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Nudge at Neptune

Okay, I get it. Your stockbroker is telling you not to worry about inflation: it’s really low, core inflation hasn’t been above 3% for two decades…and, anyway, the Fed is really trying to push it higher, he says, so if it goes up then that’s good too. Besides, some inflation isn’t necessarily bad for equities since many companies can raise end product prices faster than they have to adjust wages they pay their workers.[1] So why worry about something we haven’t seen in a while and isn’t necessarily that bad? Buy more FANG, baby!

Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that your stockbroker, if he or she is under 55 years old, has never seen an investing environment with inflation. Also keep in mind that the stories and scenes of wild excess on Wall Street don’t come from periods when equities are in a bear market. I’m just saying that there’s a reason to be at least mildly skeptical of your broker’s advice to own “100 minus your age” in stocks when you’re young, which morphs into advice to “owning more stocks since you’re likely to have a long retirement” when you get a bit older.

Many financial professionals are better-compensated, explicitly or implicitly, when stocks are going up. This means that even many of the honest ones, who have their clients’ best interests at heart, can’t help but enjoy it when the stock market rallies. Conversations with clients are easier when their accounts are going up in size every day and they feel flush. There’s a reason these folks didn’t go into selling life insurance. Selling life insurance is really hard – you have to talk every day to people and remind them that they’re going to die. I’d hate to be an insurance salesman.

And yet, I guess that’s sort of what I am.

Insurance is about managing risks. Frankly, investing should also be about managing risks – about keeping as much upside as you can, while maintaining an adequate margin of safety. Said another way, it’s about buying that insurance as cheaply as you can so that you don’t spend all of your money on insurance. That’s why diversification is such a powerful idea: owning 20 stocks, rather than 1 stock, gets you downside protection against idiosyncratic risks – essentially for free. Owning multiple asset classes is even more powerful, because the correlations between asset classes are generally lower than the correlations between stocks. Diversification works, and it’s free, so we do it.

So let’s talk about inflation protection. And to talk about inflation protection, I bring you…NASA.

How can we prevent an asteroid impact with Earth?

The key to preventing an impact is to find any potential threat as early as possible. With a couple of decades of warning, which would be possible for 100-meter-sized asteroids with a more capable detection network, several options are technically feasible for preventing an asteroid impact.

Deflecting an asteroid that is on an impact course with Earth requires changing the velocity of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact.

Would it be possible to shoot down an asteroid that is about to impact Earth?

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.

NASA is also in the business of risk mitigation, and actually their problem is similar to the investor’s problem: find protection, as cheaply as possible, that allows us to retain most of the upside. We can absolutely protect astronauts in space from degradation of their DNA from cosmic rays, with enough shielding. The problem is that the more shielding you add, the harder it is to go very far, very fast, in space. So NASA wants to find the cheapest way to have an effective cosmic ray shield. And, in the ‘planetary defense’ role for NASA, they understand that deflecting an asteroid from hitting the Earth is much, much easier if we do it very early. A nudge when a space rock is out at the orbit of Neptune is all it takes. But wait too long, and there is no way to prevent the devastating impact.

Yes, inflation works the same way.

The impact of inflation on a normal portfolio consisting of stocks and bonds is devastating. Rising inflation hurts bonds because interest rates rise, and it hurts stocks because multiples fall. There is no hiding behind diversification in a ’60-40’ portfolio when inflation rises. Other investments/assets/hedges need to be put into the mix. And when inflation is low, and “high” inflation is far away, it is inexpensive to protect against that portfolio impactor. I have written before about how low commodities prices are compared with equity prices, and in January I also wrote a piece about why the expected return to commodities is actually rising even as commodities go sideways.

TIPS breakevens are also reasonable. While 10-year breakevens have risen from 1.70% to 2.10% over the last 9 months or so, that’s still below current median inflation, and below where core inflation will be in a few months as the one-offs subside. And it’s still comfortably below where 10-year breaks have traded in normal times for the last 15 years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

It is true that there are not a lot of good ways for smaller investors to simply go long inflation. But you can trade out your nominal Treasuries for inflation bonds, own commodities, and if you have access to UCITS that trade in London there is INFU, which tracks 10-year breakevens. NASA doesn’t have a lot of good options, either, for protecting against an asteroid impact. But there are many more plausible options, if you start early, than if you wait until inflation’s trajectory is inside the orbit of the moon.


