It’s been four months since I last posted on this blog, and it’s time to put some thoughts on paper again.
First things first: it’s been a long year, and I hope 2021 is better for everyone.
Second: for new readers, at the top of this previous report you will find the standard disclaimer & brief background of my views over the last few years. While you’re there, I recommend catching up on the other archived reports.
Third: I am a portfolio & fund manager and key advisor to pension funds, hedge funds and family offices. If you’re an institutional investor looking to expand capabilities or rules-based discretionary strategies, and in case the Volatility in 2020 makes you look for new alternatives heading into 2021, feel free to reach out. I’m flexible and can adapt to your needs – I can quickly assemble a strong team or help an existing one, while working effectively with key persons. In the past I have also taken on full-time roles that go well beyond advisory work. If interested please get in touch here. Thanks for your support.
Today we’ll begin with some thoughts on Trading and more importantly, Risk Management. I believe this will be essential as we head into 2021.
I’ve been doing this for some time, and the most fortunate aspect of this game is that we get to learn constantly, every day.
One of the most important things I learned in my career is that there are two main successful approaches to both Investing & Trading: (1) Anticipatory and (2) Reactive.
In the investment & trading game, there is no universal right way for everyone, only the right way for you. You may focus on being Reactive and be very successful: for instance Momentum & Trend-following (if price does X, it might do more X). You may focus on being Anticipatory and be equally successful: for instance Value & Mean-reversion (if price does X, it might undo X). Some people are hard-wired to think one way or the other, and that’s ok. I know many great traders (on Twitter and elsewhere) who successfully demonstrate this every day.
Blending the two approaches, there are some legendary (and by definition extremely rare) Traders who switch style according to market conditions. They become more Anticipatory or more Reactive, adapting to the flow of the market. They are the Generalists. I was fortunate to spend many years learning from some of them, and they gradually became mentors, shaping my approach to markets as it is today. You’ll see why this is so important as we dive into charts later on.
Most traders manage only their own capital, and some aggressively push for high returns without any hesitation even if they undergo multi-week drawdowns of 20%, 40% or even more. “Long until wrong” mentality works for these traders who have no mandate constraints, but it’s not reality for most institutional managers.
For traders who manage outside capital or firm capital, constraints are a nearly universal problem. I’m going to focus specifically on the institutional world here, where I’ve worked my entire career. When you advise or directly manage institutional capital, drawdowns of 10% (or even 5% at times) are not acceptable. Period. This is your primary constraint. This means you swing only when the pitch comes straight down the middle, and then you swing for the fences. If the pitch comes slightly off, you have to pass. A great year is up 10-15% with a 2-5% max drawdown. A bad year is down 5% with markets down 20%, because you don’t get paid on relative performance. There are myriad other constraints like Liquidity, which is getting worse with each passing year. You get the picture.
As a result of institutional constraints, 95% of my time is spent on anticipating & evaluating upcoming risks, while 5% of my time is spent acting on trades that swing for the fences. It’s homework 95% of the time, in order to be ready for the 5% full swing at the bat. Few people are hard-wired for this opportunistic trading; most people want to trade all the time. For instance, I got a laugh when, after posting a concerning chart (remember the 95%), someone yelled “you’ve been short since 1932” (in hindsight that was the day the market put in a nice top). Some people want all my comments to have a “Buy” or “Sell”, but it doesn’t work that way – like I said, only about 5% of the time.
Now that we’ve set the table, let’s talk about markets. This is my 95% time – also known as homework time. If some of these big ideas come to pass, there’s a tremendous opportunity to Anticipate OR React to each one. And remember: this moment is a snapshot in time. Who knows when I’ll publish the next blog, and conditions will almost certainly change. If they do, you better believe I’ll have adapted to them. So don’t get stuck in one mode of thinking – “MC said this was a Buy/Sell!” (no I didn’t). Look at the conditions I’m highlighting throughout the text. If conditions change, trade accordingly. Anyone can keep track of this with some discipline. There’s no secret sauce… homework wins the race.
CONSOLIDATED THOUGHTS ON EQUITIES
U.S. Equities continued to recover last week, and the tape improvement suggests the September correction might be over. But in the bigger picture, I am concerned for several reasons:
- First, traders have begun looking past the U.S. election & other key Macro catalysts and started aggressively pricing a favorable, low-risk outcome. How long this honeymoon lasts, nobody knows. But in a span of merely two weeks, sentiment has swung significantly, from a contested/hard scenario to a landslide/easy-stimulus scenario. As a result, some of the most speculative areas (for instance Solar Stocks, many with little institutional liquidity) have moved vertically, driven by (yet again) massive Call buying and Retail flows nearly identical to the “reopening/trash rally” back in late May-early June.
- That late May-early June rally was driven by all the worst-performing & bankrupt stocks, some of which went up hundreds of percentage points only to come crashing down a few days later, as the last Shorts were squeezed and Retail flow dried up. More on this later.
- The final move into the June peak was a 2-3 week affair which at the time, produced a very convincing Breadth Thrust at the exact TOP of the market. None of the analysts I spoke to at the time could recall this ever happening before. It was certainly unusual. Last week produced identical Breadth Thrusts in many of the same indicators. And this week the upswing will match the June rally duration at its peak – which may or may not be important, but needs to be watched closely for clues.
- In a year which has been characterized by Speculative bursts around brief/unsustainable narratives, the current burst just seems like more of the same.
- Recognizing this as potentially still the same difficult regime is critical, as we move forward into the final months of the year and 2021.
- Despite last week’s tape improvement, many of my core concerns from late May/early June (when many deep cyclical U.S. and EU Stocks peaked and still haven’t recovered), reiterated again at the peak in late August/early September, remain mostly unresolved:
- The September correction merely reset an extremely euphoric and highly unstable market condition back to neutral. The market peaked at a “Spinal Tap 11” and corrected to a neutral “5”, which left plenty of room to go the full distance back to “1”. This was unusual to say the least. Dip-buying flows were never tested or challenged (in fact Buyers stayed in business as usual mode). Put Volumes never spiked – not even for a day. Throughout history, Stocks corrected far less than they did in September, and many of those pullbacks produced Fear readings that were multiples higher. This time markets dropped 10-15% and no one blinked. Something looks off.
- Macro positioning imbalances remain at historic extremes and subject to a major disruption event – catalyst unknown. Specifically, Bond AND Dollar Speculators in Futures markets remain stubbornly Short one of the largest combined notional positions in history. This extreme Bond and Dollar positioning is a Major potential source of instability – with significant impact for all risk assets and particularly Equities.
- This is especially dangerous because Stocks appear to be trading well short-term (the usual names making new highs, Breadth perking up again as mentioned), but key Macro catalysts remain far from certain and could quickly set off a chain reaction.
- Accordingly, I’m not sure this is a time to be aggressively positioned in anything.
- To be clear – I’m not as concerned, in comparison to January or February for instance. But I’m concerned about further shakeouts (or worse) in consensus areas, particularly Tech and especially as we head into 2021.
- The next weeks will be critical to gauge the follow-through potential of the Stock market – particularly the response to the tape improvement – and *IF* another short-term peak materializes, a C-wave capitulation scenario could still unfold (catalyst unknown). Ideally, another decline could finish what has (so far) been only a “Halfway-There” correction. More on this later.
- Alternatively, *IF* Stocks accelerate higher with no pause (which could happen, and we’ll see soon enough), Momentum could drive another year-end blowoff similar to 7 of past 11 years: 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019 – all of which led to extremely volatile conditions for 3-6 months following the start of the next calendar year.
Chart 1: Most Breadth Thrusts throughout history were extremely Bullish for Equities, particularly because they came after an oversold condition with capitulation selling. For decades, they were one of the most reliable signals one could look for, and were almost always associated with the start of new multi-year Bull Markets. This began to change after the mid-2000s. Many signals still delivered spectacular returns, but others just led to short-term gains and more market chop, while a few even failed completely. Case in point, see the last two signals below had similar features to the one which triggered last week – they (1) did not occur after a major decline, (2) nor had any sign of capitulation selling. As a result, both signals failed to follow-through meaningfully and in fact led to multi-week pullbacks in the market. Again, for a Retail investor who doesn’t care about 5-10% drawdowns, those signals were ok. But remember what I said about institutional trading and drawdown constraints – and pay close attention to the next few weeks as this could morph into another weak signal. Any lack of meaningful follow-through in the market would be an important red flag.
Additionally, while on average the past signal returns were great, one doesn’t earn past returns. One needs to think independently, try to gauge what regime/context this is, and then figure out what is the appropriate risk to take. The signal in late 2018/early 2019 led me to accumulate one of my largest Long exposures ever, and I remained Bullish through most of 2019 (for those who remember). The signal in 3Q19 led me to become even more optimistic (even writing a blog post at the time), but note how it did not follow-through according to expectations, at least not initially (first red flag). The signal in June 2020 led me to pay close attention, because I was concerned about Stocks – but the signal was positive. Something looked off, and in hindsight it was a tactical top (second red flag). What about the current signal? Based on “2020 rules of engagement”, I’m leaning towards: this pitch doesn’t seem straight down the middle. So, I simply won’t swing. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t – and it doesn’t mean the world will end. Being aggressively Bullish here could work. But it’s not for me, and I’ll follow my process (as you should follow yours).
Chart 2: Here is how some of my Core Active Management & Timing Models looked right before the last election (I took down exposure gradually from mid-August onward, after the Sell signals visible on the chart began to trigger):
Chart 3: Here’s how things looked by the end of the year (2016). Pretty much what one would hope for in a reasonably well-functioning Model – despite all the noise surrounding that election event, it was a perfect pitch down the middle and I took a swing (via a combination of Anticipatory and Reactive positions, as the bottom was being formed and later when it was confirmed with the turn).
Chart 4: Heading into this election, here’s how things look now. The Long side could work here, but it’s not exactly the same setup. And there have been many occasions where similar signals turned down from this neutral area for a second oversold Buy entry (for instance – see the bounces in March 2018 and November 2018). Maybe IF this turns down at some point, there’s a chance for a C-wave capitulation selloff. But for now, the Model is still climbing, so Bulls have the ball until the Model turns.
Charts 5/6: Macro positioning imbalances remain at historic extremes and subject to a Major disruption event – catalyst unknown. Specifically, Bond AND Dollar Speculators remain stubbornly Short one of the largest combined notional positions in history. This extreme Bond and Dollar positioning is a Major potential source of instability – with significant impact for all risk assets and particularly Equities. And don’t forget Bond Volatility is at record-lows, usually a sign that things might have gone too far in one direction – where an Anticipatory approach for some mean-reversion could prove useful.
Charts previously shared on Twitter:
*Note: Some think the Bond Shorts are basis trades but public research has debunked this, showing more than half of the market was wiped out in March and never came back (old cats don’t sit on cold stoves). And there are always curve steepeners/flatteners involved in the positioning mix, which is why the chart is adjusted for Duration. Overall the picture looks fairly clear, suggesting Bond Shorts and the narratives around them are very extreme.
Chart 7: Positioning is so extreme in fact, this chart from JPM shows Speculators piling into Rate Steepeners at decade highs. Not shown in the chart, I checked the full history and the last time this happened was in 2006-2007, right before Bonds embarked on one of the biggest rallies of all time. This is the same message reinforced in the prior chart – should a Bond rally scenario materialize it would force many panicked Shorts to cover.
All of this is important because Macro relationships matter and $ Trillions of Dollars of institutional money will absolutely care if a meaningful, sustainable Correlation shift occurs among Major Asset classes.
Chart 8: I shared this chart on August 24 with the following comments: “The Dollar and Stocks have moved like a mirror image since March. Their correlation has collapsed to near the most negative in history. In a liquidity-driven market, the biggest risk could be any drop in liquidity triggering a USD rally.” The Correlation isn’t the cause of the problem, it’s a symptom. This is a liquidity-driven market. In a liquidity-driven market, the Dollar functions as the global pressure valve. Adding Trillions in liquidity to the system, the Dollar falls, and money is driven into risk assets. As liquidity recedes at the margin (which is happening for a while now), the Dollar begins to chop sideways or even rally sharply, and Equities suffer. This same dynamic was in place for much of the mid-2000s and early 2010s – see the long periods of negative Correlation in the chart below. In summary, these Correlation regimes can last longer than most people are prepared for. Absent some major shift in global fundamentals, there’s a good chance this Correlation regime could last well into 2021, and prove to be the most important relationship to watch, for all investors and traders.
Chart 9: As mentioned briefly earlier, the September pullback in Stocks was only a “halfway-there” correction in many key areas. For instance, S&P Daily Sentiment (data from trade-futures.com, one of the best subscription services for professional traders) bottomed at 44. For reference, before the last election it bottomed at 10. Most prior market corrections, even smaller ones in the 5-10% range, pushed Sentiment well below current levels. For instance in August 2019 a 6.8% pullback dropped DSI to 35, and in October 2019 a 5.5% pullback dropped DSI to 34. This time around Sentiment barely cracked below the halfway line – there was no real fear in the market. And the moving averages, including the one displayed in the chart, are still falling (after hitting the ceiling), a process which looks far from finished. Ideally, some more downside turbulence could help finish what has (so far) been only a “halfway-there” correction.
Charts 10/11/12: the September correction was highly unusual: dip-buying flows were never tested or challenged (Buyers didn’t even blink, and in some cases got more aggressive). Some Charts previously shared on Twitter:
- This year, more than $15B flowed into the QQQ ETF alone. At one point just a few weeks ago this figure reached $19B. The first chart below shows $22 Billion in Net Flows over the last 12 months, one of the highest figures ever.
- Nearly $50B has flowed into Tech Sector funds YTD (second chart below), non-stop record flows. Incredible how almost no net money went into 8 key Sectors, a winner-take-all market driven by extreme investor preferences.
- In yet another chapter of the 2020 story that never ends, Calls on Tech Stocks and ETFs such as QQQ (third chart below) are still being bought aggressively – no fear at all despite the 14% drop in the market (and even bigger drops in key Tech names). Combined, this represents Trillions of Dollars in single-stock & ETF exposure.
- Not shown, QQQ short interest is the lowest 2 years. The last time at similar levels was near the September/October 2018 peak in markets, a period characterized by significant complacency.
Moving along, here are some Global charts I’m watching as we head into Year-End and 2021. It’s not so clear this is a risk-on, “all systems go” environment just yet. It could turn out to be, but many areas remain in steep downtrends with no real evidence of a structural recovery. Their combined message matters, both fundamentally and for the longer-term health of the market:
CLOSING THOUGHTS ON MARKETS: YEAR-END AND 2021
2020 has been characterized by Speculative bursts around brief/unsustainable narratives. Narratives spread faster than ever, reaching consensus rapidly, running out of steam and reversing just as quickly. This doesn’t look like a Passive Management environment. Increasingly, it looks like an ideal world for Active Management. Adaptation is key.
In a world dominated by Passive investing, the price discovery mechanism may rely even more on the marginal Buyer/Seller, i.e. Active investors & traders. Combine this with (1) lower institutional-size daily liquidity and (2) a new generation of Retail investors who aren’t shy about trading highly speculative ideas, and the result is that Retail trading has grown to ~25-30% of U.S. equity market volume, according to major brokerage firm filings. A mere 10 years ago Retail traders were less than 10% of the market (if memory serves, this figure may have been closer to 5%). This is a stunning change, probably structural, and almost certainly accelerated by this year’s crisis.
Market dynamics are changing again, as they did in various phases throughout history. There’s enough evidence to suggest 2021 will require even more Active Management capabilities and resources, including effective, transparent rules-based systems for fast & flexible decision-making as markets shift.
Let’s imagine if Stocks were to go lower at some point, forcing policymakers to dish out more Liquidity. During such a panic, the Dollar and Bonds would perhaps rally sharply from forced Short-covering, while Stocks would lurch through a capitulation. Then right at the peak of the panic, a real cyclical recovery would begin, driven by a core fundamental global improvement.
Imagine for a moment, what Passive investor returns would look like if (1) the largest weight in Stock portfolios (Tech) were to decline significantly along with the rest of the market, (2) then underperformed in a fundamental recovery while beaten-down Deep Cyclicals (which no one owns) staged a historic rally, all while (3) Bond Yields rose sharply in tandem with growth expectations.
This combination would essentially be the most toxic Passive investing environment one can imagine. A fundamental cyclical Rotation might not carry enough market-weight to shield Equity indexes from the damage of an extended down-phase in mega-cap Tech Stocks. As a result, Indexed investors could tread water for an extended period of time. Passive investors are massively concentrated in these few Tech names whether they realize it or not. Trillions of dollars in Passive vehicles are tied to the least-diversified group of Stocks in the history of markets. Ironically, the whole concept of diversification for retirement has been thrown out the window. Any mean-reverting correction and subsequent extended underperformance in Tech, along with a rise in Bond Yields, would be a passive investor nightmare.
Will 2021 be the year for Active Management? No one knows, but I suspect maybe this time around just might do it. With Bond Volatility this low, it could just be a matter of time.
Just watch – and wait for the pitch to come straight down the middle.
Thanks for reading.
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