Should you “buy when there’s blood in the streets”? … or “not try to catch a falling knife”?

Wall Street has spawned millions of clichés.  They run from capturing the essence of stock investing, “Buy low; sell high” to not-so-useful chatter (for investors) from traders, like “Wait for a pullback,” to the inane natterings of cable TV show personalities.

Market truisms are often mutually contradictory.  But, excepting the ones from TV, they often outline possible approaches to important investment issues.   That’s certainly the case with the two I’ve cited in the title for this post, which talk about how to deal with sharp drops in the market in general, and how to play a possible upturn in the business cycle (and therefore in the market cycle as well) in particular.

the big middle

In the old days–meaning pre-Eighties, professional investors in the US customarily talked about working the “big middle.”   The idea was to avoid undue risk at potential cyclical turning points in the market.  A manager would do this by becoming more defensive as he saw three signs:  the economy beginning to expand at an unsustainably high rate, the market becoming fully valued and the Fed about to shift money policy from expansive to restrictive.

He might miss the actual market peak by months.  But he was prepared to profit from the subsequent downturn.  As he sensed the opposite signs, however–the economy flagging, the market cheap and the Fed about to reverse course–he would do nothing.  He would wait for the market to clearly turn upward again before becoming more aggressive.  Again, he might miss the absolute bottom by months, but he would avoid coming out of his defensive position too soon and he would gain performance for a year or more after he turned his portfolio more positive.

No one talks about this overall strategy anymore.  Why not?

–For one thing, as a result of deliberate policy decisions by the major governments of the world over at least the past quarter-century, individual country economies are much more closely linked in a global network than they were.  The closed economy model is a thing of the past.  Markets are affected, sometimes profoundly, by events that take place elsewhere and over which the local government has only limited control.

–The investment business is much more competitive today than it was then.  Underperforming for six months or a year may be enough to get a manager fired before the “big middle” strategy allows him to catch up.  His clients may say they’re ok with the risk mitigation his approach provides, but when the numbers fall behind the peer group, memories can be very short.  And it’s always the customer’s right to take his business elsewhere if e chooses.

–For thirty years, we’ve been seeing the creation of ever newer derivatives tools that allow the manager to change portfolio composition much more quickly than before.  In addition, volumes in the physical market have been steadily increasing as well, allowing managers whose contracts with customers bar the use of derivatives to act swiftly, too.  Maybe we’re now seeing the limits to this speed, even large market participants have the flexibility to alter their portfolio structure in a matter of a few weeks if they choose to.

To sum up, linkages with the rest of the globe mean more chances for sharp short-term market movements, which new tools and increased competition have professionals increasingly focused on.  Also, as the recent “Crash of 2:45” shows, the new tools themselves may be another source of temporary market instability.

the falling knife

Opinion is divided on how to approach sharp market declines.  “Don’t try to catch a falling knife” expresses one technique.  I’m not sure what the origin is.  I’ve only begun recently to hear it in the US, although it was already very common among British investors when I began to look carefully at foreign markets in the mid-Eighties.

The “falling knife” idea is a variation on the “big middle” theme.   The thought is that when investors are selling aggressively and stocks are dropping sharply, it’s better to wait until this energy has exhausted itself before going in to pick up the pieces.  See the bottom and watch the turn happening before entering the market.

blood in the streets

The “blood in the streets” approach is to some degree the opposite idea.  Buy when everyone else is selling, when the predominant emotion in the market is fear, and when stocks are cheap.  Don’t wait for the turn.  By the time you’ve convinced yourself that the worst is over, the best buying opportunity is long gone.

more professionals are embracing the “blood” idea…

…in my opinion, anyway, for two reasons.  The opportunity to profit from market disruptions, and by doing so to perform better than one’s peers, is too great to ignore.  Increasingly, the time period over which clients are judging professionals’ performance is shrinking.  Hedge funds, where returns may be scrutinized and evaluated on a month by month basis, are the limiting case.  But this performance pressure is also being felt by long-only managers.

What should individuals do?

The most important thing is to ask yourself two related questions:

–Are you willing to accept the extra risk of trying to trade a downdraft in the market?

–Is your financial situation strong enough that you can absorb possible losses if you turn out to be wrong?

Assuming the answer to both questions is “yes,”  these are my thoughts:

1.  Ask yourself what the primary trend in the market is.  Are stocks generally going up or generally doing down?  Are we in a bull market or a bear market?

In my opinion, you should only be interested in counter-trend movements.  Only think about buying, or about replacing defensive stocks with more aggressive ones, during a decline that happens in a bull market.  Conversely, only use a sharp upturn to become more defensive during a bear market.  Otherwise, do nothing.  During the past twenty years, the lows have typically been much lower, and the highs higher, than anyone would have predicted.  Welcome to a world with derivatives trading.

2.  Calculate probabilities as best you can.  The point is that you don’t need to find the absolute bottom in order to act.  For me, if I can satisfy myself that a stock might go down 10% but has an equal chance of going up 30%, I’m happy to buy.  Your own risk tolerances will determine what the appropriate ratio is for you.

3.  Separate market events from stock-specific ones.  In a temporary downturn, more economically sensitive stocks will typically decline more than defensive ones.  Similar stocks in the same industry should show roughly similar volume and percentage change patterns.   These patterns should also be similar to the stocks’ behavior during past declines.  An individual stock decline that is, say, twice what one should expect and that happens on much higher than expected volume can be a warning sign that sellers are acting on newly developed negative information that you may not be aware of.  In such a case, discretion is the better part of valor.  Choose a different stock to buy, or don’t transact at all.

4.  Don’t force yourself to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.  I think it’s a characteristic of today’s market environment that if you miss an opportunity today, another one will likely occur in a month or two.

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