Investor Optimism is Reaching Extreme

As it often does, the U.S. stock market trended the complete opposite of what market pundits expected after the election.

Clearly, a Presidential election can be the blame for volatility we saw this year before the election. However, instead of crashing down U.S. stocks regained their previous losses quickly. Along with that, investor sentiment shifted from fearful a month ago to much more optimistic as prices trended up. At this point, investors have probably forgotten how volatile markets were the first part of 2016. Once the losses are regained, they eventually forget the stock indexes were down -12% or more in January and February.

Investors tend to get optimistic (or even 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. At this point, a tactical trader can hedge, reduce exposure, realize profits, or wait until an actual reversal to respond.

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 reaches an extreme, it often reverses trend afterward.

Indicators suggest that investors are pursuing higher risk strategies and that investor optimism has reached a short-term extreme. I like to use the Fear & Greed Index that is a simple snapshot for anyone to see. Below is the reading as of yesterday as it reached “Extreme Greed.”

cnn-fear-greed-index

We shouldn’t be surprised to see the recent upward price trend reverse down, at least temporarily.

Along with that, we could see investor sentiment reverse from “Extreme Greed” to “Fear” as prices fall.

It’s OK to feel and experience your feelings… if you feel the right feeling at the right time.

Indicators like this can help investors observe how they tend to feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

 

To learn more, below are some of my previous observations about sentiment reaching an extreme greed level of optimism.

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

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

What emotion is driving the market now? Extreme Greed

I always say that you could publish trading rules in the newspaper and no one would follow them. The key is consistency and discipline. Almost anybody can make up a list of rules that are 80 percent as good as what we taught people. What they couldn’t do is give them the confidence to stick to those rules even when things are going bad.”

– Richard Dennis

richard-dennis

Investors feel and do the wrong thing at the wrong time…

Many studies show that investors have poor results over the long haul including both bull and bear markets. For example, DALBAR has been conducting their annual Quantitative Analysis Of Investor Behavior study for 22 years now.

DALBAR’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB) has been measuring the effects of investor decisions to buy, sell and switch into and out of mutual funds over both short and long-term time frames. The results consistently show that the average investor earns less – in many cases, much less – than mutual fund performance reports would suggest.

Their goal of QAIB is to improve investor performance by pointing out the factors that influence behaviors that determine the outcome of investment or savings strategies. They conclude individuals have poor results for two primary reasons:

  1. Lack of capital investment.
  2. Investor Psychology.

If someone doesn’t save and invest some of their money, they’ll never have a chance to have good long-term results. However, they find the biggest reason for poor results by investors who do invest in the markets over time is investor psychology. Investors tend to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, especially at market extremes.

The chart below illustrates how investors tend to let their emotions lead them astray. The typical “bull market” for stocks may last four or five years. After investors keep hearing of rising market prices and headlines of “new highs” they want to invest more and more – they become euphoric. The may get more “aggressive”. However, those gains are in the past. Market trends are a good thing, but they can move to an extreme high (or low) and then reverse. Investors feel euphoria just as the stock market is getting “overvalued” at the end of a market cycle.

Look at that chart: what big trend do you think happens next? 

do-your-emotions-lead-you-astraySource: Investing and Emotions

On the downside, investors panic after large losses. There are many ways that investors get caught in this loss trap. For example, some are told to “stay in the market” so they hold on beyond their uncle point and then tap out. After they sell at much lower prices, they are too afraid to “get back in.”  They are “Panic-Stricken.” They don’t discover the actual risk of their passive asset allocation until it’s too late and their losses are larger than they expected.

Investors need to know their real tolerance for loss before the loss happens. Then, they need to invest in a program that offers a matching level of risk management, so they don’t lose so much they tap out and lock in significant losses. If they reach their uncle point and tap out, they have an even more difficult challenge to get back on track.

You want to be greedy when others are fearful. You want to be fearful when others are greedy. It’s that simple. – Warren Buffett

The chart above shows twenty-one years of the historical return of the S&P 500 stock index. Look at the graph above to see the points this happens. It shows an idealized example of investor emotions as prices trend up and down. As prices trend up, investors initially feel cautious, then hopeful, encouraged, positive, and as prices move higher and higher, they feel confident and thrilled to the point of euphoric. That’s when they want to get “more aggressive” when they should be doing the opposite. The worst investors actually do get more aggressive as they become euphoric at new highs, and then they get caught in those “more aggressive” holdings as the markets decline -20%, -30%, -40%, or more than -50%.

