What in the World is Going on?

The trend has changed for U.S. stocks since I shared my last observation. On January 27th I pointed out in The U.S. Stock Market Trend that the directional trend for the popular S&P 500®  U.S. large cap stock index was still up, though it declined more than -10% twice over the past year. At that point, it had made a slightly lower high but held a higher low. Since then,  theS&P 500® declined to a lower low.

First, let’s clearly define a trend in simple terms. A trend is following a general course of direction. Trend is a direction that something is moving, developing, evolving, or changing. A trend is a directional drift, one way or another. I like to call them directional trends. There is an infinite number of trends depending on the time frame. If you watch market movements daily you would probably respond to each day’s gain or loss thinking the trend was up or down based on what it just did that day. The professional traders who execute my trades for me probably consider every second a trend because they want to execute the buy or sell at the best price. As a tactical position trader, I look at multiple time frames from months to years rather than seconds or a single day.  So, trends can be up over one time frame and down over another.

As we observe the direction of  “the trend”, let’s consider the most basic definitions over some specific time frame.

  • Higher highs and higher lows is an uptrend.
  • Lower lows and lower highs is a downtrend.
  • If there is no meaningful price break above or below those prior levels, it’s non-trending.

Below is the past year of the S&P 500® stock index, widely regarded as a representation of large cap stocks. Notice the key pivot points. The top of the price trend is lower highs. The bottom of the range is lower lows. That is a “downtrend” over the past year. It could break above the lower highs and hold above that level and shift to an uptrend, but for now, it is a downtrend. It could also keep swinging up and down within this range as it has the past year, or it could break down below the prior low. At this moment, it’s a downtrend. And, it’s a downtrend occurring after a 7-year uptrend that began March 2009, so we are observing this in the 7th year of a very aged bull market. As I said in The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market, the average bull market lasts around 4 years. This one was helped by unprecedented government intervention and  is nearly double that length.

stock market downtrend

Another interesting observation is the trend of small and mid-size company stocks. In the next chart, we add small and mid-size company stock indexes. As you see, they are both leading on the downside. Small and mid-size company stocks have made even more pronounced lower highs and lower lows. Market trends don’t always play out like a textbook, but this time, it is. For those who want a story behind it, small and mid-size company stocks are expected to fall first and fall more in a declining market because smaller companies are considered riskier. On the other hand, they are expected to trend up faster and stronger since a smaller company should reflect new growth sooner than a larger company. It doesn’t always play out that way, but over the past year, the smaller companies have declined more. Large companies could catch up with them if the declining trend continues.

small and mid cap underperformance relative strength momentum

What about International stocks? Below I included International indexes of developed countries (EFA) with exposure to a broad range of companies in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Far East. I also added the emerging markets index (EEM) that is exposure to countries considered to be “emerging” like China, Brazil, and India. Just as small U.S. stocks have declined more than mid-sized and mid-sized have declined more than large companies, emerging markets and developed International countries have declined even more than all of them.

global market trends

What in the world is going on?

Well, within U.S. and International stocks, the general trends have been down. This could change at any time, but for now, it is what it is.

You can probably see why I think actively managing risk is so important. 

 

This is not investment advice. If you need individualized advice please contact us or your advisor. Please see Terms and Conditions for additional disclosures. 

The Starting Point Matters

For long term investors who buy and hold, the risk/reward expectations are sometimes very, very, simple.

If you bought the long term U.S. Treasury index via the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (Symbol: TLT) about 12 years ago your yield is around 5% and the total return has been 100%.

Keep in mind, the total return is price appreciation + interest (or yield).

At this starting point, if you are buying it today, your yield is 2.6%… so the expected future total return from the yield is half.

Bond Return Rising Rates

Clearly, the expected total return for bonds is much lower today than just over 10 years ago.

Since the yield is lower, the risk/reward payoff isn’t as positive. The lower yield limits the upside for price appreciation.

There may be times this long term U.S. Treasury is the place to be and times it isn’t.

But over a longer expectation, it’s much less attractive than it was.

No market or security performs well in all conditions, so traditional allocation often holds positions with a negative risk/return profile.

You can probably see why I think it’s critical to be unconstrained and flexible rather than a fixed allocation that ignores the current condition.

The markets always go back up?

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

I replied: “Tell that to the Japanese”.

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

Long Term Japan Stock Market Index NIKKEI

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

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

Actively Managing Investment Risk

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

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

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

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Hasn’t Managed Downside Risk

 shares an interesting observation in Fortune ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff“. He points out that Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A or BRK.B) is tracking the U.S. stock indexes on the downside. He says:

“…during the worst of the downturn from mid-July to the end of August. That represents a 10.3% drop. The good news for Buffett: His, and his investment team’s, performance was likely not much worse than everyone else’s. During the same time, the S&P 500 fell 10.1%.”

