All investors are market timers

All investors are market timers.

It isn’t just tactical traders.

I’ve been hearing more about “market timing” recently from some investment advisors saying they aren’t market timers.

But they are.

We all are.

And timing is everything. Like it or not.

I start off with general definitions of market timing from a Google search.

According to Wikipedia:

Market timing is the strategy of making buying or selling decisions of financial assets (often stocks) by attempting to predict future market price movements. The prediction may be based on an outlook of market or economic conditions resulting from technical or fundamental analysis.”

This definition indicates “by attempting to predict future market price movements” is what draws the distinction of “market timing.”

Next is Investopedia:

“What Is Market Timing?

Market timing is a type of investment or trading strategy. It is the act of moving in and out of a financial market or switching between asset classes based on predictive methods. These predictive tools include following technical indicators or economic data, to gauge how the market is going to move.

So, it seems the distinction they make for “market timing” is a prediction.

Yet, everyone must necessarily make a prediction about the future to invest or trade.

For the passive indexers who buy and hold index funds, they necessarily make a prediction those funds past performance will resemble future results. They assume the stock and bond markets will have a positive return over the long term. The truth is, that is not a certainty, but a prediction on their part. In fact, choosing a time to rebalance their asset allocation is market timing, too, especially if they do it in response to price trend changes.

For value investors who actively look to add stocks they believe have been undervalued by the market, and/or trade for less than their intrinsic values, they are necessary market timing. When they sell a stock that has reached full value, they are timing the exit. It’s market timing. Some may even reduce or hedge overall stock exposure when the broad stock indexes are overvalued, which is also a timing decision. The more aggressive value investors, such as a value hedge fund, may use leverage to buy more stocks after their prices fall in a bear market. It’s market timing.

For momentum investors. it’s about following the historical trend. Momentum investing is a system of buying stocks or other securities that have had high returns over the past three to twelve months, and selling those that have had poor returns over the same period. It’s market timing as it assumes on average they’ll achieve more gains from the positive trends than losses from the negative trends. Extrapolating the recent past into the future is necessarily market timing.

What about non-directional trading strategies like certain options spreads and volatility trading? They still require and entry and an exit and timing the trade. Being invested in the stock market, buy the way, is explicitly short volatility, so when volatility expands stocks usually fall.

I want to be long volatility when it’s rising and short or out when it isn’t. I want to be in an options positions that on average result in asymmetry: more profit, less loss.

For example, an options straddle is a non-directional trading strategy that incorporates buying a call option and a put option on the same stock or ETF with the same strike and the same expiration. With a non-directional trade, we may have a two in three chance of making money because we can profit if the stock moves up or down. It requires movement, which is a prediction of the price expanding and timing it. It’s market timing.

Rather than trying to debate against “market timing” it seems more useful to admit we are all doing it in all we do, one way or another.

I embraced that long ago, and for me, I realize timing is everything.

But that doesn’t mean it always has to be perfect timing, either.

Asymmetry results from the average gains overwhelming the average losses, so the timing could have no edge if the profit-taking and loss cutting systems are robust.

All investors are market timers. The market timers who make the biggest riskiest bet are the passive index asset allocators who make no attempt to manage their risk, assuming past performance is indicative of future results.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Mike Shell is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

Mike Shell and Shell Capital Management, LLC is a registered investment advisor and provides investment advice and portfolio management exclusively to clients with a signed and executed investment management agreement. The observations shared on this website are for general information only and should not be construed as advice to buy or sell any security. Securities reflected are not intended to represent any client holdings or any recommendations made by the firm. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All information and data is deemed reliable, but is not guaranteed and should be independently verified. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.


Today marks the 12 year anniversary of the Jim Cramer character on CBNC having his now-famous emotional breakdown on live TV. It’s worth listening to once a year to reflect on the extreme level of panic going on this day 12 years ago.

So, I have shared it below.

I was cool as a fan that day… my risk management methods were robust and I had developed the discipline to execute through it. Avoiding the waterfall declines and panic level losses has been the highlight of my experience so far.

I believe we’ll see another period like this and the next time, it could even be worse.

I also managed through the 2000-03 period well, too, by simply observing bonds were trending up as stocks were trending down, so I shifted from stocks to bonds.

As such, I’m prepared and as ready as I’ve ever been, and hopefully, my past experience of operating through the last two major bear markets will continue to compound my skill and discipline.


