Investing, Markets, Weekly Reports

On The Stock/Bond Conundrum

Professional investors typically look at the stock market as playing Curly to the bond market’s Moe. (I don’t know who Larry is… Currencies? Commodities?) Behavioral finance teaches us that neither of them are very rational over the short run and can, at times, get pretty zany. But the bond market is typically a bit wiser than the stock market and at times it likes to slap the stock market around when it gets wise. Maybe it’s because the bond market has things like “vigilantes” (or used to) that keep it a bit more honest. Who really knows?

Right now traders can’t stop talking about the divergence between the two. Bonds are saying the economy looks punk (as the yield curve continues to flatten) and stocks are saying everything looks hunky dory (as they surge to new highs). So who’s right? Is Moe about to do the eye poke on Curly or will Curly get the block in along with the last laugh.

I’ll just say that I don’t know; I’m not an economist and I wouldn’t trust those guys to know either. But I do have at least a clue.

First quarter GDP would suggest that the bond market has it right but, as we all know, markets are forward-looking, discounting mechanisms. So the continued weakness in yields would suggest that bonds see the Q1 contraction as more then just a blip while stocks are saying, “it’s not so bad.

And we’ve recently heard from a couple of market watchers I do trust who have come down on the side of the bond market. Stephanie Pomboy gave a terrific interview to Barron’s over the weekend:

The No. 1 thing is that investors generally have underestimated the impact that QE [quantitative easing] has had on the economy and the degree to which it has supported growth. As a consequence, they have underestimated the cost the tapering [of monthly Treasury bond purchases by the Fed] would have, and that is starting to come into focus. People will realize that the economy really has not achieved any self-sustaining momentum and that it requires continued stimulus. I liken it to a car on a flat road that has no momentum. When you take your foot off the gas, the car just stops moving. That’s essentially what the Fed is doing…. I expect to see Treasury yields trading in a range from 2% to 3%, basically how it’s been for the past several years. You want to sell at 2% and buy at 3%. I wouldn’t be surprised to see rates fall below 2%, as investor perceptions about the economy meet with reality and they realize that the Fed still has a lot of work to do.

Is it just a coincidence that the Fed began to taper in January and the economy began to contract at the very same time? Maybe. But it’s worth making a note of especially due to the fact that each time QE has ended in the past it’s led to problems that have forced the Fed into a new round of QE. Different this time?

Jeff Gundlach, another whose work I greatly admire, seems to agree with Stephanie. A couple of weeks ago he predicted we would see “one of the biggest short covering scrambles of all time” in the bond market that would send the 10-year yield below 2% and perhaps even below the 1.5% level tagged back in 2012. The recent economic slowing would have to at least continue if not accelerate for something like this to occur.

To be sure, this is THE contrarian call right now. A recent poll of 72 economists found none of them see a contraction in our future. To me, this is the sort of consensus that Bob Dylan sang about:

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time” [emphasis mine]
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that.

And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Curly get slapped upside the head yet again.

Investing, Markets

The Calm Before The Storm

It seems like volatility always dies down in the summertime as traders retreat to the Hamptons and focus more on sunscreen than stock screens. And you’re not supposed to short a dull market but…

When volatility gets as low as it has recently I take it as a sign of dangerous complacency, especially with the growing potential risks to stocks right now. Bianco research recently noted that over the past 25 years there has only been one other period where volatility has been as low as it is today: July 2007. This marked the beginning of a volatility pick up that ultimately peaked manifold higher during the height of the financial crisis.

Normally, low volatility is no reason in and of itself to become worried about stocks. In fact, low volatility is typically bullish. However, when complacency reaches an extreme like this it does suggest that investors are usually in for some sort of ‘surprise’ that sends volatility higher. And there’s a very good argument to be made that prolonged periods of low volatility actually create more extreme, pent-up volatility.

It works like this: A stock market that goes months and months without anything more than mild pullbacks lulls investors into a sense of security or confidence that stocks just don’t go down anymore. They extrapolate the recent benign price action far out into the future; they start believing things like the “great moderation” line of bullshit. This causes them to become overconfident and over-commit to stocks. When a pullback greater than just a few percent finally happens these investors are surprised by the ‘extreme volatility’ (which is really just normal volatility that has been dormant) and they reduce the undue exposure they put on when they believed volatility was dead. Add this to the normal selling that occurs during and you get a greater than average sell off. Multiply all of these effects (to account for record low vol) from the beginning and that’s how you get a crash like we saw subsequent to the record low vol mid-2007.

Now there were all sorts of other issues that compounded to create the worst financial panic in a few generations and that’s not about to happen again. But history does look like it could be rhyming in some ways right now.

Any major dude will tell you” about not just the record low vol but also that record high margin debt has finally and ominously begun to reverse. A few months ago Jeff Gundlach warned that we could expect a double digit decline once this happened. And @jlyonsfundmgmt shared a great chart the other day showing the correlation between margin debt and the peaks of the past few bubbles.

I know: Correlation ≠ causation. Still, it makes a great deal of sense to me that margin debt is greatly responsible for blowing up an equity bubble in the first place and when it peaks it’s a good sign that the bubble has run out of fuel.

And we’ve seen some canaries croaking in this coal mine over the past couple of months. Biotech stocks, MoMos and the Russell 2000 have all taken it on the chin lately even while the major indexes have hovered near their all-time highs.

As for the latter, @ukarlewitz noted late last week in his excellent “Weekly Market Summary” that, “RUT [Russell 2000] recently ended a streak of more than 360 days above its 200-dma, its longest ever. Every prior instance when a long streak in RUT ended has led to SPX also breaking its 200-dma in the weeks ahead.” That level lies >5% below its current number but there’s a good chance stocks could fall at least twice that much. Again @ukarlewitz:

At more than 5 years, the current bull market (defined as a gain uninterrupted by a drawdown of more than 20% on a closing basis) is both longer and more powerful (on an inflation-adjusted basis) than either the one from 1982-87 or 2002-07. It is, in fact, longer than every bull market in the past century except the ones ending in 1929 and 2000. In other words, this exceptionally long advance without a 10% correction is occurring at the point where virtually every bull market has already ended.

No. This doesn’t mean stocks are about to fall 20%+. But with record low vol over this span how many investors are prepared for such a scenario?

There are also divergences galore. Toddo, calls our attention to the weakness in the banks along with the small caps in contrast to the majors. Maybe more important is what the smart money is doing. We haven’t seen a divergence this large between “emotional buying” and rational buying since… you guessed it. Yep, 2007.

Another noteworthy divergence/canary can be seen in junk bonds. Risk appetites there have also begun to reverse and this is typically a prelude to equity risk appetites reversing as well. So what to junk bond investors see that equity investors don’t?

Maybe it’s that the latest episode of “reaching for yield” is about to come home to roost.

Maybe it’s the weakness in retail. TJX, HD, WFM, BBY, PETM and others have all disappointed investors over the past couple of weeks and we all know consumers make up 70% of the economy.

Maybe it’s the bursting of the bubble in profit margins.

Maybe it’s the bursting of the housing bubble in China.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that this cycle has run its course and is about to swing the other direction. Who knows?

In any case, I’d argue that the record low vol shows investors aren’t looking ahead as much as looking behind and reminiscing at how good things have been over the past five years or so. They’re expecting more of the same even though it’s mathematically impossible. But people love to believe things even when they know they’re not true. And you know what? According to the Fed, this is the very definition of a bubble.

It might not be your father’s bubble but just because we haven’t matched the p/e’s achieved during the internet bubble doesn’t mean that we aren’t ridiculously overvalued today. And it’s increasingly likely this is just the calm before the storm.

Investing, Posts

The Creative Destruction of Wall Street

I was taking a look at the different robo-advisors today and I’m just amazed at how fast technology is revolutionizing the investment industry. It’s a f***ing awesome thing to witness. I’m not specifically recommending any one of these companies but WealthFront now charges just 0.25% per year to do what most advisers charge at least 4 times as much for. Betterment charges just 0.15%. And WiseBanyan is FREE – yes, FREE. The robo-advisor price war is officially getting bloody.

It’s still very early in the game but what we are witnessing is nothing less than the creative destruction of Wall Street via Silicon Valley and it’s about time. WealthFront is the largest and fastest growing of the group and has nearly cracked $1 billion under management mainly because it’s become so popular with the tech community. As it expands outside of those early adopters into the general population it’s growth will only accelerate. The big Wall Street firms, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, etc. along with most independent investment advisers must be s****ing themselves watching this unfold. I don’t think there’s ever been a threat of this magnitude to their businesses.

I finally got around to watching The Wolf of Wall Street last night and, as a Wall Street insider, I have to say it really resonated with my personal experience (what I witnessed, not what I did, LOL). I spent just under a year at Bear Stearns before I migrated to the hedge fund world but I can tell you that that early scene movie, when Jordan Belfort first lands on Wall Street, absolutely nails it. The Matthew McConaughey character is spot on: “Fuck the clients…. The name of the game: move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.”

Robo-advisors now have the power to change the game entirely. Jack Bogle has been fighting this battle for decades and has surely made massive inroads in the world of investment products. In just the past ten years we’ve seen the explosion of ETFs that give investors access to every kind of index and sector at the lowest possible price. The price war between Vanguard and Schwab has now pushed the annual cost of owning the entire US stock market to just 0.04%. That’s insanely cheap!

Still, the gatekeepers, the brokers and advisers of the world, were the one thing separating the general public from these fantastic, low-cost products. They don’t make any money selling them so their clients just haven’t heard about them. It’s taken Silicon Valley stepping in to shake up the services side of the business so that Joe Retail investor can actually access these super-low-cost products. And it’s so cool to see it finally happening. Granted, there are some serious drawbacks (read this and this) but for 90% of investors robo-advisors are simply heaven sent. Do yourself a favor and look into them.

Investing, Posts

Less Than Zero

That’s the return investors should now expect from the stock market over the next decade… according to Warren Buffett’s favorite valuation measure: total stock market capitalization relative to GDP.

wmc140407cChart via John Hussman

The chart above shows the correlation between this valuation measure (blue line) and subsequent 10-year year returns (red line) and it’s pretty damn tight. I think the only possible argument one can make against “less than zero” returns over the next decade is something along the lines of, ‘companies are much more profitable now than they have ever been. For this reason, investors will be willing to pay higher valuations in the future so this correlation will break down.’ In other words, ‘its different this time.’ To those of us who have been around the block these are the four most dangerous words in the investment game. (See my thoughts on profit margins here.)

If investors are guaranteed to achieve nothing over the next ten years why would anyone in their right mind put money into the stock market right now? Or even keep a significant chunk invested right now? I keep asking myself this question because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I think there are two reasons. First, individual investors are deathly afraid to miss out on future profits EVEN if they understand that those profits are almost sure to be given back (and maybe they get off on the roller coaster ride). They just can’t stand to see their friends make money, even temporarily, and leave them behind. Second, professional investors are deathly afraid of underperforming because it may mean they get fired – even if they absolutely believe that the risk of owning stocks far outweighs the potential reward. They would rather lose money along with everyone else than forgo profits on their own.

It’s just very, very hard to put rational analysis above our natural “herding” instincts. In fact, for most people it’s nearly impossible which is why markets will never be efficient and we will always have booms and busts.

There’s only one reason I can think of for investors to keep money invested right now and to keep putting new money to work in stocks: you’ve got a time frame longer than 10 years AND you don’t have the time or wherewithal to pay attention to even the most basic investment merits of stocks as an asset class. In this case, dollar cost average into an index fund and put more into it every single month, without fail. Over 10, 20, 30 years you should do very well – the longer your time frame, the better.

Those who have a time frame less than 10 years or who can understand and pay attention to the investment merits of stocks as an asset class, however, have no excuse. There’s just no good reason to have undue exposure to stocks right now that I can think of.

Ultimately, the stock market right now is flying as high as Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in the movie that shares a title with this blog post. And now that the Fed is taking away its heroin (QE) it’s inevitably going to go through some painful withdrawals. And even if it doesn’t, you’d do better to put your money under the mattress.

Charts, Economy, Investing, Posts

Don’t Believe The Hype Of Rising Interest Rates

“Best investments for a rising rate environment” “The coming crash in the bond market” “How to prepare for an interest rate spike”

I’m seeing these kinds of headlines and stories everywhere. Everyone and their mom is expecting long-term interest rates to rise now that the Fed is tapering its bond buying programs. (Actually, interest in the term “bond market crash” peaked last Summer, ironically right at the time bonds bottomed in price. See chart below.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 2.13.00 PMI have a couple of problems with this line of thinking. First, although it seems like reducing demand for a security (i.e. tapering QE) would result in a drop in price, when you really think about how quantitative easing works this makes no sense. Second, the market is telling us this makes no sense. Let me explain.

To the first point, quantitative easing has been effective in supporting the economy through the wealth effect. It has encouraged investors to shun low-risk, low-yielding investments for higher-risk investments (if you can even classify them as investments). This has resulted in a surge in the prices of stocks, corporate bonds, real estate, etc. over the past five years with a greater effect on the riskiest categories within those asset classes: money-losing tech and biotech stocks, junk bonds and leveraged loans, etc. As a result investors feel wealthier and thus they spend more. They’re happy and the Fed’s happy because the economy’s happy.

But now that all of this is ending what should we reasonably expect as a result? To my mind, if QE is an inflationary force, intended to boost the economy, its removal can only have a net deflationary effect on the economy. For those unaware, inflation is bearish for bonds (rising rates = lower bond prices) and deflation is bullish (lower rates = higher bond prices).

To the second point, this isn’t just my personal opinion. This is exactly what the market is telling us. I’ve shared this chart before. It shows the history of quantitative easing and how various assets have been affected:


At the end of the prior QE programs it’s plain to see that not only did bonds fail to “crash” they actually surged in price. I believe investors fled to bonds in these two prior circumstances for two reasons: First, many traders were heavily short bonds anticipating a fall in price as the Fed ended purchases:


All these shorts were forced to cover when… Second, the economy showed brief signs of weakness, aka deflation, which sent bond prices higher/rates lower inspiring the Fed to take up QE yet again. (This is probably what Richard Koo means when he says the Fed is in a “QE trap.” They can’t end their bond purchases without harming the economy.)

Notice that traders are once again heavily short the long bond. In the past this sort of positioning has led to strong moves higher as traders cover their shorts.

Now the Fed isn’t technically ending QE right now; it’s merely tapering it’s purchases. I think this is why this trade has been a bit messier than those QE end trades of the past few years. Bonds have risen but they haven’t quite “surged” as they have in the past. Still, Janet Yellen has said that the Fed intends to continue tapering until the bond buying is ceased entirely so the result should eventually be the same. (Time will tell if they are actually capable of removing this stimulus completely without seeing the economy stumble.)

This is exactly what the charts are saying. JC Parets, of All Star Charts, recently called the daily chart of the long bond, “one of my favorite charts in the world,” as it looks like it is now breaking out to new highs, a very bullish development:


Conversely a long-term look at the yield on the 10-year treasury bond shows it is still well within a very clear downtrend:


I wouldn’t consider this a “rising rate environment” until this downtrend is convincingly broken. In fact, the only rates that seem to be rising lately are on the short end of the yield curve which has flattened considerably since the Fed began its tapering its QE program:


Note that, “the slope of the yield curve is one of the most powerful predictors of economic growth, inflation and recessions.” The curve is still positive but the fact that it’s flattening suggests we should be more worried about a reduction in “economic growth” and “inflation” than the opposite.

The bottom line is I just don’t see any evidence to suggest that we are in anything resembling a “rising rate environment” or that one is even anywhere on the horizon. This is not to say that somewhere down the road there may be consequences for the Fed’s easy policies and one of those may be rising rates. It’s just not happening right now.

Featured, Investing, Posts

ATTN: DUMB MONEY – The Smart Money Is Selling To You (Yet Again)

Near major turning points in the stock market there is always the fascinating dichotomy of smart money doing one thing and dumb money doing the exact opposite. And by smart money I’m not talking about analysts or brokers or newsletter writers, hardly; I’m talking about corporate insiders. As for the dumb money, I’m talking about Joe Retail trader, your average Wall Street sucker. Without fail the smart money is buying at market bottoms while dumb money is selling and vice versa.

To take off on a brief tangent, for those of you offended by the term “dumb money” know that, in the words of Warren Buffett “when ‘dumb money’ acknowledges is limitations, it ceases to be dumb.” The trouble is that most dumb money doesn’t ever acknowledge the fact that market timing is outside of its abilities. It continues to think it’s smart and buy high and sell low and regard itself as merely unlucky. End of tangent.

Recent sentiment surveys show that investors haven’t been this net bullish in a very long time. This is valuable to us as a contrarian indicator but these are still just surveys. They reveal what people are saying they’re doing with their money. Looking at what investors are actually doing with their money the picture becomes downright scary.

Right now we are witnessing the most extreme example of this dichotomy between smart and dumb money that has ever been recorded. Rydex traders now have nearly 8 times a much money in bullish funds as bearish ones. This is an all-time high:

sentiment_05via SentimenTrader

At the same time, “in-the-know insiders,” corporate officers and directors, have never been more bearish on their own shares. Marketwatch reports:

[blockquote2]Corporate officers and directors in recent weeks have sold an average of six shares of their company’s stock for every one that they bought. That is more than double the average adjusted ratio since 1990, which is when Seyhun’s data begin…. The current message of the insider data “is as pessimistic as I’ve ever seen over the last 25 years,” he says. What makes this development so ominous, he adds, is that, while no indicator is perfect, his research has shown that “the adjusted insider ratio does a better job predicting year-ahead returns than almost all of the better-known indicators that are popular on Wall Street.” There have been two prior occasions when the adjusted insider ratio got almost as bearish as it is today — early 2007 and early 2011. The first came a half a year before the beginning of the worst bear market since the 1930s. While the market didn’t fall as much following the second of these two instances, the May-October decline in 2011 did satisfy — based on intraday levels of the S&P 500 index — the semiofficial definition of a bear market as a 20% drop.[/blockquote2]

When the smart money talks, I listen. And if there’s any dumb money out there reading this I hope this helps you ‘cease to be dumb.’