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Historical Context Regarding Market Cycles

February 5, 2018 4 comments

I really enjoy listening to financial media outlets on days like this. Six days removed from all-time highs, the equity guys – especially the strategists, who make their money on the way up – talk about “capitulation,” and how “nothing has changed,” and how people need to “invest for the long-term.” If equities have entered a bear market, they will say this all the way down.

It helps to have seen a few cycles. Consider the early-2000s bear market. In 2000, the Nasdaq crested in March. After a stomach-churning setback, it rallied back into August (the S&P actually had its highest monthly close for that cycle in August). The market then dropped again, bounced, dropped again, bounced, and so on. Every bounce on the way down, the stock market shills shrieked ‘capitulation’ and called it a buying opportunity. Eventually it was, of course. But if there is a bear market, there will be plenty of time to buy later. This was also true in ’09, which was much more of a ‘spike’ bottom but let’s face it, you had months and months to get in…except that no one wanted to get in at the time.

If it is not a bear market, then sure – it’s a buying opportunity. But what I know from watching this drama play out several times is that you cannot tell at the time whether it’s a buying opportunity, or a dead-cat bounce. It does not help at all to say “but the economy is okay.” Recalling that the Nasdaq’s peak was in March 2000: the Fed was still hiking rates in May of that year, and didn’t cut rates until 2001.  In late July 2000, GDP printed 5.2% following 4.8% in Q1. In October 2000, GDP for Q3 was reported to still be at 2.2%. Waiting for the economy to tell you that all was not well was very costly. By the time the Fed was alarmed enough to ease, in a surprise move on January 3, 2001, the S&P was down 16%. But fortunately, that ended it as stocks jumped 5% on the Fed’s move. Buy the dip!

By mid-2002, stocks were down about 50% from the high. Buying the dip was in that case precisely wrong.

Then there is the bear market of a decade ago. The October 2007 market high happened when the economy was still strong, although there were clearly underlying stresses in mortgages and mortgage banking and the Fed was already easing. Yet, on January 10, 2008, Fed Chairman Bernanke said “the Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.” On January 18, he said the economy “has a strong labor force, excellent productivity and technology, and a deep and liquid financial market that is in the process of repairing itself.” In June 2008, he said “The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so.” Stocks were already down 19%. It got somewhat worse…and it didn’t take long.

So the thing to remember is this: equities do not wait for earnings to suffer, or for forecasts of earnings to suffer, or for everyone to figure out that growth is flagging, or for someone to ring a bell. By the time we know why stocks are going down, it is too late. This is why using some discipline is important – crossing the 200-day moving average, or value metrics, or whatever. Or, decide you’ll hold through the -50% moves and ignore all the volatility. Good luck…but then why are you reading market commentary?

I don’t know that stocks are going to enter a bear market. I don’t know if they’ll go down tomorrow or next week or next month. I have a pretty strong opinion about expected real returns over the next 10 years. And for that opinion to be realized, there will have to be a bear market (or two) in there somewhere. So it will not surprise me at any time if a bear market begins, especially from lofty valuation levels. But my point in this article is just to provide some historical context. And my general advice, which is not specific to any particular person reading this, is that if anyone tells you that price moves like this are ‘capitulation’ to be followed by ‘v-shaped recoveries,’ then don’t just walk away but run away. They haven’t any idea, and that advice might make you a few percent or lose you 50%.

To be sure, don’t panic and abandon whatever plan you had, simply because other people are nervous. As Frank Herbert wrote, “fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” This is why having a plan is so important! And I also think that plans should focus on the long term, and on your personal goals, and matching your long-term investments to those goals. Rebalancing and compounding are powerful tools, as is a value ethic of buying securities that have a margin of safety.

