The Deception of Obvious Facts
First, apologies for skipping an edition of the Musings. Life has been hectic, with traveling to visit company management teams. And really, there wasn’t a lot to say – markets have been calm and quiet lately. If you don’t have anything important to say…you know the rest.
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Boscombe Valley Mystery
There are some obvious facts about the U.S. stock market that are fairly deceptive. Maybe the most deceptive of them is that recent low volatility does not portend future low volatility – in other words, if the recent past has been calm, the near future may not also be calm. And yet, that is precisely what multiple market indicators of future volatility are pricing in. What is deceptive about this market is that while the overall S&P 500 continues to move in a very narrow, low-vol range, the underlying sectors are swirling around fairly rapidly. This is leading funds and strategies that aspire to control the volatility of their own returns to become overly comfortable with the market. If these strategies were small relative to the size of the stock market, it really wouldn’t matter. But according to the Wall Street Journal, “volatility control” funds that use the VIX to decide whether or not to buy stocks now have $200 billion in assets. That is in addition to the trend following strategies being used by pension funds and risk-parity funds that increase their leverage during periods of expected low volatility.
“’Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze
This crowding into the low-vol trade will only be problematic when volatility spikes and remains high for a significant period of time (i.e., more than a few days). When will that happen? I have no idea. The sell-off in the ever-evolving cohort of FANG/FAAMG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, or Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google, depending on who is using the acronym) on Friday was sharp and, relative to recent trading, deep. But a rally in financial and energy stocks, which have been the two worst performing sectors year-to-date in the SPX, offset the tech declines – keeping overall SPX vol low. So the low vol trade continues to work, until it doesn’t. Put another way, the dog did nothing in the night time, which is a curious thing.
The concern I have is that when the low-vol trade eventually doesn’t work, it’s going to blow up spectacularly, as, compared to past market downturns, there is a lot of money betting on stability. What that means is that, past a certain point, the selloff will accelerate, as put sellers either hedge or get margin calls. Some would argue that the recent surge in “passive” investing via index funds and ETFs will acerbate that eventual selloff, but I’m not so sure – we have had spectacular crashes in the past, well before Vanguard created an index fund. What may be different this time is the speed with which it occurs – think Black Monday, 1987, not the relatively more gradual declines of 2000.
So why am I so sure that eventually we’ll have a severe decline? Mainly because there aren’t many cheap stocks anymore. Value investors (and I think of myself as one of those) prefer to invest when the math on an IRR basis is easy, and right now that math is hard to make work. At current prices, value investors are having a difficult time finding stocks that they feel confident in buying and holding. Many value mutual fund managers I talk to are just putting money to work because they have to, not because they want to. Growth has massively outperformed value recently, exacerbating the relative performance problem and driving the aforementioned FAAMG cohort to spectacular year-to-date returns. Unfortunately, what this means is that in a sell-off, value investors aren’t going to be interested until stocks fall a large amount. When stocks are cheap, value investors are in there picking away at their favorites, and are probably getting money flows to boot if they have recently had good performance (which they tend to do when stocks are cheap). But in the current market, stocks aren’t cheap, value funds are bleeding cash, and the funds that invest using momentum factors and other trend following systems will all get sell signals at the same time – creating a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop. The market may well then become reflexive, where stocks going down makes them less attractive to the investors that have been getting money, while the investors that normally step in as prices go lower are already fully invested or don’t have the firepower to stem a decline. The flow of funds out of active managers and into passive investments is one risk factor that will create this negative feedback loop (index funds don’t hold cash, for example), while the amount of money in “vol control” and vol selling strategies is another. The combination could create some breathtakingly fast declines. Buckle up.
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
At this point you can probably tell that I think it is impossible that volatility will remain near record lows forever. So what is left that, while being improbable, must be the truth? Having spent a lot of time lately thinking about the current state of financial markets, I think the risk that most (but not all) market observers view as improbable is that Central Bankers around the world will lose control of their bond markets. Put another way, I think that most market participants are paying extremely high prices for credit of all types, from Sovereign bonds with negative yields to Investment Grade Corporates (IG) yielding 1% over equivalent sovereigns to High Yield (HY) bonds near (but not quite at) all-time tights, because they think that central banks are infallible. Long-time readers know I have been pointing at these markets as incredibly overvalued (I think the next “big short” will turn out to be European Sovereign bonds with negative yields and High Yield), but so far have been wrong, mainly because the bond market continues to believe, as a whole, that the central bank “put” will always be there. The market is pricing in the fact that it is extremely improbable that rates will ever rise meaningfully again. However, when thinking through the various likely future outcomes for financial markets, one scenario continues to strike me as the most likely: that financial markets swiftly, synchronously sell off – a flash crash across global markets that central bankers are unable to stop before bonds are off 15% and stocks are off more than 20%. When will this happen? Probably not until the ECB or Fed start to meaningfully unwind their $14 trillion in bond holdings. If they never do, but continue to “buy buy buy,” literally forever, then maybe the bond market will be able to avoid this scenario. But stocks are a different story. Something (and no, I don’t know what it will be) will trigger a selloff that lasts more than a few days, and put sellers will have to hedge, and no one will be there to take the other side – and then we’ll get a flash crash that morphs into something a little bigger and longer. If stocks have to sell down to levels that make them attractive again to value buyers to find a bid, that could be ugly – see the valuation charts below.
Yes, we are 99% above the Exponential Regression Trend Line. We’ve only been higher in 2000, and that was a different type of market.
Historically, drawdowns have been severe. We are in the calm before the storm.
“Safe” Investment Grade Bonds aren’t Going to Save You This Time
Forward Returns for Stocks Will Most Likely Be Quite Low – Chart from Hussman Advisors
So what’s an investor to do? Cash should be your first option. Too many investors view cash as a cost – the lost return on assets you could have been holding that continued to go up. That “cost” always looks highest near the end of a bull market. However, it’s a cost that investors should be willing to bear in order to have the ability to buy stocks at attractive prices. Look at the likely forward 12 year returns on the Hussman chart above. Do stocks returning 2% per year look like something you really can’t afford to miss?
“The game is afoot.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventure of the Abbey Grange
If your fear of missing out on a blow-off stock rally is too great to allow you to sell, then the next best thing to do is take advantage of all the vol sellers out there to take the other side of the trade – be a vol buyer. This has been costly of late – all the smug owners of vol selling funds are looking pretty smart lately, while those who hedge have just been racking up expired premium. But…that’s when you want to buy hedges – when they are cheap, and before you clearly need them. This will allow you to stay long if you have to, but protect your downside. I’m not doing the following trade (I’m not capping my gains by selling the lower strike), but the following chart from the FT is indicative of how cheap hedging has become. Take advantage of it.
Quite a few of you have signed up for the more in-depth Miller’s Market Matrix, where I delve in-depth into markets and provide specific investment ideas. This week it will be jam packed with many more charts I couldn’t fit in this letter. If you would like to receive it, just reply to this email, or email me directly at email@example.com and I will add you to the list. The next issue comes out this week. Don’t miss it! Also, if you would like to receive this newsletter directly in your inbox, simply subscribe by clicking here.
This week’s Trading Rules:
We ended our last letter with, “The market is fully-valued and is priced for Trump to get what he wants. We’re holding cash in case he, and the market, are disappointed. Now we’re also fully hedged and short high yield bonds. Can markets continue to power higher? Of course. But with hedging costs still very low, valuations extremely stretched, credit weakening in China (and in the U.S. in auto loans), at the same time the market structure is particularly fragile, not hedging would be irresponsible. Do the right thing. Get some hedges on.” I wouldn’t change a word.
SPY Trading Levels:
Resistance: A little at 245, then not much.
Support: Small at 242, then a decent amount at 239/240, followed by a lot at 235/236. Below that its 232, 229. Long-term support is 210.
Positions: Net neutral stocks (both long and short stocks). Short SPY, HYG and other ETFs. Long put options on SPY and other market ETFs.
Miller’s Market Musings is a free bi-weekly market commentary written by Jeffrey Miller, who has been managing money through various market environments for over 20 years. You can subscribe here. If you no longer wish to receive this letter, simply hit reply and put “Remove” in the subject line. Prior posts can be found at www.millersmusings.com.
Mr. Miller has been quoted in financial publications including the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, American Banker, and New York Times, and he has appeared on Fox Business News, PBS and CNBC. More information and past articles can be found at www.StockResearch.net. Sharing and quoting from this letter is permitted with attribution and a link to www.millersmusings.com.