all clear?

My worst flaw as an investor–at least, the worst that I’m aware of–is that I’m too bullish.  So I have to be careful at a time like this when the stock market has been on a downtrend, to ensure that I don’t call a tactical bottom too early.

I should also point out that mutual funds have most likely been out of the market for the past few days, so the wicked intraday spikes we’ve been seeing in recent trading are more likely the work of algorithms than humans.  So the end of the mutual fund fiscal year is in itself no reason for these swings to stop.

Still, it looks to me as if the lows the market established early in 2018 are holding.  Also, many tech stocks, having lost a third of their value, are beginning to move up on what seems to me to be the flimsiest of positive news–a so-so earnings report or an upgrade by a brokerage house analyst.

So my guess is that the worst is over and that stocks will go sideways to up from here.


Several things to note:

–intraday swings have been unusually large, based on past instances of correction.  This may just be what machine-driven markets look like

–a change in market leadership often occurs after a correction.  I’m not sure what that would be in this case.  I’m still thinking that IT will lead, noting, though, that chip manufacturing businesses appear to be entering one of their periodic phases of oversupply (driven by the fact that capacity is added in huge chunks, and usually by everyone at the same time)

–the long-term economic negatives recently created by Washington–large-scale deficit spending; emphasis on reviving older, inefficient industries; policy directed at breaking down global supply chains–haven’t gone away.  The considerable social/cultural damage being done by the administration hasn’t, either.  At some point, these factors will begin to retard stock market progress, although they may be issues for 2019.

looking at today’s market

In an ideal world, portfolio investing is all about comparing the returns available among the three liquid asset classes–stocks, bonds and cash–and choosing the mix that best suits one’s needs and risk preferences.

In the real world, the markets are sometimes gripped instead by almost overwhelming waves of greed or fear that blot out rational thought about potential future returns.  Once in a while, these strong emotions presage (where did that word come from?) a significant change in market direction.  Most often, however, they’re more like white noise.

In the white noise case, which I think this is an instance of, my experience is that people can sustain a feeling of utter panic for only a short time.  Three weeks?  …a month?  The best way I’ve found to gauge how far along we are in the process of exhausting this emotion is to look at charts (that is, sinking pretty low).  What I want to see is previous levels where previously selloffs have ended, where significant new buying has emerged.

I typically use the S&P 500.  Because this selloff has, to my mind, been mostly about the NASDAQ, I’ve looked at that, too.  Two observations:  as I’m writing this late Tuesday morning both indices are right at the level where selling stopped in June;  both are about 5% above the February lows.

My conclusion:  if this is a “normal” correction, it may have a little further to go, but it’s mostly over.  Personally, I own a lot of what has suffered the most damage, so I’m not doing anything.  Otherwise, I’d be selling stocks that have held up relatively well and buying interesting names that have been sold off a lot.


What’s the argument for this being a downturn of the second sort–a marker of a substantial change in market direction?  As far as the stock market goes, there are two, as I see it:

–Wall Street loves to see accelerating earnings.  A yearly pattern of +10%, +12%, +15% is better than +15%, +30%, +15%.  That’s despite the fact that the earnings level in the second case will be much higher in year three than in the first.

Why is this?  I really don’t know.  Maybe it’s that in the first case I can dream that future years will be even better.  In the second case, it looks like the stock in question has run into a brick wall that will stop/limit earnings advance.

What’s in question here is how Wall Street will react to the fact that 2018 earnings are receiving a large one-time boost from the reduction in the Federal corporate tax rate.  So next year almost every stock’s pattern in will look like case #2.

A human being will presumably look at pre-tax earnings to remove the one-time distortion.  But will an algorithm?


–Washington is going deeply into debt to reduce taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations, thereby revving the economy up.  It also sounds like it wants the Fed to maintain an emergency room-low level of interest rates, which will intensify the effect.  At the same time, it is acting to raise the price of petroleum and industrial metals, as well as everything imported from China–which will slow the economy down (at least for ordinary people).  It’s possible that Washington figures that the two impulses will cancel each other out.  On the other hand, it’s at least as likely, in my view, that both impulses create inflation fears that trigger a substantial decline in the dollar.  The resulting inflation could get 1970s-style ugly.


