a bear market in time? sort of…

In the middle of a garden-variety bear market–i.e., one orchestrated by the Fed to stop the economy from running too hot–I remember a prominent strategist saying she thought the market had fallen far enough to be already discounting the slowdown in profits but that the signs of recovery were yet to be seen.  So, she said, we were in a bear market in time.

We’re in a different situation today, though:

–most importantly, we don’t know for sure how much damage the coronavirus will do, only that it’s bad and we unfortunately have someone of frightening incompetence at the helm  (think:  the Knicks on steroids) who continues to make the situation worse (while claiming we’re in the playoffs)

–with most of the seasoned investment professionals fired in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and replaced by AI and talking heads, it’s hard to gauge what’s driving day-to-day market moves

–if we assume that the US economy is 70% consumption and that this drops by 20% in the June quarter, then COVID-19 will reduce GDP by 14% for those three months.  This is a far steeper and deeper drop than most of us have ever seen before

–on the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to guess that the worst of the pandemic will be behind us by mid-year and that people released from quarantine will go back to living the same lives they did before they locked themselves up.

 

It seems to me, the key question for  us as investors is how to navigate the next three months.  In a pre-2008 market what would happen would be that in, say, six or eight weeks, companies would be seeing the first signs that the worst was past.  That might come with more foot traffic in stores or the hectic pace of online orders for basic necessities beginning to slow.

Astute analysts would detect these little signs, write reports and savvy portfolio managers reading them would begin to become more aggressive in their portfolio composition and in the prices they were willing to pay for stocks.

 

How the market will play out in today’s world is an open question.  AI seem to act much more dramatically and erratically than humans, but to wait for newsfeeds for stop/go signals.  (My guess is that the bottom for the market ends up lower than history would predict and comes closer to June.  At the same time as the market starts to rise again, it will rotate toward the sectors that have been hurt the worst.  Am I willing to act on this?   –on the first part, no; on the second part, looking at hotels, restaurants…when the time comes, yes)

A wild card:  Mr. Trump now seems to be indicating he will end quarantine earlier than medical experts say is safe.  At the very least, this will likely bring him into conflict with the governors of states, like NY, NJ and CA, who have been leading efforts to fight the pandemic.  At the worst, it will prolong and intensify the virus effects in areas that follow his direction.  Scary.

 

 

 

feeling for a bottom

feeling for the bottom

panic in the air

During bad markets like the present, company fundamentals tend to go out the window as predictors of short-term stock market performance.  What takes their place is varying shades of fear and reading charts.

As for fear, I’ve found in watching my own usually-optimistic behavior, that no matter how far down the market has fallen it isn’t approaching a bottom until I start to get scared–that maybe my innate cheeriness has finally ruined my career and the family finances.  For what it’s worth, I started getting these (irrational) feelings for the first time on Wednesday.  It could be that my last-minute rush to get my thesis project finished and submitted to SVA contributed a feeling of panic.  If not, my Wednesday experience is good news.

charts

My version of William Pitt is to say that charts (not patriotism) are the last refuge of scoundrels.  Nevertheless, when rationality flies out the door, charts are what’s left.

In the US, despite the chatter of TV actors, the important index is not the Dow but the S&P 500.  The important things to look for, in my view, are past bottoms and places where the index has been flattish for an extended period of time.  That’s not a lot to go on but that’s most of what there is.

In this case, the relevant figures I see are 2400, which was the bottom for the mysterious market drop at the end of 2018 and 2100, where the S&P spent much of 2015-16.

Two idiosyncracies of the US market:

–the index often breaks below a big support level–scaring the wits out of traders who see themselves sliding into a yawning abyss, in my view–before reversing itself.  The break below signals the bottom

–almost always the index recovers for several weeks before returning to, and bouncing up from, the initial bottom.  This didn’t happen in 2018, though.

the economy

My guess is that the worst of the coronavirus will be behind the US by June.  If that’s correct, then at some time in May (?) the stock market will begin to discount better times.

The biggest economic negative has come from the White House, where the incompetence of Mr. Trump was on full display, raising echoes of the disaster he created in Puerto Rico earlier in his term.  Not far behind is the recent revelation that Republican senators dumped their stock portfolios after coronavirus briefings, while still toeing the party line that there was nothing to worry about.  (My view is that Trump has done an enormous amount of long-term economic damage to the US in his presidency so far–hurting most deeply those who have trusted and supported him–but that we have yet to see the negative consequences.)  Somehow, Washington appears to have started to function again, however.

On the other hand, state and local officials have negated some of Trump’s “hoax” campaign by acting quickly and decisively.

From a purely stock market view, it seems to me that investors have switched out of panic mode and are beginning to sift through the rubble to sort winners from losers.  If I’m correct, it’s important for us as investors to pay attention to what the market is saying now–and ask ourselves how well this matches with our sense of what is happening.

 

 

 

 

dealing with market volatility

Beginning rant:  finance academics equate volatility with risk.  This has some intuitive plausibility.  Volatility is also easy to measure and you don’t have to know much about actual financial markets.  Using volatility as the principal measure of risk leads to odd conclusions, however.

For example: Portfolio A is either +/- 1% each week but is up by 8% each year; Portfolio B almost never changes and is up by 3% every twelve months.

Portfolio A will double in nine years; Portfolio B takes 24 years to double–by which time Portfolio A will be almost 4x the value of B.

People untrained in academic finance would opt for A.  Academics argue (with straight faces) that the results of A should be discounted because that portfolio fluctuates in value so much more than B.  Some of them might say that A is worse than B because of greater volatility, even though that would be cold comfort to an investor aiming to send a child to college or to retire (the two principal reasons for long-term savings).

more interesting stuff

–on the most basic level, if I’m saving to buy a car this year or for a vacation, that money should be in a bank account or money market fund, not in the stock market.  Same thing with next year’s tuition money

–the stock market is the intersection of the objective financial characteristics of publicly-traded companies with the hopes and fears of investors.  Most often, prices change because of human emotion rather than altered profit prospects.   What’s happening in markets now is unusual in two ways:  an external event, COVID-19, is causing unexpected and hard-to-predict declines in profit prospects for many publicly-traded companies; and the bizarrely incompetent response of the administration to the public health threat–little action + suppression of information (btw, vintage Trump, as we witnessed in Atlantic City)–is raising deep fears about the guy driving the bus we’re all on

–most professionals I’ve known try to avoid trading during down markets, realizing that what’s emotionally satisfying today will likely appear to be incredibly stupid in a few months.  For almost everyone, sticking with the plan is the right thing to do

–personally, I’ve found down markets to be excellent times for upgrading a portfolio.  That’s because clunkers that have badly lagged during an up phase tend to outperform when the market’s going down–this is a variation on “you can’t fall off the floor.”  Strong previous performers, on the other hand, tend to do relatively poorly (see my next point).  So it makes sense to switch.  Note:  this is much harder to do in practice than it seems.

–when all else fails, i.e., after the market has been going down for a while, even professionals revert to the charts–something no one wants to admit to.  Two things I look for:

support and resistance:  meaning prices at which lots of people have previously bought and sold.  Disney (DIS), for example, went sideways for a number of years at around $110 before spiking on news of its new streaming service.  Arguably people who sold DIS over that time would be willing to buy it back at around that level.  Strong previous performers have farther to fall to reach these levels

selling climax:  meaning a point where investors succumb to fear and dump out stocks without regard to price just to stop losing money.  Sometimes the same kind of thing happens when speculators on margin are unable to meet margin calls and are sold out.  In either case, the sign is a sharp drop on high volume.  I see a little bit of that going on today

 

more on Monday

 

thinking about 2020

where we are

The S&P 500 is trading at around 25x current earnings, up from a PE of 20x a year ago.  Multiple expansion, not earnings growth, is the key factor behind the S&P rise last year.In fact, earnings per share growth, now at about +10%/year, has been decelerating since the one-time boost from the domestic corporate income tax cut cycled through income statements in 2018.  Typically earnings deceleration is a red flag.  Not so in 2019.

EPS growth in 2020 will probably be around +10% again.

About half the earnings of the S&P come from the US, a quarter from Europe and the rest from emerging economies.  The US will likely be the weakest of the three areas this year, as ongoing tariff wars take a further toll on agriculture and manufacturing, as population growth continues to wane given the administration’s hostility toward foreigners, and as multinationals continue to shift operations elsewhere to escape these policies.  On the other hand, Europe ex the UK should perk up a bit, emerging markets arguably can’t get much worse, and multinationals will likely invest more abroad.

 

interest rates:  the biggest question 

What motivated investors to bid up the S&P by 30% last year despite pedestrian eps growth and Washington dysfunction?

Investors don’t buy stocks in a vacuum.  We’re constantly comparing stocks with bonds and cash as alternative liquid investments.  And in 2019 bonds and cash were distinctly unattractive.   The yield on cash is close to zero here (elsewhere in the world bank depositors have been charged for holding cash).  The 10-year Treasury started 2019 yielding 2.66%.  The yield dipped to 1.52% during the summer and has risen to 1.92% now.  In contrast, the earnings yield (1/PE, the academic point of comparison of stocks vs. bonds)) on the S&P was 5% last January and is 4% now.

The dividend yield on the S&P is now about 1.9%.  That’s higher than the 10-year yield, a situation that has occurred in our lifetimes only after a bear market has crushed stock valuations.  In my working career, this has happened mostly outside the US and has always been a clear buy signal for stocks.  Not now, though–in my view–unless we’re willing to believe that the current situation is permanent.

The situation is even stranger outside the US, where the yield on many government bonds is actually negative.

In short, wild distortions in sovereign bond markets, a product of unconventional central bank measures aimed at rescuing the world economy after the 2008-09 collapse, have migrated into stocks.

How long will this situation last and how will it unwind?

 

more on Monday

 

 

 

 

liquidity and stock price changes

daily liquidity and price movements

Liquidity has a lot of different meanings.  Right now, though, I just want to write about what I think is making stocks yo-yo to and fro on any given day.

 

The default response by market makers–human or machine–to a large wave of selling of the kind algorithms seem to trigger is to move the market down as fast as trading regulations allow.  This serves a number of purposes:  it minimizes the unexpected inventory a market maker is forced to take on at a given price; it allows the market maker to gauge the urgency of the seller; the decline itself eventually discourages sellers with any price sensitivity, so the selling dries up; and it reduces the price the market maker pays for the inventory he accumulates.

A large wave of buying works in the opposite direction, but with the same general result: market makers sell less, but at higher prices and end up with less net short exposure.

 

From my present seat high in the bleachers, it seems to me the overall stock market game–to make more/lose less than the other guy–hasn’t changed.  But we’ve gone from the old, human-driven strategy of slow anticipation of likely news not yet released to violently fast computer reaction to news as it’s announced.

Today’s game isn’t simply algorithmic noise, though.  Apple (AAPL), for example, pretty steadily lost relative performance for weeks in November, after it announced it would no longer disclose unit sales of its products.  Two points:  the market had no problem in immediately understanding that this was a bad thing (implying humans were likely involved)   …and the negative price reaction continued for the better part of a month (suggesting that something/someone constrained the race to the bottom).  As it turns out, decision #1 was good and decision #2 was bad.  Presumably short-term traders will make adjustments.

my take

On the premise that dramatic daily shifts in the prices of individual stocks will continue for a while:

–if investors care about the high level of daily volatility, its persistence should imply an eventual contraction in the market PE multiple.  Ten years of rising market probably implies that this won’t happen overnight, if it occurs at all.

–individual investors like you and me may have more time to research new companies and establish positions, if the importance of discounting diminishes

–professional analysts may only retain their relevance if they actively publicize their conclusions, trying to trigger algorithmic action, rather than keeping them closely held and waiting for the rest of the world to eventually figure things out

–the old (and typically unsuccessfully executed) British strategy of maintaining core positions while dedicating, say, 20% of the portfolio to trading around them, may come back into vogue.  Even long-term investors may want to establish buy/sell targets for their holdings and become more trading-oriented as well

–algorithms will presumably begin to react to the heightened level of daily volatility they are creating.  Whether volatility increases or declines as a result isn’t clear

 

 

 

 

machines vs. humans

…a financial Industrial Revolution?

I remember reading, years and years ago, an analysis of changes in the nature of work that happened during the Industrial Revolution.  The general idea is that, say, candlesticks had been made as one-of-a-kind items, out of precious materials and ornate decoration, worked for months by an artisan who had spent years learning how to do this.  Yes, the end product was useful, but it was also very expensive, meant for a niche audience, and acted as a sign of the owners’ superior wealth, taste and privilege.  In contrast, the “new” candlestick was made, fast and cheap, out of ordinary stuff, by a guy who knew how to operate a machine.

Today we find it hard to imagine the possible appeal of most pre-IR objects.  Yet they were once the norm.

 

The macro/microeconomic research-based stock market investment reports of the kind I used to create were made by people, like me, who served long apprenticeships under masters of the craft.  The work tended to only start to approach minimum standards after the author had, say, five years of practical experience in an investment management firm.  Buy-side portfolio managers like me also used the voluminous output of internal or brokerage house analysts who spent their careers studying a specific industry group.

By 2019, most of the experienced buy- and sell-siders have either retired or been laid off,  and have been replaced in many cases either by computer-controlled index-tracking products or by algorithms.  The main forces in today’s daily stock market trading have become machines, some programmed to carry out the wacky theories of the academic world, others to react to signals from the patterns of trading itself (i.e., technical analysis) or to news stories (typically written by reporters trained mostly as writers) or to extrapolate from the patterns of past business cycles.

progress or free-riding?

Are the research reports of a decade or two ago analogous to the candlesticks of the Pre-IR era?  Are algorithms like early industrial machines?  Are they a better and cheaper, although different, way of dealing with financial markets than having a very expensive group of human craftsmen?  Does this mean those who decry algorithms are simply Upper East Side-dwelling Luddites?

I don’t know about “simply.”  My feeling is that algorithms are here to stay.  And my experience as an investor is that it’s very dangerous to think that just because you don’t like or understand something that it serves no purpose.

Still, my suspicion is that as it stands now, there’s a healthy dose of free-riding to algorithmic trading.  In other words,  it looks to me as if some algorithms rely on reading the signals of human professional investors as they move in and out of stocks in response to their research findings.  As those humans are displaced by machines, however, those signals will disappear–implying algorithms will have to evolve if their raw material is to be something other than random noise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.