Mike Shell is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

Mike Shell and Shell Capital Management, LLC is a registered investment advisor and provides investment advice and portfolio management exclusively to clients with a signed and executed investment management agreement. The observations shared on this website are for general information only and should not be construed as advice to buy or sell any security. Securities reflected are not intended to represent any client holdings or any recommendations made by the firm. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All information and data is deemed reliable, but is not guaranteed and should be independently verified. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

An exhaustive stock market analysis… continued

I guess An exhaustive analysis of the U.S. stock market wasn’t exhaustive enough, because I now have a few things to add.

First, since the financial news media, as well as social media like Twitter, is so bearish with all kinds of narratives about why the stock market is falling, I’ll go ahead and discuss it here. This observation will not be complete without first reading An exhaustive analysis of the U.S. stock market so you know where I am coming from. If you haven’t read it already, I would before continuing so you understand the full context.

It is the financial news media’s business to report new information. We all know that if they want to get people to tune in, the fastest way is to provide provocative and alarming headlines and commentary. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to see distressing news.

There are always many reasons for the stock market to trend up or down. It isn’t hard to write some narrative attempting to explain it. The reality is, there are all kinds of causes that create an effect. None of them alone drive price trends. Ultimately, what drives price trends is behavior and sentiment which drives supply and demand. Behavior and investor sentiment may be impacted by the news and what people decide to believe.

I often say “what you believe is true, for you” even if it isn’t actually true. A person’s beliefs could be completely wrong and could be scientifically disproven, but if they still believe it, it’s their truth, so it’s true – for them. So, whatever you choose to believe is going to be your truth, so I suggest weighing the evidence to determine the truth if you want it to be more accurate. In science, we can’t prove the truth to be true, we can only disprove it as untrue.

Let’s look at some truths that I believe to be true based on empirical observation of facts.

The biggest news headline is probably the government shutdown. There have been twenty U.S. government shutdowns over the budget since 1976 by both political parties. Half of the time it was followed by stock gains and half the time declines. The average result is -0.40% and the median is 0%. So, historically a government shutdown hasn’t seemed to drive prices. Below is the table. It is what it is.

What does the stock market do after government shut down

Yesterday evening Steven Mnuchin, the 77th Secretary of the Treasury, tweeted a note that he had called the nations six largest banks to confirm they have ample liquidy for consumer and business lending and other market operations. The words “Plunge Protection Team” started trending in social media. Much of the response has been negative, which seems odd to me.

Since when was doing “channel checks” not a good idea?

It seems not doing it would be imprudent…

There are many things going on all over the world all the time, so we can always find narratives to fit the price trend and believe it’s the driver. Narratives and news also seem to drive more emotional responses since people like to hear a story. I focus on the data, which is the price action. Whatever is driving the markets is reflected in the price trend. The price trend is the final arbiter. Nothing else matters.

The Morningstar table of index performance shows the 2018 total return of large, mid, small cap stocks along with growth, value, and blend.


The most popular broad-based indexes like the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average show 2018 is ending just the opposite of the way it started.

stock index performance return 2018

Let’s look at some price trends.

Yesterday I shared the Bullish Percent measures on the broad stock market indexes and each individual sector. We observed the percent of stocks in all sectors except for the Utility sector was already at historical lows after previous market declines. After today’s price action, we have some updated observations to explore.

The S&P 500 is in a bear market, commonly defined as a -20% decline from a prior price peak. What is most interesting is how fast it reached -20%.  In the chart below, I included the S&P 500 Total Return Index (including dividends), the S&P 500 Index price only, and the S&P 500 ETF (SPY). On a total return basis, the S&P 500 Total Return Index that includes no costs or fees didn’t quite close down -20% from its high, but the rest did. It’s close enough.

bear market 2018 October November December Crash

Though the stock indexes had declined -10% earlier this year, they had recovered to new highs by September and it appeared the primary uptrend would resume. Starting in October, the stock market declined again and attempted to recover twice in November. What came next was probably most shocking to those who follow market seasonality; the stock indexes are down over -15% in the month of December, which is historically one of the strongest months of the year. It seems this decline happening so fast and at the end of a calendar year is going to make it seem more significant.  Because it’s at year end it results in a “down year” instead of having time to recover during the normally seasonally strong period after October. The period from November to April historically has stronger stock market gains on average than the other months. Not this year.