My sense is that the algorithm worry is too simple to be what’s behind the market decline, the economic worry too complicated.  If this is the seasonal selling I believe it to be, time is a factor as well as stock market levels.  To get the books to close in an orderly way, accountants would like portfolio managers not to trade next week.

the “normal” September-October selloff?

why an October selloff?

the old days

Before the rise of the mutual fund industry in the 1980s, big investing institutions–banks and insurance companies–used to do annual tax planning in November-December–because their tax year ended in December.  They’d reshape their investment portfolios and dump unsuccessful holdings so that realized losses could be used to offset otherwise taxable income.  The key word here is “selling,” made more intense by the end-of-year timing.  The exact starting day of the resulting market downturn was the subject of intense jockeying by the major players.  Once someone started selling, though, everyone else jumped in.

mutual funds

For mutual funds, which today dwarf the activities of those former giants, the crucial months are September-October (more detail on why).  In most years since the late 1980s there has been a several-week, tax-related selloff during this time, triggered by mutual fund tax planning.  It’s typically been followed by a significant bounceback as selling pressure abates.

I think this is what has been going on in domestic markets for the past week or so.  If I’m correct, selling will abate at worst in about two weeks–if for no other reason than that firms will try not to do trading during the final week of their fiscal year (to avoid having unsettled transactions hanging over into the new fiscal year).  At best, I think, selling pressure will begin to ease up by the end of this week.

the role of IT 

As I see it, the selling so far has been the most intense in the IT sector.  Within tech, medium-sized companies that have been sharp outperformers so far in 2018 have been hurt the worst.  Again, if my diagnosis of what’s going on now is correct, this last group is where the best buying opportunities will lie.

An unusual twist:  a main goal of the selling this year seems to be for funds to reduce their exposure to IT and to the new Communication Services sector.  Typical selling is more across the board.  Two factors are likely at work:  managers think their IT overweights have grown too large and are trimming them back; and they perceive greater relative value in other sectors.  My guess is that the first is the larger influence.


Long-term Treasury bond yields have risen by about 70 basis points so far this year (10bp of that during the past week).  The 10-year yield now stands at 3.19%; the 30-year is at 3.35%.  At some point such yields will provide competition for stocks, particularly in the minds of Baby Boomers seeking steady income.  This is a very important issue, especially since the US market hasn’t been in a position where this might matter since the mid-1980s.  Nevertheless, I don’t see this as the main force behind current selling.


what to do

My experience is that most people, including many (most?) professional money managers, either turn off their quote machines or hide under their desks during market declines.  Financially, a better strategy is to try to upgrade portfolio holdings.  Clunkers that have never gone up will likely be temporary pillars of strength.  On the other hand, stocks with much stronger fundamentals will be sold off mostly for tax or internal portfolio structure reasons.  Trend-following short-term traders will magnify this difference.  Anyone with a longer investment horizon should sell inhabitants of the portfolio dustbin and buy stocks they’ve wanted to own but which always seemed too expensive or to have had too much short-term upward momentum.

In my case, I’m mostly     rearranging my holdings within tech   …but that’s just me.


the new S&P 500 sector arrangement

Keeping Score tomorrow

a new S&P 500 sector breakout

Announced last November, a new S&P sector arrangement went into effect last Friday.

Telecom, with only three constituents and about a 2% market weighting, disappeared and was replaced by the new Communication Services sector.

The latter contains former telecom names + enough heavyweights from IT (e.g., Facebook, Alphabet, Activision, Electronic Arts) and Consumer discretionary (e.g., Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast, Netflix) to give the new sector a total of 26 constituents and about a 10% market weighting–clipping a total of eight percentage points from IT + Consumer discretionary.


revised overall sector weightings:

IT .    21%

Healthcare .    15%

Financials .         13.3%

Consumer discretionary .         10.3%

Communication services .         10%

Industrials .         9.7%

Staples .         6.7%

Energy          6.0%

Utilities .         2.8%

Real estate .         2.7%

Materials .         2.4%.


my thoughts

–Telecom was a mature sector–if sector is the right word for three stocks–with large, high-dividend companies in it.  So it had defensive characteristics.  Not Communication, though, which contains a bunch of high-multiple, low/no yield components.

–The old Wall Street saw is that any sector is in for big trouble when it breaches 25% of the S&P 500’s weight.  That’s no longer the case with IT, but the change is obviously artificial.

–Splitting the index  sectors into highly cyclical, somewhat cyclical and defensive comes out like this:

Highly:  Materials, Industrials .  ~12% of the S&P

Defensive:  Real Estate, Utilities, Staples .   ~12% of the S&P

Somewhat cyclical:  everything else.      ~76% of the S&P.

Nothing has really changed, but parsing it out like that makes the index look like it has almost no defensive characteristics.  The lower weight for IT makes the index look less risky: this does the opposite–if only by about 2 percentage points.

–There’ll be new passive ways to bet on the Communication sector