Tag Archives: vix

Trying To Be Consistently “Not Stupid”

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” – Charlie Munger

As described in a recent article, Has This Cycle Reached Its Tail, an appreciation for where the economy is within the cycle of economic expansion and contraction is quite important for investors. It offers a gauge, a guidepost of sorts, to know when to take a lot of risk and when to take a conservative approach.

This task is most difficult when a cycle changes. As we are in the late innings of the current cycle, euphoria is rampant, and everyone is bullish. During these periods, as risks are peaking, it is very challenging to be conservative and make less than your neighbors. It is equally difficult taking an aggressive stance at the depths of a recession, when risk is low, despair is acute, and everyone is selling.

What we know is that a downturn in the economy, a recession, is out there. It is coming, and as Warren Buffett’s top lieutenant Charlie Munger points out in the quote above, successful navigation comes down to trying to make as few mistakes as possible.

The Aging Expansion

In May 2019, the current economic expansion will tie the expansion of 1991-2001 as the longest since at least 1857 as shown below. 

Since gingerly exiting the financial crisis in June 2009, the economy has managed to maintain a growth trajectory for ten years. At the same time, it has been the weakest period of economic growth in the modern era but has delivered near-record gains in the stock market and significant appreciation in other risk assets. The contrast between those two issues – weak growth and record risky financial asset appreciation make the argument for caution even more persuasive at this juncture.

Although verbally reinforcing his optimistic outlook for continued economic growth, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) did not inspire confidence with their abrupt shift in monetary policy and economic outlook over the past three months.

The following is a list of considerations regarding current economic circumstances. It is a fact that the expansion is “seasoned” and quite long in the tooth, but is that a reason to become cautious and defensive and potentially miss out on future gains? Revisiting the data may help us avoid making a mistake or, in the words of Munger, be “not stupid.”

1. Despite the turmoil of the fourth quarter, the stock market has rebounded sharply and now sits confidently just below the all-time highs of September 2018. However, a closer look at the entrails of the stock market tells a different story. Since the end of August 2018, cyclically-sensitive stocks such as energy, financials, and materials all remain down by roughly 10% while defensive sectors such as Utilities, Staples and Real Estate are up by 7%.

2. Bond markets around the world are signaling concern as yields are falling and curves are inverting (a historically durable sign of economic slowdown). The amount of negative yielding bonds globally has risen dramatically from less than $6 trillion to over $10.5 trillion since October 2018. Since March 1, 2019, 2-year U.S. Treasury yields have dropped by 35 basis points (bps), and 10-year Treasury yields have fallen by 40 bps (a basis point is 1/100th of a percent). 2-year Treasury yields (2.20%) are now 0.30% less than the upper-bound of the Fed Funds target rate of 2.50%. Meanwhile, three-month Treasury-bill yields are higher than every other Treasury yield out to the 10-year yield. This inversion signals acute worry about an economic slowdown.

3. Economic data in the United States has been disappointing for the balance of 2019. February’s labor market added just 20,000 new jobs compared with an average of +234,000 over the prior 12months. This was the first month under +100,000 since September 2017. Auto sales (-0.8%) were a dud and consumer confidence, besides being down 7 points, saw the sharpest decline in the jobs component since the late innings of the financial crisis (Feb 2009), reinforcing concerns in the labor market. Retail sales and the Johnson Redbook retail data also confirm a slowing/weakening trend in consumer spending. Lastly, as we pointed out at RIA Pro, tax receipt growth is declining. Not what one would expect in a robust economy.

4. As challenging as that list of issues is for the domestic economy, things are even more troubling on a global basis. The slowdown in China persists and is occurring amid their on-going efforts to stimulate the economy (once again). China’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen from 150% to 250% over the past ten years, and according to the Wall Street Journal, the credit multiplier is weakening. Whereas 1 yuan of credit financing used to produce 3.5 yuan of growth, 1 yuan of credit now only produces 1 yuan of growth. In the European Union, a recession seems inevitable as Germany and other countries in the EU stumble. The European Central Bank recently cut the growth outlook from 1.9% to 1.1% and, like the Fed, dramatically softened their policy language. Turbulence in Turkey is taking center stage again as elections approach. Offshore overnight financing rates recently hit 1,350% as the Turkish government intervened to restrict the outflow of funds to paper over their use of government reserves to prop up the currency.

5. The Federal Reserve (and many other central banks) has formalized the move to a much more dovish stance in the first quarter. On the one hand applauding the strength and durability of the U.S. economy as well as the outlook, they at the same time flipped from a posture of 2-3 rate hikes in 2019 to zero. This shift included hidden lingo in the recent FOMC statement that appears to defy their superficial optimism. The jargon memorialized in the FOMC statement includes a clear signal that the next rate move could just as easily be a cut as a hike. Besides the dramatic shift in rate expectations, the Fed also downgraded their outlook for growth in 2019 and 2020 and cut their expectations for unemployment and inflation (their two mandates). Finally, in addition to all of that, they formalized plans to halt balance sheet reductions. The market is now implying the Fed Funds rate will be cut to 2.07% by January 2020.

Summary

Based on the radical changes we have seen from the central bankers and the economic data over the past six months, it does not seem to be unreasonable to say that the Fed has sent the clearest signal of all. The questions we ask when trying to understand the difference between actions and words is, “What do they know that we do not”? Connecting those dots allows us to reconcile the difference between what appears to be an inconsistent message and the reality of what is written between the lines. The Fed is trying to put a happy face on evolving circumstances, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The economic cycle appears to be in the midst of a transition. This surprisingly long expansion will eventually end as all others have. A recession is out there, and it will make an appearance. Our job is not guessing to be lucky; it is to be astute and play the odds.

Reality reveals itself one moment at a time as does fallacy. Understanding the difference between the two is often difficult, which brings us back to limiting mistakes. Using common sense and avoiding the emotion of markets dramatically raises one’s ability “to be consistently not stupid.” A lofty goal indeed.

Videocast- Has The Cycle Reached Its Tail?

On March 20th we published Has This Cycle Reached Its Tail? With the help of a badly drawn bird, the article described the economic and market cycle of the last ten years. Through an understanding of cycles and importantly, where we are in within a cycle, investors are provided clues on how to position our portfolios for what the cycle has in store.

We believe the current economic cycle is close to a turning point. This is incredibly important to managing wealth, as such we produced the following video that dives further into cycles.

View Part 1

View Part 2

Fearing Complacency – RIA Pro UNLOCKED

The following article was posted for RIA Pro subscribers last week. We believe this article points to a precarious situation in the market that investors should be aware of. We hope you enjoy this article and get a better flavor for the benefits of becoming a RIA Pro subscriber.

Sign up today at RIA Pro and use our site for 30 days before being charged.


So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin Roosevelt March 4, 1933

Those infamous words were spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a time when the nation was mired in the great depression, and the stock market had collapsed 80% from the highs of 1929.

We argue in this article that today, fear is exactly what we should fear as a wave of complacency rules the markets.

Investors fear volatility. Low levels of implied volatility are the result of investors that are complacent and not protecting against risks. Conversely, when volatility is higher, investors tend to be anxious, concerned about the future and as such take prudent actions to hedge and protect their assets.

Based solely on today’s levels of implied volatility, the media, central bankers and uninformed cocktail chatter would have us conclude that there is little to worry about. We see things quite differently and believe current indicators offer far more reason for fear than when implied volatility is high and fear is more acute.

No Fear to be Found

The graph below is constructed by normalizing VIX (equity volatility), MOVE (bond volatility) and CVIX (US dollar volatility) and then aggregating the results into an equal-weighted index. The y-axis denotes the percentage of time that the same or lower levels of aggregated volatility occurred since 2010. For instance, the current level is 1.91%, meaning that only 1.91% of readings registered at a lower level.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Beyond the very low level of volatility across the three major asset classes, there are two other takeaways worth pondering.

First, the violent nature in which volatility has surged and collapsed twice since 2018. The slope of the recent advances and declines are much steeper than those that occurred before 2018. The peak -to- trough -to- peak cycle over the last year was measured in months not years as was the case before 2018.

Second, when the index reached current low levels in the past, a surge in volatility occurred soon after that. This does not mean the index will bounce higher immediately, but it does mean we should expect a much higher level of volatility over the next few months.

Investment Takeaway

Given that volatility is cheap, wise investors should take advantage of this opportunity to buy options to hedge stock, bond and dollar positions. Traders might want to consider taking our advice a step further by getting long volatility with various options strategies or by buying call options on volatility. Volatility is just another asset class into which we might allocate when it becomes cheap and sell when it becomes rich. As Chris Cole at Artemis Capital says, “it is THE asset class since it is embedded in all others.”

Reasons for Fear

The following considerations fly in the face of the high level of complacency ruling the financial markets:

  • The global economy is slowing
  • Growth in European economies is slowing dramatically, including Germany where 10-year bond yields dropped below zero for the first time since 2016.
  • China, representing 30% of global GDP growth, is weakening rapidly.
  • Domestic GDP is expected to rise by only .50% in the first quarter according to the Atlanta Fed.
  • The trade war with China, and to a lesser degree Europe, could flare up on a single tweet or statement and cause market and economic disruptions.
  • Despite being ten years into an expansion and unemployment near 50-year lows, the Fed decided that Fed Funds above the historically low rate of 2.75 over the next two years is harmful to the economy. What does the Fed know that we do not?
  • The potential for a hard BREXIT is growing by the day.
  • Political drama is heating up with an election and possible Mueller findings.

These and other factors should raise concern.  

Summary

As highlighted by the volatility graph, the three major domestic financial markets are extremely complacent. If history proves reliable, a violent reversal is a clear and present danger. Our greatest fear today is easily the apparent lack of it.

This situation reminds us of a rip-tide on a sunny, beautiful day at the ocean. The water looks relatively calm for all to enjoy without taking precautions. However, within a few steps lies a vicious underwater current capable of imposing swift and unsuspecting demise. The difference between a great day at the beach and a disaster are closer than you think.

Now is a good time to heed the warning of the lifeguard.

Fearing Complacency

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin Roosevelt March 4, 1933

Those infamous words were spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a time when the nation was mired in the great depression, and the stock market had collapsed 80% from the highs of 1929.

We argue in this article that today, fear is exactly what we should fear as a wave of complacency rules the markets.

Investors fear volatility. Low levels of implied volatility are the result of investors that are complacent and not protecting against risks. Conversely, when volatility is higher, investors tend to be anxious, concerned about the future and as such take prudent actions to hedge and protect their assets.

Based solely on today’s levels of implied volatility, the media, central bankers and uninformed cocktail chatter would have us conclude that there is little to worry about. We see things quite differently and believe current indicators offer far more reason for fear than when implied volatility is high and fear is more acute.

No Fear to be Found

The graph below is constructed by normalizing VIX (equity volatility), MOVE (bond volatility) and CVIX (US dollar volatility) and then aggregating the results into an equal-weighted index. The y-axis denotes the percentage of time that the same or lower levels of aggregated volatility occurred since 2010. For instance, the current level is 1.91%, meaning that only 1.91% of readings registered at a lower level.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Beyond the very low level of volatility across the three major asset classes, there are two other takeaways worth pondering.

First, the violent nature in which volatility has surged and collapsed twice since 2018. The slope of the recent advances and declines are much steeper than those that occurred before 2018. The peak -to- trough -to- peak cycle over the last year was measured in months not years as was the case before 2018.

Second, when the index reached current low levels in the past, a surge in volatility occurred soon after that. This does not mean the index will bounce higher immediately, but it does mean we should expect a much higher level of volatility over the next few months.

Investment Takeaway

Given that volatility is cheap, wise investors should take advantage of this opportunity to buy options to hedge stock, bond and dollar positions. Traders might want to consider taking our advice a step further by getting long volatility with various options strategies or by buying call options on volatility. Volatility is just another asset class into which we might allocate when it becomes cheap and sell when it becomes rich. As Chris Cole at Artemis Capital says, “it is THE asset class since it is embedded in all others.”

Reasons for Fear

The following considerations fly in the face of the high level of complacency ruling the financial markets:

  • The global economy is slowing
  • Growth in European economies is slowing dramatically, including Germany where 10-year bond yields dropped below zero for the first time since 2016.
  • China, representing 30% of global GDP growth, is weakening rapidly.
  • Domestic GDP is expected to rise by only .50% in the first quarter according to the Atlanta Fed.
  • The trade war with China, and to a lesser degree Europe, could flare up on a single tweet or statement and cause market and economic disruptions.
  • Despite being ten years into an expansion and unemployment near 50-year lows, the Fed decided that Fed Funds above the historically low rate of 2.75 over the next two years is harmful to the economy. What does the Fed know that we do not?
  • The potential for a hard BREXIT is growing by the day.
  • Political drama is heating up with an election and possible Mueller findings.

These and other factors should raise concern.  

Summary

As highlighted by the volatility graph, the three major domestic financial markets are extremely complacent. If history proves reliable, a violent reversal is a clear and present danger. Our greatest fear today is easily the apparent lack of it.

This situation reminds us of a rip-tide on a sunny, beautiful day at the ocean. The water looks relatively calm for all to enjoy without taking precautions. However, within a few steps lies a vicious underwater current capable of imposing swift and unsuspecting demise. The difference between a great day at the beach and a disaster are closer than you think.

Now is a good time to heed the warning of the lifeguard.

Has This Cycle Reached Its Tail?

We asked a few friends what the picture below looks like, and most told us they saw a badly drawn bird with a wide open beak. Based on the photograph below our colorful bird, they might be on to something. 

As you might suspect, this article is not about our ability to graph a bird using Excel. The graph represents the current bull market and economic cycle as told by the yield curve and investor sentiment.

As the picture is almost complete, the bird provides a clue to where we are in the current cycle and when the next cycle may begin. For investors, one of the most important pieces of information is understanding where we are in the economic cycle as it offers a critical gauge in risk-taking.

Cycles

Economic Cycles- Economic cycles are frequently depicted with a sine wave gyrating above and below a longer-term trend line. Throughout history, economic cycles include periods where economic growth exceeds its potential as well as the inevitable busts when slower than potential growth occurs.  Most often cycles track a trend line, oscillating above and below it, but spend little time at the trend other than passing through it.

Boom and bust periods occur because economic activity is governed by human behavior. In other words, our spending habits are erratic because we are subject to bouts of optimism and pessimism about the economy, our financial prospects and a host of other non-financial issues.

The graph below shows the sine wave-like quality of U.S. GDP growth, which has wavered above and below trend growth for decades. 