The Utility sector reverses down to participation in the market decline. 

Yesterday I had highlighted the top range of the Bullish Percent chart in yellow to mark the high-risk zone above 70%. After today, the Utilities sector has declined below that range. Individual Utility stocks are now participating in the stock market decline.


The Utilities sector ETF declined over -4% today and is now slightly down for the year.

Utilities Select Sector SPDR® ETF $XLU

During significant market declines, diversification sometimes isn’t the crutch it is promoted to be by most of the investment industry. Broad asset allocation and diversification do not assure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market. In declining markets, we often see price trends cluster more as serial correlation. That is, prices begin to fall more just because they are falling. Investors sell because prices are falling. So, stocks, sectors, and markets can all become highly correlated to the downside. By the end of a market decline, all stocks, sectors, and markets are often participating.

The upside is, this panic selling is capitulation as the final weak holders stop resisting and begin to “sell everything!” We eventually see the selling dry up and buyers step in with enthusiasm at lower prices.

In the big picture, as I said in An exhaustive analysis of the U.S. stock market I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see prices falling with greater velocity since this is an aged bull market at high valuations and the same Fed actions that probably drove it up are probably going to reverse it in a similar fashion. I started this year warning of complacency from the 2017 low volatility uptrend and the potential for a volatility expansion. I also pointed out during the stock market peak in September that volatility had contracted to a historically very low level in VIX shows the market’s expectation of future volatility. Specifically, on September 25th I wrote,

“Looking at the current level of 12 compared to history going back to its inception in 1993, we observe its level is indeed near its lowest historical low.”

I ended it with;

“When the market expects volatility to be low in the next 30 days, I know it could be right for some time. But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near. It’s just a warning shot across the bow suggesting we hedge what we want to hedge and be sure our risk levels are appropriate.”

Well, that has turned out to be an understatement I guess.

What’s more important is what I actually did. On August 23th as the stock market began to appear overbought on a short-term basis, I took partial profits on our leading momentum stock positions. In hindsight, it would have been better to sell them all. By September 26th (when I wrote the above) I had reduced our exposure to only around 30% stocks and the rest in Treasury bonds. It still didn’t turn out perfectly as the stocks we did hold declined, too, and in many cases even more than the stock indexes. As we entered October, I shared a new observation “Here comes the volatility expansion” as stock prices fell and volatility increased. As prices fell to lower and lower levels, I started adding more exposure. At this point, prices have broadly become more and more extremely “oversold” and sentiment has become more negative. This has been a hostile period for every strategy, but I’ve been here before.

By the way, I have been a tactical portfolio manager for over twenty years now. The highlight of my performance history has been the bear markets. I executed especially well in the October 2007 to March 2009 period when the S&P fell -56%. My worst peak to trough drawdown during that period was only -14.3% and I recovered from it about six months or so later. That was compared to a -56% drop in the stock index that took several years to recover. In fact, I did so well at a time when very few did that it was almost unbelievable, so I had my performance verified by a third party accountant. I have considered writing about it and sharing the commentaries I wrote during the period and the tactical decisions I made. Make no mistake, it wasn’t easy nor was it pleasant. I didn’t lose the money others did, so I was in a position of strength, but it was still a challenging time. What I will tell you is I entered and exited various positions about seven or eight times over that two year period. We never know in advance when the low is in, or when a trend will reverse back down. Buy and hold investors just take the beating, I entered and exited hoping the average gain exceeds the average losses. The swings are the challenge. It takes great discipline to do what needs to be done. Most people had very poor results, for me to create good results, I necessarily had to feel and do the opposite of most people. The market analysis I’m sharing here as observations aren’t necessarily the exact signals I used to enter and exit, but they are part of the indicators I monitored during the crash. Every trend is unique. We have no assurance my methods will do as well as in the past. But, the one thing I feel confident in is I’ve been here before. This ain’t my first rodeo. I know what I’m doing and I’m disciplined in my execution. That’s all I can do. I’m dealing with the certainty of uncertainty, so I can’t guarantee I’ll do as well the next time around, but I am better prepared now than I was then.

So bring it. Get some. I’m ready. 

Yesterday I shared the extreme levels of Bullish Percent indicators for the broad market and sectors as well as other indicators like the Put/Call Ratios. I want to add to these observations with more indicators reaching an extreme. I’ve not seen these extremes since 2008 and 2009.

The Nasdaq has declined the most which is no surprise since it’s mostly emerging companies and heavily weighted in Technology. Market conditions have pushed the number of Nasdaq stocks hitting new lows to over 1,100 as of last week. Since the total number of Nasdaq issues is about 3,200 that has caused the value, in percentage terms, to jump to over 30% of the total. As you can see, the last time this many Nasdaq stocks hit new lows was the October 2008 low and the March 2009 low. The current level has exceeded other corrections since then and even the “Tech Wreck” after 2000. At this point, it becomes a contrarian indicator.


To no surprise, the same trend is true for NYSE stocks. As of last week, the percent of stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange at new lows has reached the levels of past correction lows, but not as high as the 2008 period.


From here, I’ll share my observations of the relative strength and momentum of the sectors and stocks within them so we can see how oversold they have become. We already looked at the Bullish Percent of each sector yesterday, this is just more weight of the evidence.

First, I applied the Relative Strength Index to the S&P 500 daily chart. This RSI is only 14 days, so it’s a short-term momentum indicator that measures the magnitude of recent price changes to estimate overbought or oversold conditions. RSI oscillates between zero and 100, so it’s range bound and I consider it overbought above 70 and oversold below 30. Below we see the current level of 19 is very low over the past twenty years and is at or below the low level reached during past shorter-term market bottoms. However, we also see during prolonged bear markets like 2000 to 2003 and 2007 to 2009 it reached oversold conditions two to three times as the market cycles up and down to a lower low.


Zooming out from the daily chart to the weekly chart, we see the extremes more clearly and this is one of them. On a weekly basis, this oversold indicator is as low as it’s been only at the low points of the last two major bear markets.


Zooming out one more time from the weekly to the monthly chart, we observe a monthly data point only highlights the most extreme lows. It’s the same data but ignores the intra-month data. On a monthly basis, the current measure isn’t as low as it reached at the bear market lows in March 2009 or October 2002. For it to reach that level, I expect the green area I highlighted in the price chart to be filled. In other words, this suggests to me if this is a big bear market, we could ultimately see the price trend decline to at least the 2015 high. It only takes about -10% to reach that level. However, as we saw in the shorter term readings, if history is a guide, it would most likely cycle back up before it would trend back down.


You can probably see why I stress that longer-term price trends swing up and down as they unfold. Within a big move of 50%, we see swings around 10 – 20% along the way.

Let’s continue with this same concept to see how each sector looks. The broader indexes are made of the sectors, so if we want an idea of the internal condition of the broader market it is useful to look at each sector as I did yesterday with the Bullish Percent indexes.

Since we just had a -15% correction in August 2015 and January 2016, we’ll just focus on the daily RSI looking back four years to cover that period. Keep in mind, none of this is advice to buy or sell any of these sectors or markets. We only provide advice and investment management to clients with an executed investment management agreement. This observation is for informational and educational purposes only.

The Consumer Discretionary sector is as oversold as it’s been at historically low price points. A trend can always continue down more and stay down longer than expected, but by this measure, it has reached a point I expect to see a reversal up.


The price trend of Consumer Staples that is considered to be a defensive sector initially held up, but then the selling pressure got to it. It’s oversold as it’s been at historical lows.

consumer staples etf relative strength trend RSI XLP

The Energy sector has declined the most in 2018 and is oversold similar to prior price trend lows. We can see the indicator isn’t perfect as a falling trend sometimes reverses up temporarily, then trends back down to a lower low only to get oversold again. We’ll observe this same behavior at different times in each sector or market.

energy sector etf xle relative strength rsi momentum trend following buy signal.jpg

The Financial sector is deeply oversold to the point it has reached at prior lows. Any market could always crash down more, but Financials have reached a point we should expect to see at least a temporary reversal up.


Healthcare is a sector that isn’t expected to be impacted by the economy, but it has participated in the downtrend. It’s also reached the oversold point today. You can see what happened historically after it reached this level. If history is a guide, we should watch for a reversal.


The Industrial sector is trending down but has now reached a point we could see a reversal back up.


Clearly, the market decline has been broad as every sector has participated. The Materials sector reached the oversold level today.


Real Estate has not been spared during the selloff. It has now reached an oversold level normally seen at lows, but historically it’s cycled up and down a few times before reversing up meaningfully. That can be the case for any of them.


The Technology sector had been one of the best-looking uptrends the past few years. It’s now oversold after today’s action.


Up until today, the Utility sector was the lone survivor, but it was one of todays biggest losers. It’s falling so sharply so fast it’s now oversold with the other sectors.


After prices have declined, I look for indications that selling pressure may be getting more exhausted and driving prices to a low enough point to attract buying demand. That’s what it takes to reverse the trend.

I’ve been here before. I’ve executed through these hostile conditions as a tactical operator. The more hostile it gets, the more focused in the zone I get. After the stock market has already declined, I start looking for this kind of panic selling and extreme levels for a countertrend. We’re seeing those levels now. Sure, it could get worse, but we have reached a point that lower prices are more and more likely to result in a reversal back up.

I’m just going to do what I do.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Mike Shell is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Shell Capital Management, LLC, and the portfolio manager of ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical.

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.


Asymmetry in the Business Cycle

The current U.S. economic expansion is now 90 months old.

It is the fourth longest of the 23 expansions since 1900.

The history of the U.S. business cycle is one of long summers and short winters.

The average expansion has lasted 46 months – 3x longer than recessions.

The problem is the MAGNITUDE, not length.

The business cycle, like the stock market, can be asymmetric: it crashes down, but slowly drifts back up. That could be an overreaction on the downside, but an under-reaction on the upside.


To be sure, the chart below shows a sharp recession after the 4th Quarter 2007, and though the trend has since been long in length, it has been the slowest growth. Magnitude is more important than length.




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 Stock Market Trend: What’s in Your Boat?

The stock market trend as measured by the S&P 500 stock index (the black line) has had a difficult time making any gains in 2015. SPY in the chart below is the SPDR S&P 500 ETF seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of large-capitalization U.S. equities. It’s the stock index most people talk about.

But, what is more interesting is the smaller companies are even worse.

The red line is the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of small-capitalization U.S. equities.

The blue line is the iShares Micro-Cap ETF (IWC), which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of micro-capitalization U.S. equities. This index provides exposure to very small public U.S. companies.

Small Cap Laggards

Clearly, smaller companies are having an even more difficult time attracting enough demand to create a positive trend lately. This may be the result of a very aged bull market in U.S. stocks. It could be the very early stages of a change in the longer term direction.

We’ll see…

I don’t worry about what I can’t control. I instead focus only on what I can control. My focus is on my own individual positions risk/reward. I defined my risk/reward.  If I want to make a profit I have to take some risk. I decide when to take a risk and when to increase and decrease the possibility of a loss.

Successful investment managers focus less on what’s “outside their boat” and focus on what’s “inside their boat.”

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


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

Uncharted Territory from the Fed Buying Stocks

I remember sometime after 2013 I told someone “The Fed is buying stocks and that’s partly why stocks have risen so surprisingly for so long”. He looked puzzled and didn’t seem to agree, or understand.

The U.S. Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) has been applying “quantitative easing” since the 2007 to 2009 “global financial crisis”. Quantitative easing (QE) is a type of monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective. The Fed implements quantitative easing by buying financial assets from banks and other financial institutions. That raises the prices of those financial assets and lowers their interest rate or yield. It also increases the amount of money available in the economy. The magnitude they’ve done this over the past seven years has never been experience before. They are in uncharted territory.

I was reminded of what I said, “the Fed is buying stocks” when I read comments from Bill Gross in “Gross: Fed Slowly Recognizing ZIRP Has Downside Consequences”. He says companies are using easy money to buy their own stock:

Low interest rates have enabled Corporate America to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars “but instead of deploying the funds into the real economy,they have used the proceeds for stock buybacks. Corporate authorizations to buy back their own stock are running at an annual rate of $1.02 trillion so far in 2015, 18 percent above 2007’s record total of $863 billion, Gross said.

You see, if we want to know the truth about market dynamics; we necessarily have to think more deeply about how markets interact. Market dynamics aren’t always simple and obvious. I said, “The Fed is buying stocks” because their actions is driving the behavior of others. By taking actions to increase money supply in the economy and keep extremely low borrowing rates, the Fed has been driving demand for stocks.

But, it isn’t just companies buying their own stock back. It’s also investors buying stocks on margin. Margin is borrowed money that is used to purchase securities. At a brokerage firm it is referred to as “buying on margin”. For example, if we have $1 million in a brokerage account, we could borrow another $1 million “on margin” and invest twice as much. We would pay interest on the “margin loan”, but those rates have been very low for years. Margin interest rates have been 1 – 2%. You can probably see the attraction. If we invested in lower risk bonds earning 5% with $1 million, we would normally earn 5%, or $50,000 annually. If we borrowed another $1 million at 2% interest and invested the full $2 million at 5%, we would earn another 3%, or $30,000. The leverage of margin increased the return to 8%, or $80,000. Of course, when the price falls, the loss is also magnified. When the interest rate goes up, it reduces the profit. But rates have stayed low for so long this has driven margin demand.

While those who have their money sitting in in bank accounts and CDs have been brutally punished by near zero interest rates for many years, aggressive investors have borrowed at those low rates to magnify their return and risk in their investments. The Fed has kept borrowing costs extremely low and that is an incentive for margin.

In the chart below, the blue line is the S&P 500 stock index. The red line is NYSE Margin Debt. You may see the correlation. You may also notice that recessions (the grey area) occur after stock market peaks and high margin debt balances. That’s the downside: margin rates are at new highs, so when stocks do fall those investors will either have to exit their stocks to reduce risk or they’ll be forced to exit due to losses. If they don’t have a predefined exit, their broker has one for them: “a margin call”.

Current Margin Debt Stock MarginSource:

If you noticed, I said, “They are in uncharted territory”. I am not. I am always in uncharted territory, so I never am. I believe every new moment is unique, so I believe everyone is always in uncharted territory. Because I believe that, I embrace it. I embrace uncertainty and prepare for anything that can happen. It’s like watching a great movie. It would be no fun if we knew the outcome in advance.


What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends

There is a lot of talk about interest rates and bonds these days – for good reason. You see, interest rates have been in a downtrend for decades (as you’ll see later). When interest rates are falling, the price of bonds go up. I wrote in “Why So Stock Market Focused?” that you would have actually been better off investing in bonds the past 15 years over the S&P 500 stock index.

However, the risk for bond investors who have a fixed bond allocation is that interest rates eventually trend up for a long time and their bonds fall.

This year we see the impact of rising rates and the impact of falling bond prices in the chart below of the 20+ year Treasury bond. It’s down -15% off its high and since the yield is only around 2.5% the interest only adds about 1% over this period for a total return of -14.1%. Up until now, this long term Treasury index has been a good crutch for a global allocation portfolio. Now it’s more like a broken leg.

But, that’s not my main point today. Let’s look at the bigger picture. Below is the yield (interest rate) on the 10-Year U.S. government bond. Notice that the interest rate was as high as 9.5% in 1990 and has declined to as low as 1.5%. Just recently, it’s risen to 2.62%. If you were going to buy a bond for future interest income payments, would you rather invest in one at 9.5% or 1.5%? If you were going to lend money to someone, which rate would you prefer to receive? What is a “good deal” for you, the lender?

I like trends and being positioned in their direction since trends are more likely to continue than reverse, but they usually do eventually reverse when inertia comes along (like the Fed). If you care about managing downside risk you have to wonder: How much could this trend reverse and what could its impact be on fixed bond holdings? Well, we see below that the yield has declined about -70%. If we want to manage risk, we have to at least expect it could swing the other way.

One more observation. Germany is one of the largest countries in the world. Since April, the 10-year German bond interest rate has reversed up very sharp. What if U.S bonds did the same?

As I detailed in “Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want” bonds are often considered a crutch for a global asset allocation portfolio. If you care about managing risk, you may consider that negative correlations don’t last forever. All trends change, eventually. You may also consider your risk of any fixed positions you have. I prefer to actively manage risk and shift between global markets based on their directional trends rather than a fixed allocation to them.

The good news is: by my measures, many bond markets have declined in the short term to a point they should at least reserve back up at least temporarily. What happens after that will determine if the longer trend continues or begins to reverse. The point is to avoid complacency and know in advance at what point you’ll exit to cut losses short…

As they say: “Past performance is no guarantee of the future“.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Allocation Balanced Fund Drawdowns

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

Bond market risk drawdowns

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

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

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

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

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:

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