After such investment losses investors first feel surprised, then as their losses mount they feel nervous, then worried, then panic-stricken. But this doesn’t happen so quickly. You see, larger market declines often take a year or two to play out. The most significant declines don’t fall in just a few months then recover. The significant declines we point out above are -50% declines that took 3 – 5 years or more to get back to where they started. So, they are made up of many swings up and down along the way. If you look close at the chart, you’ll see those swings. It’s a long process – not an event. So few investors notice what is happening until it’s well in the past. They are watching the daily moves (the leaf on a tree) rather than the bigger picture (the forest).

So, investors get caught in a loss trap because the swings along the way lead them astray.  Their emotions make them oscillate between the fear missing out and the fear of losing money and that’s why investors have poor results over a full market cycle. A full market cycle includes a major peak like the Euphoric points on the chart and major lows like the Panic-Stricken points. Some investors make their mistakes by getting euphoric at the tops, and others make them by holding on to falling positions too long and then panicking after the losses are too large for them.

At Shell Capital, I manage an investment program that intends to avoid these mistakes. I prefer to avoid the massive losses, so I don’t have panicked investors. And, we don’t have to dig out of large holes. That also necessarily means we don’t want to get euphoric at the tops. I want to do the opposite of what DALBAR finds most people do. To do that, I must necessarily be believing and doing things different than most people – a requirement for good long term results. But, creating exceptional investment performance over an extended period of ten years or more isn’t enough. We also have to help our investor clients avoid the same mistakes most people make. You see, if I am doing things very differently than most people, then I’m also doing it at nearly the opposite of what they feel should be done. Our investors have to be able to deal with that, too.

If you are like-minded, believe what we believe, and want investment managementcontact us. This is not investment advice. If you need individualized advice, please contact us  

 

Source for the chart: BlackRock; Informa Investment Solutions. Emotions are hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only. The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged index that consists of the common stock of 500 large-capitalization companies, within various industrial sectors, most of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Returns assume reinvestment of dividends. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The information provided is for illustrative purposes only.

Investor Optimism Seems Excessive Again

When someone asks me why I hold so much cash or against a market decline, it always corresponds to extreme optimism readings in the most basic investor sentiment indicators. Investors have poor long-term results because they feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time. They feel optimistic after price gains just before they decline. They fear more losses after they hold on to losing trends, and their losses get large.

After the stock market declined and then reversed back up to make headlines investor sentiment has reached the level of “Extreme Greed” once again. I don’t use the CNN Fear & Greed Index as a trading signal as my systems focus on other things, but I think it’s a publically available source that is useful to help investors avoid feeling the wrong feeling at the wrong time.  For example, the CNN Fear & Greed Index uses eight indicators of investor sentiment to determine Fear or Greed. The reading oscillates between Extreme Fear, Fear, Neutral, Greed, and Extreme Greed. If you feel optimistic about future prices and the reading is at Extreme Greed, you are probably wrong. If you feel fearful about future prices and the reading is at Extreme Fear, you are probably wrong. You see, most investors feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

As you see below, it has reached the “Extreme Greed” point, and that often signals high risk and eventually precedes at least a short-term trend reversal.

CNN Fear Greed Index

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

 

Below is a chart of the past 3 or so years of the Fear & Greed reading. As you see, the levels of fear and greed do indeed oscillate from one extreme to the other over time. I think we observe these readings indicate the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

Fear and Greed over time investor sentiment

Source: CNN Fear & Greed Index

The most obvious extreme level is the extremely low level of expected future volatility. Maybe they are right, but when the VIX Volatility Index reaches such as extreme low it often signals at least a short-term stock market peak that reverses down.

VIX Volatility Index.jpg

I like directional trends, but I also believe they sometimes reach extremes at a point and then reverse.

We’ll see how this one unfolds in the weeks and months ahead…

You can probably see why it’s prudent to actively manage risk and hedge at certain extremes.

To learn more, contact us.

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.

Fear and Greed is Shifting and Models Don’t Avoid the Feelings

Investors are driven by fear and greed. That same fear and greed drives market prices. It’s Economics 101 “Supply and Demand”. Greed drives demand, fear drives selling pressure. In fact, investors are driven by the fear of losing more money when their account is falling and fear missing out if they have cash when markets go up. Most investors tend to experience a stronger feeling from losing money than they do missing out. Some of the most emotional investors oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money. These investors have to modify their behavior to avoid making mistakes. Quantitive rules-based systematic models don’t remove the emotion.

Amateur portfolio managers who lack experience sometimes claim things like: “our quantitive rules-based systematic models removes the emotion”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Those who believe that will eventually find themselves experiencing feelings from their signals they’ve never felt before. I believe it’s a sign of high expectations and those expectations often lead to even stronger reactions. It seems it’s the portfolio managers with very little actual performance beyond a backtest that make these statements. They must believe a backtested model will act to medicate their feelings, but it doesn’t actually work that way. I believe these are the very people who over optimize a backtest to make it perfectly fit historical data. We call it “curve-fitting” or “over-fitting”, but it’s always “data mining”. When we backtest systems to see how they would have acted in the past, it’s always mining the data retroactively with perfect hindsight. I’ve never had anyone show me a bad backtest. If someone backtests entry and exit signals intended to be sold as a managed portfolio you can probably see how they may be motivated to show the one that is most optimized to past data. But, what if the future is very different? When it doesn’t work out so perfectly, I think they’ll experience the very feelings they wish to avoid. I thought I would point this out, since many global markets have been swinging up and down. I’m guessing some may be feeling their feelings.

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.

CNN Fear and Greed IndexSource: http://money.cnn.com/data/fear-and-greed/

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. Below is 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.

Fear and Greed Over time investor sentiment

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

Fear is Driving Stock Trend…

Fear is now driving the stock market. As prices fall, investor sentiment indicators suggest that fear increases as prices fall. When sentiment gets to an extreme it often reverses, or it can become contagion and drive prices even lower as people sell their positions. Now that most sentiment gauges are at short term “Extreme Fear” readings, don’t be surprised to see prices trend back up. If they don’t, then it could be the early stages of a larger decline as fear and greed can always get even more extreme.

A simple gauge for investor sentiment is the CNN Money Fear & Greed Index.

Fear and Greed Index

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

It’s always a good time to manage, direct, and control risk. I do that by predefining my exits and knowing how much potential loss that represents in each position and across the portfolio.

What About the Stock Market Has Changed? A Look at Ten Years of Volatility

When asked to sum the Buddha’s teachings up in one phrase, Suzuki Roshi simply said, “Everything changes.”

The universe is transient, in a constant state of flux. This impermanence, that things are constantly changing and evolving, is one of the few things we can be sure about. Whatever it is today, it will evolve and eventually change. I believed this, so I embraced change and uncertainty. That led me to deeply study rates of change, magnitude of change, and probability of change.

So when I speak about volatility, I am necessarily talking about “how much it has changed”. Volatility is the range of change. If there is no volatility, there is no change. If the range is very wide, the range of outcomes is wide.

In statistics, standard deviation is a measure that is used to quantify this amount of range, variation, or dispersion of a set of data. In finance, it’s used to measure the range of prices. Many use it as a risk measure.

As of this month, I have been managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical as a separately managed account program for 10 years. Ten years is somewhat an arbitrary time frame, but it’s also a meaningful milestone given the range of change over this period. This past decade has been unique in that it included a range of change few have experienced or observed before. It’s really just change doing what it does.

What has changed over the past 10 years?

In A Tale of Two Conditions for U.S. and International Stocks: Before and After 2008 I pointed out the material change in the directional trends of the U.S. stock market vs. international stocks. Prior to 2008, the international stock market indexes were materially stronger trends than U.S. stocks. Since 2008, the U.S. stock market rate of change has been stronger than the global markets.

Another very significant change has been volatility. The change in volatility is critical to understand as I pointed out in This is When MPT and VaR Get Asset Allocation and Risk Measurement Wrong. Below, I will illustrate visually how volatility has changed and what it means today.

Historical standard deviation is commonly used in investment models as an input for  volatility and is often considered a measure of ‘risk”. In some ways that is true, in other ways I disagree. When prices trade in a wide range up and down, it tends to get attention. Investors start to watch it closely. If a portfolio goes up 10% and then down -10% over a period of time, it gets the investors attention. If that portfolio declines -20%, then gains 10%, then declines -15%, they may have a reaction. We call the actual decline “drawdown”, but the widening range and how fast the values move up and down is called “volatility”.

The chart below is the S&P 500 stock index (blue line) and the historical volatility as measured by standard deviation with a 1 year look-back. As you can see, historical volatility as measured by standard deviation tends to decline after the price trend rises such as 2005 to late 2007 and again starting in 2013 to now. We can also observe it increasing significantly after the stock index declined. Historical volatility stayed very high after 2008 and observing from a 1 year look-back, it remained very high until late 2013. Investors dislike volatility because it’s more difficult to hold on to a trend when its range up and down is high. If investors don’t like volatility, then you can see why they had such a hard time holding stock positions for several years.

Standard Deviation

Clearly, investors who don’t like volatility had a very difficult time holding the stock market up until recently. The past decade has shown us material changes in volatility from the low and decreasing period pre-2008 to the extreme high volatility up until late 2013. Some investors may now even be thinking of getting “more aggressive”, now that the wide price swings have become a distant memory. But you may consider that low volatility is a sign of less indecision. After prices trend up for years, investors become more complacent and therefore volatility declines. Just as we saw in 2007, we shouldn’t be surprised to see volatility very low at the price peak.

