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MV Weekly Market Flash: Sunny Skies and Swan Songs

October 6, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Another week, another string of record highs for U.S. equities. But this wasn’t just your normal “upward drift for no particular reason” set of days. It was an “upward drift for no particular reason AND a 20 year record smashed!” sequence of new highs. Yes, the last time the S&P 500 recorded six consecutive all-time records was in June 1997, back when the Spice Girls were telling us what we want, what we really, really want. And while prices continued their inexorable ascent, volatility continued to plumb new lows. The CBOE VIX index, the market’s so-called “fear gauge”, suggests that times have never been safer for equity investors: the index has closed below 10 more times in 2017 than in any other year since the VIX first launched in 1990.

The Great Risk Conundrum

This presents a conundrum: while the S&P 500 is more expensive than any other time in the past hundred years (the heights before the market crashes of 1929 and 2000 being the exceptions), it is also serenely placid. Contrast today’s environment with the stretch of market history leading up to the 2000 dot-com crash. The chart below shows the VIX index price trend from 1998 to the present.

The contrast between today and the late 1990s is noteworthy. The S&P 500 reached a then-all time high of 1527 in March 2000. As the above chart shows, though, the final two years of that bull market came with exceedingly high volatility. A VIX price of 20 or higher is considered to be a high risk environment; the index remained above that level for much of the final stretch of that raging bull market. In the mid-2000s the situation was different, but the VIX still was consistently trading at elevated levels well in advance of the 2008 crash.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

During both of those earlier periods (i.e. 1998-2000 and 2006-2007) markets were jittery for a variety of reasons. Periodic pullbacks in the stock market reflected these concerns – in particular, the Russian debt default of 1998 that led to the collapse of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, and then, in early 2007, the failure of two Bear Stearns mortgage-backed funds that turned out to be the canary in the coal mine for the broader financial system meltdown. In both cases, investors would eventually buy the dip and keep the damage contained, but markets would remain in an elevated state of nervousness until the bottom finally fell out.

The message the market sends today is entirely different; namely, that there is literally nothing out there in the big bad world that could have an adverse impact on risk asset markets. Arguably, the one single issue able to move investors to action (in a positive direction) for the past twelve months has been tax reform. This trend, which we highlighted in last week’s column, continues with a vengeance despite a lack of hard evidence that any kind of truly meaningful, broad-base reform will emerge out of the current Congress and White House. Apart from taxes, though, the market seems content to channel its inner Metallica and proclaim that “nothing else matters.”

Swan Spotting

Even if the “reflation trade” that springs from tax reform hopes dies out again – like it did back in February – we think it more likely than not that the market would simply revert to form and drift ever so gently upwards. Why wouldn’t it? The global economy, if not particularly inspiring, is at least in relative harmony with growth occurring in most major regions encompassing both developed and emerging markets. Not a single piece of headline macro data suggests that the current recovery cycle has peaked. Quite the opposite: when economies peak they tend to overheat, in the form of escalating prices and wages. This simply has not happened. As long as it doesn’t happen, the Fed and other central banks will have a great deal of latitude in guiding their balance sheets and policy actions back towards some semblance of normal.

Thus the “sunny skies” portion of today’s column title. The “swan songs” bit refers to the black swans – the unexpected events that can suddenly emerge from the murky sea of risk factors and knock Ms. Market off her game. We know from observing market behavior this year that the bar is high indeed for the kind of black swan that could have an impact. But the very definition of a black swan is something you can’t name because you have never seen it before – so you have no way of quantifying what it is before it happens. Presumably there will be such swans in our not too distant future. One or two such events could even be of such import as to keep market volatility elevated for longer, akin to that stretch of bull market between 1998 and 2000. Then – and perhaps only then – do investors’ thoughts turn seriously to questions of more defense in their allocation strategies.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Reflation Pony Returns

September 29, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Gentle reader, please indulge us our seeming obsession with the subject of inflation. Yes, we know that other macro metrics matter as well, but inflation is both the big mystery – as we discussed in last week’s column – and arguably the heavy hand pushing and pulling the market to and fro. Today we focus more on this “actionable” aspect of inflation. Or, to perhaps be more precise, we focus on the curious case of a market with the stars of an imagined reflationary surge sparkling in its eyes – in the very same week when yet another month’s reading informs us that a pick-up in inflation is nowhere to be seen in the real world.

Not Dead Yet

It really doesn’t take much, even after all this time. The so-called “reflation-infrastructure trade,” which financial pundits necessarily rebranded as the “Trump trade,” died an unofficial death back in the first couple months of the year. That’s about the time when the US dollar swooned at the feet of a soaring euro and Aussie dollar, and value stocks in sectors like financials and energy ceded the high ground to their growth counterparts in tech.

But 2017 is, if nothing else, the year of endless lives, whether it be multiple attempts to repeal and replace healthcare policy or the renewed insistence that hypergrowth-fueled inflation is just around the corner. “The Trump Trade Is Back!” screamed Bloomberg News on Wednesday, joined by a chorus of like headlines from Yahoo! Finance, Business Insider and others. Once again financial institutions and resource companies were the market darlings. Bond yields perked up. Even the beleaguered dollar took a victory lap or two. Mr. Market was ready to party like it’s late 2016.

A Framework of an Outline of a Plan

The catalyst for this week’s effervescence, of course, was the release on Wednesday of a tax reform framework. It wasn’t really a plan, because plans generally contain details about specific sources of revenues and costs over a defined time frame, grounded in plausible assumptions. The major assumption made by the authors of this framework is that it will somehow deliver anywhere from 3 to 6 percent (depending on whom in the administration you care to believe) in long-term sustainable growth.

Now, given that we have not experienced real GDP growth of that caliber for many decades, it would be reasonable to believe that a boost of that magnitude would beget more inflation, hence higher interest rates, hence the improved fortunes of banks and oil drillers and the like. Unfortunately for the credibility of the proposal’s framers, the plausibility of sustained growth at those levels is vanishingly low. The Fed’s median estimate of US long-term growth potential is 1.8 percent. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office estimated that if all the fiscal stimulus measures proposed at one time or another by the new administration (tax reform, infrastructure spend and all the rest) were successfully implemented, it could add one tenth of one percent to long term growth. So the Fed’s 1.8 percent would become 1.9 percent, hardly reason to break out the Veuve Cliquot.

Back in the Real World

Meanwhile Friday morning delivered yet another Debbie Downer data point to the market’s Pollyanna. The personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, came in for the month of August below consensus expectations at 0.1 percent. That translates to a 1.3 percent year-on-year gain, matching its lowest level for the past five years and well below the Fed’s elusive 2 percent target. We imagine this reality will likely show up again soon enough in the bond and currency markets (which also were the first to ditch the Trump trade back in February). But the stock market is a different animal. Is there enough wishful thinking to keep the reflation trade alive long enough to get through the tricky month of October and into the usually festive holiday trade mindset? Perhaps there is – money has to go somewhere, after all. At some point, though, reality bites back.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Will the Market Party Like it’s 1987?

September 15, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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The equity market bulls had been running for more than five years. Over this time interest rates had come down dramatically, inflation was muted and most every fiscal quarter delivered a reasonably predictable uptick in real GDP growth. Markets had weathered a spate of political and financial scandals, as well as occasionally unnerving geopolitical flashpoints.  All in all, there seemed to be no particular reason to complain or worry as summer transitioned to fall. Yet investors were edgy. A certain element of caution held in check what should have been giddy times on Wall Street, as if traders and investment bankers, contemplating their seven and eight figure bonuses, couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all a bit unreal. It’s quiet in here, said the young MBAs at Morgan and Salomon to each other as they stared at the monochrome numbers flashing silently on their Quotrons. It’s too quiet.

The previous paragraph could easily be imagined as some future market historian recalling the strange bull market of 2017 – up to the last sentence, anyway. Salomon Brothers is long deceased, and the cathode ray tubes of yesteryear’s Quotrons lie dormant in landfills, patiently awaiting the archaeologists of future millennia. No, the year in question is 1987. On October 19 of that year, a sudden flash of lightning made a direct hit on US equity markets. Major market indexes fell more than 20 percent in one day – the technical definition of a bear market. On October 20, market pros stumbled around the canyons of lower Manhattan asking: What happened?

Thirty years on, another generation of markets pros -- contemplating another secular bull amid low interest rates, steady economic growth and uncomfortably subdued volatility – asks a different question: could it happen again?

A Bear By Any Other Name

The chart below provides a quick snapshot of the Black Monday carnage – and the quick recovery thereafter.

That vertigo-inducing plunge on October 19 put the stock market squarely in bear territory, after a bull run that began in August 1982. But look how quickly the market recovered. By July of 1989 the S&P 500 had regained its pre-crash high. This new bull would go on running for more than a decade, ending only with the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000. For this reason, even though the 1987 market crash was technically a bear market event, we describe it in conversations with clients more as a disruption in the Great Growth Market that ran for 18 years (from 1982 to 2000). We think it is important to make this distinction. Secular bear markets, like the 14 years between 1968 and 1982, call for specific portfolio strategies. But there is very little that one can do about a sudden pullback like Black Monday. To respond to that question we identified above – could a 1987-style event happen again? – our answer is yes. Most certainly it could, and in the next couple paragraphs we will share our thoughts as to why. But a pullback based on some one-off exogenous risk factors – however steep – is not the same thing as a true bear market.

Portfolio Insurance: “Algo” Trading’s Beta Version

So what caused Black Monday? It took quite a while for the market experts of the day to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but in the end they identified the culprit: portfolio insurance. This seemingly benign term encapsulated an approach to institutional portfolio management that involved computer-driven signals to act as warning bells when market conditions appeared risky. Sound familiar? It should, because the crude hedging strategies that made up portfolio insurance circa 1987 were the ancestors of today’s ultra-sophisticated quantitative strategies known by those in the game as “algo” (for “algorithm”) trading.

If you look at the chart above you will see that, a few days before Black Monday, the stock market moved meaningfully lower after soaring to new record highs. For a combination of reasons involving the rate of change in the market’s advances and declines, underlying volatility and a few other factors, the portfolio insurance triggers kicked in and began selling off positions to build hedges. On October 16, the Friday before the crash, the S&P 500 pulled back more than 5 percent as the hedging begat more hedging. On Monday morning the sell orders cascaded in, but there were no buyers. That’s what brought about the carnage.

Peaks and Troughs

Given how much money is currently invested in the offspring of portfolio insurance, the really interesting question is not “could it happen again?” but rather “why hasn’t it happened more often?” For one thing, the ’87 crash did bring about some institutional reforms – operational circuit-breakers and the like – to try and minimize the damage a tidal wave of one-directional orders could bring about. These safeguards have worked on a number of occasions.

For another, the vast diversity of quantitative strategies itself is a kind of check and balance. Every algo program has its own set of triggers: buy when the German Bund does X, sell when Janet Yellen says Y, write a bunch of straddles when China’s monthly FX reserve outflows top $100 million. Put all these out there in the capital markets and they act sort of like the ocean when the peak of one wave collides into the trough of another – they cancel each other out. But that is reassuring only up to a point. It is not hard to imagine that a perfect storm of signals could converge and send all the algo triggers moving in the same direction – everyone wants to sell, no one wants to buy. Crash!

Lessons from the Crash

So, if such a perfect storm were to happen and blindside portfolios with massive short term losses, are there lessons to be learned from 1987? Quite so. It should be clear from the above chart that the worst thing an investor could have done on October 20, 1987 would have been to sell in a panic. In fact, those of us who have been at this long enough to remember the day (and do we ever!) recall that Wall Street’s trading rooms were never more frenzied with buy orders than in the weeks after Black Monday. Portfolio managers may not have yet known exactly why the crash happened – but they knew that the macroeconomic context hadn’t changed, that there were no new geopolitical crises, and that stocks with stratospheric P/E ratios after a long bull run were suddenly super-cheap. That, largely, is what explains the quick recovery, explains why 1987 was not a “real” bear market and explains why, all else remaining more or less unchanged, the prudent response to an out-of-the-blue event is to stay disciplined.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Marathon Bull

September 1, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Talk of endurance is all the rage these days. Fall race season looms for runners and triathletes contemplating their next attempt at 26.2 or 140 or whatever mileage benchmarks await the end of the arduous training programs through which they (we!) have been slogging all these humid summer months. In markets, too, endurance is the word of the moment, and not just in stocks. Sure, we’re into the ninth year of the equity bull market that began in March 2009, which counts by most calculations as the second-longest running bull on record. But that pales in comparison to the granddaddy of all distance runners. The bond market produced yields in the stratospheric heights of 20-odd percent in 1981, then rallied as the Fed broke the back of double-digit inflation. We’ve been in a bond bull ever since.

New Challengers Emerge

Alongside these elite harriers we have a couple other asset classes looking to break through more modest distance goals. The long-beleaguered euro limbered up back in January and started to chase its longstanding nemesis, the US dollar. The euro is up around 16 percent versus the dollar year-to-date, a surprising turn of events for those caught up in the hype of the so-called “Trump trade” that followed the election last November. In commodity-land, copper and other industrial metals have gained more than 20 percent. While the China demand-fueled “supercycle” for commodities is deemed long dead, the future for a select group of metals, including copper, may well be bright if forecasts about the demand for lithium ion batteries (key components of electricity-operated vehicles) prove to be accurate. For the moment, non-US currencies and industrial metals are still microtrends, unproven at longer distances, but it will be worth keeping an eye on their progress.

A Flat & Forgiving Course

Distance runners tend to do their best work on predictable, smooth courses with a minimum of steep hills or unexpectedly rough, slippery terrain. Which brings us back to stocks and the nine-year bull. There really haven’t been too many Heartbreak Hills since the summer of 2011, when the simmering Eurozone crisis and the US debt ceiling fiasco took stocks into a vortex that stopped just short of a bear-level pullback of 20 percent. The tailwinds have come courtesy of the central banks and their monetary stimulus programs, along with an economy that has delivered steady, if modest, growth, an improved labor market and muted inflation. Corporate earnings have done well in this environment, so that even if stocks are expensive by most valuation standards (they are), they remain well below the bubble levels of the late dot-com era.

Now, anything can disrupt the equilibrium at any time. There are always risk factors lurking under the surface that, if actualized, would create havoc in asset markets. Think back to the longest bull on record: that of 1982-2000. Technicians would dispute our labeling this entire period a bull market, as it was punctured by the sudden cataclysm of Black Monday 1987, when the Dow and other major US indexes fell more than 20 percent in one day. We don’t think of the 1987 pullback as a bear market in the classic sense, though, because (a) it was entirely unrelated to broader economic trends, and (b) it was over almost as soon as it began. The 1987 event looked nothing like the last real bear market, a long stretch of misery that endured from 1968 to 1982. We bring this up because, based on everything we see in the economic and corporate profits landscape today, any potential pullback in the immediate future would more likely arise from the sudden emergence of a hitherto dormant risk factor than from a structural change in conditions. The course, in other words, remains flat and forgiving, but runners should always be aware that lightning can strike.

Even Ultramarathoners Tire Out

And that, in turn, brings us back to that superstar distance runner, the bond market. Because if anything could potentially make that flat course hillier and more unpredictable, it would be an end to the “lower for longer” assumption about bond yields that is baked into every asset class with a risk premium. The risk premium for any asset starts with interest rates; namely, the prevailing risk-free rate layered with additional quanta of risks deemed pertinent to the asset in question. Upsetting the applecart of low rates would reverberate throughout the capital markets in a uniquely pervasive way.

For now, the bond market would appear to still be a ways away from its last legs. Both the Fed and the ECB will likely try to provide reassuring guidance over the course of this fall as to how they plan to move towards a more “normal” monetary policy environment with a minimum of disruptive surprises. We don’t expect much disruption to ensue from the upcoming September meetings of either central bank. But we have to pay close attention to any unusual wobbles or other signs of fatigue along the way.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Competing Narratives for Back to School Week

August 25, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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It’s that time of year again. Here in the mid-Atlantic region we are getting the first taste of dry, cool nights in place of midsummer’s relentless humidity. High school cross country teams are running through our neighborhoods to get in some practice before the season’s official start in a few days. And, of course, investors across the land are wondering what mix of surprises are in store for the deviously tricky stretch of the calendar between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. The sense of expectation is palpable; it seems like an eternity since anything has penetrated the smug, self-satisfied forward motion of the S&P 500. Will the good times continue to roll?

There are of course many variables at play, and a broad spectrum of possible outcomes. We think these can be broadly divided into two high-level narratives: (a) nothing new here, carry on as before, or (b) signs of wear and tear in the long-running bull that could spell trouble. We look at each of these narratives in turn.

Narrative 1: Nothing New Under the Sun

Over the course of the year we have been treated to numerous explanations of what’s been going on in markets by the furrowed brows of CNBC analysts and their ilk. But when you stand back from all the earlier, furious rotation –  into and then out of financials, into and then out of tech, into and then out of healthcare – the easiest explanation for the positive trends of 2017 is the near-absence of anything new. The US economy has been growing at a slow rate, with low inflation, a decent labor market and favorable corporate earnings, for most of the second decade of this century. Within the last year and a half or so our modest growth has been joined by that of Europe and Japan. There are no glaring trouble spots in emerging markets, with China and Southeast Asia reclaiming the lion’s share of global growth.  The global economy appears serenely detached from the chaos of worldwide political dysfunction.

Almost no headline data points have challenged this macro-stability narrative thus far this year. And under the placid surface, of course, remain the central banks whose actions over the past six years have put a supportive floor under asset prices. Sure, there’s some debate now about how the Fed and the ECB steer their policies towards something more “normal,” whatever that is. But almost nobody expects that the bankers would sit back and watch from the sidelines should risk assets suddenly hit a nasty and sustained patch of turbulence. This attitude may appear complacent, but it is also entirely rational given all the evidence accrued over the past few years.

Narrative 2: Be Careful What You Wish For

Calm, gently upward-trending asset markets are an investor’s dream. But all dreams eventually end and the dreamer wakes up, remark observers skeptical that the Goldilocks conditions of the year to date can last much longer. Do the naysayers have anything substantial to present as evidence for a sea change in market trends, apart from simply repeating “no free lunches” ad nauseum?

Well, perhaps they do. As Exhibit 1, the Cassandras may trot out the performance of recent small and mid caps. Both the S&P 400 Mid Cap index and the S&P 600 Small Cap index are trading below their 200 day moving averages, more than 5 percent down from the year-to-date highs both attained in July. And while on the subject of 200 day averages – a subject about which we have had remarkably little to say for a very long time – the number of S&P 500 stocks trading below their 200 day averages is close to 50 percent. The current stage of the bull, in other words, is not particularly broad-based. A trend of narrowing outperformance has in the past been a frequent sign of impending market reversal (though, we should note, it is not particularly useful as a market timing measure).

The other evidence our skeptical friends may muster in support of the case for correction is the very absence of volatility so celebrated by the bulls. There was a stretch recently when the S&P 500 went 15 days in a row without moving more than 0.3 percent up or down – a 90-year record for low volatility. That serenity would appear to misprice the inherent risk in holding common shares – which, as any finance professor will happily tell you, represent a completely unsecured claim, junior to all other claims, on a company’s residual assets. When common stocks exhibit the volatility properties normally associated with fixed income securities, that would seem to indicate that the market has something wrong. Be careful what you wish for! And these arguments, of course, take place against the backdrop of a market more expensive, by traditional valuation measures, than any other than those of the bubbles of 1929 and 1999-2000.

The thing about each of these narratives is that they are entirely plausible. The worrying trends highlighted by the skeptics are believable and suggest caution…but so is the seemingly fixed-in-stone macroeconomic context of slow, reliable growth and benign conditions for corporate earnings. We also imagine that, if we do see a pullback or two of any size in the coming weeks, a quick, Pavlovian buy-the-dip response would be more likely than not. That in turn may afford some additional intelligence on whether conditions going forward appear wobbly enough to support building up some additional defenses.

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