A Tale of Three Vols

I know, you’re thinking this is about the Tennessee Vols.


Different vol.

I’m not talking about Tennessee Volunteers, I’m talking about the volatility of the stock market.

Someone asked:

“With the S&P 500 is up 3.43% on Friday, volatility is up, way up. So, why is the VIX down -16%? “

The short answer is the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) is volatility implied by S&P 500 options prices, so it’s expected future volatility, not actual or realized historical volatility. In fact, the VIX is an estimate of volatility for the next 30 days. Part of the price of S&P 500 options is an estimate of how volatile the S&P 500 will be between now and the option’s expiration date.  This estimate is not directly observed but is implied by how much buyers are willing to pay for options.  If the market has been volatile as it has been recently, option premiums will increase with the volatility expansion. When the stock market is calm and smooth like it was in 2017, options prices will decrease as a volatility contraction. So, the VIX is implied volatility, not historical realized volatility.

Since investors tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future, they usually expect recent calm markets to continue and violent swings to persist. However, we’ve experienced nearly a year of a high volatility regime with the S&P 500 swinging up and down in a range as high as 20%. However, we’ve now seen two high volume up days and the second is considered to be an upward follow-through day. Such a thrust seems to have the options market expecting lower volatility over at least the next month. That’s how I see it. Others may believe its a reaction to the economic news. It is what it is.

What is perplexing to those not familiar with VIX movement is it decreased so dramatically as the price actually gained a lot. Volatility actually expanded, but to the upside, and implied volatility evaporated. That doesn’t sound like a volatility gauge.

Another issue is not all volatile calculations really measure upside and downside vol the same way. Below is the S&P 500 index.

  • The first chart in the next window below the price trend is an average true range (ATR) of the price over the past 14 days.
  • The second chart is the VIX.
  • The chart in the last window is the standard deviation.

spx spy vix $spx $spy $vix atr volatility asymmetric

A few observations:

  1. The price of the S&P 500 has increased sharply the past two weeks.
  2. The VIX is trending down sharply and so is the standard deviation.
  3. The average true range isn’t trending down. It has stayed about the same.

As the price has spiked up, historical volatility as measured by standard deviation is trending down sharply and so is implied volatility. The only measure actually accounting for this wide range of prices (up in this case) is the average true range.

You may be wondering why?

Standard deviation a statistical model that measures the volatility of a price trend. The calculation assumes that two standard deviations should contain 95% of the price data.

The average true range includes the total “true” range of the price trend by comparing highs, lows, and closes, and compares the price change over different days to account for gaps up and down in price.

As you can see, the average true range of price appears to more accurately reflect the volatility as prices spread out. The standard deviation is recovering from the large deviations as the average true range is reflecting remaining day to day volatility.

What does it matter, anyway?

Volatility measures may be used to create indicators for trading signals. For example, in the chart, I added channels above and below the price trend that are 2 times the standard deviation. These bands are expected to include about 95% of price action.

spx spy $spx $spy atr sd vix volatility asymmetric

There are two ways it may be used for tactical trading.

A trend following system may use them to identify a breakout because moves outside the price range are rare. A trend following system expects such strong momentum will continue.

  • When the price breaks out the upside, a trend follower may buy, expecting the momentum of the price will keep trending up.
  • If the price breaks out to the downside, the trend following system may sell (short), expecting the downside momentum to continue.

A countertrend system does just the opposite.

  • If the channel is reached on the upside, the countertrend system will sell, expecting the price will reverse back down within the range.
  • If the price falls to the lower channel, the countertrend system will buy, expecting the price is more likely to trend back up within the range.

I’m just sharing this as an observation to answer a question. We could test these signals to see their results as a system to quantify which one may have a better asymmetric risk/reward. But, for this purpose, we can see how these three volatility indicators are similar or different.

I could have titled this observation “A Tale of 4 Vols” since we can observe the distinctions between “lower volatility” and “higher volatility” by simply looking at the price trend. Over the past two years, we’ve certainly observed a period of low vol change into high vol. I call it a volatility expansion and though, for me, using the VIX and other indicators signaled the possible change, the price trend itself is the final arbiter.

trend following stocks stock market asymmetric risk reward

By the way, what about the other vol? The Tennessee Vol? Why do they call Tennessee the “Volunteer State” and the Tennessee Volunteers?

Appalachian Magazine shares the story:

“The proclamation went out from Nashville that the federal government needed 2,600 volunteers to assist in the war with Mexico… Within a week’s time, more than 30,000 Tennesseans responded to the call to arms.  And it was from this overwhelming show of patriotism that the State of Tennessee not only assisted in winning the outright sovereignty of the State of Texas, but also in securing its lasting title as The Volunteer State.”

So, there you have it.

I guess I could have titled this observation “A Tale of Five Vols.” You can probably see how observations can spread out to a wider range and become more volatile. It’s even true for the topic of volatility.

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.

Investor Sentiment into the New Year 2019

Investor sentiment measures may be used as contrarian indicators. We expect the market to do the opposite of what the indicators are saying when they reach an extreme level of bullish/greed/optimism or bearish/fear/pessimism.  Identifying extreme levels of positive or negative sentiment may give us an indicator of the direction the stock market is likely to trend next.

I observe when sentiment reaches overly optimistic levels like it did late 2017 into January 2018, the stock market trend trends down or at least sideways afterward. In reverse, after investor sentiment becomes extremely pessimistic, the stock market tends to trend back up.

Although extreme investor sentiment may be used as a contrarian indicator, I do not base my investment or tactical trading decisions on it by itself. I use investor sentiment measures and indicators to indicate and confirm my other signals of a potential trend change. For example, when bullish investor sentiment is rising from a lower level but not yet reached an extreme high, it’s just confirming trend following. However, when bullish sentiment reaches an extreme it warns me to be prepared for a potential countertrend. All those who want to buy may have bought, so buying enthusiasm may be exhausted. That’s what I observed in January 2018. After prices fall investor sentiment shifts to bearish and they fear more loss. Once the level of fear reaches an extreme it begins to suggest those who want to sell have sold and we could see selling become exhausted and a selling climax.

We have two types of investor sentiment measures: Polls and indicators.

Investor sentiment polls actually survey investors to ask them what they believe about the market. The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey has become a widely followed measure of the mood of individual investors. Since 1987, AAII members have been answering the same simple question each week:

“Do you feel the direction of the market over the next six months will be up (bullish), no change (neutral) or down (bearish)?”

The results are then consolidated into the AAII Investor Sentiment Survey, which offers us some insight into the mood of individual investors.

Bearish investor sentiment is negatively correlated with stock market index returns. Below I created a chart of the S&P 500 stock index with an overlay of the % bearish investor sentiment. On the bottom, I added the correlation between the S&P 500 and the % bearish investor sentiment. We can visually see there is a negative correlation between investors getting more bearish as stock prices fall. For example, few investors were bearish in 2014 into 2015 until the stock index fell -12% in August 2015, then the % of bearish investors spiked up. We also saw the % of bearish investors extremely low in January 2018 as the stock index reached an all-time high. After the stock index declined -20% at the end of 2018 we saw the % of bearish investors spike up again. As we enter 2019, the % of bearish investors is at a historical extreme high level so we may be observing a selling climax as the desire to sell gets exhausted.

Bearish Investor Sentiment is Negatively Correlated with Stock Index Returns

Bullish investor sentiment is positively correlated with stock index returns, except after stock prices fall, then investors lose their optimism. In the chart below, we see the % of bullish investors trending up along with stocks 2014 into 2015, but then as prices fell late 2015 into 2016 they lose their optimism for stocks. We saw another spike to an extreme level of bullishness late 2017 into 2018 as the stock index reached all-time highs. The % of bullish investors declined with great momentum after prices fell sharply. As we enter 2019, the % of bullish investors is very low, leaving much room for the desire to buy to take over.

Bullish Investor Sentiment is Positively Correlated with Stock Index Returns

Investor sentiment surveys like AAII are useful tools to get an idea of extreme sentiment levels when selling pressure or buying enthusiasm may be becoming exhausted. However, their potential weakness is they are ultimately just polls asking people what they believe, not what they are actually doing. Regardless, they do seem to have enough accuracy to be used as a guide to confirm other indicators.

As I’ve observed extreme levels of investor sentiment and participation in the 2018 downtrend in global markets, I’ve shared these indicators several times. As we saw in the investor sentiment survey, the VIX spiked in 2015, then spiked again but to a lower high in 2016 as the stock index fell. The VIX spiked again in February 2018 as the S&P 500 quickly declined -10%. After prices trended back up implied volatility contracted all the way to the low level of 12. The stock index started to decline again, so the VIX once again indicated a volatility expansion. As we enter 2019, the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index VIX is at 25.42, just over its long-term average of 20. The VIX implies an expected volatility range of 25% over the next 30 days.


I’ve shared several observations the past few months of the Put/Call Ratio. The Put/Call Ratio is a range bound indicator that swings above and below 1, so reveals a shifting preference between put volume to call volume. When the level is high, it indicates high put volume. Since puts are used for hedging or bearish trades, I consider it a contrary indicator at extremely high levels.

The Equity Put/Call Ratio measures the put and call volume on equities, leaving out indexes. The Equity Put/Call Ratio spiked to a high level of put volume when it reached 1.13 on December 21, 2018, as the stock index was declining. The high Equity Put/Call indicated options trading volume was much higher for protective puts than call volume. The Equity Put/Call Ratio is considered to be mostly non-professional traders who tend to be more bullish, so it keeps call volume relatively high and the ratio low. Its high level has so far turned out to be a reliable short-term indicator of a short-term low in stocks. As we enter 2019, the Equity Put/Call Ratio is at .60, which is at a normal range. We normally see more call volume than put volume in the Equity Put/Call Ratio, so the ratio is its normal level as you can see in the chart.

equity put call ratio 2018 spx spy

The CBOE Index Put/Call Ratio is applied to index options without equity options. We believe professional traders and portfolio managers mostly use index options for hedging or directional positions. The total volume of the Index Put/Call Ratio is asymmetric toward puts for hedging purposes. As we can observe in the chart below, the current level at the beginning of 2019 is 1.09 dropping about 35% from it’s December peak at 1.67.


We can visually see the tendency in Index Put/Call is around 1 as the Equity Put/Call Ratio is around 0.60. Equity Put/Call Ratio has a more optimistic/bullish tendency as individual stock options are used more for bullish bets as index options are used more as for hedging.

The CBOE Total Put/Call Ratio combines both equity and index options to create a range bound oscillator that swings above and below 1. With the Total Put/Call Ratio, I believe the put bias in index options is offset by the call bias in equity options. The Total Put/Call Ratio spiked to its highest ever reading of 1.82 on December 20, 2018, as the stock index was entering the -20% “bear market” level. I consider a level above 1.20 to be bullish as it indicates an extreme in put volume over call volume. A reading below 0.70 is more bearish since there is an asymmetry between call volume over put volume. Above 1.20 is an elevated put trading volume. As a bet that stock prices will fall or hedge against them, buying put options is a bearish sentiment. Of course, some of the volume could have been traders selling puts which are a very speculative bullish bet, but since I pointed it out the stock indexes reversed up sharply, so I believe it turned out to be a reliable short-term indicator of a short-term low in stocks. As we enter 2019, the Total Put/Call Ratio is at .98 which is still high. We usually see more call volume than put volume, so the ratio is typically well below 1 as you can see in the chart.

total put call ratio spx comparison

There is no better indicator of a shift in investor sentiment than price action. No one believes that any more than me. The direction of the price trend is the final arbiter, and I’ve believed it over two decades. Any indicator that is a derivative of price or non-price trend economic data has the potential to stray far from the reality of the price trend. The price trend determines the value and the outcome of a position. As we enter 2019, the S&P 500 stock index has declined -20% off it’s September high and after a sharp reversal up since December 24th, it’s currently in a short-term downtrend, but at a level, the countertrend back up may continue.

spy spx stock index 2018 bear market

Even if you don’t observe investor sentiment measures as an indicator or trade signal, it’s still useful to observe the extremes to help avoid becoming overly bullish or overly bearish and part of the herd. The herd tends to be wrong at extremes, and most investors tend to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. If I am to create better results, I must necessarily do the opposite of most investors.

As a tactical investment manager, I identify changes in price trends, inter-market relationships, investor sentiment, and market conditions aiming for better risk-adjusted returns. My objective is asymmetric investment returns, so I necessarily focus on asymmetric risk/reward positions, and that includes focusing on asymmetries between bullish and bearish investor sentiment.


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.

To Know Where You’re Going, Look at Where You’ve Been: The 2018 Year in Review

I write my observations of trends and market conditions every day, though I only share some of them on ASYMMETRY® Observations. The advantage of writing observations as we see them is we can go back and read what we observed in real time.

The best “year in review” is to reread these observations in the order they were written to see how global directional trends and volatility expansions and contractions unfolded in real time. Reviewing our actual observations removes the hindsight bias we have today, looking back with perfect hindsight of what happened only after the fact.

It’s one thing to think back and write about what you observed over the past year, it’s another to revisit what you observed as you saw it. It’s even another to review what you actually did in response to what you observed.

Mark Twain’s mother once said:

“I only wish Mark had spent more time making money rather than just writing about it.”

I don’t take the time to share every observation I have because I am no Mark Twain. I am fully committed to doing it, not just writing about it. Writing about observations of directional trends and volatility is secondary to making tactical trading decisions and active risk management for me. I see no use in observing markets and writing about it if I do nothing about it.

The first observation I shared this year was on January 18th. The topic may sound familiar today. From there, I observed conditions to suggested we could have been seeing the final stages of a bull market, a trend change to a non-trending indecisive period, and a volatility expansion. If you want to understand what in the world is going on, I encourage you to read these observations and think about how it all played out over the year.


All Eyes are Now on the Potential Government Shutdown

In remembrance of euphoria: Whatever happened to Stuart and Mr. P?


In the final stages of a bull market

Asset Class Returns are Driven by Sector Exposure

Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500

Stock market indexes lost some buying enthusiasm for the day

The most important rule of trading is to play great defense, not great offense.

Selling pressure overcomes buying demand for the second day in U.S. stock market

February Global Market Trends

Selling pressure overwhelms buying demand for stocks for the third day in a row

Buying demand dominated selling pressure in the stock market

Asymmetric Volatility

MARCH 2018

Stock pickers market? Sector rotation with stocks for asymmetric reward to risk

Investment management can take many years of cycles and regimes to understand an edge.

Asymmetric force direction and size determines trend

Asymmetric force was with the buyers

My Introduction to Trend Following

When I apply different trend systems to ETFs

The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy March 19, 2018

Apparently there was more enthusiasm to sell

What’s going to happen next?

What’s going to happen next? continued

APRIL 2018

Is this correction and volatility normal?

Global Market Trends

MAY 2018

Is the economy, stupid?

