Zigs and Zags


“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”

Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.

Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).

In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.

(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)

We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).

But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.

If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.

I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.

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