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


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.

what if this is a bear market…and not just a wicked correction?

standard definitions

Commentators often use sound-bite definitions for economic and stock market phenomena.  For example,

–a recession is two successive quarters of year-on-year GDP decline.

–a correction is a short, counter-trend, fall in stocks of 5%-10%.

–a bear market is a fall in stock prices of 20% or more.

The virtues of these definitions are that they’re brief and unambiguous.  On the other side of the coin, brief and unambiguous doesn’t represent real life that well.

adding complexity, but also relevance

There’s a time aspect to corrections and bear markets.

A correction typically lasts a few weeks.  That’s because it’s normally a valuation issue–that “animal spirits” have pushed stock prices higher than near-term earnings can comfortably support.  Short-term traders sell, but intend to repurchase in short order, hopefully at somewhat lower prices.

Bear markets, on the other hand, come in two types.  Both anticipate–and ultimately reflect–widespread economic weakness that will last for a year or so.  The garden variety is a consequence of governments’ countercyclical fiscal and money actions when economies are about to overheat (too bad Mr. Greenspan forgot about this part of his job).

The really deep ones come from one-time shocks to the system.  In the past, these have been “external shocks,” like huge oil price rises.  The most recent is the self-inflicted wound of the financial meltdown.  As we experienced in 2007-2009, these ones are deeper and longer.

for the record…

…I don’t think we’re in a bear market–at least not in the world outside the EU (where stocks have already lost over a third of their value since May).

I think we’re in an unusual situation of correction in world markets, complicated by the EU situation.  In brief, the EU hoped to get away with not rebuilding its banks’ strength after the losses they took in the financial crisis, but hiding them instead.  They figured they could free-ride on the economic coattails of China and the US instead and use worldwide growth to mend.

Then the Greek crisis came.  And, instead of addressing the fact their gamble had failed, EU governments have spent the last year with their heads in the sand, letting the problem get worse.

why bring this up now?

EU stocks have lost over a third of their value since May.  US stocks are down by almost 20% (the “magic” bear market line).  Metals prices are crashing.  Stocks have been extremely volatile.

Monday morning I saw a lot of crazy stuff when I turned my computer Monday morning.

–European markets were down 5% intraday.

–Hong Kong-traded Ping An Insurance (I own it–ouch!) had lost another 8%+.  It was down by 25% in three days on rumors that HSBC was about to sell a portion of its holding (so what, I say).

–AAPL lost $10 in early trading in a rising US market on a report out of Taiwan that orders for iPad components from Hon Hai for the December quarter were lower than expected.  It turns out the orders, if they are indeed being lost at Hon Hai, are most likely going to a new iPad factory that’s opening in Brazil in December. It could equally be that AAPL is preparing for iPad3, which would be a bullish sign, I think.  But, noooo. Traders took the most bearish interpretation.

The world isn’t 5% better one week, 6% worse the next, and 7% better the week after that.  Economic processes don’t change that fast.  Human emotions do, however.  And the extremes of emotion we’re seeing now typically signal significant turning points in market behavior.  Hence the title of this post.

what to do

My best guess is that we continue to move sideways in markets ex the EU until European governments address their banking crisis.  They markets probably rally.  But that may not be for a while, so don’t bank on that.

I think the best strategy is to use days of crazy selling as a chance to buy stocks that are being irrationally sold down.  Be very picky, though.  Look for high quality names where you’re very confident about the fundamentals.  And don’t bet the farm on a single stock.

On September 6-9, for example, I bought INTC, because I saw it was trading at under $20 a share, or less than 9x earnings, and with a dividend yield of 4.3%.  As/when it reaches $24, I have to decide whether I keep it.

if it’s a bear market, then what?

Then markets are not turning up again until maybe next summer.  And, if past form holds true, we’ll see at least one more downdraft in stock prices–maybe another 10% from here, more in economically sensitive stocks and in emerging markets securities (even though the emerging economies themselves may be fine).  That will come as government statistics and company reports show economic activity dipping into negative territory.  Yes, world stock markets may have begun discounting this possibility.  But, ex the EU, they’re barely begun to, in my view.

As much as it cuts against the grain of my growth stock temperament, it seems to me it’s worthwhile thinking about asset allocation and how you’d act if a more ursine mood begins to make itself evident on Wall Street.  My portfolio is betting against this, but it never hurts to think about what happens if you’re wrong.






major changes in market direction (III): market tops

market tops

Market tops are harder to define, and to recognize, than market bottoms–at least for me.  That’s partly because tops don’t all exhibit the set of common characteristics that bottoms do.

signs of a bottom…

Bottoms occur when stocks are priced at low enough levels that it’s hard to imagine a likely state of affairs that would justify where they’re trading at.  Clear signs of bottoms include:

–stocks trading a deep discount to book value, or

–the dividend yield on stocks higher than that on government bonds.

…don’t work in reverse for tops

The opposite indicators for book value or dividend yield don’t work at market tops.

Why not?

Book value doesn’t matter much for service companies, which are nowadays typically the bull market stars.  Accounting rules force service companies to charge expenditures on intangibles like R&D against current income, instead of putting them on the balance sheet and slowly writing them off. As a result, the concept of the balance sheet “book” value has limited relevance for them.  A software company trading at 4x book value is much different from a steel company trading at 4x book.

Also, the fact that long Treasury bonds were yielding 10% in mid-1987, a time when stocks were trading at 20x earnings and yielding, say, 2%, clearly warned of the crash to come in October.  But that was an unusual situation.  During my career, many bull markets (I’ve seen five of them in the US and a larger number overseas) have been driven by some overarching theme.  They’ve extended into an “emperor’s new clothes” kind of overvaluation and ended when the fantasy-like nature of valuations has been publicly exposed.  But the stock indices have rarely shown up as wildly expensive vs. bonds.

a list of bull markets

To illustrate this point, these are the bull market endings in the US that I’ve lived through as a professional investor:

1981 bull market driven by oil stocks as OPEC demanded higher prices for its output, and by fear of runaway inflation, which focused investors on tangible assets.  Bull market ended when spot crude prices peaked in late 1980 and began to fall.  Soon after, Volcker Fed began to raise rates aggressively, adding to downward pressure.

1987 bull market ends on valuation, with stocks at 20x expected earnings, an earnings yield of 5%; bonds were trading at half that level, a coupon yield of 10%.

1990 bull market ends as the US economy is beginning to overheat and the Fed signals rate rises; Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, sending oil prices higher.

2000 really two themes, maybe two bull markets without a bear market in between.  The upturn in 1992 was sparked by the realization that the American industrial base had been modernized/revitalized during the junk bond era of the Eighties and was earning much more than almost anyone expected.  That phase was followed by the technology and Internet boom that lasted from 1996-early 2000.  The latter boom was intensified by Greenspan’s aggressive expansion of the money supply.  He did this to mitigate the effects of the Asian financial crisis and in fear of adverse Y2K effects that never materialized (thanks, Ed Yardeni!).  The bull market ended when new orders for internet-related hardware suddenly stopped coming in during late 1999.

2006 bull market fueled by housing bubble and belief that finance was the new area of US competitive advantage.  The bull market ended when homeowners began to default on mortgages they couldn’t afford to service.  The boom was subsequently shown (to my satisfaction, anyway) to have been based on massive systematic fraud by financial companies, abetted by widespread incompetence and neglect by government regulators.

what do they all have in common?

The obvious thing is that they all ended badly.  But the main point is that they don’t have the cookie-cutter identity of bear market bottoms. Instead, they have a kind of “family resemblance,” where some–but not all–of a set of several characteristics are evident.  Among the things to look for are:


Yes, as a bull market matures, the discounting mechanism begins to cause today’s stock prices to reflect possibilities that are farther and farther in the future.   This is in itself a warning sign.  But it still takes time for positive economic events to play themselves out and for storm clouds to appear on the horizon.  If a bull market is dominated by a theme, like oil or the internet, it also takes time for the theme to be recognized and played out to the extent that the major stocks are significantly overvalued.

A bull market typically lasts for well over two years.  The up market(s) of the Nineties lasted for seven.

waves of speculation

The earliest days of a bull market are typically marked by outperformance of large-cap names, as investors scramble to move big amounts of money back into stocks.  After this period, however, investor interest turns to small-caps.  This is particularly true in a thematically-driven market.

Interest then shifts in progressive waves from small-caps to mid-caps, then to large-caps and finally in a highly speculative way back to small caps.  These may be the same small caps the market was interested in earlier in the bull phase or they may be fresh IPOs.  But the new focus is typically on aspects of the businesses that are purely potential, that may never come to fruition or will not make money for years.

Technicians have historically remarked on this final phase, where market breadth narrows, as one of divergence between small-caps and large-caps, which are beginning to break down. But I think the highly speculative element is key.

Yes, this indicator appears to be the bell ringing kind that alerts us to the top of the market.  But, during the Greenspan era at least, this warning period has easily lasted a year or more.  So there has been a substantial risk to professional managers, even if they recognize the sign, if they become defensive too prematurely.

qualitative cracks in the thematic vision

A theme-driven bull market, like any good individual growth stock, has, in addition to its quantitative underpinnings, a qualitative “story” element behind it.  In my experience, threats to the theme always emerge first on the qualitative side.

For example, the late Seventies oil-driven market assumed that demand for oil was insatiable.  At the time academic economists were coming out with theories claiming a special nature for oil–that it had a “backward-bending” nature which made demand increase as prices rose.  Yes, that sounds crazy now, but academic journals were publishing articles about this new “discovery.”  At some point, though, people elected to conserve–to turn down the thermostat, take public transportation and buy heavier clothes–rather than pay sky-high oil prices.

Similarly, as the internet boom matured, companies began to find ways to make existing data transmission lines carry more capacity (rapid development of deep wave division multiplexing) so that they didn’t have to spend so much on new lines.

These qualitative indicators of impending trouble are always there.  They tell you nothing about exact timing, but they do serve as a warning to be on your guard.

stumbling blocks to recognition

Bull markets only come along once or twice a decade.  That’s not very often.  In addition, the Greenspan monetary philosophy encouraged the creation of speculative bubbles, making it harder to figure when, or at what levels, stocks should be peaking.  (A Heideggerian might say that we refuse to recognize patterns that develop only over long periods because they remind us of our mortality (sorry!).)

But there are also more practical stumbling blocks.  In particular,

–research reports from brokerage houses are relentlessly positive.  Neither brokers nor analysts make money by telling clients to sell.  In fact, they may lose business by doing so if they anger company managements or large holders of a stock they express a negative opinion about.

–the reliance of institutional clients on third-party consultants to select and evaluate managers has had two relevant results– ever higher specialization of portfolio managers, and the prohibition of “style drift,” or movement away from the areas the manager knows best.  So today’s institutional manager may not pay much attention to relative sector valuation.  It may make no sense for him to hunt for undervalued parts of the market outside what has worked for him in the past, because he won’t be allowed by his clients to invest in them.

–he won’t be permitted to raise cash either, because of the strong institutional emphasis is on relative performance rather than absolute.  In consequence, if a manager doesn’t see anything but overvaluation in the areas he has been hired to invest in, his only choice is to give back the money.  That made Warren Buffett’s reputation a half-century ago, but not many people have been willing to follow his lead.  Why?  …they forfeit management fees, and they have no guarantee they’ll ever get the money back.

The result of all these factors is to create a situation where a professional portfolio manager tends not to pay enough attention to, or to underestimate, how frothy the market may be at a given moment.

tops can last a long time

Rarely, bull markets have a “melt-up,” a buying panic that’s the same kind of definitive signal of the top that a selling panic, or meltdown, is of the bottom.  More often, though, a bull market top lasts through months of basically sideways action.  It’s as if you have a great seat at the movies and the film is terrific, but you smell a whiff of smoke.  You know someone will eventually yell “Fire!’ and all hell will break loose.  But in the meantime, it’s such a good movie and you have such a great seat that you decide not to leave.

for us as individuals

Three comments:

1.  We have none of the restrictions, or the blinders, of institutional investors.  We can afford to give up some of the upside to protect our downside.  We can leave the theater.

2.  There’s a temptation to focus solely on the overvalued sector and to argue that while doom impends there, the rest of the market is safe.  That’s almost always a mistake.  When the bull market ends, everything goes down.  The decline in overvalued stocks tends to drag everything else down with them.  Occasionally, as was the case with very defensive stocks during the collapse of the internet bubble, some sectors may show absolute gains.  In most cases, however, their performance is relatively good but bad in absolute terms.

3.  Up until the past decade, post-WWII bull markets in the US have typically lasted about 2 1/2 years.  Bear markets have lasted around 1 1/2.  Together, the two make up the typical inventory adjustment or “electoral” market cycle.

Arguably, then, the bull is beginning to live on borrowed time when an up market enters year three.  Similarly, a bear market is starting to be on its last legs when the decline enters year two.  A reasonable strategy would be to begin to look hard for signs of reversal once those mileposts have been achieved.

Neither rule of thumb would have done much good so far in the 21st century.  The bust that followed the internet bubble dragged on from April 2000 until March 2003.  The housing-driven bull market that followed lasted four years, until mid-2007.

It’s possible, however, that with Mr. Greenspan out of the picture and with “bond vigilantes” on higher alert that the older patterns may reemerge.

(Note:  I’m editing and updating this in March 2012, in response to a reader’s comment.  The bull market that began in March 2009 endured a sharp correction of about 20% last summer.  That was right on the old schedule.  However, prices have since rebounded and are retouching the old highs.   And the intrusion into financial markets by governments in the developed world–with the EU and Japan joining the cheap money party–is greater today than it has been over the past several years.  So the timing of the 2011 correction may have only been coincidence.  Personally, I think we may continue to be winging it for a while–at least until the shape of post-election fiscal policy in the US becomes clearer.)