Tag Archives: Mark Hulbert

The Risk Of An ETF Driven Liquidity Crash

Last week, James Rickards posted an interesting article discussing the risk to the financial markets from the rise in passive indexing. To wit:

“Free riding is one of the oldest problems in economics and in society in general. Simply put, free riding describes a situation where one party takes the benefits of an economic condition without contributing anything to sustain that condition.

This is the problem of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ investors.

The active investor contributes to markets while trying to make money in them.

A passive investor is a parasite. The passive investor simply buys an index fund, sits back and enjoys the show. Since markets mostly go up, the passive investor mostly makes money but contributes nothing to price discovery.”

Evelyn Cheng highlighted the rise of passive investing as well:

Quantitative investing based on computer formulas and trading by machines directly are leaving the traditional stock picker in the dust and now dominating the equity markets, according to a new report from JPMorgan.

‘While fundamental narratives explaining the price action abound, the majority of equity investors today don’t buy or sell stocks based on stock specific fundamentals,‘ Marko Kolanovic, global head of quantitative and derivatives research at JPMorgan, said in a Tuesday note to clients.

Kolanovic estimates ‘fundamental discretionary traders’ account for only about 10 percent of trading volume in stocks. Passive and quantitative investing accounts for about 60 percent, more than double the share a decade ago, he said.

‘Derivatives, quant fund flows, central bank policy and political developments have contributed to low market volatility’, Kolanovic said. Moreover, he said, ‘big data strategies are increasingly challenging traditional fundamental investing and will be a catalyst for changes in the years to come.’”

The rise in passive investing has been a byproduct of a decade-long infusion of liquidity and loose monetary policy which fostered a rise in asset prices to a valuation extreme only seen once previously in history. The following chart shows that this is exactly what is happening. Since 2009, over $2.5 trillion of equity investment has been added to passive-strategy funds, while $2.0 trillion has been withdrawn from active-strategy funds.

As James aptly notes:

“This chart reveals the most dangerous trend in investing today. Since the last financial crisis, $2.5 trillion has been added to “passive” equity strategies and $2.0 trillion has been withdrawn from “active” investment strategies. This means more investors are free riding on the research of fewer investors. When sentiment turns, the passive crowd will find there are few buyers left in the market.

When the market goes down, passive fund managers will be forced to sell stocks in order to track the index. This selling will force the market down further and force more selling by the passive managers. This dynamic will feed on itself and accelerate the market crash.”

He is correct, and makes the same point that Frank Holmes recently penned in Forbes:

“Nevertheless, the seismic shift into indexing has come with some unexpected consequences, including price distortion. New research shows that it has inflated share prices for a number of popular stocks. A lot of trading now is based not on fundamentals but on low fees. These ramifications have only intensified as active managers have increasingly been pushed to the side.”

“This isn’t just the second largest bubble of the past four decades. E-commerce is also vastly overrepresented in equity indices, meaning extraordinary amounts of money are flowing into a very small number of stocks relative to the broader market. Apple alone is featured in almost 210 indices, according to Vincent Deluard, macro-strategist at INTL FCStone.

If there’s a rush to the exit, in other words, the selloff would cut through a significant swath of index investors unawares.”

As Frank notes, the problem with even 35% of the market being “passive” is the liquidity issues surrounding the market as a whole. With more ETF’s than individual stocks, and the number of outstanding shares traded being reduced by share buybacks, the risk of a sharp and disorderly reversal remains due to compressed credit and liquidity risk premia. As a result, market participants need to be mindful of the risks of diminished market liquidity, asset price discontinuities, and contagion across asset markets.

The risk of a disorderly unwinding due to a lack of liquidity was highlighted by the head of the BOE, Mark Carney.

“Market adjustments to date have occurred without significant stress. However, the risk of a sharp and disorderly reversal remains given the compressed credit and liquidity risk premia. As a result, market participants need to be mindful of the risks of diminished market liquidity, asset price discontinuities and contagion across asset markets.’”

In other words, the problem with passive investing is simply that it works, until it doesn’t.

You Only Think You Are Passive

As Howard Marks, mused in his ‘Liquidity’ note:

“ETF’s have become popular because they’re generally believed to be ‘better than mutual funds,’ in that they’re traded all day. Thus an ETF investor can get in or out anytime during trading hours. But do the investors in ETFs wonder about the source of their liquidity?’”

What Howard is referring to is the “Greater Fool Theory,” which surmises there is always a “greater fool” than you in the market to sell to. While the answer is “yes,” as there is always a buyer for every seller, the question is always “at what price?” 

More importantly, individual investors are NOT passive even though they are investing in “passive” vehicles.

Today, more than ever, advisors are actively migrating portfolio management to the use of ETF’s for either some, if not all, of the asset allocation equation. However, they are NOT doing it “passively.”

The rise of index funds has turned everyone into “asset class pickers” instead of stock pickers. However, just because individuals are choosing to “buy baskets” of stocks, rather than individual securities, it is not a “passive” choice, but rather “active management” in a different form.  

While the idea of passive indexing works while all prices are rising, the reverse is also true. The problem is that once prices begin to fall – “passive indexers” will quickly become “active sellers.” With the flood of money into “passive index” and “yield funds,” the tables are once again set for a dramatic, and damaging, ending.

It is only near peaks in extended bull markets that logic is dismissed for the seemingly easiest trend to make money. Today is no different as the chart below shows the odds are stacked against substantial market gains from current levels.

The reason that mean-reverting events have occurred throughout history, is that despite the best of intentions, individuals just simply refuse to act “rationally” by holding their investments as they watch losses mount.

This behavioral bias of investors is one of the most serious risks arising from ETFs as the concentration of too much capital in too few places. But this concentration risk is not the first time this has occurred:

  • In the early 70’s it was the “Nifty Fifty” stocks,
  • Then Mexican and Argentine bonds a few years after that
  • “Portfolio Insurance” was the “thing” in the mid -80’s
  • Dot.com anything was a great investment in 1999
  • Real estate has been a boom/bust cycle roughly every other decade, but 2006 was a doozy
  • Today, it’s ETF’s 

Risk concentration always seems rational at the beginning, and the initial successes of the trends it creates can be self-reinforcing.

Until it goes in the other direction.

The sell-off in February of this year was not particularly unusual, however, it was the uniformity of the price moves which revealed the fallacy “passive investing” as investors headed for the door all at the same time.

It should serve as a warning.

When “robot trading algorithms”  begin to reverse, it will not be a slow and methodical process but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation or fundamental measures as the exit will become very narrow.

Fortunately, while the price decline was indeed sharp, and a “rude awakening” for investors, it was just a correction within the ongoing “bullish trend.”

For now.

But nonetheless, the media has been quick to repeatedly point out the decline was the worst since 2008.

That certainly sounds bad.

The question is “which” 10% decline was it?

Regardless, it was only a glimpse at what will eventually be the “real” decline when leverage is eventually clipped. I warned of this previously:

“At some point, that reversion process will take hold. It is then investor ‘psychology’ will collide with ‘margin debt’ and ETF liquidity. It will be the equivalent of striking a match, lighting a stick of dynamite and throwing it into a tanker full of gasoline.

When the ‘herding’ into ETF’s begins to reverse, it will not be a slow and methodical process but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation or fundamental measures.

Importantly, as prices decline it will trigger margin calls which will induce more indiscriminate selling. The forced redemption cycle will cause catastrophic spreads between the current bid and ask pricing for ETF’s. As investors are forced to dump positions to meet margin calls, the lack of buyers will form a vacuum causing rapid price declines which leave investors helpless on the sidelines watching years of capital appreciation vanish in moments. Don’t believe me? It happened in 2008 as the ‘Lehman Moment’ left investors helpless watching the crash.

Over a 3-week span, investors lost 29% of their capital and 44% over the entire 3-month period. This is what happens during a margin liquidation event. It is fast, furious and without remorse.”

Make no mistake we are sitting on a “full tank of gas.” 

While “passive indexing” sounds like a winning approach to “pace” the markets during the late stages of an advance, it is worth remembering it will also “pace” just as well during the subsequent decline.

So, what’s your plan for when the real correction ultimately begins?

“If everybody indexed, the only word you could use is chaos, catastrophe. The markets would fail.” – John C. Bogle.

Party Like It’s 1992?

Last week, Mark Hulbert warned of an indicator that hasn’t been this inflated since the “Dot.com” bubble. To wit:

“It’s been more than 25 years since the stock market’s long-term trailing return was as low as it is today. Since the top of the internet bubble in March 2000, the S&P 500 has produced a 1.4% annualized return after adjusting for both dividends and inflation. “

Whoa! How can that be given the market just set a record for the “longest bull market” in U.S. history?

This is a point that is lost on many investors who have only witnessed one half of a full market cycle. It is also the very essence of Warren Buffett’s most basic investment lesson:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

Over the last 147-years of market history, there have only been five (5), relatively short periods, in history where the entirety of market “gains” were made. The rest of the time, the market was simply getting back to even.

Where you start your investing journey has everything to do with outcomes. Warren Buffett, for example, launched Berkshire Hathaway when valuations, and markets, were becoming historically undervalued. If Buffett had launched his firm in 2000, or even today, his “fame and fortune” would likely be drastically different.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

It is also worth noting, as shown below, that valuations clearly run in cycles over time. The current evolution of valuations has been extended longer than previous cycles due to 30-years of falling interest rates, massive increases in debt and leverage, unprecedented amounts of artificial stimulus, and government spending.

This was a point I discussed last week:

“There are two important things to consider with respect to the chart below.

  1. The shift higher in MEDIAN valuations was a function of falling economic growth and inflationary pressures.
  2. Higher prices were facilitated by increasing levels of leverage and debt, which eroded economic growth. “

But with returns low over the last 25-years, future returns should be significantly higher. Right?

Not necessarily. As Mark noted:

“Your conclusion from this sobering factoid depends on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty. The ‘half-full’ camp calls attention to what happened to stocks in the years after 1992, when stocks’ trailing two-decade return regressed to the mean — and then some: equities skyrocketed, elevating their trailing 18.5 year inflation-adjusted dividend-adjusted return to 11% annualized.

This optimistic view is the most pervasive. Return estimates for the S&P 500 have steadily risen in recent months as earnings have been buoyed by massive amounts of share buybacks and tax cuts.

With earnings rising, what’s not to love?

I get it.

But I disagree, and here’s why.

Throughout history, there is an undeniable link between valuation and return. More importantly, it is the expansion, or contraction, in valuations which are directly tied to the cycles of the market. When investors are willing to “pay up” for a future stream of cash flows, prices rise. When expectations for future cash flows decline, so do prices.

For those expecting a repeat of the post-1992 period, they are likely to be disappointed. As shown, in 1992, the deviation from the long-term median price/earnings ratio (using Shiller’s CAPE) was just below 0%. This gave investors plenty of room to expand valuations as inflation and interest rates fell, consumer and government debts surged, and the general masses swept into the “Wall Street Casino.” 

Today, valuations are at the second highest level in history. Despite the massive surge in earnings due to tax cuts – inflation and interest rates are low, revenue growth is weak as consumers, government, and corporations are fully leveraged, and households are “all in” the equity pool.

This is an important point which should not be overlooked.

The bullish premise has been that since tax cuts will cause a surge in earnings which we reduce valuations back to their long-term average. However, such is true as long as prices don’t increase during the period earnings are rising. But such as NOT been the case. Currently, the market has continued to “price in” those earnings increases keeping valuations elevated. 

As noted by Mark:

“Unfortunately, the CAPE today is back to within shouting distance of where it stood at the top of the internet bubble. It reached 44.2 then, and is 33.2 today. At no time in U.S. history other than the internet bubble has the CAPE been as high as it is now.”


It is not surprising that during periods of valuation expansion that investors eventually come to the conclusion that “this time is different.” The argument goes something like this:

“Sure, the CAPE ratio is elevated but had you sold, you would have missed out on this booming bull market.”

That statement is 100% true.

However, it grossly misunderstands the “value” of “valuations.” 

Valuations are not, and have never been, useful as a market timing indicator. Valuations should not be used as a “buy” or “sell” indicator in a portfolio management process.

What valuations do provide is a very clear understanding of what future expected returns will be over the next 10-20 years. Bill Hester wrote a very good note in this regard in response to critics of Shiller’s CAPE ratio and future annualized returns:

We feel no particular obligation defend the CAPE ratio. It has a strong long-term relationship to subsequent 10-year market returns. And it’s only one of numerous valuation indicators that we use in our work – many which are considerably more reliable. All of these valuation indicators – particularly when record-high profit margins are accounted for – are sending the same message: The market is steeply overvalued, leaving investors with the prospect of low, single-digit long-term expected returns.

It is also the same over 20-year periods even on a rolling 20-year real total-return basis.

“Even on a 20-year real total return basis, there was a negative return period. But while the three other periods were not negative after including dividends, when it comes to saving for retirement, a 20-year period of 1% returns isn’t much different from zero.”

There is also a reasonable argument that due to the “speed of movement” in the financial markets, a shortening of business cycles, changes to accounting rules, buyback activity, and increased liquidity, there is a “duration mismatch” between Shiller’s 10-year CAPE and the financial markets currently.

Therefore, in order to compensate for the potential “duration mismatch” of a faster moving market environment, I recalculated the CAPE ratio using a 5-year average as shown in the chart below.

The high correlation between the movements of the CAPE-5 and the S&P 500 index shouldn’t be a surprise. However, notice that prior to 1950 the movements of valuations were more coincident with the overall index as price movement was a primary driver of the valuation metric. As earnings growth began to advance much more quickly post-1950, price movement became less of a dominating factor. Therefore, you can see that the CAPE-5 ratio began to lead overall price changes.

A key “warning” for investors, since 1950, has been a decline in the CAPE-5 ratio which has tended to lead price declines in the overall market. The two most recent declines in the CAPE-5 also correlated with drops in the market in 2015-2016 and the beginning of 2018.

To get a better understanding of where valuations are currently relative to past history, and why this is likely NOT 1992, we can look at the deviation between current valuation levels and the long-term average. 

The importance of deviation is crucial to understand. In order for there to be an “average,” valuations had to be both above and below that “average” over history. These “averages” provide a gravitational pull on valuations over time which is why the further the deviation is away from the “average,” the greater the eventual “mean reversion” will be.

The first chart below is the percentage deviation of the CAPE-5 ratio from its long-term average going back to 1900.

Currently, the 76.15% deviation above the long-term CAPE-5 average of 15.86x earnings puts valuations at levels only witnessed two (2) other times in history – 1929 and 2000. As stated above, while it is hoped “this time will be different,” which were the same words uttered during each of the two previous periods, you can clearly see that the eventual outcomes were much less optimal.

However, as noted, the changes that have occurred Post-WWII in terms of economic prosperity, changes in operational capacity and productivity warrant a look at just the period from 1944-present.

Again, as with the long-term view above, the current deviation is 61.8% above the Post-WWII CAPE-5 average of 17.27x earnings. Such a level of deviation has only been witnessed one other time previously over the last 70 years as we headed into the “Dot.com” peak. Again, as with the long-term view above, the resulting “reversion” was not kind to investors.

Is this a better measure than Shiller’s CAPE-10 ratio?

Maybe, as it adjusts more quickly to a faster moving marketplace. However, I want to reiterate that neither the Shiller’s CAPE-10 ratio or the modified CAPE-5 ratio were ever meant to be “market timing” indicators.

Since valuations determine forward returns, the sole purpose is to denote periods which carry exceptionally high levels of investment risk and resulted in exceptionally poor levels of future returns.

Currently, valuation measures are clearly warning the future market returns are going to be substantially lower than they have been over the past ten years. Therefore, if you are expecting the markets to crank out 10% annualized returns over the next 10 years for you to meet your retirement goals, it is likely that you are going to be very disappointed.

Does that mean you should be all in cash today? Of course, not.

However, it does suggest that a more cautious stance to equity allocations and increased risk management will likely offset much of the next “reversion” when it occurs.

My client’s have only two objectives:

  1. Protect investment capital from major market reversions,  and;
  2. Meet investment returns anchored to retirement planning projections.

Not paying attention to rising investment risks, or adjusting for lower expected future returns, are detrimental to both of those objectives.

Or, you can just hope it all works out.

For 80% of Americans, it just simply hasn’t been the case.