Observations of the stock market downtrend

Observations of the stock market downtrend

In the last observation I shared about the stock market, “The stock market trends up with momentum,” we saw the stock market reverse back up with strong momentum. The S&P 500 stock index had declined about -7% from its high, then reversed back up 3%. I discussed how investor behavior and sentiment drives market prices. Many investor sentiment measures signaled investor fear seemed to be in control, driving down prices. Volatility had spiked and then started to settle back down. Many individual stocks in the S&P 500 had declined enough to signal shorter-term downtrends, but then they reversed up. I closed by saying:

In summary, today was a strong upward momentum day for the stock market and most stocks participated in the uptrend. After sharp declines like we’ve seen this month, the stock market sometimes reverses up like this into an uptrend only to reverse back down to test the low. After the test, we then find out if it breaks down or breaks out.

One day doesn’t make a trend, but for those who are in risk taker mode with stocks, so far, so good.

The part I bolded with italics has turned out to be the situation this time.

Below is a year to date price trend of the S&P 500 stock index. As of today, my observation “the stock market sometimes reverses up like this into an uptrend only to reverse back down to test the low” is what we are seeing now.

stock market trend

I’ve always believed investment management is about probability and possibilities, it’s never a sure thing. The only certainty is uncertainty, so all we can do is stack the odds in our favor. As I said before, “After the test, we then find out if it breaks down or breaks out.” 

The positive news is, investor sentiment measures are reaching levels that often precede short-term trend reversals back up.

The bad news is if the current trend becomes a bigger downtrend these indicators will just stay at extremes as long as they want. We have to actively manage our exposure to loss if we want to avoid large losses, like those -20% or more that are harder to overcome.

Down -10% is one thing, down -20% is another. Any investor should be willing to bear -10% because they will see them many times over the years. Only the most passive buy and hold investors are willing to bear the big losses, which I define as -20% or more.

Nevertheless, I see some good news and bad, so here it is. I’ll share my observations of the weight of the evidence by looking at relatively simple market indicators. I don’t necessarily make my tactical decisions based on this, but it is instead “market analysis” to get an idea of what is going on. Observations like this are intended to view the conditions of the markets.

Fear is the dominant driver. 

The Fear & Greed Index tracks seven indicators of investor sentiment. When I included it a week ago, it was at 15, which is still in the “Extreme Fear” zone. The theory is, the weighting of these seven indicators of investor sentiment signals when fear or greed is driving the market. Clearly, fear is the dominant driver right now.

fear greed index investor sentiment behavioral finance

At this point, we can see investor sentiment by this measure has now reached the low level of its historical range. In this chart, we can see how investor sentiment oscillates between fear and greed over time in cycles much like the stock market cycles up and down.

fear and greed back test over time investor sentiment indicator

I believe investor behavior is both a driver of price trends, but investors also respond to price trends.

  • After prices rise, investors get more optimistic as they extrapolate the recent gains into the future expecting the gains to continue.
  • After prices fall, investors fear losing more money as they extrapolate the recent losses into the future expecting them to get worse.

Investor sentiment and price trends can overreact to the upside and downside and the herd of investors seems to get it wrong when they reach an extreme. We observe when these kinds of indicators reach extremes, these cycles are more likely to reverse. It is never a sure thing, but the probabilities increase the possibility of a reversal. But, since there is always a chance of a trend continuing longer in time and more in magnitude, it is certainly uncertain. Since there is always a chance of a bad outcome, I  have my limits on our exposure to risk with predetermined exits or a hedge.

Speaking of a hedge. 

I started pointing out my observation several weeks ago of a potential volatility expansion. If you want to read about it, most of the past few weeks observations have included comments about the VIX volatility index. Over the past few days, we’ve observed a continuation in the volatility expansion.

vix hedge volatility expansion asymmetric hedge asymmetry

Implied volatility has expanded nearly 100% over in the past 30 days.

vix volatility expansion trading

As a tactical portfolio manager, my first focus is risk management. When I believe I have defined my risk of loss, I become willing to shift from risk manager to risk taker. I share that because I want to point out the potential for hedging with volatility. Rather than a detailed exhaustive rigorous 50-page paper, I’m going to keep it succinct.

My day job isn’t to write or talk about the markets. I’m a professional portfolio manager, so my priority is to make trading and investment decisions as a tactical investment manager. I’m a risk manager and risk taker. If I never take any risk, I wouldn’t have any to manage. The observations I share here are just educational, for those who want to follow along and get an idea of how I see things. I hope you find it helpful or at least interesting. It’s always fun when it starts new conversations.

To keep the concept of hedging short and to the point for my purpose today, I’ll just share a simple chart of the price trend of the stock index and the volatility index over the past 30 days. The stock index has declined -8.3% as the implied volatility index expanded over 95%. You can probably see the potential for a hedge. However, it isn’t so simple, because these are just indexes and we can’t buy or sell the VIX index.

vix volatility as a hedge stock market risk management

The purpose of a hedge is to shift the risk of loss from one thing to another. The surest way to reduce the possibility of loss is to simply sell to reduce exposure in the thing that is the risk. That’s what I do most of the time. For example, when I observed a potential volatility expansion, I reduced my exposure to positions that had the possibility of loss due to increased volatility. Once prices fall and volatility contracts, maybe we increase exposure again to shift back to risk-taking. If we take no risk at all, we would have no potential for a capital gain. So, tactical portfolio management is about increasing and decreasing exposure to the possibility of gain and loss. If we do it well, we create the kind of asymmetric risk/reward I aim for.

So, any hedging we may do is really just shifting from one risk to another, hoping to offset the original risk. Keep in mind, as I see it, a risk is the possibility of loss. I’ll share more on hedging soon. I have some observations about hedging and hedge systems you may find interesting.

Most stocks are participating in the downtrend. Below is an updated chart of the percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 that are above their 50-day moving average. If you want to know more about what it is, read the last observations. The simple observation here is that most stocks are declining.

stock market breadth risk indicator

Much like how we saw investor sentiment cycle and swing up and down, we also see this breadth indicator oscillate from higher risk levels to lower risk levels.

  • After most stocks are already in uptrends, I believe the risk is higher that we’ll see it reverse.
  • After most stocks have already declined into downtrends, it increases the possibility that selling pressure may be getting closer to exhaustion.