JUNE 2018

Growth Stocks have Stronger Momentum than Value in 2018

Sector Trends are Driving Equity Returns

Trend Analysis of the Stock Market

Trend of the International Stock Market

Interest Rate Trend and Rate Sensitive Sector Stocks

Expected Volatility Stays Elevated in 2018

Sector ETF Changes: Indexes aren’t so passive

Commodities are trending with better momentum than stocks

Investor sentiment gets more bearish

Is it a stock pickers market?

JULY 2018

2nd Quarter 2018 Global Investment Markets Review

Global Stock and Bond Market Trends 2Q 2018

Stock market investor optimism rises above historical average

Trend following applied to stocks

Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?

Earnings season is tricky for momentum growth stocks

Front-running S&P 500 Resistance

The week in review shows some shifts


Global Market ETF Trends

Global Market Trends, U.S. Dollar, Emerging Markets, Commodities, and Their Changing Correlations

The Big Picture Stock and Bond Market Valuation and Outlook


The U.S. stock market was strong in August, but…

Emerging Markets Reached a Bear Market Level, or is it a Continuation of a Secular Bear Market?

What trends are driving emerging markets into a bear market?

VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility

Rising Interest Rate Impact on Real Estate and Home Construction

The Trend in Interest Rates and the Impact on the Economy and Stock Market


Stanley Druckenmiller on his use of Technical Analysis and Instinct

Here comes the volatility expansion

Intermarket trends change over the past two weeks

The volatility expansion continues like tropical storm Michael that could become a hurricane

Divergence in Global Asset Allocation

The Stock Market Trend

U. S. Sector Trends

Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion

The stock market trends up with momentum

Observations of the stock market downtrend


The stock market is swinging its way to an inflection point

Divergence in the Advance-Decline Line May be Bullish

Pattern Recognition: Is the S&P 500 Forming a Head and Shoulders Bottom?

Momentum stocks need to find some buying interest

Will the stock market hold the line?

The Death Cross on the S&P 500


Stock Market Observations

What’s going to happen next for the stock market?

Global asset allocation takes a beating in 2018

The stock market has reached a short-term extreme as investor sentiment indicates fear

An exhaustive analysis of the U.S. stock market

An exhaustive stock market analysis… continued

Keep in mind, even if I see what could be the final stages of a bull market unfold, it doesn’t mean I try to just exit near the stock market peak and sit in cash for years. For me, it isn’t a simple ON/OFF switch. The highlight of my performance history has probably been my execution through bear markets. I’ve historically operated through them by being a tactical risk manager/risk taker, which means I increase and decrease exposure to the possibility of risk/reward with an objective of asymmetric risk/reward. I can’t assure anyone I’ll do as well in the future as I’ve done in the past, but I do know I’m even better prepared now than I was then. Being as prepared as possible and well-honed on situational awareness is the best I can do.

I’m looking forward to sharing more observations as we enter 2019 as global market conditions appear to be setting up for some trends to avoid, some to participate in, and some interesting trends to write about. To follow along, enter your email address on the top right of this website and follow me on Twitter.


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.


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.


An exhaustive analysis of the U.S. stock market

It’s a big task for me to use the word exhaustive when it comes to stock market analysis. Exhaustive is examining, including, or considering all elements or aspects; fully comprehensive. There is no way to consider all elements, but we can focus on how the price trends are actually trending and the behavior and sentiment that is driving the trend.

Many years ago a friend of mine once tried to debate me about what trend following is or is not. He argued that trend following is all lagging moving averages or breakouts. The more we discussed it, the more we both realized that isn’t true. What made us realize it was when I said:

A skillful trend follower wants to catch a trend early in its stage and capitalize on it until it ends.

That’s hard to argue against. Who would rather enter a trend later in its stage? Who wants to catch less of the trend? My point is: we should want to capture as much of a trend as possible and for me, that necessarily means I want to not only determine the direction of a trend but also observe when trends are likely to change direction.

I want to share this with you so you know where I’m coming from. My objective is all about ASYMMETRY®. For me, it’s all about asymmetric risk/reward. Asymmetric risk/reward is an expectation of average gains larger than average losses. It could be as simple as risking a loss of 10% for the potential to earn a gain of 20%. That’s an asymmetric payoff. If I did that with just a 50% probability, I would earn 5% on average. How much total return we would achieve over time would be controlled by how much capital I risk in each position. How much I risk in each position across the portfolio dictates my portfolio drawdown. The portfolio drawdowns relative to total return since inception creates an asymmetric risk/reward profile. So, everything I do involves ASYMMETRY® and that’s why it’s my trademark. As you read my observations you can probably see how I’m looking for exposure at lower risk levels and less exposure at higher risk levels and that can be counterintuitive. It can certainly go against investor sentiment and emotions at times.

Every decision we make is in the present moment. We can do nothing in the past. We can do nothing in the future. The only time we can do something is now, or not.

To get an understanding of an asymmetric risk/reward let’s look at an idealized situation. The chart below, unnamed because it doesn’t matter, is a price trend that gained over 100%. If your objective is an asymmetric payoff and you have perfect hindsight, what would be your best entry point?

asymmetric risk reward investment

Clearly, the price is trending from the lower left to the upper right, so the answer is the lowest price possible. As I said, in the real world we don’t know in advance the trend will continue, so we have to be willing to place our bet and let it unfold. When I enter a trend, I determine how much capital I’ll risk to see if it becomes an asymmetric payoff. If we were looking at the trend in 2016 with perfect hindsight, where would be the very best entry? Of course if would be the -15% dips in 2015 and 2016. The trouble is, as the price is falling sharply, it never seems there will be a catalyst to make the market trend back up. The news is always bad. Investor sentiment is very bearish. The sky is falling and all people want to do is duck for cover.

After trends have moved, I find it more productive to look for a change of trend.

After price trends up, I start looking for signs of a potential countertrend back down.

After prices have fallen, I start looking for signs of a potential countertrend back up.

What I do as a tactical portfolio manager is systematic rules-based. Although, it isn’t so mechanical that my computers are doing it all and executing trades. I am Man + Machine, not Machine – Man. I make no bones about it. I ultimately make tactical decisions that are informed by all of the proprietary systems I’ve developed over the past two decades. Some of my systems are more automated than others, but ultimately I am the portfolio manager.

So, when I share market analysis observations, this is something different than specific trading signals to enter and exit. Market analysis is something I do to gain insights from my observations.

Observations are the action or process of observing something carefully in order to gain information.

Insights are the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of something.

Observations are “what is going on” and insights are “understanding what is going on.”

I can share my observations of what is going on, but I can’t necessarily give you the insight to understand it. Understanding is up to you. To gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of something you have to study it closely.

So, you can probably see why I believe it’s useful to do market analysis to get an understanding of the probabilities and possibilities. I do it by looking at the current price trend and where it’s been and more likely to go next.

Here we go.

I said this is going to be exhaustive, so I’m going to share my top down macro view of the U.S. stock market. I also do this for International stock markets, bonds, commodities, etc. but this is going to be focused on the U.S. stock market. However, I may throw in some relative comparisons of other markets to make a point. The top-down macro view is going to be in this order;

  1. Broad stock market index price trends and breadth
  2. Sectors within the stock market price trends and breadth
  3. Stocks within those sectors price trends and momentum


The big picture is the overall long-term secular situation. In April I presented my big picture observations to a group of advisors. The two things I shared are:

  1. This is the longest bull market in history. At 9 years old, it’s very aged. The average length of a bull market is 4 to 5 years. Twice the average is aged by any measure.
  2. The Shiller PE Ratio was the second highest, ever. Only the 1999 bubble was higher. When the stock market is trading so expensive, we have to be prepared for the trend to reverse the other direction.

Below is a 20-year monthly chart of the S&P 500. I added the green highlight to show the current price is only -35% from the October 2007 high eleven years ago. Losses are asymmetric as they compound exponentially. Losses erode gains asymmetrically. For example, the price gain from the 2007 high to the current price is 56%, but it only takes -35% to decline back to that point. You may also consider the stock index is only 56% higher than its 2000 peak eighteen years ago.

stock market secular trend

In The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market I wrote: “Whether you believe the average bull market lasts 39 months, 50 months, or 68 months, it seems the current one is likely late in its stage at 54 months as of September 2013.” Yes, I was saying 5 years ago the trend seemed late stage – and it was. It just continued anyway, though was interrupted by two declines in the range of -15% in 2015 and 2016.

At the same time in late 2013, the Shiller PE Ratio was increasing to a very overvalued level. It only kept going higher. By January of this year, it reached 33x earnings, the second highest ever. In fact, the only two times it reached this extreme the stock market followed with the Great Depression crash and the -46% decline after 2000. After the current -18% decline in the S&P it is now down to 26.74. The median is around 15, secular bear markets often begin at 20 or higher, secular bull markets begin below 10.

The bottom line is:

Shiller PE Ratio

I’m guessing the unprecedented Quantitative Easing of the Federal Reserve helped to push the valuations to an extreme. The Fed is now unwinding the QE and raising interest rates, which may be partly why we are seeing prices fall. So, we certainly can’t overlook the situational awareness that this could eventually become a much worse bear market to the -50% level. However, if it does, it will usually unfold with many swings up and down along the way. Falling prices are eventually followed by sharp countertrend moves up. It’s when we see lower highs and lower lows over time that it becomes more evident it’s a big bear market.

One thing that’s been talked about a lot lately is the risk of an inverted yield curve. An inverted yield curve is when the short-term 3-month interest rate is higher than the long-term 30-year interest rate. The yield curve hasn’t inverted like it did in December 2006 and August 2000. The yield curve doesn’t suggest a recession anytime soon.

Here’s what an inverted yield curve looks like… when it inverted December 2006. A year later, the stock market started its decline of over -56%.
Here is the inverted yield curve in August 2000. In 2000, the yield curve was more accurate as to timing. The broad stock market declined -50%.
The normal yield curve, 3 month vs 30 year, has not inverted. The long-term interest rate is higher than the short-term rate. For the yield curve to invert, the short-term interest rate will have to increase higher than the longer-term interest rate. Or, the long-term interest rate decrease below the short term. Either way, that hasn’t happened yet.

How big are the stock market losses in 2018? 

Starting with a top-down view. First, the broad asset classes and styles like large, mid, small and value, growth, and blend using Morningstar Small Value is down the most at -19% YTD. Small Cap stocks are down the most. Large Growth and Large Cap generally have declined the least. The average U.S. Market index is down -8.58%. Keep in mind that index performance does not include any costs or fees and may not be invested in directly.

stock market sector asset class performance 2018

The table above also includes sectors. Energy and Basic Materials are down over -20%, so any tactical system that avoided them had an advantage.

Most investors don’t necessarily invest all of their money in the stock market all the time. Many instead do global asset allocation like I wrote about in Global asset allocation takes a beating in 2018. Fewer have an objective like mine; a global tactical strategy that shifts between markets by increasing and decreasing exposure aiming for asymmetric risk/reward. Here are iShares asset allocation ETFs YTD as a proxy for low-cost exposure to a global asset allocation of stocks and bonds all the time with no active risk management or tactical decisions. Each “risk level” has a different exposure to stocks/bonds. Even the most conservative allocation which is mostly invested in bonds is down -4% in 2018.

global asset allocation etf

I shared more detailed observations of global asset allocation Global asset allocation takes a beating in 2018.

For a more exhaustive observation of GAA trends, here I included some of the more popular active global allocation funds along with the iShares ETFs that track allocation indexes. Clearly, 2018 has been a hostile year for most every strategy; static, balanced, or tactical.

global asset allocation funds 2018 ETF ETFs

So, that’s the big picture. From there, let’s zoom in for a closer look for a shorter term observation.

The downside very quickly erodes the progress. However, the asymmetric nature of losses starts to really compound against capital after -20%. At this point, the S&P 500 is down -18%. It’s a little lower than 2016 and about the same as the decline in 2011.

2018 stock market loss

Though this has been a very long bull market, it has been interrupted by deeper “corrections” of more than -10%.

stock market drawdown bear markets asymmetric risk

In comparison, the 2003 to 2007 bull market corrections were less than -10%.

stock market corrections bear market average

When does the bleeding stop? 

After prices have already fallen, I start looking for signs of a potential countertrend and divergence.

The price trend itself is the final arbiter. It is what it is. A price that is trending down is going to continue to trend down until the desire to sell has been exhausted and drives prices low enough until the enthusiasm to buy takes over. After sharp selling pressure like we’ve seen since September, we’ll likely see some similarly sharp countertrend reversals up. Market trends don’t usually drift in a direction until it’s over, instead, we observe swings up and down as the price trend cycles. Short term cycles develop the longer term cycles.

Though the price trend itself is the final arbiter, the best way I have identified when trends are most likely to change direction at extremes is to observe extremes in investor sentiment and breadth. Ultimately, investor sentiment and the breadth is evident in the price, but at extremes, these measures can be a warning shot across the bow at high levels and indicate panic selling exhaustion at lows. From here, we’ll look at investor sentiment measures. We’ll also look at breadth indicators that quantitatively tell us the breadth of participation in the decline. The thinking is at some point these measures reach an extreme, suggesting the selling may be becoming exhausted and to prepare for a potential reversal. Since asymmetric risk/reward is my objective, I’m looking for lower-risk entries that have the potential for greater payoff than the amount I risk.

Investor Sentiment: Fear is Driving the Stock Market

A simple way to quickly observe overall investor sentiment is the Fear & Greed index, which tracks seven different indicators.

Fear Greed Index Low 2018 lowest levelIt’s the lowest level I’ve seen it, suggesting we’ve observed panic level selling. If you read my observations from the beginning of this year, you’ll see the opposite was true at the start of 2018.


We’ve observed a round trip this year from Extreme Greed to Extreme Fear. Investor sentiment obviously swings up and down over time. As sentiment oscillates, it drives price tends to cycle, too. Even in bull markets, there are declines and in bear markets, we’ll see sharp upswings.

When investor sentiment is so bearish we see a spike in the words “bear market.” Google Trends shows the bear market talk on the Internet has spiked to the highest level in five years, even higher than 2015-16 and February this year.


I’m also hearing the typical talk about a 1987 type crash. The October 1987 -20% single day crash was 32 years ago but it’s still talked about today when prices fall. Markets are risky, so a crash is something we risk when we invest our money. The risk is partially why markets generate a return. We have to be willing to have exposure to risks that can come when no one expects it. Has modern market regulation and technology created any prevention of an ’87 type crash? Around 2012 circuit breakers were created to theoretically prevent a single day crash.

Circuit breaker thresholds: trading is halted market-wide for single-day declines in the S&P 500. Circuit breakers halt trading on the stock market during dramatic drops and are set at 7%, 13%, and 20% of the closing price for the previous day. There are also single stock limits and halts by the exchanges

Buy and hold, long-only asset allocation investors may take comfort in knowing there is some limit, but for those of us who actively manage our risk we prefer to deal with risk sooner if we can, but there is no assurance any strategy will always do as intended.  You can read more about circuit breakers in Measures to Address Market Volatility. The bottom line is these circuit breakers are intended to limit a single day waterfall decline, they do not control overall drawdowns.

How many stocks are participating in the decline? 

Another way to say it; How “washed out” is the stock market? To understand the internal condition, I look inside the indexes at the sectors and stocks. We’ll start with Breadth indicators, which quantitatively measure the percent of stocks in uptrends vs. downtrends.

  • When 70% of stocks are already in uptrends it signals a strong market trend but also suggests as most stocks have caught up and participated, buying enthusiasm may be getting exhausted.
  • When less than 30% of stocks are in uptrends, 70% of them are in downtrends, so the market trend is bearish. However, after most of the stocks have already fallen, at some point, it suggests we look for the exhaustion of selling pressure that could reverse the downtrend.

The percent of the S&P 500 stocks above their moving averages tells us how many of the 500 stocks are in an uptrend vs. a downtrend. When it’s declining, the market is bearish so we can see how many stocks are participating in the decline. When it reaches an extreme low, it may be an indication selling could be becoming exhausted. As we see, it has reached the low levels of past stock market lows with the exception of the low in March 2009.


Notice the low was reached October 2008 and stayed down until late March 2009. In the massive crash when stocks fell over -50%, it stayed “oversold” for over 6 months. It’s an example of the limitations of countertrend signals in outlier events.

For a view of the short-term trends, I do the same for the 50 day moving average. Only 6% of the S&P 500 stocks are in uptrends, so 94% are in short-term downtrends. That’s the bad news for stock investors. The good news is, it’s reached the low range where we have historically seen a reversal up. A reversal up from here would be bullish, at least temporarily.


The S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index is the number of stocks in the S&P that are trading on a Point & Figure buy signal. By this measure, only 17% of the 500 stocks are in uptrends. I highlighted the top are in red to note the contrary indicator of breadth and green on the bottom to mark the contrarian bullish zone where downtrends may reverse to uptrends when selling gets exhausted. The S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index is below 2011, 2015 and 2016 stock market correction lows. BPI is considered overbought when above 70% and oversold when below 30%. Once it reaches the green zone, I start looking for a reversal up from a low level, which is a bullish signal. 


Notice the current level is below the 2011 and 2015-16 decline, but not as low as the 2008-09 bear market when the stock index fell -56%.

We see the same scenario in the NYSE Bullish Percent, which applies the same method to the stocks trading on the NYSE.


We’re not seeing any divergence in the breadth indicators, they are all down as most stocks have fallen. These are now at the level to look for countertrend signals.

The High-Low Index is a 10-day moving average of new highs vs. new lows. This breadth indicator shows when new highs outnumber new lows and when new highs are expanding. In general, new highs outnumber new lows when the indicator is above 50. New highs are expanding when the indicator is above 50 and rising. As with most range bound oscillator indicators, high is over 70 and low is below 30. Here we see it’s about as low as it has been. We also see how it can swing around for a year or two in a bear market. Since it can take time for prices to reach all-time highs and lows, the High-Low Index is more lagging than similar indicators.


Before we look inside the sectors, we’ll look at some other indicators of sentiment. This week, the CBOE Total Put/Call Ratio spiked to 1.82, which is its highest put volume over call volume ratio ever. We have data going back to 1995. As you can see in the chart, we normally see this ratio less than one as more calls trade than puts. A reading over 1 is usually a signal of pessimism as options traders appear to buy buying put options for protection or to speculate the stock market will fall. We’ve never seen put volume so high. Options traders appear to be very bearish, which has historically been a contrarian indicator at some point.


By the way, big bear markets unfold in cycles as the trend swings up and down. In the last bear market, the stock indexes fell -15%, then gained 10%, then fell 20%, then gained 15%, along the way you never know in advance which direction it is going to trend next. Many tactical traders had trouble with the 2007 to 2009 period because of whipsaws. By the time they exited, the market trended up without them, then they reentered just in time for the next fall. This is the risk of tactical trading, whether the method is breakouts, momentum, relative strength, or any other rotation style. I know this because I’ve known over 100 other tactical traders for over two decades. The price swings are the challenge. For example, below is the 2008 – 2009 -56% decline. As you can see, the Equity Put/Call Ratio is on top. I drew green lines at its peaks to show they typically indicate a short-term price low, but probably not as well as it would in a correction within a primary bull market. The point is, sometimes signals work out well, other times they don’t. They don’t have to be perfect and none are. The key is asymmetry: higher average profits than losses over full market cycles.

2008 spx put call ratio study

One indicator showing some divergence is the VIX CBOE Volatility Index. Although the S&P 500 is about -5% lower than its February low when the VIX spiked up to nearly 40, the VIX is only at 30 this time. However, I point out it did the same thing in the lower low in January 2016. The VIX initially spiked more in the first decline in August 2015 but remained less evaluated at the lower low in January 2016. It appears the options market  expects elevated volatility, but not as much as an expansion as before. We’ll see.


Drilling down, what about sectors? Below are the individual sectors YTD. Energy and Materials are down the most. Ironically, they are tied to inflation. Where is the rising prices (inflation) the Fed is supposed to be fighting?


Sector Trends and Breadth 

To get an underatnding of the individual stock trends within a sector, I look at the bullish percent of the sectors.

First, we’ll observe the bullish percent of the Energy sector. Energy is down the most and only 3% of stocks in the index is an uptrend as measured by a point & figure buy signal. It’s as low as its been in 20 years. Though it could stay at this low level in a bear market as it did around 2008, it still swings up and down for those willing to trade it.


The next biggest loser sector is Basic Materials, another commodity-related sector. I highlighted the current low level in green, which is nearly as low as it’s ever been in 20 years. These indicators are range bound, so they can only fall to 0% and as high as 100%.


The Financial sector is the third largest weight in the S&P 500 stock index at 13%. It’s down -18%, making it one of the biggest laggards. Banks, brokers, etc. are leading the market down and that isn’t a good sign for the economy of the market. Financials often lead in bear markets. However, as we see below, their participation in the fall is about as high as it’s ever been. On the other hand, we see how volatile and weak Financials were in 2007 to 2009. During that “Financial Crisis”, they were among the worst.

financial sector bullish percent momentum relative strength

The industrials sector, down about -18%, continues the trend of broad participation in the sell-off. It’s also reached the lowest it did in 2008 and 2011.

industrial sector bullish percent momentum

Consumer Staples is a sector that is supposed to hold up in market declines, but the index is down -12% year to date, which is more than the S&P. Staples stocks have participated as much as they did in prior corrections in 2011 and 2016, but not as much as around 2008.

consumer staples sector bullish percent index

The Technology sector is a big one because at 20% it has the largest weighting in the S&P 500. The Technology sector is down about -7% YTD. The Technolgy sector bullish percent is down below its lows in prior corrections and nearing the 2008 and 2009 lows. Keep in mind, once prices have moved to a low point, they eventually attract buying demand and reverse the other direction. These indicators help us see the levels it is more likely to happen and a reversal in these indicators increases the potential even more.


Consumer Discretionary is 10% of the S&P and down -5% YTD. Its bullish percent is as about as low as it’s been.


Another major sector is Healthcare, it’s the second largest weighting at 16% of the S&P 500. It’s flat for the year, but its bullish percent is very washed out.


The Utility sector is the lone survivor so far in 2018. Like Consumer Staples, Utilities are considered “defensive.” That expectation hasn’t held true for Consumer Staples down -12% this year, but the Utility sector is up 2% YTD. The first half of the year, Utilities were laggard as they are sensitive to rising interest rates, but the last half they’ve found some buying interest. As we see, the Utility sector momentum has been strong enough to keep its stocks in uptrends and into the higher risk zone. However, notice they tend to stay at higher bullish percent levels over time. Utilities don’t usually have strong momentum against other sectors, but they do tend to have less volatility. Of course, in the last big bear market that wasn’t the case as everything fell.


The bottom line is the stock market could certainly be entering another big bear market. It’s long overdue as this bull is very aged and overvalued. Even if it is, it will include swings up and down along the way. That’s the challenge for all strategies that trade or invest in stocks. For buy and hold investors, it’s a challenge as stocks swing up and down and they have full exposure all the time and unlimited downside risk. For tactical traders, the swings are a challenge as we increase and decrease our exposure to risk and reward and none of our methods are perfect. They key, for me, in dealing with it is to hold the lowest risk, highest potential reward exposure. Barring we don’t see some waterfall decline, most of the market is at a point we should see a countertrend move up at least temporarily. If prices keep trending down, I’m guessing the upswing that does come will be just as sharp.

After prices have fallen, I start looking for signs of a potential countertrend and it could come at any time.

Someday in the future, stock investors will be giddy again and completely forget about how they feel right now. But for now, the trend is down, but the sentiment and breadth are at such extremes we should be alert to see at least a short-term reversal in the days ahead.

I hope you find this market analysis helpful. If you don’t believe it is exhaustive enough, I encourage you to read some of the other recent observations since they cover more detail on some of the topics above.

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.


The stock market has reached a short-term extreme as investor sentiment indicates fear

After prices have fallen, I start looking for signs of a potential countertrend and divergence.

“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

– Warren Buffett

If you want to be like Warren Buffett, you’re probably enjoying the recent rout in stocks.

The U.S. stock market is now oversold based on short-term relative strength measures. Our 14 day RSI reading has declined to 28, which is at oversold levels that have historically signaled countertrend reversals up.


The trouble is, market prices can reach oversold levels and just keep getting more oversold for a while. For example, when the S&P 500 declined -56% from October 9, 2007 to March 9, 2009 it got deeply oversold several times as the price trend cycled up and down. We can visually observe the Relative Strength Index spent more time in the lower range as prices were falling. Then in 2009 as prices finally trended up momentum stayed elevated.

2008 and 2009 oversold stock crash

Another indication of an oversold condition I observed today is when we draw bands of ATR around the price trend to measure volatility expansion. ATR is the average true range of the price over the past 14 days, a short-term measure of range and volatility. When the prices spread out, so does the band as it indicates volatility expansion. Today the price of the S&P 500 declined below the band, so the recent price action on the downside is an outlier by this measure. As you can see, the last time the price traded below the volatility band was the February low. What this observation suggests is the price has moved down low enough that it’s a short-term outlier, so it should trend the other way (at least temporarily).


Stock market breadth indicators measure the participation of a stock advance or decline. The percent of stocks above their 200 day moving average tells us how many stocks are still in longer-term uptrends vs. downtrends. After today, only 18% or 89 stocks are above their 200-day trend. It’s now down to the low level reached during the August 2015 to January 2016 lows. After it reached this low in 2016, stocks went on to trend up to a new all-time high.

stock market breadth percent of stocks above 200 day moving average

At this point, the S&P 500 and Dow Jones have declined -15% from their September high. If this is a cyclical “correction” within an ongoing bull market, we should see prices trend up soon and eventually trend to a higher high.

However, even if this is the early stages of a bear market that declines over -20% or a big bear market like 2000-2003 and 2007-2009 that declines -50%, the stock market will still likely swing up and down along the way. As we saw in the above chart that included the last bear market, the stock indexes swing up and down 10% to 20% on their way down just as they do on their way up. Some of these swings can be traded, some not so well. This recent decline since September was probably more challenging for tactical traders. Though the stock market got overbought enough in September to signal reducing exposure near the high, after prices fell to a lower level and signaled a countertrend entry, the price trend has since kept falling. But, at this point, countertrend systems now have a stronger entry signal than before. The challenge with countertrends is a trend can always continue trending farther. That is, oversold can get more oversold until sellers have been exhausted and buyers are attracted by the lower prices. Prices keep trending until the supply and demand shifts direction.

By the way, on September 1st I shared the countertrend signal reduce exposure in The U.S. stock market was strong in August, but… when I concluded:

The bottom line is the broad stock indexes are trending up and led by a few strong sectors, but they’ve reached levels that my countertrend momentum systems suggest the risk of at least a temporary decline is elevated.

Because of this, I reduced my exposure to only 70% long stocks around the September high. However, we still participated in the October rout more than I planned because the 30 % of stocks we held that were former leaders declined the most. I then started adding exposure to stocks at lower prices and so far, they’ve only trended lower. Everything is always probabilistic, never a sure thing.

Anytime we see stock prices decline more than -10% the narrative we hear in the media changes from “correction” to speculation of a “bear market”. As I mentioned a few days ago, this is the longest bull market in U.S. history and the second highest valuation. As such, anything can happen. However, at this point, this decline of -15% is around the range of the 2015-16 decline and the 2011 decline.

Here is what the August 2015 to January 2016 declines looked like.

2015 stock market decline asymmetric risk

In 2011, the correction was the deepest we’ve seen since this bull market started in March 2009.

2011 stock market drawdown asymmetric risk reward

To put it all in context of a major bear market like the last one 2007 to 2009 when the stock index declined -56% over two years and took another four years to return to its 2007 high, I marked -15% green. The stock market was already down -15% from its October 2007 high by January 2008 – two months later. The bear market had many countertrend swings back up giving many who were holding some hope, but it ultimately cycled its way down to cut stock portfolio values in half.

2008 stock market crash drawdown

Many say they are “long-term investors.” The long-term investors who buy and hold stocks or the stock indexes have to be willing to hold through an astonishing loss like -50%.

I am not willing to hold on to losing positions near that long or let my losses get that large. But even for a tactical portfolio manager like myself, I have to be willing to expose our capital to risk and endure some drawdowns. I just choose to limit my drawdowns by predefining risk through my exits and/or hedging. I prefer to avoid the price action below the green line in the chart above.

This has been one of the worst ends of the year in history. In fact, as of now, this is the 2nd worst December in S&P 500 history. It is the worst in MSCI World global stock index history.

worst decemember in history

The only good news I can share is the stock market has reached an oversold level based on short-term momentum and investor sentiment measures are at extreme bearish levels. Both are contrary indicators. These indicators normally signal a reversal back up at some point. Although, if enough investors wish they had sold, they may sell as prices trend up, so the trend could swing around for a while. It means volatility may continue for some time.

Todays AAII Investor Sentiment Survey shows optimism and pessimism remain outside their typical ranges: bullish sentiment is unusually low and bearish is unusually high. Historically, both have been followed by higher-than-median six- and 12-month returns for the S&P 500 index, particularly unusually low optimism. Again, this is a contrary indicator as investors as a crowd tend to feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time at extremes.

AAII Sentiment Survey

The fear and greed index that measures investor sentiment using multipe indicators is down to five, which is about the most extreme fear level it’s ever been.

investor sentiment fear greed index

One of the indicators in the Fear and Greed Index is the Put/Call Ratio is used as a contrarian indicator to gauge bullish and bearish extremes. The sentiment is considered excessively bearish when the Put/Call Ratio is trading at relatively high levels. One a normal day, the Put/Call Ratio is less than one since options traders tend to trade calls more than puts. Today the Put/Call Ratio is at 1.82, so options traders are buying many more puts for protection against a market decline or as a directional bet. Put/Call Ratio is at 182% is an extremely high level, the highest ever recorded. The Put/Call Ratio data goes back to 1995 and 1.2 has historically been an extreme high.

Put Call Ratio 2018 December highest ever recorded

The bottom line is, fear of lower prices is driving the stock market, and the bears have been in control. However, sentiment has reached such an extreme we would expect to see a countertrend reversal up at least temporarily. Even if this is the early stage of a lower low and a bear market, it will include many swings up and down along the way. What the trend does once it finally drifts up will be telling of the bigger picture. Bear and bull markets are both a process, not an event. In a bear market, prices trend up down to lower lows and lower highs. The swings along the way result in fear of missing out and the fear of losing more money which leads to overbought and oversold conditions.

I believe risk must be actively managed through increasing and decreasing exposure to the possibility of loss because markets are risky. The stock market can decline -50% or more and take years to trend back up, so I believe drawdown controls are necessary to preserve capital rather than allowing losses to get too large. Once a portfolio declines more than -20%, the losses grow exponentially and become harder to recover.

We’ll see how it all plays out. We’re still waiting to see those investors who are “greedy when others are fearful” overwhelm the sellers enough to change the trend.

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.

Will the stock market hold the line?

The popular U.S. stock market indexes almost formed a potential inverse head and shoulders reversal pattern, however, the right side was met with selling pressure that exceeded enthusiasm to buy. For those who care to observe the price action as it unfolds, I’ll share my observations of what I’m watching for to identify a reversal or continuation of the trend. I don’t necessarily make my tactical trading decisions based on these things, it’s instead market analysis I do for observation of the shifts in supply and demand that ultimately drive trends.

At this point, these stock indexes we use as a proxy for the stock market have reached the October lows as we knew they could.

stock market trend following momentum

The bad news is we’ve continued to see the desire to sell exceed the enthusiasm to buy. When selling pressure is dominant, prices fall.

The good news is the price level has now reached a point were another potential reversal pattern could form; a double bottom reversal. A double bottom reversal is commonly seen when prices reach a prior low and then find enough buying interest to shift the trend from down to up. Such a shift necessarily requires prices to fall to a low enough point that buyers become willing to buy.  For the trend to change; buying demand overwhelms selling pressure. So, the shift involves some combination of the desire to sell becoming exhausted and the desire to buy becoming dominant. Prices trend in the direction of the most asymmetry.

I don’t get caught up in the semantics of the names of patterns, but instead what the formation is showing about the shift in supply and demand. When a potential inverse head and shoulders pattern fails on the right shoulder, the possibility of a double bottom reversal exists, but still needs to be confirmed. For me, the whole point is; in a downtrend (uptrend), no matter what the time frame, I look for signs of a reversal of the trend through a shift in the supply/demand seen in price action. None of them are ever 100% predictive or accurate, it’s always about possible outcomes and observing the trend. It’s always probabilistic, never a sure thing. But, that’s all we need.

We’ll see if the stock indexes can hold the line, or not.

It’s a process, not an event, so we just watch it all unfold.

Let’s see what it does from here.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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.



The stock market is swinging its way to an inflection point

Trying not to sound like a broken record, I’ll share a few updates from what I said last in Observations of the stock market downtrend. 

The stock market is at an inflection point. An inflection point is a time of meaningful change in a situation; a turning point. The reality is, there are many inflection points within market cycles and price trends. So, we observe different inflection points across different time frames. For those who watch the stock market daily as a professional portfolio manager, we observe every move. But, the overall focus needs to be on the bigger trends. Every market cycle and price trend is made up of smaller cycles as prices swing up and down on their way to forming a directional trend. Market cycles don’t trend straight up or down.

The U.S stock indexes have dropped about -10% in October, giving up gains for the year. Many investors probably believe October is historically the worst month of the year for the stock market because of famous October declines. September is actually the worst month historically, but October is historically a volatile month. It just so happens, this decline occurred inside of October.

I don’t use seasonality as a signal for my decisions, but we’ve all heard of “sell in May and go away.” The period from May through October is supposed to be the weak season and November to April is the stronger season for stocks. The S&P 500 had defied the expectation that stocks would be weak last summer and gained nearly 10% from May through September, then lost the gain in October. Many leading growth stocks that previously showed the strongest momentum declined even more than the stock indexes. I pointed out a few months ago that international stock indexes including both emerging and developed countries were already in downtrends. So, the global equity markets were generally down in October.

That’s the bad news for anyone invested in these markets.

The good news is after those who wanted to sell have sold, prices eventually reach a low enough point to attract new buying interest.

I focus on what the price trends are actually doing, so I’ll share my observations of the trends and update some sentiment and breadth indicators I’ve discussed in previous observations.

First, we look at what the price trend is actually doing. Below is the S&P 500 stock index year-to-date. We see after declining about -10% from its September high, the stock index has reversed back up to the price of the prior low on October 11th.


In technical analysis of price trends, we say “prior support may become resistance” and that may be what happens next. We shouldn’t expect prices to trend straight up or down, they swing up and down. Prices making higher highs and higher lows form uptrends or lower lows and lower highs form downtrends. So, it wouldn’t be abnormal to see the stock index trend back down to the low again, or it could pause and continue the recent upward direction.

For a sustained move higher, those who want to sell need to have sold and prices need to have reached a low enough point to attract new buying demand.

Have those who want to sell, sold?

To get an idea for observation of investor sentiment, we can look at a few simple indicators. I explained the thinking behind the Fear & Greed Index in Observations of the stock market downtrend.

The Fear & Greed Index is based on 7 indicators of investors sentiment and can be a useful gauge to help investors keep their own sentiment in check. It currently remains at an “Extreme Fear” level, which is typical after a stock market decline and a high level of bearish sentiment that has historically preceded stock prices reversing back up- as those who want to sell have sold. However, in a prolonged bear market, this oscillating indicator could stay low for a long time or it could swing up and down along with price trends.

But, nothing illustrates buying and selling, supply and demand, better than the actual price trends. Another interesting indicator I’ve shared in recent observations is the percent of stocks in the S&P 500 that are trading above their short-term moving average.


It shows us how many stocks have participated in an uptrend or downtrend. When it reaches a high point and most stocks have participated in an uptrend, it may be nearer a reversal back down. Price trends don’t move straight up. When it reaches a low level is indicates most stocks have declined and at an extreme, it can suggest capitulation – those who want to sell may have sold. But, prices don’t trend straight down. Prices swing up and down along the way to drifting directionally. At this point, this indicator has reached the February and April lows and reversed up.

Shorter term, it’s an inflection point as I highlighted. If more stocks trend back up, we’ll see this trend higher.

Let’s see how it all unfolds…


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.

The Stock Market Trend

The stock market declined with heavy selling pressure on a major stock market anniversary that I haven’t heard anyone mention.

October 10, 2018, is the 10-year anniversary of the waterfall decline of 2008.

Below is the S&P 500 stock index from October 9, 2007 to October 10, 2008. I remember it very well. It was the first part of the waterfall decline up to this day 10 years ago.

stock market decline 2008

But, as a reminder, while this bear market is often called the “2008 Financial Crisis” and misquoted as being only about the year 2008, it actually continued through March 9, 2009.

average length of bear market crash 2008.jpg

With stock indexes only about -5% or so off their all-time highs, we are far from that today.  But, the stock market decline today was impressive in magnitude and broad across all sectors.

stock market sector ETF October 10 2018

The breadth of the decline was unmistakable by the 50% decline in the % of stocks in the S&P 500 trading above their 50 day moving average. The percentage of stocks trading above the moving average is a breadth indicator that measures internal strength or weakness in the stocks in the index and the index itself. We say that breadth is strong when the majority of stocks in an index are trading above their moving average. Since the 50-day moving average is used to measure the short-medium term trend, it reveals that only 24% of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 index are above their short-term trend.

percent of stocks above 50 day moving average SPX SPY.jpg

I colored the top red and the bottom green because the extreme highs and extreme lows can signal overbought and oversold levels.

The indicator is an oscillator that cycles between 0% and 100%.

After most stocks have trended up, we say an uptrend has broad participation, which is positive. However, markets cycle and oscillate up and down, so once most stocks have already been in uptrends at some point they reverse back down.

After most stocks have trended down, we say a downtrend becomes washed out. As selling eventually gets exhausted because those who want to sell have already sold.

Next, we observe the % of stocks in the S&P 500 index that are trending above their 200 day, which a longer term trend signal. 19% of the stocks declined below their 200 day moving average today leaving about half of the stocks still in a longer-term uptrend.


Since we are talking about moving averages and the S&P 500, below is the index itself with the 50 and 200 day moving average. Notice the 50 day moving average has been too tight to contain the uptrend. In other words, entering and exiting it would lead to many buys and sells and whipsaws like in June. The 200 day has better contained the trend since April, but notice if it were used as an exit it would have resulted in selling at the low. This observation is just using these moving averages as a very simple way to define uptrend vs. downtrend, it is not a complete trading system. Such measures are never perfect, and they don’t have to be.

stock market SPX 200 day moving average trend following

Today’s decline was impressive because the stock indexes declined over -3% in a single day. One day doesn’t make a trend, but it was enough to erase most of the year to date gains for the stock index.

stock market year to date 2018 trend following momentum


The Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 of America’s largest companies declined even more than the S&P 500. There was even more weakness in small companies, momentum stocks, and an ETF tracking the top-ranked growth and momentum stocks by Investor’s Business Daily declined nearly -6%. As a proxy for leading growth and momentum stocks, this is an indication the leaders declined the most today.

stock market momentum ETF trend following asymmetric

You can probably see why I believe it’s essential to actively manage risk by knowing in advance when to exit a loser to cut losses short as well as understanding the market risk level. For those of us who weren’t fully exposed to the decline who have the capital to eventually buy at lower prices, we get to take advantage of a falling trend.

Over the past week, I shared observations of volatility expansion as the implied volatility index has been trending up. Below is its year to date trend.


Here it is over the past week since I mentioned it. I included the S&P 500 stock index to illustrate as the stock market declined about -5% the past week, implied volatility expanded 98%.


We’ll see in the days and weeks ahead if this is the beginning of a more significant downtrend that becomes a waterfall decline or if it was enough to exhaust the selling pressure of those who wanted to sell.


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.


Here comes the volatility expansion

Nine days ago in VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility I shared an observation that the implied volatility VIX, a measure of expected future volatility that is implied by option prices, had reached an extremely low point. I explained what that means and how I use it:

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.

Today we have some volatility expansion.

The VIX Volatility Index has gained 35%. It implies the market now expects higher volatility. Specifically, the market expects the range of prices to spread out over 15% instead of 12%.

VIX $VIX Volatility Expansion asymmetry asymmetric convexity divergence

The popular stock indexes are down over -1% for the first time in a while.

stock market asymmetry asymmetric risk

As I said nine days ago, it should be no surprise to see some volatility expansion. Volatility is mean reverting, which means it tends to oscillate in a high and low range and reverse back to an average after its reaches those cycle highs and lows.

Implied volatility had reached its historical low end, so it’s expanding back out. Stock prices are also spreading out and declining so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more movement in prices in the coming weeks.

At around the same time volatility was contracting and calm, my momentum indicators were signaling stock indexes and many individual stocks were reaching short-term extreme levels that often preceded a short-term decline. These systems prompt me tactically reduce exposure to stocks to dynamically manage our risk.

Only time will tell how it all plays out. We’ll see how it unfolds from here.

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 in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or 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. 

The U.S. stock market was strong in August, but…

August was a strong month for the U.S. stock market, but the broad S&P 500 stock index and leading sectors have reached short-term overbought extremes that often indicate short-term elevated risk.

My focus is to position capital in the primary direction of trends across different time frames, but trends can reach short-term extremes within the primary trend. We can focus only on the bigger trend, or we can try to take advantage of the short-term moves.

To understand where I am coming from for this observation, let’s define trend and extreme.

Trend is a direction that a price is moving, developing, evolving, or changing. A trend is a directional drift, one way or another. When we speak of price trends, the directional drift of a price trend can be up, down, or sideways. When I say a price is trending, it’s drifting up or down. I call sideways oscillation non-trending.

Extreme is reaching a high or the highest degree; very great, furthest from the center or a given point.

Tactical traders can be either directional traders or non-directional. For example, all investors are necessarily directional: they invest in a thing and want its price to go up.

A tactical trader can be directional: buying a stock, bond, commodity, or currency, hoping it will go up with them or they can sell it short hoping it will trend directionally down. They are directional traders, so they necessarily need to define the direction of the trend. Which way is it drifting?

However, not all traders are directional. Volatility traders who trade volatility through listed options or futures are trading movement itself, so when we trade volatility we aren’t concerned at all with the direction of the trend – we just want movement. Volatility traders may have no bias at all regarding the direction, we focus on volatility expansion or volatility contraction.

Trend Following is a directional strategy that requires the portfolio manager to determine the direction of the trend and enters that trend expecting inertia and momentum to continue in that direction. There are more than 300 published academic studies alone that prove that the most recent 3 to 12-month price momentum tends to continue rather than reverse. That doesn’t include the vast research and testing conducted by actual trading firms and hedge fund managers (like mine) that are not published to the public. These methods rely on directional trends to exploit for profit.

Countertrend is another directional strategy that requires the portfolio manager to determine the directional trend. However, my counter-trend system is designed to identify trends that are more likely to reverse and change direction than to continue. It may seem this strategy is the opposite of trend following, and in some ways it is, but countertrend systems are based on different time frames when executed correctly.

For example, a trend-following strategy that has been profitable has necessarily identified existing trends that have continued and trend following profits from the magnitude of those gains.

A counter trend can also be profitable and even combined with a trend following system. A counter trend system identifies reversals when the trend has changed or likely to change. The time frame, then, is different.

For example, while research shows that directional momentum over the recent 3 – 12 months tends to continue for another 12 months or longer, we also observe that trends have lasted 4-5 years tend to reverse and change trend.

You may notice stock market uptrends (bull markets) last about 4-5 years before they reverse into a downtrend (bear market). You may also notice investors and their advisers have a tendency to buy funds with the highest 5-year returns, only to catch the end of the excellent performance. You can probably see how they are “trend following” but using the wrong time frame. We find that trends actually reverse around the time those performance tables look appealing to investors. Counter trend systems aim to get positioned for big reversals in trend to profit from their directional change. Skilled counter trend portfolio managers develop and operate countertrend systems that are proven and quantified to identify and profit from such changes in trend.

We also observe short-term countertrends within the 30-day time frame.  Sometimes short-term extremes result in at least a temporary countertrend move in the opposite direction. These are shorter trend countertrends within an overall primary trend. Of course, countertrend reversals can also become longer trend changes, too.

Back to August, it was a strong month for U.S. stocks, but the broad indexes and leading sectors have reached higher risk levels in the short term.

sector rotation august 2018 stock market returnThe Technology sector reached a short-term overbought extreme in June and again in July and declined about -4% before resuming an uptrend.

The Consumer Discretionary sector where Amazon (AMZN) has a 25.5% weighting reached an overbought extreme in June and declined about -4% before resuming an uptrend.

The Healthcare sector has also shown strong momentum in its trend. It also reached a short-term overbought level, but only declined about -3%. However, by my measure, the Healthcare sector is more overbought than others.

These shorter trend trends are partly driven by investor sentiment. So, investor sentiment measures can be useful secondary confirming indicators to understand the condition of trends. At this point, most investor sentiment readings are only modestly elevated to levels that suggest greed is driving the market trend. Price could keep trending until enthusiasm is exhausted and sellers become dominant.

This is a very short-term observation of current trends. It’s just a near-term insight that we shouldn’t be surprised to see stocks decline at least a few percents in the weeks ahead.

And… it’s September… for those who follow seasonality, September has historically been one of the weakest months for stocks. I don’t make decisions based on seasonality. If stocks decline this month, the cause will be what I highlighted, not because which month it happens to be.

The bottom line is the broad stock indexes are trending up and led by a few strong sectors, but they’ve reached levels that my countertrend momentum systems suggest the risk of at least a temporary decline is elevated.


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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or 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.

Front-running S&P 500 Resistance

The S&P 500 stock index closed just -1% from its all-time high it reached on January 26, 2018, and hasn’t been that high since. It’s been in a drawdown that was as much as -10% and it has taken six months to get back near its high point to break even.


Before the madness begins saying “The S&P 500 is at resistance,” I want to point out an observation of the truth. It is one thing to draw a trend line on an index to indicate its direction, quite another to speak of “support” and “resistance” at those levels.

Is the S&P 500 at resistance? 

Depending on which stock charting service or data provider you use, it may appear the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) closed at its prior high. Many market technicians would draw a line like I did below in green and say “the S&P 500 is at resistance.”

S&P 500 stock index at resitance SPY SPX

In technical analysis applied to stock market trends, support and resistance is a concept that the movement of the price of a security will tend to stop and reverse at certain predetermined price levels.

Support is when a price trends down and stalls at a prior low. The reasoning is that investors and traders who didn’t buy the low before (or wish they’d bought more) may have buying interest at that prior low price if it reaches it again.

Resistance is when a price trends up and stalls at a prior high. The reasoning is that investors and traders who didn’t sell the high before (or wish they’d sold short to profit from a price decline) may have the desire to sell at that prior high price if it reaches it again.

Whether everyone trades this way or not, enough may that it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. I believe it works this way on stocks and other securities or markets driven by supply and demand, but an index of stocks?

To assume a market or stock will have support or resistance at some price level (or a derivative of price like a moving average) that hasn’t been reached yet is just a predictive assumption. Support and resistance don’t exist unless it is, which is only known after the fact.

One of the most fascinating logical inconsistencies I see by some technical analysts is the assumption that “support” from buying interest and “resistance” from selling pressure “is” there, already exists, before a price is even reached. Like “SPY will have resistance at $292.” We simply don’t know until the price does indeed reverse after that point is reached.

But, it gets worse.

To believe an index of 500 stocks is hindered by selling pressure at a certain price requires one to believe the price trend is controlled by the index instead of the 500 stocks in it.

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. 

  • Do you believe trading the stock index drives the 500 stocks inside the index?


  • Do you believe the 500 stocks in the index drive the price of the index?

What you believe is true for you. But, to believe an index of 500 stocks is hindered by selling pressure or buying interest at a certain price requires you believe the price trend is controlled by the index instead of the 500 stocks in it. That’s a significant belief.

To complicate it more. If we want to know the truth, we have to look a little closer.

Is the S&P 500 at resistance? 

As I said, it depends on which stock charting service or data provider we use and how we calculate the data to draw the chart. Recall in the prior chart, I used the SPDRs S&P 500 ETF (SPY) which shows the ETF closed near its prior high. I used Stockcharts.com as the data provider to draw the chart. I’ve been a subscriber of their charting program for 14 years so I can tell you the chart is based on Total Return as the default. That means it includes dividends. But, when we draw the same chart using the S&P 500 index ($SPX) it’s based on the price trend. Below is what a difference that makes. The index isn’t yet at the prior high, the SPY ETF is because the charting service includes dividends.


Here is another charting service where I’m showing the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) price return, total return, and the S&P 500 stock index. Only one is at the January high.

spy spx S&P 500 resistance

So, we don’t know if the S&P 500 is at resistance and we won’t know if there exists any “resistance” there at all unless the price does pause and reverse down. It so happens, it just may pause and reverse at this point. Not because more tactical traders are looking at the total return chart of SPY or because the index or ETF drives the 500 stocks in it, but because momentum measures indicate its potentially reaching an “overbought” level. So, a pause or reversal, at least some, temporarily, would be reasonable.

Some may call this charting, others call it technical analysis, statistical analysis, or quantitative analysis. We could even say there is some behavioral finance included since it involves investor behavior and biases like anchoring. Whatever we choose to call it, it’s a visual representation of supply and demand and like most things, it’s based on what we believe to be true.

I’ve been applying charting, pattern recognition, technical analysis, statistical analysis, and quantitative analysis for over twenty years. Before I started developing computerized programs based on quantitative trend systems that apply evidence-based scientific methods, I was able to trade successfully using visual charts. I believe all of it has its usefulness. I’m neither anti-quant or anti-charting. I use both, but for different reasons. I can argue for and against both because neither is perfect. But, combining the skills together has made all the difference for me.

Is the S&P 500 at resistance? 

We’ll see…


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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or 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.

Interest Rate Trend and Rate Sensitive Sector Stocks

Interest Rate Trend and Rate Sensitive Sector Stocks

The interest rate on the 10 Year Treasury has gained over 20% so far in 2018, but I noticed it’s more recently settled down a little.

interest rate TNX $TNX

One of my ASYMMETRY® systems generated a short-term momentum signal today for the Utility and Real Estate Sectors. This signal indicated the short term trend is up, but it may have reached the point they may pull back before they continue the trend.

We see in the chart below, Utility and Real Estate Sectors are down so far in 2018, but they are gradually covering.

Utilities and Real Estate XLU XLRE $XLRE $XLU TREND MOMENTUM

I find it useful to understand return drivers and how markets interact with each other. The direction of interest rates, the Dollar, inflation, etc. all drive returns for markets.

In the chart below, I drew the black arrow to show where interest rates started declining this month and Utility and Real Estate Sectors trended up.

rising interest rate impact on real estate REIT housing utilities

Utility and Real Estate Sectors are sensitive to interest rates. These sectors use leverage, so as interest rates rise, it increases their cost of capital. Another impact is higher interest rates on bonds compete with them as investments. Utility and Real Estate Sectors are high dividends paying sectors, so as bond yields trend higher investors may start to choose bonds over these equities.

Below is a 1-year chart. You can see how interest rates increasing over 30% over the past year has had some impact on the price trend of the Utility and Real Estate sectors.

interest rate reit utilities sector

But, at the moment, these sectors have trended up, as interest rates have settled down.


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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or 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 enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy March 19, 2018

The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy. The S&P 500 stock index closed down -1.42% today. Stocks trended down most of the day and at 2:35pm it was down -2%. As you can see on the chart, it reversed up in the last 90 minutes and closed with positive directional movement. It almost closed above its Volume Weighted Average Price (VWAP).

There are many notable economic reports out this week, so maybe investors are concerned about to the jobs report and the Fed FOMC Meeting. The options market has priced in a 94% chance of a rate hike, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. But, this week is the first FOMC meeting for the new Chairman Powell.

Implied volatility in recent weeks is one of many signals that suggest a volatility regime change. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index®) is a key measure of market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by S&P 500 stock index option prices. The VIX® doesn’t seem to want to go back to those prior low levels, so the expectation is higher volatlity.

At this point, the decline today was nothing too abnormal. The stock index is -3.% off it’s high a few weeks ago and -5.4% off its all-time high. However, as you can see below it is within a normal trading range. Speaking of trading range, notice the bands of realized volatility I added to the chart are drifting sideways rather than trending up or down. I see higher lows, but equal highs in the most recent trend and lower highs looking back to January. The VIX is expected volatility, the blue bands are realized volatility.

My systems define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition. It is useful for me to identify the market regime because different trend systems have different results based on the situation. For example, non-trending volatile market conditions can be hostile situations for both passive and trend following strategies. However, countertrend systems like the swings of a non-trending volatile market.

Trend following systems thrive in markets that are trending and smooth. When a market is trending and smooth, the trend following system can earn gains without having to deal with significant adverse price action. When a market trend shifts to non-trending and volatile, the trend following signals can result in whipsaws. A whipsaw is when the price was moving in one direction (and the trend follower buys) but then quickly reverses in the opposite direction (and maybe the trend follower exits with a loss). Even if the trend following system doesn’t enter and exit with a loss, in a non-trending volatile market the trend follower has to deal with the same hostile conditions as a passive investor as the market swings up and down.

My U. S. equity exposure since early February has come from my shorter term countertrend systems. My focus and the focus of my systems isn’t to predict the direction of markets but instead to identify when a market is undergoing a regime change or shifts to a distinct environment. I don’t analyze the markets to try to predict what it will do next. I look at what the market is actually doing and react to it.


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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter @MikeWShell

The is no guarantee that any strategy will meet its objective.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


When I apply different trend systems to ETFs

In my portfolio management, I primarily want to identify trends and get positioned with that trend. As long as there is uncertainty, we’ll see trends. Investor sentiment and expectations underreact to information causing the price to adjust gradually and that’s what produces a trend. The trend following systems I wrote about in My Introduction to Trend Following are designed to buy an asset when its price trend goes up, and sell when its trend goes down, expecting price movements to continue.

We also see the overreaction of investor sentiment and their expectations. After price keeps rising, investors may become overly enthusiastic, which causes prices to overreact and move up to an extreme that matches their sentiment. We saw that the last part of 2017 and it continued in January. We say these markets have become “overbought” and mathematical indicators can signal a countertrend.

We also sometimes see investor sentiment and their expectations plunge as they panic when prices are falling. We say these markets have become “oversold” and mathematical indicators can signal a countertrend. Looking back over the past two months, we may have seen an overreaction on the upside, then an overreaction on the downside. I say that because the stock market very quickly dropped -10%, then recovered most of it a few weeks later.

Someone asked recently “Do you invest and trade in all ETFs and stocks using the same trend system?” The answer is “not necessarily.” As I described above, trend following and countertrend systems are very different. Trend following systems can be multiple time frames, but usually longer trends of at least several months to years. Countertrend moves are normally shorter term as a market may get overbought or oversold, but it doesn’t usually stay that way a long time. For example, the S&P 500 was overbought the last few months of 2017 and that was an anomaly. It was one of the most overbought periods we’ve seen in the stock indexes. So, it was no surprise to see a fast -10% decline.

My point is, different trend systems can be applied to markets. Both trend following and countertrend are trend systems, they just intend to capitalize on a different trend in behavior – overreaction or underreaction.

When I apply my countertrend systems to markets, a great illustration is the high dividend yield market. A great example is the Global X SuperDividend® ETF $SDIV which invests in 100 of the highest dividend yielding equity securities in the world.

Below is a price chart in blue and it’s dividend yield in orange over the past five years. As you can see, the price trend and dividend yield have an inverse correlation. As the price goes up, the dividend yield from that starting point goes down. That is, if we invest in it at higher prices, the dividend yield would have been lower. But, as the price goes down, the dividend yield from that starting point goes up. If we invest in it at lower prices, our future income from dividend yield is higher.


For example, I highlighted in green the price was at its low when the yield was also at its highest at 8%. Investors who bought at the lower price earn the higher yield going forward (assuming the stocks in the index continue paying their dividend yields). If we invested in it in 2014 the yield was 6%. High yielding stocks are not without risks. High yielding stocks are often speculative, high-risk investments. These companies can be paying out more than they can support and may reduce their dividends or stop paying dividends at any time, which could have a material adverse effect on the stock price of these companies and the ETFs performance. You can probably see how an ETF that includes 100 of these stocks may be more attractive to gain exposure rather than risking a few individually.

This is an example of when we may use a countertrend system. As I am more inclined to invest in positive trends, this is an example of a situation I may be more willing to buy low. But, I always focus on Total Return. All of my systems include Total Return data that includes the dividend yield, not just the price trend. So as I explain this, keep in mind we still apply my risk management and trend systems but we consider and account for the high yield that makes up its total return.

Below is a chart of the Global X SuperDividend® ETF $SDIV from the low point in 2016 (I highlighted in green above). I charted both the price trend by itself as well as the Total Return which includes dividends. Had someone invested in it at the low, we saw above their yield would be 8% and the impact is evident in the difference. With the dividend yield included, the return was 36% and 18% without it. In other words, the dividend was half the return over this period. The higher the dividend yield at the point of entry, the more it can have an impact on Total Return.

As a special note for our investment management clients who are invested in ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical. We do not reinvest dividends. Instead, we want the cash dividends to go into the cash portion of our portfolio. Since we usually have some positions that generate a monthly yield, it provides the cash balance we need to cover any slippage between trades, investment management costs, as well as provide cash for other investments. I mention this, because any position we hold like this with a high yield may not appear to have as large of a percentage gain since it only represents the price return, not the total return. That is simply because we are using the cash instead of reinvesting the dividends.


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

You can follow ASYMMETRY® Observations by click on on “Get Updates by Email” on the top right or follow us on Twitter.

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or 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.



VIX Trends Up 9th Biggest 1-day Move

About a week after a hedge fund manager who is popular with the media but has a poor track record of managing risk said “please stop talking about the low VIX”, it gains 44.4% in a single day – its 9th biggest 1-day move. He was suggesting the low VIX wasn’t an indication of high risk. If you have followed my observations, you know that I disagree. I’m one who has been talking about the low VIX and suggesting it is one of many indications of complacency among investors. That is, investors hear “all time new highs” and get overly optimistic instead of reducing their risk or being prepared to manage downside loss.

VIX biggest moves

I point out the hedge fund manager’s comment because I believe a low VIX is an indication of complacency because it measures expected implied volatility for options on the S&P 500 stocks. When implied volatility gets to historical low points, it means options traders aren’t paying high premiums for hedging “protection”. Others can believe what they want to believe. I don’t just point out observations at extremes. I actually do something.

As I pointed out recently in “No Inflection Point Yet, But… ” the VIX was at an extreme low. About a week later this other fund manager implies it may not be meaningful. That’s exactly what we expect to hear when the expected volatility gets to such an extreme low. We expect to see it shift the other direction at some point. I like to follow trends until they reach an extreme – and reverse.

Here is what it looked like.

VIX 9th biggest one day move

More importantly, here is what the stock indexes looked like on Google Finance after the close:

Stock market down Korea

Another observation I shared in “No Inflection Point Yet, But…” is that leading stocks can sometimes be more volatile and yesterday was no exception. While the stock indexes were down around -1.5% some of the most popular stocks were down about twice as much:

FANG stocks downSource: Google Finance

Of course, this is all just one day. We’ll see if it continues into a longer trend.

It’s always a good time to manage risk, but sometimes it’s more obvious than others.

Is this the Inflection Point for Stocks?

As if the election result wasn’t enough, the U.S. stock market has surprised most people by trending up since last November.

But, it has been stalling since March. The S&P 500 drifted down about -3% into March and April.

The stock market seems to be at an inflection point now.

Understanding the market state is an examination of the weight of the evidence.

The weight of the evidence seems to suggest defense.

My first indicator is always the actual price trend itself. If we want to know what is going on, there is no better observation than the actual price trend. The price action tells us what force is in control: supply or demand. And, we can see the potential for the inflection point – when the direction is changing. In the chart below, I highlight a recent point of “resistance”. I call it resistance because the stock index hasn’t broken above the March high and is instead drifting sideways.

average age of bull market top

Investors sometime assume a prior price high will automatically become “resistance” just because it’s the price range they expect to see the price trend stall. Resistance is the price level where selling is expected to be strong enough to prevent the price from rising further. We can see that recently in the chart. As the price advances towards the prior peak, supply may overcome demand and prevent the price from rising above resistance. For example, it may be driven by investors who wished they had sold near the prior peak and had to wait as the price recovered again. They anchor to that prior high. Once it gets back to the prior peak, they exit. Prior highs don’t always become “resistance” as expected. Sometimes demand is strong enough to break through and keep trending up. At this point, we see there has been some resistance at the prior high. I highlighted it in yellow in the chart above. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the price decline if this resistance holds for a while. Or, it could be an inflection point.

The S&P 500 stock index is mainly large companies. Smaller companies tend to lead larger companies. Their price trends move in a wider range and they sometimes move faster, so they get to a point sooner. That’s why we say small company stocks “lead” large company stocks. In that case, I highlight below that the small company stock index, the S&P 600 Small Cap ETF, reached its prior, but found resistance and reversed down. The soldiers may lead the way for the Generals.

Small Cap

It seems that the stock index is stalling at a time when investors are complacent. When investors are complacent or overly optimistic an inflection point is more likely. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index)  is very low. The CBOE Volatility Index® (VIX® Index®) is a key measure of market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by S&P 500 stock index option prices. The VIX® historically trends between a long-term range. When the VIX® gets to an extreme, it becomes more likely to eventually reverse. In the chart below I show the price level of the VIX® since its inception in 1993. We can see its long-term average is around 20. I highlighted in red its low range is around 12 and it has historically spiked as high as 25 or 60. This means the traders of options are expecting lower volatility in the weeks ahead at a time when other things seem to suggest otherwise.

As I continue sharing some observations, I’m going to get farther away from my main decision maker which is the directional price trend, but you’ll see how these indicators help to quantify the state of the trend and the potential for an inflection point. As we keep going, keep in mind that indicators are a derivative of the price at best or a derivate of something unrelated to the directional price trend. In the case of the VIX® Index index above, it’s a measure of options (a derivative) on the stocks in the S&P 500. When we start looking at things like economic growth and valuations we are necessarily looking at things that are a derivative of price, but not as absolute as the price trend itself. The direction of the price trend is the arbiter.

Another signal of an inflection point is breadth. That is, what percent of stocks are rising or falling. Since I have mentioned the S&P 500 stock index, I’ll show the S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index below. The Bullish Percent is a breadth indicator based on the number of stocks on Point & Figure buy signals. Developed by Abe Cohen in the mid-1950s, the Bullish Percent Index was originally applied to NYSE stocks. Cohen was the first editor of ChartCraft, which later became Investors Intelligence. BP signals were further refined by Earl Blumenthal in the mid 70’s and Mike Burke in the early 80’s. The S&P 500 Bullish Percent shows a composite of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 index that are in a positive trend. The S&P 500 Bullish Percent recently reversed to a column of O’s from a high point of 80, which means about 80% of the S&P 500 stocks were in a positive trend and about 8% of them are now in a negative trend. In addition to the direction, the level is important because we consider the level above 70% or 80% to be a higher risk (red zone) and the levels below 30% to be lower risk (green zone). So, more and more stocks within the index are starting to decline. This weak “breadth” or participation could be a signal of a change in trend.

Bullish Percent

I’m not necessarily a big user of economic indicators. I believe the stock indexes are the leading indicator for the economy, so that’s my guide. However, I have a strong sense of situational awareness so I like to understand what in the world is going on. The total return of stocks is a function of three things: earnings growth + dividend yield + P/E ratio expansion or contraction. Since earnings growth has made up nearly 5% of the historical total return of the S&P 500 since 1926, it does matter in the big picture in regard to expected return. Today, we observe the headline in the Wall Street Journal:

GDP Slows to Weakest Growth in Three Years

The U.S. economy’s output grew at the slowest pace in three years during the first quarter, underscoring the challenges facing the Trump administration as it seeks to rev up growth.

The New York Times says:

G.D.P. Report Shows U.S. Economy Off to Slow Start in 2017

■ The economy barely grew, expanding at an annual rate of only 0.7 percent.

■ The growth was a sharp decline from the 2.1 percent annual rate recorded in the final quarter of last year. It was the weakest quarterly showing in three years.

■ Consumption, the component reflecting individual spending, rose by only 0.3 percent, well below the 3.5 percent rate in the previous quarter.

The Takeaway

The first-quarter performance upset expectations for a Trump bump at the start of 2017.

If you want an economic catalyst for why prices could stall or reverse down, there you go. You see, earnings growth of stocks is part of GDP. GDP is the sales of all U.S. companies, private and public. The earnings growth of the S&P 500 is the earnings of those 500 companies. In other words, GDP of the economy is highly connected to EPS of an index of 500 stocks.

This recent stall in the price trend and economic growth along with a dash of complacency comes at a time when stocks are “significantly overvalued”, according to my friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research:

“In the first quarter the stock market surged 5.5%, well more than underlying economic growth. As a result, normalized P/E increased to 29.4—significantly above the level justified by low inflation and low interest rates. The current status remains “significantly overvalued.” The level of volatility plunged over the past quarter and is now in the lowest 4% of all periods since 1950. The trend in reported earnings for the S&P 500 Index reflects a repeating pattern of overly-optimistic analysts’ forecasts. Earnings and volatility should be watched closely and investors should heighten their sensitivity to the risks confronting an increasingly vulnerable market.”

Oh, and one more thing: Monday will be May. I’m not a huge fan of using seasonality as an indicator to enter or exit the stock market, but there is some tendency for certain periods to gain or lose value historically. For example, a common seasonality is “Sell in May and go away”. Depending on the historical time frame you look and which index, some periods show a “summer slump”. One theory is many investors and traders go on vacation in the summer, so volume is light. They return after the summer and take more action.

So, maybe this will be a good time to sell in May and go away. Not because it’s May, but instead because the weight of the evidence suggests this could be an inflection point.

We’ll see.

The U.S. Stock Market Trend

When we define the direction of a trend, we consider the most basic definitions.

  • 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 a few key points. The top of the price range is just that: a range, with no meaningful breakout. The bottom is the same. The price trend has dropped to around the same level three times and so far, has trended back up. What’s going to happen next? At this point, this stock market index is swinging up and down. It would take a meaningful break below the prior low that holds to make a new “downtrend”. It could just as well trend up. We could put an exit point below those prior lows and let it all unfold.

Stock market trend

Of course, as I’ve mentioned a lot the past several months, other global markets and small company U.S. stocks and mid-cap stocks have been much weaker than large U.S. stocks and certain sectors within the U.S. You can read the details of this in The Stock Market Trend: What’s in Your Boat? As I pointed out then, in the chart below we can see the mid-size and small cap stocks have actually declined much more. But, the capitalization-weighted indexes are driven by their sector exposure.

small cap mid cap stocks

Some U.S. sectors are still holding up and still in uptrends. Below is the Technology sector index, for example. I consider this an uptrend, though volatile. Less volatile trends are easier to hold, more volatile trends are more difficult unless we focus on the directional trend.

Tech Sector Trend

Below is the U.S. Healthcare sector. It’s down, but not out. It’s still so far holding a higher low.

healthcare sector

The really weak markets that have been in more clear downtrends are the commodity related sectors like Energy and Basic Materials.  This could signal the beginning of a larger move down in other sectors if they follow, or not. But if we focus on “what’s in our boat” we are focused only on our own positions.

Energy Sector basic materials

The key to tactical decision-making is sometimes holding exposure to potentially positive trends and giving them room to see how they unfold: up or down. The other key is avoiding the clearest downtrends. Then, there comes a point when those trends change and reverse. Even the downtrends eventually become uptrends. We can be assured after that happens everyone will wish they had some exposure to it!

Never knowing for sure what will happen next it always involves uncertainty and the potential for a loss we must be willing to bear. I think the edge is predefining risk by knowing at what point to exit if the trend has really changed, accepting that, then letting it all unfold.


What would Warren Buffett do?

Few investors have gotten as much media attention than Warren Buffett. He is considered to be the most famous investor in the world. Buffett is the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) and is consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people. He earned his money investing. Buffett is often referred to as the “Oracle of Omaha”. Plenty has been said about his performance over the decades.

Below is an interesting view of the Total Return (Price + Dividends) of his Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). The chart shows the “% off high” to see its drawdowns. A drawdown is how much a price trend declines from a previous high before it recovers the decline. Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) has so far declined -17.2% from its high. During the bear market 2007 to 2009 it declined -50%.

Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway

Though -10% declines are fairly common for stocks, 2011 was the last year that stocks declined more than -15% within the year. During 2011, Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) dropped about -23% before recovering and eventually trending to new highs.

BERKSHIRE Hathaway 2011

Warren Buffett is 85 years old and has been doing this a very long time. He certainly has some tolerance for stock market declines.

What do you think Warren Buffett is doing right now? 

Extreme Fear is Now Driving Markets

On October 27th I wrote in Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings that:

The CNN Fear & Greed Index shows investor fear and greed shifted to Extreme Fear a month ago as the popular U.S. stock indexes dropped about -12% or more. Many sectors and other markets were worse. Since then, as prices have been trending back up, Greed is now the driver again. I believe fear and greed both drives market prices but also follows price trends. As prices move lower and lower, investors who are losing money get more and more afraid of losing more. As prices move higher and higher, investors get more and more greedy. If they have reduced exposure to avoid loss, they may fear missing out.

Since global markets declined around August and some markets recovered much of their losses by November, global markets have declined again. Below are charts of U.S. stocks, International stocks, U.S. bonds, and commodities. Even the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF that seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. investment grade corporate bonds is near -8% from its peak. Small and mid companies U.S. stocks are down more than -20% from their peak. Commodities and emerging countries are down the most.

global markets 2016-01-15_13-59-45.jpg

This all started with investors being optimistic in late October as I mentioned in Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings. So, it is no surprise that today is just the opposite. As markets have declined investors become more and more fearful. As of now, Extreme Fear is the driver of the market.  Below is the current reading of the CNN Fear & Greed Index.

Fear and Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index 

As you see in the chart below, it’s now getting close to the Extreme Fear levels that often signal at least a short-term low.

Fear and Greed Over Time

Another publicly available measure of investor sentiment is the AAII Investor Sentiment Survey. The AAII Investor Sentiment Survey measures the percentage of individual investors who are bullish, bearish, and neutral on the stock market for the next six months; individuals are polled from the ranks of the AAII membership on a weekly basis. The most recent weekly survey shows investors are very bearish and again, such pessimism occurs after price declines and at such extremes sometimes precedes a reversal back up.

Survey Results for Week Ending 1/13/2016

AAII Investor Sentiment January 2016

Source: AAII Investor Sentiment Survey

I say again what I said in October: This is the challenge in bear markets. In a bear market, market prices swing up and down along the way. It’s these swings that lead to mistakes. Above was a chart of how the Fear and Greed Index oscillates to high and low points over time. Investors who experience these extremes in emotion have the most trouble and need to modify their behavior so they feel the right feeling at the right time. Or, hire a manager with a real track record who can do it for them and go do something more enjoyable.

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“.

The Volatility Index (VIX) is Getting Interesting Again

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the daily chart zooms in even more.

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

The observation?

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

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

Let’s see what happens from here…

My 2 Cents on the Dollar

The U.S. Dollar ($USD) has gained about 20% in less than a year. We observe it first in the weekly below. The U.S. Dollar is a significant driver of returns of other markets. For example, when the U.S. Dollar is rising, commodities like gold, oil, and foreign currencies like the Euro are usually falling. A rising U.S. Dollar also impacts international stocks priced in U.S. Dollar. When the U.S. Dollar trends up, many international markets priced in U.S. Dollars may trend down (reflecting the exchange rate). The U.S. Dollar may be trending up in anticipation of rising interest rates.

dollar trend weekly 2015-04-23_16-04-40

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

Now, let’s observe a shorter time frame- the daily chart. Here we see an impressive uptrend and since March a non-trending indecisive period. Many trend followers and global macro traders are likely “long the U.S. Dollar” by being long and short other markets like commodities, international stocks, or currencies.

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

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

This is a good example of understanding what drives returns and risk/reward. I consider how long the U.S. Dollar I am and how that may impact my positions if this uptrend were to reverse. It’s a good time to pay attention to it to see if it breaks back out to the upside to resume the uptrend, or if it instead breaks down to end it. Such a continuation or reversal often occurs from a point like the blue areas I highlighted above.

That’s my two cents on the Dollar…

How long are you? Do you know?

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.

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

In recent conversations with investment advisors, I notice their sentiment has shifted from “cautious and concerned” about world equity markets to “why have they underperformed”. Prior to 2013, most investors and investment advisors were concerned about another 2007 to 2009 level bear market. Now, it seems that caution has faded. Today, many of them seem to be focused on the strong trend of U.S. stocks since mid-2013 and comparing everything else to it.

Prior to October 2007, International stocks were in significantly stronger positive directional trends than U.S. Stocks. I’ll compare the S&P 500 stock index (SPY) to Developed International Countries (EFA). We can visually observe a material change between these markets before 2008 and after, but especially after 2013. That one large divergence since 2013 has changed sentiment.

The MSCI EAFE Index is recognized as the pre-eminent benchmark in the United States to measure international equity performance. It comprises the MSCI country indices that represent developed markets outside of North America: Europe, Australasia and the Far East. For a “real life” example of its price trend, I use the iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA). Below are the country holdings, to get an idea of what is considered “developed markets”.

iShares MSCI EAFE ETF Developed Markets exposure 2015-04-05_17-14-43

Source: https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239623/EFA

Below are the price trends of the popular S&P 500 U.S. stock index and the MSCI Developed Countries Index over the past 10 years. Many investors may have forgotten how strong international markets were prior to 2008. Starting around 2012, the U.S. stock market continued to trend up stronger than international stocks. It’s a tale of two markets, pre-2008 and post-2008.

Developed Markets International stocks trend 2015-04-05_17-22-22

No analysis of a trend % change is complete without also examining its drawdowns along the way. A drawdown measures a drop from peak to bottom in the value of a market or portfolio (before a new peak is achieved). The chart below shows these indexes % off their prior highs to understand their historical losses over the period. For example, these indexes declined -55% or more. The International stock index nearly declined -65%. The S&P 500 U.S. stock index didn’t recover from its decline that started in October 2007 until mid-2012, 5 years later. The MSCI Developed Countries index is still in a drawdown! As you can see, EFA is -24% off it’s high reached in 2007. Including these international countries in a global portfolio is important as such exposure has historically provided greater potential for profits than just U.S. stocks, but more recently they have been a drag.

international markets drawdown 2015-04-05_17-30-00The International stock markets are divided broadly into Developed Markets we just reviewed and Emerging Countries. The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) tracks this index. To get an idea of which countries are considered “Emerging Markets’, you can see the actual exposure below.

emerging countries markets 2015-04-05_17-13-31


The Emerging Countries index has reached the same % change over the past decade, but they have clearly taken very different paths to get there. Prior to the “global crisis” that started late 2007, many investors may have forgotten that Emerging Markets countries like China and Brazil were in very strong uptrends. I remember this very well; as a global tactical trader I had exposure to these countries which lead to even stronger profits than U.S. markets during that period. Since 2009, however, Emerging Markets recovered sharply but as with U.S. stocks: they have trended up with great volatility. Since Emerging Markets peaked around 2011 they have traded in a range since. However, keep in mind, these are 10-year charts, so those swings up and down are 3 to 6 months. We’ll call that “choppy”. Or, 4 years of a non-trending and volatile state.

Emerging Markets trend 10 years 2015-04-05_17-21-06

Once again, no analysis of a trend % change is complete without also examining its drawdowns along the way. A drawdown measures a drop from peak to bottom in the value of a market or portfolio (before a new peak is achieved). The chart below shows these indexes % off their prior highs to understand their historical losses over the period. For example, these indexes declined -55% or more. The Emerging Market stock index declined -65%. The S&P 500 U.S. stock index didn’t recover from its decline that started in October 2007 until mid-2012, 5 years later. The MSCI Emerging Countries index is still in a drawdown! As you can see, EFA is -26% off it’s high reached in 2007. As I mentioned before, it recovered sharply up to 2011 but has been unable to move higher in 4 years. Including these Emerging Markets countries in a global portfolio is important as such exposure has historically provided greater potential for profits than just U.S. stocks, but more recently they have been a drag.

emerging markets drawdown 2015-04-05_17-52-19

Wondering why the tale of two markets before and after 2008? The are many reasons and return drivers. One of them can be seen visually in the trend of the U.S. Dollar. Below is a 10-year price chart of the U.S. Dollar index. Prior to 2008, the U.S. Dollar was falling, so foreign currencies were rising as were foreign stocks priced in Dollars. As with most world markets, even the U.S. Dollar was very volatile from 2008 through 2011. After 2011 it drifted in a tighter range through last year and has since increased sharply.

Dollar impact on international stocks 2015-04-05_18-05-02

The funny thing is, I’ve noticed there are a lot of inflows into currency-hedged ETFs recently. Investors seem to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, they’ll want to hedge their currency risk after it already happened, not before… It’s just like with options hedging: Investors want protection after a loss, not before it happens. Or, people will buy that 20 KW generator for their home after they lose power a few days, not before, and may not need it again for 5 years after they’ve stopped servicing it. So, it doesn’t start when they need it again.

You can probably see why I think it’s an advantage to understand how world markets interact with each other and it’s an edge for me.

For more information, visit: Shell Capital Management, LLC

US Government Bonds Rise on Fed Rate Outlook?

I saw the following headline this morning:

US Government Bonds Rise on Fed Rate Outlook

Wall Street Journal –

“U.S. government bonds strengthened on Monday after posing the biggest price rally in more than three months last week, as investors expect the Federal Reserve to take its time in raising interest rates.”

My focus is on directional price trends, not the news. I focus on what is actually happening, not what people think will happen. Below I drew a 3 month price chart of the 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT), I highlighted in green the time period since the Fed decision last week. You may agree that most of price action and directional trend changes happened before that date. In fact, the long-term bond index declined nearly 2 months before the decision, increased a few weeks prior, and has since drifted what I call “sideways”.

fed decision impact on bonds
Charts created with http://www.stockcharts.com

To be sure, in the next chart I included an analog chart including the shorter durations of maturity. iShares 3-7 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEI) and iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF). Maybe there is some overreaction and under-reaction going on before the big “news”, if anything.

Government bonds Fed decision reaction
Do you still think the Fed news was “new information“?

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

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

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

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

                                    —Charles Dow, 1900

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

u.s. dollar longer trend UPP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fed Decision and Market Reaction: Stocks and Bonds

So, 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. Not the case as of 3pm today. Stocks were down about -1% prior to the announcement, reversed, and are now positive 1%. Even bonds are positive. Even the iShares Barclays 20+ Yr Treas.Bond (ETF) is up 1.4% today.

So much for expectations…

Below is snapshot of the headlines and stock price charts from Google Finance:

Fed Decision and Reaction March 18 2015

Source: https://www.google.com/finance?authuser=2

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

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

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

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


Image source: Wikipedia

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

Small vs. Large Stocks: A Tale of Two Markets (Continued)

A quick follow up to my recent comments about the down trend in smaller company stocks in Playing with Relative Strength and Stock Market Peak? A Tale of Two Markets below is a chart and a few observations:

Rusell 2000 Small Caps vs S&P 500 large caps

Source: Bloomberg/KCG

A few observations of the trend direction, momentum, and relative strength.

  • The S&P 500 index (the orange line) of large company stocks has been  in a rising trend of higher highs and higher lows (though that will not continue forever).
  • The white line is the Russell 2000 small company index has been in a downtrend of lower highs and lower lows, though just recently you may observe in the price chart that it is at least slightly higher than its August high. But it remains below the prior two peaks over the past year. From the time frame in the chart, we could also consider it a “non-trending” and volatile period, but its the lower highs make it a downtrend.
  • The green chart at the bottom shows the relative strength between S&P 500 index of large company stocks and the Russell 2000 small company index. Clearly, it hasn’t taken all year to figure out which was trending up and the stronger trend.
  • Such periods take different tactical trading skills to be able to shift profitability. When markets get choppy, you find out who really knows what they’re doing and has an edge. I shared this changing trend back in May in Stock Market Peak? A Tale of Two Markets.

If you are unsure about the relevance of the big picture regarding these things, read Playing with Relative Strength and Stock Market Trend: reverse back down or continuation? and Stock Market Peak? A Tale of Two Markets.


Are investors getting overly optimistic again?

Just as I was observing U.S. stocks getting to a point that I would expect to see stock indexes pull back at least a little or drift sideways, I noticed that investor sentiment readings last week were unusually bullish. 49.4% of investors polled by AAII last week believe stocks will rise in the next 6 months. Only 21.1% were bearish, believing stocks would fall.

That’s an unusual asymmetry between the percent of individual investors believing stocks will rise over those who believe they will fall. You can see the historical averages below.

AAII investor sentiment survey

source: http://www.aaii.com/sentimentsurvey?adv=yes

Investors tend to get more bullish about stocks after they have risen recently (and they have). They tend to get more bearish after stocks have fallen and they are losing money – and fear losing more.

It isn’t a perfect indicator, but the majority tends to feel the wrong feelings at the wrong timeThat presents an advantage for those of us who don’t, and are aware of how behavior signals trends, but a challenge for advisers and individual investors as they try to modify their behavior to avoid it.

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 http://www.stockcharts.com 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.



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

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

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

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

dow jones stock index year to date

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

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

Fear and Greed Index

Source: Fear & Greed Index CNN Money

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

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

Selling pressure starts declines, new buying ends them.

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

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

Let’s see how it all unfolds…

Trend Change in Dollar, International Stocks, Gold?

Directional trends tend to persist. When a price is trending, it’s more likely to continue than to reverse. A directional trend is a drift up or down. For example, we can simply define a uptrend by observing a price chart of higher highs and higher lows. A downtrend is an observation of lower highs and lower lows. For a trading system, we need to be more precise in defining a direction with an algorithm (an equation that mathematically answers the question). The concept that directional trends tend to persist is called “momentum“. Momentum is the empirically observed tendency for rising prices to rise further. Momentum in price trends have been exploited for decades by trend following traders and its persistence is now even documented in hundreds of academic research papers. Momentum persists, until it doesn’t, so I can potentially create profits by going with the trend and then capturing a part of it.

But all trends eventually come to an end. We never know in advance when that will be, but we can determine the probability. Sometimes a trend reversal (up or down) is more likely than others. If you believe markets are efficient and instead follow a random walk, you won’t believe that. I believe trends move in one direction, then reverse, then trend again. When I look at the charts below, I see what I defined previously as “a trend”. I have developed equations and methods for defining the trend and also when they may bend at the end. More importantly, I observe them when they do bend. For example, to capture a big move in a trend, say 20% or more, we can’t get out every time it drops -2%, because it may do that many times on its way to that 20%. So, trend following means staying with the trend until it really bends. Counter-trend trading is trying to profit from the bends by identifying the change in the trend. Both are somewhat the opposite, but since my focus is these trends I observe them both.

Inertia is the resistance to change, including a resistance to change in direction. I could say then, that it takes inertia to keep a trend going. If there is enough inertia, the trend will continue. Trends will almost always be interrupted briefly by shorter term trends. For example, if you look at a monthly chart of a market first, then view a weekly chart, then a daily chart, you’ll see different dimensions of the trend and maybe left with a different observation than if you just look at one time frame.

Below I drew a monthly charge going back nearly 12 years. As you can see, the U.S. Dollar ($USD) has been “down” as much as -40% since 2002. It’s lowest point was 2008 and using my definition for trend, it’s been rising since 2008 though with a lot of volatility from 2008 to 2011. We could also say it’s been “non-trending” generally since 2005, since it has oscillated up and own since then without any meaning breakout.

All of charts are courtesy of http://www.stockcharts.com

Next we observe the weekly price trend. In a weekly chart we see the non-trending period, but ultimately over this time frame the Dollar gained 9%. The Dollar has been at a relatively low price range during this time. For those who want to understand why a trend occurs: A low currency is a reflection of the U.S. debt burden and lack of economic growth. We can only say that in hindsight. Most of the time we don’t actually know why a trend is a trend when it’s trending – and I don’t need to know.

You can probably begin to see how “the trend” is a function of “the time frame”. The most recent trend is observed in a daily chart going back less than a year. Here we see the U.S. Dollar is rising since July. I pointed out in “Interest Rates and Dollar Rising, Commodities Falling” how the Dollar is driving other markets.

The Dollar is now at a point that I mathematically expect to see it may reverse back down some. Though a trend is more likely to persist and resist change (inertia), trends don’t move straight up or down. Instead, they oscillate up and down within their larger trend. If you look at any of the price trend charts above, you’ll see smaller trends within them. It appears the Dollar is now likely to change direction at least briefly, though maybe not very much. As I mentioned in “Interest Rates and Dollar Rising, Commodities Falling”, it seems that rising interest rates are probably driving the Dollar higher. The market seems to be anticipating the Fed doing things to increase interest rates in the future. Let’s look at some other trends that seem to be interacting with the Dollar and interest rates.

The MSCI EAFE Index is an index of developed countries. You can observe the trend below. International stocks tend to decline when the Dollar rises, because this index is foreign country stocks priced in Dollars.

Below is the MSCI Emerging Markets index, which are smaller more emerging countries. MSCI includes countries like Russia, Brazil, and Mexico as “emerging”, but some may be surprised to hear they also consider China an emerging market. The recent rising Dollar (from rising rates) has been partly the driver of falling prices.

Another market that is directly impacted by the trend in the Dollar is commodities. Below we see the S&P/GSCI Commodity Index.

I am sharing observations about global macro trends and trend changes. We previously saw that the Dollar was generally in a downtrend and at a low level for years. When the Dollar is down, commodities priced in Dollars may be up. One commodity that became very popular when it was rising was Gold. When the Dollar was falling and depressed, Gold was rising. Below is a more recent price trend of gold.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dollar trend to reverse back down some in the short-term and that could drive these other markets to reverse their downtrends at least briefly. Only time will tell if it does reverse in the near future and by how much.

In the meantime, let’s watch it all unfold.

VIX Shows Volatility Still Low, But Trending

It seemed that many of the commentators who write and talk about the VIX started talking as though it would stay down a long time. Of course, that’s as much a signal as anything that the trend could instead change.

Below is a chart of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) since I observed “VIX Back to Low” on July 3. It says to me that volatility, is, well, volatile. It trended up as much as 34% and then retraced much of that.

cboe volatility index vix pop

source: http://www.stockcharts.com


Looking back the past several months, we can see since the beginning of July it has started to make higher highs and higher lows. Volatility (and therefore some options premiums) are still generally cheap by this measure, but from the eyes of a trend follower I wonder if this may be the very early stage of higher vol. We’ll see…

Either way, whether it stays low or trends back up, the monthly chart below shows the implied volatility in options is “cheaper” now than we’ve seen in 7 years, suggesting exposures with options strategies may be a “good deal”.

long term vix

Business Cycle: Mean Reversion and Trends

The National Bureau of Economic Research publishes U.S. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions in the economy. During an expansion, economic growth is rising and during a contraction it is slowing or actually falling.

Below is a chart of their idealized expansion and contraction phases. During each phase, different sectors of the economy are expected to do well or poorly. And, you can see what is happening at a peak and what happens afterwards. At a peak, economic data is strongest and news is good. Then it reverses down eventually. At a trough economic data is at its worst and news is bad, then it turns around. You may think about it and consider where the U.S. economy is now if you have an interest in the stage of the business cycle.

NBER Business Cycle

Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

A few concepts to think about.

Does it trend? Yes, it does. A trend is a directional drift over a time frame. The business cycle typically sees drifts up for 4 or 5 years and drifts down for 1 or 2 years. The trends are asymmetric, as you can see in the chart, the upward drifts tend to last longer and progress at a lower rate of change than the faster declining trends down. It seems that economic data, like prices, do trend over time.

Does it mean revert? Yes, while over shorter time frames of 1 year to 5 years we observe trends in the business cycle, when we look over a full business cycle we see that it oscillates up and down. However, the actual meaning of “mean reversion” means that it oscillates around an average, not just oscillates. If the data above has an average, and it necessarily must, then it does oscillate around that average. It’s just that the range up and down may be far away from the average. That is, the peak and trough in the chart above may stray far away from the actual “average” of the data series. Said another way, the business cycle is really volatile when you consider it over its full cycle because of the magnitude in range from high and low.

For those of you following along, you may see how I’m going to tie this in to something else next week…

It’s official: extreme greed is driving the stock market

In Is the VIX and indication of fear and complacency? I pointed out a few reasons I believe a low VIX level can indeed be a signal of greed and complacency and a high VIX level is a measure of fear. It’s very simple: fear and greed are reflected in the price of options. When there is a strong demand for protection, the prices goes up. When there is little demand for protection, the price goes down. The recent low levels of VIX suggest a lack of fear or desire for protection from falling prices or rising vol.

I also said that the VIX levels often correspond with other sentiment levels. I have used the Fear and Greed Index before to explain how investors oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money. After prices rise, we observe they get more greedy. For example, if they didn’t have strong exposure they may feel regret and fear missing out. After prices fall, they are afraid of losing more money. This Fear and Greed Index is published by CNN Money and is publicly available, making it useful for this purpose to illustrate how behavior drives trends. As you can see below, the current level is “Extreme Greed”, so that is the emotion driving stocks right now.

Greed index correlates with low vix

Source: CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed index

This Fear and Greed Index includes 7 different sentiment indicators. Market volatility as measured by VIX is one of them. In observing sentiment indicators like this, we see them oscillating between extreme greed and extreme fear over time. It spends a lot of time in the middle, too, but trends often reverse when it gets to extremes. When it reaches Extreme Greed, it eventually reverses down after prices peak out and reverse down. When it gets to an extreme greed level like it is now, we eventually see something come along and surprise them. I think it’s because investors become complacent and the stunned. Change is most alarming when it isn’t expected. When stocks fall, it will move toward fear as they fear losing more money. However, these measures can certainly stay extreme for longer than you think. That is the challenge to countertrend systems and thinking: trends do tend to persist, making it more difficult to bet against the wind. But when we see levels like this, we shouldn’t be so surprised when it changes direction.



The VIX, my point of view

I believe we are naturally attracted to a strategy based on our personality. I am a trend follower most of the time, until the trend gets to an extreme. That is, I identify the directional drift of a price trend and intend to go with it. If it keeps going, I’ll usually stay with it. If it reverses the other way, I’ll exit. I completed scientific research over a decade ago that led to what I believe, and I have real experience observing it. I prefer to ride a trend until the end, but I notice when they start to bend. Or, maybe when it becomes more likely.

Before it bends, I may start expecting the end. I usually notice certain things that alert me the end is nearing. If you walk outside and throw a ball into the air you may notice something happens before the ball comes back down. Its rate of change slows down: its slope changes. The line drawn with a price chart isn’t unlike a line we may draw illustrating a ball travel.

trend like a ball

So, I’m not naturally attracted to “mean reversion” as most investors would define it. I point this about because when I do deal with mean reversion its only when its meaningful. When a stock, commodity, currency, or bond drops, I don’t necessarily expect it to “go back”. I find that many people do. They think because a trend drops it will snap back. They only need to be wrong about that once to lose a lot of money. You may remember some famous money managers who kept increasing their risk as losses where mounting during the 2000 – 2003 period or 2007 – 2009 period. It not stocks it was real estate.

My beliefs and strategies aren’t based on just my natural inclination, but instead based on exhaustive quantitative research, empirical observations, and real experience. I want to determine the direction of a trend and go with it for that reason, and then take note when one goes to extreme. The VIX reaching its lowest level since 2007 is such an extreme, though it could certainly stay low for longer than anyone expects.

Some people love hearing about potential reversion, so they’ll naturally be drawn to the CBOE Volatility Index. I’ll be the first to say that is not my main attraction. My natural state is more the cool high performance Porsche that is in demand rather than the ugly car no one wants, but is cheap. Though a cool Porsche at the right price is a good thing. Demand is ultimately the driver of price trends in everything, including listed options.

When we speak of the CBOE Volatility Index we are talking about a complicated index that measures the premium paid for options on the S&P 500 stocks. Robert Whaley of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee developed the CBOE Market Volatility Index for the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1993. He had published a paper in the Journal of Derivatives with a self-explanatory title as to the intent: “Derivatives on Market Volatility: Hedging Tools Long Overdue,” which appeared in The Journal of Derivatives.

We can talk about all kinds of pricing theories and option pricing models that drive option prices and the VIX, but at the end of the day, the driver really is supply and demand.That’s what makes it my realm of expertise.

I trade volatility, and VIX derivatives specifically, for profit and for hedging So, I am not normally a writer about it, or in options sales (like a broker), but instead a fund manager who buys and sells for a profit. When I think of volatility and the VIX, I think of how I can profit from it, or how it may help me avoid loss.

That’s where I’m coming from.

The VIX is at a point we don’t see very often, so it’s a good time to take a close look.


The VIX, as I see it…

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) reached a low point last week not seen since 2007 as evidenced by the chart below.


To see a closer view of the last period, below I included the last time the VIX was at such a low value. I show this to point out that the VIX oscillated between 9% and 12% for about 4 months before it finally spiked up to 20. Such a trend reversal (or mean reversion if you prefer) can take time. Imagine if the VIX stays this low for the next 4 months before a spike. Or, it could happen very soon. You may notice the VIX reached the level it is now at its lowest level in early 2007. If we believed these trends repeat perfectly, that absolute level would matter. Trends are more like snowflakes: no two are exactly the same. But in relative terms, the fact that today’s level is as low as the lowest point in early 2007 is meaningful if you care about the risk level in stocks and the stage of the market cycle.


The best way to examine a trend is to zoom in. Start with a broader view to see the big picture, then zoom in closer and closer. When people focus too much on the short-term, they miss the forest for the trees. Below is the last time the VIX was below 12. You may notice that is does oscillate up and down in a range.


The level and directional trend of the VIX matters because of the next chart. You may see a trend if you look closely. The black line is the S&P 500 stock index. The black and red line is the VIX CBOE Volatility Index. You may notice the two tend to drift in opposite directions. Not necessarily on a daily basis, but overall they are “negatively correlated”. When the stock index is rising, the volatility is often falling or already at a low level. When the stock index is falling, volatility rises sharply. It isn’t a perfect opposite, but it’s there.

VIX and S&P 500 correlation and trend

If you are interested in stock trends and the trend in volatility, and specifically the current state of those cycles,  you may want to follow along in the coming days. I plan to publish a series on this topic about the VIX, as I see it. Over the last week or so I have written several ideas that I intended to publish as one large piece. Since I haven’t had time to tie it together that way, I thought I would instead publish a series.

When a trend reaches an extreme level like this, it may be useful to spend some time with it.

Stay tuned…

if you haven’t already, you may want to click on “Follow” to the right to get updates by email to follow along. This will likely be several informal notes in the coming days.





Declining (Low) Volatility = Rising (High) Complacency

When we speak of trends, we want to recognize a trend can be rising or declining, high or low. These things are subjective, because there is infinite ways to define the direction of a trend, its magnitude, speed, and absolute level. So, we can apply quantitative analysis to determine what is going on with a trend.

Below we see a quote for the CBOE Market Volatility Index (VIX). The VIX is a measure of the 30 day implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. It is a measure of how much premium options traders are paying on the 500 stocks included in the S&P 500. So, it is a measure of implied or expected volatility based on how options are priced, rather than a measure of actual historical volatility based on a past range of prices. Without going into a more detailed discussion of the many factors of VIX, I’ll add that the VIX is a fine example of an index that is clearly mean reverting. That is, the VIX oscillates between high and low ranges. Once it gets to a high level or low-level, it eventually reverts to its average. Said another way, it’s an excellent example of an index we can apply countertrend systems instead of trend following systems, because the VIX swings up and down rather than trending up or down for years.

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

VIX CBOE Market Volatility below 12


I used the above image from CNNMoney because it shows the rate of change in the VIX over the past 5 years on the bottom of the chart. Notice that over the past 5 years (an arbitrary time frame) market volatility as measured by VIX has declined -63.78%. To get an even better visual of the decline and price action of the VIX, below is a chart of the volatility index going back to 2001.

Do you see a trend? Do you see high and low points?

VIX Long term average high and low

We observe the current level is low by historical measures. In fact, it’s about as low at it has been. The last time the volatility index was this low was 2006 – 2007. That was just before it spiked as high as it has been during the 2007 – 2009 market crash. You can probably see what I mean by “mean reversion” and “countertrend”. When the stock market is rising, volatility gets lower and lower as investors become more complacent. Most investors actually want to get more aggressive and buy more stocks after they have already risen a lot for years, rather than realizing the higher prices go the more risky they become. We love trends, but they don’t last forever. What I think we see above is an indication that investors have become complacent, option premiums are cheap, because options traders aren’t factoring in high volatility exceptions. However, we also see that the VIX is just now down below 12.5, and area the last bull market reached in 2006 and that low volatility stayed low for over a year before it reversed sharply. Therein lies the challenge with counterrend trading: we don’t know exactly when it will reverse and trends can continue longer than we expect. And, there are meaningful shorter term oscillations of 20% or more in the VIX.

I also want to point out how actual historical volatility looks. Recall that the VIX is an index of market volatility based on how options are priced, so it implies the expected volatility over the next 30 days. When we speak of historical volatility, there are different measures to quantify the historical range prices have traded. Volatility speaks of the range of prices, so a price that averaged 100 but trades as high as 110 and low as 105 is less volatile than if it trades from 130 and 70. Below I charted the price chart of the S&P 500 since 2002. The first chart below it is ATR, which is Average True Range. ATR considers the historical high and low prices to determine the true range. A common measure is the standard deviation of historical returns. Standard deviation is charted below as STDDEV below the ATR. Below Standard Deviation is the VIX.

VIX and S&P 500 historical market volatility

Notice that the measures of volatility, both historical and implied, increase when stock prices fall and decrease when stock prices rise. Asymmetric Volatility is the phenomenon that volatility is higher in declining markets than in rising markets. You can see why I say that volatility gets lower and lower as prices move higher and higher for several years. Then, observe what happens next. Right when investors are the most complacent, the trend changes. Prices fall, volatility spikes up. They feel more sure about things after prices have been rising, so there is less indecision reflected in the range of daily trading. When investors feel more uncertain, they become indecisive, so the range of prices spread out.

Based on these empirical observations, we conclude with the title of this article.

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




Investors are Complacent

Implied volatility, the amount of “insurance premium” implied by the price of options, continues to suggest that investors are becoming very complacent. When the VIX is high or rising, it says the market expects the S&P to move up or down more. When the VIX is low or declining, it says the market expects the S&P 500 will not move up or down as much in the future. That is, the “insurance premium” priced into options on the S&P 500 stocks is low. That isn’t necessarily directional – it is an indication of the expected range, not necessarily direction. However, what I know about directional price trends is that after a price has been trending directionally for some time, as the S&P 500 stock index has, investors become more and more complacent as they expect that trend to continue. The mind naturally wants to extrapolate the recent past into the future and it keeps doing it until it changes. When we see that in the stock market, it usually occurs as a directional trend is peaking. Investors are caught off guard as they expected a tight range. If the range in prices widens, they probably widen even more because they are – and it wasn’t expected. Interestingly, people actually expect inertia and that is one of the very reasons momentum persists as it does. Yet, momentum may eventually move prices to a point (up or down) that it may move too far and actually reverse the other way.


If we believe the market is right, we would believe the current level accurately reflects the correct expecation for volatility the next 30 days. That is, we would expect today’s implied volatility of about 12 – 13% will match the actual historical volatility 30 days from now. In other words, 30 days from now the historical (backward looking) volatility is match the current implied volatility of 12.6%. If we believe the current volatility implied by option premiums is inaccurate, then we have a position trade opportunity. For example, we may believe that volatility gets to extremes, high or low, and then reverses. That belief may be based on empirical observation and quantitatively studying the historical data to determine that volatility is mean reverting – it may oscillate in a range but also swing from between one extreme to another. If we believe that volatility may reach extremes and then reverse, we may believe the market’s implied volatility is inaccurate at times and aim to exploit it through counter-trend systems. For example, in my world, volatility may oscillate in a range much of the time much like other markets, except it doesn’t necessarily have a bias up or down like stocks. There are times when I want to be short volatility (earning premium from selling insurance) and long volatility (paying premium to buy insurance). I may even do both at the same time, but across different time frames.

The point is, the market’s expectation about the future may be right most of the time and accurately reflect today what will be later. But, what if it’s wrong? If we identify periods when it may be more likely wrong, such as become too complacent, then it sets up a position opportunity to take advantage of an eventual reversal.

Of course, if you believe the market is always priced accurately, then you would never take an option position at all. You would instead believe that options are priced right and if you believe they are, you believe there is no advantage in being long or short them. I believe the market may have it right most of the time, but at points it doesn’t, so convergence trades applying complex trade structures with options to exploit the positive asymmetry between the probability and payoff offers the potential for an edge with positive expectation.

What emotion is driving the market now? Extreme Greed

Today I observe the Fear and Greed Index below is at an “Extreme Greed” level.

Fear and Greed Index Investor Sentiment 2013-11-07_07-58-24

source: http://money.cnn.com/data/fear-and-greed/

Investors tend to get optimistic (and greedy) after prices have gone up and then fearful after prices go down. I am not necessarily a contrarian investor. I mainly want to be positioned in the direction of global markets and stay there until they change. But markets sometimes get to an extreme – increasing the probability of a reversal. My purpose of pointing out these extremes in investor sentiment (fear and greed) is to illustrate how investors’ feelings oscillate between the fear of missing out (if global markets have gone up and they aren’t in them) and the fear of losing money (if they are in global markets and they are falling). Fear and greed is a significant driver of price trends. When stock market investor sentiment readings get to an extreme it often reverses trend afterward.

For example, the last time I pointed out an extreme measure was August 27, 2013 in “Investor Sentiment Reaches Extreme Fear” when the Fear/Greed dial suggested “Extreme Fear” was the return driver.  I said when we see these extremes in fear it happens after prices have fallen. Prices can keep falling after it gets to such an extreme, but we often see the directional price trend reverse back up after an extreme fear measure. What I think is useful about observing extremes in sentiment are to understand how investors behave at certain points in a market cycle. If you find you have problems with this behavior, you may use it to modify your behavior.

Below is a chart of the S&P 500 stock index and I have marked August 27th which was the date I observed the “Extreme Fear” reading. As you can see, indeed that was a short-term low and prices climbed a wall of worry since then.

Investor Sentimennt Extreme Greed August 2013

source: http://www.stockcharts.com

Today, the investor sentiment is “Extreme Greed” as the driver of prices, so we’ll see in the coming months how that plays out.

My INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY® Interview and Portfolio Management

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

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

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

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

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

The S&P 500 Stock Index at Inflection Points

The chart below is the S&P 500 Stock Index at Inflection Points showing full market cycles since 1997 (16 years).

A few observations:

•    You may agree there is a trend here. Several years of upswings followed by downswings, but no meaningful progress for many years. Unfortunately, many people have needed more than this to get the financial freedom they want.

•    100% uptrends are followed by -50% downtrends that are enough to erase the gains from the uptrend. People get euphoric and complacent after 100% uptrends – just in time to participate in the next big waterfall decline.

•    You may consider the point where it is now vs. the last time it reached those points.

•    And, if you can avoid most of the downside and capture some of the upside (what I call ASYMMETRY®) you could have earned a different result. To achieve that takes real skill, but there are managers who have experience doing it and have actual audited track records as evidence. It will unlikely be achieved by overconfident people who have no experience, skill, and no actual track record.

Click on the chart for a larger view:


I’m not saying it’s there yet, but if you understand the past no one should be surprised about what can happen next…

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, – Reason in Common Sense