VIX plunges under 14. Mr. Market banishes all thoughts of bear.

This has been an extremely dramatic decline, from 22 to 13.9 in one trading week.

Previous drops under 14 in recent years have been followed by limited upside in stocks and an increased incidence of significant declines.

This week’s action seems to be based on relief that Congress has come to terms on the budget. Never mind that taxes are going up for everyone (payroll tax “holiday” ends), and that no progress was made on spending, not even so-called “cuts” to the rate of growth.

Side note on the budget:

High inflation remains baked into the cake for the coming years, just as it appeared in the later years of the secular bear markets of the 1910s, 1930s-40s, and 1966-1982. This is not just because the government is running trillion+ deficits without end, because the Fed has tripled its balance sheet and the monetary base in just four years.

When enough bad debt has been written off for lending to start back up in earnest, the upswing of the multi-generational interest rate cycle will have severe repurcussions for the budget. The effects will be greater because the US Treasury is not taking advantage of low long-term rates, but issuing mostly shorter-term notes.

Note that I was a rare bull on Treasuries going into the last debt crisis. That is no longer the case, but I’m not necessarily bearish on them just yet.

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):

SPX and RSI

NDX and RSI
Charts from Yahoo

A quick glance at sentiment shows sustained optimism:
NAAIM
Source: http://www.naaim.org/naaimadsenttrend.aspx

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.

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 sentimenttrader.com 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:

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

Hussman: Market risk is extreme

John Hussman is the rare mutual fund manager who uses technicals and hedging to minimize risk and maximize returns during a full bull-bear cycle. He hedged up in 2000 and 2007 to preserve his fund’s equity during the ensuing bear markets, and is again tightly-hedged in preparation for another downturn.

His weekly market comment is a must-read (if you just read this and Mish’s blog regularly, you’re all set). He uses a set of indicators to identify periods during which risk is elevated based on historical statistical analysis. They are: 1) stock market investor sentiment, 2) Case-Shiller PE ratio, 3) Treasury yield trends, and 4) price action (to indicate whether stocks are overbought or oversold using moving averages).

He concludes each market comment (in which he puts on his academic cap to discuss market statistics, Fed policy, etc in geeky detail), with a quick summary of where his funds are positioned according to the prevailing risk profile. When he starts his conclusion like this, you better not be long stocks:

Market Climate

As of last week, the Market Climate for equities was characterized by an unusually extreme profile of overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yield conditions. Both Strategic Growth and Strategic International Equity remain tightly hedged here.

Here is a chart showing where these market conditions have existed in the past:

Max caution alert: exit or hedge all market risk

This is one of those times where markets are stretched to the limit and any further upside will be minimal in relation to the extreme risk entailed. Sentiment has been dollar-bearish and risk-bullish for so long that a violent reversal is all but guaranteed. This is not to say that the absolute top is in, but that at the very least, another episode like last April-June is coming up.

Watch for a sharp sell-off in stocks, commodities and the EUR-CAD-AUD complex. Even gold and silver are vulnerable, especially silver. We could be near a secular top in silver, where the recent superspike has all but gauranteed an unhappy ending to what has been a fantastic technical and fundamental play for the last decade. Gold is much more reasonably valued and should continue to outperform risk assets because the monetary authorities are so reckless, but there is just too much froth in silver to hope for even that.

The rally since early 2009 has been not just another dead cat bounce in the bear market from 2007 (like I thought it would be), but another full-blown reflation and risk binge like the 2003-2007 cyclical bull. The secular bear since 2000 is still here, and valuations and technicals suggest that another cyclical bear phase is imminent. There is no telling how long it will take or how it will play out, but the only prudent move at times like this is to take all market risk off the table. Bears still standing should think about going fully short. Anyone holding stocks should sell or get fully hedged. History shows that the expected 10-year return on stocks from conditions like this is under 3.5%, and such a positive figure is often only acheived after a major drawdown and rebound. See John Hussman’s excellent research on the topic of expected returns from various valuation levels: http://hussmanfunds.com/weeklyMarketComment.html

Want to know what a secular bear looks like? Check out 1966-1982: a series of crashes and rallies that resulted in a 75% inflation-adjusted loss. In the absense of 70s-style inflation, this time the nominal loss should be closer to the real loss. Think Japan 1989-who knows?

