By Lance Roberts at STA Wealth Management
For weeks, complacency has ruled. Despite geopolitical uprisings, weak economic data or continued reductions in monetary policy, nothing has “ruffled” investor’s feathers, well, until this past week.
On Thursday, the culmination of events occurred that sent investors scurrying for cover and stocks falling in the biggest one-day drop in months. That decline also reversed all of the gains in July, which makes it only the second negative month of the year since January.
Of course, I have reiterated each week in the missive for weeks now that the markets were much extended, and complacency high, which should give you some concern. I have also repeatedly recommended pruning and weeding portfolios. From last week’s 401k Plan Manager:
“Therefore, with the markets extremely extended at the moment this is a good time to rebalance portfolios back to target weights by selling laggards and trimming winners. This includes bond holdings that are now likely overweight from their outsized gains this year.”
The chart below shows the volatility index (VIX), which is a measure of “fear” and “complacency” in the financial markets, as compared to the S&P 500. As you can see, spikes in volatility are primarily associated with declines in the market. The sharper the spike, the larger the related decline.
In the next chart, I have inverted the S&P 500 to show a little clearer picture of the close correlation between the two the two measures.
Importantly, volatility measures are a COINCIDENT indicator at best. In other words, volatility measures alone are not useful by themselves as a forward looking indicator of future market performance.
Even with the recent spike in volatility, the VIX is still confined at levels that have been associated with this current bull market advance since the beginning of 2013. With the Federal Reserve still pushing $25 billion in liquidity each month into the markets, the current advance could remain intact for a while longer.
However, from a risk management perspective, this is a good time to do a review of the technical indicators to judge the current risk/reward of either having money invested in the markets OR potentially adding to, or adding new, investments.
A Technical View
In the long run, it is fundamentals that drive returns. In other words, the price you pay today for a future stream of cash flows will determine your gain or loss over time. Pay too much and you lose.
However, in the short term, it is only price that matters. This is why I focus so heavily on technical analysis for shorter term “risk” management as price is simply a reflection of buyer and seller “psychology” in the present.
The good news is that, despite plenty of headwinds from geopolitical events, ongoing tapering of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve, which is reducing liquidity, and weak economic data the markets have not experienced a significant decline. After breaking out of the consolidation range earlier this year, the markets have pushed higher. As shown in the chart below, the current pullback brought the market back to the current, very short term, bullish uptrend. However, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the market could retest support at 1880.
From a bullish perspective, such a pullback would allow the market to be oversold enough on a very short-term basis for a trading opportunity back to old highs.
One caveat here. With the Federal Reserve currently on the path of extracting liquidity from the markets, and threatening to begin raising interest rates next year, I suspect that we may have seen the top of the market for this year. As shown in the chart below, the high correlation between the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the markets supports this assumption.
However, with that being stated it is important to review the BUY/SELL indications that drive the longer term portfolio allocations.
While the market has been volatile this week, no “SELL” signal has been issued as of yet. HOWEVER, if the market fails to rally next week, it is HIGHLY probable that the initial “WARNING” signal will be triggered.
Also, the market is still closer to OVERBOUGHT levels, the top part of the chart, than OVERSOLD, which suggests that further weakness could develop. As I will discuss in the 401k plan manager, this continues to be an excellent opportunity to “prune and weed” the garden particularly as we head into two of the weakest months of the year historically speaking.
The following charts which measure the internal “health” of the market are also suggesting an increased level of caution.
(NOTE:The term “increase the level of caution” does NOT mean go out and sell everything you own to buy gold. It simply means “pay attention” to your money and your “risk management” protocols. If you DO NOT HAVE risk management protocols in place, or your advisor, this is a problem you should immediately address.)
The chart below is the number of stocks on bullish buy signals. The deterioration of stocks on “buy” signals as the market is rising is called a “divergence." Such divergences typically do not end well.
The same goes for the number of net new highs in the market. Historically, divergences in net new highs have signaled a market that is closer to the end of the advance than the beginning.
The “canary in the coal mine” is the recent gross underperformance by the “momentum stocks” over the “last year. Most small capitalization stocks share a common attribute which are very low outstanding share floats. These stocks are excellent candidates for high-frequency trading programs that can capitalize on "low float stocks" to push prices significantly higher. That capability, combined with massive amounts of liquidity via the Fed, has pushed these stocks into the stratosphere. However, as shown in the chart below, these issues are now grossly underperforming the broader market. This is typical of a late stage market advance and something that should be paid attention to.
One other issue that I am watching is the current downturn in the biotechnology sector. This action, as shown below, was a precursor to broader market corrections. Currently, the correction in the biotechnology sector has accelerated against the S&P 500 index.
During the last five years, it has not mattered much where you invested your money. The great thing about highly correlated markets, as shown in the next chart, is that everyone is a “freak'in genius”when the tide is rising.
While it is clear that small-cap and mid-cap stocks have outperformed the S&P 500 over the last year, while international and emerging markets have lagged. However, what is important to notice is that the rise and fall of the various markets are highly correlated.
The dark side to highly correlated markets, when the eventual correction does come, is that it leaves investors with no place to hide.
The current levels of margin debt, bullish sentiment, and institutional activity are indicative of an extremely optimistic view of the market. The chart below shows the most levels of margin debt converted to investor positive/negative net worth. Currently, investors have the most negative net worth EVER recorded.
Again, none of the data analyzed so far explicitly states that investors should exit the markets. However, what is crucially important to remember is that margin debt "fuels" major market reversions as "margin calls" lead to increased selling pressure to meet required settlements.
Unfortunately, since margin debt is a function of portfolio collateral, when the collateral is reduced it requires more forced selling to meet margin requirements. If the market declines further, the problem becomes quickly exacerbated. This is one of the main reasons why the market reversions in 2001 and 2008 were so steep. The danger of high levels of margin debt, as we have currently, is that the right catalyst could ignite a selling panic.
.........With that said, it is also important to be aware that we are entering into the month of August which, as shown in the chart below, is one of the worst performing months of the year with a 50/50 chance of being a negative return month.