Comparing performance to others or “benchmark” indexes is a what I call a “relative return” objective. Comparing performance vs. our own risk tolerance and total return objectives is an “absolute return” objective. The two are very different as what I call “relativity” is more concerned about how others are doing comparatively, while “absolute” is more focused on our own situation.

The article also said:

“If you are invested in an index fund, you may have outperformed the Oracle of Omaha, slightly.”

Let’s see just how true that is. Since the topic is how much Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has lost during this stock market decline, I’ll share a closer look.

A picture speaks a thousand words. As it turns out, the guru stock picker is actually down -13.4% off it’s high looking back over the past year. That’s about -4% worse than the SPDR® S&P 500® ETF (SPY) that seeks to provide investment results that, before expenses, correspond generally to the price and yield performance of the S&P 500® Index. I am using actual securities here to present an investable comparison: SPY vs. BRK.B.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Lost compared to stock index

As we observe in the chart, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway began to decline off it’s high at the end of last year while the S&P 500® Index started last month. I have observed more and more stocks declining over the past several months. At the same time, more and more International markets have entered into their own bear markets. So, it is no surprise to see a focused stock portfolio diverge from a broader stock index.  points out some of the individual stock positions in ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff

Below is the total return of the two over the past year. We can see the high in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B was in December 2014.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Lost compared to stock index total return

I believe world markets require active risk management and defining directional trends. For me, that means predefining my risk in advance in each position and across the portfolio.

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

Read the full Fortune article here: ” Warren Buffett’s Berkshire lost $11 billion in market selloff

Using the Month of September to Understand Probability and Expectation

probabilty-coin-flip

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, let’s define probability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Index ETFs Over Individual Stocks?

A fellow portfolio manager I know was telling me about a sharp price drop in one of his positions that was enough to wipe out the 40% gain he had in the stock. Of course, he had previously told me he had a quick 40% gain in the stock, too. That may have been his signal to sell.  Biogen, Inc (BIIB) recently declined about -30% in about three days. Easy come, easy go. Below is a price chart over the past year.

Biogen BIIB

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

Occasionally investors or advisors will ask: “Why trade index ETFs instead of individual stocks?“. An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges, much like stocks. Until ETFs came along the past decade or so, gaining exposure to sectors, countries, bond markets, commodities, and currencies wasn’t so easy. It has taken some time for portfolio managers to adapt to using them, but ETFs are easily tradable on an exchange like stocks. Prior to ETFs, those few of us who applied “Sector Rotation” or “Asset Class Rotation” or any kind of tactical shifts between markets did so with much more expensive mutual funds. ETFs have provided us with low cost, transparent, and tax efficient exposure to a very global universe of stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and even alternatives like REITs, private equity, MLP’s, volatility, or inverse (short). Prior to ETFs we would have had to get these exposures with futures or options. I saw the potential of ETFs early, so I developed risk management and trend systems that I’ve applied to ETFs that I would have previously applied to futures.

On the one hand, someone who thinks they are a good stock picker are enticed to want to get more granular into a sector and find what they believe is the “best” stock. In some ways, that seems to make sense if we can weed out the bad ones and only hold the good ones. It really isn’t so simple. I view everything a reward/risk ratio, which I call asymmetric payoffs. There is a tradeoff between the reward/risk of getting more detailed and focused in the exposure vs. having at least some diversification, such as exposure to the whole sector instead of just the stock.

Market Risk, Sector Risk, and Stock Risk

In the big picture, we can break exposures into three simple risks (and those risks can be explored with even more detail). We’ll start with the broad risk and get more detailed. Academic theories break down the risk between “market risk” that can’t be diversified away and “single stock” and sector risk that may be diversified away.

Market Risk: In finance and economics, systematic risk (in economics often called aggregate risk or undiversifiable risk) is vulnerable to events which affect aggregate outcomes such as broad market declines, total economy-wide resource holdings, or aggregate income. Market risk is the risk that comes from the whole market itself. For example, when the stock market index falls -10% most stocks have declined more or less.

Stock and Sector Risk: Unsystematic risk, also known as “specific risk,” “diversifiable risk“, is the type of uncertainty that comes with the company or industry itself. Unsystematic risk can be reduced through diversification. If we hold an index of 50 Biotech stocks in an index ETF its potential and magnitude of a  large gap down in price is less than an individual stock.

You can probably see how holding a single stock like Biogen  has its own individual risks as a single company such as its own earnings reports, results of its drug trials, etc. A biotech stock is especially interesting to use as an example because investing in biotechnology comes with a unique host of risks. In most cases, these companies can live or die based on results of drug trials and the demand for their existing drugs. In fact, the reason Biogen declined so much is they reported disappointing second-quarter results and lowered its guidance for the full year, largely because of lower demand for one of their drugs in the United States and a weaker pricing environment in Europe. That is a risk that is specific to the uncertainty of the company itself. It’s an unsystematic risk and a selection risk that can be reduced through diversification. We don’t have to hold exposure to just one stock.

With index ETFs, we can gain systematic exposure to an industry like biotech or a sector like healthcare or a broader stock market exposure like the S&P 500. The nice thing about an index ETF is we get exposure to a basket of stocks, bond, commodities, or currencies and we know what we’re getting since they disclose their holdings on a daily basis.

ETFs are flexible and easy to trade. We can buy and sell them like stocks, typically through a brokerage account. We can also employ traditional stock trading techniques; including stop orders, limit orders, margin purchases, and short sales using ETFs. They are listed on major US Stock Exchanges.

The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF objective seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of biotechnology and pharmaceutical equities listed on the NASDAQ. It holds 145 different biotech stocks and is market-cap-weighted, so its exposure is more focused on the larger companies. It therefore has two potential disadvantages: it has less exposure to smaller and possibly faster growing biotech stocks and it only holds those stocks listed on the NASDAQ, so it misses some of the companies that may have moved to the NYSE. According to iShares we can see that Biogen (BIIB) is one of the top 5 holdings in the index ETF.

iShares Biotech ETF HoldingsSource: http://www.ishares.com/us/products/239699/ishares-nasdaq-biotechnology-etf

Below is a price chart of the popular iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF (IBB: the black line) compared to the individual stock Biogen (BIIB: the blue line). Clearly, the more diversified biotech index has demonstrated a more profitable and smoother trend over the past year. And, notice it didn’t experience the recent -30% drop that wiped out Biogen’s price gain. Though some portfolio managers may perceive we can earn more return with individual stocks, clearly that isn’t always the case. Sometimes getting more granular in exposures can instead lead to worse and more volatile outcomes.

IBB Biotech ETF vs Biogen Stock 2015-07-29_10-34-29

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

The nice thing about index ETFs is we have a wide range of them from which to research and choose to add to our investable universe. For example, when I observe the directional price trend in biotech is strong, I can then look at all of the other biotech index ETFs to determine which would give me the exposure I want to participate in the trend.

Since we’ve observed with Biogen the magnitude of the potential individual risk of a single biotech stock, that also suggests we may not even prefer to have too much overweight in any one stock within an index. Below I have added to the previous chart the SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) which has about 105 holdings, but the positions are equally-weighted which tilts it toward the smaller companies, not just larger companies.  As you can see by the black line below, over the past year, that equal weighting tilt has resulted in even better relative strength. However, it also had a wider range (volatility) at some points. Though it doesn’t always work out this way, you are probably beginning to see how different exposures create unique return streams and risk/reward profiles.

SPDR Biotech Index ETF XBI IBB and Biogen BIIB 2015-07-29_10-35-46

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

In fact, those who have favored “stock picking” may be fascinated to see the equal-weighted  SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) has actually performed as good as the best stock of the top 5 largest biotech stocks in the iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF.

SPDR Biotech vs CELG AMGN BIIB GILD REGN

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

Biotech indexes aren’t just pure biotech industry exposure. They also have exposures to the healthcare sector. For example, iShares Nasdaq Biotech shows about 80% in biotechnology and 20% in sectors categorized in other healthcare industries.

iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF exposure allocation

Source: www.ishares.com

The brings me to another point I want to make. The broader healthcare sector also includes some biotech. For example, the iShares U.S. Healthcare ETF is one of the most traded and includes 23.22% in biotech.

iShares Healthcare Index ETF exposure allocation

Source: https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239511/IYH?referrer=tickerSearch

It’s always easy to draw charts and look at price trends retroactively in hindsight. If we only knew in advance how trends would play out in the future we could just hold only the very best. In the real world, we can only identify trends based on probability and by definition, that is never a sure thing. Only a very few of us really know what that means and have real experience and a good track record of actually doing it.

I have my own ways I aim to identify potentially profitable directional trends and my methods necessarily needs to have some level of predictive ability or I wouldn’t bother. However, in real world portfolio management, it’s the exit and risk control, not the entry, the ultimately determines the outcome. Since I focus on the exposure to risk at the individual position level and across the portfolio, it doesn’t matter so much to me how I get the exposure. But, by applying my methods to more diversified index ETFs across global markets instead of just U.S. stocks I have fewer individual downside surprises. I believe I take asset management to a new level by dynamically adapting to evolving markets. For example, they say individual selection risk can be diversified away by holding a group of holdings so I can efficiently achieve that through one ETF. However, that still leaves the sector risk of the ETF, so it requires risk management of that ETF position. They say systematic market risk can’t be diversified away, so most investors risk that is left is market risk. I manage both market risk and position risk through my risk control systems and exits. For me, risk tolerance is enforced through my exits and risk control systems.

The performance quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. Investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when sold or redeemed, may be worth more or less than the original cost. Current performance may be lower or higher than the performance quoted, and numbers may reflect small variances due to rounding. Standardized performance and performance data current to the most recent month end may be obtained by clicking the “Returns” tab above.

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/

The Volatility Index (VIX) is Getting Interesting Again

In the last observation I shared on the CBOE Volatlity index (the VIX) I had been pointing out last year the VIX was at a low level and then later started trending up. At that time, many volatility traders seemed to think it was going to stay low and keep going lower – I disagreed. Since then, the VIX has remained at a higher average than it had been – up until now. You can read that in VIX® gained 140%: Investors were too complacent.

Here it is again, closing at 12.45 yesterday, a relatively low level for expected volatility of the S&P 500 stocks. Investors get complacent after trends drift up, so they don’t price in so much fear in options. Below we observe a monthly view to see the bigger picture. The VIX is getting down to levels near the end of the last bull market (2007). It could go lower, but if you look closely, you’ll get my drift.

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

Next, we zoom in to the weekly chart to get a loser look.

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

Finally, the daily chart zooms in even more.

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

The observation?

Options traders have priced in low implied volatility – they expect volatility to be low over the next month. That is happening as headlines are talking about stock indexes hitting all time highs. I think it’s a sign of complacency. That’s often when things change at some point.

It also means that options premiums are generally a good deal (though that is best determined on an individual security basis). Rather than selling premium, it may be a better time to buy it.

Let’s see what happens from here…

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 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

Asymmetric Sector Exposure in Stock Indexes

When you look at the table below and see the sector exposure percents, what do you observe? Do these allocations make sense?

asymmetric sector ETF expsoure S&P 500 2015-03-24_16-39-11

That is the sector exposure of the S&P 500 stock index: I used the iShares S&P 500 ETF for a real-world proxy. The source of each image is the index website on iShares, which you can see by clicking on the name of the index ETF.

  • Asymmetric is an imbalance. That is, more of one thing, less of another.
  • A sector is a specific industry, like Energy (Exxon Mobil) or Telecom (Verizon).
  • Exposure is the amount of the position size or allocation.

Most of the sector exposure in the S&P 500 large company stock index is Technology, Financials, Healthcare, and Consumer Discretionary. Consumer Staples, Energy, Materials, Utilities, and Telecommunications have less than 10% exposure each. Exposure to Materials, Utilities, and Telecommunications are almost non-existent. Combined, those three sectors are less than 10% of the index. Industrial has 10% exposure by itself.  But this index is 500 large companies, what about mid size and small companies?

asymmetric sector expsoure S&P 500 2015-03-24_16-39-11

Below is the iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ETF. Most of the sector exposure in the S&P Mid size stock index is Technology, Financials, Industrial. Healthcare, and Consumer Discretionary. Consumer Staples, Energy, Materials, Utilities, and Telecommunications have less than 10% exposure each. Exposure to Materials, Utilities, and Telecommunications are almost non-existent.

asymmetric sector exposure  S&P Mid-Cap ETF

We see this same asymmetric sector exposure theme repeat in the iShares S&P Small Cap index. Half of the sectors are make up most of the exposure, the other very little.

asymmetric sector exposure S&P small cap

This is just another asymmetric observation… the next time you hear someone speak of the return of a stock index, consider they are really speaking about the return profile of certain sectors. And, these sector weightings may change over time.

Trends, Countertrends, in the U.S. Dollar, Gold, Currencies

Trend is a direction that something is moving, developing, evolving, or changing. A trend is a directional drift, one way or another. When I speak of price trends, the directional drift of a price trend can be up, down, or sideways.

Trends trend to continue and are even more likely to continue than to reverse, because of inertia. Inertia is the resistance to change, including a resistance to change in direction. It’s an important physics concept to understand to understand price trends because inertia relates to momentum and velocity. A directional price trend that continues, or doesn’t change or reverse, has inertia. To understand directional price trends, we necessarily need to understand how a trend in motion is affected by external forces. For example, if a price trend is up and continues even with negative external news, in inertia or momentum is even more significant. Inertia is the amount of resistance to change in velocity. We can say that a directional price trend will continue moving at its current velocity until some force causes its speed or direction to change. A directional trend follower, then, wants keep exposure to that trend until its speed or direction does change. When a change happens, we call it a countertrend. A countertrend is a move against the prior or prevailing trend. A countertrend strategy tries to profit from a trend reversal in a directional trend that has moved to such a magnitude it comes more likely to reverse, at least briefly, than to continent. Even the best long-term trends have smaller reversals along the way, so countertrend systems try to profit from the shorter time frame oscillations.

“The one fact pertaining to all conditions is that they will change.”

                                    —Charles Dow, 1900

One significant global macro trend I noticed that did show some “change” yesterday is the U.S. Dollar. The U.S. Dollar has been in a smooth drift up for nearly a year. I use the PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish (UUP). Below, I start with a weekly chart showing a few years so you can see it was non-trending up until last summer. Clearly, the U.S. Dollar has been trending strongly since.

u.s. dollar longer trend UPP

Next, we zoom in for a closer look. The the PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish (UUP) was down about -2% yesterday after the Fed Decision. Notice that I included a 50 day moving average, just to smooth out the price data to help illustrate its path. One day isn’t nearly enough to change a trend, but that one day red bar is greater in magnitude and had heavy volume. On the one hand, it could be the emotional reaction to non trend following traders. On the other, we’ll see over time if that markets a real change that becomes a reversal of this fine trend. The U.S. Dollar may move right back up and resume it’s trend…

U.S. Dollar Trend 2015-03-19_08-21-35

chart source for the following charts: http://www.stockcharts.com

I am using actual ETFs only to illustrate their trends. One unique note about  PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (Symbol: UUP) is the tax implications for currency limited partnership ETFs are subject to a 60 percent/40 percent blend, regardless of how long the shares are held. They also report on a K-1 instead of a 1099.

Why does the direction of the U.S. Dollar matter? It drives other markets. Understanding how global markets interact is an edge in global tactical trading. Below is a chart of Gold. I used the SPDR Gold Trust ETF as a proxy. Gold tends to trade the opposite of the U.S. Dollar.

gold trend 2015-03-19_08-22-41

When the U.S. Dollar is trending up, it also has an inverse correlation to foreign currencies priced in dollars. Below is the CurrencyShares Euro ETF.

Euro currency trend 2015-03-19_08-23-03

Foreign currencies can have some risk. In January, the Swiss Franc gaped up sharply, but has since drifted back to where it was. Maybe that was an over-reaction? Markets aren’t so efficient. Below is a chart of the CurrencyShares Swiss Franc to illustrate its trend and countertrend moves.

swiss franc trend 2015-03-19_08-23-23

None of this is a suggestion to buy or sell any of these, just an observation about directional trends, how they interact with each other, and countertrend moves (whether short term or long term). Clearly, there are trends…

To see how tactical decisions and understand how markets interacts results in my real performance, visit : ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts

Bear Markets Happen

WSJ has a nice chart of “Bear Markets” as defined as -20% drops in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Click to enlarge.

Bear Markets Happen average bull bear market

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-prepare-for-a-bear-market-in-stocks-1425870192

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

 

 

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.

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/

 

“There is always a disposition in people’s minds to think that existing conditions will be permanent …

“There is always a disposition in people’s minds to think the existing conditions will be permanent,” Dow wrote, and went on to say: “When the market is down and dull, it is hard to make people believe that this is the prelude to a period of activity and advance. When the prices are up and the country is prosperous, it is always said that while preceding booms have not lasted, there are circumstances connected with this one, which make it unlike its predecessors and give assurance of permanency. The fact pertaining to all conditions is that they will change.”  – Charles Dow, 1900

Source: Lo, Andrew W.; Hasanhodzic, Jasmina (2010-08-26). The Evolution of Technical Analysis: Financial Prediction from Babylonian Tablets to Bloomberg Terminals (Kindle Locations 1419-1423). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

You can probably see from Dow’s quote how trends do tend to continue, just because enough people think they will. However, price trends can continue into an extreme or a “bubble” just because people think they will continue forever. I like to ride a trend to the end when it bends and then be prepared to exit when it does finally reverse, or maybe reduce or hedge off some risk when the probability seems high of a change.

idowcha001p1

Image source: Wikipedia

Charles Henry Dow; November 6, 1851 – December 4, 1902) was an American journalist who co-founded Dow Jones & Company. Dow also founded The Wall Street Journal, which has become one of the most respected financial publications in the world. He also invented the Dow Jones Industrial Average as part of his research into market movements. He developed a series of principles for understanding and analyzing market behavior which later became known as Dow theory, the groundwork for technical analysis.

The Holiday Party: Mindset of the Active Risk Manager

holiday parties

I keep hearing of symptoms of this awful virus going around. I’ll spare you of the details, but it involves both ends around the porcelain bowl. We’ve all been there, done that, and probably consider it a “bad outcome”.

Then, we have all these holiday party plans to spend time with friends and family, knowing this ‘bug’ is contagious and spreading. Hearing about it, the natural mindset of the active risk manager is to ask:

“Has anyone at the party had the flu recently?”

You wonder if you’re entering into a high risk of a bad outcome. Most people may not even consider it, and it’s those people who will probably be there spreading it around! I know people who never consider the possibility of a bad outcome; they tend to be the ones who have the worst outcomes, more often. Others may be overly afraid of things that may never happen, so they miss out on life. Some even worry about things they fear so much they experience those things, even when they don’t happen.