You can probably see how this is a real problem. On the one hand, if we want investors to be able to handle the volatility of a investment program, the risk and volatility necessarily needs to be managed so they don’t experience it. An active risk management system with an absolute return objective like I operate wants to have less exposure during highly volatile periods investors prefer to avoid. Yet, you may see how many investors who apply conventional asset allocation and risk measures, like Modern Portfolio Theory and Value at Risk that use standard deviation as an input, are likely to have models that get them more exposure at the peaks and less exposure at the lows. That is, at the peaks their models expected return is at its highest and its expected variance is at its lowest. After a major decline in price just the opposite is true: their expected return based on historical return is at its lowest and expected variation is the highest.

The past 10 years was a very challenging period anyway we slice it. But an investment program like ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical that avoided large drawdowns as well as avoided such radical swings, allowed investors to stick with the program and compound capital positively rather than panic out or deal with large losses and drawdowns.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No same man could walk through the same river twice, as the man and the river have since changed.” I think we can be sure about only one thing: the next price trend and volatility will be different, so I embrace it and am prepared for however it unfolds.

Why So Stock Market Focused?

Most investors and their advisors seem to speak mostly about the stock market. When they mention “the market” and I ask “what market?” they always reply “the stock market”.

Why so stock market centric?

It must be that it gets the most media attention or stocks seem more exciting?. After all, other markets like bonds may seem boring and few know much about the many commodities markets or the foreign exchange markets. There are many different markets and two sides to them all.

If it’s risk-adjusted returns you want, you may be surprised to find where you should have invested your money the past 15 years. To make the point, below is a comparison of the total return of the Vanguard S&P 500 stock index (the orange line) compared to the Vanguard Bond Index (the blue line). Yes, you are seeing that correctly. Using these simple index funds as a proxy, bonds have achieved the same total return as stocks, but with significantly less volatility and drawdowns. This is why we never look at just “average” return data without considering the path it took to get there. A total return percentage gain chart like this one presents a far more telling story. Take a close look at the path they took.

stocks vs. bonds

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

I showed the chart to one investment advisor who commented “It looks like the stock market is catching up”. If that’s what you think of when you view the chart, you may have a bias blind spot: ignoring the vast difference in the risk between the two markets.

Looking at the total return over the period identifies the obvious difference in the path the two return streams took to achieve their results, but below we see the true risk difference. Drawdowns are declines from a higher value to a low value and a visual representation of how long it took to recover the lose of capital. When we observe a drawdown chart like the one below, it’s like a lake. These charts together also help illustrate the flaw of averages. The average return of the stock and bond index have ended at about the same level and have the same average return, but the bond index achieved it with much less drawdown. You wouldn’t know that if you only looked at average returns. If you tried to walk across the stock market lake, you may have drowned if you couldn’t handle swimming in 40′ of water for so long. If that one didn’t get you, the 55′ may have. The stock index declined about -40% from 2000 – 2002 and took years to recover before it declined -55%.

stock and bond market risk historical drawdowns

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

You have to be wondering: why didn’t you just invest in bonds 15 years ago? Maybe you were focused on the prior period huge average returns in stocks?

Before I continue, let me place a very bold disclaimer here: PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE RESULTS. Another way that is stated is that PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO ASSURANCE OF FUTURE RESULTS. One more version is PAST PERFORMANCE MAY NOT BE AN INDICATION OF FUTURE RESULTS. If you remember, the 1990’s were a roaring bull market in stocks. People focus on the past expecting it to continue. That’s probably why you never thought to invest in bonds instead of stocks.

Some of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world have done that very thing over this period and longer. But, they didn’t just invest in bonds. They leveraged bonds. We’ve seen in this example that a bond index fund has achieved just as much total return as stocks. If you are a stock market centric investor: one that likes the stock market and makes it your focus, then you necessarily had to be willing to endure those -40% to -55% declines and wait many years to recover from the losses. If you are really willing to accept such risk, imagine if you had used margin to leverage bonds. The bond index rarely declined -10% or more. It was generally a falling interest rate period, so bonds gained value. If you were willing to accept -40% to -55% declines in stocks, you could have instead leveraged the bonds 400% or 500%. If you had done that, your return would be 4 or 5 times more with a downside more equal to that of stocks.

Why so stock centric?

Of course, at this stage, the PAST PERFORMANCE IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO REPEAT INTO THE FUTURE. Just as the roaring stocks of the 1990’s didn’t repeat. To see why, read Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market and Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?.

From my observations of investors performance and their advisors, most people seem to have poor results the past decade or so, even after this recent bull market. An investment management consultant told me recently that investors and their advisors who are aware of the current stage of stocks and bonds feel there is no place to turn. I believe it’s a very important time to prepare to row, not sail. For me, that means focus on actively managing risk and look for potentially profitable trends across a very global universe of markets; currency, bonds, stocks, commodities, and alternatives like volatility, inverse, etc . That’s my focus in ASYMMETRY® | Managed Accounts.

Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market

In The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market last year I pointed out different measures used to determine the average length of a bull market. Based on that, whether you believe the average bull market lasts 39 months, 50 months, or 68 months, it seems the current one is likely very late in its stage at 73 months. It’s one of the longest, ever.

I normally don’t consider valuations levels like P/E ratios, but they do matter when it comes to secular bull and bear markets (10 to 20 year trends). That’s because long-term bull markets begin at low valuation levels (10 or below) and have ended at historically high levels (around 20). Currently, the S&P 500 is trading at 27. That, along with the low dividend yield, suggests the expected return for holding that index going forward is low.

Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research explains it best:

The stock market gyrated since the start of the year, ending the first quarter with a minimal gain of 0.4%. As a result, normalized P/E was virtually unchanged at 27.3—well above the levels justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status remains near “significantly overvalued.”

In addition, the forecast by Standard and Poor’s for 2015 earnings per share (EPS) recently took a nosedive, declining 17% during one week in the first quarter. Volatility remains unusually low in its cycle. The trend in earnings and volatility should be watched closely and investors should remain cognizant of the risks confronting an increasingly vulnerable market.

Source: The P/E Report: Quarterly Review Of The Price/Earnings Ratio By Ed Easterling April 4, 2015 Update

It’s always a good time to actively manage risk and shift between global markets rather than allocate to them. To see what that looks like, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

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…

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.

Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion:

“In prospect theory, loss aversion refers to the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are as much as twice as psychologically powerful as gains. Loss aversion was first convincingly demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.”

For most people, losing $100 is not the same as not winning $100. From a rational point of view are the two things the same or different?

Most economist say the two are the same. They are symmetrical. But I think that ignores some key issues.

If we have only $10 to eat on today and that’s all we have, if we lose it, we’ll be in trouble: hungry.

But if we have $10 to eat on and flip a coin in a bet and double it to $20, we may just eat a little better. We’ll still eat. The base rate: survival.

They say rationally the two are the same, but that isn’t true. They aren’t the same. The loss makes us worse off than we started and it may be totally rational to feel worse when we go backwards than we feel good about getting better off. I don’t like to go backwards, I prefer to move forward to stay the same.

Prospect Theory, which found people experience a loss more than 2 X greater than an equal gain, discovered the experience of losses are asymmetric.

Actually, the math agrees.

You see, losing 50% requires a 100% gain to get it back. Losing it all is even worse. Losses are indeed asymmetric and exponential on the downside, so it may be completely rational and logical to feel the pain of losses asymmetrically. Experience the feeling of loss aversions seems to be the reason a few of us manage investment risk and generate a smoother return stream rather than blow up.

To see what the actual application of asymmetry to portfolio management looks like, see: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/

 

asymmetry impact of loss

“It is impossible to produce a superior performance unless…

Sir John Templeton

source: http://www.templeton.org

A great quote from my fellow Tennessean, Sir John Templeton:

“It is impossible to produce a superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.”

Sir John Templeton

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“?

Dazed and Confused?

Many investors must be dazed and confused by the global markets reaction to the Fed. 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. Just the opposite has happened, so far.

Markets seems to have moved opposite of expectations, those people have to get on board (increasing demand).

A few things I wrote before and after the Fed decision:

A One-Chart Preview of Today’s Fed Decision: This is what economists are expecting

Fed Decision and Market Reaction: Stocks and Bonds

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

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

Illusion of Control

illusion_of_control

“The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events; for example, it occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.”

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_control

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

As I approach the 10-year milestone of managing ASYMMETRY® Global Tactical as a separately managed account, I wanted to share my second interview with MIchael Covel on Trend Following with Michael Covel.

Many studies show that most investors, including professionals, have poor results over a full market cycle of both bull and bear markets. That necessarily means if I am creating good results, I must be believing and doing something very different than most people. In this 33 minute conversation, Michael Covel brings it out!

This is my second interview with Michael Covel, a globally famous author of several outstanding books like “Trend Following: How Great Traders Make Millions in Up or Down Markets“. I was his 4th interview when he started doing audio interviews 3 years ago and now our 2nd follow up is episode 320! For all his hard work and seeking the truth, “Trend Following with Michael Covel” is a top-ranked podcast around the world. He is in Vietnam during our interview. In 33 minutes, we describe what a true edge really is, which is how I’ve been able to create the results I have over these very challenging 10 years. And, what investors need to know today.

To listen, click: Mike Shell Interview with Michael Covel

Or, find Episode 320 in iTunes at “Trend Following with Michael Covel

For more information about my investment program, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

 

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

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/

 

“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.

idowcha001p1

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.

