Earnings season is tricky for momentum growth stocks

Momentum stocks are stocks that show high upside momentum in their price trend. Momentum stocks are trending not only regarding their absolute price gains but also relative strength vs. other stocks or the stock market index.

Momentum stocks are usually high growth stocks. Since momentum stocks are the strongest trending stocks, their trends are often driven by growth in sales and earnings. Growth stocks are companies that are growing earnings at a rate significantly above average. Growth stocks have high increases in earnings per share quarter over quarter, year over year, and may not pay dividends since these companies usually reinvest their strong earnings to accelerate growth.

Now that we have defined what I mean by “momentum stocks,” we can take a look at some examples of momentum stocks and their characteristics like how their prices trend.

Grubhub Inc. ($GRUB) is an online and mobile food-ordering company that connects diners with local restaurants. GrubHub is a great example today of a high momentum growth stock.  GrubHub stock has gained 24% today after smashing Wall Street’s expectations. Earnings grew 92% to 50 cents a share, marking the fifth quarter in a row of accelerating EPS growth. Revenue soared 51% to $239.7 million, a quarterly best.

Grubhub $GRUB GRUB

Before today, GrubHub stock was in a positive trend that developed a flat base since April (highlighted on the chart). GRUB had already gained 60% year to date, but after such as explosive uptrend in momentum, it trended sideways for a while.

It is earnings season, which can be tricky for the highest momentum stocks. Once a stock has already made a big move, it could already have a lot of good news expectations priced in. That concerns some momentum stock traders. In fact, I know some momentum stock traders who exit their stocks before their quarterly earnings announcements. If they had exited GrubHub, they would have missed today’s continuation of its momentum. However, they would avoid the downside of those that trend in the other direction.

I’ve been trading momentum stocks for over two decades. Over the years I’ve observed different regimes of how they act regarding trend strength and volatility. There are periods of volatility expansion and contraction and other periods when momentum is much stronger.

Volatility is how quickly and how far the price spreads out. When price trends are volatile, it’s harder to stick with them because they can move against us. We like upside volatility, but smart investors are loss averse enough to dislike downside volatility that leads to drawdowns. To understand why the smart money is loss averse, read: “Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?“.

Strong upward trending stocks are sometimes accompanied by volatility. That’s to be expected because momentum is a kind of volatility expansion. Upward momentum, the kind we like, is an upward expansion in the range of the price – volatility.

That’s good vol.

But, strong trending momentum stocks necessarily may include some bad volatility, too. Bad volatility is the kind investors don’t like – it’s when the price drops, especially if it’s a sharp decline.

I mentioned GrubHub had gained 60% YTD. I like to point out, observe, and understand asymmetries. The asymmetry is the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, I prefer to skew them positively. What I call the Asymmetry® Ratio is a chart of the upside total return vs. the chart of the downside % off high. To achieve the gain for GrubHub, investors would have had to endure its price declines to get it. For GrubHub, the stock has declined -10% to -15% many times over the past year. It has spent much of the time off its high. To have realized all of the gains, investors had to be willing to experience the drawdowns.

grubhub stock GRUB

I point this out because yesterday I wrote “Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?” where I discussed the mathematical basis behind the need for me to actively manage the downside risk. To achieve the significant gain, we often have to endure at least some of the drawdowns along the way. The trick is how much, and for me, that depends on many system factors.

Earnings season, when companies are reporting their quarterly earnings, is especially tricky for high momentum stocks because stocks that may be “priced for perfection” may be even more volatile than normal. Accelerating profit growth is attractive to investment managers and institutional investors because increasing profit growth means a company is doing something right and delivering exceptional value to customers. I’m more focused on the direction of the price trend – I like positive momentum. But, earnings are a driver of the price trend for stocks.

Earnings can trend in the other direction, too, or things can happen to cause concern. This information is released in quarterly reports.

Another example of a momentum stock is NetFlix. By my measures, GrubHub is a leading stock in its sector and NetFlix (NFLX) is the leader in its industry group, too, based on its positive momentum and earnings growth. As we see in the chart below, NFLX has gained 88% year to date. That’s astonishing momentum considering the broad stock market measured by the S&P 500 has gained around 5%, and its Consumer Services Sector ETF has gained 11%.

NetFlix NFLX $NFLX

However, NetFlix stock regularly declines as much as -15% as a regular part of its trend. It has fallen over -10% five times in the past year on its way to making huge gains. The latest reason for the decline was information that was released during its quarterly earnings announcement. The stock dropped sharply afterward.

netflix stock risk downside loss

But, as we see in the chart, it’s still within its normal decline that has happened five times the past year.

While some of my other momentum stock trader friends may exit their stocks during the earnings season, I instead focus more on the price trend itself. I predefine my risk in every position, so I determine how much I’ll allow a stock to trend to the downside before I exit. When a stock trends down too far, it’s no longer in a positive trend with the side of momentum we want. To cut losses short, I exit before the damage gets too large.

How much is too much? 

A hint is in the above charts.

If we want to experience a positive trend of a momentum stock, we necessarily have to give it enough room to let it do what it does. When it trends beyond that, it’s time to exit and move on. We can always re-enter it again it if trends back to the right side.

Sure, earnings season can be tricky, but for me, it’s designed into my system. I’m looking for positive Asymmetry® – an asymmetric risk/reward. What we’ve seen above are stocks that may decline as much as -15% as a normal part of their trend when they fall, but have gained over 50% over the same period.

You can probably see how I may be able to create a potentially positive asymmetric risk/reward payoff from such a trend.

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Growth Stocks have Stronger Momentum than Value in 2018

Growth Stocks have Stronger Momentum than Value in 2018

After a sharp decline in stock prices in February that seemed to shock many investors who had become complacent, the stock market indexes have been trying to recover.

At this point, the popular S&P 500 has gained 1.75% year-to-date and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down -2.56%. I also included the Total Stock Market ETF, which tracks an index that represents approximately 98% of the investable US equity market. Though it holds over five times more stocks than the 500 in the S&P 500 SPY, it is tracking it closely.

stock market index returns 2018 SPY DIA

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was the momentum leader last year, but the recent price action has driven it to converge with the other stock indexes. Past performance doesn’t always persist into the future.

Dow was momentum leader

What is more interesting, however, is the divergence at the size, style, and sector level.

The research firm Morningstar created the equity “Style Box.” The Morningstar Style Box is a nine-square grid that provides a graphical representation of the “investment style” of stocks and mutual funds. For stocks and stock funds, it classifies securities according to market capitalization (the vertical axis) and growth and value factors (the horizontal axis).

equity style box

  • The vertical axis of the style box graphs market capitalization and is divided into three company-size indicators: large, medium and small.
  • The horizontal axis seeks to represent stock funds/indexes by value, growth, and blend which represents a combination of both value and growth.

Looking at their distinct trends, we observe a material divergence this year. As we see below, the S&P 500 Growth Index ETF has gained 16.45% % over the past 12 months, which is triple the S&P 500 Value ETF. So, Growth is clearly exhibiting stronger momentum than value over the past year. But, notice that wasn’t the case before the February decline when Growth, Value, and Blend were all tracking close to each other.

 

Equity Style and Size Past 12 Months

Year to date, the divergence is more clear. Growth is positive, the blended S&P 500 stock index is flat, and Value is negative.

momentum growth stocks 2018

Showing only the price trend change over the period isn’t complete without observing the path it took to get there, so I’ve included the drawdown chart below. Here, we see these indexes declined about -10% to as much as -12% for the Value index.

The Value index declined the most, which requires more of a gain to make up for the decline. The Value ETF hasn’t recovered as well as the others.

To look even closer, we can get more specific into the style and size categories. Below we show the individual Morningstar ETFs that separate the stock market into the Large, Mid, and Small size stocks and then into Growth vs. Value.

All three at the top are Growth. The three at the bottom are Value. So, the divergence this year isn’t so much Large vs. Small cap, it’s Growth vs. Value.

Clearly, Growth stocks are leading the stock market so far in 2018.

Why do we care about such divergence?

When there exists more difference between price trends, it provides more opportunity to capture the positive direction and avoid the negative trend if it continues.

In part 2, we’ll discuss how sector exposure is the primary driver of style/size returns.

 

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.

Asymmetric force was with the buyers

In Asymmetric force direction and size determines a trend, I explained how the net force of all the forces acting on a trend is the force that determines the direction. The force must be asymmetric as to direction and size to change the price and drive a directional trend.

The asymmetric force was with buyers as they dominated the directional trend on Friday.

Friday’s gain helped to push the stock market to a strong week and every sector gained.

The S&P 500 stock index is about -3% from it’s January high and closed slightly above the prior high last week. I consider this a short-term uptrend that will resume it’s longer-term uptrend if it can break into a new high above the January peak.

After declining sharply -10% to -12%, global equity markets are recovering. The good news for U.S. stocks is the Russell 2000 small company index is closest to its prior high. Small company leadership is considered bullish because it suggests equity investors are taking a risk on the smaller more nimble stocks.

As you can see in the chart, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and International Developed Countries (MSCI EAFE Europe, Australasia and Far East) are lagging so far off their lows but still recovering.

So far, so good, but only time will tell if these markets can exceed their old highs and breakout into new highs, or if they discover some resistance force at those levels and reverse back down. As we discussed in Asymmetric force direction and size determines a trend it’s going to depend on the direction and size of the buyers vs. sellers.

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.

Betting on price momentum

“Don’t fight the tape.”

“Make the trend your friend.”

“Cut your losses and let your winners run.”

“These Wall Street maxims all mean the same thing—bet on price momentum. Of all the beliefs on Wall Street, price momentum makes efficient market theorists howl the loudest. The defining principle of their theory is that you cannot use past prices to predict future prices. A stock may triple in a year, but according to efficient market theory, that will not affect next year. Efficient market theorists also hate price momentum because it is independent of all accounting variables. If buying winning stocks works, then stock prices have “memories” and carry useful information about the future direction of a stock.”

James O’Shaughnessy, What Works on Wall Street: A Guide to the Best-Performing Investment Strategies of All Time 1st Edition (1996) 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

After yesterdays 1.1% gain for the S&P 500, it is back in positive territory for the year. It’s been a very volatile start for 2018 with an abnormally strong trend in U.S. stocks late 2017 continued in January only to be wiped out in February. Below is a visual representation, showing the period November 2017 to the low last month. I point that out to show how quickly a trend can change and prior gains of 12% in just a three-month time frame and be erased in a -10% decline over 9 days. Most of the decline was in two days over that period.

With that said, as the broad stock market is lagging in its third month of the year so far, two sectors are leading. Consumer Discretionary (XLY)  and Technology (XLK). At Shell Capital, we monitor global market trends at the broad market level like the S&P 500 which is diversified across 500 stocks that are a part of 10 sectors. These sectors are tradable via ETFs. We can quickly get broad exposure to the overall stock market, or we can get more granular and get exposure to a sector in a low-cost structure with Sector ETFs.  I also monitor the individual stocks inside the sector ETF. When the overall market is in a positive trend, most of the stocks in a sector should be trending up. But, when the overall market has struggled to trend up, like this year-to-date, fewer stocks are trending up inside a sector.

The popular narrative becomes “it’s a stock pickers market.”

I don’t say that myself, I just observe when it is “a stock pickers market” naturally through my daily quantitative research. Here are some examples of my observation.

I pointed out yesterday in Buying demand dominated selling pressure in the stock market that only 32% of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 are above their 50-day moving average. After yesterdays stock market gain, the participation increased to 40%. The 50-day moving average is a short-term trend indicator, so if 60% of the stocks are below that trend line, we can infer “most stocks are in short-term downtrends.” As of yesterdays close, only 203 (40%) of the S&P 500 are above their 50-day moving average, which means 297 are below it. You can probably see if the price trend continues up, we should see more and more stocks participate in the trend. In fact, if we don’t see more stocks participate, it necessarily means only a few stocks are driving the broad index trend up. I would consider that “a stock pickers market.” Of course, the trick is to see this in advance, or early enough in the stage to capitalize on it. We don’t have to know in advance what’s going to happen next, and we don’t, we just need to observe it soon enough to capture some positive asymmetry (P>L).

I like a visual representation, so here is the chart of the S&P 500 Percent of Stocks Above 50 Day Moving Average. I colored the top part of the chart red and labeled it “Higher Risk Zone” and the lower part green with the label “Lower Risk Zone”. The observation is when 80% of stocks are already trending positive that momentum is a good thing, but as a skilled risk manager, I begin to prepare for change. After most stocks are already trending up, the stock market has been trending up, so a skilled risk manager prepares for a countertrend reversal that is inevitable at some point. As I shared in my observation near the low, Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500  when nearly all the stocks were already in negative trends as a skilled risk-taker, I look for that to reverse, too.

 

This is only a small glimpse at what I look at for illustration purposes to make the point how I can quantify a “stock pickers market.” After 83% of stocks were already in downtrends I shifted from a risk manager stance to risk-taker mode looking. That is, shifting from a reversal down in January after prices had already trended up to an extreme, to preparing for the decline to end after the stock index quickly dropped -10% and my many indicators were signaling me when and where to pay attention. I shared this to represent that I was not surprised to see certain stocks lead a trend direction when so many had shifted from positive trends to negative trends in a short-term time frame.

This leads me to my main point, which is very simple. A simple way to observe a “stock pickers market” is to see that certain stocks are leading the trend. Because so may stocks were in short-term downtrends, it isn’t a surprise to see a few strong relative strength leaders inside a sector. For example, in the Sector ETF performance table below, two leading sectors are Consumer Discretionary (XLY)  and Technology (XLK). They are up about 6-7% as the broad stock index is up 1.77%. Let’s see what is driving their stronger relative momentum.

Looking inside the Sector for the Leading Stocks 

Reviewing the holdings of the Consumer Discretionary $XLY ETF,  Amazon.com Inc $AMZN is 20.69% of the Consumer Discretionary Sector and has gained +30.28% for the year. A 20% weighting of a stock that has gained 30% results in a 6% contribution to the portfolio return. That is, this one large position has contributed 100% of the sectors return year-to-date. There are 84 stocks in the ETF. This doesn’t mean the other 83 stocks are flat with no price change. Instead, some of them were also positive for the year and some are negative. So far this year, they have offset each other. Some stocks in the sector have gained more than Amazon, but it makes the simple example because it’s exposure is the largest at 20%. Netflix $NFLX, for example, is the sector ETFs biggest gainer up 64%, but it’s 4.63% of the portfolio. However, because it’s gain is so strong this year its contribution at the portfolio level is still significant at 3% of the 5.66% YTD gain in the sector ETF. That is an extreme example. Why is it extreme? Let’s look at price charts of the year-to-date price trend, then the drawdown, which expresses the ASYMMETRY® ratio. The ASYMMETRY® ratio is a ratio between profit and loss, upside vs. downside, or drawdown vs. total return.

First, we observe the price trend for 2018 of the Consumer Discretionary Sector ETF $XLY, Netflix $NFLX, and Amazon $AMZN. The divergence is clear. But, you may notice they all had a drawdown a few weeks ago. All to often I see the upside presented, but not enough about the path we would have to endure to achieve it. To get a complete picture of asymmetric reward to risk, we want to see the drawdown, too, so we understand the ASYMMETRY® ratio.

Those are some big impressive short-term gains in those stocks. Clearly, this past performance may not be an indication of future results.  Too bad we can’t just know for sure in advance which is going to trend up with such velocity.  We can’t catch every trend, but if we look in the right way we may find some. In order to take a position in them, we’d have to be willing to experience some downside risk, too. As a portfolio manager, I decide how much my risk is in my positions and at the portfolio level by predefining when I’ll exit a losing position. But, to understand how much downside is possible in stocks like this and the sector ETF, I can examine the historical drawdown. We’ve seen a drawdown in the stock market already this year. Below we see the Consumer Sector ETF drawdown was about -8% a few weeks ago. Amazon wasn’t more, even though it’s gain is much more than the sector. That’s what I’m calling positive asymmetry and good looking asymmetric reward to risk in regard to the trend dynamics. Netflix declined -13%, but its gain is much higher. This is what leading stocks are supposed to look like. They have their risk and they could decline a lot more than the market if investors lose their enthusiasm for them, but we can manage that risk with our exit and drawdown controls.

I often say that it doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved. To better understand that, I want to show two more charts of these stocks. Below is what the YTD price change looked like at the February low. If investors watch their holdings closely and have emotional reactions, you can see how this would be viewed as “I was up 45% and now only 30%.” Many investors (and professional advisors) have difficulty holding on to strong trends when they experience every move.

One more chart to illustrate how it doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved. I don’t believe we can just buy and hold and reach our objective of asymmetric reward to risk. I believe risk must be managed, directed and controlled. To make the point, below are the historical drawdowns that have been -60% to -90% in these three. It doesn’t matter how much the return is if the risk and volatility are so high you tap out before it is achieved! To extract positive asymmetric reward to risk, we must necessarily do something different than buy and hold.

This may make you wonder: Why buy a sector ETF if you can buy the strongest stocks?

The divergence isn’t normally this wide. In a trending market, more of the other stocks would normally be participating in a trend. This is why I first explained that in an upward trending market we normally see the majority of stocks eventually trending together. When that is true, the sector ETF provides good exposure and limits the selection risk of just one or two stocks. Make no mistake, individual stocks are riskier. Individual stocks are more subject to negative news like disappointing earnings reports, negative product outlook, or key executives leaving the company, etc. So, individual stocks are more volatile and subject to trend in much wider swings both up and down. But for me, I apply the same risk management systems to predefine my risk at the point of entry drawdown controls as the trend unfolds in the stock, up or down.

Yes, it’s been a “stock pickers market” so far and that trend may continue. It just means that fewer stocks are leading the way for now and in a healthy trend more stocks will participate if the short-term uptrend continues to make higher highs and higher lows. As a tactical portfolio manager, my focus is on what seems to offer the positive ASYMMETRY® of a positive asymmetric reward to risk.

 

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

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

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

Stock market indexes lost some buying enthusiasm for the day

Buying enthusiasm reversed from positive to selling pressure today after the first hour. I observed notable selling volume at the close, which was the opposite of what I pointed out last Thursday.The S&P 500 Stock Index was down -1.27% for the day.

 

I’ll also share that volume increased sharply during the -10% decline in the S&P 500 Stock Index earlier this month. No surprise, it was selling pressure after many months of buying enthusiasm, just an observation…

 

So far, the S&P 500 Stock Index has regained approximately half of its -10% loss earlier this month and is now up 2.64% for the year.

Since I pointed out that the stocks inside the S&P 500 has dropped to a much lower risk zone in Stock Market Analysis of the S&P 500, the % of stocks in the index above their 50 day moving average increased from only 14% in a positive trend to 55%. Today, 18% fewer stocks are above their 50-day moving averages.

S&P 500 percent of stocks above 50 day moving average Feb 2018

None of this is yet suggesting a change of trend, but when stock popular stock indexes gain or lose more than 1% or so my plan is to update it here.

 

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

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

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

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.

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.

What You Need to Know About Long Term Bond Trends

There is a lot of talk about interest rates and bonds these days – for good reason. You see, interest rates have been in a downtrend for decades (as you’ll see later). When interest rates are falling, the price of bonds go up. I wrote in “Why So Stock Market Focused?” that you would have actually been better off investing in bonds the past 15 years over the S&P 500 stock index.

However, the risk for bond investors who have a fixed bond allocation is that interest rates eventually trend up for a long time and their bonds fall.

This year we see the impact of rising rates and the impact of falling bond prices in the chart below of the 20+ year Treasury bond. It’s down -15% off its high and since the yield is only around 2.5% the interest only adds about 1% over this period for a total return of -14.1%. Up until now, this long term Treasury index has been a good crutch for a global allocation portfolio. Now it’s more like a broken leg.

But, that’s not my main point today. Let’s look at the bigger picture. Below is the yield (interest rate) on the 10-Year U.S. government bond. Notice that the interest rate was as high as 9.5% in 1990 and has declined to as low as 1.5%. Just recently, it’s risen to 2.62%. If you were going to buy a bond for future interest income payments, would you rather invest in one at 9.5% or 1.5%? If you were going to lend money to someone, which rate would you prefer to receive? What is a “good deal” for you, the lender?

I like trends and being positioned in their direction since trends are more likely to continue than reverse, but they usually do eventually reverse when inertia comes along (like the Fed). If you care about managing downside risk you have to wonder: How much could this trend reverse and what could its impact be on fixed bond holdings? Well, we see below that the yield has declined about -70%. If we want to manage risk, we have to at least expect it could swing the other way.

One more observation. Germany is one of the largest countries in the world. Since April, the 10-year German bond interest rate has reversed up very sharp. What if U.S bonds did the same?

As I detailed in “Allocation to Stocks and Bonds is Unlikely to Give us What We Want” bonds are often considered a crutch for a global asset allocation portfolio. If you care about managing risk, you may consider that negative correlations don’t last forever. All trends change, eventually. You may also consider your risk of any fixed positions you have. I prefer to actively manage risk and shift between global markets based on their directional trends rather than a fixed allocation to them.

The good news is: by my measures, many bond markets have declined in the short term to a point they should at least reserve back up at least temporarily. What happens after that will determine if the longer trend continues or begins to reverse. The point is to avoid complacency and know in advance at what point you’ll exit to cut losses short…

As they say: “Past performance is no guarantee of the future“.

The Volatility Index (VIX) is Getting Interesting Again

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the daily chart zooms in even more.

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

The observation?

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

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

Let’s see what happens from here…

My 2 Cents on the Dollar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s my two cents on the Dollar…

How long are you? Do you know?

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

 

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/

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

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

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

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

                                    —Charles Dow, 1900

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

u.s. dollar longer trend UPP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

idowcha001p1

Image source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Rusell 2000 Small Caps vs S&P 500 large caps

Source: Bloomberg/KCG

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

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

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

 

Trend Change in Dollar, International Stocks, Gold?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with Relative Strength

I discussed in my interview with Investor’s Business Daily in 2011 titled “How Mike Shell Uses Relative Strength To Trade ETFs” some very basic concepts of how I apply proprietary relative strength systems to ETFs in a tactical ETF managed portfolio. Though we can develop all kinds of sophisticated algorithms to define relative strength, momentum, and directional price trends, at the end of the day the concept is very simple.

Up until now (a signal that something has changed) small company stocks where lagging large company stocks. To illustrate what that looked like, I stopped the relative chart below in Mid-May. You may observe that the blue line (the Russell 2000 index of small company stocks) was lagging and with a higher range of swings (more volatile). The black line is the S&P 500 stock index weighted toward larger stocks.

small company stocks lagging large

Source: http://www.stockcharts.com

Next we update the chart to today’s date. Over the past month, small companies caught up. However, they are now at the prior high, so we’ll find out in the weeks ahead if the relative out-performance continues, or if it finds some resistance and reverses back down.

small cap stocks relative strength to large company stocks

Below I have zeroed out one side to express only the relative change of the small cap index while holding the large cap index steady. Here we see only the relative difference between small and large over the past year.

relative strength of small vs large ETFs

You can probably see how relative strength isn’t just about strength, there is also relative weakness. And, relative change oscillates over time.

Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

Abstract

It’s been over 20 years since the academic discovery of momentum investing (Jegadeesh and Titman (1993), Asness (1994)), yet much confusion and debate remains regarding its efficacy and its use as a practical investment tool. In some cases “confusion and debate” is us attempting to be polite, as it is near impossible for informed practitioners and academics to still believe some of the myths uttered about momentum — but that impossibility is often belied by real world statements. In this article, we aim to clear up much of the confusion by documenting what we know about momentum and disproving many of the often-repeated myths. We highlight ten myths about momentum and refute them, using results from widely circulated academic papers and analysis from the simplest and best publicly available data.

Read the full paper: Fact Fiction and Momentum Investing

Source: Israel, Ronen and Frazzini, Andrea and Moskowitz, Tobias J. and Asness, Clifford S., Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing (May 9, 2014). Can be found at SSRN: Fact, Fiction and Momentum Investing

Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies

Asymmetric Risk

Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies is another attempt to explain the excess returns of momentum using the Capital Asset Pricing Model. The paper discusses a theory of risk asymmetry in momentum risk/reward, but not how to gain an edge from it.

Abstract:

I provide a novel risk-based explanation for the profitability of global momentum strategies. I show that the performance of past winners and losers is asymmetric in states of the global market upturns and downturns. Winners have higher downside market betas and lower upside market betas than losers, and hence their risks are more asymmetric. The winner-minus-loser (WML) momentum portfolios are subject to the downside market risk, but serve as a hedge against the upside market risk. The high return of the WML portfolios is a compensation for their high risk asymmetry. After controlling for this risk asymmetry, the momentum portfolios do not yield significant abnormal returns, and the momentum factor becomes insignificant in the cross-section. The two-beta CAPM with downside risk explains the cross-section of returns to global momentum portfolios well.
Source:Dobrynskaya, Victoria, Asymmetric Risks of Momentum Strategies (March 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2399359 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2399359

 

Adapting to Change… and Volatility

High relative strength stocks have always had the potential to gap down just as they may gap up. High momentum is sometimes joined by high volatility. I have observed several changes in trend behavior and volatility since the 2007 to 2009 bear market. One of them has been an increased level of individual volatility, especially on top ranked momentum stocks. Volatility is how much or how quickly the range of prices spread out and volatility is non-directional. A stock that loses -10% in a week may be considered volatile, but so is one that gains 10%. It’s the downside volatility we are concerned about. When stocks tend to gap down more, it makes it difficult to extract more profits than losses. I could show some sophisticated quantitative studies illustrating what I mean, but instead I’ll just show a very simple observation.

As you can see below, the popular stock indexes are down this morning an average of -.67%.

stock market returns

Below are the top 10 stocks of the IBD 50, a proprietary list of the 50 top-ranked companies published every Monday in Investor’s Business Daily. Companies are ranked based on superior earnings, strong price performance, and leadership within their respective industries. These top 10 stocks are down an average of -1.71% with two of the stocks down over -6% and the one that gained over 3% isn’t enough to help While strong momentum stocks have always had times when volatility cuts the other way, we’ve seen it more the last several years.

ibd top 10

Momentum as a stand alone investment strategy

One observation I regularly share is the constant flow of research papers and books about topics I am interested in. Specifically, these topics are listed on the “About” page, but they are primarily those with the potential to create positive asymmetry in the P/L (that is: more profit than loss). The “momentum” subject is a big one for me, since I have operated directional trend systems for more than a decade. Momentum is sometimes called relative strength, or inertia, or trend-following. There are now more than 300 papers I know of documenting evidenced of momentum: whatever trend has been within the last year tends to continue. It’s interesting reading these research papers. They are sometimes written by academics at a University and sometimes by research at an investment company. The funny thing is they are rarely written by an investment manager who has strong performance history actually doing what they write about. I wouldn’t dare write a paper specifically about what I do that works. Nevertheless, these researchers share their opinions and only a few of us know how correct or wrong they may be.  You see, a research paper is just a study or opinion, we can never really prove something true since it can some day be proven untrue. Think: swans are white, until you see a black one. As I see it, the only people qualified to say so is if they themselves have good actual performance history doing these things. Experience matters, but research isn’t so much about experience as it is thinking deeply about a subject and offering ones views and findings.

I just got in my inbox a new paper by Ryan Larson Hot Potato: Momentum As An Investment Strategy (August 2013).

He concludes:

So what are investors to do with momentum? Our conclusion is that momentum is inadvisable as a stand-alone strategy due to the risk of precipitous losses. Rather, we suggest that long-term investors seeking to tap more than one source of equity premium choose another, more stable factor for their core investment strategy (value is certainly a strong candidate), and consider adding momentum as a short-term trading strategy when market conditions are favorable.

I agree that momentum (or relative strength) by isn’t best used as a stand alone strategy, but adding some other strategy like “value” to it isn’t the answer. Momentum (or relative strength) needs active risk management.

The role of shorting, firm size, and time on market anomalies

Image

There are now more than 300 published papers providing evidence of the persistence of price trends (inertia/momentum). We point out the constant flow of new papers adding to the evidence of relative price strength as a market inefficiency (often called a market anomaly by academics). I call it velocity.

Abstract

We examine the role of shorting, firm size, and time on the profitability of size, value, and momentum strategies. We find that long positions make up almost all of size, 60% of value, and half of momentum profits. Shorting becomes less important for momentum and more important for value as firm size decreases. The value premium decreases with firm size and is weak among the largest stocks. Momentum profits, however, exhibit no reliable relation with size. These effects are robust over 86 years of US equity data and almost 40 years of data across four international equity markets and five asset classes. Variation over time and across markets of these effects is consistent with random chance. We find little evidence that size, value, and momentum returns are significantly affected by changes in trading costs or institutional and hedge fund ownership over time.

They find the momentum premium exists and is stable across all size groups and the entire 86-year period—it was persistent in all four 20-year periods examined, including the most recent two decades that followed the initial publication of the original momentum studies.

Source:
The role of shorting, firm size, and time on market anomalies Journal of Financial Economics, Volume 108, Issue 2, May 2013, Pages 275-301
Ronen Israel, Tobias J. Moskowitz
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