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

Stock Market Cycles- Stock markets also follow a pattern that is well correlated to economic cycles. Strong economic activity results in investor optimism. During these periods, investors tend to believe that rising economic growth and strong corporate profits are long-lasting. As such they are prone to extrapolate these shorter-term trends over longer periods. Investors temporarily forget that periods of above-average growth will inevitably be met with periods of below-average growth. During bust periods, these mistakes are corrected and often over-corrected.

Implied volatility is a great measure of aggregate investor sentiment. It measures the expected market movement as determined by the supply and demand for options. When investors are optimistic about future returns, they tend to neglect to hedge in the options market. The sustained and methodical reduction in options pricing causes implied volatility to decline. In recent years, ETF’s and professional strategies whose objectives were to be short volatility steadily gained in popularity and helped push implied volatility down. Conversely, when investors grow concerned over higher valuations, they hedge more frequently using options and drive implied volatility higher.

Yield Curve Cycles- The yield curve also takes on a similar path that tends to mirror economic cycles. When the economic cycle portends strong growth, the yield curve steepens. That is to say, the difference between longer and shorter maturity yields rises. This occurs as investors in longer maturity bonds become increasingly concerned with the potential for rising inflation resulting from stronger economic growth.

When strong growth spurs inflation expectations or actual inflation rises, the Fed begins to take action. To combat rising price expectations, they tighten policy with a higher Fed Funds rate. Shorter-term bond yields follow the Fed Funds rate closely, and as the Fed tries to dampen growth, the yield curve flattens. In that instance, longer-term investors are comforted by the Fed actions. This causes longer maturity yields to rise by less than those of shorter maturity yields, or it can help push longer maturity yields lower on an outright basis.

A steeper yield curve increases the incentive to lend and generates more economic growth while a flatter curve reduces the incentive and slows economic growth. The graph below shows how an inverted yield curve, where the yield on a  2-year U.S Treasury note is higher than that of a 10-year U.S. Treasury note, has paved the way for every recession since at least 1980.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

The Bird is the Word

The graph below shows a scatter plot of the relationship between implied volatility as represented by spot VIX and the 3-month to 10-year yield curve spread. With proper context, you can see the bird is a graph depicting the most recent cycle of stock market optimism (VIX) and the economic growth cycle (yield curve). The graph uses monthly periods encompassing two -year averages to smooth the data and make the longer-term trends more apparent.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

When we started on this project, we expected to see an oval shaped figure, slanting upward and to the right. Despite the irregularities of the “beak” and “front legs,” that is essentially what we got.

The blue triangle on the bottom-left is the first data point, representing the average VIX and yield curve spread from January 2006 through December of 2007. The years 2006 and 2007 were the economic peak of the prior market cycle. As shown, the two-year average progresses forward month-by-month and moves upward and to the right, meaning that VIX was increasing while the yield curve was steepening. In this period, the yield curve steepened as the Fed began rapidly reducing the fed funds rate in mid-2007. Likewise, VIX started spiking thereafter as the recession and financial crisis began to play out.

The gray and yellow segments on the graph reflect the decline in volatility as the financial crisis abated. Since 2010, the yield curve steadily flattened, and volatility fell to record lows. The one real break to the cycle trend was the “bird leg,” or the periods including 2013 when the yield curve steepened amid the taper tantrum. After that period, the oval-cycle pattern resumed. The red circle marks the most recent monthly data points and shows us where the trend is headed.

Interestingly, note that the number of dots forming the belly of the bird is much greater than those forming the back. This is typical as the expansionary portion of economic and market cycles tend to last five to ten years while market declines and recessions are usually limited to two or three years.

Summary

Think of the economy and stock market as a long-distance runner. At times they may pick up the pace for an extended period, but in doing so, they will inevitably overexert themselves and then must spend a period of time running at a below average pace. 

The stock market has been outrunning economic growth for a long time. This is witnessed by valuations that have surged to record highs. The yield curve is quite flat and volatility, despite spiking twice over the last year, currently resides well below the long-term average and not far from record lows. The current trajectory, as shown with the dotted red arrow in the chart above, is on a path towards the peak of the prior cycle.

The Fed has recently made a dovish (no pun intended) policy U-turn and appears to be on the path to lower rates. This likely means that the curve flattening is nearing an end and steepening is in the cards. At the same time, the market is showing signs of topping as witnessed by two large drawdowns and spikes in implied volatility over the last 15 months.

Based on the analysis above, it appears that the current cycle is close to completion. It is, however, but one piece of information. To borrow from Howard Marks, author of the book Mastering Market Cycles, he states the following:

While they may not know what lies ahead, investors can enhance their likelihood of success if they base their actions on a sense for where the market stands in its cycle….there is no single reliable gauge that one can look to for an indication of whether market participants’ behavior at a point in time is prudent or imprudent.  All we can do is assemble anecdotal evidence and try to draw the correct inferences from it.

We concur and will use the “bird” as evidence that the cycle is mature.