The active risk manager internally thinks of risk.

Let’s first use the dictionary to better understand the meaning of “active”:

1. engaged in action; characterized by energetic work, participation, etc.; busy: an active life.

2. being in a state of existence, progress, or motion:

3. involving physical effort and action :active sports.

4. having the power of quick motion; nimble: active as a gazelle.

5. characterized by action, motion, volume, use, participation, etc.

So, let’s say that to be active is to be engaged in action, participate, an active life, progress, nimble, motion, and even a state of existence.

Risk is exposure to the possibility of a bad outcome. When we are speaking of money, risk is the exposure to the possibility of loss. If we incur a loss, that isn’t a risk, that’s an actual loss. Some people believe that uncertainty is risk, but we always have uncertainty. So, risk is the exposure to a chance or possibility of loss. It’s the exposure that is the risk, the chance or possibility is always there. So, your risk of loss is your choice. We decide it in advance.

To manage is to take charge of, handle, direct, govern, or control through action.

A bad outcome in money management may be losing money, or in life it may be anything we perceive as unwanted. We can’t be certain about an outcome. Uncertainty is something we live with every day and in all things, so we may as well embrace it and enjoy not knowing the outcome of things in advance. So, risk is the exposure to a chance or possibility of loss. It’s the exposure that is the risk, the chance or possibility is always there. So, your risk of loss is your choice. We decide it in advance.

So, an active risk manager, like me, is someone who engages in the action of actively and intentionally directing and controlling the exposure to a bad outcome. Because I actively management my risks, I am able to trade and invest in things other people perceive as risky, but they aren’t to me because I define my risk exposure and control it. Because active risk management is not only a learned skill I have advanced for myself but also something that is a natural part of me and who I am, I am also able to live my life enjoying and even embracing change and uncertainty. Yet, I do that initially and naturally thinking of what my risk is. Once I understand my risk, I manage it, and then accept it for what I’ve decided it will be, and then I let it all unfold as it will. I control what I can and let the rest do what it’s going to do.

You see, it’s also a big risk to not experience life. Studies show that happiness is more driven by new experiences than any other thing. Hedonic Adaptation means that we tend to get used to things and adapt, good or bad. Broadening our horizons makes and keeps us happy, doing the same old things leads to a dull and less happy life. Much of our happiness comes from new experiences and change, because we get used to even the finest and fastest new car and eventually it becomes our new normal.

Although I feel a strong obligation to keep myself well, I’m not going to miss spending time with people I enjoy. Instead, I’ll take my chances and deal with, and actively manage, any bad outcome that arises from it. So, consider your risks, then get out there and enjoy yourself with new experiences. Even if you get sick for a few days, that too shall eventually pass.

Merry Christmas!

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.

The Mistake is Not Taking the Loss: Cut Your Losses and Move on

One of the keys to managing investment risk is cutting losers before they become large losses. Many people have difficulty selling at a loss because they believe it’s admitting a mistake. The mistake isn’t taking a loss, the mistake is to NOT take the loss. I cut losses short all the time, that’s why I don’t have large ones. I’ve never taken a loss that was a mistake. I predetermine my risk by determining before I even buy something at what point I’ll get out if I am wrong. If I enter at $50, my methods may determine if it falls to $45 that trend I wanted to get in is no longer in place and I should get out. So when I enter a position in any market, I know how I’ll cut my loss short before I even get in. It’s the exit, not the entry, that determines the outcome. I don’t know in advance which will be a winner or loser or how much it will gain or lose. For me, not taking the loss, would be the mistake.

I thought of this when a self-proclaimed old-timer admitted to me he still holds some of the popular stocks he bought the late 90’s. Many of those stocks are no longer in business, but below we revisit the price trend and total return of some of the largest and most popular stocks promoted in the late 90’s. The black line is Cisco Systems (CSC), Blue is AT&T (T), Red is Pfizer (PFE), and green is Microsoft (MSFT). AT&T’s roots stretch back to 1875, with founder Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Pfizer started in 1849 “With $2,500 borrowed from Charles Pfizer’s father, cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart, young entrepreneurs from Germany, opened Charles Pfizer & Company as a fine-chemicals business”. At one point during the late 90’s “tech bubble” Microsoft and Cisco Systems were valued more than many countries. But the chart below shows if you did buy and held these stocks nearly 20 years later you would have held losses for many years and many of them are just now showing a profit.

tech bubble leaders 2014-11-15_07-04-53

chart courtesy of http://www.stockcharts.com

The lesson to cut losses short rather than allow them to become large losses came from a book published in 1923.

“Money does not give a trader more comfort, because, rich or poor, he can make mistakes and it is never comfortable to be wrong. And when a millionaire is right his money is merely one of his several servants. Losing money is the least of my troubles. A loss never bothers me after I take it. I forget it overnight. But being wrong – not taking the loss – that is what does the damage to the pocketbook and to the soul.”

