Pattern Recognition: Is the S&P 500 Forming a Head and Shoulders Bottom?

I don’t always share when I observe stock market patterns unfold, but when I do, it’s usually to inform (or aggravate) my friends who don’t understand (or want to understand) technical analysis.

Long before I started developing computerized trading systems based on quantitative signals I learned and applied chart patterns and trend lines to determine if a trend was up, down, or sideways. Said another way, up until 15 years ago I identified the direction of price trends visually looking at a price trend on a chart. I later defined up, down, and sideways with mathematical equations that help to systematize the process of trend identification. I believe my starting out learning trends by hand and visual representation helped me to develop better quantitative trend systems. The two go hand in hand.

We can define the direction of a trend with an equation as simple as momentum. For example, I have 14 different definitions of momentum and equations that define it. A simple one is X period rate of change. If it’s positive, the trend is up. If it’s negative, the trend is down. The factor that determines the trend direction is the time frame. Many academic types like using simple time series momentum methods like this because it’s easy to backtest. Pattern recognition is more difficult, so fewer have developed systems to automate pattern recognition and make it testable.

Chart patterns have historically been more visual. Chartists or technical analysts look at the chart of a price trend to determine if there is a pattern. The pattern we are looking for tells the story of supply and demand. The chart of a price trend shows us what has been going on with the battle between supply and demand from buyers and sellers. We may get an idea of who may be winning the battle and position our capital in that direction. For example, when prices are rising the buyers are in control and when prices all falling selling pressure is dominant. So, pattern recognition is just another form of trend following. Instead of using X-day breakouts, moving average, or channel breakouts, it’s using a pattern that is believed to tell the story of price action. We don’t make decisions based on a pattern, but the underlying asymmetry between buyers and sellers that caused the pattern and the direction of the price trend.

Simple > Complex

To me, it’s a much more simple way to determine if buyers or sellers are in control of the price trend than trying to find a fundamental narrative. There are so many different reasons for buying demand and selling pressure we could never really know why one is dominating the other. The news attempts to explain it, but the truth is, investors could be buying or selling based on perceived fundamentals, trend lines, moving averages, stop losses, buy stops, fear of missing out, fear of losing money, or tax reasons. Rather than trying to figure out what the majority is thinking, the pattern of the price trend tells the net result of all the buying and selling. It fits the idea of simple beats complex and if we simply stay with the direction of the trend we can’t be too wrong for too long. Someone making decisions based on things other than the price trend itself has the potential to stray far away from the reality of the price.

To me, chart patterns are really just a little more elaborate versions of trend lines. A trend line is just a line marking a chart such as how I marked the higher highs and higher lows yesterday in Divergence in the Advance-Decline Line May be Bullish. 

I observed today the S&P 500 seems to be forming a head and shoulders bottom pattern. The head and shoulders pattern happens when a market trend is in the process of reversal either from a bullish or bearish trend.  There are two kinds of head and shoulders.

  • A head and shoulders top is a pattern that forms after an uptrend. After it is completed, it signals a reversal of the trend from up to down.
  • A head and shoulders bottom is an inverse of the head and shoulders top. The head and shoulders bottom forms after a downtrend and signals a change of trend from down to up.

Below is the chart of a theoretical index used to represent an idealized head and shoulders. It includes both head and shoulders tops and head and shoulders bottoms. Stockcharts offers this index for educational purposes to see what idealized head and shoulders look like. You may notice each top and bottom are a little different – they aren’t perfect.

head and shoulders pattern recognition

I put the green box around a head and shoulders bottom. You can see why when you look at the S&P 500 stock index chart below.

head and shoulders bottom patterns recognition

An inverse head and shoulders pattern is simply a downtrend caused by selling pressure, interrupted by a brief reversal (left shoulder), a selling climax (head), an interruption again (right shoulder), then it would move on to new highs. Moving on to new highs will determine if it is completed as a reversal bottom, or not. To reverse the downtrend, selling pressure must be exhausted as buying demand becomes dominant.

Many patterns like the head and shoulders rely on volume as confirmation, so chartists can make it as complicated as they want, or keep it simple by looking at the pattern. For my purpose, I’m going to keep it simple and say we’ll know if this is indeed a head and shoulders bottom reversal pattern if it follows through on the upside. If it does, we would expect the price trend of this index to at least reach its old highs. If the price doesn’t hold and it doesn’t follow through to the upside, it’s probably going to at least test the prior low again.

Either way, patterns are never completely accurate. It’s probabilistic, never a sure thing. The head and shoulders is simply a pattern formation commonly seen after a downtrend that, if completed, may signal the end of the downtrend and reversal into a new uptrend. It’s based on the visual representation of the battle between supply (selling pressure) and demand (buying interest). For example, when the head and shoulders bottom completes the low point in the (inverse) head, it marks the point when those who wanted to sell have sold. So, the right (inverse) shoulder signals selling has dried up and buyers are taking over. It is completely normal to observe profit-taking after an advance, so the last few days is normal even if this is a reversal up. You can probably see how volume gets involved to confirm the pattern. In the case recently, the volume was high at the lows signaling selling pressure. The volume is declining on the right shoulder. The good news is, the volume didn’t expand on these recent down days.

Let’s see how it all unfolds.

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

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

 

Observations of the stock market downtrend

Observations of the stock market downtrend

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

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

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

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

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

stock market trend

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

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

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

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

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

Fear is the dominant driver. 

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

fear greed index investor sentiment behavioral finance

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

fear and greed back test over time investor sentiment indicator

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

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

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

Speaking of a hedge. 

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

vix hedge volatility expansion asymmetric hedge asymmetry

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

vix volatility expansion trading

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

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

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

vix volatility as a hedge stock market risk management

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

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

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

stock market breadth risk indicator

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

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

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

That’s what stock investors are waiting for now.

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

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

I hope you find my observations interesting and informative.

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Asymmetry of Loss: Why Manage Risk?

“The essence of portfolio management is the management of risks, not the management of returns.” —Benjamin Graham

Why actively manage investment risk?

Why not just buy and hold markets and ride through their large drawdowns?

Losses are asymmetric and loss compounds exponentially.

The larger the loss, the more gain is required to recover the loss to get back to breakeven.

The negative asymmetry of loss starts quickly, losses more than -20% decline start to compound against you exponentially and with a greater magnitude the larger the loss is allowed to grow.

If your investment portfolio experiences a -20% loss, it needs a 25% gain to get back the breakeven value it was before the loss.

asymmetry of loss losses asymmetric exponential

At the -30% loss level, you need a 43% gain to get it back.

Diversification is often used as an attempt to manage risk by allocating capital across different markets and assets.

Diversification and asset allocation alone doesn’t achieve the kind of risk management needed to avoid these large declines in value. Global markets can fall together, providing no protection from loss.

For example, global markets all fell during the last two bear markets 2000-2003 and 2007-2009.

global asset allocation diversification failed 2008

It didn’t matter if you had a global allocation portfolio diversified between U.S. stocks, international stocks, commodities, and real estate REITs.

Diversification can fail when you need it most, so there is a regulatory disclosure required: Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss.

This is why active risk management to limit downside loss is essential for investment management.

I actively manage loss by knowing the absolute point I’ll exit each individual position and managing my risk level at the portfolio level.

Active risk management, as I use it, applies tactics and systems to actively and dynamically decrease or increase exposure to the potential for loss.

My risk management systems are asymmetric risk management systems. Asymmetric risk management intends to manage risk with the objective of a positive asymmetric risk/reward.

My asymmetric risk management systems are designed to cut losses short, but also protects and manages positions with a profit.

After markets trend up for a while without any significant interruption, investors may become complacent and forget the large damage losses can cause to their capital and their confidence. When investors lose confidence in the markets, they tap-out when their losses are allowed to grow to large.

I prefer to stop the loss before it gets too large. How much is too large depends on the client, but also the math. As seen here, I have a mathematical basis for believing I should actively manage investment risk.

It’s why I’ve been doing it for two decades. Because I understood the math, I knew I had to do it over twenty years ago and developed the systems and tactics that proved to be robust in the devastating bear markets I’ve executed through since then.

 

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.

The U.S. Stock Market Trend

When we define the direction of a trend, we consider the most basic definitions.

  • Higher highs and higher lows is an uptrend.
  • Lower lows and lower highs is a downtrend.
  • If there is no meaningful price break above or below those prior levels, it’s non-trending.

Below is the past year of the S&P 500® stock index, widely regarded as a representation of large cap stocks. Notice a few key points. The top of the price range is just that: a range, with no meaningful breakout. The bottom is the same. The price trend has dropped to around the same level three times and so far, has trended back up. What’s going to happen next? At this point, this stock market index is swinging up and down. It would take a meaningful break below the prior low that holds to make a new “downtrend”. It could just as well trend up. We could put an exit point below those prior lows and let it all unfold.

Stock market trend

Of course, as I’ve mentioned a lot the past several months, other global markets and small company U.S. stocks and mid-cap stocks have been much weaker than large U.S. stocks and certain sectors within the U.S. You can read the details of this in The Stock Market Trend: What’s in Your Boat? As I pointed out then, in the chart below we can see the mid-size and small cap stocks have actually declined much more. But, the capitalization-weighted indexes are driven by their sector exposure.

small cap mid cap stocks

Some U.S. sectors are still holding up and still in uptrends. Below is the Technology sector index, for example. I consider this an uptrend, though volatile. Less volatile trends are easier to hold, more volatile trends are more difficult unless we focus on the directional trend.

Tech Sector Trend

Below is the U.S. Healthcare sector. It’s down, but not out. It’s still so far holding a higher low.

healthcare sector

The really weak markets that have been in more clear downtrends are the commodity related sectors like Energy and Basic Materials.  This could signal the beginning of a larger move down in other sectors if they follow, or not. But if we focus on “what’s in our boat” we are focused only on our own positions.

Energy Sector basic materials

The key to tactical decision-making is sometimes holding exposure to potentially positive trends and giving them room to see how they unfold: up or down. The other key is avoiding the clearest downtrends. Then, there comes a point when those trends change and reverse. Even the downtrends eventually become uptrends. We can be assured after that happens everyone will wish they had some exposure to it!

Never knowing for sure what will happen next it always involves uncertainty and the potential for a loss we must be willing to bear. I think the edge is predefining risk by knowing at what point to exit if the trend has really changed, accepting that, then letting it all unfold.

 

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

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

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

The CNN Fear & Greed Index shows investor fear and greed shifted to Extreme Fear a month ago as the popular U.S. stock indexes dropped about -12% or more. Many sectors and other markets were worse. Since then, as prices have been trending back up, Greed is now the driver again. I believe fear and greed both drives market prices but also follows price trends. As prices move lower and lower, investors who are losing money get more and more afraid of losing more. As prices move higher and higher, investors get more and more greedy. If they have reduced exposure to avoid loss, they may fear missing out.

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

This is the challenge in bear markets. In a bear market, market prices swing up and down along the way. It’s these swings that lead to mistakes. Below is a chart of how the Fear and Greed Index oscillates to high and low points over time. Investors who experience these extremes in emotion have the most trouble and need to modify their behavior so they feel the right feeling at the right time. Or, hire a manager with a real track record who can do it for them and go do something more enjoyable.

Fear and Greed Over time investor sentiment

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

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.

 

 

Gold Isn’t Always A Hedge or Safe Haven: Gold Stock Trends Have Been Even Worse

For several years we often heard investors suggesting to “buy gold”. We could throw in Silver here, too. They provide many theories about how gold bullion or gold stocks are a “safe haven”. I’ve written about the same assumption in Why Dividend Stocks are Not Always a Safe Haven.

In fact, the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF website specifically says about the gold stock sector:

“A sector that has historically provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”.

Source: http://www.vaneck.com/gdx/

When investors have expectations about an outcome, or expect some cause and effect relationship, they expose themselves in the possibility of a loss trap. I will suggest the only true “safe haven” is cash. 

Below is a 4 year chart of two gold stock ETFs relative to the Gold ETF. First, let’s examine the index ETFs we are looking at. Of course, the nice thing about ETFs in general is they are liquid (traded like a stock) and transparent (we know what they hold).

GLD: SPDR Gold “Shares offer investors an innovative, relatively cost efficient and secure way to access the gold market. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to offer investors a means of participating in the gold bullion market without the necessity of taking physical delivery of gold, and to buy and sell that interest through the trading of a security on a regulated stock exchange.”

GDX: Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF: “The investment seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index. The fund normally invests at least 80% of its total assets in securities that comprise the Gold Miners Index. The Gold Miners Index is a modified market-capitalization weighted index primarily comprised of publicly traded companies involved in the mining for gold and silver.”

GDXJ: Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF seeks to replicate as closely as possible, before fees and expenses, the price and yield performance of the Market Vectors Global Junior Gold Miners Index. The Index is intended to track the overall performance of the gold mining industry, which may include micro- and small capitalization companies.

Gold stocks vs Gold

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

Clearly, gold has not been a “safe haven” or “provided a hedge against extreme volatility in the general financial markets”. It has instead demonstrated its own extreme volatility within an extreme downward price trend.

Further, gold mining stocks have significantly lagged the gold bullion index itself.

These ETFs have allowed for the trading of gold and gold stocks, SPDR Gold explains it well:

“SPDR Gold Shares represent fractional, undivided beneficial ownership interests in the Trust, the sole assets of which are gold bullion, and, from time to time, cash. SPDR Gold Shares are intended to lower a large number of the barriers preventing investors from using gold as an asset allocation and trading tool. These barriers have included the logistics of buying, storing and insuring gold.”

However, this is a reminder that markets do not always play out as expected. The expectation of a “safe haven” or “hedge against extreme volatility” is not a sure thing. Markets may end up much worst that you imagined they could.  As many global and U.S. markets have been declining, you can probably see why I think it’s important to manage, direct, limit, and control exposure to loss. Though, not everyone does it well. It isn’t a sure thing…

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For informational and educational purposes only, not a recommendation to buy or sell and security, fund, or strategy. Past performance and does not guarantee future results. Please click the links provide for specific risk information about the ETFs mentioned. Please visit this link for important disclosures, terms, and conditions.

The Trend of the U.S. Stock Market and Sectors Year-to-Date

As of today, the below table illustrates the year-to-date gains and losses for the S&P 500® Index (SPY) and the 9 Sector SPDRs in the S&P 500®. We observe the current and historical performance to see how the U.S. Sectors match up against the S&P 500 Index.

So far, the S&P 500 Index is down -5.68% year-to-date. Only the Consumer Discretionary (XLY) and Health Care (XLV) are barely positive for the year. Energy (XLE) has entered into its own bear market. Materials (XLB) and Utilities (XLU) are in double-digit declines.

year to date S&P 500 and sector returns 2015-09-10_11-31-05

Source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker

The trouble with a table like the one above is it fails to show us the path the return streams took along the way. To see that. below we observe the actual price trends of each sector. Not necessarily to point out any individual trend, but we can clearly see Energy (XLE) has been a bear market. I also drew a red line marking the 0% year-to-date so point out that much of this year the sectors have oscillated above and below it and most are well below it now.

year to date stock market sector trends 2015-09-10_11-32-40

Source: http://www.sectorspdr.com/sectorspdr/tools/sector-tracker

Speaking of directional price trends is always in the past, never the future. There are no future trends, today. We can only observe past trends. In fact, a trend is today or some time in the past vs. some other time in the past. In this case, we are looking at today vs. the beginning of 2015. It’s an arbitrary time frame, but still interesting to stop and look to see what is going on.

As many global and U.S. markets have been declining, you can probably see why I think it’s important to manage, direct, limit, and control exposure to loss. Though, not everyone does it well as it isn’t a sure thing…

Bonds Aren’t Providing a Crutch for Stock Market Losses

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

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

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

Bond ETF market returns 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.

– Chinese Proverb

The person who says it cannot be done Should not interupt the person doing it

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/chinese-proverbs/

The Trend of the U.S. Stock Market

When I say “The Trend” that could mean an infinite number of “trends“. The general definition of “trend” is a general tendency or course of events.

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

Many investors are probably wondering about the current trend of the U.S. stock market. So, I will share a quick observation since one of the most popular U.S. stock indexes seems to be right at a potential turning point.

Below is a 6 month price chart of the S&P 500 stock index. The S&P 500® is widely regarded as a gauge of large-cap U.S. equities. Clearly, prior to late August the stock index was drifting sideways. It was oscillating up and down in a range of 3% to 4% swings, but overall it wasn’t making material higher highs or lower lows. That is, until late August when it dropped about -12% below its prior high. Now, we see with today’s action the stock index is attempting reach or breach it’s very recent peak reached on August 27th. If the index moves above this level, we may consider it a short-term uptrend. We can already observe the index has made a higher low.

S&P 500 stock trend

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

You can probably see how the next swing will determine the direction of the trend. If it breaks to the upside, it will be an uptrend as defined by “higher highs and higher lows”. Although, that is a very short-term trend, since it will happen within a more intermediate downtrend.

My point is to observe how trends drift and unfold over time, not to predict which way they will go, but instead to understand and define the direction of “the trend”. And, there are many different time frames we can consider.

If this trend keeps going up, supply and demand will determine for how long and how far. If it keeps drifting up, I would expect it may keep going up until some inertia changes it. Inertia is the resistance to change, including a resistance to change in direction.

But if it instead goes back down to a new low, I bet we’ll see some panic selling driving it even lower.

The real challenge of directional price trends is if this is the early stage of a larger downward trend (like a bear market), there will be many swings along the way. In the last bear market, there were 13 swings that ranged from 10% to 27% as this stock index took about 18 months to decline -56%.

Below is the same stock index charted with a percentage chart to better show the percent changes over the past 6 months. You can probably see how it gives a little different perspective.

S&P 500 stock index percent chart average length of bear markets

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

I don’t necessarily make my tactical decisions based on any of this. I enjoy watching it all unfold and I necessarily need to define the trend and understand it as it all plays out. I want to know what the direction of the trend is based on my time frame, and know when that changes.

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

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For informational and educational purposes only, not a recommendation to buy or sell and security, fund, or strategy. Past performance and does not guarantee future results. The S&P 500 index is an unmanaged index and cannot be invested into directly. Please visit this link for important disclosures, terms, and conditions.

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