Bonds Aren’t Providing a Crutch for Stock Market Losses

In Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want and What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends I suggested that bonds may not provide a crutch in the next bear market.

It seems we are already observing that. So far this year, bond indexes have declined along with other markets like stocks and commodities.

Below is a chart of 4 different bond index ETFs year-to-date. I use actual ETFs since they are tradable and present real-world price trends (though none of this is a suggestion to buy or sell). I drew the chart as “% off high” to show the drawdown – how much they have declined off their previous highest price.

Bond ETF market returns 2015

The long-term U.S. Treasury bonds are down the most, but even the others have declined over -3%. That’s certainly not a large loss over a 9 month period, but bond investors typically expect safety and stability. Asset allocation investors expect bonds to help offset their losses in other market allocations like stocks, commodities, or REITs.

Keep in mind: the Fed hasn’t even started to increase interest rates yet. If you are an asset allocation investor, you have to consider:

What may happen if interest rates do start to increase sharply and that drives down bond prices?

What if both stocks and bonds fall in the next bear market?

Bonds haven’t provided much of a crutch this year for fixed asset allocators…

I believe world markets require active risk management and defining directional trends. For me, that means predefining my risk in advance in each position and across the portfolio.

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“.

A Random Walker on Stock and Bond Valuation

Burton Malkiel is a passive buy and hold investor who believes markets are random. To believe markets are random is to believe there are no directional trends, or high or low valuations. He is the author of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street“.  But in today’s Wall Street Journal even the ” Random Walker” sees that stock valuations are high and future expected returns low, but believes if there is a bubble it’s in bonds.

By

BURTON G. MALKIEL

June 1, 2015 6:58 p.m. ET

“Stock valuations are well above their average valuation metrics of the past, and future returns are likely to be below historical averages. But even as Ms. Yellen talks of gradually ending the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policy, interest rates remain well below historical norms. If there is a market bubble today, it is in the bond market and the Fed is complicit in the “overvaluation.”

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/janet-yellen-is-no-stock-market-sage-1433199503

When someone invests in bonds for the long term they mainly intend to earn interest. So, bond investors want to buy bonds when yields are high. In the chart below, I show the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond index ETF that seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. dollar-denominated, investment grade corporate bonds. The blue line is its price trend, the orange line is the index yield. We observe the highest yield was around 5.33% during a spike in 2008 when the price declined. Fixed income has interest-rate risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Since 2008, interest rates and the yield of this bond index has declined. Clearly, the rate of “fixed income” from bonds depends on when you buy them. Today, the yield is only 2.8%, so for “long term allocations” bonds aren’t nearly as attractive as they where.

bond yield valuation bubble
Another observation is the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF, which seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. Treasury bonds with remaining maturities greater than twenty years. So, this index is long term government bonds. Below we see its yield was 4.75% a decade ago and is now only 2.27%. Buying it to get a 4.75% yield is a very different expected return than 2.27%.

Long term treasury yield valuation spreads asymmetry

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t tactically rotate between these bond markets trying to capture price trends rather than allocate to them.

Chart source: http://www.ycharts.com

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?

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

Charts courtesy of http://www.ycharts.com

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

https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239637/EEM?referrer=tickerSearch

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 it’s 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 sense increased sharply.

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

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

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 its 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 the 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.

To see my 10 years of actual global tactical trading, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

Absolute Return as an Investment Objective

Absolute Return objective fund strategy

In Absolute Return: The Basic Definition, I explained an absolute return is the return that an asset achieves over a certain period of time. To me, absolute return is also an investment objective.

Absolute Return as an investment objective is one that does not try to track or beat an arbitrary benchmark or index, but instead seeks to generate real profits over a complete market cycle regardless of market conditions. That is, an absolute return objective of positive returns on investment over a market cycle of both bull and bear market periods irrespective of the direction of stock, commodity, or bond markets.

Since the U.S. stock market has been generally in a uptrend for 6 years now, other than the -20% decline in the middle of 2011, we’ll now have to expand our time frame for a full market cycle to a longer period. That is, a full market cycle includes both a bull and a bear market.

The investor who has an absolute return objective is concerned about his or her own objectives for total return over a period and tolerance for loss and drawdowns. That is a very different objective than the investor who just wants whatever risk and return a benchmark, allocation, or index provides. Absolute returns require skill and active management of risk and exposure to markets.

Rather than a long article, this is going to be a series of smaller parts, building up to what absolute return really means.

