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The Problem With Index Funds

I was glad to see on Friday someone (Yahoo! Finance Editor-in-Chief, no less) concur with my concerns over the growth of index-based investing strategies (see “One reason I’m worried about the rise of the robo-adviser“). In a piece appropriately titled, “Pride cometh before the fall: indexing edition,” Aaron Task writes:

Was ‘owning the index’ a good idea in 2000, when ~50% of the S&P 500 was in tech?

Was ‘owning the index’ a good idea in 2008, when 40% of the S&P 500 was in financials?

No, of course it wasn’t.

But that’s exactly what you did if you followed an index-based approach. So while index investing is probably better than many of the alternatives that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own problems. And being valuation agnostic is probably its biggest problem.

You see when you buy an index fund you put more money into the largest companies in the index and less money into the smallest, regardless of their valuations. So when investors bid tech stocks to the moon and they become the largest component of the index (as in 2000) they carry a larger weight in the index and, in turn, you end up buying a lot of them. In effect, you become greedy when others are greedy rather than becoming fearful, as Buffett would recommend (he also recommends indexing, though, so go figure).

And taken to the extreme, the growing popularity of index-based investing could possibly be the cause of yet another stock market bubble. When a growing class of buyers is willing to continue buying regardless of how high prices rise then valuations can conceivably rise infinitely (Sound familiar? Indiscriminate buying of internet stocks in 2000? Indiscriminate buying of housing in 2007?).

What index-based strategies don’t want you to know is that ‘the price you pay DETERMINES your rate of return.’ Pay too high a price and you literally guarantee yourself horrible returns. Forget owning too much of one sector within the index; was it a good time to buy stocks at all at March of 2000 or October of 2007? Hell, no. Sky-high valuations were a big reason for that. And we may have already reached that point once again (Jesse Livermore recently wrote a wonderful piece on the topic – see “Why is the Shiller CAPE so high?“).

Finally, I personally see the growing popularity of index-based investing as a good thing for individual investors over the long-term but also as a potential contrarian indicator over the intermediate-term.

Aaron again:

The pendulum has swung way too far where everyone thinks all you have to do is index and you’re going to do better [than actively managed funds].

Once the pendulum has swung so far that many investors come to believe that all you have to do is buy the index and it’s all peaches (cap gains) and cream (dividends) then it’s probably time to look out below. I just don’t know if we’re there yet.

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Mania, Part Deux

I continue to be amazed at the rampant rationalizing that is fueling this market. In my first “Mania” post, I began with a quote from professor Shiller regarding his CAPE ratio and what it currently suggests about stock market valuation:

“The United States stock market looks very expensive right now. The CAPE ratio, a stock-price measure I helped develop — is hovering at a worrisome level…. above 25, a level that has been surpassed since 1881 in only three previous periods: the years clustered around 1929, 1999 and 2007. Major market drops followed those peaks.” -Robert J. Shiller, Nobel Prize-Winning Economist and Author of “Irrational Exuberance”

Impersonating the rationalizers I mimicked the popular response: “the CAPE ratio is flawed and valuations don’t matter anyway; stocks are only worth what someone else is willing to pay.”

Lo and behold, somebody stepped up to the plate and took the rationalization to a whole new level (via CNBC):

[Charles] Dumas argues that including the Great Depression, two world wars and the Cold War into the long-run average makes it an “unduly poor comparator”. Instead, if you disregard this period, the CAPE is only 7 percent above the post-Cold War average, according to Dumas.

In other words, ‘if we take out all the bad stuff (decades and decades of market history) and focus only on the good times, the market is only 7% overvalued – AND that’s somehow bullish.’ How can this guy say this with a straight face? The whole purpose of the CAPE ratio is to adjust for cycles; it’s an acronym for “cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings” ratio. Is he really suggesting we throw out professor Shiller’s Nobel Prize-winning work and only use a BLPE, “bubble-level price-to-earnings” ratio?

The article continues by quoting his cohort, Jack Boroudjian who writes the CAPE off as a, “strange equation.” I would literally pay money to hear these guys rationalize Buffett’s favorite yardstick right now. It’s incredibly entertaining.

