double bottom

As regular readers may have discerned, I have a complicated view of the value of technical analysis, which is the attempt to derive useful investment information from studying the volume and price trends of individual securities and/or entire markets.

In the US of the 1920s, technical analysis was king.  That’s because there were no real standards for reporting of financial results by companies (some of which switched accounting standards the way most people do shirts to show themselves to the best advantage) at that time.  Nor were there legal bars to prevent syndicates of wealthy investors from creating artificial enthusiasm by manipulating individual names up and down in bucket shop fashion.  Basically, technical analysis was all there was.  In my view, subsequent legislation mandating minimum auditing and disclosure standards, and outlawing syndicate activity, have rendered much technical work obsolete.

By the way, I also find much of technical analysis to be useless/incomprehensible.  Take head-and-shoulders movements as an example   …or the Dow Theory.  But my main objection remains that technical analysis is a century-old tool that has been superceded by fundamental analysis of audited and SEC reported financial results.  It’s like riding a bicycle in a NASCAR race.

Nevertheless, even fundamental analysts fall back on technicals in times of panic, which is, after all, completely about sentiment with no room in fear-gripped minds for fundamentals.  And there are a few indicators that I think are very helpful in gauging sentiment.

One of these is a double (sometimes triple) bottom.

what a double bottom is

The idea is to figure out the index level where selling that is driving down a market/stock either exhausts itself or meets potentially strong resistance from buyers.

bottom occurs when downward movement stops and reverses itself.  Often this happens on higher than normal volume.  Sometimes the final down period is marked by a steeper than normal decline.  The level of the low may also be closely related to a prior significant low.  At times, however, none of these confirming signals are present.  The important thing is that the marke/stock stops falling and begins rising again.

Four to six weeks later–not any sooner, but occasionally even later than six weeks–the market/stock stops rising and declines again to the vicinity of the prior low.  If the market/stock then reverses course and begins rising a second time, it is said to have tested and confirmed the prior low.  In most cases, this double bottom signals the end to the down phase.

Sometimes, the market repeats this process and forms a triple bottom.


From a psychological point of view, the fact that the market/stock falls to a significant low but repeatedly fails to break through that low creates and strengthens the belief that this is a point where significant resistance to further decline will occur.  The more the low is successfully tested, the stronger this conviction grows.

relevance for now?

The S&P 500 made a low of 1867 on August 25th.  This is very close to the closing low of 1862 (intraday:  1820) on October 15, 2014–and another low (1816) on April 11, 2014.  The index reversed course on all these occasions, this time reaching 2020 on September 17th.  The S&P then declined to 1882 on September 28th.  The market then reversed course again and has been rising since.

So far this looks like a classic double bottom–the first low, the four-week interval, the confirmation of the first low, all linked to prior significant lows.  We’ll only know for sure as we see trading unfold over the next few weeks.

In the present case, the formation of a firm bottom for the market would also be evidence in favor of the idea that investors are willing to separate clearly the (weak) commodities-related sectors from the (strong) rest of the market and are not prone to let the former infect the latter.



will the poor performance of Energy, Materials and Industrial sectors derail the S&P 500?

In the course of doing a performance attribution for the S&P 500 year-to-date last week, I noted that the S&P 500 ex Energy, Materials and Industrials, is pretty close to flat so far this year on a total return basis.

But is it correct to conclude that the “healthy” sectors of the S&P will continue to be relatively immune to the economic illness caused by the price collapse of global mining commodities?   …or will they eventually be dragged down if, as I expect, commodity weakness continues for an extended period of time.

This isn’t as silly a question as it might seem at first.

In the early 1990s I was asked by the board of the company I worked for to present my views on the stock market in Japan at that time.  I created a presentation that divided the Topix index, which was trading at about 70x earnings, into three parts:

–highly speculative property-related companies that were trading at around 500x earnings and made up 10% of the market

–export-oriented industrials, such as the autos or tech companies like Canon, which were trading at 15-20x earnings and made up 30% of the market, and

–everything else, which made up 60% of the market and traded at around 25x.

I said what I believed:  that, while the index might do poorly as the speculatives came back to earth and the bulk of the market went sideways, the export-oriented stocks were cheap and would go up significantly in price–not only in yen but in dollars, too.  My model was the behavior of the US market throughout the second half of the 1970s, when former speculative favorites, the Nifty Fifty, were crushed while everything else went up.

An aside: a famous finance academic on the board, who made it clear he had not sought the opinion of a mere “practitioner” like me, objected that the low dividend yields of Japanese stock proved they remained wildly overvalued.  A little embarrassed (for him), I had to explain that Japanese tax laws did not provide the same preference for dividend income that the IRS did. In fact, dividend income was subject to income tax at an extremely high rate (up to 90%) in Japan.  Because of this, taxable investors (the majority at that time) had a very strong preference for (untaxed) capital gains.  Companies tended to make negligible cash payouts and to use stock dividends as a substitute.

Embarrassingly (for me), it turned out that my reasonable analysis was completely wrong.  Yes, the exporters were cheap, but for the next decade they significantly underperformed similar-quality companies elsewhere in the world.  In this case, the general economic funk that engulfed the Japanese economy hurt the stocks of all firms listed there.  There was no escape.

my thoughts

Thee aren’t a whole lot of relevant examples of this kind of situation to generalize from.  (Another might be the worldwide collapse in the price of mining commodities and of commodities stocks from 1982-86, which did not impede the upward progress of global stock markets from mid-1982 on.)

My hunch is that the contamination of “good” stocks in 1990s Japan is more a function of the continuing economic malaise in that country than of anything else.  What’s somewhat troubling is that the US today is very similar demographically to Japan back then, when lack of workforce growth was a significant contributor to Japan’s stagnation.  We have the same woes of extremely low interest rates and an impotent legislative arm tied to the status quo and unwilling to use fiscal policy to bolster the economy–another set of lead weights dragging Japan down.


At the end of the day, I’d argue that the US is inherently a much more dynamic country than others in the developed world.  Also, I see the commodities collapse as much more like an external shock than a sign of weakness in the domestic economy in the way the property collapse in Japan was.  So I see the chances that commodities/commodity stock softness will cripple the rest of the US stock market as low.  But there are enough similarities between us today and Japan 25 years ago to make me vaguely uneasy.




the jobs report and last Friday’s trading

I had decided last week to write today about what happens in an overall market when one or two significant sectors are performing poorly and have weak future prospects.  Is the rest of the market indifferent to the laggards?   or do the weak sectors work to sap the strength of sectors where business is good and the outlook favorable?  This is potentially important, given the miserable performance of the Energy, Materials and Industrials sectors–and the likelihood of no positive news for these areas of the stock market for a considerable time to come.

After I saw the sharp negative reaction of the market to the so-so Employment Situation report released Friday morning, I decided to push that post back until tomorrow and write about Friday’s market action instead.


There’s been  lot of discussion recently about the role of computerized trading in influencing the day-to-day, or hour-to-hour, direction of stocks on Wall Street.  Understanding what effect this trading is having on stocks is the first step in the stock market’s judo-like process of beginning to use the momentum of such trading against itself.  For investors like us with long holding periods in mind, one might argue that day-to-day volatility has little significance.  Even so, it seems to me it’s important to be able to read the signals the market is sending    …alao, understanding the rhythms of daily trading can be some help in determining the timing purchases and sales we may be thinking about for strategic reasons.


Last Friday, stock index futures fell immediately on the Labor Department release of the monthly ES report.  Stocks fell sharply at the open, an hour later.  Equities remained depressed for about an hour, before beginning a steady ascent through the rest of the day.  The S&P 500 closed on its high.  This is a particularly positive sign, since professional traders tend not to want to hold positions over the weekend if they have even the slightest worries.

On the surface, the ES report isn’t encouraging reading.  The economy gained 142,000 jobs last month.  That was substantially below the average gain for the past year, and it was much less that the 200,000 new positions that economists had estimated.  More than that, the two previous months’ estimated job gains were both revised down.  All of this was emphasized in media reports that were available a minute or two after the 8:30am edt release of the information.

Several important factors weren’t mentioned, however:

–economists’ estimates of +200,000 new jobs were, as usual, very close to the average monthly gain in jobs over the past year, leading me to conclude that getting this figure right is not their highest priority

–that’s understandable.  The Labor Department says that the monthly job figures from its Establishment survey are correct to within +/- 100,000, meaning a “miss” of 50,000 or so jobs contains no statistically significant information

–we’ve seen outlier months occasionally over the past several years.  In each case, job gains have soon returned to trend

–the latest JOLT (Job Openings and Labor Turnover) Survey from the Labor Department shows that the country has 5.7 million unfilled jobs at present, a figure 25% higher than at the previous economic peak in 2007.  This is also an all-time high for the JOLT tally, which makes it hard for me to believe that the September jobs report heralds a significant downshift in US economic activity.

How do I read Friday trading?

I think computers programmed to read news services pushed the market down, both in pre-market futures trading and in the first hour of actual stock trading, as well.  Human traders (smarter computers?) waited for the downward momentum to exhaust itself and, recognizing that this initial move was a mistake, then began buying.

