Sunday, June 22, 2014

Be Vigilant when Relying on Patterns


In last week’s post I discussed that many investors are only interested in outcomes and not the causes of the outcomes. These investors search for repeated results and expect the same patterns to be continued into the future. For the last two weeks I have been drawing lessons from California Chrome’s losing the Belmont Stakes, and stated that it was a bad bet. Those who wagered on that result were betting that the colt’s past pattern would continue in this most difficult race for three year olds.

Those who follow history of sports, politics (Eric Cantor), theater, and human emotions all have experienced disappointment when the winning streak is not continued. The reason I said that the bet on California Chrome was a bad bet was that the betting odds were odds on, putting up more ($5) to win less ($4). This assumed a much higher degree of certainty than warranted on a young, head strong colt in the spring of the year.

Keynes lost several fortunes following patterns

In the June edition of the Financial Advisor Magazine there is a good article on John Maynard Keynes and his investment experience. There is no question that this Cambridge University don was exceedingly bright and had all kinds of ambitions. As an economist he was also a researcher and looked for patterns in commodities and currencies as well as US and UK common stocks. Each failed to produce a winning result every year and also led to large, (but less than market) losses in 1931. He did beat the UK market in 12 out of 18 years, which is exactly the ratio one would normally expect from a very good professional investor. The sad part of this experience in terms of the rest of the world is that various governments took his economic theories to be unassailable laws. If people only would have used the concept of applying a winning percentage to absolute belief in his economic laws, the world would have been a better place. Instead we had a Republican President of the United States intoning “We are all Keynesian Now.” This was almost exactly at the very moment of history when the US allowed its budget to get out of hand and began peace time deficits that continue to this day, which has led to a relative decline in the US standard of living.

Favorable patterns that may not hold up.

All humans look for patterns in everything they do. Even well-trained analysts look for what they hope for is certainty in patterns. Being a contrarian by nature I look for a reversal of trends, but currently markets are accepting the following patterns:

1.  On a year to date performance basis the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up +2.2% and its Utility average is up + 15.5%. This suggests that focusing on sectors is more important than the level of markets.

2.  Many portfolios are centered on various market capitalization levels which S&P provides. However the best performing S&P level is its 500 Index up +6.2%, and its worst is its Small Cap Index +2.1%. This suggests that market caps are relatively insignificant. We will see if this is true in the next major moves, particularly on the down side.

3.  Low perceived quality as measured by those stocks listed on the American Stock Exchange gained + 16.3% compared with those of the New York Stock Exchange + 5.5%. In 2014 (and for the last several years) higher quality, particularly of balance sheets has hurt relative performance. I doubt this trend will continue in an economic downturn. (Keep an eye on the default rate in high yield bonds.)

4.  Enthusiasm for various political leaders’ statements as to the future of their economies going through restructuring has driven their markets to possibly unsustainable comparisons. The Indian Sensex index is up +18.6% and the Japan’s Nikkei is down -3.5%.

5.  David Herro in his search for economic trends noted that the old indicator, an increase in lipstick sales, is being replaced by an increase in nail polish as an indicator.

6.  The trouble with following patterns slavishly is there is no room for a “black swan” occurrence.

Pattern Analysis can be useful

In a recent report Standard & Poor’s compared the performance of Large-Cap mutual funds to their respective S&P Benchmarks, showing in each of the last six years that the majority of funds beat the indices. The range of beats goes from 81% in 2011 to 51% in 2009. I found this data set interesting in that it shows actively managed funds can perform as well as the benchmarks. More significant to me is the extremes of performance. The low number occurred in a sharply rising market and the high number in a market that was declining in many sectors. My explanation for this result is that the indexes do not hold cash reserves where mutual funds do. Coming off a bottom, “cash is trash” and hurts performance, whereas in a falling market cash acts as a cushion. As I believe that this pattern will continue in our managed accounts, I have been cutting back on our use of index funds as a preparatory move for a future decline. (The impact of this move is to slightly raise our overall expense ratio.)

Moody’s*  believes “Exceptionally thin spreads typically credit cycle slumps.” As the yield spread is historically small between low credit instruments and high quality ones, I believe that this is a pattern worth noting. This is particularly true as we are seeing a concerted push on the part of both mutual fund houses and brokers to invest in unconstrained fixed- income funds. Even various government agencies are concerned and have discussed an idea of trying to put some redemption constraints on bond funds, which I do not believe will happen politically. Further to the discussion is a comment by a former Federal Reserve Governor in referring to bond fund redemptions as “liquid claims on illiquid assets.”

*Owned by me personally and/or by the private financial services fund I manage

Perhaps, my searching for the top of the stock market that precedes a major decline is misplaced, possibly the top will be caused by a malfunctioning fixed-income market. After all, the last major decline was caused by Lehman’s inability to fund itself in the short-term market. 

What patterns do you use?  
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