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.