By Lance Roberts, STA Wealth
The market has had a rough start of the year flipping between positive and negative year-to-date returns. However, despite all of the recent turmoil from an emerging markets scare, concerns over how soon the Fed will start to hike interest rates and signs of deterioration in the underlying technical foundations of the market, investors remain extremely optimistic about their investments. It is, of course, at these times that investors should start to become more cautious about the risk they undertake. Unfortunately, the“greed factor,” combined with the ever bullish Wall Street “buy and hold so I can charge you a fee” advice, often deafens the voice of common sense.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Howard Marks who stated:
“Resisting – and thereby achieving success as a contrarian – isn’t easy. Things combine to make it difficult; including natural herd tendencies and the pain imposed by being out of step, since momentum invariably makes pro-cyclical actions look correct for a while. (That’s why it’s essential to remember that ‘being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.’)
Given the uncertain nature of the future, and thus the difficulty of being confident your position is the right one – especially as price moves against you – it’s challenging to be a lonely contrarian.”
That quote is truest at extremes as markets can remain “irrational” far longer than would otherwise seem logical. This is particularly the case when, despite clear signs of overvaluation and excess, central banks worldwide are dumping liquidity into economies in a desperate attempt to “resolve a debt bubble with more debt.”
It is interesting that when you ask most people if they would bet heavily on a “pair of deuces” in a game of poker, they will quickly tell you “no.” When asked why, they clearly understand that the “risk to reward” ratio is clearly not in their favor. However, when it comes to the investing the greater the risk of loss, the more they want to invest. It is a curious thing particularly when considering that the bets in poker are miniscule as compared to an individual’s “life savings” in the investment game.
However, that is where we clearly find ourselves today. There was never a clearer sign of excessive bullish optimism than what is currently found within the levels of margin debt. Even as the markets sold off sharply in February, investors sharply levered up portfolios and increasing overall portfolio risk.
Even professional investors, who are supposed to be the “smart money,” are currently at the highest levels of bullishness seen since 1990. (The chart below is the 4-month moving average of the net-difference between bullish and bearish sentiment.)
Franklin Roosevelt, during his first inaugural address, made one of his most famous statements:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”
However, when it comes to the stock market it is the “lack of fear” that we should be most fearful of. Throughout human history, the emotions of “fear” and “greed” have influenced market dynamics. From soaring bull markets to crashing bear markets, tulip bubbles to the South Sea, railroads to technology; the emotions of greed, fear, panic, hope and despair have remained a constant driver of investor behavior. The chart below, which I have discussed previously, shows the investor psychology cycle overlaid against the S&P 500 and the 3-month average of net equity fund inflows by investors. The longer that an advance occurs in the market, the more complacent that investors tend to become.
Complacency is like a “warm blanket on a freezing day.” No matter how badly you want something, you are likely to defer action because it will require leaving the “cozy comfort” the blanket affords you. When it comes to the markets, that complacency can be detrimental to your long term financial health. The chart below shows the 6-month average of the volatility index (VIX) which represents the level of “fear” by investors of a potential market correction.
The current levels of investor complacency are more usually associated with late stage bull markets rather than the beginning of new ones. Of course, if you think about it, this only makes sense if you refer back to the investor psychology chart above.
The point here is simple. The combined levels of bullish optimism, lack of concern about a possible market correction (don’t worry the Fed has the markets back), and rising levels of leverage in markets provide the “ingredients” for a more severe market correction. However, it is important to understand that these ingredients by themselves are inert. It is because they are inert that they are quickly dismissed under the guise that“this time is different.”
Like a thermite reaction, when these relatively inert ingredients are ignited by a catalyst they will burn extremely hot. Unfortunately, there is no way to know exactly what that catalyst will be or when it will occur. The problem for individuals is that they are trapped by the combustion an unable to extract themselves in time.
I recently wrote an article entitled “OMG! Not Another Comparison Chart” because there have been too many of these types of charts lately. The reason I make that distinction is that the next chart is NOT a comparison for the purposes of stating this market is like a previous one. Rather, it is an analysis of what a market topping pattern looks like.
As you can see, during the initial phases of a topping process complacency as shown by the 3-month volatility index at the bottom remains low. As the markets rise, investor confidence builds leading to a “willful” blindness of the inherent risks. This confidence remains during the topping process which can take months to complete. With individuals focused on the extremely short term market movements (the tree) they miss the fact that the forest is on fire around them. However, as shown, by the time investors realize the markets have broken it is generally too late.
As Seth Klarman recently wrote:
“The survivors pledged to themselves that they would forever be more careful, less greedy, less short-term oriented.
But here we are again, mired in a euphoric environment in which some securities have risen in price beyond all reason, where leverage is returning to rainy markets and asset classes, and where caution seems radical and risk-taking the prudent course. Not surprisingly, lessons learned in 2008 were only learned temporarily. These are the inevitable cycles of greed and fear, of peaks and troughs.
Can we say when it will end? No. Can we say that it will end? Yes. And when it ends and the trend reverses, here is what we can say for sure. Few will be ready. Few will be prepared.”
It is in that statement that we find the unfortunate truth. Individuals are once again told that this time will be different. Anyone who dares speak against the clergy of bullishness is immediately chastised for heresy. Yet, in the end, no one will ring the bell at the top and ask everyone to please exit the building in an orderly fashion. Rather, it will be a “Constanza moment“ as the adults (professionals) trample the children (retail) to flee the building in a moment of panic.
It is only then that anyone will ask the question of “why?” Why didn’t anyone warn me? Why did this happen? Why didn’t we see it coming? Why didn’t someone do something about it?