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.

long-summer-short-winters-economic-expansion

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.

strength-of-economic-expansions

 

 

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

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

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

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: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/charts/markets/nyse-margin-debt.html?NYSE-margin-debt-SPX-since-1995.gif

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: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

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