The good news is, at some point selling pressure does get exhausted as those who want to sell have sold and prices reach a low enough level to bring in new buying demand.

That’s what stock investors are waiting for now.

These are my observations. I don’t have a crystal ball, nor does anyone. I just predetermine my risk levels in advance and monitor, direct, and control risk through my exits/hedging how much I’m willing to risk, or not. We’ll just have to see how it all unfolds in the days and weeks ahead.

Only time will tell if this is the early stage of a bigger deeper downtrend or just another correction within the primary trend.

I hope you find my observations interesting and informative.

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

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

The stock market trends up with momentum

When the stock market indexes swing up or down 1% or more I try to share my observations of the directional trend and changes in volatility. Continuing from my observation yesterday in Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion when I shared:

The good news is, we’ve now experienced some volatility expansion, stocks have now pivoted down to the lower end of their cycles, so maybe volatility will contract and stock prices resume their uptrend.

We’ll see.

Well, today we saw.

The U. S. stock market gains were broad across all sectors. Communication Services, Consumer Discretionary, Healthcare, and Technology were the relative momentum leaders.

stock market trend sector ETF momentum

Continuing with the % of S&P 500 stocks above their 50 day moving average as breadth indicator was another indication of broad upward momentum. 86% more stocks are trading above their shorter-term trend, an expansion from a low level. For those of us who like to enter trends early in their stage, this is a positive sign of improvement for the stock market.

percent of stocks above below 50 day moving average trend following momentum

We observe the same in the percent of stocks trending back above their longer-term trends. There was a 16% expansion in the stocks in the S&P 500 index trending above their 200 day moving average. The longer-term trend indicators are slower to respond, but this is more evidence of positive directional movement.

stock momentum percent of stocks above 200 day moving average trend following asymmetric

This is happening at a time when many investor sentiment indicators suggest fear has been driving stocks recently. A simple example is the Fear & Greed Index, which reached “Extreme Fear” a week ago.

CNN FEAR GREED INDEX SENTIMENT

As a portfolio manager for the past two decades, I have observed investor sentiment oscillate between fear and greed, but as a contrarian pendulum. Most investors feel the wrong feeling at the wrong time.

  • After prices rise, investors get more optimistic as they extrapolate the recent gains into the future expecting the gains to continue.
  • After prices fall, investors fear losing more money as they extrapolate the recent losses into the future expecting them to get worse.

What happens, though, is market trends move in multiple time frames of cycles up and down. Prices can overreact to the upside and downside and the majority of investors seem to get it wrong.

The level and direction of implied volatility is an indication of investor sentiment. I’ve shared my observations of the volatility expansion and noted some volatility contraction yesterday. So far, the volatility expansion has reversed to contraction, so the expected volatility as implied by options prices now suggests the market expects lower volatility in the weeks ahead.

VIX VOLATILITY CONTRACTION EXPANSION ASYMMETRIC RISK HEDGE ASYMMETRY

But, just as I pointed out on September 25th in VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility implied volatility can get it wrong. I pointed out then the implied volatility was very low signaling to me the market may have been wrong to expect such low future volatility, so it can reverse back up again.

In summary, today was a strong upward momentum day for the stock market and most stocks participated in the uptrend. After sharp declines like we’ve seen this month, the stock market sometimes reverses up like this into an uptrend only to reverse back down to test the low. After the test, we then find out if it breaks down or breaks out.

One day doesn’t make a trend, but for those who are in risk taker mode with stocks, so far, so good.

 

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

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion

Observations of the stock market decline and volatility expansion

On September 25th I shared in VIX level shows market’s expectation of future volatility when I pointed out a low level of expected volatility as implied by the VIX index.

I said:

The current level of the VIX index has settled down to a lower historical level suggesting the market expects the future range of the price of the S&P 500 to be lower. Below is the current level relative to the past year.

I went on to explain my historical observations of volatility cycles driven by investor behavior:

The VIX Index is intended to provide a real-time measure of how much the market expects the S&P 500 Index to fluctuate over the next 30 days. The VIX Index reflects the actual order flow of traders

Since investors tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future, they usually expect recent calm markets to continue and violent swings to persist.

After the stock market declines and volatility expands, investors extrapolate that recent experience into the future and expect volatility to continue. Sometimes it does continue, but this time it gradually declined as the price trend became calmer.

When markets have been calm, traders and investors expect volatility to remain low. Before February, the VIX implied volatility had correctly predicted low realized volatility for months. But, both realized and expected volatility was so low that many investors were shocked when stock prices fell sharply, and volatility expanded.

When the market expects volatility to be low in the next 30 days, I know it could be right for some time. But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near. It’s just a warning shot across the bow suggesting we hedge what we want to hedge and be sure our risk levels are appropriate.

I shared the chart below, showing implied volatility at the low end of the cycle over the past year:

Since that date, we’ve indeed witnessed a volatility expansion of more than 90% in the VIX index and a decline in the S&P 500 stock index over -6%.  Implied volatility has expanded and stocks declined. As implied volatility is now starting to contract, below we can see the recent expansion as it trended from 12 to 24. Today its back to its long-term average of 20.

Stock market indexes, both U. S. and international, have declined 6 – 7% from their highs.

At this point, this has been a normal short-term cycle swing in an ongoing uptrend that is frequently referred to as a “correction.”

To be sure, we can see by looking at the % drawdowns in the primary uptrend that started in March 2009.

Markets cycle up and down, even within overall primary uptrends. As we see over a nine-year period, the current decline is about average and half as deep as the largest declines since 2009.

You can probably see what I meant by situational awareness of the markets cycles, trends, and volatility levels.

It isn’t enough to just say it or write about it. My being aware of the situation helps me to do what I said, which is worth repeating:

But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near. It’s just a warning shot across the bow suggesting we hedge what we want to hedge and be sure our risk levels are appropriate.

As far as the stock market condition, I like to see what is going on inside. Just as volatility swings up and down in cycles, so do price trends. As I’ve pointed out before, I observe prices swinging up and down often driven by investor behavior. For example, many investors seem to oscillate between the fear of missing out and the fear of losing money.

“The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.” – Warren Buffett

One visual way to observe the current stage is the breadth of the stock market as I shared last week in The Stock Market Trend. Below is the percent of stocks in the S&P 500 index trending above their 50 day moving averages often used as a short-term trend indicator. This is a monthly chart since 2009 so we can see how it oscillates up and down since the bull market started. At this point, the number of stocks falling into short-term downtrends is about what we’ve seen before.

stock market breadth asymmetric risk

The risk is: this continues to be an aged old bull market, so anything is possible. That is why my focus every day is situational awareness. But, there is always a risk of a -10% or more decline in the stock market, regardless of its age or stage.

The good news is, we’ve now experienced some volatility expansion, stocks have now pivoted down to the lower end of their cycles, so maybe volatility will contract and stock prices resume their uptrend.

We’ll see.

All that is left to do is observe, be prepared, and respond tactically as it all unfolds.

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

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

The Stock Market Trend

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

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

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

stock market decline 2008

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

average length of bear market crash 2008.jpg

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

stock market sector ETF October 10 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPX BREADTH PERCENT OF STOCKS ABOVE 200 DAY MOVING AVERAGE

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

stock market SPX 200 day moving average trend following

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

stock market year to date 2018 trend following momentum

 

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

stock market momentum ETF trend following asymmetric

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

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

VIX VOLATILITY EXPANSION

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

SPY SPX VIX ASYMMETRIC RISK REWARD

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

 

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

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

 

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

The volatility expansion observation I shared last week has continued.

If you haven’t followed along, I suggest reading VIX level shows the market’s expectation of future volatility and Here comes the volatility expansion to see where I am coming from.

Implied volatility as measured by the CBOE Volatility Index $VIX has gained about 45% in the past three trading sessions, so volatility is expanding.

VIX $VIX VOLATILITY EXPANSION VOL TRADING ASYMMETRIC.jpg

I discussed what a rising VIX and volatility expansion means in the prior observations.

Rising implied volatility means rising expectations for future volatility as implied by options prices. Ultimately, Implied volatility is determined by the price of options contracts.

In other words, implied volatility is driven by supply and demand and order flow.

An increase in options buying increases the price of options which results in higher implied volatility.

The net selling of options decreases the price of options which results in lower implied volatility.

Volatility isn’t directional.

Volatility is a measure of movement and how wide prices spread out, which says nothing about the direction of the price trend. Prices can be trending up sharply and volatility measures could expand.

Here are some examples:

Trending up with volatility expansion: a price trend that gains 10% a day for several days is a directional uptrend, but it’s also volatile. We would say the trend is up, but it’s also a volatility expansion as the price range is expanding.

Non-trending with volatility expansion: a price trend that cycles up and down around 5% a day for a long time with no clear direction up or down is a non-trending condition, but it’s also volatile. We would say it is non-trending, but it’s also a volatility expansion.

Trending down with volatility expansion: a price trend that declines 10% a day for several days is clearly a downtrend, with volatility. We could say the trend is down with expanding volatility.

Most of the time, the risk is asymmetric since we tend to see increased volatility when we see falling prices. As prices fall, more investors and traders respond to the simple fact the prices are falling and they are losing money. This serial correlation with falling prices can lead more prices falling even more as investors sell because prices are falling.

However, occasionally we may observe prices trending down with volatility contraction. A falling price trend with contracting volatility is necessarily going to be a slower downtrend with less directional movement. Instead of 5% or 10% declines, it may be 1 or 2% declines. A downtrend without volatility expansion would be observed as a slower decline that would necessarily take longer for a large loss to develop. For example, a -30% loss would happen much faster with -10% down periods than it would at a rate of -1%. You can probably see how volatility expansions in downtrends get the attention of someone who wants to manage their drawdown.

I’ll share some more detailed ways to observe volatility to decide if volatility is expanding or contracting.

At the top of the chart is the S&P 500 stock index. The bands around the stock index are 2 times the stock index average true range over the past 20 days. The dotted line in the center of the bands is the 10-day moving average. Price trends move in cycles, so they oscillate up and down over time. When we apply bands around the price trend is gives us a visual representation of a “normal” range of prices around the trend. We observe the price trend tends to oscillate or cycle up and down within certain parameters – the range. When this range spreads out, I call it volatility expansion. When the range contracts, it’s volatility contraction. Volatility itself also tends to cycle between expansion and contraction. We can see that here.

volatility expansion stock market VIX ATR

Below the price trend chart with bands of the average true range (ATR) I included a chart of ATR, standard deviation, and the VIX. Both standard deviation and average true range are actual, historical, and realized volatility. These indicators are measuring how the price of the index has actually expanded or contracted. As I pointed out before, the VIX is a measure of options prices on the stocks in this index, so it’s driven by expectations of future volatility over the next 30 days determined by the price of options. ATR and standard deviation are the actual range of movement of the index.

I started with the year-to-date time frame to show how the price trend spread out as it started swinging up and down at the beginning of the year and has since trended up with lower volatility; smaller cycles, smaller swings.

Just as we observe market price trends tend to cycle and swing up and down over time, so does volatility. p

  • Price trends may reach an extremely high or low point, then reverse in the other direction.
  • Volatility may reach an extremely high or low point, then reverse in the other direction.

When we see volatility reach an extreme low/high point, we can expect to see it drift the other way eventually. Investors and traders who only believe trends in price and volatility only go one way are those who get surprised and caught in a loss trap.

Now, let’s zoom in for a closer look with just a three-month time frame to observe what has been going on more recently.

I highlighted in green the recent volatility expansion I pointed out last week. Notice the forward-looking VIX index at the bottom turned up sharper and has trended up higher than its last cycle high last month. However, realized historical volatility as measured by standard deviation and the average true range of index prices has also trended up, but on a lag relative to the forward-looking VIX.

Volatility expansion stock market risk management vix asymmetric risk reward

So, you can probably see why I’m calling it a volatility expansion. It is drifting up, though it could certainly trend up a lot more, or it could reverse back down. For now, the rising prices in options suggest there is demand for protection and it is probably in response to something the market believes may lead to increase risk or volatility. It could be something seasonal like earnings season or it could be as simple as the month of October is historically one of the most volatile months.

Speaking of October…

October is a typical month to see hurricanes in the Gulf and Atlantic, too. Right now, we have Michael (no relation) coming up through the Gulf of Mexico. As of this morning, Michael was just a named storm, but its expected to expand into a Category 2 or 3 hurricane by the time it reaches the Florida panhandle to our favorite places like Sandestin, Miramar Beach, Destin, and the 30A area like Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach. The intensity, speed, and how wide the storm spreads out to reach higher categories is a lot like volatility expansion in market price trends. Most people prefer to experience calm and quiet. We would prefer to see the storm contract and slow down its speed.

Although the tropical storm monitors have ways of measuring the probability of speed, expansion, etc. we are always dealing with the certainty of uncertainty. Hurricanes can shift and drift in different directions, speed up or slow down, and expand or contract. How we respond is a matter of situational awareness of measuring the cone of uncertainty as best we can. Some of us do it better than others. Some of us prepare more timely and respond better than others.

Right now we have some volatility expansion and we are positioned as such. The implied volatility index suggests the market believes we’ll see some price swings (up and down) this month.

We’ll see how it all plays out.

Semper Gumby (Always Flexible).

Let’s hope Michael doesn’t give me a bad name.

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

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

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here comes the volatility expansion

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

When the market expects volatility to be low in the next 30 days, I know it could be right for some time.

But, when it gets to its historically lowest levels, it raises situational awareness that a countertrend could be near.

Today we have some volatility expansion.

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

VIX $VIX Volatility Expansion asymmetry asymmetric convexity divergence

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

stock market asymmetry asymmetric risk

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

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

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

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

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

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. 

Expected Volatility Stays Elevated in 2018

Expected Volatility Stays Elevated in 2018

In late 2017, implied volatility, as measured by the VIX CBOE Volatility Index, was at abnormally low levels. I pointed out many times that vol is mean reverting, so when expected volatility is extremely low we can expect it to eventually reverse. The VIX spiked up over 200% in February and has remained more elevated than before.

VIX $VIX #VIX VOLATILITY INDEX CBOE RISK MANAGEMENT ASYMMETRIC ASYMMETRY

In the chart, I used a 50-day moving average for observation of how the VIX has remained more elevated than pre-February.

Volatility is asymmetric; when the stock market falls, implied volatility tends to spike up.

The VIX long-term average is 20, so the current level of 15-16 still isn’t high by historical measures, but the expected volatility is elevated above where it was.

Below is the VIX so far in 2018 in percentage terms. It shows the 200% gain that has since settled down, but it’s remaining higher than before.

VIX VOLATILITY 2018 RISK MANAGEMENT ASYMMETRY GLOBAL ASYMMETRIC ETF ETFS

The VIX has spiked up 45% the past 5 days.

VIX VOLATILITY ASYMMETRIC SPIKE GAIN THIS WEEK 2018 ASYMMETRY RISK

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

I define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition.

Until we see either a new all-time high indicating a continuing longer-term uptrend or a new low below the February and April low indicating a new downtrend, the above holds true.

It’s a good time for a VIX primer from the CBOE:

What does it mean?

Some consider the VIX the “fear gauge”. When there is a demand for options, their premiums rise. Investor demand for options typically increases when they are concerned about the future, so they use options to hedge or replace their stocks with limited risk options strategies. Rising volatility also drives the VIX, since the VIX Index is a calculation designed to produce a measure of constant, 30-day expected volatility of the U.S. stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index

What is volatility?

Volatility measures the frequency and magnitude of price movements, both up and down, that a financial instrument experiences over a certain period of time. The more dramatic the price swings in that instrument, the higher the level of volatility. Volatility can be measured using actual historical price changes (realized volatility) or it can be a measure of expected future volatility that is implied by option prices. The VIX Index is a measure of expected future volatility.

What is the VIX Index?

Cboe Global Markets revolutionized investing with the creation of the Cboe Volatility Index® (VIX® Index), the first benchmark index to measure the market’s expectation of future volatility. The VIX Index is based on options of the S&P 500® Index, considered the leading indicator of the broad U.S. stock market. The VIX Index is recognized as the world’s premier gauge of U.S. equity market volatility.

How is the VIX Index calculated?

The VIX Index estimates expected volatility by aggregating the weighted prices of S&P 500 Index (SPXSM) puts and calls over a wide range of strike prices. Specifically, the prices used to calculate VIX Index values are midpoints of real-time SPX option bid/ask price quotations.

How is the VIX Index used?

The VIX Index is used as a barometer for market uncertainty, providing market participants and observers with a measure of constant, 30-day expected volatility of the broad U.S. stock market. The VIX Index is not directly tradable, but the VIX methodology provides a script for replicating volatility exposure with a portfolio of SPX options, a key innovation that led to the creation of tradable VIX futures and options.

To learn more about the CBOE, Volatility Index VIX visit their VIX website.

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

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

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

 

Is this correction and volatility normal?

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

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

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

I’m not surprised about that, either.

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

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

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

stock market spx

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

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

stock market normal correction trend

What is normal, typical, or expected? 

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

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

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

This time, it’s geopolitics.

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

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

stock market historical bear market length drawdowns

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

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

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

Investor sentiment Februrary 8 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is far from reality.

The decline was -56%.

2008 stock market drawdown length of bear market

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

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

What is normal and what has changed?

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

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

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

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

stock market bear market length and dradowns

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

Knowing this, it’s why I say:

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

And, I also say:

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

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

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

I define this as a non-trending market. When I factor in how the range of price movement has spread out more than double what it was, I call it a non-trending volatile condition.

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

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

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

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

The observations shared in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Even Hurricane Irma Hasn’t Shaken Recent Investor Greed

It has been over a week since Hurricane Irma came smashing through South Florida. Hurricane Irma was an extremely powerful and catastrophic Cape Verde type hurricane, the strongest observed in the Atlantic since Dean in 2007. I saved the radar image below on my phone. The yellow star is my home in Tampa Bay. Of course, we evacuated northwest to the spend a few days in Rosemary Beach in the panhandle. As Irma shifted more into the gulf, we drove on to Knoxville days in advance of her. Better safe than sorry.  We returned several days after she passed and fortunately, our neighbors were safe and our homes weren’t damaged in our area. However, many still were without power for a week. Our area is a new development, so our power lines are underground. We weren’t just lucky – we were better prepared. I’m not a fan of relying on luck to survive.

Hurricane Irma Maria

Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 Hurricane as she approached Florida. Irma was only two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused severe damage to the Houston, Texas area.

This has been a very volatile hurricane season.

But, we can’t say the same about stock market volatility.

Amazingly, the U.S. stock market has remained resilient. In fact, the range of how much the prices have spread out has gotten tighter lately and the declines are smaller. We can see this in the chart below that shows % off highs of the S&P 500 stock index.

low volatility

This is also reflected in the investor sentiment, which has once again become extended to the point of “Extreme Greed” on the Fear & Greed Index. This index uses several indicators to estimate investor fear and greed.

Fear and Greed Index Investor Sentiment

Calm and quiet periods are nice, but eventually, an inertia comes along and changes that trend. You would think two destructive hurricanes in two weeks would be that inertia, but investors in stocks aren’t shaken just yet.

In fact, below I drew a chart of world market returns since Irma struck the United States. Generally, most of the markets are flat. Initially, most markets declined, but overall “safe assets” like U.S. Treasuries, Gold, and Real Estate Investment Trusts actually declined around -2% since Irma.

market returns since irma

Cash has been as good as anything since that period – and with no risk.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see a meaningful decline at some point and prices trending in a wider range.

We’ll see.

Stock Market Decline is Broad

We typically expect to see small company stocks decline first and decline the most. The theory is that smaller companies, especially micro companies, are more risky so their value may disappear faster.  Below, we view the recent price trends of four market capitalization indexes: micro, small, mid, and mega. We’ll use the following index ETFs.

Vanguard ETFs small mid large micro cap

Since we are focused on the downside move, we’ll only observe the % off high chart. This shows what percentage the index ETF had declined off its recent highest price (the drawdown). We’ll also observe different look-back periods.

We first look back 3 months, which captures the full extent of the biggest loser: as expected, the micro cap index. The iShares Micro-Cap ETF (IWC: Green Line) seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of micro-capitalization U.S. equities. Over the past 3 months (or anytime frame we look) it is -13% below its prior high. The second largest decline is indeed the small cap index. The Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB: Orange Line) seeks to track the performance of the CRSP US Small Cap Index, which measures the investment return of small-capitalization stocks. The small cap index has declined -11.5%. The Vanguard Mega Cap ETF (MGC) seeks to track the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of the largest-capitalization stocks in the United States and has declined -9.65%. The Vanguard Mid-Cap ETF (VO) seeks to track the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of mid-capitalization stocks and has declined -9.41%. So, the smaller stocks have declined a little more than larger stocks.

Small and Micro caps lead down

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.ycharts.com

Many active or tactical strategies may shift from smaller to large company stocks, hoping they don’t fall as much. For example, in a declining market relative strength strategies would rotate from those that declined the most to those that didn’t. The trouble with that is they may still end up losing capital and may end up positioned in the laggards long after a low is reached. They do that even though we may often observe the smallest company stocks rebound the most off a low. Such a strategy is focused on “relative returns” rather than “absolute returns“. An absolute return strategy will instead exit falling trends early in the decline with the intention of avoiding more loss. We call that “trend following” which has the objective of “cutting your losses short”. Some trend followers may allow more losses than others. You can probably see how there is a big difference between relative strength (focusing on relative trends and relative returns)  and trend following (focusing on actual price trends and absolute returns).

So, what if we look at the these stock market indexes over just the past month instead of the three months above? The losses are the same and they are very correlated. So much for diversification. Diversification across many different stocks, even difference sizes, doesn’t seem to help in declining markets on a short-term basis. These indexes combined represent thousands of stocks; micro, small, medium, and large. All of them declined over -11%, rebounded together, and are trending down together again.

stock market returns august 2015

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.ycharts.com

If a portfolio manager is trying to “beat the market” index, he or she may focus on relative strength or even relative value (buy the largest loser) as they are hoping for relative returns compared to an index. But a portfolio manager who is focused on absolute returns may pay more attention to the actual downside loss and therefore focuses on the actual direction of the price trend itself. And, a key part is predefining risk with exits.

You can probably see how different investment managers do different things based on our objectives. We have to decide what we want, and focus on tactics for getting that.

Low Volatility Downside was the Same

In Low Volatility and Managed Volatility Smart Beta is Really Just a Shift in Sector Allocation I ended with:

“Though the widening range of prices up and down gets our attention, it isn’t really volatility that investors want to manage so much as it is the downside loss of capital.

As a follow-up, below we observe the  PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio declined in value about -12% from its high just as the SPDRs S&P 500® did. So, the lower volatility weighting didn’t help this time as the “downside loss of capital ” was the same.

SPLV PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio

Source: http://www.ycharts.com

Why Index ETFs Over Individual Stocks?

A fellow portfolio manager I know was telling me about a sharp price drop in one of his positions that was enough to wipe out the 40% gain he had in the stock. Of course, he had previously told me he had a quick 40% gain in the stock, too. That may have been his signal to sell.  Biogen, Inc (BIIB) recently declined about -30% in about three days. Easy come, easy go. Below is a price chart over the past year.

Biogen BIIB

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

Occasionally investors or advisors will ask: “Why trade index ETFs instead of individual stocks?“. An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges, much like stocks. Until ETFs came along the past decade or so, gaining exposure to sectors, countries, bond markets, commodities, and currencies wasn’t so easy. It has taken some time for portfolio managers to adapt to using them, but ETFs are easily tradable on an exchange like stocks. Prior to ETFs, those few of us who applied “Sector Rotation” or “Asset Class Rotation” or any kind of tactical shifts between markets did so with much more expensive mutual funds. ETFs have provided us with low cost, transparent, and tax efficient exposure to a very global universe of stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and even alternatives like REITs, private equity, MLP’s, volatility, or inverse (short). Prior to ETFs we would have had to get these exposures with futures or options. I saw the potential of ETFs early, so I developed risk management and trend systems that I’ve applied to ETFs that I would have previously applied to futures.

On the one hand, someone who thinks they are a good stock picker are enticed to want to get more granular into a sector and find what they believe is the “best” stock. In some ways, that seems to make sense if we can weed out the bad ones and only hold the good ones. It really isn’t so simple. I view everything a reward/risk ratio, which I call asymmetric payoffs. There is a tradeoff between the reward/risk of getting more detailed and focused in the exposure vs. having at least some diversification, such as exposure to the whole sector instead of just the stock.

Market Risk, Sector Risk, and Stock Risk

In the big picture, we can break exposures into three simple risks (and those risks can be explored with even more detail). We’ll start with the broad risk and get more detailed. Academic theories break down the risk between “market risk” that can’t be diversified away and “single stock” and sector risk that may be diversified away.

Market Risk: In finance and economics, systematic risk (in economics often called aggregate risk or undiversifiable risk) is vulnerable to events which affect aggregate outcomes such as broad market declines, total economy-wide resource holdings, or aggregate income. Market risk is the risk that comes from the whole market itself. For example, when the stock market index falls -10% most stocks have declined more or less.

Stock and Sector Risk: Unsystematic risk, also known as “specific risk,” “diversifiable risk“, is the type of uncertainty that comes with the company or industry itself. Unsystematic risk can be reduced through diversification. If we hold an index of 50 Biotech stocks in an index ETF its potential and magnitude of a  large gap down in price is less than an individual stock.

You can probably see how holding a single stock like Biogen  has its own individual risks as a single company such as its own earnings reports, results of its drug trials, etc. A biotech stock is especially interesting to use as an example because investing in biotechnology comes with a unique host of risks. In most cases, these companies can live or die based on results of drug trials and the demand for their existing drugs. In fact, the reason Biogen declined so much is they reported disappointing second-quarter results and lowered its guidance for the full year, largely because of lower demand for one of their drugs in the United States and a weaker pricing environment in Europe. That is a risk that is specific to the uncertainty of the company itself. It’s an unsystematic risk and a selection risk that can be reduced through diversification. We don’t have to hold exposure to just one stock.

With index ETFs, we can gain systematic exposure to an industry like biotech or a sector like healthcare or a broader stock market exposure like the S&P 500. The nice thing about an index ETF is we get exposure to a basket of stocks, bond, commodities, or currencies and we know what we’re getting since they disclose their holdings on a daily basis.

ETFs are flexible and easy to trade. We can buy and sell them like stocks, typically through a brokerage account. We can also employ traditional stock trading techniques; including stop orders, limit orders, margin purchases, and short sales using ETFs. They are listed on major US Stock Exchanges.

The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF objective seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of biotechnology and pharmaceutical equities listed on the NASDAQ. It holds 145 different biotech stocks and is market-cap-weighted, so its exposure is more focused on the larger companies. It therefore has two potential disadvantages: it has less exposure to smaller and possibly faster growing biotech stocks and it only holds those stocks listed on the NASDAQ, so it misses some of the companies that may have moved to the NYSE. According to iShares we can see that Biogen (BIIB) is one of the top 5 holdings in the index ETF.

iShares Biotech ETF HoldingsSource: http://www.ishares.com/us/products/239699/ishares-nasdaq-biotechnology-etf

Below is a price chart of the popular iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF (IBB: the black line) compared to the individual stock Biogen (BIIB: the blue line). Clearly, the more diversified biotech index has demonstrated a more profitable and smoother trend over the past year. And, notice it didn’t experience the recent -30% drop that wiped out Biogen’s price gain. Though some portfolio managers may perceive we can earn more return with individual stocks, clearly that isn’t always the case. Sometimes getting more granular in exposures can instead lead to worse and more volatile outcomes.

IBB Biotech ETF vs Biogen Stock 2015-07-29_10-34-29

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

The nice thing about index ETFs is we have a wide range of them from which to research and choose to add to our investable universe. For example, when I observe the directional price trend in biotech is strong, I can then look at all of the other biotech index ETFs to determine which would give me the exposure I want to participate in the trend.

Since we’ve observed with Biogen the magnitude of the potential individual risk of a single biotech stock, that also suggests we may not even prefer to have too much overweight in any one stock within an index. Below I have added to the previous chart the SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) which has about 105 holdings, but the positions are equally-weighted which tilts it toward the smaller companies, not just larger companies.  As you can see by the black line below, over the past year, that equal weighting tilt has resulted in even better relative strength. However, it also had a wider range (volatility) at some points. Though it doesn’t always work out this way, you are probably beginning to see how different exposures create unique return streams and risk/reward profiles.

SPDR Biotech Index ETF XBI IBB and Biogen BIIB 2015-07-29_10-35-46

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

In fact, those who have favored “stock picking” may be fascinated to see the equal-weighted  SPDR® S&P® Biotech ETF (XBI: the black line) has actually performed as good as the best stock of the top 5 largest biotech stocks in the iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF.

SPDR Biotech vs CELG AMGN BIIB GILD REGN

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC created with http://www.stockcharts.com

Biotech indexes aren’t just pure biotech industry exposure. They also have exposures to the healthcare sector. For example, iShares Nasdaq Biotech shows about 80% in biotechnology and 20% in sectors categorized in other healthcare industries.

iShares Nasdaq Biotech ETF exposure allocation

Source: www.ishares.com

The brings me to another point I want to make. The broader healthcare sector also includes some biotech. For example, the iShares U.S. Healthcare ETF is one of the most traded and includes 23.22% in biotech.

iShares Healthcare Index ETF exposure allocation

Source: https://www.ishares.com/us/products/239511/IYH?referrer=tickerSearch

It’s always easy to draw charts and look at price trends retroactively in hindsight. If we only knew in advance how trends would play out in the future we could just hold only the very best. In the real world, we can only identify trends based on probability and by definition, that is never a sure thing. Only a very few of us really know what that means and have real experience and a good track record of actually doing it.

I have my own ways I aim to identify potentially profitable directional trends and my methods necessarily needs to have some level of predictive ability or I wouldn’t bother. However, in real world portfolio management, it’s the exit and risk control, not the entry, the ultimately determines the outcome. Since I focus on the exposure to risk at the individual position level and across the portfolio, it doesn’t matter so much to me how I get the exposure. But, by applying my methods to more diversified index ETFs across global markets instead of just U.S. stocks I have fewer individual downside surprises. I believe I take asset management to a new level by dynamically adapting to evolving markets. For example, they say individual selection risk can be diversified away by holding a group of holdings so I can efficiently achieve that through one ETF. However, that still leaves the sector risk of the ETF, so it requires risk management of that ETF position. They say systematic market risk can’t be diversified away, so most investors risk that is left is market risk. I manage both market risk and position risk through my risk control systems and exits. For me, risk tolerance is enforced through my exits and risk control systems.

The performance quoted represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. Investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when sold or redeemed, may be worth more or less than the original cost. Current performance may be lower or higher than the performance quoted, and numbers may reflect small variances due to rounding. Standardized performance and performance data current to the most recent month end may be obtained by clicking the “Returns” tab above.

Low Volatility and Managed Volatility Smart Beta is Really Just a Shift in Sector Allocation

There is a lot of talk now days about “Smart Beta”. Smart beta refers to an investment style where the manager passively follows an index designed to take advantage of perceived systematic biases or inefficiencies in the market. Smart beta defines a set of investment strategies that emphasize the use of alternative index construction rules to traditional market capitalization based indices.

Low volatility or managed volatility, for example, is considered a version of “smart beta” because its weights the stocks (and therefore sector exposure) differently:

The PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio (Fund) is based on the S&P 500®Low Volatility Index (Index). The Fund will invest at least 90% of its total assets in common stocks that comprise the Index. The Index is compiled, maintained and calculated by Standard & Poor’s and consists of the 100 stocks from the S&P 500® Index with the lowest realized volatility over the past 12 months. Volatility is a statistical measurement of the magnitude of up and down asset price fluctuations over time. The Fund and the Index are rebalanced and reconstituted quarterly in February, May, August and November.

I bolded the main difference between this index ETF and the traditional capitalization-weighted S&P 500. The S&P 500 everyone knows about weights is 500 stocks holdings based on market capitalization, so the largest stocks are the largest positions in the index.

The Low Volatility Portfolio is really a play on sector allocation. Because it creates its position size based on each stocks past 12 months volatility, it’s weighting will simply depend on what was less volatile the past year. And, it will look back to rebalance and reconstitute quarterly in February, May, August and November. So, you may consider what it really does is shifts the position size and sector weighting.

Below is the index sector allocation for the S&P 500 like what is used for SPDR® S&P 500® ETF so we can see which sectors have the largest position size.

S&P 500 SPY sector weighting

Source: https://www.spdrs.com/product/fund.seam?ticker=spy

Now we observe the sector allocation of the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio. Notice is is heavily weighted in Financials (36%) and Consumer Staples (21%). That’s simply because those sectors stocks have demonstrated less realized volatility as measured by standard deviation over the past 12 months.

PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio SPLV

Source: https://www.invesco.com/portal/site/us/financial-professional/etfs/product-detail?productId=SPLV

Now, let’s observe the difference in return streams. Below is a relative strength comparison of the two since inception of  PowerShares S&P 500® Low Volatility Portfolio in May 2011. As you see, the low volatility index did have a smaller drawdown in 2011, but overall they’ve tracked the same most of the time. The real difference was the lower drawdown from the sector weighting helped reduce the loss in 2011 and that helped smooth out the returns for a few years. Since 2013 U.S. stock volatility declined, so that explains why the two indexes have trended more closely since.

S&P 500 low volatility vs capitalization

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC with http://www.stockcharts.com

Over the past year, there is a little more divergence at times as we see below.

S&P 500 Low Volatility

Source: Shell Capital Management, LLC with http://www.stockcharts.com

You may consider that past realized volatility may not repeat into the future. In fact, it could reverse. But the real difference between these is the trailing realized volatility weighting changes the sector weighting. The sectors are the driver. Which sectors have the lowest 12 month historical volatility will determine the exposure to a volatility weighted index or fund. The risk to volatility weighting is the volatility of markets sometimes reach its lowest point at its peak in price as investors become more and more complacent and less indecisive, which is what causes a wider range in prices. I explained this in This is When MPT and VaR Get Asset Allocation and Risk Measurement Wrong.

Though the widening range of prices up and down gets our attention, it isn’t really volatility that investors want to manage so much as it is the downside loss of capital. I really manage volatility by actively increasing and decreasing exposure to loss.

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, the magnitude of change, and the 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, a 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 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 the 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.

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?

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets YTD

As of today, global stock, bond, commodity markets are generating asymmetric returns year to date. The graph below illustrates the asymmetry is negative for those who need these markets to go “up”.

Asymmetric Returns of World Markets 2015-04-10_10-52-47

source: http://finviz.com

 

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 economists 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 backward than we feel good about getting better off. I don’t like to go backward, 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: Shell Capital Management, LLC.

 

asymmetry impact of loss

Absolute Return: an investment objective and strategy

Absolute returns investment strategy fund

Absolute Return in its basic definition is the return that an asset achieves over a certain period of time. This measure looks at the appreciation or depreciation (expressed as a dollar amount or a percentage). For example, a $50 stock drifts to $100 is a 100% absolute return. If that same stock drifts back from $100 to $50, its absolute return is -50%.

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.

Absolute return as a strategy: absolute return is sometimes used to define an investment strategy. An absolute return strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers aiming to compound capital positively and to avoid big losses to capital in difficult market conditions. Whereas Relative Return strategies typically measure their success in terms of whether they track or outperform a market benchmark or index, absolute return investment strategies aim to achieve positive returns irrespective of whether the prices of stocks, bonds, or commodities rise or fall over the market cycle.

Absolute Return Investment Manager

Whether you think of absolute return as an objective or a strategy, it is a skill-based rather than market-based. That is, the absolute return manager creates his or her results through tactical decision-making as opposed to taking what the market is giving. One can employ a wide range of approaches toward an absolute return objective, from price-based trend following to fundamental analysis. In the ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts, I believe price-based methods are more robust and lead to a higher probability of a positive expectation. Through my historical precedence, testing, and experience, I find that any fundamental type method that is based on something other than price has the capability to stray far enough from price to put the odds against absolute returns. That is, a manager buying what he or she believes is undervalued and selling short what he believes is overvalued can go very wrong if the position is on the wrong side of the trend. But price cannot deviate from itself. Price is the judge and the jury.

To create absolute returns, I necessarily focus on absolute price direction. Not relative strength, which is a rate of change relative to another moving trend. And, I focus on actual risk, not some average risk or an equation that oversimplifies risk like standard deviation.

Of course, absolute return and the “All Weather” type portfolio sound great and seem to be what most investors want, but it requires incredible skill to execute. Most investors and advisors seem to underestimate the required skills and experience and most absolute return strategies and funds have very limited and unproven track records. There is no guarantee that these strategies and processes will produce the intended results and no guarantee that an absolute return strategy will achieve its investment objective.

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

Absolute Return as an Investment Strategy

Absolute Return Investment Strategy Fund Manager

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.

In “Absolute Return as an Investment Objective” I explained that absolute return is 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, it is focused on the actual total return the investor wants to achieve and how much risk the investor will willing to take, rather than a focus on what arbitrary market indexes do.

Absolute return as a strategy: absolute return is sometimes used to define an investment strategy. An absolute return strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers aiming to compound capital positively and to avoid big losses to capital in difficult market conditions. Whereas Relative Return strategies typically measure their success in terms of whether they track or outperform a market benchmark or index, absolute return investment strategies aim to achieve positive returns irrespective of whether the prices of stocks, bonds, or commodities rise or fall over the market cycle.

Whether you think of absolute return as an objective or a strategy, it is a skill-based rather than market-based. That is, the absolute return manager creates his or her results through tactical decision-making as opposed to taking what the market is giving. One can employ a wide range of approaches toward an absolute return objective, from price-based trend following to fundamental analysis. In the ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts, I believe price-based methods are more robust and lead to a higher probability of a positive expectation. Through my historical precedence, testing, and experience, I find that any fundamental type method that is based on something other than price has the capability to stray far enough from price to put the odds against absolute returns. That is, a manager buying what he or she believes is undervalued and selling short what he believes is overvalued can go very wrong if the position is on the wrong side of the trend. But price cannot deviate from itself. Price is the judge and the jury.

Of course, absolute return and the “All Weather” type portfolio sound great and seem to be what most investors want, but it requires incredible skill to execute. Most investors and advisors seem to underestimate the required skills and experience and most absolute return strategies and funds have very limited and unproven track records. There is no guarantee that these strategies and processes will produce the intended results and no guarantee that an absolute return strategy will achieve its investment objective.

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

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

 

 

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

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® Global Tactical and he asked me what the standard deviation was for the portfolio. I thought I would share with you how the industry gets “asset allocation” and risk measurement and management wrong.

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 one 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 differently than most people.

On the “risk measurement” topic, I will 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. The 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, how often it has happened in the past and the magnitude of the historical loss is the 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 actually spreads out. That is, the 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. However, for risk management, 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 swings 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 the 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 its 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 its 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 an example of this asymmetric risk.

stock index asymmetric distribution and losses

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. This is a form of volatility targeting: investing more at lower levels or historical volatility and less at higher levels.

In the 2007 – 2009 decline in 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 a 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 they 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. I prefer to reduce my exposure to loss in well advance.

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, stock market 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: historically it’s 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.

These 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 getting 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.

 

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

The observations shared on this website are for general information only and are not specific advice, research, or buy or sell recommendations for any individual. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal an investor must be willing to bear. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The presence of this website on the Internet shall in no direct or indirect way raise an implication that Shell Capital Management, LLC is offering to sell or soliciting to sell advisory services to residents of any state in which the firm is not registered as an investment advisor. Use of this website is subject to its terms and conditions.

 

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

 

Asymmetric VIX

In The VIX is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge I explained how the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) tends to react with sharper and with greater magnitude than stock indexes. There is an asymmetric relationship between stock index returns and the VIX. Below includes yesterdays action when the S&P 500 stock index was down 2% and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) spot gained 27%. The chart is a good visual of how, when the stock index falls, implied volatility spikes up.

 

asymmetric vix

source: http://www.stockcharts.com

I have been sharing some observations about the VIX recently because it had gotten do a low level not seen in many years. It’s an indication that investors have become complacent about risk. When a trend gets to an extreme, it’s interesting to observe how it all plays out.

 

 

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 is Asymmetric, making its derivatives an interesting hedge

Asymmetric payoff VIX

The VIX is asymmetric, its distribution is non-symmetrical, it is skewed because it has very wide swings. The volatility of volatility is very volatile. There is an asymmetric relationship between stock index returns and the VIX. This asymmetric relationship is what initially makes the VIX interesting for hedging against S&P 500 volatility and losses.

Since I started the series about the extremely low VIX level Monday, like The VIX, as I see it…, The VIX has gained 17% while the S&P 500 stock index has lost about 1%. The VIX is asymmetric. While the VIX isn’t always a perfect opposite movement to the stock indexes, it most often does correlate negatively to stocks. When stocks fall, the implied (expected) volatility increases, so the VIX increases. Asymmetry is imbalance: more of one thing, less of the other. For example, more profit potential, less loss or more upside, less downside.

An advantage of the VIX for hedging is that it is asymmetric: it increases more than stocks fall. For example, when we look at historical declines in the stock index we find the VIX normally gains much more than the stock index falls. For example, if the stock index declined 5% the VIX may have gained 30% over the same period. That ratio of asymmetry of 6 times more drift would allow us to tie up less cash for a hedge position. Of course, the ratio is different each time. Sometimes it moves less, sometimes more.

When the VIX is at a low enough level as it’s been recently, the asymmetric nature of the VIX makes it an interesting hedge for an equity portfolio. The best way to truly hedge a portfolio is to hedge its actual holdings. That’s the only true hedge. If we make a bet against an index and that index doesn’t move like our positions, we still have the risk our positions fall and our hedge does too or doesn’t rise to offset the loss. I always say: anything other than the price itself has the potential to stray far from the price. But the asymmetry of VIX, its potential asymmetric payoff, makes it another option if we are willing to accept it isn’t a direct hedge. And, that its derivatives don’t exactly track the VIX index, either. None of the things we deal with is a sure thing; it’s always probabilistic.

This week has been a fine example of VIX asymmetry. The chart below shows it well.

The VIX is Asymmetric

Note: 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, options, or ETNs that invest in VIX 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Leading stocks are lagging

As another example of the observation I pointed out in Adapting to Change… and Volatility, below are today’s stock index price changes.

stock market losses 2014-04-04_15-15-53

Below are the price changes for the top 10 highest ranked stocks. Clearly, leading stocks are dropping more. And, such an increase in volatility is more common now days.

ibd 50 top ten losses 2014-04-04_15-15-31

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