how the market looks to me today

It may be that the market downdrift we’ve been experiencing since early October started out as a bout of yearend mutual fund selling, as I’ve been writing for a while.  Maybe not.  In any event, the selling has continued for far longer than the mutual fund hypothesis can explain.

It may be that the market has been thinking that the prices of IT-related shares had gotten far too high, given their earnings prospects.  Strike out the “far” and I’d have to agree; in my mind, the big issue preventing at least a temporary market rotation away from tech has been, and remains, what other group to rotate into.

It’s also possible that the operative comparison has been between stocks and bonds.  The ongoing upward yield curve shift now has short-term Treasury notes yielding around 2.5% and the 10- and 30-year yielding above 3%.  Arguably this is a level where income-hungry Baby Boomers could feel they should allocate somewhat away from stocks and into fixed income.

Whatever the market’s motivation, however, I’m sticking with my idea that the S&P bottomed on October 29th.

 

Many times, when the market has hit a low and has begun to rebound, it will reverse course to “test” the previous low.  Also arguably, that’s what has been happening over the past week or so–formation of what technicians in their arcane lingo call a “double bottom.”  The main worry with this idea is that two weeks after the initial low is an unusually short time for the double bottoming to be happening.  Still, it’s my working hypothesis that this is, in fact, what’s going on.

The things to monitor are whether the market breaks below the late October low and, if so, whether it breaks below the April or February lows.

 

Another topic:  oil.  Crude oil and oil stock prices have been plunging recently.  Most non-US producers added extra current output to offset the assumed negative impact of the US placing renewed sanctions on the purchase of oil from Iran.  At the last minute, however, Washington granted exceptions to large purchasers of Iranian crude.  Because of this, oil has continued to flow in addition to the extra oil from OPEC.  Since demand for oil is relatively inflexible, even 1% – 2% changes in supply can cause huge changes in price.  Whether or not the US deliberately set out to deceive OPEC and thereby cause the current oversupply, the price of oil is down sharply since the US acted.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have just announced supply cuts.  Given that Feb – April is the weakest season of the year for oil demand, it’s not clear how long it will take for the reductions to lift the oil price.  It seems to me, though, that the more important question is when rather than if.  So I’ve begun to nibble at US shale oil producers that have been flattened since Washington’s action.

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.

GE, death cross and golden cross

In one of his early books, Peter Lynch, famed manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund (during the time when that fund had the strongest record among domestic growth funds), wrote that no one ever gets fired for buying IBM.

That is to say, many run-of-the-mill portfolio managers will stick with “safe” high-client-recognition large cap names long past their sell-by dates.  Why?   …because they think there’s less career risk for them in doing so than there is in holding earlier stage names where there’s much more upside but a bigger chance of going down in flames.  In my experience, that risk comes less from the company itself than from the PM’s not doing the continual securities analysis needed to monitor a smaller firm’s prospects.

The “safe” strategy, according to Lynch, generates at best mediocrity.

GE is a fascinating case (of the train wreck genre) in point.

As I see it, the company grew by only about 10% a year in what one might call its last  “glory days” in the 1990s.  That lackluster performance was fueled in large part by the creation of a finance division that specialized in lending to less than pristine customers.  On a stand-alone basis, the earnings from such a business typically garner only a substantially below-market multiple.  But it seems to me that GE boosters, led on by cheerleader CEO Jack Welch, never connected the dots and continued to pay super-generously for these results.

Welch’s successor had the unenviable task of straightening out the lumpy, aging conglomerate he left behind.  New management wound down the risky finance operations, but then decided to bet the farm on the consensus view at the turn of the century that the world faces a structural shortage of oil.  Ouch.

 

I have no current interest in GE as a stock.  My hunch, however, is that if I looked into the company I’d end up being more a buyer than a seller.  That’s for no other reason than it has been a dismal operating performer for a quarter century and there must be something of value inside a stock that has been beaten down so much over the past decade plus.

What prompted me to write this post, then?

 

dead cross and golden cross

I saw an article about GE by a technical analyst who asserts the stock is flirting with disaster. His argument is that a short-term moving average of GE’s stock price is just about to break below its long-term moving average.  Technicians call this a “dead cross,” a sign that investors are abandoning hope and will likely begin to dump the stock out without regard to price.

I have no belief in most technical indicators, including this one.  I like the name, though.  And if this prediction proves correct, I think it would provide a very good buying opportunity.

The opposite of the dead cross, by the way, is the “golden cross,” where the short-term moving average breaks above the long-term moving average.  This supposedly leads to strong buying action.

technical analysis in the 21st century

A reader asked last week what I think about technical analysis.  This is my answer.

what it is

Technical analysis in the stock market is the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying current and past patterns in the buying and selling of stocks, stock indices and associated derivatives.  The primary focus is on price and trading volume data.

Technical analysis is typically contrasted with fundamental analysis, the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying macro- and microeconomic data relevant to publicly traded companies.  The primary sources of these data are SEC-mandated disclosure of publicly traded company operating results and government and industry economic statistics.

what the market is

The stock market as the intersection of the objective financial/economic characteristics of publicly traded companies with the hopes and fears of the investors who buy and sell shares.  Fundamental analysis addresses primarily the companies; technical analysis primarily addresses the hopes and fears.

ebbing and flowing

To be clear, I think there’s an awful lot of ridiculous stuff passing itself off as technical “wisdom.”  The technical analyst’s bible (which I actually read a long time ago), the 1948 Technical Analysis of Stock Trends by Edwards and Magee, is now somewhere in my basement.  I’ve never been able to make heads nor tails of most of it.

On the other hand, in the US a century ago–and in markets today where reliable company financials aren’t available–individual investors had little else to guide them.

the old days–technicals rule (by default)

What individual investors looked for back then was unusual, pattern-breaking behavior in stock prices–because they had little else to alert them to positive/negative company developments.

I think this can still be a very useful thing to do, provided you’ve watched the daily price movements of a lot of stocks over a long enough period of time that you can recognize when something strange is happening.

the rise of fundamental analysis

Starting in the 1930s, federal regulation began to force publicly traded companies to make fuller and more accurate disclosure of financial results.  The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 mandated minimum levels of competence in the management of pension plan assets, laying the foundation for the fundamentals-driven securities analysis and portfolio management professions we have today in the US.

past the peak

The rise of passive investing and the rationalization of investment banking after the financial crisis have together reduced the amount of high-quality fundamental research being done in the US.  Academic investment theory, mostly lost in its wacky dreamworld of efficient markets, has never been a good training ground for analytic talent.

The waning of the profession of fundamental analysis is opening the door, I think, to alternatives.

algorithmic trading

Let’s say it takes three years working under the supervision of a research director or a portfolio manager to become an analyst who can work independently.  That’s expensive.  Plus, good research directors are very hard to find.  And the marketing people who generally run investment organizations have, in my experience, little ability to evaluate younger investment talent.

In addition, traditional investment organizations are in trouble in part because they’ve been unable to keep pace with the markets despite their high-priced talent.

The solution to beefing up research without breaking the bank?  Algorithmic trading.  I imagine investment management companies think that this is like replacing craft workers with the assembly line–more product at lower cost.

Many of the software-engineered trading products will, I think, be based on technical analysis.  Why?  The data are readily available.  Often, also, the simplest relationships are the most powerful.   I don’t think that’s true in the stock market, but it will probably take time for algos to figure this out.

My bottom line:  technical analysis will increase in importance in the coming years for two reasons:  the fading of traditional fundamental analysis, and the likelihood that software engineers hired by investment management companies will emphasize technicals, at least initially.

 

 

 

 

Tesla (TSLA), me and momentum investing

Why should a company fundamentals-driven investor have a problem with momentum investing?

Two reasons:

–momentum investing is a reactive strategy, and

–one that focuses on the past price movement of the little pieces of paper (or electronic impulses) that trade in the secondary market.

In contrast, fundamental investing is a predictive strategy based on the idea that the price of the paper/bits will ultimately be determined by the value of the underlying company.  Among fundamental investors, value investors believe that the key is the worth of the company as presently constituted (but perhaps running more smoothly than it in fact is).  Growth investors think the key is in early recognition of novel and unexpected profit positives that will fully emerge only in the future.

 

What kind of a thing, reactive or predictive, is my formula for TSLA of:   buy at $180 and sell at $250?  In a sense, I’ve got some fundamental underpinning.  My back-of-the-envelope figuring suggests nothing is likely to happen inside the company Tesla over the next couple of years that could possibly justify more than a $250 price.  And I’m willing to sell at that price even though the stock is still exhibiting positive price momentum.

But how did I get the $180?

What I’ve really done is to take a chart of the stock and draw a line that runs through the lows of the past four years or so and to conclude that this line forms the bottom of a channel (with something like $250 as the top) that TSLA has been navigating itself through since late 2013.  Yes, at $180 I have better potential for upside than I do at $250.  But that’s more a fact about arithmetic than a deep insight into corporate operations at Tesla.

In sum, then, the fundamental underpinning of at least the buying are pretty lame.

So I guess I have to say that there’s a healthier dose of momentum in my fooling around with TSLA than I might like to admit.  On another non-fundamental note, though, this ensures that my California son and I stay in regular contact.

D0w 20,000

The question is whether having a badly constructed, information-poor stock market index achieve a round-number milestone has any significance.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the Dow.  But I am of two minds:

–On the one hand, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is what we’re talking about, has been around for a very long time.  It has somehow deflected all attempts over my investing career to replace it in the media with an index that’s more useful, like the S&P 500.  So there’s at least a vague association in the public’s mind between Dow achievements and general economic prosperity.

–On the other, the minute you hear a media pundit use the Dow to interpret the ebb and flow of stocks in general, you know he’s clueless.

The best I can say is that if the Dow can remain higher than 20,000, doing so will have some small positive psychological value.  So I’ll take it.

 

 

Dow 20,000, S&P 2260

I’m not a fan of the Dow.  It’s a weird index whose main virtues are that, way back when, it was the financial media’s first try at measuring the US market and that, despite its peculiarities, it’s easy to calculate.  It’s no longer a useful gauge of US stocks, however.  So it’s never used by professionals, only by media people who have little industry background.  (One caveat:  the Dow indices are now controlled by the same people who own the S&P–who now have a vested interested in keeping the Dow alive, despite its drawbacks.)

Still, it’s striking that for the past six weeks 20,000 on the Dow has shown itself to be a strong point of resistance to the US stock market’s upward movement.  The equivalent figure for the S&P 500 is 2260, not a memorable number.

Whether the resistance level is 20,000 or 2260 makes little economic or financial difference.  Psychologically, however, 20,000 is much more daunting, I think, than 2260.  This is especially so now that the US stock market has risen far above former highs.

My bottom line is that, whatever number you choose, the post-election rally has run into its first substantial roadblock.  It’s also at least thinkable that the Dow is developing, at least for the moment, more relevance than I’m willing to give it credit for.  This would suggest that the balance of market power is shifting away from professionals to individual investors who have little stock market experience.    I find this hard to believe, but it’s something I should keep an eye anyway.