Active investment managers more bullish than ever

The average active manager is now leveraged long, according to NAAIM’s weekly survey:

Sustained bullishness is bearish, especially once the market starts to trend sideways. We don’t yet have that choppy sideways action on declining RSI that has been a death knell for rallies, but sooner or later it will emerge. If the market starts sidedays, this would complete the most bearish syndrome possible, though we already have a market that is overbought and overvalued, with overbullish sentiment and rising bond yields (John Hussman’s bearish syndrome that has nailed most major tops for decades).

In economic news, Q4′s negative GDP print supports the thesis that we entered a recession in the 2nd half of 2012, as leading indicators had been suggesting for months. It also comes right as the Citi Economic Surprise Index is again on the downward slope of its regular cycle, meaning surprises are more likely to be to the downside.

Stock jitters, Gold and JPY still compressed

Gold and the yen each worked still lower this week on highly depressed sentiment readings. Each of these has had a negative relationship with the “risk trade” lately, falling as stocks have rebounded from their oversold and overbearish condition of mid-November. Now, stock sentiment has recovered to neutral territory, and traders are afraid of these sometime “safety trades.”

Trader opinion gold has been very low since late October, a full eight weeks ago. Every similar instance in the past several years has been followed by a substantial multi-week rally. That said, if the bull markets in precious metals and the yen are indeed over, we should expect downtrends to become more protracted, with sentiment remaining low for longer.

Here’s a 1-year daily chart of gold:

1-year daily JPYUSD:

I’m holding to a thesis that the risk trade is topping out here as the US slides into a recession that remains largely unrecognised. Tops are rarely sharp peaks, but consist of several months of choppy sideways action during which sentiment deteriorates from giddy to nervous and the VIX picks up even before prices have fallen substantially. I view the rebound since mid-November with that context, akin to the action of April-July 2011 or pretty much all of 2007.  Last nights mini flash crash in stock futures fits into that context of a increasingly jittery market.

We’re three months from the 4-year birthday of the (presumably) cyclical bull market. It is now older than most cyclical bulls within secular bears, though the last bull phase lasted from March 2003 to October 2007, 4.5 years.

Another cyclical bear and a recession and drop in corporate earnings may finally compress multiples to the investable levels required to build a solid base for another bear market. I don’t expect this to happen quickly, though, since prices have a long way to go before we see anything that can be called historically cheap. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stocks hold at or beneath current levels for the rest of this decade as inflation creeps in towards the end and boosts earnings, as happened during the latter stages of the last three secular bear markets (roughly the 1910s, ’30s, ’70s).

Intermediate-term set-up for a gold rally?

Traders have been bearish on gold and gold stocks since late October, the longest stretch in recent years. All such previous instances were followed by significant multi-week rallies. Here’s a daily chart, showing some divergence in RSI.

Here is GDX, the gold miner ETF, which looks good technically, as well as being cheap vs. the metal itself:


A caveat here is exemplified by the coffee futures market (see recent posts), which has steadily declined since a manic high 18 months ago. Gold and silver experienced a mania around the same time, which perhaps capped their 11+ year bull run. If that is the case, a situation like the present could actually resolve not in a rally, but in a crash, as crashes may develop from oversold and bearish conditions that would otherwise be bullish. For this reason, as well as the value discussion below, I would be careful about any longs and use a stop-loss.

I still maintain that gold is overvalued relative to a meaningful basket of other assets and metrics. Today, a kilo of gold buys (or rents) you more real estate, commodities, labor, automobile, etc. than at any time in modern history, save bottoms in those respective markets and tops in the metal.

This doesn’t mean that gold can’t rally for a few weeks or months or even make a new high – it just means that doing so would make it even more historically overvalued. The time of gold being a great value has long passed. It has done a very nice job at protecting holders against the Federal Reserve’s war on savings, just like it did a good job at protecting against inflation in the late 1970s, but gold peaked prior to inflation, and today gold may peak prior to the end of Bernanke’s tenure.

I often make the point that gold is not the only hard asset. In an inflationary episode, there are many ways to play. The dollar lost 2/3 of its value from 1980 to 2000, but over that period gold lost 90% of its value when adjusted for inflation (70% nominally). As in equity investing, the price you pay determines your return. I would look for hard assets that are closer to historical lows, or at least mean values, rather than something near a high.  Distressed real estate comes to mind, or even Japanese equities.

Heck, if we get another cyclical equity bear market within the post-2000 secular bear, there will be plenty of hard, productive assets available for reasonable prices in the stock market. BTW, every episode of double-digit inflation in the US since 1900 has ocurred during the latter years of a secular bear market in equities (1919-1920, early 1940s, 1979-1982). Thanks in large part to Mish‘s explanations of the credit market, I have been a deflationist since late 2007, despite the shrill warnings of the hyperinflation crowd. There is no telling how long our own Japanese situation lasts, but we likely have at least a couple more years to go.

Coffee update: new lows, traders still very bearish.

Positive divergence on RSI though. At this point, I would say the market can continue to make marginal new lows for a while, but that a significant rally may be imminent. This market has continued demonstrate how relentless a downtrend can be after a mania (mid-2010 to mid-2011). As often as not, such a market returns to the base from which the ramp started (around $1.30/lb in this case). 



Japanese yen getting oversold on low sentiment.

Traders are again very bearish on the Japanese Yen, just as they were back in March 2012, prior to its 8% rally against the USD. JPY/USD is also getting very oversold, as shown by RSI on a weekly chart.


The daily chart is showing a positive divergence in RSI, a bullish sign:


However, a glance at the monthly chart shows a major break of the uptrend since 2007, as well as a deterioration in RSI (diverting downward over the last 18 months).


Traders are more bearish now than in March, but this condition has not yet been sustained for long enough to give the buy signal we had then. Also, I believe the yen may putting in a long-term top, due to the trendline break as well as developing trend of lower lows and lower highs in sentiment readings. Any multi-week rally that may be setting up should be viewed in that context, perhaps as an opportunity for entering a short position.

That said, a yen rally would fit into the global context of a nascent US recession and top in equities, as the yen and dollar have been safe-haven trades along with government bonds from the US, Japan, Germany and UK, among others. Sentiment on US equities has rebounded sharply since mid-November, when it reached oversold territory by some measures. Equity sentiment is not elevated, but if we are entering a bear market it need not become elevated before deteriorating again (a trend of lower lows and lower highs in sentiment was observed in 2007-2008).

One other interesting piece of data here is that Nikkei sentiment has been on the low side since mid-2011. Sometimes the yen and Nikkei have a strong negative relationship, other times positive, so I don’t know how this fits into things, unless Japan is finally going to reflate after 20 years of a bear market in stocks and strong currency and bond markets. We may indeed be at such an inflection point. I would certainly rather buy and hold Japanese equities than bonds here.

Who wants coffee?

Not many traders, apparently. Sentiment has been low for most of 2012, never even once reaching 50% bulls according to DSI. The latest slump has made futures traders extremely bearish on the beans for three weeks now, but in the first half of 2012 we saw this condition sustained for longer than I’ve ever witnessed on a contract. Despite a preponderance of bears, the price continued to slide, even at an accelerated pace, before a small rally this summer. Prices and sentiment have since returned to their lows.

Daily close, cents per pound:
coffee 2010-2012

Despite all of this bearishness and a 50% decline, coffee is still not particularly cheap by historical standards. It has been working off a mania that resulted in a parabolic doubling in 10 months from summer 2010 to spring 2011. I can’t publish the data, but picture bullishness alternating from medium-high to very high for the duration of that rally. This probably goes a long ways towards explaining the steady decline and bearishness. Prices have now returned to the base of that ramp, but if we look at a long-term chart, we can see that the spike was the final blowoff of a bull market coinciding with the general commodity boom, and that today’s price is still triple the 2001 lows. Commodities are cyclical and tend to swing from extreme to extreme, adjusted for inflation, so coffee wouldn’t be historically cheap today unless it were under $1.00/lb.

Monthly close (through Oct):
coffee 1982-2012

I don’t see any great opportunity in coffee either way at present. It just makes an interesting study in herding behavior.

BTW, has anyone else noticed that retail bean prices at fancy grocery stores increased from the $7-10 range to the $10-13 range a couple of years ago? This coincided with the futures spike, but the correction hasn’t been passed on to consumers. Some players in the supply chain are likely enjoying fatter than usual margins.

Technical update: overbought, overbullish, declining RSI

We finally have the classic syndrome that indicates an intermediate-term top. Upward momentum has stalled, as sentiment has remained elevated for several weeks. The combination of sideways prices on high bullish readings becomes very bearish when it has been sustained for a month or longer.

Here is the RSI and price picture (note declining trend in the momemtum indicator RSI since late August, and its resemblance to the topping pattern last spring):


Charts from Yahoo

A quick glance at sentiment shows sustained optimism:

Looking at the headlines, it is nice to see good news that results in a bump with no follow-through. We saw that in mid-September with QE Infinity, and last Friday with the jobs report. Rallies end on good news and declines end on bad news.

It would not be unusual to see another test of the highs, and for prices to linger at these elevated levels for another month or so, but the odds of a sharp decline are now elevated, and any further gains should be quickly erased.

Market again overbought on overbullish sentiment

The global economy is clearly on the downswing, with the US likely having entered a recession this summer (watch for revisions in GDP and employment data in the coming months). However, as in Sept-Oct 2007, the equity market has bounced from a brief oversold interlude to a new high.

Here is the NAAIM survey. This is a relatively new dataset, but it has proved high-correlated with proven sentiment indicators like DSI and Rydex fund activity). The survey is updated each Thursday with data from Wednesday.

NAAIM Sentiment Survey, 19 Sept 2012

Sentiment has been elevated for a month, which is sufficient for a significant decline, though the likelihood of a setback and the expected magnitude thereof grows with each week that it remains elevated. This, coupled with sideways price action for few weeks (we don’t have this yet) and a declining trend in daily RSI (possibly developing) would virtually lock in the case for an intermediate-term top.

S&P500 daily chart, Yahoo Finance

EDIT: To clarify, this is not a screaming short-term sell yet, since the market has had a habit of creaping slightly higher over a few weeks from conditions like this. However, things can reverse at any time, and it is highly likely that any further gains will be quickly erased once the turn comes.

The macro picture of deteriorating economic data bolsters the case that a bull market top is near, so if this is an intermediate-term top it could prove to be the final top prior to a bear market. This cyclical bull is now 3.5 years old. This is long in comparison to the cyclical bulls of the 1910s and 1970s secular bear markets (18-36 months was typical), but short in comparison to the last cyclical bull (spring 2003 – fall 2007, 4.5 years).

Topping pattern developing, stay tuned

We finally have a weakening trend on the daily RSI (see RSI on bottom of chart). This is a prerequisite for anyone considering taking a short position, especially with leverage.

It would be typical for some type of quick plunge to develop soon, perhap on the order of 5-8% in SPX, maybe 100 points (1000 Dow points). It would also be typical for stocks to recover from such a plunge and test the highs again, as in spring 2011 or Summer-Fall 2007. In May 2010, this process was compressed in the “Flash Crash,” which was followed quickly by a decline of around 20%.

However, the weekly trend is still up, though finally in overbought territory. Perhaps this begins to turn over the next few weeks as the market chops sideways.

Further strengthening the bear case is sentiment, which has now been elevated for at least two months (I recommend at $30/month for all you can eat indicators). Sentiment is a powerful indicator, but actual price tops lag tops in sentiment by several weeks to months, as prices tend to levitate and chop sideways for a while on weakening RSI prior to major declines. Bottoms have a much closer time relationship to sentiment (extreme bearishness among traders is usually quickly followed by rallies).

The best free sentiment resource that I am aware of is the NAAIM Survey of Manager Sentiment. As you can see in the chart below, sustained bullish sentiment is required in order to register a valid sell signal, as the crowd is often right for a while. The relatively short period of bullishness here is another sign that any decline that develops soon could be short-lived.

I should also mention that John Hussman has noted that the market has exhibited his syndrome of overbought, overvalued, overbullish on rising yields, for several weeks now. This set of conditions coincides with many of the very worst times to be long stocks, and has almost no false positives. Advances made during such periods are soon given up, often in severe declines.

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27% (Investor’s Intelligence)

[These are observationally equivalent to criteria I noted in the July 16, 2007 comment, A Who's Who of Awful Times to Invest. The Shiller P/E is used in place of the price/peak earnings ratio (as the latter can be corrupted when prior peak earnings reflect unusually elevated profit margins). Also, it's sufficient for the market to have advanced substantially from its 4-year low, regardless of whether that advance represents a 4-year high. I've added elevated bullish sentiment with a 20 point spread to capture the "overbullish" part of the syndrome, which doesn't change the set of warnings, but narrows the number of weeks at each peak to the most extreme observations].

The historical instances corresponding to these conditions are as follows:

December 1972 – January 1973 (followed by a 48% collapse over the next 21 months)

August – September 1987 (followed by a 34% plunge over the following 3 months)

July 1998 (followed abruptly by an 18% loss over the following 3 months)

July 1999 (followed by a 12% market loss over the next 3 months)

January 2000 (followed by a spike 10% loss over the next 6 weeks)

March 2000 (followed by a spike loss of 12% over 3 weeks, and a 49% loss into 2002)

July 2007 (followed by a 57% market plunge over the following 21 months)

January 2010 (followed by a 7% “air pocket” loss over the next 4 weeks)

April 2010 (followed by a 17% market loss over the following 3 months)

December 2010


This chart from Hussman has data through March 3, but the latest blue band is now about a month wider:


This is clearly time to exit stocks or hedge all market risk. The upside is limited relative to the downside.

Rumors of dollar’s death greatly exaggerated

Sentiment is still very anti-dollar (though not as extreme as last February-April), but the index is no lower than a few months ago, nor even a few years ago. Despite all of the dollar-crash and hyperinflation hysteria in recent years, early 2008 still marks the bottom.

MACD and RSI also seem to back up the case that the next big move is more likely up than down:

3 year daily chart:

5-year weekly chart:

10-year monthly:

The 10-year chart says it all: the dollar has already crashed, and as is typical in the financial markets, few noticed or attempted to take action until the move was already over.