VIX Trends Up 9th Biggest 1-day Move

About a week after a hedge fund manager who is popular with the media but has a poor track record of managing risk said “please stop talking about the low VIX”, it gains 44.4% in a single day – its 9th biggest 1-day move. He was suggesting the low VIX wasn’t an indication of high risk. If you have followed my observations, you know that I disagree. I’m one who has been talking about the low VIX and suggesting it is one of many indications of complacency among investors. That is, investors hear “all time new highs” and get overly optimistic instead of reducing their risk or being prepared to manage downside loss.

VIX biggest moves

I point out the hedge fund manager’s comment because I believe a low VIX is an indication of complacency because it measures expected implied volatility for options on the S&P 500 stocks. When implied volatility gets to historical low points, it means options traders aren’t paying high premiums for hedging “protection”. Others can believe what they want to believe. I don’t just point out observations at extremes. I actually do something.

As I pointed out recently in “No Inflection Point Yet, But… ” the VIX was at an extreme low. About a week later this other fund manager implies it may not be meaningful. That’s exactly what we expect to hear when the expected volatility gets to such an extreme low. We expect to see it shift the other direction at some point. I like to follow trends until they reach an extreme – and reverse.

Here is what it looked like.

VIX 9th biggest one day move

More importantly, here is what the stock indexes looked like on Google Finance after the close:

Stock market down Korea

Another observation I shared in “No Inflection Point Yet, But…” is that leading stocks can sometimes be more volatile and yesterday was no exception. While the stock indexes were down around -1.5% some of the most popular stocks were down about twice as much:

FANG stocks downSource: Google Finance

Of course, this is all just one day. We’ll see if it continues into a longer trend.

It’s always a good time to manage risk, but sometimes it’s more obvious than others.

Essence of Portfolio Management

Essence of Portfolio Management

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

– Benjamin Graham

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

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

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

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

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

I made bold the parts I think are essential.

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

Actively Managing Investment Risk

The global market declines in early August offered a fine example of the kind of conditions that cause me to exit my long positions and end up in cash. For me, this is a normal part of my process. I predefine my risk in each position, so I know my risk across the portfolio. For example, I know at what point I’ll sell each position if it falls below a certain point in which I would consider it a negative trend. Since I know my exit in advance for each position, I knew in advance how much I would lose in the portfolio if all of those exits were reached due to market price movements trending against me. That allowed me to control how much my portfolio would lose from its prior peak by limiting it to my predefined amount. I have to take ‘some’ risk in order to have a chance for profits. If I took no risk at all, there could be no profit. The key for me is to take my risk when the reward to risk is asymmetric. That is, when the probability for a gain is much higher than the probability for a loss.

The concept seems simple, but actually doing it isn’t. All of it is probabilistic, never a sure thing.  For example, prices sometimes move beyond the exit point, so a risk control system has to account for that possibility.  More importantly, the portfolio manager has to be able to actually do it. I am a trigger puller. To see the results of over 10 years of my actually doing this, you can visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

With global markets in downtrends, this is a great time to listen to my interview with Michael Covel on February 19, 2015. I talked about my concepts of actively directing and controlling risk in advance. It’s now available on Youtube:

Uncharted Territory from the Fed Buying Stocks

I remember sometime after 2013 I told someone “The Fed is buying stocks and that’s partly why stocks have risen so surprisingly for so long”. He looked puzzled and didn’t seem to agree, or understand.

The U.S. Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) has been applying “quantitative easing” since the 2007 to 2009 “global financial crisis”. Quantitative easing (QE) is a type of monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective. The Fed implements quantitative easing by buying financial assets from banks and other financial institutions. That raises the prices of those financial assets and lowers their interest rate or yield. It also increases the amount of money available in the economy. The magnitude they’ve done this over the past seven years has never been experience before. They are in uncharted territory.

I was reminded of what I said, “the Fed is buying stocks” when I read comments from Bill Gross in “Gross: Fed Slowly Recognizing ZIRP Has Downside Consequences”. He says companies are using easy money to buy their own stock:

Low interest rates have enabled Corporate America to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars “but instead of deploying the funds into the real economy,they have used the proceeds for stock buybacks. Corporate authorizations to buy back their own stock are running at an annual rate of $1.02 trillion so far in 2015, 18 percent above 2007’s record total of $863 billion, Gross said.

You see, if we want to know the truth about market dynamics; we necessarily have to think more deeply about how markets interact. Market dynamics aren’t always simple and obvious. I said, “The Fed is buying stocks” because their actions is driving the behavior of others. By taking actions to increase money supply in the economy and keep extremely low borrowing rates, the Fed has been driving demand for stocks.

But, it isn’t just companies buying their own stock back. It’s also investors buying stocks on margin. Margin is borrowed money that is used to purchase securities. At a brokerage firm it is referred to as “buying on margin”. For example, if we have $1 million in a brokerage account, we could borrow another $1 million “on margin” and invest twice as much. We would pay interest on the “margin loan”, but those rates have been very low for years. Margin interest rates have been 1 – 2%. You can probably see the attraction. If we invested in lower risk bonds earning 5% with $1 million, we would normally earn 5%, or $50,000 annually. If we borrowed another $1 million at 2% interest and invested the full $2 million at 5%, we would earn another 3%, or $30,000. The leverage of margin increased the return to 8%, or $80,000. Of course, when the price falls, the loss is also magnified. When the interest rate goes up, it reduces the profit. But rates have stayed low for so long this has driven margin demand.

While those who have their money sitting in in bank accounts and CDs have been brutally punished by near zero interest rates for many years, aggressive investors have borrowed at those low rates to magnify their return and risk in their investments. The Fed has kept borrowing costs extremely low and that is an incentive for margin.

In the chart below, the blue line is the S&P 500 stock index. The red line is NYSE Margin Debt. You may see the correlation. You may also notice that recessions (the grey area) occur after stock market peaks and high margin debt balances. That’s the downside: margin rates are at new highs, so when stocks do fall those investors will either have to exit their stocks to reduce risk or they’ll be forced to exit due to losses. If they don’t have a predefined exit, their broker has one for them: “a margin call”.

Current Margin Debt Stock MarginSource:

If you noticed, I said, “They are in uncharted territory”. I am not. I am always in uncharted territory, so I never am. I believe every new moment is unique, so I believe everyone is always in uncharted territory. Because I believe that, I embrace it. I embrace uncertainty and prepare for anything that can happen. It’s like watching a great movie. It would be no fun if we knew the outcome in advance.


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:

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:

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



Asymmetric Nature of Losses and Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, the math agrees.

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

To see what the actual application of asymmetry to portfolio management looks like, see:


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

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

Top Traders Unplugged Mike Shell ASYMMETRY Global Tactical Shell Capital Management

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

Click the titles to listen.

Episode 1

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

Direct links:

Episode 1


Episode 2



For more information, visit ASYMMETRY® Managed Accounts.

Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following

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

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

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

To listen, click: Mike Shell Interview with Michael Covel

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

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


Mike Shell Interview 2 with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio