discount brokers and technical analysis

The stock market can be considered as the place where the financial characteristics of publicly traded companies meet the hopes and fears of potential equity investors.  Fundamental analysis addresses the former issue, technical analysis the latter.

In the US of the Roaring Twenties, technical analysis served both functions.  Depression era reforms that forced companies to release accurate and readily understandable financial statements had not yet been enacted.  So the trading activity of “insiders,” detected by carefully watching price and volume movements, was the best gauge one could get of how firms were actually doing.

Since that’s no longer the case, why do online brokers (Merrill Edge is the only exception I know of) provide such lame information on company fundamentals?

Several reasons, I think:

–brokers earn their revenue from trading, not from investment results.  (For what it’s worth, there’s a strong belief in the professional investment community that there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of trading a portfolio manager does and investment performance.)  So it makes some business sense that they should provide tools that make trades easy to do, with an old-style video game-like interface that makes it seem important and fun.

–a fundamental research effort is a headache.  It’s difficult to create and sustain.   It’s expensive, as well.  Arguably, offering proprietary research also exposes the broker to liability if the recommendations don’t pan out.  The user needs some accounting/economic background to understand what’s being said.  The broker who provides fundamental research has an obligation to consider whether a recommendation is suitable for a given client–opening another can of worms.  And, of course, an emphasis on fundamentals runs the risk of refocusing clients away from frequent trading, to the detriment of profits.

–discount brokers do offer a kind of fundamentals-based product through actively-managed mutual funds and ETFs, as well as through their sponsorship of networks of financial planners for whom they provide back office services.  Offering fundamental research might put brokers into competition with those planners.  And the fundamentally-based fund offerings carry a much higher price tag than DIY trading.


stop orders

The idea behind stop orders is to try to minimize losses in times of stock market turbulence.  In almost forty years of stock market investing, however, I’ve never used one.  In fact, I don’t know any professional trader or portfolio manager–or any amateur, for that matter–who has.

The details of what each kind of order does may differ a bit from broker to broker, so it’s important to read an exact definition on your brokerage website before you transact.  Generally speaking, here’s what they are:

what they are

Stop orders come in several flavors.

stop loss order.  The user selects a stop price below the current quote of a stock he owns.  If the stock declines to the stop price, a market sell order is entered.  (The order entered is a market order to ensure a sell transaction happens.  That might not be the case with a limit order.)

One important aspect of the stop loss is that trading after the stop has been triggered can be significantly below the stop level.

stop limit order.  Here the limit is typically placed above the current price, because the user wants to buy (to, for example, limit losses on a stock that has been sold short).  Once the stop is reached, a limit order for the stock at the stop price is placed.  That order will be filled before the stock can go higher.

One can also place a stop below the current price, combined with a limit sell order at the stop.  But this gives no guarantee the stock will be sold.

trailing stops.  I don’t get these at all, although I understand they’re popular with trading-oriented individuals.

Two characteristics:

—-the stop price and the limit price can be different.  Once the stock reaches the stop price, the limit order is placed.

For example. the stock is trading at $50 when the trailing stop is initiated.  The stop is at $45, triggering a limit order at $40. This protects the seller against a “flash crash”-like temporary dive, which he’s vulnerable to with a stop loss order.  The analogue on the buy side would be a stop at $55, triggering a limit order at $53.

—-the “trailing” part is that in the case of a sell order, the stop and limit are adjusted upward if the stock begins to rise (trailing behind along the same trajectory as the stock).  In the case of a buy order, the stop and limit trail along with the the stock if it begins to fall.  In either case, the stop and limit remain unchanged if the stock starts to move in an unfavorable direction.

An example (simplified a bit):  the stock is trading at $50.  You place a trailing stop sell order with the stop at $49 and the limit at $48.  The stock rises to $55.  The stop rises to $54 and the limit to $53. The stock then declines to $54.  This triggers the stop, which activates the sell order at a limit of $53 or better.  You sell at, say, $53.50.  If the stock’s initial move is to fall to $49, the limit order at $48 (or better) is placed.


my problem with stops

It isn’t that they take a bit of getting accustomed to.  It’s that the user makes relatively complex trading plans in anticipation of a market environment that may develop in a much different way than the plans have envisioned.  Their virtue, which is that they automate a trading plan in advance, is also their vice–that they can prevent you from applying human judgment based on the most current information at the time this may matter the most.

Maybe it’s just that I haven’t used these tools, but it seems to me that the door to unintended consequences is opened pretty wide by their employment.

order types: market vs. limit

market order vs. limit order

The two basic types of stock transaction orders are market and limit.

market order tells your broker to execute the transaction immediately at the best available price.  Your mindset should be that being sure the trade is done is more important than the price it is accomplished at.  You might, for example, be using the proceeds from a sale to pay a bill or to buy another stock the same day.

For highly liquid stocks, an individual’s market order should have little or no impact on trading.  So a market order should get you a price at or near the quote you see on your computer screen.  Microsoft, for instance, trades over 60,000 shares a minute.  So a 100-share, or even a 1,000-share order, is just a drop in the bucket.

In my experience, the only time a market order might be a worry is in the case of an illiquid stock where your order would be a significant portion of the day’s trading volume.  If so, a market order could get ugly.  When I ran a small institutional trading operation for a number of years, I thought that I could be no more than a quarter of daily trading volume.  Big institutions figure they can be no more than 10% without making a visible impact on prices.


limit order specifies a price that is the maximum you will pay to purchase or the minimum you will accept for a sale.  The broker is required to transact at the limit price if the opportunity presents itself.  He is permitted to transact for you at a more favorable price than the limit, but is not allowed to transact at a less favorable one.  So the trade may not get done on a given day.  Depending on your instructions, your unfilled order will either be cancelled at the end of the day or carried over to the next trading day.

Typically a limit is set at a better price than the current market.  I may enter a limit order, for example, to buy a stock at $68 when it’s trading at $70.

But a limit can also be set at a worse price for me than the current market and used as a quasi-market order.   If I want to buy a less-liquid stock, for example, I can enter a limit order at $70.50 when it’s now trading at $70.


Personally, I use limit orders a lot.  When I’m buying I will typically buy a third of my intended position at the market and set a limit at, say, 5% below the market for the second third.  If the stock hits that limit, I’ll set a lower limit for the final third.

I’ll scale up in a similar fashion when I’m selling.


Stops tomorrow.



discounting and the stock market cycle

stock market influences


To a substantial degree, stock prices are driven by the earnings performance of the companies whose securities are publicly traded.  But profit levels and potential profit gains aren’t the only factor.  Stock prices are also influenced by investor perceptions of the risk of owning stocks, by alternating emotions of fear and greed, that is, that are best expressed quantitatively in the relationship between the interest yield on government bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

discounting:  fear vs. greed

Stock prices typically anticipate or “discount” future earnings.  But how far investors are willing to look forward is also a business cycle function of the alternating emotions of fear and greed.

Putting this relationship in its simplest form:

–at market bottoms investors are typically unwilling to discount in current prices any future good news.  As confidence builds, investors are progressively willing to factor in more and more of the expected future.

–in what I would call a normal market, toward the middle of each calendar year investors begin to discount expectations for earnings in the following year.

–at speculative tops, investors are routinely driving stock prices higher by discounting earnings from two or three years hence.  This, even though there’s no evidence that even professional analysts have much of a clue about how earnings will play out that far in the future.

(extreme) examples

Look back to the dark days of 2008-09.  During the financial crisis, S&P 500 earnings fell by 28% from their 2007 level.  The S&P 500 index, however, plunged by a tiny bit less than 50% from its July 2007 high to its March 2009 low.

In 2013, on the other hand, we can see the reverse phenomenon.   S&P 500 earnings rose by 5% that year.  The index itself soared by 30%, however.  What happened?   Stock market investors–after a four-year (!!) period of extreme caution and an almost exclusive focus on bonds–began to factor the possibility of future earnings gains into stock prices once again.  This was, I think, the market finally returning to normal–something that begins to happens within twelve months of the bottom in a garden-variety recession.

Where are we now in the fear/greed cycle?

More tomorrow.

more trouble for active managers

When I started in the investment business in the late 1970s, fees of all types were, by today’s standards, almost incomprehensibly high.  Upfront sales charges for mutual funds, for example, were as high as 8.5% of the money placed in them.  And commissions paid even by institutional investors for trades could exceed 1% of the principal.

Competition from discount brokers like Fidelity offering no-load funds addressed the first issue.  The tripling of stocks in the 1980s fixed the second.  Managers reasoned that the brokers they were dealing with were neither providing better information nor handling trades with more finesse in 1989 than in 1980, yet the absolute amount of money paid to them for trading had tripled.  So buy-side institutions stopped paying a percentage and instead put caps on the absolute amount they would pay for a trade or for access to brokerage research.

All the while, however, management fees as a percentage of assets remained untouched.


That appears about to change, however.  The impetus comes from Europe, where fees are unusually high and where active management results have been, as I read them, unusually poor.

The argument is the same one active managers used in the 1980s in the US.  Stock markets have tripled from their 2009 lows and are up by 50% from their 2007 highs.  All this while investors have been getting the same weak relative performance, only now they’re paying 1.5x- 3x what they used to–simply because the markets have risen.

So let’s pay managers a fixed amount for the dubious services they provide rather than rewarding them for the fact that over time GDP has a tendency to rise, taking corporate profits–and thereby markets–with it.

The European proposal to decouple manager pay from asset size comes on the heels of one to force managers to make public the amount of customer money they use to purchase third-party research by allowing higher-than-normal trading commissions.  Most likely, customer outrage will put an end to this widespread practice.

Both changes will doubtless quickly migrate to the US, once they’re adopted elsewhere.




oil inventories: rising or falling?

The most commonly used industry statistics say “rising.”

However, an article in last Thursday’s Financial Times says the opposite.

The difference?

The FT’s assertion is that official statistics emphasize what’s happening in the US, because data there are plentiful.  And in the US, thanks to the resurgence of shale oil production, inventories are indeed rising.  On the other hand, the FT reports that it has data from a startup that tracks by satellite oil tanker movements around the world, which seem to demonstrate that the international flow of oil by tanker is down by at least 16% year on year during 1Q17.

Tankers move about 40% of the 90+million barrels of crude brought to the surface globally each day.  So the startup’s data implies that worldwide shipments are down by about 6 million daily barrels.  In other words, supply is now running about 4 million daily barrels below demand–but we can’t see that because the shortfall is mostly occurring in Asia, where publicly available data are poor.

If the startup information is correct, I see two investment implications (neither of which I’m ready to bet the farm on, though developments will be interesting to watch):

–the global crude oil supply/demand situation is slowly tightening, contrary to consensus beliefs, and

–in a world where few, if any, experienced oil industry securities analysts are working for brokers, and where instead algorithms parsing public data are becoming the norm, it may take a long time for the market to realize that tightening is going on.

It will be potentially important to monitor:  (1) whether what the FT is reporting proves to be correct; (2) if so, how long a lag there will be from FT publication last week to market awareness; and (3) whether the market reaction will be ho-hum or a powerful upward movement in oil stocks.  If this is indeed a non-consensus view, and I think it is< then the latter is more likely, I think, than the former.

This situation may shed some light not only on the oil market but also on how the discounting mechanism may be changing on Wall Street.




trading (iii): start with a paper portfolio

practice first

As I mentioned last week, your initial plan may be very simple, no more than “I intend to beat the S&P 500 index by selecting sectors with superior profit growth potential,” or “I intend to beat the S&P 500 by selecting individual stocks that are deeply undervalued as measured by the price/cash flow ratio.”

The next step is to create a paper portfolio to test out your ideas.

The paper portfolio is just what the name implies:  you create a portfolio on paper of the names you would want to buy (or sell, if that’s what you think you’ll be good at), watch what happens and keep score.

Based on the results, you refine your ideas.

using real money…

…in small amounts.  That’s the next step.

My experience is that if a paper portfolio is like going to the batting cages to practice your swing, using real money is like playing in a game with a live pitcher and fielders.  Your concentration is sharper, because the stakes are higher.  Sometimes, people who have no trouble performing with a paper portfolio encounter difficulties with a real-money portfolio.  That typically passes with time.

On the other hand, unless you’re convinced that you’re not taking your paper portfolio seriously enough, real-money trading won’t go well if your paper portfolio has consistently underperformed.