Is this correction and volatility normal?

With perfect hindsight, we now all know that January 26th was the recent price peak in the U.S. stock market. Since then, the S&P 500 has declined about -10% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average about -12%. For simplicity, I’m going to focus on U.S. stock market here.

I wasn’t surprised to see the decline and am not surprised to see “more volatility,” because it would be getting back to “normal.”

But I see recent price action has sure gotten the attention of many on social media. Some even seem dazed and confused.

I’m not surprised about that, either.

On January 11, before stock market declined prices started swinging up and down (volatility), I shared an observation with my friends on Twitter and a warning:

On January 24th, I again warned of complacency. The message was clear:

At this point, this is a normal and expected “correction” of what was an upside overreaction in the prior months. The stock index has declined about -10%, regained some of the loss in March and more recently retested the February 8th low. As long as the lows hold, I consider this a normal correction.

stock market spx

Sure, the decline was sharp and fast, but that’s no surprise for me after such an upside move. I said it was “expected” because, as I pointed out above, 2017 was very abnormal because it lacked the typical -5% to -10% declines we normally see over most 12 month periods in the stock indexes.

Another way I define a “normal correction” is a simple trend line drawn under the price over the past 12 months. Without adding a lot of complicated looking indicators to express it, below we see the stock index has just “reverted to its trend.” The peak in December and January was an abnormal overreaction on the upside, which I pointed out as it was happening. The recent -10% decline has simply put the trend back in a more normal range.

stock market normal correction trend

What is normal, typical, or expected? 

I’m observing a lot of commentaries as if this correction and volatility isn’t normal.  The fact is, many people often include their emotions and feelings along with price action.

Investors perceive what they believe is driving a price trend and what they believe is always true for them.

The February decline was commonly blamed on “the machines,” which got a little silly.

This time, it’s geopolitics.

I believe it’s just the market, doing what it does, and there are so many drivers at the same time I don’t bother to attempt such a narrative. My narrative is simple; the force of sellers took control and outweighed the enthusiasm of buyers.  It is just the market, doing what it does.

I’ve been seeing and experiencing these trends so closely for so long and I remember the regime shifts. I want to share with you my observations of what have been “normal” corrections in terms of drawdowns. A drawdown is the % decline from a prior price high to its low. I show only the period of the past 9 years, which is one of the longest bull markets in history (without a -20% decline).

stock market historical bear market length drawdowns

As you can see, since April 2009, we’ve seen four declines of -15% or more and it took them several months to recover.

These declines of -15% or more are why many people have been unable to hold on to the stock market since the March 2009 low with any meaningful allocation to stocks. When prices fall -10%, investor sentiment shifts from greed to extreme fear. Some of them may even begin to tap out by selling their stock holdings for fear of more losses.

To be sure, here is an investor sentiment indicator at the February 8, 2018 low.

Investor sentiment Februrary 8 2018

In fact, investment managers like me who have dynamic risk management systems may even sell to reduce exposure to loss as an intentional drawdown control. But this time, as I pointed out, the stock market was already at risk of a reversal before this decline. So, a robust risk management system may have reduced exposure before the decline, not after.

We find that declines over -10% get more attention, especially when they get down to -15%. Those can also be more hostile conditions for trend systems, too, as risk management systems cause us to exit and later re-enter.

The point is, over the past 9 years a -15% decline has been a “normal” occurrence and there are many -5% (or more) declines too.

It is only at a -10%, so far, and that’s not unusual.

I intentionally used the last 9 years. Not to show an arbitrary 9 year period, but instead to intentionally leave off March 2009. I did that because the first three months of 2009 was a -24% decline, a continuation of the 2008 waterfall decline. The stock market was still in the bear market that began October 2007. So, this wouldn’t be complete without a reminder of what that period looked like before I go on to show the pre-2008 period.

All bear markets do necessarily begin with declines of  -10%, -15%, -20% . They are actually made of many swings up and down along the way. We often hear people speak of the last bear market as “2008” as though the only loss was the -37% decline in the S&P 500 in 2008.

That is far from reality.

The decline was -56%.

2008 stock market drawdown length of bear market

The drawdowns we’ve seen since 2008 are more than twice what we saw in the bull market from 2003 to 2008 after the “tech wreck.” Below we see the typical decline then was closer to -5% with only a few getting into the -7% or more range. 2004 to 2008 bull market low volatility

Clearly, it was a lot easier to hold a larger allocation of stocks, then.

What is normal and what has changed?

The last 9 years has been more hostile for passive asset allocation investors to hold on to their stock positions because the declines were -15% or so and take months to recover. It’s also been more challenging for active risk managers since a drawdown control system necessarily reduces exposure as prices fall with the intent to control drawdown.

But, to define what is normal today, a -10% to -15% decline is within a normal corrective drawdown.

The recent past matters simply because that’s what investors and traders anchor to. Most people put more emphasis on the recent past. Our experience and how much we’ve studied and observed the trends determine how much we can recall easily. I’ve been an investment manager most of my life, over two decades now. For me, it hasn’t been a hobby or part-time venture, it’s what I do and who I am. So, my memory of these trends and intuitions about what is normal, or not, is what it is.

If you are wondering, here are the drawdowns for the S&P 500 going back about 70 years. I highlighted the -15% declines or more, which obviously gets investors attention.

stock market bear market length and dradowns

Clearly, there are a lot of -15% or greater declines. In fact, there are several -30% and three in the -45% or larger drawdowns.

Knowing this, it’s why I say:

We believe world markets require active risk management to avoid large losses and directional trend systems to position capital in profitable price trends.

And, I also say:

It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the downside risk is so high you tap out before it’s achieved.

But at this point, you can probably see that the current -10% decline is so far within a “normal correction.”

Though, as I shared in The enthusiasm to sell overwhelmed the desire to buy March 19, 2018, I expect to see more swings (volatility) than last year, and that would be “normal” too.

I 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.

Markets decline to a low enough point to attract buying demand. Only time will tell how it all plays out from here.

If you enjoyed this, I encourage you to read “What About the Stock Market Has Changed? A Look at Ten Years of Volatility” 

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.

 

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

It takes at minimum a full market cycle including both bull/bear markets to declare an edge in an investment management track record.

But we also have different regimes. For example, each bull market can be different as they are driven by unique return drivers. Some are more inflationary from real economic expansion driving up prices. Others are driven by external manipulation, like the Fed intervention.

I’ve been managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical for fourteen years. It’s an unconstrained, flexible, adaptable, go-anywhere global tactical program without the limitations of a fixed benchmark. I pursue absolute returns applying dynamic risk management and unconstrained tactical trading decisions across a broad universe of global currency, bonds, stocks, and commodities.

So, I can tell you the bull market 2003-07 was a regime of rising commodities, foreign currency, and international producers of commodities. In this bull market, U.S. equities have dominated. We can see that in the chart below. If your exposure up until 2008 was only U.S. stocks, you would be disappointed as Emerging Markets countries like China and Brazil were much stronger as was commodities. We can also see how those markets have lagged since the low in 2009.

Everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, so this too shall change eventually.  Those who believe the next decade will be like the past do not understand the starting point matters, the return drivers, and how markets interact with each other. Past performance is never a guarantee of future results.

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

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

Investment results are probabilistic, never a sure thing. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

Essence of Portfolio Management

Essence of Portfolio Management

“The essence of investment management is the management of risks, not the management of returns. Well-managed portfolios start with this precept.”

– Benjamin Graham

The problem is many portfolio managers believe they manage risk through their investment selection. That is, they believe their rotation from one seemingly risky position to another they believe is less risk is a reduction in risk. But, the risk is the exposure to the chance of a loss. The exposure is still there. Only the perception has changed: they just believe their risk is less. For example, for the last thirty years, the primary price trend for bonds has been up because interest rates have been falling. If a portfolio manager shifts from stocks to bonds when stocks are falling, bonds would often be rising. It appears that trend may be changing at some point. Portfolio managers who have relied on bonds as their safe haven may rotate out of stocks into bonds and then their bonds lose money too. That’s not risk management.

They don’t know in advance if the position they rotate to will result in a lower possibility of loss. Before 2008, American International Group (AIG) carried the highest rating for an insurance company. What if they rotated to AIG? Or to any of the other banks? Many investors believed those banks were great values as their prices were falling. They instead fell even more. It has taken them a long time to recover some of their losses. Just like tech and telecom stocks in 2000.

All risks cannot be hedged away if you pursue a profit. If you leave no chance at all for a potential profit, you earn nothing for that certainty. The risk is exposure to an unknown outcome that could result in a loss. If there is no exposure or uncertainty, there is no risk. The only way to manage risk is to increase and decrease the exposure to the possibility of loss. That means buying and selling (or hedging).  When you hear someone speaking otherwise, they are not talking of active risk management. For example, asset allocation and Modern Portfolio Theory is not active risk management. The exposure to loss remains. They just shift their risk to more things. Those markets can all fall together, as they do in real bear markets.

It’s required to accomplish what the family office Chief Investment Officer said in “What a family office looks for in a hedge fund portfolio manager” when he said:

“I like analogies. And one of the analogies in 2008 brings to me it’s like a sailor setting his course on a sea. He’s got a great sonar system, he’s got great maps and charts and he’s perhaps got a great GPS so he knows exactly where he is. He knows what’s ahead of him in the ocean but his heads down and he’s not seeing these awesomely black storm clouds building up on the horizon are about to come over top of him. Some of those managers we did not stay with. Managers who saw that, who changed course, trimmed their exposure, or sailed to safer territory. One, they survived; they truly preserved capital in difficult times and my benchmark for preserving capital is you had less than a double-digit loss in 08, you get to claim you preserved capital. I’ve heard people who’ve lost as much as 25% of investor capital argue that they preserved capital… but I don’t believe you can claim that.Understanding how a manager managed and was nimble during a period of time it gives me great comfort, a higher level of comfort, on what a manager may do in the next difficult period. So again it’s a it’s a very qualitative sort of trying to come to an understanding of what happened… and then make our best guess what we anticipate may happen next time.”

I made bold the parts I think are essential.

If you are like-minded and believe what we believe, contact us.

How a Family Office Selects an Investment Manager

The topic of selecting an investment manager is an important one. Many investors, including professional financial planners and advisors admit they have little skill at selecting asset managers. In fact, some admit they do such a poor job at it they don’t even try. But if you understand the value in alternative investment strategies from private equity to absolute return focused investment programs, then you need to know what to look for in an investment manager. These alternative investment strategies are most often offered privately in a private hedge fund format and sometimes offered as a separate managed account (SMA). Whether you are a private individual investor, an allocator for a family office or institution, or a portfolio manager, the video below is an outstanding example of how a sophisticated investor analyzes a money manager. It’s an interview with the Chief Investment Officer of a family office. He explains why a family who sold a large business may be interested in alternative investments or alternative investment strategies rather than conventional public investments and investment programs like mutual funds.  His family office has allocated 80% to alternative investment managers (like hedge funds and the Asymmetry Investment Program™). He offers some insight about:

  • Why family offices (and other wealthy investors) are attracted to alternative investment strategies commonly offered as a private hedge fund.
  • What they specifically look for in selecting a portfolio manager.
  • How allocators filter managers post crisis:  What exactly did you do in 2008?
  • Are they looking at younger emerging hedge fund/money managers?

On how they select hedge funds:  (begins around 4:07/9:57)

“We are looking for opportunities with managers were we can get comfortable as to their strategy and what will generate returns for them and what the risks might be? We haven’t been very active with emerging or start-up managers. I think a lot of that has to do with where we are in terms of time.

2008 was an awesome and an awful market experience it’s helpful to look at managers who actually were in existence during that period of time to gain some understanding of how they manage their portfolios are the most difficult. Someone doesn’t have a 08 track record is much harder to get a sense of how they’re going to do a difficult markets. 09 was a pretty easy market to make money if you were long.”

How are you evaluating the 2008 period what are you looking at specifically, the drawdown?

“We obviously start with performance but  I also want to see exposure in the portfolio. How did the manager navigate those markets? Did he keep his portfolio fully invested in a market environment for his strategy was not allowing it to make money was actually causing losses? Did he trim exposure? When did he put exposure back into the market place?  is something that we look at it. It’s really it’s a number of different factors we try and I can understand how the manager managed during that period of time and try to gain some insight on his style. Conviction doesn’t automatically mean that you stay fully invested at all times. Although we certainly saw a number of managers who waited FAR too long to trim their exposure. So,  it’s a combination of all those factors we try and consider. But I would say one of the things that are most important to me is trying to follow a managers gross and net exposures during that period trying to understand. That leads to conversations of what the manager was thinking at the time.”

He goes on to say: 

“I like analogies. And one of the analogies in 2008 brings to me it’s like a sailor setting his course on a sea. He’s got a great sonar system, he’s got great maps and charts and he’s perhaps got a great GPS so he knows exactly where he is. He knows what’s ahead of him in the ocean but his heads down and he’s not seeing these awesomely black storm clouds building up on the horizon are about to come over top of him. Some of those managers we did not stay with. Managers who saw that, who changed course, trimmed their exposure, or sailed to safer territory. One, they survived; they truly preserved capital in difficult times and my benchmark for preserving capital is you had less than a double-digit loss in 08, you get to claim you preserved capital. I’ve heard people who’ve lost as much is 25% of investor capital argue that they preserved capital… but I don’t believe you can claim that. Understanding how a manager managed and was nimble during a period of time it gives me great comfort, a higher level of comfort, on what a manager may do in the next difficult period. So again it’s a it’s a very qualitative sort of trying to come to an understanding of what happened… and then make our best guess what we anticipate may happen next time.”

I can tell you he’s spot on. Those whose jobs are that of the asset allocator, who allocates capital to investment programs, often rely too much on Modern Portfolio Theory statistics and not enough on looking very closely under the hood. As a quantitative trading system developer and operator, we are focusing on far different things and I can tell you: it’s the things that matter. It’s critical that the investor or allocator take a close look at the downside: how was their drawdown from peak to trough? What were the actual holdings during that time? Like he said: do they stay in the market even when it’s not working for them? Or, do they reduce their exposure to the possibility of loss (risk management) by selling positions or dynamic hedging?

I very much agree with his comments about experience. Today there are many people selling hypothetical backtests who have no real experience executing during difficult conditions. After such a radical waterfalloccurred in 2008 – 2009, more investors and professionals have now figured out the state of the market. In a secular bear market, such waterfalls occur and it can happen again. After the fact, many investment professionals have scrambled to come up with solutions and naturally they’ll be attracted to what actually worked in the past: like some forms of Global Tactical Asset Allocation, Trend Following, and other so-called “alternative” investment strategies like we run. We now have new people interested in active portfolio management that seek an absolute return, rather than a relative return. But like he said: they lack the actual experience. You really don’t know how they’ll react in the heat of the battle. But you can be assured of this: back-testing a system is one thing, executing is another.

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Family Office Management, Investment Management, Hedge Funds, Absolute Returns, Active Risk Management

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