And, of course, diversification. Bonds today did what they’re supposed to do when ‘risky assets’ take a tumble: they rallied. As I noted on Friday: “I am not saying that interest rates are going directly from 3% to 6%. Indeed, the rates/equity ecosystem is inherently self-dampening to some degree (at least, until we reach a level where we’ve exceeded the range of the spring’s elasticity!) in that if equity prices were to head very much lower, interest rates would respond under a belief that central bankers would moderate their tightening paths in the face of weak equities.” The problem with nominal bonds at this point, though, is that they’re too expensive. At these yields, there is a limit to the diversification they can provide, especially if what is going to drive the bear market in stocks is rising inflation. Bonds will diversify against the sharp selloff, but not against the inflation spiral. (I’ve said it before and I will say it again. If you haven’t read Ben Inker’s piece in the latest GMO quarterly, arguing why inflation is a bigger risk for portfolios right now than recession, do so. “What happened to inflation? And What happens if it comes back?”)

Which brings us to commodities. If the factor driving an equity bear market turns out to be inflation, then commodities should remain uncoupled from equities. For the last few days, commodity indices have declined along with equities – not nearly as much, of course, but the same sign. But if the problem is a fear of inflation then commodities should be taking the baton from stocks.

So there you go. If the problem is rising interest rates, then that is a slow-moving problem that’s self-limiting because central banks will bring rates back down if stocks decline too far. If the problem is rising inflation, then commodities + inflation bonds should beat equities+nominal bonds. Given that commodities and inflation bonds are both relatively cheaper than their counterparts, I’d rather bet that way and have some protection in both circumstances.

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Retail Investors Aren’t As Stupid As They Tell You

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Let’s face it, when it comes to the bullish/bearish argument about equities these days, the bears have virtually all of the arguments in their favor. Not all, but almost all. However, I always think the bears hurt their case with certain poor arguments that tend to be repeated a lot – in fact, it’s one way to tell the perma-bears from the thoughtful bears.

One of the arguments I have seen recently is that retail investors are wayyy out over their skis, and are very heavily invested in stocks with very low cash assets. This chart, which I saw in a recent piece by John Mauldin, is typical of the genre.

Now, bears are supposed to be the skeptics in the equation, and there is just nowhere near enough skepticism being directed at the claim that retail investors are being overly aggressive. Gosh, the first place a person could start is with asking “shouldn’t allocations properly be lower now, with zero returns to cash, than they were when yields were higher?”

But as it turns out, we don’t even have to ask that question because there’s a simpler one that makes this argument evaporate. Consider an investor who, instead of actively allocating to stocks when they’re “hot” (stupid retail investor! Always long at the top!) and away from them when they’re “cold” (dummy! That’s when you should be loading up!), is simply passive. He/she begins in mid-2005 (when the chart above begins) with a 13% cash allocation and the balance of 87% allocated to stocks. Thereafter, the investor goes to sleep for twelve years. The cash investments gain slowly according to the 3-month T-Bill rate; the equity investments fluctuate according to the change in the Wilshire 5000 Total Market index. This investor’s cash allocation ends up looking like this.

How interesting! It turns out that since the allocation to cash is, mathematically, CASH / (CASH+STOCKS), when the denominator declines due to stock market declines the overall cash ratio moves automatically! Thus, it seems that maybe what we’re looking at in the “scary” chart is just the natural implication of fluctuating markets and uninvolved, as opposed to returns-chasing, investors.

Actually, it gets better than that. I put the second chart on top of the first chart, so that the axes correspond.

It turns out that retail investors are actually much more in cash than a passive investor would be. In other words, instead of being the wild-and-woolly returns chasers it turns out that retail investors seem to have been responding to higher prices by raising cash, doing what attentive investors should do: rebalancing. So much for this bearish argument (to be clear, I think the bears are correct – it’s just that this argument is lame).

Isn’t math fun?

The Limits to Trusting the Robots

October 20, 2017 1 comment

After another day on Thursday of stocks starting to look mildly tired – but only mildly – only to rally back to a new closing high, it hardly seems unusual any more. I have to keep pinching myself, reminding myself that this is historically abnormal. Actually, very abnormal. If the S&P 500 Total Return Index ends this month with a gain, it will be the second time in history that has happened. The other time was in 1936, as stocks bounced back from a deep bear market (at the end of those 12 months, in March 1936, stocks were still 54% off the 1929 highs). A rally this month would also mean that stocks have gained for 19 out of the last 20 months, the longest streak with just one miss since…1936 again.

But we aren’t rebounding from ‘oversold.’ This seems to be a different situation.

What is going on is confounding the wise and the foolish alike. Every dip is bought; the measures of market constancy (noted above, for example) are at all-time highs and the measures of market volatility such as the VIX are at all-time lows. It is de rigeur at this point to sneer “what could go wrong?” and you may assume I have indeed so sneered. But I also am curious about whether there is some kind of feedback loop at work that could cause this to go on far longer than it “should.”

To be sure, it shouldn’t. By many measures, equities are at or near all time measures of richness. The ones that are not at all-time highs are still in the top decile. Buying equities (or for that matter, bonds) at these levels ought to be a recipe for a capitalistic disaster. And yet, value guys are getting carried out left and right.

Does the elimination (with extreme prejudice) of value traders have any implications?

There has been lots of research about market composition: models, for example, that examine how “noise” and “signal” traders come together to create markets that exhibit the sorts of characteristics that normal markets do. Studies of what proportion of “speculators” you need, compared to “hedgers,” to make markets efficient or to cause them to have bubbles form.

So my question is, what if the combination of “buy the dip” micro-time-frame value guys, combine with the “risk parity” guys, represents a stable system?

Suppose equity volatility starts to rise. Then the risk-parity guys will start to sell equities, which will push prices lower and tend to push volatility higher. But then the short-term value guys step in to ‘buy the dip.’ To be clear, these are not traditional value investors, but rather more like the “speculators” in the hedger/speculator formulation of the market. These are people who buy something that has gone down, because it has gone down and is therefore cheaper, as opposed to the people who sell something that has gone down, because the fact that it has gone down means that it is more likely to go down further. In options-land, the folks buying the dip are pursuing a short-volatility strategy while the folks selling are pursuing a long-volatility strategy.[1]

Once the market has been stabilized by the buy-the-dip folks, who might be for example hedging a long options position (say, volatility arbitrage guys who are long actual options and short the VIX), then volatility starts to decline again, bringing the risk-parity guys back into equities and, along with the indexed long-only money that is seeking beta regardless of price, pushing the market higher. Whereupon the buy-the-dip guys get out with their scalped profit but leaving prices higher, and volatility lower, than it started (this last condition is necessary because otherwise it ends up being a zero-sum game. If prices keep going higher and implied volatility lower, it need not be zero-sum, which means both sides are being rewarded, which means that we would see more and more risk-parity guys – which we do – and more and more delta-hedging-buy-the-dip guys – which we do).

Obviously this sort of thing happens. My question though is, what if these different activities tend to offset in a convergent rather than divergent way, so that the system is stable? If this is what is happening then traditional value has no meaning, and equities can ascend arbitrary heights of valuation and implied volatility can decline arbitrarily low.

Options traders see this sort of stability in micro all the time. If there is lots of open interest in options around, say, the 110 strike on the bond contract, and the Street (or, more generally, the sophisticated and leveraged delta-hedgers) is long those options, then what tends to happen is that if the bond contract happens to be near 110 when expiry nears it will often oscillate around that strike in ever-declining swings. If I am long 110 straddles and the market rallies to 110-04, suddenly because of my gamma position I find myself long the market since my calls are in the money and my puts are not. If I sell my delta at 110-04, then I have locked in a small profit that helps to offset the large time decay that is going to make my options lose all of their remaining time value in a short while.[2] So, if the active traders are all long options at this strike, what happens is that when the bond goes to 110-04, all of the active folks sell to try and scalp their time decay, pushing the bond back down. When it goes to 99-28, they all buy. Then, the next time up, the bond gets to 110-03 and the folks who missed delta-hedging the last time say “okay, this time I will get this hedge off” and sell, so the oscillation is smaller. Sometimes it gets really hard to have any chance of covering time decay at all because this process results in the market stabilizing right at 110-00 right up until expiration. And that stabilization happens because of the traders hedging long-volatility positions in a low-volatility environment.

But for the options trader, that process has an end – options expiration. In the market process I am describing where risk-parity flows are being offset by buy-the-dip traders…is there an end, or can that process continue ad infinitum or at least, “much longer than you think it can?”

Spoiler alert: it already has continued much longer than I thought it could.

There is, however, a limit. These oscillations have to reach some de minimus level or it isn’t worth it to the buy-the-dip guys to buy the dip, and it isn’t worth reallocation of risk-parity strategies. This level is much lower now than it has been in the past, thanks to the spread of automated trading systems (i.e., robots) that make the delta-hedging process (or its analog in this system) so efficient that it requires less actual volatility to be profitable. But there is a limit. And the limit is reach two ways, in fact, because the minimum oscillation needed is a function of the capital to be deployed in the hedging process. I can hedge a 1-lot with a 2 penny oscillation in a stock. But I can’t get in and out of a million shares that way. So, as the amount of capital deployed in these strategies goes up, it actually raises the potential floor for volatility, below which these strategies aren’t profitable (at least in the long run). However, there could still be an equilibrium in which the capital deployed in these strategies, the volatility, and the market drift are all balanced, and that equilibrium could well be at still-lower volatility and still-higher market prices and still-larger allocations to risk-parity etc.

It seems like a good question to ask, the day after the 30th anniversary of the first time that the robots went crazy, “how does this stable system break down?” And, as a related question, “is the system self-stabilizing when perturbed, or does it de-stabilize?”

Some systems are self-stabilizing with small perturbations and destabilizing with larger perturbations. Think of a marble rolling around in a bowl. A small push up the side of the bowl will result in the marble eventually returning to the bottom of the bowl; a large push will result in the marble leaving the bowl entirely. I think we are in that sort of system. We have seen mild events, such as the shock of Brexit or Trump’s electoral victory, result in mild volatility that eventually dampened and left stocks at a higher level. I wonder if, as more money is employed in risk parity, the same size perturbation might eventually be divergent – as volatility rises, risk parity sells, and if the amount of dip-buyers is too small relative to the risk parity sellers, then the dip-buyers don’t stabilize the rout and eventually become sellers themselves.

If that’s the secret…if it’s the ratio of risk-parity money to dip-buyer money that matters in order to keep this a stable, symbiotic relationship, then there are two ways that the system can lose stability.

The first is that risk parity strategies can attract too much money. Risk parity is a liquidity-consumer, as they tend to be sellers when volatility is rising and buyers when volatility is falling. Moreover, they tend to be sellers of all assets when correlations are rising, and buyers of all assets when correlations are falling. And while total risk-parity fund flows are hard to track, there is little doubt that money is flowing to these strategies. For example one such fund, the Columbia Adaptive Risk Allocation Fund (CRAZX), has seen fairly dramatic increases in total assets over the last year or so (see chart, source Bloomberg. Hat tip to Peter Tchir whose Forbes article in May suggested this metric).

The second way that ratio can lose stability is that the money allocated to buy-the-dip strategies declines. This is even harder to track, but I suspect it is related to two things: the frequency and size of reasonable dips to buy, and the value of buying the dip (if you buy the dip, and the market keeps going down, then you probably don’t think you did well). Here are two charts, with the data sourced from Bloomberg (Enduring Intellectual Properties calculations).