For an example of the application of an absolute return objective, strategy, and return-risk profile,  visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/

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“?

Diversification Alone is No Longer Sufficient to Temper Risk…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanguard DFA BlackRock PIMCO Asset Allcation

Charts are courtesy of http://ycharts.com/ drawn by Mike Shell

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

PIMCO Total Return Bond Vanguard Total Bond

Charts are courtesy of http://ycharts.com/ drawn by Mike Shell

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

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

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

Instead, I apply active risk management and directional trend systems to a global universe of exchange traded securities (like ETFs). To see what that looks like, click: ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts

Sectors Showing Some Divergence…

So far, U.S. sector directional price trends are showing some divergence in 2015.

Rather than all things rising, such divergence may give hints to new return drivers unfolding as well as opportunity for directional trend systems to create some asymmetry by avoiding the trends I don’t want and get exposure to those I do.

Sector ETF Divergence 2015-03-04_11-24-54

For more information about ASYMMETRY®, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

Chart source: http://www.finviz.com/groups.ashx

 

 

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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

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

Click the titles to listen.

Episode 1

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

Direct links:

Episode 1

http://toptradersunplugged.com/why-you-dont-want-symmetry-in-investing-mike-shell-shell-capital-management/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/why-you-dont-want-symmetry/id888420325?i=335354134&mt=2

Episode 2

http://toptradersunplugged.com/when-systematic-programs-arent-fully-systematic-mike-shell-shell-capital-management/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/he-adds-value-to-his-system/id888420325?i=335582098&mt=2

 

For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stock index asymmetric distribution and losses

Source: chart is drawn by Mike Shell using http://www.stockcharts.com

At the lowest point after prices had fallen over -50%, in March 2009, the standard deviation was dramatically higher than it was in 2007 after prices had been drifting up. At the lowest point, volatility is very high and past return is very low, telling MPT and VaR to invest less in that asset.

In the 2008 – 2009 declining global markets, you may recall some advisors calling it a “6 sigma event”. That’s because the market index losses were much larger than predicted by standard deviation. For example, if an advisors growth allocation had an average return of 10% in 2007 based on its past returns looking back from the peak and a standard deviation of 12% expected volatility, they only expected the portfolio would decline -26% (3 standard deviations) within a 99.7% confidence level – but the allocation actually lost -40 or -50%. Even if that advisor properly informed his or her client the allocation could decline -26% worse case and the client provided informed consent and acceptance of that risk, their loss was likely much greater than their risk tolerance. When the reach their risk tolerance, they “tap out”. Once they tap out, when do they ever get back in? do they feel better after it falls another -20%? or after it rises 20%? There is no good answer. I want to avoid that situation.

You can see in the chart below, 3 standard deviations is supposed to capture 99.7% of all of the data if the data is a normal distribution. The trouble is, market returns are not a normal distribution. Instead, their gains and losses present an asymmetrical return distribution. Market returns experience much larger gains and losses than expected from a normal distribution – the outliers are critical. However, those outliers don’t occur very often: maybe every 4 or 5 years, so people have time to forget about the last one and become complacent.

symmetry normal distribution bell curve black

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/68%E2%80%9395%E2%80%9399.7_rule

My friends, this is where traditional asset allocation like Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) and risk measures like Value at Risk (VaR) get it wrong. And those methods are the most widely believed and used . You can probably see why most investors do poorly and only a very few do well – an anomaly.

I can tell you that I measure risk by how much I can lose and I control my risk by predefining my absolute risk at the point of entry and my exit point evolves as the positions are held. That is an absolute price point, not some equation that intentionally ignores the outlier losses.

As the stock indexes have now been overall trending up for 5 years and 9 months, the trend is aged. In fact, according to my friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research, at around 27 times EPS the stock index seems to be in the range of overvalued. In his latest report, he says:

“The stock market surged over the past quarter, adding to gains during 2014 that far exceed underlying economic growth. As a result, normalized P/E increased to 27.2—well above the levels justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status is approaching “significantly overvalued.”

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised to eventually see rising interest rates drive down bond values at some point. It seems from this starting point that simply allocating to stocks and bonds doesn’t have an attractive expected return. I believe a different strategy is needed, especially form this point forward.

In ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical, I actively manage risk and shift between markets to find profitable directional price trends rather than just allocate to them. For more information, visit http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

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.

 

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.

Global Market Trends and Returns 3rd Quarter 2014

The end of a quarter is a popular time for investors to review what happened over the past three months. Below we review some three-month price trends to get an idea of the direction and magnitude of return streams for a wide range of world market indexes.

In the chart below, we see the U.S. Dollar ($USD) was in the strongest rising directional trend and increased smoothly. The second most increasing trend in magnitude was U.S. Long Term Treasury Bonds (TLT), though it made its move in just the past two weeks. The popular large company stock index, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) and the broad-based bond index Barclay Aggregate Bond Index (AGG) lost a little during the quarter. Small company stocks, the Russell 2000 ($RUT), and the commodities indexes ($USD and GSG) lost over -9%. As I pointed out in “Interest Rates and Dollar Rising, Commodities Falling” interest rates started drifting up, driving up the U.S. Dollar, which then drove down many commodities. The decline in small company stocks is probably more a sign of an aging bull market in stocks.

Charts courtesy of: http://www.stockcharts.com ©StockCharts.com

Looking closer within the U.S. stock market at its individual sectors, the Healthcare and Technology sectors ended the quarter with the largest gains of around 3%. Energy was by far the largest losing sector over the past three-months with a decline of nearly -10%. Other weakness was Industrial and Utilities. That may be suggesting something about the markets anticipation of the economy.

I also include a bar chart below of the sectors for a different visual of the advance and decline within sectors. The trouble with only looking at the quarter end result is that it ignores what happened along the way. For example, in the line charts above we can see how the trends unfold.

I pointed out in “Interest Rates and Dollar Rising, Commodities Falling” that interest rates started drifting up, driving up the U.S. Dollar. When the Dollar and interest rates rise it can directly impact other markets like commodities, international stocks priced in Dollars, and interest rate sensitive markets like real estate and utilities. In the next chart I include the U.S. Dollar again to show its steady increase the past three months. Then we see that commodities like Gold (GLD), interest rate sensitive markets like Utilities (IDU), U.S. Real Estate REITs (IYR), and Mortgage REITs (REM) all declined materially. International stocks in Developed Countries (EFA) and Emerging Markets (EEM) also declined around 5 to 7%. None of these three-month price trends are permanent, but for those of us who tactically rotate between these world markets it is useful to understand how they all interact with each other.

You may notice when I speak of these trends I use past tense. The past tense is a grammatical tense whose principal function is to place an action or situation in past time. When I speak of trends, I’m always speaking of the past trend, never the future. These charts are created by looking back three months. It is not possible to draw a chart of realized trends looking forward three months. If we could do that, we would only need to do it once. If we could know for sure what just one of these trends would do in the future we could leverage a large bet, take the profit, pay the tax, and be done forever. Instead, we only have past price trends to study and draw inference from. Past data is all we have. As it turns out, that’s all I need.

 

Is market timing [short-term trading back and forth among asset classes] really a good idea?

In October 2004, Jason Zweig interviewed Peter Bernstein for MONEY Magazine. The title was Peter Bernstein interview: He may know more about investing than anyone alive. Peter L. Bernstein was an early pioneer of tactical asset allocation thinking. He wrote about valuation-based asset allocation and being tactical in decisions rather than passive. He believed what I believe: we should take more risk when its likely to be rewarded and less risk when it is less likely to be rewarded. He published several books about it.

In the interview, Zweig asked:

“Is market timing [short-term trading back and forth among asset classes] really a good idea?”

Bernstein answered:

“For institutional investors, the policy portfolio [a rigid allocation like 60% stocks, 40% bonds] had become a way of passing the buck and avoiding decisions. The problem was that institutions had settled on a [mostly stock] asset allocation because in the long run, they concluded, that’s the only place to be. And I think the long run ain’t what it used to be. Stocks don’t have to do well in the future because they did well in the past. In fact, the opposite may be more likely.”

Source: http://money.cnn.com/2004/10/11/markets/benstein_bonus_0411/

Based on the chart below, which shows the Dow Jones Industrial Average (a stock index that cannot not be invested in directly) since that interview in 2004, I’d say Bernstein was right. Over the next decade, the stock index went on to gain 65%, but it dropped nearly that much along the way. That doesn’t seem to be the kind of asymmetry® that investors are looking for. If you look at it close enough, you can probably see why it makes sense to take more risk at some points, less risk at others. Though, it’s probably at the opposite times most investors do. So, most will advise investors not to try to do it. Like most things in life, some do it much better than others and have active track records that reflect it.

stock market index since 2004

source: https://stockcharts.com/freecharts/perf.php?$indu

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