Some Thoughts On Market Timing Part-1

This is the first in a series on what timing is, what it isn’t, and some right ways to do it. 

In recent days I have been experimenting with one of our proprietary indicators to expand its use. I named this indicator a “Risk Index” with the idea being when the indicator is high the risk are low and when the indicator is low the risks are high. As you can see in the chart below a higher percentage reading indicates a more favorable market and a lower reading indicates a less favorable market.

US Equity Risk Index

US Equity Risk Index

Our risk index is simply the percentage of out timing models that are bullish or bearish each week. For US equities we run 10 different models that look at trend, valuation, interest rates, inflation, sentiment, breadth, and intermarket relationships. I estimate that 53% of the individual components in the 10 models are equity trend based. There are a few reasons for this but the most important gets at the heart of timing. We use timing tools to help us first lower risk and in a distant second to increase returns. It turns out that trend following indicators while not a “Holy Grail” do a great job at keeping you in the big moves and minimizing your downside.

Our models come from many places. If you are familiar with Nelson Freeburg, Marty Zweig, and Ned Davis you would recognize a few of the models and would be able to see the inspiration in the other models.* Five of the 10 are straight from their material and the other five while homegrown take inspiration from their work. All the models have been backtested and while most of them slightly improve returns they all drastically improve drawdowns which is our primary goal.

So if each of these models is solid in its own right why would we take a consensus approach? There are several reasons but the two that stand out are that you never know when the market is going to change and invalidate a model. Now we can stand a prolonged period of under-performance but we cant handle a catastrophe.  If a model underperforms for a long enough period of time we would take it out if we could see that something had changed. As an example I once created a breadth based system that I was able to backtest and it generated low 20% returns with the worst drawdown being just over -7%. Well I got to use it for about a year before decimalization came and within weeks the results when to hell. I suspected something was off but it took a few more months to confirm it. I still update it and monitor it as it displays a certain segment of market behavior but its risk/reward is no longer favorable.

Of course most of the models in the risk index are based on weekly data and are longer term in nature. Still the risk is very real that something changes and some of them cease to be useful. By taking a consensus approach any downturn based on a degrading model can be minimized.

We are not going to get into the specifics of each model but instead how almost any model, in this case a consensus model, can be used. Don’t worry because in a future post we will go over how to build a simple but effective long term timing model.

So we have a US Equity model that is based on the buy/sell signals of 10 separate timing models. How can we use it? We could backtest it and see what readings give the best risk/reward and trade it that way but what inspired this post was the idea that we would just invest X% of a portfolio depending on the reading. If the model said that 50% of the models were on buy signals we would invest 50% of the portfolio and change it each time the buy signals percentage changed.  If that went well, it did, and sufficiently cut risk, it did, we could then experiment with different levels of leverage.

We did this with the data we had on hand and got the following results. Trading SPY-SP500 ETF, and using the total return series so that includes dividends, we got the following results. Buy and hold did fine on the upside but had a -50.77% drawdown. Timing trailed a bit on the upside but only suffered a -13.67% max drawdown. Finally by using a full 2X leverage we were able to cut buy and hold risk in half and increase returns by 1.89 times. In case you are wondering by using only 1.2X leverage you beat buy and hold by a few bucks but your max drawdown is still under -15%.

Risk Index SPY Returns and Drawdowns

Risk Index SPY Returns and Drawdowns

Looking at a chart of the equity curves for each of the strategies you can see how timing plus leverage killed buy and hold. Of course while max drawdown was far less the intermittent drawdowns were sometimes larger. Take 2011 for example when the market corrected just enough to turn the model down to 10% bullish only to rocket higher. That is the main risk to any system as you can get whipsawed in and out during a longer term trend. Of course anytime you are using leverage you can expect to have higher volatility at times as you are seeking higher returns.

Risk Index Equity Curves

Risk Index Equity Curves

Looking at the individual drawdown charts shows just how risky buy and hold is as the SPy-SP500 ETF was down over -50%. This of course requires a 100% return just to get back to breakeven.

Buy and Hold Drawdowns

Buy and Hold Drawdowns

Looking at the drawdowns for the timing without leverage equity curve you can see that while it has a lot of little drawdowns it has only had three double digit drawdowns since early 2008 with the worst one being -13.67%. It may have lagged in total return but not by much and as such would have been a lot easier to handle. Of course as we discussed one would only need 1.2X leverage to achieve equal returns with buy and hold with less than 1/3 the risk.

Timing Drawdowns

Timing Drawdowns

Finally we have the drawdown chart of the timing strategy but using 2X leverage. As you can see the worst drawdown was half of that of buy and hold. Of course the next two worst drawdowns also hit -20% in contrast to buy and hold which only had one more -20% drawdown. Still the overall risk has been cut in half and the returns almost doubled.

Timing Plus Leverage Drawdowns

Timing Plus Leverage Drawdowns


Why do we only have the risk index back to 4/11/08? We are working on extending it back a few decades but as we were building these we had some data limitations on two of our homegrown models. When we finish building them out we will share the results with our subscribers as well as the blog.  For now however we think that capturing most of the carnage of 2008 along with the correction of 2011 does a decent job of what can be accomplished with a good timing model and a few different ways to use it.

One aspect of this model that we like is that is gives a specific allocation percentage instead of just a buy/sell signal. This will be the purpose of a future post but if you go back and read all the Marty Zweig stuff, and Zweig was a timer if there ever was one, he never said to go all in or all out.

“How should you, the reader of this book, react to the constantly changing circumstances? Basically, I think you should shun the idea of buy-and-hold. I consider it a fallacious strategy. In the coming decade we are likely to see more bear markets and deeper ones. To lower risk, there will be periods when you should peel back your investments, in the stock and bond markets. It’s a matter of degree. You don’t have to go 100% to cash but you should cut back as risk rises and invest as risk recedes. I believe my market-timing methods in this book will help you do just that.”Marty Zweig from “Winning On Wall Street”

If you go read Howard Marks book “The Most Important Thing” you will find variations of the same concept. If you are a traditional value guy/gal your heart just skipped a beat as I said Howard Marks in the same post as “market timing”. The reality is that all active management has the same goal-minimize risk and maximize reward. Marks in his excellent book talks about assessing the range of future outcomes and  discusses risk throughout both his book and other writings. Despite different approaches both Marks and Zweig have the same goal. be aggressive when their indicators-be they book values or how much the ZUPI moved-say to be aggressive and back off when things look risky.

Happy Trading,

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*I can’t write this and not give credit where credit is due. Nelson Freeburg the late publisher of Formula Research was a fantastic guy and his publication as well as correspondence has had a great influence on me. In fact while the idea of combining timing models together was not new, the way in which he did it elevated my thinking to a new level in his January 15, 1998 issue “The Power of a Composite Stock Market Model”. The components of my risk index are very different but if you read that report you can not help but see similarities.  Aside from that report however he put out more interesting and functional models than anyone I know of. If you can get a hold of any, or all, of them you will be better for it.






The Holy Grail Of The Last Crisis

During the crisis you may remember that everyone started following the TED spread.  Where one year earlier only investment professionals even knew what it was during 2008 it seemed as though everyone and their dog were experts on all types of credit market indicators.  Well now that we haven’t seen anything in the news talking about the TED or other money market spreads for months, in a contrarion way it is probably a good time to pay attention to them.

In the chart below we have the TED, LIBOR-OIS, and Commercial Paper-T-Bills spreads overlaid.  As you can see they started to trend up a while back and that trend is still in force.  So is it the end?  Is the United States defaulting tomorrow?  No, nothing like that.  Instead it is a sign that investors are starting to acknowledge that all is not rainbows and butterflies and that there are some risks out there.  At current levels none of these spreads are saying anything other then that liquidity has tightened up a bit, but only a bit.

Money Market Spreads


So what to make of this?  Only that we need to start getting more cautious.  The Fed liquidity bull is slowing down ever so slightly as QE2 nears its end and that may bring with it rising volatility in the markets.  For now however the trend is up and new liquidity is being injected every few days, consequently we are long and medium term bullish on the risk trade.

Happy Trading,

P.S.-We have obviously not posted to the site in some time and aim to correct this.

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Is The Rise In LIBOR Due To Liquidity or Growth?

With the recent rise in LIBOR we have been reading a lot of concerns over what it all means.  The two main arguments that we have seen is that either it is due to liquidity concerns or it is due to the supposed recovery in the United States economy.  For many reasons we obviously fall on the side of this being led by fear and liquidity rather than due to a recovery and an expectation of the Fed raising rates anytime soon.

3-Month LIBOR


The first thing that would lead us to assume that this is due to panic and not recovery is the way in which LIBOR is rising.  What we mean is that if you compare it to T-Bills it usually trades very much in line except in times of fear.  Looking at the chart below you can see that the last three times that it has diverged was also when we had banking system fears.  The top in the summer of 2007 which kind of started off the whole mess, fall of 2008 when the world seemed to be falling apart in front of us, and then in late winter 2009 when we already had the ZIRP in place but it looked like things might be getting even worse.  Of course once things got back on track and the end of the world as we know it was at least postponed the relationship got back in line with LIBOR at a slight premium to T-Bills like regular times.  Another thing that we find odd is that if LIBOR is rising on a recovery then why aren’t T-Bill or  2-Year Treasury yields climbing?  Would bond investors not drive yields higher if they thought this recovery had legs?

3-Month LIBOR and T-Bills


Looking at other money market spreads shows much of the same thing.  Namely that spreads are going up, this by the way is usually not a good thing.  Looking at the TED spread, LIBOR-OIS spread, and 90-day commercial paper-T-Bill spread you can see that they have all been climbing since the Greece and EU problems really started to gain some attention.

Money Market Spreads


Now lets look at some spreads in other nations.  It should come as no surprise that they are also on the rise.  In the first chart we have the EURIBOR-OIS spread, after spiking higher it has continued to inch its way basis point by basis point wider and wider.



Next up is the TIBOR-OIS spread.  As you can see it is also rising although a lot slower then in the US or in the EU.  As we will see in a few charts however that is how it always is.



Finally we have the UK LIBOR-OIS spread. Again it should not be much a surprise that it too has been climbing quite a bit.  The UK is weak and its nearest mega-economy the EU is weaker.  Banks are and should be scared.



Looking at the three spreads over the last few years you can see in the chart below that the global banking crisis affects them all.  Another thing worth noting is that Japans spread (the yellow line) may be rising slower but the swings have been far more muted the whole time.  Of course Japan has been dealing with a broken banking system for almost two decades now.



We will end this post with one last indicator that we follow closely and that is the VIX.  This volatility index is simply an average of stock, bond, currency, and commodity volatility indexes.  If most asset classes are seeing an increase in volatility it rises and if most are declining it goes down.  As you can see in the chart below it has been going up the last few months as many market participants are once again focusing on risks.

Average VIX


In closing we have many concerns in our current situation.  Some pundits claim that markets are headed higher and that we are under estimating the recovery.  They say that everyone is too worried and that the fundamentals are strong.  We apparently are looking through an entirely different lens.  With the EU continuing to deteriorate we cant help but wonder how investors can look at the rise in LIBOR as anything but bad.  While Greece is indeed a small nation the Euro is what is at stake.  Yes, the same Euro which is probably the biggest economic experiment of the last 30+ years.  In addition to the EU we have “regular” geo-political concerns as well like Iran, the Korea’s, and our future energy supply.  So while we could of course go higher we definitely should be concerned.

Happy Trading,

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The MOVE Index And Outlying Events

In the investment world it should be no surprise to anyone anymore that outlying events actually happen with a decent amount of regularity. Looking at the past 12 years we have had the Asian Contagion, Russian Default, LTCM, .Com crash, housing crash, and the subsequent crash of everything else. Most of these are one in a gazillion year type events and yet they all happened inside of 12 years. Statistics while useful, are not able to perfectly model the real world.

So mixing stats with history let us look at the MOVE Index. The MOVE Index, essentially the bond markets VIX, typically trades between 128 and 79. Anything outside of those two lines is at least one standard deviation from the mean. As you can see in the chart below we are currently more than one standard deviation below the mean and look to be headed lower. (Click on chart to enlarge)

MOVE Index


Of course the interesting thing about the MOVE Index is not what level it is at but what tends to happen when it reaches certain levels.  Essentially whenever the MOVE Index drops below one standard deviation something blows up. Apparently bond market investor complacency is a better gauge of “too complacent” than other volatility gauges.

Drops below the lower one standard deviation have preceded the following events

-First Gulf War

-Asian Contagion

-LTCM bailout/Russian Default

-.Com tech crash

-Housing/Credit crisis

While it is not a crystal ball, see the extended period below one standard deviation preceding the credit crisis, the MOVE index is still a good risk gauge with a solid track record of saying investors are too risk averse or that we are too complacent and therefore not really aware of the risks on the horizon.  Consider this the yellow light, its not saying stop but its not saying go either.

Happy Trading,

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Macro Trading vs SP500 1997-September 2009

A lot is made of relative returns and how one strategy or fund does against the SP500.  While not the best benchmark for something like Global Macro it is nonetheless the benchmark that everyone is most familiar with and that is used the most on CNBC and in magazines.  So how does global macro stack up to the SP500?

The chart below shows how $1000 invested in the SP500 and the Barclays Global Macro Index would have done for YTD for 2009.  As you can see the SP500 while getting off to a rocky start is now leading the macro index by 9.68% so far.  While the performance of the SP500 has been impressive the other side of the story is that to get the 18.04% return in the SP500 you first had to go through a -19.56% drawdown in January and February to get it.  Contrast that to the Global Macro Index where you had a -2.06% drawdown and a 6.63% return YTD.  Yeah you are outperforming with the SP500 but the volatility has been huge. (click on chart to enlarge)

Barclays Global Macro Index vs SP500 2009 YTD


Of course nine months is not usually the best representation of a strategy.  Going from 1997 to the end of September 2009, how has the SP500 done in absolute and relative terms?  Since 1997 the SP500 has given a total return of 42.70% and a CAGR of 3.07%.  The Global Macro Index on the other hand has delivered a total return of 237.91% in the same time and a CAGR of 10.92%.  Looking at the chart below you can see that while the SP500 has periods of serious out performance, over time it has lagged in a big way. (click on chart to enlarge)

Barclays Global Macro Index vs SP500 1997-September 2009


Not only has the SP500 lagged in total return but when looking at the risk taken to achieve the anemic 42.7% you really have to step back and rethink a long only equity approach.  In fact if you have been in a SP500 index fund since 1997 we excuse you to go bang your head against the wall for a few minutes.  Once you are back look at the chart below of the drawdowns that you had to endure to get that awesome 42.7% total return.  Yes, you see two drawdowns over -45% each.  In 2002 we were down -46.28% and in early 2009 we were down -52.56%.  All this for a return that was not much better then sitting in T-Bills. (click on chart to enlarge)

SP500 Drawdown 1997-September 2009


Looking at the same chart for the Global Macro Index below we can see that the drawdowns are far lower and shorter in duration.  In fact the worst drawdown that we have seen so far is -6.42% in October 2008 and right now we are at new equity highs while the SP500 is still -31.78% below its highs.(click on chart to enlarge)

Barclays Global Macro Index Drawdown 1997-September 2009


Does this mean that everyone should go out and invest all their money in global macro and buy our weekly global macro newsletter?  No, on the first and yes on the latter.   All kidding aside what this does show is the fallacy of long only equity investing.  While being 100% invested in equities is great when they are moving higher you get absolutely crushed when things come crashing down.  In global macro you are not beholden to the possibility of equity risk premia but instead are able to look for the best risk to reward opportunities out there in any asset class.  This includes stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and more.  This flexibility to go where the best opportunities are enables the global macro investor to outperform not in any given year but in a full market cycle.

Happy Trading,

Disclaimer-We are a global macro research company and are therefore a bit biased in our investment views.

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Title: macro trading vs SP500 1997-September 2009