The former chart suggests that dip-buyers may be getting bored as there are fewer dips to buy (90% of the time over the last 180 days, the S&P 500 has been within 2% of its high). The latter chart suggests that the return to buying the dip has been low recently, but in general has been reasonably stable. This is essentially a measure of realized volatility. In principle, though, forward expectations about the range should be highly correlated to current implied volatility so the low level of the VIX implies that buying the dip shouldn’t give a large return to the upside. So in this last chart, I am trying to combine these two items into one index to give an overall view of the attractiveness of dip buying. This is the VIX, minus the 10th percentile of dips to buy.

I don’t know if this number by itself means a whole lot, but it does seem generally correct: the combination of fewer dips and lower volatility means dip-buying should become less popular.

But if dip-buying becomes less popular, and risk-parity implies more selling on dips…well, that is how you can get instability.

[1] This is not inconsistent with how risk parity is described in this excellent paper by Artemis Capital Management (h/t JN) – risk parity itself is a short volatility strategy; to hedge the delta of a risk parity strategy you sell when markets are going down and buy when markets are going up, replicating a synthetic long volatility position to offset.

[2] If this is making your eyes glaze over, skip ahead. It’s hard to explain this dynamic briefly unless I assume some level of options knowledge in the reader. But I know many of my readers don’t have that requisite knowledge. For those who do, I think this may resonate however so I’m plunging forward.

Hard to Sugar-Coat Nonsense Like This

July 20, 2017 3 comments

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One of the things that fascinates me about markets – and one of the reasons I think “Irrational Exuberance”, now in its third edition, is one of the best books on markets that there is – is how ‘storytelling’ takes the place of rational analysis so easily. Moreover, almost as fascinating is how easily those stories are received uncritically. Consider this blurb on Bloomberg from Wednesday (name of the consultant removed so as not to embarrass him):

Sugar: Talk in market is that climate change has pushed back arrival of winter in Brazil and extended the high-risk period for frost beyond July, [name removed], risk management consultant for [company name removed] in Miami, says by telephone.

Sugar futures have recently been bouncing after a long decline. From February through June, October Sugar dropped from 20.40 cents/lb to 12.74¢; since the end of June, that contract has rallied back to 14.50¢ (as of Wednesday), a 14% rally after a 38% decline. There are all sorts of reasons this is happening, or may be happening. So let’s think about ‘climate change’ as an explanation.

There are several layers here but it boils down to this: the consultant is saying (attributing it to “talk in the market,” but even relaying this gem seems like gross negligence) that the rally in the last few weeks is due to a change in the timing of the arrival of winter…a change which, even if you believe the craziest global warming scaremongers, could not possibly have been large enough over the last decade to be measurable against the backdrop of other natural oscillations. Put another way, in late June “the market” thought the price of sugar ought to be about 12.74¢/lb. Then, “the market” suddenly realized that global warming is increasing the risk to the sugar crop. Despite the fact that this change – if it is happening at all – is occurring over a time frame of decades and centuries, and isn’t exactly suffering from a lack of media coverage, the sugar traders just heard the news this month.

Obviously, that’s ridiculous. What is fascinating is that, as I said, in this story there are at least 4 credulous parties: the consultant, the author of the blurb, the editor of the story, and at least part of the readership. Surely, it is a sign of the absolute death of critical thinking that only habitual skeptics are likely to notice and object to such nonsense?

Behavioral economists attribute these stories to the need to make sense of seemingly-random occurrences in our universe. In ancient times, primitive peoples told stories about how one god stole the sun every night and hid it away until the morning, to explain what “night” is. Attributing the daily light/dark cycle to a deity doesn’t really help explain the phenomenon in any way that is likely to be useful, but it is comforting. Similarly, traders who are short sugar (as the chart below, source Floating Path, shows based on June 27th data) may be comforted to believe that it is global warming, and not unusually short positioning, that is causing the rally in sugar.

As all parents know, too much sugar (or at least, being short it) isn’t good for your sleep. But perhaps a nice story will help…

 

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