-Reminiscences of a Stock Operator (1923)

If you are unfamiliar with the classic, according to Amazon:

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator is a fictionalized account of the life of the securities trader Jesse Livermore. Despite the book’s age, it continues to offer insights into the art of trading and speculation. In Jack Schwagers Market Wizards, Reminiscences was quoted as a major source of stock trading learning material for experienced and new traders by many of the traders who Schwager interviewed. The book tells the story of Livermore’s progression from day trading in the then so-called “New England bucket shops,” to market speculator, market maker, and market manipulator, and finally to Wall Street where he made and lost his fortune several times over. Along the way, Livermore learns many lessons, which he happily shares with the reader.

 

 

VIX® gained 140%: Investors were too complacent

Several months ago I started sharing some of my observations about the VIX ( CBOE Volatility Index). The VIX had gotten to a level I considered low, which implied to me that investors were too complacent, were expecting too low future volatility, and option premiums were generally cheap. After the VIX got down to levels around 11 and 12 and then started to move up, I pointed out the VIX seemed to be changing from a downward longer term trend to a rising trend.

As I was sharing my observations of the directional trend and volatility of VIX that I believed was more likely to eventually go up than down, it seemed that most others were writing just the opposite. I know that many volatility traders mostly sell volatility (options premium), so they prefer to see it fall.

As you can see in the chart below, The VIX has increased about 140% in just a few weeks.

VIX october

Chart courtesy of http://www.stockcharts.com

For those who haven’t been following along, you may consider reading the previous observations:

A VIX Pop Then Back to Zzzzzzzz? We’ll see

Asymmetric VIX

VIX Shows Volatility Still Low, But Trending

VIX Back to Low

The VIX is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge

Is the VIX an indication of fear and complacency?

What does a VIX below 11 mean?

What does the VIX really represent?

The VIX, my point of view

The VIX, as I see it…

Volatility Risk Premium

Declining (Low) Volatility = Rising (High) Complacency

Investors are Complacent

 

Fear is Driving Stocks Down, or is Declining Stocks Driving Fear?

The last time I pointed out a short-term measure of extreme investor sentiment was August 4, see “Extreme Fear is Now the Return Driver“. At that time, popular stock indexes had declined -3% or more and as prices fell, investor fear measures increased.

As stocks rise, investors get complacent and brag about their profits. After prices fall, investor fear measures start to rise.

Since I pointed out “Extreme Fear is Now the Return Driver”, the Dow Jones Industrial Average went on to trend back up 5% by mid September. Below is a price chart for the Dow year to date. I marked August 4th with a red arrow. You can see how the price trend had declined sharply, driving fear of even lower prices, then it reversed back up. Fear increases after a decline and when fear gets high enough, stocks often reverse back up in the short term. They get complacent and greedy after prices rise to the point there are no buyers left to keep bidding prices up, then prices fall. Investors oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money.

dow jones stock index year to date

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

Since mid September, the price trend has drifted back down over 4% from the peak. As you can see, the Dow has made no gain for the year 2014. It is no surprise that investor sentiment readings are now at “Extreme Fear” levels, as measured by the Fear & Greed Index below.

Fear and Greed Index

Source: Fear & Greed Index CNN Money

So, the last time investor fear levels got this high, stocks reversed back up in the weeks ahead. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. These indicators are best used with other indications of trend direction and strength to understand potential changes or a continuation. For example, we commonly observe 4% to 5% swings in stock prices a few times a year. That is a normal range and should be expected. However, eventually prices will decline and investors will continue to fear even more losses. As prices fall, investors sell just because they’re losing money. Some sell earlier in the decline, some much later. You may know people who sold after they were down -50% in 2008 or 2002.  The trouble with selling out of fear is: when would they ever get back in? That’s why I manage risk with predefined exit points and I know at what point I would reenter.

My point is: fear always has the potential to become panic selling leading to waterfall declines. Panic selling can take weeks or months to drive prices low enough that those who sold earlier (and avoided the large losses and have cash available) are willing to step in to start buying again. Those who stay fully invested all the time don’t have the cash for new buying after prices fall. It’s those buy and hold (or re-balance) investors who also participate fully in the largest market losses.  It’s those of us who exit our losers soon enough, before a large decline, that have the cash required to end the decline in prices.

Selling pressure starts declines, new buying ends them.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead if fear has driven prices to a low enough point that brings in new buying like it has before or if it continues into panic selling. There is a chance we are seeing the early stages of a bear market in global stocks, but they don’t fall straight down. Instead, declines of 20% or more are made up of many cycles of 5 – 10% up and down along the way. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to see stock prices drift up 5% again, maybe even before another -10% decline.

Declining stocks drive fear, but fear also drives stocks down.

