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Wagging The Dog

Regular readers know I like to try to combine fundamentals with technicals and sentiment to form a holistic investment/trading thesis. Right now I believe that these three factors are lined up on the bears’ side in the case of small cap stocks, which have led the broader indices of late – the proverbial tail wagging dog.

First, to say valuations are stretched in the case of small cap stocks doesn’t quite tell the whole story. In fact, they may have never been more stretched than they are today. (I’d love to see a CAPE ratio for the Russell 2000 if anyone’s got that data.)

The trailing price-to-earnings ratio currently looks fairly absurd:

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Chart via WSJ.com

I would assume that the astronomical level of the p/e is due to the fact that a large number of companies have losses rather than earnings. But even if you look at price-to-revenues the stocks look extremely overvalued. WSJ reports:

As of Sept. 30, for example, stocks in the Russell 2000 traded at 1.5 times their revenue of the previous 12 months, a measure known as the price/sales ratio. That is just a hair below the highest valuation seen going back to 1994, the earliest year for which data is available. Such levels were last seen during the stock bubble of the late 1990s, according to Russell Indexes.

The index would have to fall another 15% just to return to the average price/sales ratio of the past 20 years.

A price/sales ratio of 1.5 times in the Russell 2000 doesn’t happen often, says Lori Calvasina, a U.S. equity strategist at Credit Suisse Group CSGN.VX +0.08% who specializes in small and midcap stocks. “But whenever we’ve been there, the Russell 2000 has literally never been up 12 months later, and the average decline is about 16%,” she says.

So it’s hard to make the case that small caps aren’t currently overpriced and technically, they look vulnerable on a couple of time frames.

Back when the ETF broke out above the 82.5 level at the end of 2012 I called this chart the most bullish chart I could find. I’ve been watching ever since, adding the 1.618 Fibonacci extension which has proved to be significant resistance since early spring:

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What’s most glaring about this chart is the recent selloff has seen the uptrend line that dates back to the 2009 low break. The ETF is now testing the underside of the trend line along with its 20-week moving average. So this correction is more than the typical brief pullbacks we’ve seen over the past two years.

Comparing it to the 2010 and 2011 corrections, then might give us a bit better idea of what to expect from this selloff. Notice both of those pullbacks saw the ETF make lower lows with divergences in RSI, volume and MACD histograms. Should the current selloff follow this pattern we should see a lower low made over the next few weeks.

The daily chart confirms this view. RSI (at the top of the chart) is showing another divergence/non-confirmation with the latest high made on Thursday. The index has failed to overcome its 61.8% retracement along with the other major indexes. Finally, volatility looks to have broken out and the pullback is just a test of the breakout level, suggesting we could see another surge in volatility soon. Unlike the other indexes, this relative high for the Russell comes in the context of a clear pattern of lower highs and lower lows, the definition of a downtrend:

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All of this makes a retest of last week’s lows very likely, in my opinion. It may be putting the cart before the horse, but I believe the big question after this next pullback will be whether this all amounts to a larger topping pattern for index.

Last month the index closed more than 1% below its 10-month moving average which amounts to a long-term sell signal for trend followers. Should it be unable to regain that level by at least 1% over the next few months, the most bullish time of year for the markets, I think it will be safe to assume the Russell will be faced with a new bear market lasting anywhere from roughly twelve to twenty-four months.

In fact, should the complex head and shoulders pattern in the chart above play out it would see the index decline to around the 950 area, a 21% decline which meets the definition of a bear market. But as I said, let’s see what happens over the next couple of weeks first.

Finally, sentiment toward the sector has surged. StockTwits traders are absolutely rip-snorting bullish on the Russell 2000 futures contract right now – even more bullish than they were a month ago when the major indexes were hitting all-time highs:

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Chart via StockTwits

The bottom line is these stocks are overvalued, overbought and over-owned right now. What’s more, they have led the broader indexes over the past couple of months and I believe they could very well represent a significant “canary in the coal mine” investors should pay close attention to.

See also: “The Dominant Risk For Wall Street” May Be Manifesting In Small Caps and What Does “Reduce Risk” Mean To You?

Disclosure: I currently own inverse Russell 2000 ETFs (what amount to short positions) for myself and for clients.

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Why?

I’ve been thinking about blogging and social media. Why do we do it?

There are all kinds of answers for all kinds of different folks and I’m sure they each apply to me in some degree.

Some are looking to be heard (in other words, to be listened to – aren’t we all?). Some are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Some want to come down on one side or another of a specific issue and be right, damn it!

I’m guilty of all of these things, as I said, to some degree, but none of them are the main reasons I do this.

First and foremost, I blog and tweet and such because it helps me flesh out my own ideas. A lot of the time I’m just thinking out loud and typing it. There’s something about writing things down AND in a public way where you can get feedback that just helps expedite or make the thinking process more efficient. I can’t explain it but it works.

Second, it helps to put things out there where they can’t be retracted in order to hold myself more accountable. When something’s not put out there permanently it’s really easy to either totally forget about it or to change the way we remember it over time. A blog post or a tweet brings it right back into the present and makes it impossible to misremember or deny.

Finally, one of the best feelings I can get in my business is helping someone learn something that makes a dramatic impact in their lives – even if it comes from my own horrible mistake! It’s why I do this here and on social media and why I teach a class at the local community college. It’s just very rewarding.

But at the end of the day, this whole thing, the blog, social media and even my class is really just for me. It helps me be a better thinker and a better investor – so I’ll keep doing it.

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Be Adaptive

“One of the things I most want to emphasize is how essential it is that one’s investment approach be intuitive and adaptive rather than be fixed and mechanistic.” -Howard Marks

One huge trend I’ve noticed in financial social media lately is the use of statistics and market history to project future price movements. This is really cool stuff, actually, and it’s data that most investors haven’t had access to at all until now.

What I’m specifically referring to is all the traders out there, and there are plenty of them now, that see the market do x and then pull up all the times it’s done x in the past to see what it’s meant going forward.

This type of quantitative analysis is great in that it helps you become more objective and less emotional with your trading or investing.

But it looks to me like investors are beginning to rely on it a bit to heavily. It’s use is becoming a bit too “mechanistic,” as Howard Marks put it in his book, The Most Important Thing.

A great example of how traders can be overly reliant on this sort of thing was the Russell 2000 death cross a few weeks ago. Last month the index’s 50-day moving average was close to crossing below its 200-day moving average. This is known as the death cross because it sometimes signals that the overall trend is changing from bullish to bearish.

Traders ran all the previous times in history these moving averages crossed down and found that, historically, it has actually been a more bullish development than a bearish one. In fact, it got so popular to poo-poo the “death cross” that even CNBC and Jim Cramer ran with it calling it a “bull signal.”

The index has lost nearly 10% in the 3 weeks since then.

“To achieve superior investment results, you have to hold nonconsensus views… and they have to be accurate. That’s not easy.” -Howard Marks

Once the crowd takes up an idea it’s just probably not going work out. Once everyone viewed the Russell 2000 death cross as a buy signal – and probably positioned themselves that way, who was left to buy and provide the incremental demand to make the signal work out? Nobody.

Right now traders are looking at all kinds of bullish signals for stocks based on the “history” of the past two years. And as much as I appreciate the value of a quantitative approach, I worry that this type of analysis may have become too consensus and “mechanistic” for my liking.

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Desperately Seeking A Margin Of Safety

Back in 2000, I had one of my best years as an investor. You may remember that year marked the peak of the greatest stock market bubble in history. Anyhow, while everyone and their mom was buying internet stocks I was loading up on the exact opposite.

One of the unique things about that time was that the bubble was really concentrated in the technology sector. Outside of that there were some great values to be found in the old “bricks and mortar” types of companies.

I found a couple of those great values in Abercrombie & Fitch and Washington Mutual. I think ANF was trading around 8 times earnings despite the fact that it was still growing pretty fast and had incredible returns on new stores. And this was back when WaMu was still just a boring old thrift trading for 5 times earnings. When investors finally gave up on the high flyers they took refuge in names like these and both ANF and WaMu soared.

In 2007, things were very different. Although valuations didn’t get anywhere near those 2000 levels, there was even more pain felt as a result. There just wasn’t really anywhere to hide during the financial crisis as everything seemed to get hammered to the same degree.

Today’s market feels like a combination of these two and it honestly worries me. We currently have even higher valuations than we did in 2007 – in some cases, even higher than in 2000 (median price-to-sales ratios at all-time record highs). And the overvaluation feels just as pervasive as it did in 2007, maybe even more so (note record “median” valuations, not “mean”).

In other words, the diving board (valuation) is higher now and there’s even less water (pockets of value) in the pool than there was.

This is why I’ve spent so much time researching ways to avoid the next major bear market. Because I think it’s gonna be a doozy. So I think it’s probably wise for most investors in US stocks, at this point, to switch from buy-and-hold to a trend-following approach. Still, this assumes that the selling window, when it comes, will be wide enough and open long enough for everyone to casually exit through which is not always the case.

An alternative or complementary solution I’ve spent some time looking at is a “global value” approach. I got turned on to Meb Faber’s work a few months ago and I think this idea of his has so much merit, especially for investors in US stocks right now. There may not currently be those pockets of value within the US stock market that will help to weather the next storm but there are pockets around the world that may fit the bill.

Do yourself a favor and go read Meb’s book. It just might help you manage the next market meltdown.

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Seeing The Forest For The Trees

Yesterday morning I came across a piece over at Harvard Business Review titled, “To Make Better Decisions, Combine Datasets.” I began reading it and realized that’s exactly the key to investment success and what I’ve tried to do with my market timing model: combine a variety of predictive datasets to create a holistic forecasting and timing model.

The stock market is driven not just by fundamentals or sentiment or technicals alone but by all of them in concert with one another. It follows then that an investor should try to incorporate each of them into her investment process in order to maximize its effectiveness.

And this is where I think many investors get lost. They try to focus on only one of these three. Fundamentals alone may work over the long run but cheap stocks can always get much cheaper in the short-term or they could just be cheap for a very good reason (I’ve learned this lesson more than a few times). Sentiment can also be very helpful but the crowd isn’t always wrong and markets can ‘stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.’ And, as many traders know, the ‘trend is only your friend until it comes to an end.’

What I’ve found in my 20+ years of observing and trading markets is that looking at the forest, by putting all of these together, rather than the trees alone is absolutely crucial to making good decisions. So I thought it might be fun to look at the individual components of the model to see not only what they are saying about the markets but how they might be misleading when taken on their own.

For my fundamental component I use Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick, total market capitalization-to-GDP. On its own it has roughly an 83% negative correlation with future 10-year returns in the stock market (based on 65 years worth of data). This means higher levels for this indicator are correlated with lower future returns and vice versa. Here’s what it looks like over the past 65 years or so:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 9.38.05 AMEven considering the fact that the internet bubble has pushed the average higher over the past ten or fifteen years, this measure still suggests stocks are priced significantly above their historical range. Based on its high correlation with future returns this suggests investors should expect a very low return from present levels over the next decade.

BUT… this has been the case for most of the past 20 years! An investor looking at this measure alone might have sat out a couple of major bear markets but also would have missed a couple of the most massive bull markets in history! So it’s probably not smart to use this measure in isolation. Adding other related asset classes (like bonds – we’ll come back to that) and other, unrelated indicators should help give a bit more clarity.

My sentiment measure tracks the percent of household financial assets invested in equities. Believe it or not this measure is even more highly negatively correlated with future returns than Buffett’s valuation measure above (closer to 90% – hat tip, Jesse Livermore). Here’s what it looks like over the same time frame:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 12.54.35 PMIt’s also currently sitting significantly above its long run average suggesting returns should be far below average going forward. As I mentioned this is a better forecasting mechanism than the fundamental measure but even if the incredible euphoria of the internet bubble got you out of the stock market you may not have gotten back in over the past 15 years because we haven’t seen anything like the pessimism witnessed at the 1982 low.

Finally, I’ve added a third component to the model, inspired by Doug Short: a simple trend regression model based on Robert Shiller’s data going back nearly 150 years. With a negative correlation of roughly 74%, it’s not quite as effective at forecasting future returns as these other two but I think adding it, as a third independent component based on a very long-term trend, helps to make the model more robust. So here’s what the S&P 500 looks like relative to a regression trend line over the full time period:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.01.27 PMOnce again this indicator shows the stock market to be trading very close to the top of its historical range. Still, like the fundamental model this one might have had you sitting out of the stock market for perhaps the past 20 years!

So even though we have three independent models we need a way to put them together and then to put them into some sort of context. What I’ve done is used each indicator individually to create a 10-year forecasting model. Then I’ve simply averaged them together each quarter. All told, the combination results in a correlation to future 10-year returns of about 90%. Here’s a chart of the model’s forecast returns as compared to actual 10-year returns for the stock market:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.05.21 PMWhere the model is farthest off the mark (where you see the yellow line far above the blue line) is in the late 80’s early 90’s. Stocks surged further and faster during the internet bubble than the model forecast they would. Removing those years, the model’s correlation value rises to about 94%.

So we know what the individual readings look like. What’s the model saying about future returns from here? As the chart below shows, the model forecasts a return of just 1.2% per year over the next decade:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.10.16 PMTo add some context, in addition to the 10-year forecast I’ve put the yield of the 10-year treasury note on the chart, as well. Investors don’t look at potential returns in a vacuum; they compare potential returns of different opportunities, many times looking at the “risk-free” rate of treasury notes in the process. This next chart shows the difference between the model’s forecast return and the yield on the 10-year treasury note:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.17.48 PMWhen the blue line is above zero, stocks offer the better return; when it’s below, bonds do. And as I’ve shown before in “How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett” this timing model works very well. Just buy whatever asset class is more attractive – trading only once per year – and you’ll kill a buy-and-hold approach.

I think this alone is validation of a multi-disciplinary approach. But adding one more super-simple component makes it that much more effective: before we go and sell our stocks because bonds are more attractive, we want to make sure we don’t sell too early in a bull market or buy to early in a bear market. As the chart above shows this model would have had you sell your stocks and shift into bonds all the way back in April of 1996 and then miss all the gains of the next 3 1/2 years.

Adding a very simple trend-following approach solves this problem (hat tip, Meb Faber). Rather than sell right when bonds become more attractive it’s much more advantageous to wait for the trend to end. And as a representation of the trend, we can simply use a 10-month moving average. Below is a chart of the S&P 500 and this moving average:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.23.36 PMTo be clear we’re not trend followers all the time with this model. We buy-and-hold until the model tells us that stocks are not attractively priced and then we become pure trend followers. Once the model tells us stocks have become less attractive than bonds we wait for the S&P 500 to close at least 1% below its 10-month moving average at which point we sell our stocks and sit in cash, buy bonds or even short stocks (the latter generates the best returns over the period studied).

Should the index at any point close back above its 10-month moving average by at least 1% we buy stocks again. Like I said, so long as stocks are less attractive than bonds we are pure trend followers. Only when the model suggests stocks are once again more attractively priced than bonds AND the trend has turned up (as indicated by a monthly close above the 10-ma) do we buy stocks and abandon trend-following for buy-and-hold.

Ultimately what this produces is a combination buy-and-hold/trend-following model that owns stocks roughly 80% of the time and seeks to avoid major bear markets precipitated by high valuations, high levels of bullishness and prices extended far above their regression trend. It doesn’t avoid losses entirely, though.

The model didn’t recommend a move out of stocks prior to the 1987 crash which resulted in a decline of roughly 26% (its largest drawdown). It did, however manage to avoid the ’73-’74, ’00-’02 and ’08-’09 bear markets, the latter producing about a 50% decline. In fact, this is where all of the model’s outperformance is generated: in recognizing these major turning points fairly early on – essentially giving a warning signal – and then switching from buy-and-hold to trend-following when that strategy is more effective.

The next chart shows the results of three different investors. The first is a simple buy-and-hold strategy (blue line). The second goes to cash when the model indicates (red). The third, rather than going to cash, shorts the index (green):

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.50.13 PMClearly there is significant benefit to abandoning buy-and-hold for a trend-following approach when our model suggests stocks are unattractively priced. Over the period the investor who just sits out major bear markets in cash ends up with twice as much as the investor who holds through the entire decline. And the investor who gets short, in turn, fares far better still.

I truly believe these superb results, hypothetical though they be, can be attributed to the holistic nature of the model. It combines datasets that are valuable independent of one another into something greater than its parts.

As of now, the model is telling us that stocks have once again become unattractive relative to bonds. However, the uptrend is still in tact. So it’s probably valid to be bearish for fundamental, sentiment and regression reasons. But the trend is also a valid reason to be bullish – even if it is the only reason. So I’m still looking at the market through a bearish lens right now but I’ll be watching for a monthly close at least 1% below the index’s 10-month moving average for the trend to validate the fundamentals and sentiment.

For reference I’ve put up all the spreadsheets, calculations and charts I used on a public Google Drive sheet here: Market Timing Model. I’ll be updating it as new data comes in.

Finally, I need to make the same disclaimer I’ve made over and over again during this series: because this is a hypothetical model that doesn’t incorporate taxes, transaction fees, etc. it is not representative of any real returns. It is merely for educational purposes. Clearly, past performance may not be indicative of any future results.

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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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