Also, just off hand in my earlier piece, I mentioned the ad hominem attacks directed at John Hussman. Well Larry Swedroe subsequently jumped the shark in this regard (via ETF.com):

One investor recently asked me to comment on Hussman’s latest musings, which had made him quite nervous. Now, I knew that Hussman had been persistently bearish for quite some time, and I have been asked about his columns fairly frequently. So I went back into my files and dug up what I had written about his comments on the market from Jan. 14, 2013. It provides a great example of why he should be ignored, along with all other forecasters.

A reader asked you to comment on his “latest musings” so rather than read his “latest musings,” Larry, you went back 18 months and roughly 75 weekly reports ago. Ignore the argument put to you and resort to “genetic fallacy” to prove he’s an idiot: ‘he was wrong 18 months ago so he must be wrong today,’ is not logic. It’s simply avoiding the issue and it only makes you look like an idiot, Larry.

He continues:

As further evidence of why you should ignore market forecasts like Hussman’s, consider the following performance data on his flagship fund, Hussman Strategic Growth (HSGFX). As of Aug. 4, 2014, the fund had $1.1 billion in assets—less than 40 percent of what it had just 19 months earlier—as investors fled, unhappy with the poor performance.

Please take a quick peek at Wikipedia’s definition of “genetic fallacy,” Larry. Your argument clearly, “fails to assess the claim on its merit,” and relies solely on, “something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context.” Oh, and also the bandwagon fallacy: ‘if people are bailing out of his fund he must be an idiot because mutual fund investors are always brilliant traders!’

If you take the time to actually read Hussman’s “latest musings” you’ll find he’s not making 1-year forecasts, as Larry would have us believe. He’s making 10-year forecasts, something even Warren Buffett does regularly to assess the future prospects of owning stocks. And Hussman uses indicators like Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick which are very highly correlated to future 10-year returns.

I urge you to actually take a look at some of his “latest musings” and see what his indicators are saying right now:

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As the chart above clearly indicates a multitude of independent indicators (including Shiller’s CAPE and Buffett’s favorite yardstick, market cap-to-GDP), all of which are highly correlated to future returns, suggest that owning stocks over the next decade will yield close to zero annual return, one of the worst prospects in history – this based on simple math and statistics supported by nearly 80 years of data.

So rationalize it however you like. Or simply ignore it. That’s your prerogative. Just know this type of mental gymnastics only happens in the midst of a mania. And it’s just fascinating to witness.

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A Holistic Approach To Market Timing That Crushes Buy-And-Hold

This is part 3 in my market timing series that began with “How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett”:

“…the big money… is not in reading the tape but in sizing up the entire market and its trend.” -Jesse Livermore, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing with my market timing series over the past few weeks: “sizing up the entire market.” But I haven’t yet gotten to the “trend” part – which, as Jesse testifies, is absolutely critical.

Before I get to that let’s just briefly recap how we got here. I first looked at Warren Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick to get an idea of how stocks were valued. Comparing the prospective return from stocks (as forecast by the market cap-to-GDP model) to the simple yield on the 10-year treasury note gives us a great idea of which asset class we should own at any given time: the one the offers the greater prospective return! Voila, we have a very successful market-timing model. (See “How to Time The Market Like Warren Buffett“)

Then I looked at a measure of investor sentiment as the basis of a similar model. When I wrote it, I used Buffett’s famous ‘fear and greed’ quote. Since then, however, I really think this one from Sir John Templeton is even more apt: “Help people. When people are desperately trying to sell, help them and buy. When people are enthusiastically trying to buy, help them and sell.” Anyhow, this model worked in a very similar manner to our fundamental model and both had similarly successful results. (See “How to Beat The Market By Being Fearful When Others Are Greedy“)

At the end of the day, the thing that made both of these models successful was helping our hypothetical market timer avoid major bear markets. Where they suffered was when they got our market timer out of stocks (or back into stocks) too early (something that is all too common for the fundamentally-focused investor like yours truly). This is where the trend comes in.

Inspired by the likes of Meb Faber, Cliff Asness and Michael Covel, I’ve been studying trend following for a few months now. Maybe the most common indicator of the intermediate-term trend (1-3 years) that I’ve found is the 200-day moving average. This is simply the average of the last 200 days’ closing prices. A closing price above the average signals an uptrend; a closing price below signals a downtrend.

Many studies have shown that when an investor simply adds a trend-following component to their portfolio using this indicator for the S&P 500 they can reduce drawdowns, aka losses during bear markets, and improve overall results. Depending on transaction costs and taxes, however, the benefits may be negligible. But because I prefer a more holistic approach, I decided to look at what would happen if our hypothetical market timer added this simple trend-following approach to our existing models.

Here’s how it works. Our hypothetical market timer annually (at year-end) checks the 10-year forecast returns provided by our fundamental and our sentiment models and compares them to the yield on the 10-year treasury note. If both models suggest stocks offer the best return she does nothing; she merely holds the stocks she already owns. Should one of the models, however, suggest that the 10-year treasury offers a better return she… doesn’t sell her stocks and buy bonds just yet.

This is where she becomes a trend-follower. On a monthly basis, she begins checking the S&P 500′s 10-month moving average (roughly the same as the 200-dma but easier for me to calculate with the data available) and watches for a close below that level. Should the index close below its 10-month moving average while one of our models suggest stocks are not attractive she shifts from stocks to cash. Here are the results. This strategy is in yellow, labeled “Fundy-Trend.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 11.15.03 AMSo from 1950-2014 our buy and hold investor turns $1,000 into $785k (if she can hang on through the big drawdowns). Our straight trend-following friend finishes with $690k (using the method Jeremy Siegel uses in “Stocks For The Long Run“). Our fundamental market timer finishes with $1.56 million (compared to $1.15m for our fundamental model and $1.25m for our sentiment models alone), almost twice as much as the buy and hold investor.

Not bad, eh? But what’s that green one that’s over $2.2m?! Well check this out: I also decided to see what would happen if our hypothetical market timer, instead of going to cash, decided to shift from owning stocks to getting short stocks once the trend turned down. Clearly, she kicks everyone’s ass. She makes nearly 3x as much as our buy and hold investor, 2x as much as our simple fundamental and sentiment market timers and more than 40% more than our holistic (fundamental, sentiment and trend) market timer.

Warren Buffett, Sir John Templeton and Jesse Livermore weren’t successful for no reason. They individually used fundamentals, sentiment or the trend to crush the markets. Putting them together into a simple, quantitative and holistic process yields similarly spectacular results. So don’t buy the buy and hold line of BS if it doesn’t suit you. There are systematic ways like this to protect yourself from large losses and enhance your overall returns.

Soon I’ll be putting up a page on this site to keep track of these models. But again, I’d like to emphasize that this is merely for educational purposes. It doesn’t include transaction costs or taxes which should be major considerations for real-world investing scenarios.

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Here’s Why You Can’t Be Too Bullish Or Too Bearish Right Now

If you couldn’t already tell I’ve been thinking about cognitive biases and logical fallacies a lot lately. And while I’ve been fairly bearish for quite some time now I haven’t been, “sell everything and hide your cash in the mattress bearish.” Those who are that bearish are suffering from clear biases or fallacies I’ll get to in a minute. By the same token, those who are rip-snorting bullish right now are also suffering from a similar condition.

By being overly bullish right now, you’re simply in denial over a plethora of evidence that suggests the risk/reward equation is heavily skewed toward the risk side without much potential for reward at all. But what I really think bulls are relying on most heavily right now is a little something called “recency bias” or, as the Fed likes to put it (emphasis mine):

If asset prices start to rise, the success of some investors attracts public attention that fuels the spread of enthusiasm for the market. New (often less sophisticated) investors enter the market and bid up prices. This “irrational exuberance” heightens expectations of further price increases, as investors extrapolate recent price action far into the future. – “Asset Price Bubbles” FRBSF

That’s all “recency bias” is: investors ‘extrapolating recent price action far into the future.’ In other words, Mr. Market has been flipping a coin that just keeps coming up heads (big gains) so investors begin to believe that it’s just going to be heads forever. Tails (corrections or bear markets) are a thing of the past.

Obviously, this is just faulty logic. But when BTFD becomes so ingrained into the broader market psyche it just becomes painfully clear that investors are relying on nothing but the trend. Which is fine, of course, until the trend comes to an end. Just don’t pretend there are any other reasons to be bullish aside from the trend because there just aren’t.

On the flipside, uber-bears are suffering from a similar ailment called “gambler’s fallacy.” They believe that because Mr. Market has flipped heads so many times in a row (how long have we gone without a 10% correction?) that the likelihood of him flipping tails is now much greater which is also bogus logic but something people do all the time. The likelihood of flipping heads or tails is still 50% no matter what sort of streak has come before this flip of the coin.

Despite the fact that the odds haven’t changed at all, bulls believe there’s a near 100% chance the next flip is gonna be heads once again (because it’s just persisted so long) and bears believe there’s a near 100% chance it will be tails (because the ridiculous streak of heads just can’t persist). Both are wrong. So what’s an investor to do?

To me the fundamentals, sentiment and the macro backdrop are clearly bearish right now. But I grant that these are not timing mechanisms. These are just the shade of the lens we should be looking through right now. In 2009, you wanted rose-colored glasses because all three of these indicators were flipped. Today, you want the opposite, whatever that is (brown-colored glasses?).

Still, you probably don’t want to express that view in your investments to any great degree simply because Mr. Market is still, in fact, flipping heads… for now. So don’t get me wrong; I’m bearish. Clearly. But I’d recommend waiting until Mr. Market flips a tails or two to before jumping feet first into your bear costume.

Next week I’ll post the third in my “market timing” series which will make this much more clear.

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Mania

“The United States stock market looks very expensive right now. The CAPE ratio, a stock-price measure I helped develop — is hovering at a worrisome level…. above 25, a level that has been surpassed since 1881 in only three previous periods: the years clustered around 1929, 1999 and 2007. Major market drops followed those peaks.” -Robert J. Shiller, Nobel Prize-Winning Economist and Author of “Irrational Exuberance”

Popular response: the CAPE ratio is flawed and valuations don’t matter anyway; stocks are only worth what someone else is willing to pay.

“George Soros Just Made A Huge Bet That US Stocks Might Fall” -Business Insider

Popular response: he’s not betting stocks are going lower; it’s just a hedge against his long exposure.

“Yellen’s [recent] comments suggest, and I agree, that we are in an asset bubble.” -Carl Icahn

Popular response: 1999 was a bubble; this isn’t a bubble.

Rationalize. Rationalize. Rationalize.

Time and time again investors flat out deny what’s staring them dead in the face: stocks are extremely overvalued and at risk of yet another major decline. The last time I can remember investors rationalizing bearish data points as much as they are today was during the height of the internet bubble. ‘P/E’s don’t matter any more; it’s a new economy,’ was the battle cry back then. Today it’s, ‘it’s impossible to value a stock or the market,’ and ‘this is nothing like the internet bubble.’

To an outsider, someone who has nothing to do with the markets, the logical fallacies must be painfully obvious.

Criticizing the CAPE is a classic straw man. Tobin’s Q Ratio, a valuation measure used by the Fed, along with Buffett’s favorite yardstick, total market capitazliation relative to GNP, both confirm that the stock market is extremely overvalued, using three totally unrelated valuation methods. Another thing the bulls fail to mention is that these three measures are highly correlated to future 10-year returns for stocks and suggest the potential risk at this point is far greater than the potential reward. These are just facts!

And comparing today’s market to the internet bubble is a clear Red Herring. Just because today’s market is not exactly like that of 1999 doesn’t prove that we’re not in a bubble today. In fact, it’s totally irrelevant. Today’s market should be judged on the full measure of the data available to us. And just like Shiller says, there have only been a very rare number of times stocks have been this overvalued: 1929, 1999 and 2007. These are just facts!

Then we get into the Ad Hominem attacks. ‘Shiller’s just a professor; he’s not a market practitioner so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ or ‘Soros and Icahn are just like all the other hedge fund big wigs out there using the media to make short-term profits; you can’t read anything into what they do or say,’ not to mention the attacks on John Hussman that completely ignore the merits of his research on its own.

I get it. It’s extremely difficult to listen to reason when the madness of the crowd is simply deafening. At the end of the day, though, it’s all just a huge sign that investors are desperate to believe, to keep hope alive that 30%-per-year profits can happen again this year and the next.

So if you didn’t know what a mania was before now, just take a look at the financial blogs and social media sites. The rationalization is everywhere. And it may be the best indicator of all that we are, indeed, in the midst of yet another bubble.

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How To Beat The Market By Being ‘Fearful When Others Are Greedy’

This is the second post in a 3-part series that began with “How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett.”

‘Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy only when others are fearful.’ -Warren Buffett, 1986 Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s Letter

This has to be Warren Buffett’s most famous quote. For investors, however, of all of his copious advice it has to be the most difficult to put into practice.

How, exactly, do we know when ‘others are greedy or fearful’? And how, exactly, should we be ‘fearful or greedy’ in response?

In my recent post, “How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett,” I tried to get at how Buffett uses fundamentals, or valuations, to determine whether he should be fearful or greedy. Essentially, he just buys whatever offers the better prospective return. When it’s stocks, that’s what he buys. When, on rare occasion, bonds offer a better return he buys them instead. This is one way he has managed to generate market-beating returns over long periods of time.

But, surprisingly enough, fundamentals aren’t the best way to judge the prospective returns of stocks. Investor sentiment is actually much more predictive than even Buffett’s favorite measure of valuations (total market capitalization-to-GNP).

Philosophical Economics ran a post back in December titled, “The Single Greatest Predictor Of Future Stock Market Returns,” in which they found that household allocation to equities was correlated to future returns in the stock market by greater than 90%. I ran the same correlation and found that while market cap-to-GDP had an 83% negative correlation to 10-year returns in the stock market, this measure had a 94% negative correlation.

Ultimately, what investors are actually doing with their money – acting out of fear or greed – is a much better predictor of future returns than even the best measure of value. But how do we use this information as a contrary indicator? How do we put it into practice?

It’s simple: we do just what we did with the fundamental measure. We create a forecasting model that suggests what stocks are likely to return over coming decade based upon investors’ allocation to stocks. Then we compare that to the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond. Whichever offers the better prospective return should be bought.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.54.17 AMSo I went back once again and looked at what would have happened if an investor had followed this model only looking at it once a year at year end, starting back in 1950. (Again, I know this is cheating; our investor obviously didn’t have access to all of this then future data back in 1950. Still, it’s a fun exercise so get over yourself.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 9.38.40 AMLike the valuation timing model, this one also significantly outperformed a simply buy-and-hold approach. Yet it didn’t differ much from the valuation model. It ourperformed during the internet bubble because it kept our hypothetical investor in stocks for two years longer than the valuation model. But it underperformed during the financial crisis because it didn’t get our investor out of stocks while the valuation model did.

Another major difference between the two is that our valuation model got our hypothetical investor out of stocks at the end of 2012 and so she missed last year’s huge gains. The sentiment model kept her in stocks and that’s really the main difference between the performance of the two up to this point.

The bottom line is both of these models, due to their exceptional predictive ability, allow an investor to determine not only when but how to be fearful and greedy: simply own stocks when they offer the better prospective return, otherwise own bonds.

I should emphasize again that this model is merely for educational purposes. It doesn’t factor in transaction costs or taxes (which could be huge) so it’s not in any way a recommendation for you to use with your investments. But it’s definitely something to consider when evaluating investment opportunities on a broad basis or deciding where to put new money to work.

There’s one more way to dramatically enhance even these terrific results and in part three of this series I’ll reveal how. I’ll also soon put up a page on this site that regularly updates these models and compares their prospective returns to the yield on the 10-year treasury so we can keep tabs on it. Stay tuned.

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King Midas And The Media

I tweeted this yesterday because Buffett invests for the full cycle. His outperformance usually comes during bear markets (for a variety of reasons including the quality of the companies he’s invested in, the “margin of safety” he demands from his purchases and the fact that he keeps some significant powder dry to take advantage “fear”).

During bull markets he just hopes to keep pace but during the final euphoric phase of bull runs he tends to lag (again for similar reasons including his focus is on larger, more established companies rather than the young, high-flyers that typically soar during these periods; the “margin of safety” he demands is simply not available when valuations are stretched and his growing cash position becomes a performance anchor).

Long story short, his underperformance during the later stages of bull runs is something the world’s greatest investor consciously tolerates in order to be in position to take advantage of the flipside of the cycle. Still, the media loves to rib him for it – every time. So I was curious to see if it could be quantified as a contrarian indicator.

Thank you, Jason Goepfert! Jason ran a scan of headlines related to Warren Buffett ‘losing his touch’ and found:

Sure enough, spikes in these stories tended to occur near market turning points, including near the peaks in 2000 and 2008, the trough in 2002 and lesser intermediate-term corrections in 2010 and 2012.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 9.23.50 AMHowever, aside from the Forbes article I tweeted yesterday we aren’t seeing much of a confluence of these sorts of stories in the media… yet. But I’m sure Jason will let us know if and when they do start to pile up.

For more of these kinds of sentiment studies check out SentimenTrader.com where Jason regularly publishes some superb work.

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