Ignore The Primary Trend At Your Peril

Quantitative study of the markets has become incredibly popular over the past few years. Looking at specific, technical stock market events and then backtesting to see how the market performed after similar events in the past has become the pastime of many a market watcher. And it’s valuable stuff. But the real value is in how you use it.

I have argued in the past that some analysts using data in this way can become far too reliant on it alone. The process becomes too mechanical as it eliminates any real thinking or true analysis. And no matter how far technology takes us, critical thinking will always be an integral part of successful investing.

One area I see investors possibly making this mistake today, is in putting too much faith in bullish studies while stocks remain in a downtrend. As Paul Tudor Jones suggests, whether an asset is trading in an uptrend or a downtrend is of primary importance. Everything you study should be looked at in that context.

For example, a “Zweig Breadth Thrust” was recently triggered in the stock market. This has bulls seeing dollar signs. However, as Tom McClellan recently noted, this indicator works great when stocks are in an uptrend but when they’re not it’s track record is pretty poor. In fact, if used alone, this indicator would have had you getting bullish at some of the worst times over the past century.

This can be said for almost any quantitative study like this one. The primary trend matters. Ignore it at your peril.


Why This Correction Will Likely Lead To Another Painful Bear Market

Back in May I wrote a post arguing that the record-high levels of margin debt should make investors more cautious. Basically, there is compelling evidence to suggest that margin debt is a very good indicator of long-term fear and greed in the stock market.

When margin debt is relatively high it signals that greed is predominantly driving stock prices. Conversely, when margin debt is relatively low it indicates that fear is the predominant factor. If an investor believes it’s wise to ‘be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,’ as Warren Buffett suggests, then it’s probably going to be hard to find a better indicator for long-term investors looking to do so.

This also makes perfect sense from an economic viewpoint. Relatively high levels of margin debt suggest there is little potential demand left for equities and plenty of potential supply to pressure prices lower. Conversely, relatively low levels of margin debt suggest there is little potential supply and plenty of potential demand to pressure prices higher. And, in fact, this is exactly how margin debt has worked its magic on stock prices over the past 20 years.

One of the most valuable ways I have found to view margin debt levels is in relation to overall economic activity. The chart below shows that when margin debt has approached 3% of GDP in the past it’s usually been a good signal that greed has gotten out of hand. Back in April this measure hit a new record. Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 10.13.45 AMThe reason I find this measure so valuable is that it is highly negatively correlated to 3-year returns in the stock market. When margin debt relative to the economy has gotten very high, 3-year returns have been very poor and vice versa. Right now this measure suggests the coming 3 years in the stock market could be very similar to the last two bear markets we witnessed in 2001-2002 and 2007-2008 after margin debt reached similar levels in relation to the economy.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 10.13.30 AM

What’s more, in the past, when stocks’ 12-month rate-of-change has turned negative it’s usually triggered a significant reduction of margin debt. In other words, once the stock market starts declining over a year’s time record levels of margin debt, which functioned as demand to push prices higher in the past, start to become supply, which pushes prices lower going forward. This is how the last two bear markets began.Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 10.42.30 AM

Now the stock market only needs to rise by about 3/4 of a percent today in order to maintain a positive 12-month rate-of-change. On the other hand, the longer the current correction in stocks continues the likelier we are to see it evolve into a longer-term bear market, as the massive amount of margin debt stops working in the favor of all of these “greedy” speculators and begins to work against them and they start to become more “fearful.”

And if the past couple of full market cycles are any guide, the potential supply coming to market in this scenario could make the next bear market another very painful one, at least for those who ignore the crystal clear message of margin debt relative to the economy.

Buffett 000_DV316555, 595

The Warren Buffett Way To Avoiding Major Bear Markets

A year ago, I wrote a post called, “how to time the market like Warren Buffett,” in which I proposed a very simple market timing method inspired by this passage from the Oracle of Omaha’s 1992 letter to shareholders:

The investment shown… to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase.…  Moreover, though the value equation has usually shown equities to be cheaper than bonds, that result is not inevitable: When bonds are calculated to be the more attractive investment, they should be bought.

The idea is very simple and intuitive: When reliable measures forecast that stocks will outperform bonds, buy them. However, when, on rare occasion, they forecast that bonds will outperform stocks then they should be favored. But how to forecast equity returns? Simple. Just use Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick, market cap-to-GNP. Right now this measure shows stocks to be about as highly valued as they were back in November 1999.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 5.08.09 PM

What makes this measure most valuable, though, is its forecasting accuracy – which may be what makes it Buffett’s favorite. Below is the 10-year forecast implied by this measure (blue line) against the actual 10-year return for the S&P 500. Notice the red line tracks the blue fairly closely but can overshoot in both directions, overestimating returns during the 1973-74 bear market and understating returns during the dotcom bubble.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 9.41.20 AM

The next chart overlays the 10-year treasury bond yield (red line) against the 10-year forecast for stocks (blue line). The majority of the time this comparison suggests stocks are the better investment. There are few occasions, however, when bonds offer the better opportunity. Today is one of those occasions.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 9.40.46 AM

In my original post, I demonstrated just how attractive it would have been to follow this methodology. Since 1962, an investor who simply had bought stocks when they were more attractive and then switched to bonds when they became more attractive outperformed a buy-and-hold approach and dramatically so (mainly by sitting out a significant portion of the last two major bear markets).

What I think is most remarkable about the chart above right now is, at 3.05% (stocks’ forecast return of -1.07% minus a 10-year bond yield of 1.98%), it is signaling one of the largest spreads between forward returns on record. There are only a handful of quarters over the past fifty years that offered investors a better opportunity to switch from stocks to bonds. In fact, the last time the spread was this wide was during the second and third quarters of 2007, just prior to the financial crisis that led to a 50% drop in the stock market.

Now this doesn’t mean you should sell all of your stocks and run for the hills. Everyone has their own personal investment goals and risk tolerance and that should be paramount in their individual process. A practical way to implement this would be to simply underweight stocks and overweight bonds based on today’s reading. Or if you’re making significant new contributions to your account, maybe you just put those in bonds for now until stocks offer a more attractive opportunity. In fact, that’s probably how Buffett would do it. And though I doubt he uses these measures exactly this way, this sort of process has worked well for him for quite a long time.


Why It’s So Important For A Stock Operator To ‘Know Thyself’

“A stock operator has to fight a lot of expensive enemies within himself.” -Jesse Livermore

Over the weekend I came across a brief interview with Bill Gross published in the New York Times, in which he says, “There was an old dude, Jesse Livermore, who wrote a great book that said the most important thing in investing was to know yourself — your weaknesses, your flaws and your strengths.”

I thought about that for quite a while after reading it. I read Reminiscences of a Stock Operator a long time ago and didn’t quite remember the book the way Gross did. But thinking about the Gross quote, I realized that all of my greatest trades have been the result of taking advantage of my greatest natural strengths. All of my greatest mistakes have been the result of not recognizing quickly enough the natural weakness that was at the root of the losing trade.

I decided to actually put pen to paper to consciously explore what I believe are my natural strengths and weaknesses. This, to become more acutely aware of them in order to better actively take advantage of my natural strengths and avoid or ameliorate my natural weaknesses.

Here’s what I believe are my natural strengths:

  1. A willingness to go against the herd. More so, a natural skepticism toward what’s popular.
  2. An ability to see points of view or arguments on their merits, without logical biases.
  3. Confidence in my own research and abilities.
  4. A natural inclination towards unloved and overlooked opportunities.
  5. A deep passion to constantly learn and improve.

Here’s what I believe are my natural weaknesses:

  1. I have a hard time staying with there trend, especially once it becomes popular.
  2. At times I can be too skeptical or focus too much on worst-case scenarios.
  3. I can be overconfident even when the market tells me I’m wrong.
  4. I tend to look for confirmation of my point of view rather than opposing views.
  5. At times I seem to care more about being right than making money.

Over the years I’ve managed to address many of these weaknesses. There isn’t any trader who is even mildly profitable who hasn’t been able to do this at least to some degree. But writing them down, putting them on paper somehow helps to compartmentalize them and, more importantly, address them directly.

I realized that consciously addressing them by coming up with tactics to ameliorate them might give me the opportunity to turn my natural weaknesses into developed strengths (as opposed to natural ones). This is something I’ve also done subconsciously to an extent but to do it consciously and methodically could potentially magnify the benefits.

Taking each natural weakness one by one:

  1. Hard time staying with the trend – Modify my sell discipline to take advantage of the long-term trend. So long as there is no compelling reason to sell we will continue to hold until the long-term trend changes.
  2. Too skeptical – Don’t let macro worries get in the way of good micro opportunities. It’s okay to ‘worry top down’ so long as you continue to ‘invest bottom up.’
  3. Overconfidence – Confidence is great and even necessary but humility is just as important. You must respect the market even if you don’t defer to it.
  4. Confirmation bias – The greatest investors regularly seek to understand the other side of a trade even better than those taking it. Spend far more time studying the opposing view.
  5. Being right versus making money – Regularly admit you’re wrong even in the smallest cases. Make it a habit so that acknowledging a mistake and moving on can happen very quickly.

These natural weaknesses are precisely the “expensive enemies” Livermore wrote about. But by ‘keeping your friends (natural strengths) close and your enemies (natural weaknesses) closer,’ in this way I believe a stock operator gives himself the best opportunity to find success in the markets in his own unique way.


Why A Stock Market Crash May Once Again Be Inevitable

Don’t confuse brains with a bull market. -Humphrey B. Neill

Spending as much time as I do on social media, namely Twitter and StockTwits, I’ve been absolutely astounded by how many traders have begun to “confuse brains with a bull market.” We joke about it on these platforms but there is an amazing amount of hubris out there right now.

One of my favorite investing quotes comes from an interview Paul Tudor Jones gave just after the financial crisis had ended:

Clearly, many fundamental investors were caught off guard by the crisis. Stocks they thought were cheap in 2007 got far cheaper over the coming couple of years. Being unable to “read the tape,” these investors suffered the full force of the stock market crash.

As a response to this failure, many investors have seemingly tried to adapt by becoming “tape readers.” Most notably I have seen an explosion in the number of traders calling themselves, “trend followers.”

Now I have great respect for trend-following. Some of the greatest investors on the planet are trend followers, employing a very simple yet very effective and intuitive strategy across a wide variety of markets.

That said, the problem with most of these newbie trend followers is they ignore one of the key components of the strategy: diversification. They are involved only in one asset class, the stock market. Though they respect the trend, they don’t appreciate just how exposed they are to liquidity risk right now, something experienced trend followers ameliorate by broadening out into as many uncorrelated asset classes as possible.

Emboldened by 3+ years of very low volatility, these traders have become the exact opposite of what PTJ was referring to. Their inability to understand the fundamentals, relying solely on the trend, puts them at great risk, especially in an environment of problematic liquidity.

As I’ve demonstrated over the past several months, this stock market is one of the most overvalued, overbought and overbullish in history. Julian Robertson, Stan Druckenmiller, Ray Dalio, Mohamed El-Erian and other super-investors have recently warned about this in one way or another.

However, when I have shared the their concerns via social media, I’m regularly met with dismissal or disdain. These trend followers have become so emboldened by the bull market that they now believe their brains to be even bigger than these giants of the industry.

I have been bearish but have avoided using the “c-word” until now because crashes, by their nature, are impossible to predict. But the hubris on display in the market by those who believe themselves immune to these massive risks has me wondering if some sort of liquidity event in the stock market isn’t inevitable.

If everyone is a trend follower and the stock market begins to sell off, how can everyone get out at the same time? And in a market already plagued by severe liquidity challenges? It seems to me that there is a lesson here that should have been learned a long time ago.

The quote above comes from a fantastic piece Mark Yusko recently wrote about his personal experience with Julian Robertson, who recently said it is, ‘not at all ridiculous to expect another 2008-style decline in the stock market.’

To turn the PTJ quote on its head, counting on being able to sell once it’s clear to all that the trend has shifted may be precisely how those in the trend following space get annihilated in the future. Certainly, we have seen this movie before. Doesn’t anyone else remember “portfolio insurance”?