[1] Your stockbroker conveniently forgets that P/E multiples contract as inflation rises past about 3%. Also, your stockbroker conveniently abandons the argument about how businesses can raise prices before raising wages, meaning that consumer inflation leads wage inflation, when he points to weak wage growth and says “there’s no wage-push inflation.” Actually, your stockbroker sounds like a bit of an ass.

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Kicking Tails

February 12, 2018 5 comments

Note: my articles are now released about 8 hours earlier on the blog site and on my private Twitter feed @inflation_guyPV, which you can sign up for here, than they are released on my ‘regular’ Twitter feed. Moreover, until this Friday you can use the code “onefree” at checkout to get $10 off, which means you get a free month when you sign up!


Like many people, I find that poker strategy is a good analogy for risk-taking in investing. Poker strategy isn’t as much about what cards you are dealt as it is about how you play the cards you are dealt. As it is with markets, you can’t control the flop – but you can still correctly play the cards that are out there.[1] Now, in poker we sometimes discover that someone at the table has amassed a large pile of chips by just being lucky and not because they actually understand poker strategy. Those are good people to play against, because luck is fickle. The people who started trading stocks in the last nine years, and have amassed a pile of chips by simply buying every dip, are these people.

All of this is prologue to the observation I have made from time to time about the optimal sizing of investment ‘bets’ under conditions of uncertainty. I wrote a column about this back in 2010 (here I link to the abbreviated re-blog of that column) called “Tales of Tails,” which talks about the Kelly Criterion and the sizing of optimal bets given the current “edge” and “odds” faced by the bettor. I like the column and look back at it myself with some regularity, but here is the two-sentence summary: lower prices imply putting more chips on the table, while higher volatility implies taking chips off of the table. In most cases, the lower edge implied by higher volatility outweighs the better odds from lower prices, which means that it isn’t cowardly to scale back bets on a pullback but correct to do so.

When you hear about trading desks having to cut back bets because the risk control officers are taking into account the higher VAR, they are doing half of this. They’re not really taking into account the better odds associated with lower prices, but they do understand that higher volatility implies that bets should be smaller.

In the current circumstance, the question merely boils down to this. How much have your odds improved with the recent 10% decline in equity prices? Probably, only a little bit. In the chart below, which is a copy of the chart in the article linked to above, you are moving in the direction from brown-to-purple-to-blue, but not very far. But the probability of winning is moving left.

Note that in this picture, a Kelly bet that is less than zero implies taking the other side of the bet, or eschewing a bet if that isn’t possible. If you think the chance that the market will go up (edge) is less than 50-50 you need better payoffs on a rally than on a selloff (odds). If not, then you’ll want to be short. (In the context of recent sports bets: prior to the game, the Patriots were given a better chance of winning so to take the Eagles at a negative edge, you needed solid odds in your favor).

Now if, on the other hand, you think the market selloff has taken us to “good support levels” so that there is little downside risk – and you think you can get out if the market breaks those support levels – and much more upside risk, then you are getting good odds and a positive edge and probably want to bet aggressively. But that is to some extent ignoring the message of higher implied volatility, which says that a much wider range of outcomes is possible (and higher implied volatility moves the delta of an in-the-money option closer to 0.5).

This is why sizing bets well in the first place, and adjusting position sizes quickly with changes in market conditions, is very important. Prior to the selloff, the market’s level suggested quite poor odds such that even the low volatility permitted limited bets – probably a lot more limited than many investors had in place, after many years of seeing bad bets pay off.


[1] I suspect that Bridge might be as good an analogy, or even better, but I don’t know how to play Bridge. Someday I should learn.

Categories: Analogy, Investing, Theory, Trading

Are Rising Yields Actually a Good Thing?

February 6, 2018 2 comments

I’ve recently been seeing a certain defense of equities that I think is interesting. It runs something like this:

The recent rise in interest rates, which helped cause the stock market swoon, is actually a good thing because interest rates are rising due to a strong economy and increasing demand for capital, which pushes up interest rates. Therefore, stocks should actually not mind the increase in interest rates because it’s an indication of a strong economy.

This is a seductive argument. It’s wrong, but it’s seductive. Not only wrong, in fact, but wrong in ways that really shouldn’t confuse any economist or strategist writing in the last twenty years.

Up until the late 1990s, we couldn’t really tell the main reason that nominal interest rates were rising or falling. For an increase in market rates there are two main potential causes: an increase in real interest rates, which can be good if that increase is being caused by an increasing demand for credit rather than by a decreasing supply, and an increase in inflation expectations, which is an unalloyed negative. But in 1995, we would have had to just guess which was causing the increase in interest rates.

But since 1997, we’ve had inflation-linked bonds, which trade on the basis of real yield. So we no longer have to guess why nominal rates are rising. We can simply look.

The chart below shows the decomposition of 10-year nominal yields since early December. The red line, which corresponds to the left scale, shows “breakevens,” or the simple difference between real yields and nominal yields; the blue line, on the right-hand scale, shows real yields. So if you combine the two lines at any point, you get nominal yields.

Real yields represent the actual supply and demand for the use of capital. That is, if I lend the government money for ten years, then in order to entice me to forego current consumption the government must promise that every year I will accumulate about 0.68% more ‘stuff.’ I can consume more in the future by not consuming as much now. To turn that into a nominal yield, I then have to add some premium to represent how much the dollars I will get back in the future, and which I will use to buy that ‘stuff’, will have declined in value. That of course is inflation expectations, and right now investors who lend to the government are using about 2.1% as their measure of the rate of deterioration of the value of the dollar.[1]

So, can we say from this chart that interest rates are mainly rising for “good” reasons? On the contrary! The increase in inflation expectations has been much steadier; only in the last month have real interest rates risen (and we don’t know, by the way, whether they’re even rising because of credit demand, rather than credit supply). Moreover – although you cannot see this from the chart, I can tell you based on proprietary Enduring Intellectual Properties research that at this level of yields, real yields are usually responsible for almost all of the increase or decrease in nominal yields.[2] So the fact that real yields are providing a little less than half of the selloff? That doesn’t support the pleasant notion of a ‘good’ bond selloff at all.

As I write this, we are approaching the equity market close. For most of the day, equities have been trading a bit above or a bit below around Monday’s closing level. While this beats the heck out of where they were trading overnight, it is a pretty feeble technical response. If you are bullish, you would like to see price reject that level as buyers flood in. But instead, there was pretty solid volume at this lower level. That is more a bearish sign than a bullish sign. However, given the large move on Friday and Monday it was unlikely that we would close near unchanged – so the last-hour move was either going to be significantly up or significantly down. Investors chose up, which is good news. But the bad news is that the end-of-day rally never took us above the bounce-high from yesterday’s last hour, and was on relatively weak volume…and I also notice that energy prices have not similarly rallied.


[1] In an article last week I explained why we tend to want to use inflation swaps rather than breakevens to measure inflation expectations, but in this case I want to have the two pieces add up to nominal Treasury yields so I am stuck with breakevens. As I noted in that article, the 2.1% understates what actual inflation expectations are for 10 years.

[2] TIPS traders would say “the yield beta between TIPS and nominals is about 1.0.”

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.

Why Commodities Are a Better Bet These Days

January 16, 2018 7 comments

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It’s been a long time since an article about commodities felt like ‘click bait.’ After all, commodity indices have been generally declining for about seven years – although 2016 saw a small advance – and the Bloomberg Commodity Index today sits 63% below its all-time high set in the summer of 2008. I’ve written before, quite a bit, about this absurdity of the market, represented in the following chart comparing one real asset (equities) to another real asset (commodities). The commodity index here is the Bloomberg spot index, so it does not include the drag (boost) from contango (backwardation).

This is the fair comparison for a forward-looking analysis. Some places you will see the commodity index plotted against the S&P, as below. Such a chart makes the correct inference about the historic returns to these two markets; the prior chart makes a more poignant point about the current pricing of stocks versus commodities.

There’s nothing that says these two markets should move in lock-step as they did from 2003-2007, but they ought to at least behave similarly, one would think. So it is hard to escape the reasoning that commodities are currently very cheap to equities, as one risk-asset to another.

Furthermore, commodity indices offer inflation protection. Here are the correlations between the GSCI and headline inflation, core inflation, and the change in those measures, since 1970 and 1987 respectively.

Stocks? Not so much!

So, commodities look relatively cheap…or, anyway, they’re relatively cheaper, having gone down for 7 years while stocks went higher for 7 years. And they give inflation protection, while stocks give inflation un-protection. So what’s not to like? How about performance! The last decade has been incredibly rough for commodities index investors. However, this is abnormal. In a watershed paper in 2006 called Facts and Fantasies about Commodity Futures, Gorton and Rouwenhorst illustrated that, historically, equities and commodity futures have essentially equivalent monthly returns and risks over the period from 1959-2004.

Moreover, because the drivers of commodity index returns in the long run are not primarily spot commodity prices[1] but, rather, the returns from collateral, from roll or convenience yield, from rebalancing, and from “expectational variance” that produces positive skewness and kurtosis in commodity return distributions,[2] we can make some observations about how expected returns should behave between two points in time.

For example, over the last few years commodities markets have been heavily in contango, meaning that in general spot prices were below forward prices. The effect of this on a long commodity index strategy is that when futures positions are rolled to a new contract month, they are being rolled to higher prices. This drag is substantial. The chart below shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index spot return, compared to the return of the index as a whole, since 2008. The markets haven’t all been in contango, and not all of the time. But they have been in serious contango enough to cause the substantial drag you can see here.

So here is the good news. Currently, futures market contango is the lowest it has been in quite a while. In the last two years, the average contango from the front contract to the 1-year-out contract has gone from 15% or so to about 2% backwardation, using GSCI weights (I know I keep switching back and forth from BCOM to GSCI. I promise there’s nothing sinister about it – it just depends what data I had to hand when I made that chart or when it was calculated automatically, such as the following chart which we compute daily).

That chart implies a substantial change in the drag from roll yield – in fact, depending on your weights in various commodities the roll yield may currently be additive.

The other positive factor is the increase in short-term interest rates. Remember that a commodity index is (in most cases) represents a strategy of holding and rolling futures contracts representing the desired commodity weights. To implement that strategy, an investor must put up collateral – and so an unlevered commodity index return consists partly of the return on that particular collateral. It is generally assumed that the collateral is three-month Treasury Bills. Since the financial crisis, when interest rates went effectively to zero in the US, the collateral return has approximated zero. However, surprise! One positive effect of the Fed’s hiking of rates is to improve projected commodity index returns by 1.5-2% per year (and probably more this year). The chart below shows 3-month TBill rates.

I hope this has been helpful. For the last 5 years, investing in commodities was partly a value/mean-reversion play. This is no longer so true: the change in the shape of the futures curves, combined with rising interest rates, has added substantially to the expected return of commodity indices going forward. It’s about time!


[1] This is a really important point. When people say “commodities always go down in the long run because of increased production,” they’re talking about spot commodity prices. That may be a good reason not to own spot gold or silver, or any physical commodity. Commodity spot returns are mean reverting with a downward slant in real space, true. But a commodity index gets its volatility from spot returns, but its main sources of long term return are actually not terribly related to spot commodities prices.

[2] In other words while stocks “crash” downwards, commodities tend to “crash” upwards. But this isn’t necessary to understand what follows. I just want to be complete. The term “expectational variance” was coined by Grant Gardner.

Point Forecast for Real Equity Returns in 2018

January 3, 2018 2 comments

Point forecasts are evil.

Economists are asked to make point forecasts, and they oblige. But it’s a dumb thing to do, and they know it. Practitioners, who should know better, rely on these point forecasts far more than they should. Because, in economics and especially in markets, there are enormous error bars around any reasonable point forecast, and those error bars are larger the shorter-term the forecast is (if there is any mean-reversion at all). I can no more forecast tomorrow’s change in stock market prices than I can forecast whether I will draw a red card from a deck of cards that you hand me. I can make a reasonable 5-year or 10-year forecast, at least on a compounded annualized basis, but in the short term the noise simply swamps the signal.[1]

Point forecasts are especially humorous when it comes to the various year-end navel-gazing forecasts of stock market returns that we see. These forecasts almost never have fair error bars around the estimate…because, if they did, there would be no real point in publishing them. I will illustrate that – and in the meantime, please realize that this implies the forecast pieces are, for the most part, designed to be marketing pieces and not really science or research. So every sell-side firm will forecast stock market rallies every year without fail. Some buy side firms (Hoisington springs to mind) will predict poor returns, and that usually means they are specializing in something other than stocks. A few respectable firms (GMO, e.g.) will be careful to make only long-term forecasts, over periods of time in which their analysis actually has some reasonable predictive power, and even then they’ll tend to couch their analysis in terms of risks. These are good firms.

So let’s look at why point forecasts of equity returns are useless. The table below shows Enduring’s year-end 10-year forecast for the compounded real return on the S&P 500, based on a model that is similar to what GMO and others use (incorporating current valuation levels and an assumption about how those valuations mean-revert).[2] That’s in the green column labeled “10y model point forecast.” To that forecast, I subtract (to the left) and add (to the right) one standard deviation, based on the year-end spot VIX index for the forecast date.[3] Those columns are pink. Then, to the right of those columns, I present the actual subsequent real total return of the S&P 500 that year, using core CPI to deflate the nominal return; the column the farthest to the right is the “Z-score” and tells how many a priori standard deviations the actual return differed from the “point forecast.” If the volatility estimate is a good one, then roughly 68% of all of the observations should be between -1 and +1 in Z score. And hello, how about that? 14 of the 20 observations fall in the [-1,1] range.

Clearly, 2017 was remarkable in that we were 1.4 standard deviations above the 12/31/2016 forecast of +1.0% real. Sure, that “forecast” is really a forecast of the long-term average real return, but that’s not a bad place to start for a guess about next year’s return, if we must make a point forecast.

This is all preliminary, of course, to the forecast implied by the year-end figures in 2017. The forecast we would make would be that real S&P returns in 2018 have a 2/3 chance of being between -10.9% and +11.1%, with a point forecast (for what that’s worth) of +0.10%. In other words, a rally this year by more than CPI rises is still as likely as heads on a coin flip, even though a forecast of 0.10% real is a truly weak forecast and the weakest implied by this model in a long time.

It is clearly the worst time to be invested in equities since the early 2000s. Even so, there’s a 50-50 chance we see a rally in 2018. That’s not a very good marketing pitch. But it’s better science.[4]


[1] Obligatory Robert Shiller reference: his 1981 paper “Do Stock Prices Move Too Much to be Justified by Subsequent Changes in Dividends” formulated the “excess volatility puzzle,” which essentially says that there’s a lot more noise than signal in the short run.

[2] Forecasts prior to 2009 predate this firm and are arrived at by applying the same methodology to historical data. None of these are discretionary forecasts and none should be taken as implying any sort of recommendation. They may differ from our own discretionary forecasts. They are for illustration only. Buyer beware. Etc.

[3] The spot VIX is an annualized volatility but incorporating much nearer-term option expiries than the 1-year horizon we want. However, since the VIX futures curve generally slopes upward this is biased narrow.

[4] And, I should hasten point out: it does have implications for portfolio allocations. With Jan-2019 TIPS yielding 0.10% real – identical to the equity point forecast but with essentially zero risk around that point – any decent portfolio allocation algorithm will favor low-risk real bonds over stocks more than usual (even though TIPS pay on headline CPI, and not the core CPI I am using in the table).

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?

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