment when it gets asymmetric: tilted to one extreme or another. In doing so, we’ll see how investors tend to oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money. That is, after stock prices go up, they’ll become complacent and overly optimistic. After prices go down, they’ll fear losing more money. Over time, I observe investors oscillating between these two fears. Or, you could call it fear and greed. The problem is, they feel the wrong thing and the wrong time. We’ll observe that through empirical evidence of the investment sentiment polls taken by AAII as it happens over time. Sometimes falling prices warrant some fear, and rising prices are a good thing. The point of our observations about the pendulum of sentiment is to show how they feel the wrong thing and the wrong time and most people don’t actually act on it well.

  • When investor sentiment gets extremely bearish, it’s usually after stocks have fallen and stocks often go back up.
  • When investor sentiment gets extremely bullish, it’s after stocks have gone up and stocks eventually decline.

The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey Results as of 8/21/2013 shows investors are bearish.

Image

This week’s AAII Sentiment Survey results:
  Bullish: 29.0%, down 5.5 points
  Neutral: 28.2%, down 9.1 points
  Bearish: 42.9%, up 14.7 points

Long-term averages:
  Bullish: 39.0%
  Neutral: 30.5%
  Bearish: 30.5%

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. Only one vote per member is accepted in each weekly voting period. To learn more, visit: AII Investor Sentiment Survey

What is a Hedge Fund? Hedge Funds 101

A hedge fund is really just a structure for running an investment program. It’s a business structure, usually a Limited Partnership, that operates like a business. It’s a “private investment partnership”. Its business is investing or trading. There are several good reasons for operating an investment program in a private investment partnership structure. For example, a global macro manager may have an edge constructing exposure to markets with options. Rather than risking money buying stock or a currency, we may gain a better risk/reward through a vertical spread. Many strategies are difficult to execute across multiple accounts, so they can’t effectively and efficiently be offered as separately managed accounts, so the LP structure is the better choice. And, even though some strategies can be implemented in a mutual fund, a mutual fund is far more expensive to operate and administer to make them available to the general public. So if a manager aims to only offer a strategy to a fewer number of investors, he ends up managing what is commonly called a  “hedge fund”.  There are all kinds of strategies operated in that format, so it’s really just industry jargon. The term “hedge fund” is just slang for a “private investment partnership that isn’t offered to everyone”. Beyond that, here is a great primer for hedge funds:

Interest Rate Trend

In Interest Rates are Trending Up, Bonds Investors Feeling the Pain we looked at the trend in interest rates and bond prices going back 15 years. For a more macro view of just how low interest rates are historically, below we view rates going back to 1962. It shows how low rates have been, but also gives historical precedent as to how high they could go…

Image

source: dshort.com

How’s the market doing?

At lunch someone asked me “How’s the market doing this month?”

Which market? And, why does a month matter? 

He probably meant the “stock market” because that’s what people know about, but there are many different markets and we can get long or short any of them.

Image

source: FINVIZ

Interest In Tactical Asset Allocation Grows Among ERISA Plans

According to a new white paper from The Center for Due Diligence “TACTICAL ASSET ALLOCATION & ERISA PLANS: Best Practices for Finding the Right Strategy for Plan Participants“:

Looking for ways to stabilize returns and manage downside risk, the interest in Tactical Asset Allocation (TAA) strategies has increased. This was initially driven by the 2008 financial crisis, where diversification of asset classes did not provide participants with downside protection. Fueled by concerns over a transitioning monetary policy and asset class repricing, today’s equity market valuations, changing interest rate environment and a better understanding of participant risk tolerance has further increased interest in TAA. This trend could impact the rosy projections for target-date funds and the market share held by the dominant providers.

Given today’s investment dynamics – heightened risk for equities as well as bonds – astute investment advisors are increasingly questioning the prudence of modern portfolio theory. The DOL’s recent Tips for ERISA Plan Fiduciaries may also have sparked the desire for more oversight through custom solutions.

While somewhat limited in application, many proprietary target date fund managers already use a tactical overlay. Until now, there was very little guidance for plan fiduciaries to help them understand the different types of core TAA strategies, let alone evaluate the suitability of a particular strategy for their individual plans.

Separating analytically disciplined TAA strategies from high risk “market timing” type strategies, the CFDD’s exclusive white paper on Tactical Asset Allocation & ERISA Plans will become an invaluable resource for plan sponsors, investment advisors and product manufacturers considering TAA strategies. It will also spearhead the need for tactical transparency and accountability.

TAA contemplates dynamic changes based on current conditions. In addition to requiring special skills and being more complex than traditional approaches, TAA managers may have different goals and trigger methodology. Offered in conjunction with the Wagner Law Group – one of the nation’s most prestigious ERISA law firms – the white paper provides a conceptual overview of legal standards, core fiduciary principles and QDIA applications that will benefit both the experienced and those considering tactical strategies for the first time.