Watch This Pattern In The S&P 500 and VIX

In the past month, the U.S. stock market has chopped all over the place while getting nowhere in the end. Many traders have been whipsawed by market’s erratic recent action as they hope for another clear trend to form instead of back and forth reversals. Interestingly, during this time, the S&P 500 has been forming a wedge pattern that indicates that another significant trend is likely ahead once the market breaks out from this pattern (up or down). If the market breaks down from this pattern in a convincing manner, another phase of the sell-off that started in October is likely to occur. On the other hand, a convincing bullish breakout from this pattern would likely indicate that the market will attempt to re-test its September highs.

SP 500

The chart below shows the VIX Volatility Index, which appears to be forming a wedge pattern that may indicate that another big move is ahead. If the VIX breaks out of this pattern in a convincing manner, it would likely lead to even higher volatility and fear (which would correspond with another leg down in the stock market). On the other hand, if the VIX breaks down from this pattern, it could be the sign of a more extended market bounce or Santa Claus rally ahead.

VIX

For now, I am watching which way these patterns break out and if the breakouts confirm each other.

 

Why Another Volatility Spike May Be Ahead

In early October, when the U.S. stock market had reached an all-time high and investor sentiment was extremely complacent, I published a warning in Forbes called “Why Another Market Volatility Surge Is Likely Ahead.” I showed three indicators that I believed pointed to an imminent volatility spike, most likely as a result of a bearish market movement. Sure enough, that volatility spike came just a couple days later as the U.S. stock market corrected very sharply. Since peaking in early-October, market volatility (as measured by the VIX Volatility Index) has calmed down a bit as U.S. stock indices staged a bounce. Unfortunately, I am concerned that this most recent period of relative calm may result in yet another volatility spike, provided there is proper technical confirmation.

The chart below shows the VIX Volatility Index, which appears to be forming a triangle pattern that may indicate that another big move is ahead. If the VIX breaks out of this pattern in a convincing manner, it would likely lead to even higher volatility and fear (which would correspond with another leg down in the stock market). On the other hand, if the VIX breaks down from this pattern, it could be the sign of a more extended market bounce or Santa Claus rally ahead.

Volatility Index

In my early-October volatility warning, one of the charts I showed was the inverted 10-year/2-year Treasury spread and how it leads the VIX by approximately three years. According to this logic, the January and October volatility spikes were only the beginning of a much larger bullish volatility cycle (ie., one that accompanies a full-blown bear market).

Yield Curve Volatility

If the VIX breaks to the upside, it would coincide with the S&P 500 testing its 2,550 to 2,600 support zone that formed at the early-2018 lows. As I’ve said in the past, if the S&P 500 breaks that support zone in a convincing manner, an even more extensive bearish move is likely to occur.

S&P 500

For now, I am watching which way the S&P 500 and VIX break out for confirmation.

Please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with my updates.

If you have any questions about anything I wrote in this piece or would like to learn how Clarity Financial can help you preserve and grow your wealth in the dangerous financial environment ahead, please contact me here.

Pennant Patterns Are Forming Everywhere In The Markets

Since plunging two weeks ago, many financial markets have been treading water as market participants digest the recent developments and try to determine what comes next. From a technical analysis perspective, pennant patterns or flag patterns (both are considered to be continuation patterns) may be forming in a variety of different financial markets. These patterns often happen after a major move as traders take a pause to catch their breath. A strong breakout with high volume in the direction of the original trend is necessary to confirm the end of the pennant pattern and the resumption of the primary trend.

This chart shows a typical pennant pattern (via Investopedia.com): pennant

The bellwether S&P 500 may be forming a pennant pattern:

SP500

The Dow may also be:Dow
The tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 may also be:

Nasdaq

The 10 Year note price may also be forming a pennant pattern. Its decline (which corresponds with higher bond yields) has been contributing to the stock market’s bearish action lately. If the possible pennant pattern is confirmed to the downside, it would be another bearish omen for stocks (and vice versa). 10 Year Note

The VIX or Volatility Index (a fear gauge for the U.S. stock market) may also be forming a pennant pattern. If the VIX breaks out to the upside, it would give a bearish signal for stocks (and vice versa). VIX

It’s not just the U.S. markets – Japan’s Nikkei 225 may also be forming a pennant: Nikkei

Germany’s DAX stock market index too: DAX

And so is the European stock market index: Euro Stoxx 50

Please be aware that this commentary is not a prediction. These patterns need to be confirmed one way or another by a breakout with strong volume. If the stock indices break to the downside, it would be extremely concerning after the bearish action that occurred in early-October.

As Seen On Forbes: Volatility Is Surging

As seen on Forbes by RealInvestmentAdvice.com’s Jesse Colombo: “Volatility Is Surging.”

After a calm spring and summer, volatility has come back with a vengeance in October. The CBOE Volatility Index or VIX has surged from the 13s at the start of the month to nearly 23 right now, which is the largest volatility spike since the stock market correction in February. As volatility spiked, the Dow fell nearly 2,000 points since the start of October as rising interest rates spooked investors out of the frothy stock market.

Here’s what the VIX looks like right now:

VIX

While many traders and market participants were caught off-guard by the volatility spike, I specifically warned about it on October 2nd in a Forbes piece called “Why Another Market Volatility Surge Is Likely Ahead.”

Read the full article on Forbes.

Sailing Versus Rowing : Active Versus Passive

Investor preferences shift between active and passive investing in a cyclical manner. Periods where the market has a strong tailwind of momentum behind it tend to attract a greater demand for passive strategies especially when that momentum carries on for a prolonged period of time. Alternatively, periods of market turbulence tend to swing sentiment back to active investing as a means of avoiding the risk of large losses. In the most recent bullish cycle the combination of market direction and the availability of index-friendly instruments like exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have resulted in an unprecedented shift towards passive strategies and securities.

To clarify the difference between the two investment approaches, active investing seeks to outperform the market by beating a benchmark such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the Barclays Aggregate bond index. Passive investing on the other hand pursues a strategy that mimics a benchmark index and attempts to replicate its performance. It is a contrast that has been effectively described by Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research as rowing (active) versus sailing (passive). Active investors are engaged in constant evaluation of companies and their fundamentals as means of finding value investment opportunities while passive investors are at the grace (or mercy) of the winds of the market wherever they may blow.

The graph below highlights the underperformance of active strategies versus the S&P 500 index in past years which further explains the growing popularity of passive investing.

This article is primarily focused on fixed-income passive investing, however, many of the issues brought up in this article can be applied to most asset class ETFs and securities that allow ease of passive investing.

How Passive Investing Works

The mechanics of passive investing in the stock market are straight-forward. Select an equity index to which you would like to gain exposure, for example the S&P 500 or the MSCI China Index, and then buy the stocks in the proper amounts that are tracked in that index to replicate the performance. Done manually this can be a complex and cumbersome exercise especially when trying to replicate the index of a less-liquid market. As the market moves and the value of the securities underlying the index change, one must rebalance their holdings to remain aligned with the index. For a deeper understanding of the many factors that make replicating an index diffiuclut please read our article The Myths of Stocks for the Long Run Part V.

The advent of index mutual funds and more recently exchange-traded funds handle the complexities of multiple holdings, weightings, and rebalancing allowing an investor to simply pay a small fee, buy a ticker and essentially own an index. An investor’s ability to obtain general equity exposure or to build a portfolio with customized exposures has never been easier with the  proliferation of ETFs.

To offer some perspective about just how many ETFs are available, consider there are 38 ETFs available that are focused on U.S. energy stocks and over 132 ETF’s hold Exxon Mobil (XOM) shares. Looking abroad to less liquid markets, one would find ten U.S. incorporated funds holding Indian stocks. The simplicity and customizability currently offered in the market is quite powerful.

Bond Exposure

Traditionally, investors gained exposure to bonds through individual debt securities offered by brokers. Unlike stocks, the availability of most bonds, not including U.S. Treasuries, is dependent upon the inventory held by one’s broker or their ability to source a bond from another broker. As such, finding a specific bond is more challenging and comes at a higher cost for an individual investor than buying an individual stock. A similar problem can emerge in the event an investor wants to sell a specific bond. This problem results in an indirect fee called the bid/offer spread and on occasion can cost the investor multiple percentage points.

There are other considerations related to the dynamics of buying individual bonds versus acquiring bond exposure through a fund. These issue are well-articulated by Lance Roberts.

The advent of index mutual funds and ETFs relieves much of the frustration and high costs of buying and selling specific bonds.

The protocol described in selecting equity funds above is similar for bonds in that one can identify investment preferences in various major bond categories quite easily. The primary categories include:

  • Treasuries securities
  • Mortgage-backed securities, asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations
  • Agency bonds
  • Municipal bonds
  • Investment Grade corporate bonds
  • High yield corporate bonds
  • Emerging market bonds
  • Developed nations sovereign bonds

It is relatively easy, through these funds, to quickly gain exposure that tracks an index covering any variety of these options and specific sub-catagories of these options.

Not As Advertised

The flexibility and customizability offered through the world of index mutual funds and ETFs is remarkable. As such, there is a natural inclination by investors to assume that one will get precisely what has been advertised by these funds. However, confidence in that idea is easily challenged. Much of what has been developed over the past several years, especially with many ETFs, remains untested. The following are concerns investors should be aware of:

  • Tracking Error: ETF exposures to certain markets might not be precisely what the investor receives. For example, it has been documented that an investor who wishes to invest in an ETF for the equity market in Spain actually gets exposure to a variety of companies that although domiciled in Spain, produce most of their revenue outside that country. In that instance, and many others like it, an investor would not get the exposure to Spain he or she expects and may indeed be very disappointed in the ETFs tracking of the index for Spain.
  • Optimization: The structure of index funds and ETFs are such that in many cases the fund managers are only able to establish positions in the underlying stocks or bonds of the indexes they track with some imprecision. This means they will use creative means of gaining desirable exposures and then gradually, if possible, reposition over time in order to more closely track the index. This tends to be a much bigger problem for bond funds. Since full replication of a bond index is generally not possible, bond funds rely on “optimizing” the portfolio in order to most effectively replicate the index.

Bond offerings, like stocks, are finite so if the size of a fund grows as a percentage of the underlying index constituents, it will increasingly face the constraint of replicating the index and effectively mimicking index performance.  Optimization is imperfect so the ETF will suffer performance drift from the target index. Unfortanately, the flaws of replicating are often exagerated during periods of market stress when investors expectations are the highest.

  • Underlying Liquidity: Another related issue that arises with bond funds is that of establishing daily market value. The market price of some bonds held in a fund, especially those that are investing in less liquid markets, may not be readily available. If a bond fund holds securities that are illiquid, meaning they do not trade very often, then a realistic current price may be difficult to obtain. Many fixed income ETFs hold thousands of securities some of which do not trade daily or even weekly. This means that pricing is dependent upon estimates of the value on those bonds. These estimates of value may be derived from a third-party pricing service, surveys of bond market trading desks and internally generated models. Mis-pricing of securities is a known problem and one not typically considered until the fund is forced to sell. If the fund receives an inordinate number of redemption requests, what happens if they have bonds that do not trade very often but are nevertheless required to liquidate based upon investor requests? It is likely the sale price could vary, and sometimes significantly, from the last assumed price. Again this is most likely to occur at the wrong time for investors.

These concerns have not yet emerged as a deterent in the new age of passive investing popularity. We have only seen slight glimpses of what may be ahead in terms of challenges for the passive investor but it is fair to say this could be a major problem.

Investors naturally assume they will be able to exit as easily as they entered these funds and at the stated value seen on their statements or trading screens. In a calm market the concerns are minor but there are serious questions about that reality should a wave of selling hit bond ETFs all at once.

Although somewhat unique in its characteristics and certainly not a bond ETF, the recent debacle related to the inverse VIX ETF, XIV, seems to foreshadow some of the issues highlighted here. The graph below shows the price of XIV over the last two years. Investors unaware of how the NAV for XIV was calculated were certainly in for quite the shock.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Risk Analysis – The Benefit of Stress Testing

Given the importance of the issue of liquidity and what may transpire in an adverse scenario, we decided to look at the performance of a few ETFs and their related indices through the financial crisis as an indication of what a possible “worst-case” scenario might hold. In doing so, we acknowledge no two historical events are the same but the analysis seems important to consider.

From peak to trough, between April and November 2008, the Barclays Corporate Investment Grade index fell -10.8%. At the same time the LQD ETF which tracks that index fell -12.2%. The Barclays High Yield index fell -32.3%. In the same time frame the two high yield ETF alternatives, HYG and JNK, fell -29.8% and -34.5% respectively.

Today, these funds and others like them are much larger than they were in 2008. Furthermore, Bloomberg recently reported that many corporate debt funds are reaching further down the credit and liquidity spectrum in efforts to boost returns and some are even replacing high yield bond exposure with equities. As Lisa Abramowicz put it, “While this is somewhat concerning, it’s also logical. Fund managers don’t see any imminent risks on the horizon that could shake markets, and clients will penalize lower returns.

The remarkable thing about this observation is that paying too high a price for an asset is in itself an imminent risk.  One could convincingly argue that point as the most basic definition of risk. Nonetheless, it does indeed offer an accurate profile of the current character of the market. Unlike actively managed funds where the manager evaluates individual securities, there is no price discovery mechanism for index funds and ETF’s as their only consideration is whether or not they received a dollar to invest.

Summary

According to Benjamin Graham, this approach to putting money to work in the market defines the term speculation as it does not apply “thorough analysis” nor does it “promise safety of principal and an adequate return.” Although sympathetic to the idea that it is different this time as profit margins do indeed remain unusually high, the more defining characteristic is the means companies are using to sustain those profits. It is what has been referred to as corporate self-cannibalism as debt is ever accumulated as a means of buying back shares or paying dividends. The eventuality is credit downgrades and self-destruction.

Data Courtesy St Louis Federal Reserve

The cyclical nature of passive and active investing will continue to play out and that which is wildly popular today will eventually turn unpopular. The hidden risks embedded in passive vehicles will emerge and those who so enjoyed the cheap grace of effortless and exceptional market gains will end up begging yet again for mercy amid the markets’ unforgiving justice.

As Seen On Forbes: Higher Volatility Is Likely Ahead

As seen on Forbes by RealInvestmentAdvice.com’s Jesse Colombo: “Why Another Market Volatility Surge Is Likely Ahead“:

The U.S. stock market is climbing to record highs once again and volatility has calmed down dramatically from its panic-induced levels reached earlier this year. Traders have become complacent as they passively ride the stock market higher and bet on lower volatility again. While it may seem like all is well, several reliable indicators are warning that another powerful volatility surge is likely ahead.

The first indicator is the 10-year/2-year Treasury spread that is calculated by subtracting the 2-year Treasury note yield from the 10-year Treasury note yield. The 10-year/2-year Treasury spread is helpful for estimating when the next recession is likely to occur, as I explained in a recent Forbes piece. The chart below (which I recreated from a chart made by BofA’s Savita Subramanian) shows that the inverted 10-year/2-year Treasury spread leads the CBOE Volatility Index or VIX by approximately three years. If this historic relationship holds true, we are about to experience a whole lot more volatility over the next few years.

Yield Curve vs. Volatility Index
Read the full article on Forbes.

Following Signs Others Ignore : VIX

“In fact, the crowd sees hardly anything out there that might end this market party.”

Michael Santoli made the above statement during CNBC’s closing market wrap on January 26th, 2018. He had reason to throw caution to the wind as the S&P 500 closed the day up by more than 1%, setting another record high. In the first 18 trading days of 2018, the S&P 500 set 14 record highs and amassed a generous 7.50% return for the year.

As quoted, CNBC and most other financial media outlets were exuberant over the prospects for further gains. Wall Street analysts fell right in line. Despite the fact it was not even February, some Wall Street banks were furiously revising their year-end S&P 500 forecasts higher.

On January 27th, the S&P 500 closed down 0.70%, and in less than three weeks, the index fell over 10% from the January 26th high. Very few investors harbored any concern that the rare down day on the 27th was the first in a string of losses that would more than erase 2018’s gains to that point.

Looking back at the January swoon, there were a few indicators that CNBC, others in the media, and those on Wall Street failed to notice. In mid-January, we noticed an anomaly which proved to be a strong leading indicator of what was ultimately to transpire. The purpose of this article is to re-introduce you to this indicator, as it may once again prove helpful. We’ll also remind you why ignoring media and Wall Street driven hype is important.

VIX

VIX is the abbreviation for the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index, which gauges the amount of implied volatility in the S&P 500 as measured by pricing in the equity options market.

When optimism runs high, investors tend to seek less downside protection and as such VIX tends to decline. Conversely, when markets are more fearful of the downside, VIX tends to rise as investors are willing to pay higher prices for protection via the options market. While not a hard and fast rule, VIX tends to be elevated in down markets and subdued in bullish markets. This historical relationship is shown below. The beige rectangles highlight recent market drawdowns and the accompanying VIX spikes.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Another way to show the relationship is with a scatter plot. Each dot in the plot below represents the percentage change in VIX and the associated percentage change in the S&P 500 for the prior 20 days. The data goes back to 2003. While there are outliers, the graph generally illustrates an inverse relationship, whereby a higher VIX is associated with lower S&P returns and vice versa.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

January 10th-26th

With an understanding of volatility and its general relationship with market direction, we return to the 12 trading days leading up January 27th. The graph below charts the VIX index and the S&P 500 from January 1st to the 26th.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The obvious takeaway is that the VIX and the S&P rose in unison. Despite a euphoric financial media, daily record highs and a strong upward trend, investors were increasingly demanding insurance in the options markets.

The scatter plot and its trend lines below show this divergence from the norm. The orange dots represent the daily VIX and S&P changes from the 10th to the 26th while the blue dots represent every trading day from January 1, 2017, thru August 2018.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

From January 27, 2018 to early March, the VIX was trading over 20, twice the general level that prevailed in early January and throughout most of 2017. The elevated VIX and weak market resulted in a normalization of the typical inverse relationship between volatility and equity performance, and it has stayed normal ever since. The green dots and green trend line in the graph below represent data since January 27th. The divergence and normalization can best seen by comparing the trend lines of each respective period.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Tracking VIX

In addition to identifying the relationship as we did in January, we must monitor this relationship going forward. We show two additional metrics for VIX and S&P 500 below that we created to alert us if the typical inverse relationship changes.

  • Running Correlation: Calculates the correlation between the VIX and the S&P 500 on a rolling 10-day The highlighted area on the line graph below shows the departure from the norm that occurred in mid-January.
  • Anomaly Count: Counts the number of days in a period in which the S&P was higher by a certain percentage and the VIX rose. In the second chart below, the blue bars represent the number of trading days out of the past 20 days when the S&P 500 rose by more than .50% and the VIX was higher.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

Markets do not suddenly drop without providing hints. As we discussed in our article 1987, the devastating Black Monday 22.60% rout was preceded by many clues that investors were unaware of or, more likely, simply chose to ignore.

Currently, most technical indicators are flashing bullish signals. Conversely, most measures of valuation point to the risk of a major drawdown. This stark contrast demands our attention and vigilance in looking for any data that can provide further guidance. The VIX is just one of many technical tools investors can use to look for signals. We have little doubt that, when this bull market finally succumbs to overvaluation and the burden of imposing levels of debt, clues will emerge that will help us anticipate those changes and manage risk appropriately.