Although I think my analysis is correct–Friday’s trading pattern was very unusual–I also find it very odd that someone (actually lots of someones) would be content to trade on a government report + questionable sentiment indicators.  But maybe that’s the world we’re in today.   If anything, it argues for higher day-today volatility.  It also suggests that there’s money to be made for those with better-than-newspaper knowledge, a trading temperament and time to watch the market closely.





closed-end funds

Investment companies in the US are a specialized form of corporation that is exempt from corporate income tax, a privilege they get in return for agreeing to restrict activities to investing in securities and to distribute to shareholders virtually all their realized profits (which become taxable income to recipients).

The predominant form of investment company is the mutual fund/exchange-traded fund, also called an open-ended fund.  What makes the fund “open-ended” is that the investment company itself regularly issues new shares to buyers and redeems them from holders who wish to sell.  Put another way, the number of shares of the company–and therefore the amount of money under management–is variable.  It typically ebbs and flows with market sentiment or with the track record of the professionals the company hires to manage the money.


A less common form of investment company is the closed-end fund.  In this format, the investment company raises initial capital in an IPO and trades its shares on an exchange.  It does not allow shareholders to purchase and redeem directly from the company (the reality is slightly more complicated, but nothing to worry about).  Instead, buyers and sellers find a counterparty on the exchange, just as if they were selling a regular stock or bond.

What makes closed-end funds interesting to you and me is that they almost always trade at discounts to net asset value.  There are some exceptions, like if they specialize in some exotic foreign market that’s hard to invest in directly and which happens to be flavor of the month, or if the managers have been shoot-out-the-lights successful in their investing (I can’t think of one in this second category).

This is particularly true in times of stress.

If the discount to NAV becomes too great, or persists for too long a time, predators may try to take control of the fund and liquidate it–which, of course, makes the discount disappear as well as the fund.


Why am I writing this today?   …because I’ve been reading that closed-end bond funds are trading at unusually high discounts to NAV at present.  I presume that this is in anticipation of higher interest rates.

I’m by no means an expert on these funds.  And I can’t imagine rushing out to buy bonds today.  But these may be a class of securities to begin to learn about and keep an eye on.


actively managed bond funds in a rising interest rate environment

During my working career as an equity portfolio manager, I experienced the US bear markets of 1980-82, 1987, 1990-91 and 2000-2002. Because I spent the majority of my career as a global manager, I also lived through the collapse of the Japanese stock market (then by far the largest in the world) in 1989 and the currency-triggered bear market in many smaller Asian countries in the late 1990s. I started writing this blog as a way of helping myself think about the bear market of 2007-09 and what would follow.

In other words, for equity managers there have been lots of bad times to help us along with the painful process of being able to, as they say, make the critical distinction between brains and a bull market.

Also, the bad periods themselves have been long enough to force us to recognize that different investment styles (growth or value) work best in different economic circumstances.  We certainly won’t change our overall philosophies.  However, successful equity managers all realize that for them there are some times to be in fifth gear with the gas pedal to the floor and others to be in second gear and tapping on the brakes.


Looking at the bond world from the outside, it seems to me that little of this has been the case for bonds and bond managers since the early 1980s.  Yes, junk bonds or emerging markets debt may have gotten ugly now and again.  Nevertheless, the continual decline in interest rates from the early Volcker years to the present has made for a remarkably smooth, and consistently bullish, ride for bond investors and managers.

The amazing part is not a long bullish period–after all, equities in the US had that for most of the 1990s–but the fact that the benign environment lasted over thirty years.  To have experienced an ugly time for bonds comparable to what happens to stocks every business cycle, you would have to have been a bond manager in the 1970s!

This is my main concern for actively managed bond funds.

We’re (already) in a period in which interest rates are not going to decline.  They may fluctuate for a while, even a long while, but the new main trend is going to be for rates to rise.  And we haven’t had circumstances that have forced bond managers to cope with a situation like this for decades.

Instead, the recipe for success over the past thirty-five years has been to throw caution to the winds and bet as heavily as possible on continuously declining rates.  The most successful managers would have been the most aggressive, the ones willing to double down on any bet gone wrong and to stack their portfolios full of risk.  Brash, bold, stubborn, no sense of nuance, not the brightest crayon but tenacious.  Think Jon Corzine and what happened to him.


Will bond fund managers be able to adjust to the changing trend?  I don’t know.

Bill Gross is another interesting case in point.  He became the “bond king” by betting aggressively on lower interest rates.  My reading of his results for his last several years at Pimco is that he tried to keep his performance numbers up by layering on extra amounts of risk to the main bet that had stopped providing results.  That didn’t work so well, in my view.  Since leaving for Janus, where he could express his ideas in his portfolio without an outside sanity check (outside interference?), he’s done poorly.

This is not about old dogs and new tricks in the sense of age but only in having the temperament and mental flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances.


bond funds when interest rates are rising (ii)

Yesterday I referenced an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about possible liquidity problems with junk bond funds as rates begin to rise. Based on information provided by Barclays, a huge provider of ETFs, the reporter, Jason Zweig, concluded that junk bond ETFs are a safer alternative to traditional mutual funds.

My comment from yesterday, boiled down perhaps to the length it should have been, was that since the first junk bond crisis in the late 1980s, junk bond funds have adopted very rigorous pricing mechanisms, so the chances a junk bond fund is badly mispriced are very small.  On top of that, mutual fund companies have lots of tools available to deal with high levels of redemptions.


As to ETFs, while as a practical matter it may be that these vehicles themselves may not be subject to the same selling pressures as traditional mutual funds, the way that ETFs insulate themselves can be an issue for you and me.

In the case of traditional mutual funds, we buy and sell directly with the fund, once daily, after the close, at NAV.

ETFs are considerably more complicated.   We deal with broker intermediaries who make a continuous market throughout normal trading hours, though with no guarantee about how closely the bid-asked spread they set will match up to net asset value.  (Authorized participants, who typically deal in minimum blocks of 50,000 shares are the only ones who transact directly with ETFs.)

The tendency of ETF market makers in times of market stress is to widen the bid-asked spread.  This does two good things for the broker.  He gets a higher return for transacting at a risky time.  And the wider spread discourages people from trading.  Translation:  liquidity for you and me dries up.

How bad can it get?  I don’t know.  Several years ago I tried to collect data on the performance of stock ETFs at the market bottom in early 2009.  The only information available then was a comparison of the last trade on  given day with the NAV calculated after the NY close.  In one case, for a foreign stock ETF, the last trade was at a 12% discount to NAV.  The discount may have been considerably wider during the day.  At that time, ETF companies told me they just didn’t know.

I haven’t checked since. I haven’t done this for bond funds.  And one might argue that the 12% discount is an outlier. But the horrible problems ETFs had during the last week of August suggest to me that the situation hasn’t changed for the better.

My experience is that trying to trade during highly emotionally charged times is usually not a good idea.  But it also seems to me that the potential risks inherent in trading in mutual funds at times like this to you and me, not to the fund company, pale in comparison to those involved with ETFs.


This has gotten much longer than I intended.  More tomorrow.




bond funds when interest rates are rising

This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article in its Business and Finance section about what happens if interest rates rise and holders of bond mutual funds and ETFs start to sell in large amounts.  The article is based on a research report written by Barclays and co-authored by that firm’s co-head of fixed income research, Jeff Meli.  The article isn’t identified further.

Maybe that’s not so strange, since, as reported in the WSJ, I find the research itself to be weird.  Its conclusions seem to me to be either not that relevant or just plain wrong.  The article does, however, touch on a number of points that are important for bond fund holders to consider.


The report starts out by assuming what I guess the researchers think is a worst-case scenario:  the junk bond market drops 10% in a day, and a given mutual fund receives requests for redemptions equal to 20% of its assets.

It concludes that:

–the fund’s net asset value would fall by 12%

–the fund would sell its most liquid assets to meet redemptions

–the remaining assets would be mispriced at a value higher than the value they could be sold at

–therefore, the first investors to leave would receive more than fair value and would be the best off; later redeemers would get less than fair value for their shares

–ETFs don’t have these problems and should be preferred to mutual funds.

my thoughts

I think this is a very unlikely set of circumstances.  The most damning constraint would seem to be the “single day” provision, which is intended to give the junk bond manager in question the least possible time to raise funds to meet redemptions.  However, the other two conditions haven’t come anywhere close to being triggered on a single day, either in the downturn following the internet bubble or during the 2008-09 recession.  Some kind of gigantic external shock to the economy would seem to be necessary for either to happen– not something specific to a given type of asset.

In such a case, it’s not clear that any financial markets would be functioning normally.  It’s conceivable that trading in many/all financial instruments would be halted until calm was restored.  So the pricing of a given junk bond fund would be a moot point.

For at least the past quarter-century, junk bond funds have generally been priced by third parties at “fair value.”  I’ve seen them work for illiquid stocks or for NY pricing of stocks trading abroad.  My judgment is that they work incredible well.  So I don’t think fast redeemers get the best pricing.  The opposite may well be the case.

Fund families have lines of credit that they can use to meet unanticipated redemptions.

No portfolio manager worth his salt is going to sell only the most liquid assets first.  On the contrary, it’s better to sell illiquid ones while there are still buyers.

In the past, big investment companies have ended up buying the most illiquid assets from junk bond funds they manage at a price determined by a neutral third party, in order to make redemptions easier and shore up confidence in the fund.

In general, fund management companies have no incentive to price a fund too high.  If anything, they should want to price it too low.  That way, they can send the extra to redeemers once they find their error.  No one is going to send anything extra back.

I don’t get the ETF stuff at all.

More tomorrow.



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