In addition to providing the analytic framework for evaluation, the white paper includes a checklist of best practices and key considerations for plan fiduciaries considering TAA strategies. Moving beyond the marketing hype, the white paper empowers plan fiduciaries with the knowledge to understand/evaluate TAA strategies and ask the right questions. It also paints a realistic picture of the rewards, risks and limitations of these wide ranging strategies.

How a Family Office Selects an Investment Manager

The topic of selecting an investment manager is an important one. Many investors, including professional financial planners and advisors admit they have little skill at selecting asset managers. In fact, some admit they do such a poor job at it they don’t even try. But if you understand the value in alternative investment strategies from private equity to absolute return focused investment programs, then you need to know what to look for in an investment manager. These alternative investment strategies are most often offered privately in a private hedge fund format and sometimes offered as a separate managed account (SMA). Whether you are a private individual investor, an allocator for a family office or institution, or a portfolio manager, the video below is an outstanding example of how a sophisticated investor analyzes a money manager. It’s an interview with the Chief Investment Officer of a family office. He explains why a family who sold a large business may be interested in alternative investments or alternative investment strategies rather than conventional public investments and investment programs like mutual funds.  His family office has allocated 80% to alternative investment managers (like hedge funds and the Asymmetry Investment Program™). He offers some insight about:

  • Why family offices (and other wealthy investors) are attracted to alternative investment strategies commonly offered as a private hedge fund.
  • What they specifically look for in selecting a portfolio manager.
  • How allocators filter managers post crisis:  What exactly did you do in 2008?
  • Are they looking at younger emerging hedge fund/money managers?

On how they select hedge funds:  (begins around 4:07/9:57)

“We are looking for opportunities with managers were we can get comfortable as to their strategy and what will generate returns for them and what the risks might be? We haven’t been very active with emerging or start-up managers. I think a lot of that has to do with where we are in terms of time.

2008 was an awesome and an awful market experience it’s helpful to look at managers who actually were in existence during that period of time to gain some understanding of how they manage their portfolios are the most difficult. Someone doesn’t have a 08 track record is much harder to get a sense of how they’re going to do a difficult markets. 09 was a pretty easy market to make money if you were long.”

How are you evaluating the 2008 period what are you looking at specifically, the drawdown?

“We obviously start with performance but  I also want to see exposure in the portfolio. How did the manager navigate those markets? Did he keep his portfolio fully invested in a market environment for his strategy was not allowing it to make money was actually causing losses? Did he trim exposure? When did he put exposure back into the market place?  is something that we look at it. It’s really it’s a number of different factors we try and I can understand how the manager managed during that period of time and try to gain some insight on his style. Conviction doesn’t automatically mean that you stay fully invested at all times. Although we certainly saw a number of managers who waited FAR too long to trim their exposure. So,  it’s a combination of all those factors we try and consider. But I would say one of the things that are most important to me is trying to follow a managers gross and net exposures during that period trying to understand. That leads to conversations of what the manager was thinking at the time.”

He goes on to say: 

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

I can tell you he’s spot on. Those whose jobs are that of the asset allocator, who allocates capital to investment programs, often rely too much on Modern Portfolio Theory statistics and not enough on looking very closely under the hood. As a quantitative trading system developer and operator, we are focusing on far different things and I can tell you: it’s the things that matter. It’s critical that the investor or allocator take a close look at the downside: how was their drawdown from peak to trough? What were the actual holdings during that time? Like he said: do they stay in the market even when it’s not working for them? Or, do they reduce their exposure to the possibility of loss (risk management) by selling positions or dynamic hedging?

I very much agree with his comments about experience. Today there are many people selling hypothetical backtests who have no real experience executing during difficult conditions. After such a radical waterfalloccurred in 2008 – 2009, more investors and professionals have now figured out the state of the market. In a secular bear market, such waterfalls occur and it can happen again. After the fact, many investment professionals have scrambled to come up with solutions and naturally they’ll be attracted to what actually worked in the past: like some forms of Global Tactical Asset Allocation, Trend Following, and other so-called “alternative” investment strategies like we run. We now have new people interested in active portfolio management that seek an absolute return, rather than a relative return. But like he said: they lack the actual experience. You really don’t know how they’ll react in the heat of the battle. But you can be assured of this: back-testing a system is one thing, executing is another.

Click below to view:

 

Family Office Management, Investment Management, Hedge Funds, Absolute Returns, Active Risk Management

www.AsymmetryObservations.com

Image

After a year hiatus, I am pleased to introduce my new blog. My prior site, Asymmetric Investment Returns, had an average readership of over 4,000 a day. ASYMMETRY® Observations is my observations about alternative investment strategies and global trend observations aimed at creating asymmetric returns; more of the profits we want, less of the downside we prefer to avoid. http://www.AsymmetryObservations.com

%d bloggers like this: