Asymmetric Volatility

Volatility is how quickly and how far data points spread out.

Asymmetric is not identical on both sides, imbalanced, unequal, lacking symmetry.

This time of year we are reminded of asymmetric volatility in the weather. The wide range in the temperature is highlighted in the morning news.

This morning, it’s 72 degrees and sunny down south and below freezing and snowing up north.


Source: MyRadar

Some of the news media presents the variation in a way that invites relative thinking. Just like the financial news programs that show what has gained and lost the most today, the weather shows the extreme highs and lows.

Those who watch the financial news may feel like they missed out on the stock or market that gained the most, then be glad they weren’t in one that lost the most. Some feelings may be more asymmetric: they feel one more than the other.

Prospect Theory says most of us feel a loss much greater that we do a gain. It’s another asymmetry: losses hurt more than gains feel good (loss aversion).

If you are up north trying to stay warm, you may wish you were down south sitting on the beach.

If you are down south trying to stay cool, you may wish you were up north playing in the snow!

It really doesn’t matter how extreme the difference is (the volatility). The volatility is what it is. Volatility is just a range.

What matters is what we want to experience.

If we want to experience snow we can fly up north.

If we want to experience sunny warmth we can fly down south.

If we want less volatility, we could live down south in the winter and up north in the summer.

We get to decide what we experience.

Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.”

– The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey, Quote Page 28 (2004)

We see the world not as it is but as we are

Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.”

–  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey, Quote Page 28 (2004)

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Low Volatility Downside was the Same

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

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

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

SPLV PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio


The Southern Voice: What You Don’t Know About the South and the Southern Accent

Asymmetric Information is when someone has superior or more knowledge than others about a topic. The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight occurs when people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people’s knowledge of themselves. An asymmetric advantage goes beyond a normal advantage of knowledge into the realm of having asymmetric information and knowing things others do not.

Over the past few weeks there has been much in the media about the Confederate Battle flag and misinformation about the South. As it turns out, it seems many people may be more ignorant about these things than they believe they are. So you think the “Southern Accent” is bad English? au contraire.

In Southern American English, Wikipedia says:

“The Southern U.S. dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States”

Wikipedia cites PBS as the source: “Do You Speak American: What Lies Ahead”. Specifically, that article says: 

  • Due to a huge migration to the South and Southwest and the national appeal of country music, Southern speech is now the largest accent group in the United States.
  • The dominant form is what linguists call Inland Southern…

As a Southerner myself, I have always known my Southern dialect is derived from my European ancestors. If you aren’t from the South or weren’t taught its history, you may not realize that. Most of the settlers in Appalachia and the South came from Scotland, Ireland, the British Isles. If you know anything about those areas and their people, you can probably see how they may have been attracted to the mountains of Tennessee, north Georgia, and North Carolina. Its geography is similar to their motherland. Oh, and they made whiskey and moonshine.

Researchers have noted that the dialect retains a lot of vocabulary with roots in Scottish “Elizabethan English” owing to the make-up of the early European settlers to the area.

Source: “The Dialect of the Appalachian People”. Retrieved 2012-11-08.

Oh, and they sang fiddle songs like Rocky Top! This is the origin of what has evolved today as “country music”. They blended popular songs, Irish and Celtic fiddle tunes, and various musical traditions from European immigrant communities.

That leads to this very interesting video clip from the History Channel “You Don’t Know Dixie” explaining the many versions of the Southern Accent:

Want to learn more about the South? search for the History Channel show “You Don’t Know Dixie” at your cable provider. I found it on Verizon and recorded it. Or, it’s available at Amazon.

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:

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

Chart created by Shell Capital with:

Finally, the daily chart zooms in even more.

Chart created by Shell Capital with:

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…

Conflicted News

This is a great example of conflicted news. Which news headline is driving down stock prices today?

Below is a snapshot from Google Finance::

conflicted news 2015-04-17_10-21-43

Trying to make decisions based on news seems a very conflicted way, which is why I instead focus on the absolute direction of price trends.

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:


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.

Dazed and Confused?

Many investors must be dazed and confused by the global markets reaction to the Fed. I’m guessing most people would expect if the Fed signaled they are closer to a rate hike the stock and bond markets would fall. Rising interest rates typically drive down stocks along with bonds. Just the opposite has happened, so far.

Markets seems to have moved opposite of expectations, those people have to get on board (increasing demand).

A few things I wrote before and after the Fed decision:

A One-Chart Preview of Today’s Fed Decision: This is what economists are expecting

Fed Decision and Market Reaction: Stocks and Bonds

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

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 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 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:


Chart source:



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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

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

Click the titles to listen.

Episode 1

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

Direct links:

Episode 1


Episode 2



For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

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

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

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

To listen, click: Mike Shell Interview with Michael Covel

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

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


Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 2

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

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

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


Direct links:

Episode 2

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Top Traders Unplugged Interview with Mike Shell: Episode 1

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

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

For those unsure what a “top trader” means, my 10 year performance is at the bottom of this link:

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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell Capital Management Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stock index asymmetric distribution and losses

Source: chart is drawn by Mike Shell using

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


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


Asymmetric Alpha? Completely Different Measures and Objectives

Asymmetric Alpha

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

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

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

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

For information about the application of absolute and asymmetric returns visit

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.

Stock Market Trend: reverse back down or continuation?

I normally don’t comment here on my daily observations of very short-term directional trends, though as a fund manager I’m monitoring them every day. The current bull market in stocks is aged, it’s lasted much longer than normal, and it’s been largely driven by actions of the Fed. I can say the same for the upward trend in bond prices. As the Fed has kept interest rates low, that’s kept bond prices higher.

Some day all of that will end.

But that’s the big picture. We may be witnessing the peaking process now, but it may take months for it all to play out. The only thing for certain is that we will only know after it has happened. Until then, we can only assess the probabilities. Some of us have been, and will be, much better at identifying the trend changes early than others.

With that said, I thought I would share my observations of the very short-term directional trends in the stock market since I’ve had several inquiring about it.

First, the large company stock index, the S&P 500, is now at a point where it likely stalls for maybe a few days before it either continues to trend up or it reverses back down. In “Today Was the Kind of Panic Selling I Was Looking For” I pointed out that the magnitude of selling that day may be enough panic selling to put in at least a short-term low. In other words, prices may have fallen down enough to bring in some buying interest. As we can see in the chart below, that was the case: the day I wrote that was the low point in October so far. We’ve since seen a few positive days in the stock index.

stock index 2014-10-22_15-06-14

All charts in this article are courtesy of and created by Mike Shell

Larger declines don’t trend straight down. Instead, large declines move down maybe -10%, then go up 5%, then they go down another -10%, and then back up 7%, etc. That’s what makes tactical trading very challenging and it’s what causes most tactical traders to create poor results. Only the most experienced and skilled tactical decision makers know this. Today there are many more people trying to make tactical decisions to manage risk and capture profits, so they’ll figure this out the hard way. There isn’t a perfect ON/OFF switch, it instead requires assessing the probabilities, trends, and controlling risk.

Right now, the index above is at the point, statistically, that it will either stall for maybe a few days before it either continues to trend up or it reverses back down. As it all unfolds over time, my observations and understanding of the “current trend” will evolve based on the price action. If it consolidates by moving up and down a little for a few days and then drifts back up sharply one day, it is likely to continue up and may eventually make a new high. If it reversed down sharply from here, it will likely decline to at least the price low of last week. If it does drift back to last weeks low, it will be at another big crossroads. It may reverse up again, or it may trend down. Either way, if it does decline below low of last week, I think we’ll probably see even lower prices in the weeks and months ahead.

Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the stock index does make a new high in the coming months, one of my empirical observations that I think is most concerning about the stage of the general direction of the stock market is that small company stocks are already in a downtrend. Below is a chart of the Russell 2000 Small Cap Stock Index over the same time frame as the S&P 500 Large Cap Stock Index above. Clearly, smaller companies have already made a lower low and lower highs. That’s a downtrend.

small company stocks 2014 bear market

Smaller company stocks usually lead in the early stage of bear markets. There is a basic economic explanation for why that may be. In the early stage of an economic expansion when the economy is growing strong, it makes sense that smaller companies realize it first. The new business growth probably impacts them in a more quickly and noticeable way. When things slow down, they may also be the first to notice the decline in their earnings and income. I’m not saying that economic growth is the only direct driver of price trends, it isn’t, but price trends unfold the same way. As stocks become full valued at the end of a bull market, skilled investors begin to sell them or stop investing their cash in those same stocks. Smaller companies tend to be the first. That isn’t always the case, but you can see in the chart below, it was so during the early states of the stock market peak in 2007 as prices drifted down into mid 2008. Below is a comparison of the two indexes above. The blue line is the small stock index. In October 2007, it didn’t exceed its prior high in June. Instead, it started drifting down into a series of lower lows and lower highs. It did that as the S&P 500 stock index did make a prior high.

small stocks fall first in bear market

But as you see, both indexes eventually trended down together.

As a reminder to those who may have forgotten, I drew the chart below to show how both of these indexes eventually went on to lower lows and lower highs all the way down to losses greater than -50%. I’m not suggesting that will happen again (though it could) but instead I am pointing out how these things look in the early stages of their decline.

2008 bear market

If you don’t have a real track record evidencing your own skill and experience dealing with these things, right now is a great time to get in touch. By “real”, I’m talking about an actual performance history, not a model, hypothetical, or backtest. I’m not going to be telling you how I’m trading on this website. The only people who will experience that are our investors.



What is an Independent Thinker?

I originally wrote this is a few years ago on another forum. It’s a concept that is so important to understand I wanted to share it here. The term “Independent Thinker” comes up in conversations a lot. I’m so often accused of being one. I search for a good definition and bold the parts that resonates the most with me. I find a useful explanation at iPersonic:

Independent Thinkers are analytical and witty persons. They are normally self-confident and do not let themselves get worked up by conflicts and criticism. They are very much aware of their own strengths and have no doubts about their abilities. People of this personality type are often very successful in their career as they have both competence and purposefulness. Independent Thinkers are excellent strategists; logic, systematics and theoretical considerations are their world. They are eager for knowledge and always endeavor to expand and perfect their knowledge in any area which is interesting for themAbstract thinking comes naturally to them; scientists and computer specialists are often of this type.

Independent Thinkers are specialists in their area. The development of their ideas and visions is important to them; they love being as flexible as possible and, ideally, of being able to work alone because they often find it a strain having to make their complex trains of thought understandable to other people. Independent Thinkers cannot stand routine. Once they consider an idea to be good it is difficult to make them give it up; they pursue the implementation of that idea obstinately and persistently, also in the face of external opposition.

Referencing some of the parts I made bold, I will add a few comments. Independent Thinkers are analytical and self-confident and do not get worked up by conflicts and criticism. Independent Thinkers are open to debate topics they are interested in and are well prepared to compare and contrast beliefs with logic and empirical evidence. By virtue of “independence” the Independent Thinker is able to consider many different views to determine which is based on truth and facts. As an Independent Thinker myself, I can tell you that I have learned as much from people whose views are opposite mine, but not because they influence or control my beliefs but instead because they often confirm them. If you’re on to something, something that has a strong logic and mathematical reasoning behind it, then your next step is to figure out what may be wrong or go wrong rather than learning it the hard way. Outcomes are always uncertain, never a sure bet, so the best we can do is stack the math for dealing with uncertainty in our favor and figuring out in advance what may shift it against us. Once we’ve done this, then we have no reason to worry about things that haven’t even happened. If you want to discover any potential issues with your ideas, you’ll learn more by sharing them with people who are more likely to disagree with you than those who will probably just agree without any critical thinking or testing. But if you find you mostly follow along with what others believe, then you may not be thinking independently. When we speak of “independent”, we necessarily speak of the various things listed by

1. not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker.

2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.

3. not influenced by the thought or action of others: independent research.

4. not dependent; not depending or contingent upon something else for existence, operation, etc.

5. not relying on another or others for aid or support.

6. rejecting others’ aid or support; refusing to be under obligation to others.

7. possessing a competency: to be financially independent.

8. sufficient to support a person without his having to work: an independent income.

9. executed or originating outside a given unit, agency, business, etc.; external: an independent inquiry.

10. working for oneself or for a small, privately owned business.

11. expressive of a spirit of independence; self-confident; unconstrained: a free and independent citizen.

12. free from party commitments in voting: the independent voter.

13. Mathematics . (of a quantity or function) not depending upon another for its value.

I’ll leave it for you to decide what independence or independent thinking is not, but to offer a head start in this intellectual exercise I’ll suggest that it isn’t any of the above…

And finally, when I am thinking deeply about a meaning I like to look at other words of similar meaning to get a full picture. in the image below we view “independent” in the Visual Thesaurus, an interesting way to discover connections between words by revealing the way words and meanings relate to each other.


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