Let’s see how it all unfolds…

Asymmetric VIX

In The VIX is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge I explained how the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) tends to react with sharper and with greater magnitude than stock indexes. There is an asymmetric relationship between stock index returns and the VIX. Below includes yesterdays action when the S&P 500 stock index was down 2% and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) spot gained 27%. The chart is a good visual of how, when the stock index falls, implied volatility spikes up.

 

asymmetric vix

source: http://www.stockcharts.com

I have been sharing some observations about the VIX recently because it had gotten do a low level not seen in many years. It’s an indication that investors have become complacent about risk. When a trend gets to an extreme, it’s interesting to observe how it all plays out.

 

 

Flaw of Averages

In Declining (Low) Volatility = Rising (High) Complacency I said:

“The VIX has a long-term average of about 20 since its inception. At this moment, it is 11.82. It’s important to realize the flaw of averages here, because the VIX doesn’t actually stay around 20 – it instead averages 20 as it swings higher and lower.”

The flaw of averages is the term used by Sam L. Savage to describe the fallacies that arise when single numbers (usually averages) are used to represent uncertain outcomes.

A fine example of the flaw of averages involves a 6 ft. tall statistician who drowns while crossing a river that is 3 ft. deep on average.

 

DanzigerCoverArtSavage

Source: http://www.danzigercartoons.com/

You can probably see how assumptions using averages can get us in trouble. It only takes a little to be “too much”… and that is mostly likely a problem when we expect the average and the possible range is much wider.

The VIX is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge

Asymmetric payoff VIX

The VIX is asymmetric, its distribution is non-symmetrical, it is skewed because it has very wide swings. The volatility of volatility is very volatile. There is an asymmetric relationship between stock index returns and the VIX. This asymmetric relationship is what initially makes the VIX interesting for hedging against S&P 500 volatility and losses.

Since I started the series about the extremely low VIX level Monday, like The VIX, as I see it…, The VIX has gained 17% while the S&P 500 stock index has lost about 1%. The VIX is asymmetric. While the VIX isn’t always a perfect opposite movement to the stock indexes, it most often does correlated negatively to stocks. When stocks fall, the implied (expected) volatility increases, so the VIX increases. Asymmetry is imbalance: more of one thing, less of the other. For example, more profit potential, less loss or more upside, less downside.

An advantage of the VIX for hedging is that it is asymmetric: it increases more than stocks fall. For example, when we look at historical declines in the stock index we find the VIX normally gains much more than the stock index falls. For example, if the stock index declined 5% the VIX may have gained 30% over the same period. That ratio of asymmetry of 6 times more drift would allow us to tie up less cash for a hedge position. Of course, the ratio is different each time. Sometimes it moves less, sometimes more.

When the VIX is at a low enough level as its been recently, the asymmetric nature of the VIX makes it an interesting hedge for an equity portfolio. The best way to truly hedge a portfolio is to hedge its actual holdings. That’s the only true hedge. If we make a bet against an index and that index doesn’t move like our positions, we still have the risk our positions fall and our hedge does too, or doesn’t rise to offset the loss. I always say: anything other than the price itself has the potential to stray far from the price. But the asymmetry of VIX, its potential asymmetric payoff, makes it another option if we are willing to accept it isn’t a direct hedge. And, that its derivatives don’t exactly track the VIX index, either. None of the things we deal with are a sure thing; it’s always probabilistic.

This week has been a fine example of vix asymmetry. The chart below shows it well.

 

The VIX is Asymmetric

chart source: http://www.stockcharts.com

 

Note: The VIX is an unmanaged index, not a security, so it cannot be invested in directly. We can gain exposure to the VIX through derivatives futures or options. This is not a recommendation to buy or sell VIX derivatives. To determine whether or not to take a long or short position in the VIX requires significantly more analysis than just making observations about its current level and direction. For example, we would consider the term structure and implied volatility vs. historical volatility and the risk/reward of any options combinations.

Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

Abstract

It’s been over 20 years since the academic discovery of momentum investing (Jegadeesh and Titman (1993), Asness (1994)), yet much confusion and debate remains regarding its efficacy and its use as a practical investment tool. In some cases “confusion and debate” is us attempting to be polite, as it is near impossible for informed practitioners and academics to still believe some of the myths uttered about momentum — but that impossibility is often belied by real world statements. In this article, we aim to clear up much of the confusion by documenting what we know about momentum and disproving many of the often-repeated myths. We highlight ten myths about momentum and refute them, using results from widely circulated academic papers and analysis from the simplest and best publicly available data.

Read the full paper: Fact Fiction and Momentum Investing

Source: Israel, Ronen and Frazzini, Andrea and Moskowitz, Tobias J. and Asness, Clifford S., Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing (May 9, 2014). Can be found at SSRN: Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

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

 

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