Archive for the ‘Stocks - U.S.’ Category

Stocks: Correction Odds

Friday, August 1st, 2014

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Stock Corrections: How Bad Can They Be And What Can We Do?

Friday, August 1st, 2014

2013-2014: Not A Good Benchmark

It has not been difficult to find “as long as the Fed is in charge, we will never have another serious correction” comments in recent weeks. The July 31 selloff in risk assets may have brought some back closer to reality. Key points regarding the real world and investment stress:

  1. If you are relatively new to the investing world, you may not have a realistic reference point to understand how painful stock market corrections can be.
  2. A trip down memory lane of market corrections (1982-2014) reminds us of what a typical year in the stock market can look like.
  3. Is there any way to reduce stress related to the fear of a correction or bear market?

A Trip Down Correction Memory Lane

Since weekends offer an opportunity to study markets and improve our approach to investing, it may be helpful to take a quick refresher course on stock market corrections. We will focus on two questions:

  1. How far can stocks drop?
  2. How long can corrections last?

Sample of Corrections 1982-2014

In 1984, stocks dropped 14.63%. Unlike the multiple-day pullbacks in 2013 and 2014, this correction lasted two hundred and eighty-eight calendar days (288).

The 1987 stock market crash occurred within the context of a bull market, and the bull market resumed relatively quickly. Therefore, it is relevant to our correction study and 2014.

In 1990, stocks corrected sharply, dropping 20% over eighty-seven calendar days.

We have covered the importance of the investment landscape in 1994 numerous times, including this March 21 article. Stocks slid just under 10%.

In 1998, the correction may have felt like a bear market based on the sharp declines witnessed on brokerage and 401k statements. The 1998 correction was outlined in more detail on April 2.

The 2010 Flash Crash was quite a bit more than a one-day media event. Stocks dropped 16.71% over sixty-seven calendar days.

A political stalemate in Washington and escalating fears of the end of the euro, helped push stocks down over 21% in 2011.

2014: Numerous Concerns

If you know your market history, you probably remember the fundamental drivers behind the corrections in 1984, 1987, 1990, 1998, 2010, and 2011. The drivers in 2014 could come from a combination of concerns. From Bloomberg:

“Investors have been looking for an excuse to sell,” Angus Gluskie, who helps oversee more than $550 million at White Funds Management in Sydney, said by phone. “We’ve got a range of convenient reasons for investors to take some money off the table. The geopolitical risks have been rising and data flow in the U.S. is suggesting that the Fed may have to raise interest rates sooner rather than later. The Argentine issue is another piece of adverse news flow.”

Corrections Can Be Harmful To Your Portfolio’s Health

What are the answers to our questions of how far can stocks drop and how long can corrections last? Based on the examples presented above, the average loss was 19.50% and the average duration was 114 calendar days. Can corrections be less painful? Sure, there are countless examples of more shallow pullbacks. However, understanding what is possible helps with investment contingency planning.

Markets Are A Difficult Nut To Crack

Anyone who has worked on Wall Street or managed their own investments will have little trouble agreeing with the following statement:

The financial markets are a difficult place to succeed, even for those who have flourished in other areas of their life or career.

Therefore, there is no shame in having some missteps on your investment resume. Like anything in life, we cannot expect to see improvement unless we are willing to make some positive changes.

Stress Is A Call To Action

It does not matter whether you are a professional trader or someone who is investing for retirement; the odds are good you have some holes in your approach to the financial markets. Stress is nature’s way of helping us identify those holes. While there is no system or investment approach that can eliminate stress, there are things you can do to improve your odds of investment success, while greatly reducing stress related to bullish and bearish scenarios for both stocks and bonds. If you are tossing and turning at night, the first step toward sounder sleep is to leverage the simple and powerful concepts from David Schwartz’s book The Magic Of Thinking Big:

Stress Reduction Through Contingency Planning

What causes investment stress? The biggest contributor is uncertainty…How far could stocks drop?…What should I do?…When should I do it?…What happens if we see a 20% correction?…What happens if it morphs into a bear market and my stocks drop 50%?…How will I ever be able to retire?…Will I have to go back to work?

Stress Will Drop If You Can Handle Extreme Cases

When testing your current approach to the markets, it is helpful to look at extreme outcomes. If you can handle the extremes, then you can handle almost anything in between. Therefore, if the questions below induce a high level of stress and uneasiness, it may be time for you to provide some leadership for your portfolio. Do you have specific and implementable plans in place for the three scenarios below?

  1. Case A: stocks and bonds fall simultaneously as they did in 1994.
  2. Case B: stocks rise an additional 91% over the next three years as they did during the final leg of the dot-com bubble (1997-2000).
  3. Case C: stocks drop over 50% as they did in the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 bear markets.

Two Paths To A Better Night’s Sleep

Individual investors have two “action cures fear” paths to take to improve their odds of investment success and worry less about the three market scenarios listed above:

  1. Path One: Build your own system to address the three extreme cases above.
  2. Path Two: Find an existing system or strategy that can handle all three cases.

The First Step Is Making A Decision To Take Action

Acknowledging the need for contingency plans and making a decision to do something about it will have a stress-reducing effect. A good next step is to set aside some quiet time when the markets are closed to outline a plan to move down one of the two paths above. If you want to build your own system, an article from last October may spark some ideas. If you decide to get some help from an advisor or money manager, make sure their approach to the markets passes the “that makes sense to me” test. Even the best systems in the world experience frustrating periods that require patience. A manager’s system is useless if you cannot stay invested during bumpy periods. Compatibility of philosophy between you and your manager will make it much easier to stay within the confines of the disciplined approach.

Investment Implications – Contingency Plans In Action

Our contingency plans are governed by our market model. The model entered Friday’s session with a very large allocation to cash to offset the market’s increasingly vulnerable risk-reward profile. Are contingency plans helpful in the area of stress reduction? We think so. Our approach has called for recent reductions in portfolio risk - lower risk is highly correlated with better sleep. The first tweet is from July 25 and the second from July 31.

What prompted the risk-reduction chess moves on July 25 and July 31? Observable shifts in the market’s tolerance for risk. Here are three examples of recent 2014 evidence that said “risks are increasing from a probability perspective”; last Friday’s video outlined evidence of waning bullish conviction, a July 26 article showed a lower high that was forming on the weekly NYSE Composite chart, and a July 30 piece showed evidence of concern on the ratio of stocks (SPY) relative to bonds (AGG).

While we are not fans of forecasting, the big picture in March 2014 is more in line with the increasing probability of a stock market correction, rather than a shift into a full-blown bear market. However, corrections can last several months and can do considerable damage to your portfolio and sleep cycle. Even if a corrective episode is averted in the short run, it is only a matter of time before the correction-less investment fantasy land comes to a painful end.

Stress-Reducing Plans vs. Stress-Inducing Plans

If your plan for investment success can be summed up with “I will figure it out as the investment landscape shifts over time”, your probability of success will be quite low. Traders have much shorter time horizons than investors, but they all have one thing in common; ad hoc and seat-of-the-pants traders are rarely successful. Professional traders who have a long history of producing above average results tend to spend much less time tossing and turning at night since:

  1. They have identified and understand what their edge is in the markets.
  2. They have risk management rules or systems in place to protect their hard-earned capital.
  3. They have backtested, but not curve-fitted, their approach to investing.
  4. They understand how markets price assets and their role within the bigger picture.
  5. They follow their systems and rules religiously. They do not rationalize away information from the markets.
  6. They have decided in advance how they will approach both favorable and unfavorable markets.

Further Weekend Study

Contingency planning is a quadrant two activity – important, but not urgent. Many of you know the importance of getting into quadrant two from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Weekends are a good time for getting into quadrant two. The articles below expand on the concepts covered above:

  1. You Need A Plan For Next Inevitable Bear Market
  2. The 2 Most Important Questions For Investors
  3. 1987 Vs. 2014: Should We Be Concerned About A Crash?
  4. Managing Risk In A Mature Bull Market
  5. 2014: Leverage The Power Of Now In Investing
  6. The Best 2014 Investment Advice

2014: Where Do We Go From Here?

Since this post was penned before the August 1 release of the monthly labor report, and before Friday’s trading session, it should be acknowledged that things are always subject to change, for better or worse. Entering Friday’s session, we were allocated in line with the evidence as of July 31. We have a good stake in cash, stocks (SPY), and a relatively small stake in Treasuries (TLT). If the evidence continues to deteriorate, we will continue to cut risk and possibly add defensive assets, such as a diversified basket of bonds (BND). If the evidence improves, we are open to redeploying our cash into growth-oriented assets, such as stocks (VTI).

Plan Is To Cut Risk Again Friday

Friday, August 1st, 2014

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Stocks: Risk Management Back In Vogue

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Fed: Sooner Than Expected?

We noted on July 26 and again on July 29 that recent data may force the Fed to raise rates sooner than the market expects. Note the first item in the The Wall Street Journal’s list of what may have sparked Thursday’s selloff:

Investors said an upbeat reading from the labor market sowed concerns about the Federal Reserve possibly raising rates quicker than many investors anticipate. Some pointed to disappointing earnings reports from U.S. companies Thursday, which disrupted what has been a strong season for corporate profits. Others pointed to Argentina’s default on some bonds and fresh worries that the euro zone’s central bank will need to provide more stimulus.

Evidence Showed Mounting Concerns

Regular readers know we use hard data and evidence in hand to assist with risk management. Three examples were helpful in recent days; last Friday’s video outlined evidence of waning bullish conviction, a July 26 article showed a lower high that was forming on the weekly NYSE Composite chart, and a July 30 piece showed evidence of concern on the ratio of stocks (SPY) relative to bonds (AGG).

Evidence Continues To Say Be Careful

Is there anything else that can help illustrate the observable shift in investor confidence that has been taking place? Yes, we could cite numerous examples, including the charts below showing the performance of the S&P 500 relative to the VIX Fear Index. The first chart shows a bullish breakout that occurred in early May (see green arrow). Notice how the risk-on vs. risk-off ratio stayed above previous resistance (red arrows) for several weeks and carried into July 4th weekend. The second chart shows the same ratio as of July 31. The breakout has been “given back”, which indicates investor concerns have increased sharply.

Inflation Creeping Into Wages?

Wednesday’s FOMC statement noted the Fed “will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments”. A big part of what spooked the markets Thursday was new data showing inflation potentially creeping into wages. From Reuters:

U.S. labor costs recorded their biggest gain in more than 5-1/2 years in the second quarter and a gauge of trends in the jobs market fell to an eight-year low last week, bolstering the economy’s outlook. Though economists cautioned against reading too much into the rise in the employment cost index, they said a tightening jobs market suggested wage growth would soon accelerate significantly.

Investment Implications – The Weight Of The Evidence

Our market model uses a wide array of inputs to monitor the stock market’s risk-reward profile. Enough deterioration was present on July 25 to trigger two rules-based defensive chess moves, cutting equity exposure (VTI) and adding some bond exposure (TLT), along with some cash.

Thursday’s broad selloff called for another reduction to the equity side of the equation. We will enter Friday’s session with more cash and an open and flexible mind. The market now needs to “prove it to us” before we will consider redeploying assets into growth-oriented assets. The key is not to anticipate or forecast – we need to see it.

Most Recent Comments Via Twitter

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

You can access them here (@CiovaccoCapital). You do not need to know anything about Twitter to view our comments or use the links to view charts.

Bullish Case: Improving or Deteriorating?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Fed Stays Easy

The Federal Reserve provided a mixed message Wednesday, but the tone remained equity friendly. From Reuters:

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday reaffirmed it was in no rush to raise interest rates, even as it upgraded its assessment of the U.S. economy and expressed some comfort that inflation was moving up toward its target. “Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further,” the Fed said in a statement. “However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.”

Stock Market Risk

When intraday volatility picks up, it is often difficult to see small changes that are taking place. For example, it may surprise some that the S&P 500 is down for the week through Wednesday; it has given back 8 points since last Friday’s close. The weekly chart on the left below shows the broader NYSE Composite Index as of July 4. The chart on the right is as of Wednesday’s close. What can we learn from them? While the big picture still favors bullish outcomes, the odds of the stock market morphing into a correction are higher today than they were on Independence Day.

Stocks Or Bonds?

Conventional wisdom is that stocks are a better place to be when the economy is expanding and interest rates are rising. The charts below show stocks (SPY) relative to bonds (AGG). The conviction to own stocks over bonds was stronger on July 4 than it is today. In fact, the basket of bonds is beating the S&P 500 this week.

Since weekly charts only plot one point per week (Friday’s close), the look of the charts above after the bell Friday is more important than intraweek.

GDP And The Fed

Wednesday started with a better than expected reading on the U.S. economy, which increased jitters heading into the 2:00 p.m. EDT Federal Reserve statement. From Bloomberg:

Today’s Commerce Department report showed gross domestic product expanded at a 4 percent annual pace in the second quarter, confirming the Fed’s view that a first-quarter contraction was transitory. Consumers, whose spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy, have grown more confident as the labor market improves and rising share prices boost wealth. “The GDP print this morning had given the market some pause as to how hawkish the Fed might be,” Stacey Nutt, chief investment officer at ClariVest Asset Management LLC in San Diego, California, said in an interview. “Now it seems like they were not as hawkish as feared.”

Investment Implications – The Weight Of The Evidence

Our approach is fairly simple, since the risk of bad things happening is marginally higher today, we prefer to take less risk than what we were willing to accept on July 4. Less risk does not mean “bearish”, “no risk”, “short”, or “100% bonds”. It simply means a lower allocation to stocks (VTI) and a slightly higher allocation to cash and bonds (TLT). If stocks are backed by improving conviction in the coming weeks, we are happy to increase the equity side of our portfolios. Conversely, if the charts continue to roll over in a bearish manner, we have already taken the first risk-reducing step. Currently, the weight of the evidence says, “stay long for the most part, but it is prudent to pay closer attention until things improve.” We will enter Thursday’s session with a flexible and open mind.

Most Recent Comments Via Twitter

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

You can access them here (@CiovaccoCapital). You do not need to know anything about Twitter to view our comments or use the links to view charts.

Fed Delivers Warning To Investors

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

The Federal Reserve is an interesting study in public relations. The Fed has twelve districts that release statements and publish studies. The Federal Reserve Board is comprised of seven members who often make public statements about monetary policy. The chair of the Federal Reserve Board also testifies and conducts Q&A sessions with the media. Often, statements coming from the various sources within the Fed seem to be highly contradictory and confusing, something that serves a purpose in the realm of monetary policy.

Fed Cares About Inflation Expectations

Experienced investors know central bankers care about their legacy, as most professionals do. While casual investors may believe all the Fed cares about is higher stock prices, the Fed is genuinely concerned about allowing inflation to get ahead of them. If inflation expectations begin to pick up, it can change habits, which ultimately can lead to real world inflation.

Fisher’s Shot Across The Bow

On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The text serves as a warning to complacent investors that the Fed cannot keep interest rates near zero indefinitely. The op-ed opens with a single sentence paragraph:

“I have grown increasingly concerned about the risks posed by current monetary policy.”

That is a pretty strong opening statement meant to get the attention of investors and businesses impacted by interest rates.

Making The Same Mistakes?

If you were investing during the dot-com bubble, you remember the Fed failed to tighten margin requirements, which allowed speculation to run rampant. The Fed is often criticized for “keeping rates too low for too long” between 2003 and 2005. For example, the Federal Funds Rate was at 2.25% in January 2005. In the July 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) opinion piece, Fisher states:

“I believe we are at risk of doing what the Fed has too often done: overstaying our welcome by staying too loose, too long.”

Incentives To Take On Risk

Fisher noted that Janet Yellen was also aware of the potential risks of maintaining the Fed’s current stance. From Fisher’s WSJ piece:

“In her recent lecture at the International Monetary Fund, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said, ‘I am also mindful of the potential for low interest rates to heighten the incentives of financial market participants to reach for yield and take on risk, and of the limits of macroprudential measures to address these and other financial stability concerns.’ She added that ‘[a]ccordingly, there may be times when an adjustment in monetary policy may be appropriate to ameliorate emerging risks to financial stability.’ I believe that time is fast approaching.”

Investment Implications – Good To Be Aware Of

Should we sprint for the equity exits after reading Fisher’s comments? No. However, it is good to be aware of the Fed’s willingness to raise rates sooner than many market participants believe. The risk is not related exclusively to a rate increase. It is the timing of the rate increase that could catch some investors off guard.

How do we use all this? Fed policy is one of many inputs impacting the battle between bullish economic conviction and bearish economic conviction. As noted on July 28, the market will guide us if we are willing to listen. Not much has changed this week. Therefore, the 80% confident 20% concerned analysis in this week’s video still applies. Therefore, we continue to hold a mix of stocks (SPY), leading sectors (XLK), and a relatively small stake in bonds (TLT).

The possible market-spooking outcome this week or in the weeks ahead is if the Fed signals an interest rate hike may be coming sooner rather than later. Again, it is not the act of raising rates that matters, but the timing.

The Market Will Guide Us If We Are Willing To Listen

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Lessons From 1994

If you were investing in 1994, you probably recall it was a difficult year. Notice the similarities to 2014 in the text from The Economist below:

CAST your minds back to 1994. The Federal Reserve had kept rates at (what seemed then) the low level of 3% for three years in an effort to allow the financial sector industry to recover from the savings & loan crisis, a problem that was the result of reckless expansion and lending (thank goodness they learned the lessons of that disaster). The Fed then started very modestly to tighten monetary policy with a quarter point rate increase. But the bond market had its worst year since the late 1920s.

As interest rates began to rise in 1994, stock investors began to become concerned about the possible negative impact on the economy and earnings.

What Could Kick Off A Correction?

It could be any number of things, including a shift in Fed policy, rising inflation, or weak economic data. It is more likely that a stock market correction will be ushered in based on numerous factors. This week brings a few potential catalysts: GDP and a Fed statement Wednesday, and a monthly labor report Friday.

What Does A Healthy Market Look Like?

If we understand what extreme cases look like, it is much easier to discern between normal volatility and something that may morph into a more serious and prolonged correction. Not too many bad things can happen as long as the S&P 500 remains above the moving averages shown in the chart below.

What Does A Correction Look Like?

If we compare and contrast the chart above and the chart below, we can see they are quite a bit different. Warning signs were visible in early May 2010. Stocks did not bottom until early July 2010. If you are skeptical, this video walks through the 2010 chart step by step, showing observable shifts that occurred early in the corrective process.

Housing Data Met With Early Selling

Monday morning was dominated by sellers after a worse than expected report on housing. From Bloomberg:

Stocks slumped earlier in the day as fewer Americans than forecast signed contracts to buy previously owned homes in June, a sign residential real estate is struggling to strengthen. An S&P index of homebuilder shares dropped 1.6 percent to the lowest level since May.

Investment Implications

It is not possible for the S&P 500 to enter a multi-week or multi-month correction without closing below 1955. On Monday afternoon, the index was trading at 1980, or well above 1955.

Since the S&P 500 was basically flat at press time on Monday, the statements below from July 26 still apply:

It is fair to say we remain about 80% confident and 20% concerned about equities. While the 80% figure is still encouraging, it is not as high as it was even a week ago. Therefore, we continue to hold U.S. stocks (SPY), and leading sectors, such as transportation (IYT). However, we reduced our stock exposure Friday and took a relatively small stake in bonds (TLT). Since rising rates are a concern, we kept some powder dry in the form of cash.

Part of the 80% confident is based on the fact that the S&P 500 is still trading above all the moving averages shown in the 2010 charts above. At some point, the evidence will begin to shift. It is not necessary to try to guess or anticipate when a correction will begin. When the evidence changes, we will make the necessary adjustments.

Fed May Help Open Crack In Correction Door

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Debate About First Rate Hike Looms

Even if you follow the markets from a distance, you know the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policies have played a big role in the stock market’s recent gains. Markets get jittery when the expression “first rate hike” starts to make the rounds. The Fed is due to release a policy statement on Wednesday, July 30. From The Wall Street Journal:

While Fed policy makers are unanimous on the bond-buying program, they are increasingly divided on when they expect to start raising short-term interest rates from near zero, where they have been since late 2008. “I am finding myself increasingly at odds with some of my respected colleagues at the policy table,” Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said in a speech earlier this month. He predicted the Fed could start raising rates by early 2015 “or potentially sooner.”

Investors Having Second Thoughts?

Regular readers know we make decisions based on observable evidence, rather than predictions. The weekly charts of the broad NYSE Composite Index below provide an example of an observable shift in investor conviction.

Can The Fed Keep Stepping Back?

When the Fed considers raising interest rates, or is in the midst of tapering, the question becomes can the economy stand on its own? A mixed report on the U.S. economy Friday did not clarify things for the economic bulls. From Reuters:

Shipments of these so-called core capital goods fell 1.0 percent. Core capital goods shipments are used to calculate equipment spending in the government’s gross domestic product measurement. It was the third month of decline in shipments, prompting some economists to temper their second-quarter growth estimates. “The weak performance in core capital goods shipments during the quarter suggests that this segment of the economy is unlikely to contribute much to economic activity,” said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York.

What Is The Market Telling Us Now?

While it is far from time to panic, the market is not as confident as it was 20 calendar days ago. The bulls are still in control, but the odds of a stock market correction have increased a bit. This week’s video compares confidence vs. concern as of Friday’s close.

After you click play, use the button in the lower-right corner of the video player to view in full-screen mode. Hit Esc to exit full-screen mode.

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While markets tend to get jittery during periods of Fed policy reversals, volatility has been tame in recent weeks. It is important to keep an eye on both the stock and bond markets in the coming weeks. A spike in interest rates could usher in a rough period for stocks and bonds similar to 1994.

Monthly Labor Report Coming Friday

The Fed will not be the only big event for investors in the coming week. The always-obsessed-about monthly labor report is due to be released before the opening bell Friday. From Bloomberg:

Employers probably added more than 200,000 jobs for a sixth consecutive month in July, according to the median estimate of 35 economists surveyed before nonfarm payrolls data due Aug. 1. “The payroll number is going to be strong,” said Phyllis Papadavid, a senior global-currency strategist at BNP Paribas SA’s corporate and investment-banking unit in London, on July 23. “That will underpin shifting expectations around the dollar for the second half of the year.”

Investment Implications - Risk Management

Based on the evidence we have in hand, it is fair to say we remain about 80% confident and 20% concerned about equities. While the 80% figure is still encouraging, it is not as high as it was even a week ago. Therefore, we continue to hold U.S. stocks (SPY), and leading sectors, such as transportation (IYT). However, we reduced our stock exposure Friday and took a relatively small stake in bonds (TLT). Since rising rates are a concern, we kept some powder dry in the form of cash. We will enter next week with a flexible and open mind given the busy calendar of events. If we are willing to listen to the market’s pricing mechanism, and allocate accordingly, managing risk and reward will be much easier in the weeks ahead.