Stock Investors Even More Bullish While Japan Falls into Surprise Recession

Following up with Are investors getting overly optimistic again? I pointed out that investor sentiment as measured by the AAII Investor Sentiment Survey had shifted to a point of unusually high bullishness.

After prices trend up, investors get more optimistic as they extrapolate higher prices into the future, assuming that existing trends will continue. Interestingly, they get more bullish as prices are more “overvalued”. As more and more investors become optimistic about stocks in the months ahead, you have to wonder who will continue the buying needed to push stocks higher. A good trend follower knows that trends do indeed often continue, until the demand runs out. Since supply and demand is the driver of all things traded in an auction market, we can observe demand shifts and how it drives prices.

Since I wrote Are investors getting overly optimistic again? less than two weeks ago, the latest AAII Investor Sentiment Survey shows bullishness is even higher.

investor sentiment and asymmetric risk

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

In the mean time, Fox Business reports this morning “Japan’s economy unexpectedly slipped into recession in the third quarter”. That shouldn’t be a big surprise. If you take a look at the weekly chart of the Japan stock index (priced in Dollars) below, it’s been suggesting something for the past year. I am seeing similar trends (or choppy non-trends) in many global stock markets.

Japan stock market recession

Courtesy of http://www.stockcharts.com

It will be interesting to watch how it all unfolds.

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.

Markets don’t always react the way investors expect, so I focus on what is actually happening

hedge fund market wizards

I noted the below question and answer between Jack Schwager and Ray Dalio in Jack’s book “Hedge Fund Market Wizards: How Winning Traders Win” (2012). Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world and one of the most successful. I saved it when I read the book as a fine example that markets don’t always react the way people expect, and that is why I focus instead on what is actually happening rather than what could or should happen – but may not. Everything is very transient, coming and going, and it’s funny how some of the same kinds of things happen over and over again. As you read comments below you’ll hear it’s always a similar story, different day. 1982 was the end of a 20 year secular bear market made up of huge swings similar to the past decade and the beginning of the largest bull market on record up to 2000.

Below is Jack Schwager asking a question to Ray Dalio:

Any other early experiences stand out where the market behaved very differently from what you expected?

In 1982, we had worse economic conditions than we do right now. The unemployment rate was over 11 percent. It also seemed clear to me that Latin America was going to default on its debt. Since I knew that the money center banks had large amounts of their capital in Latin American debt, I assumed that a default would be terrible for the stock market. Then boom—in August, Mexico defaulted. The market responded with a big rally. In fact, that was the exact bottom of the stock market and the beginning of an 18-year bull market. That is certainly not what I would have expected to happen. That rally occurred because the Fed eased massively. I learned not to fight the Fed unless I had very good reasons to believe that their moves wouldn’t work. The Fed and other central banks have tremendous power. In both the abandonment of the gold standard in 1971 and in the Mexico default in 1982, I learned that a crisis development that leads to central banks easing and coming to the rescue can swamp the impact of the crisis itself.

Source: Schwager, Jack D. (2012-04-25). Hedge Fund Market Wizards (pp. 54-55). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

All of this, everything that is happening and expected to happen, will be reflected in the directional trend and volatility of price. The directional price and range of prices (volatility) will overreact at times and under-react at others, but it will reflect what is actually going on. Because the direction and volatility of price “is” what matters.

VIX® gained 140%: Investors were too complacent

Several months ago I started sharing some of my observations about the VIX ( CBOE Volatility Index). The VIX had gotten to a level I considered low, which implied to me that investors were too complacent, were expecting too low future volatility, and option premiums were generally cheap. After the VIX got down to levels around 11 and 12 and then started to move up, I pointed out the VIX seemed to be changing from a downward longer term trend to a rising trend.

As I was sharing my observations of the directional trend and volatility of VIX that I believed was more likely to eventually go up than down, it seemed that most others were writing just the opposite. I know that many volatility traders mostly sell volatility (options premium), so they prefer to see it fall.

As you can see in the chart below, The VIX has increased about 140% in just a few weeks.

VIX october

Chart courtesy of http://www.stockcharts.com

For those who haven’t been following along, you may consider reading the previous observations:

A VIX Pop Then Back to Zzzzzzzz? We’ll see

Asymmetric VIX

VIX Shows Volatility Still Low, But Trending

VIX Back to Low

The VIX is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge

Is the VIX an indication of fear and complacency?

What does a VIX below 11 mean?

What does the VIX really represent?

The VIX, my point of view

The VIX, as I see it…

Volatility Risk Premium

Declining (Low) Volatility = Rising (High) Complacency

Investors are Complacent

 

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 Following Doesn’t Always Mean Crowd Following

“Trading has taught me not to take the conventional wisdom for granted. What money I made in trading is testimony to the fact that the majority is wrong a lot of the time. The vast majority is wrong even more of the time. I’ve learned that markets, which are often just mad crowds, are often irrational; when emotionally overwrought, they’re almost always wrong.”