The headlines this time around should have less to do with US housing, though that bear is still raging. We’re likely to hear much more about European sovereign debt, where haircuts and defaults need to happen, and Canadian, Australian and Chinese real estate. When the China construction bubble pops it will remove a major fundamental pillar from the commodities market.

There is no safe haven but cash, and cash is all the better since everyone has feared it for so long. If I had to build a bulletproof portfolio that I was not allowed to touch for five years, it would be something like this: 20% gold bullion, 25% US T-bills, 25% US 10-year notes, 25% Swiss Francs (as much as I hate to buy francs at $1.13) and 5% deep out-of-the-money 2013 SPX puts (automatic cash settlement).

There will be a great value opportunity in stocks before long (the tell will be dividend yields over 5% on blue chips). It’s just a matter of having the cash when it comes, so that you aren’t like the guy who said in 1932 that he’d be buying if he hadn’t lost everything in the crash.

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PS – For those of you who think QE3,4,5,6 will save the markets, I’ll counter that it doesn’t matter, not on any time frame that counts. Risk appetite and private credit are what matter the most, and the Fed can’t print that. At 3AM, spiking the punchbowl doesn’t work anymore.

Or I can put it this way: the Fed has increased the monetary base from 850 billion to 2500 billion since 2007. Have your bank balance, salary and monthly bills increased 200%? If not, why should stock and commodity prices? Not even Lloyd Blankfein is 200% richer than four years ago.

Major dollar rally coming soon, to a trading screen near you.

Sorry for my long hiatus from blogging. I’ve been trading very little over the last six months, demoralized and righly so due to chronically awful trade execution and overreaching. I have a highly valid reversal strategy, but it is not a trend strategy, and I need to keep my bearish macro views out of the equation (though I suspect that they would be better suited to the next 2 years that the last 2 – but I need to forget about that and keep such discussions academic, for risk of corrupting a perfectly good trading model).

I’ve done some soul-searching and review of my trading history and this blog, and come to the conclusion that I should not abandon this pursuit but instead work to remedy my fatal flaws. A review of my history shows that I am able to identify turns in markets with a very high degree of probability. The fatal flaws are not analytical, but as is usually the case, emotional and procedural. This blog actually has a very good record of both initiating positions and closing or reversing them. As a trader, I would have done well to follow its advice, but I would often revert back to my bear bias, and way too soon, as when I shorted risk last March-April, booked huge profits and went long (including buying bottom tick in EUR and CHF) in June, only to reverse and go short again in July on bias alone without my proven criteria for a valid set-up.

My basic methodology as it has evolved here since August 2008 when this blog began, is to use sentiment and technical data to identify oversold and overbought conditions that are long in the tooth and due for clearing reversals.

The classic set-up is like this:

  • DSI sentiment has plateaued or bottomed at an extreme (<20% or >80% for at least 5 weeks, the longer the better – this can go on for 6 months at the outside, more commonly 4-12 weeks if we are talking <20% or >80% readings).
  • A major move comensurate with that sentiment has occurred (the market is trading at highs or lows), which to the mass of traders seems totatally justified by fundamentals.
  • Price action shows weakening momentum. This is indicated by a diverging trend in oomph indicators MACD and RSI. This usually means that the rate of change is slowing and that each new little push is slower and on lower volume, even as new extremes in price are reached.
  • A loose stop-loss level can be identified (a level that should it be broken decisively, would indicate that the prevailing trend still has legs). This is a mult-week strategy, so stops should use daily or even weekly levels — no use for 5 minute charts here.
  • Markets are highly coordinated in recent years. E.g., if the dollar is looking like it is going to rally, don’t be long stocks or commodities or short bonds.
  • Adjust stops downward to breakeven after the reversal, and tighten stops to a gain as DSI data reaches 40-60% middle ground.
  • Tighten stops much more or close positions after DSI data approaches the opposite extreme (e.g., if you shorted SPX when DSI bulls were 90%, prepare to close and consider the trade finished once DSI reaches 25%).
  • This is not a trend system! Repeat, this is not a trend system! Trade reversals only, as those have the highest probability. Once the oversold/overbought condition is cleared, the probability of the market continuing in your direction is vastly lower, and does not justify the risk (no matter your opinion of the longer-term situation or fundamentals). This last point was my fatal flaw.
So, we have a classic long-dollar set-up developing right now. I give it strong odds that we experience a major dollar rally within 2 months, with all of the de-leveraging that entails in other markets. This is not the place to put on a heavy position if you are not willing to accept big drawdowns, since this market could easily trend for a while yet, with the stock markets holding up as well.
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source: futures.tradingcharts.com
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Note that this trade is confirmed by the opposite in the stock market. Plateau in DSI and other sentiment indicators at a high level of bullishness for several weeks. This condition will be cleared to the downside as the dollar breaks upward. Copper, oil, etc will also correct hard down, and the anti-dollar currency pack (CAD, GBP, EUR, AUD and probably CHF) will fall as well. Not sure about JPY – it often trades up with the dollar during these little episodes of risk unwinding.
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As always, the timing is the most uncertain factor here, but the longer the dollar sentiment stays low, the less risk there is in this trade and the stronger the resulting rally will be. I can’t say whether this will come next week or in early June, but we are at the point where traders should be nervous about short-dollar, long-risk positions, because that trade is running on momentum alone and meets the requisites for sudden reversal.
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The archetypal set-up was long-dollar in fall 2009, after dismal trader sentiment since early June 09. The set-up was in place by late August, but the dollar continued to drift down through November, helped along by small clearing rallies and brief upticks in sentiment. Because average sentiment was low for an extraordinarily long time (6 months), we had a very powerful rally, from 74 to 88, over the following 6 months. This time, sentiment has been low for two months so far, certainly enough for a good rally, but not necessarily for the same killer trade. On the other hand it is somewhat better because the readings are more extreme.
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The clearing episodes are the wall of worry or the slope of hope that keep the trend going.  A smoothy trending market with a flattening slope is more dangerous for followers and better for reversal traders. So far we have such a market, but if it gets choppy, with little sell-offs in stocks and small dollar rallies, it can last longer, and if the clearing events are big enough, it would cancel this trade. There will be others.

One year later, a real head and shoulders?

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Solid deflation trade on today: bonds, yen, dollar up and everything else down. This is hard selling, so it looks like we’re completing the top of the great dead cat bounce of ’09-’10. Once stocks and commodities break May’s lows, they could fall very quickly towards the levels of winter ’09.

Here’s crude oil, continuous contract futures. This is a beautiful short right now. How quickly the phrase “demand destruction” disappeared from discourse, along with all the other reasons why $35 was a perfectly reasonable price for oil.

Relief rally coming?

We’ve got a clear divergence on RSI now, as each impulse lower over this week has been weaker than the last. This is a sign to tighten up stops or close shorts. You could make a decent case for a quick long trade here with a stop just under the lows, but on a wider time frame market risk is still very high.

Here’s a chart of SPX futures:

TD Ameritrade

Time for a bounce? (euro, stocks, copper, oil)

Here’s ES, 1-min scale:

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RSI could use one more low, ideally at a higher level than the last to increase the odds of a rally.  The Nasdaq has diverged from the S&P 500 already though, and copper has a clear upslope in RSI:

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EDIT: Here’s that higher low in RSI on ES that I was talking about and breakout from the downsloping trend: