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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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Have Analysts Morphed Into ManBearPigs?
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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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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.

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Markets, Posts, Trading

Two Key Fibonacci Levels I’m Watching Right Now

There are two charts I’ve been watching for weeks now that I thought I would share today. Both represent critical Fibonacci levels in important indexes. For that reason they matter greatly to the broader stock market.

First is the Russell 2000 which represents small cap stocks. These little guys have just torn it up over the past few years – so much so that they are now trading at a valuation that is 26% above their late 90′s peak! A while back I labeled the breakout above $85 “the most bullish chart I’m watching right now.” Since then the index has soared nearly 40%. But now it’s running into the 1.618 Fibonacci extension within the context of a broken rising wedge (bearish) and diverging money flow and MACD (bearish):

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This next chart shows the weekly performance of the Financial Sector ETF. It hasn’t performed nearly as well as the small caps over the past few years as it still has a long way to go to recover the losses it suffered during the financial crisis. it’s now running into the 61.8% Fibonacci retracement of that decline also within the context of a broken rising wedge (bearish) and divergences in RSI and MACD (bearish).

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Small caps have led the broader rally over the past few years and finance now makes up a very large part of our economy so both of these charts are key “tells” in my book.

For more fun with Fibonacci see “Nature by Numbers.”

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Featured, Investing, Markets, Posts, Trading

For Everyone Who Thinks Tom DeMark’s 1929 Analog Is A Joke…

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

 

Tom DeMark has been absolutely lambasted since he first proposed his 1929 analog a few months ago. It suggests stocks might be following a similar pattern today as they did back then, ultimately headed for a crash. Even many market watchers I deeply respect have turned the study into a joke on social media.

To these folks I’d just like to point them in the direction of Paul Tudor Jones II, one of the most successful hedge fund managers in history. Anyone who has read the original “Market Wizards” should be familiar with his story. It begins, “October 1987 was a devastating month for most investors as the world stock markets witnessed a collapse that rivaled 1929. That same month, the Tudor Futures Fund, managed by Paul Tudor Jones, registered an incredible 62 percent return.”

How did he do it? How did he manage to profit so handily from an event nobody saw coming? Jones answers, “our analog model to 1929 had the collapse perfectly nailed. [Paul Jones' analog model, developed by his research director, Peter Borish, super-imposed the 1980s market over the 1920s market. The two markets demonstrated a remarkable degree of correlation. This model was a key tool in Jones' stock index trading during 1987.]” The 1929 analog was the “key” that helped him predict and prepare for the crash.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 7.31.03 AMphoto via “Trader” (chart title reads “The Dow in the Eighties and Twenties”)

The documentary, “Trader,” also verifies this account. It was filmed in the months leading up to the 1987 crash. There are many scenes in the film in which Jones and Borish discuss the analog and how it provides the foundation for their daily trading. “At times like this, what gives these two confidence is a theory that says the stock market moves in cycles, in patterns, and Paul and Peter subscribe to the Elliott Wave Theory which says to them what happened 49 years ago, in the late 1920s, is happening again now.” Sadly, Mr. Jones has removed the film from circulation. His reason for doing so is anyone’s guess but witnessing the ridicule that DeMark has suffered recently I can’t blame him.

Jones and DeMark are two of the men I respect most in this business. I believe that one of the main reasons behind their success is their ability to, ‘keep their heads and have faith in their own convictions when all about them are losing theirs and doubting them.’ To me, this latest 1929 analog is still valid until the Dow Industrials make a new high. Until then, I’ll take the ridicule as a contrarian sign that Tom is onto something.

UPDATE: After I shared this post with Tom via email he shared this response with me:

[blockquote2]In regard to the 1929 comparison it was taken entirely out of context and was merely a talking point. It originated from an interview with a business week reporter in early October. At that time, she was asking about the market and I forecast it would likely bottom October 7 or 8—interview was October 7 i believe—and it would rally 12.6% and a likely market top would appear. She asked if it would be a major market top and I replied anecdotally among the charts we were following at the time was a comparison between 1929 and the current market and I sent the chart to her. It showed the rally from the August 1929 low to the September 3, 1929 peak was also 12.6%. She asked if I expected the same outcome and my one sentence response which she quoted in the article and appeared beneath the gold chart– “I’m (the analog) not afraid I’m going to be wrong,” DeMark says. “I’m just saying it’s something to consider.”  See link http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-14/hedge-fund-chart-guru-tom-demark-sees-dark-days-ahead [/blockquote2]

[blockquote2]Subsequent to the article we received various congrats as the both DJIA and SPX rallied 12.6-12.7% into their respective december 31 and Janaury 14 highs. Then the market declined and unexpectedly we received interview requests from virtually around the world. The casual comparison between the two periods surprisingly had taken on a life of its own. Late Novenber and December tv interviews served to fuel the fire of this analog. Finally when I appeared on CNBC at the february bottom the topic of conversation, just as it had been throughout the decline and in interviews, was the comparison and I was very clear it was unlikely to occur and assigned 10% likelihood and this was also mentioned on Glenn Beck interview about the same time.[/blockquote2]

[blockquote2]Now you have the background of how a casual remark erupted into something more than intended. Agree with your assessment that DJIA has not yet cancelled the comparison. In fact the following report by Goldman Sachs seems to agree with you as they conducted their own research of comparable market periods and the one with the strongest correlation was actually identical to what we off-handedly referenced in an interview early last Ocotber—see below for Goldman update.[/blockquote2]

[blockquote2]BY the way, the gold forecast made in same interview and numerous times on tv late last year forecasting December 31, 2013 as the low in advance and which has been very accurate has been given little or no notice whatsoever. Strange.[/blockquote2]Here’s an excerpt from the Goldman note:

[blockquote2]Recently, Tom DeMark brought up 1929 as a possible analog for today’s market.  In discussing sentiment, I also showed how the idea of that analog was mocked in the media.  In light of the fact that the Dow Industrial did not make a new high in tandem with SPX, I feel it is appropriate to make my contribution to the discussion.[/blockquote2]

[blockquote2]Using a historical software product, I asked for the historical best match for the last 2.5 year (~500 days) of action in the Dow. Combing the Dow’s entire history, the best match was 1929 (Chart 6). The charts match up right in October of that year. The program uses a term “correlation” to judge the quality of the match. The correlation for the match is 97.5%.  I have been using this software since 1997, and a match of that quality over a period of 500 days is relatively rare.[/blockquote2]

[blockquote2]Bottom Line: My opinion is that it might be a good idea to protect yourself from a further decline in SPX.[/blockquote2]

To put the 97.5% correlation into context, in the “Trader” documentary, Peter Borish says that the 1987 correlation with the 1929 chart was roughly 92%.

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Charts, Posts

Stocks Aren’t Out Of The Woods Just Yet

Last week Art Cashin mentioned the possibility of the S&P 500 forming a “formidable” head and shoulders top pattern. Only by pushing to new highs can the index avoid fulfilling the pattern and despite the recent string of positive trading days the index has yet to do so.

And I’m seeing the pattern form in a few other indexes and stocks, as well. The cleanest pattern is probably that in the Dow Transportation Average:

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The Russell 2000 is another vulnerable index:

scThere are also a few bellwether stocks that are susceptible to the pattern right now:

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There are others but these are the ones I thought most notable. Pay attention to how all this dandruff works itself out. I’ve rarely seen it this pervasive.

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