Richard Dennis  (Famous Trend Follower)

 

Richard J. Dennis, a commodities speculator once known as the “Prince of the Pit,”. In the early 1970s, he borrowed $1,600 and reportedly made $200 million in about ten years.

To learn more about Richard Dennis, no one tells the story like Michael Covel in The Complete Turtle Trader.

 

Extreme Fear is Now the Return Driver

A professional investment adviser recently passed along some materials and asked for my opinion about a “tactical model” offered by another money manager. I was surprised that they expect great results from their model when it said something like:

“As investors become more risk-averse, the model becomes more defensive and vice versa.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.

As investors become more risk-averse, the model becomes more defensive. When investors become more risk-seeking, the model becomes more offensive.

That surprises me because investor sentiment is usually used as a countertrend indicator, not as a trend following indicator. Investors often get overly optimistic after prices have trended up and investors get more afraid after prices have trended down.

They went on to say they also use economic indicators as their signal to increase and decrease exposure. I am always concerned when I hear of someone using anything other that the direction of the price trend itself. Other indicators like credit spreads or perceived risk premiums are derivatives of price and it’s the directional movement of the price trend itself we really want. If the price gains 5%, we make money. If the price loses 5%, we lose money. If the price does nothing and the ratio or spread you rely on goes up or down, it did nothing for you. If you use something that is a derivative of the price itself, you have the potential to stray far from the price trend itself.

All blow-ups in history started that way.

Investor sentiment is usually wrong. It isn’t something I’d want to follow. If anything, I’d want to do the opposite of investor sentiment when it reaches an extreme. I occasionally point out my observations when investor sentiment reaches an extreme. When I do, I’ll highlight a simple sentiment gauge that is publicly available on the CNN Money website. Now, that gauge doesn’t actually have a signal that says when it has reached an extreme. It’s just a gauge to swings from one extreme to the other and spends a lot of time in between. It isn’t what is telling me to share my observations – it’s not my signal. I have other systems for actually doing that, but my systems often coincide with extreme readings in the Fear and Greed Index.

investor sentiment fear driving stocks

source: Fear and Greed Index

 

As of Friday, fear is driving stocks. A few weeks ago I pointed out “It’s official: extreme greed is driving the stock market”. Prices had been rising and investors became more and more optimistic. Stocks have now fallen about 3 – 4% and investor sentiment quickly shifted from “Extreme Greed” a few weeks ago to “Extreme Fear” now. The stock market had gone months without a 1% move, so a -2% down day got their attention.

stock market decline investor fear

source: http://www.stockcharts.com

Investor sentiment isn’t necessarily and indicator I use to increase and decrease exposure, but instead one that is useful to help investors understand problems in their behavior. If you find yourself getting more aggressive after prices have already made a big move, or scared after price declines, you may find it useful to monitor the Fear and Greed Index to help adjust your behavior. That money manager may be one of them.

If anything, you may find increasing and decreasing exposure to risk is best done opposite of sentiment extremes, not along with it. Investor sentiment is usually wrong, not right. Extreme fear occurs at lows, extreme greed at highs.

 

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

CBOE VOLATILTY INDEX VIX

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

Volatility Risk Premium

Following up from “VIX Back to Low” I wrote last week, sure enough: the volatility index has gained 20%. Since last week it has been a good time to be long volatility and a bad time to be short volatility. Many professionals who trade volatility as their primary strategy mostly sell it to collect the Volatility Risk Premium. To do that, they have to be willing to experience gaps like this.

VIX CBOE VOLATILTY INDEX JULY

 

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.

CBOE VOLATILITY INDEX HISTORY

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.

CBOE VOLATILITY INDEX VIX Low levels

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.

VIX BELOW 12

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.

 

 

 

5th Year Anniversary of the Bull Market

This week marked the 5th anniversary since the March 9, 2009 low in stock market. While much of the talk and writing about it seems to be focused mainly on the upside gains since the low point, it is more important to view it within the context of the big picture.

If you knew on March 9, 2009 that was the low point and could handle the 5 – 10% daily swings that were occurring during that time, then you could have made a lot of money. But, the fact is, many people have emotional reactions after a -10% decline over any period, even more it happens in a day or a week. But even if you don’t, in order to have made a lot of money you would have needed to have exited prior to the large loss before then. You needed cash to invest at the low. I heard some are bragging about their gains since the low, but they left out how much they had lost over the full cycle. It doesn’t mean anything to earn 100% over one period if you lose -50% the next period that wipes it out.

It doesn’t actually matter how much the stock index gained from its low point. What matters is its trend over a full market cycle. People sometimes have trouble seeing and understanding the bigger picture, which is one reason they get caught in traps in the short run.

Below is the price trend of the S&P 500 stock index over the most recent full market cycle. I define a full market cycle as a complete cycle from a peak to low to a new peak. That is, it includes both a “bull market” and a “bear market”. To get an accurate picture, I have used the SPDRs S&P 500 ETF and a total return chart, so it does include dividends. After more than 7 years, the stock index has only gained 35%. Yet, it declined -56% along the way. That isn’t the kind of asymmetry® investors seem to want. If you think about risk reward, 20% is great upside if the downside is only -10%; that is positive asymmetry®. We want to imbalance risk and reward, more of one, less the other.

S&P 500 full market cycle 2014-03-14_10-34-31

If you look closely, it took 5 years after the October 2007 peak to get back to break even. Though it has taken a long time to recover from the cascade decline, the recovery was impressive in terms of its gains, but extremely volatile for investors to endure.

When looking at a period of over 7 years, the swings don’t seem so significant. To put them into context, there were about 9 declines around 10% or more with the one in 2011 about -20%. This has kept many investors from buying and holding stocks.

If you are good at visual intuition, you may notice the price swings on the left of the chart are much wider than those more recently. This is a visualization of higher volatility as the trend was down and continued volatility caused by indecision between buying pressure and selling pressure.

After prices have trended down, such as the 2008 and 2009 period, the range of prices is wide and investors who held on too long panic, yet buyers aren’t willing to buy at their price.

After a price trend has been drifting up for several years and investors hear about how much it has gained, they become more and more complacent and more optimistic. They do this near a peak.

You can probably see how most investors who lost a lot of money before are likely to do it again. Unless something like the observations I have shared here helps to change their behavior, they are likely to do the same thing they did before.

Dow is down 6.7%: Extreme Fear is Now Driving Stocks

During holiday parties it seemed everyone was talking about how much the Dow Jones Industrial Average was “up” for the year. So, it is no surprise that the Dow is down -6.7% since the beginning of the new year.

Dow Jones Industrial year to date

And, now that Dow is down -6.7%, investor sentiment measured by the Fear & Greed Index has shifted from greed as the return driver to Extreme Fear. Investor’s tend to get overly aggressive after prices advance and then afraid after prices fall. For example, a wealth manager told me in December that a client of his wanted to “shift to a more aggressive model’ because stocks had gone up so much. People tend to extrapolate the recent past, expecting it will continue into the future.

Extreme Fear Driving Stocks Investor Behavior

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

Though there seems to be signs the topping process may be underway, the stock market often trends the opposite of what investor’s expect, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a reversal.

Fear is beginning to drive stock trends

Since I pointed out that “Investors are Complacent” on November 27th, the S&P 500 index of large company stocks has declined -1.4% and the Russell 2000 small company stock index more than -2%. Both are small declines so far, but it was enough to shift the return driver from Extreme Greed in early November to Fear as of the close on Friday.

S&P 500 and Russell 2000 decline

S&P 500 and Russell 2000 decline

Fear is now driving stock prices. Although, it isn’t yet at an extreme level, I like to point out these oscillations of fear and greed investor behavior because investors feelings are often the wrong feeling at the wrong time. That is, after prices have gone up investors get more greedy and optimistic. Then, after prices decline just a little they become fearful of losing more money. I believe some investors are more oriented toward either fear or greed, but many actually suffer an emotional roller coaster: they oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money. That is a real problem when they feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

Such investor behavior is also a significant driver of price trends. For example, a waterfall price decline occurs from “Serial Correlation”. That is, waterfall declines happen because prices go down, then down some more, as more and more investors sell because they are losing money. Panic selling is serial correlation: selling occurs because prices are falling. For example, investors lose 20% and then begin to exit their positions to avoid further loss. That leads to other investors losing 25% as selling pressure drove prices down more and they exit their positions to avoid further loss. The nice thing is we all get to decide how much we are willing to lose. You can’t lose 50% without allowing it. This can also be an advantage for robust trend systems designed to profit from directional drifts up and down.

Now that Fear has become the return driver, we shouldn’t be surprised to see prices move back up. However, the investor sentiment hasn’t yet reached Extreme Fear, so all the sellers who want to sell may not have yet sold. The simple Fear and Greed Index dial I use here isn’t a timing signal. Instead, I use it to point out how sentiment shifts from Fear to Greed via a website everyone can see. I actually use other indicators to measure sentiment and counter-trend points. But you can use the Fear and Greed Index to discover how your own feelings may oscillate between emotions.

From this point, Fear can continue and reach a more Extreme Fear level and prices can keep going much lower. However, if the sellers that wanted to sell have sold and prices have declined low enough to bring in new buying demand prices will move back up.

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.

Image

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.

%d bloggers like this: