The Original Anecdote
There is a well-known – though likely apocryphal – anecdote from the end of the roaring 20s. It involves Joseph P. Kennedy, US ambassador to the UK from the late 1930s to mid 1940s. Before he entered the civil service and politics, he had made a name (and a fortune) for himself as a businessman and investor. On Wall Street he inter alia ran the Libby-Owens-Ford stock pool with a number of Irishmen, a loose association of investors pooling their resources and dedicated to manipulating the hell out of Libby-Owens-Ford stock by deftly using insider information to their advantage.
Today he would be deemed a criminal, but at the time his activities on the stock exchange were perfectly legal and he as widely admired for being a wily operator. Rightly so, we should add.
Meet Joseph P. Kennedy, wily Wall Street operator.
Photo credit: Wide World Photos
As the story goes, Kennedy realized several months before the crash of 1929 that he had to get out of the market. What made him realize it was this: In the winter of 1928, he decided to stop to have his shoes shined before going to his office. When the shoe-shine boy had finished, he suddenly offered Kennedy a stock tip, without having been solicited to do so: “Buy Hindenburg!”
Kennedy is said to later have told people that he sold off his stock market positions shortly thereafter, as he was thinking: “You know it is time to sell when shoeshine boys start giving you stock tips. This bull market is over.”
A member of the anonymous stock tipsters association at work
Photo credit: pa/akg
A Modern-Day Equivalent
The unusual escalation in the stock market’s recent weakness (right into an options expiration – this is practically unheard of these days!) and our brief discussion of the situation yesterday (see “The Stock Market in Trouble” for details), caused us to wonder whether we could think of anything along similar lines that has happened recently.
Of course we are no Joseph Kennedy, but we are continually exposed to market-related information, including assorted spam. Keep in mind in this context that after Kennedy received his shoeshine boy warning, the market still rose for another eight months. So there is a certain lead time involved when the shoeshine boy bell rings, and given the market’s oversold state, it may actually be ripe for a bounce here.
As we also noted yesterday, the current bubble is not comparable to the mania that culminated in the year 2000. At the time, one could actually watch out for very close equivalents to the shoeshine boy, given the huge participation of retail traders in the market. Nowadays we have a “bubble of professionals”, so we must look for something slightly different. And we have found it – or rather, it actually fell into our lap yesterday, or rather, suddenly appeared in our inbox.
What we found there was this ad:
“Capture Top Momentum Opportunities! Investing in securities or asset classes with positive price momentum can potentially deliver higher returns than a traditional buy-and-hold strategy. The Horizons Managed Multi-Asset Momentum ETF (“HMA”) is the first actively managed ETF in Canada to give investors access to a globally diversified portfolio of momentum investment opportunities.”
Just to make that clear, we don’t want to pick in any way on the firm offering this undoubtedly well-managed (if potentially crash-prone) product. We are quite sure countless other examples along similar lines exist, but we were certainly struck by the timing of this offer. It almost screams “shoeshine boy”.
This became even more clear when a friend shortly thereafter pointed us to the following chart published by Bloomberg :
To be sure, the associated Bloomberg article expresses a certain degree of skepticism, which could end up giving this trade another lease of life:
“Virtually nothing has worked better in this year’s thinning equity market than momentum, where you load up on stocks that have risen the most in the past two to 12 months and hope they keep going up. Sent aloft by sustained rallies in biotech and media shares, concern is mounting that the trade has gotten too popular, setting the stage for sharper swings.
With breadth narrowing before the Federal Reserve raises rates, sticking with winners has been a blueprint for success in 2015.
Individual investors have noticed. One of the largest exchange-traded funds employing the tactic, the iShares MSCI USA Momentum Index Fund, lured a record $125 million in July, boosting its total by about a fifth. It hasn’t had a single month of outflows since it started in 2013.
Owning it has paid off, too: the fund is up 8.2 percent in 2015, compared with 1.8 percent in the S&P 500. Another ETF, the Powershares DWA Momentum Portfolio, recently saw assets cross $2 billion and has returned more than 7 percent this year. Still, some of the trades contributing the success have been weakening.”
All in all we would say that it is probably not the most auspicious moment in time to offer yet another “momentum” ETF to the public – even a “multi-asset” one.
In recent days, the market’s momentum darlings have suffered a bit. We cannot say with certainty if they deserve to be called “former momentum darlings” already, as there is always a chance that they will rebound shortly. Especially with us poking fun at the concept, they might decide to poke back (good thing we are wearing glasses, so they can’t poke us in the eye).
Readers are more than welcome to tell us their shoeshine boy stories, if they have any to tell. We would certainly consider publishing the best ones (mail us at [email protected], or alternatively use the comments section if you need to get it off your chest right away).
The justly feared eye-poke.