Trading’s Gut Check

Actively participating in the markets comes with the understanding that the trader’s gut will be checked frequently and deeply. The primary cause of this is the trader’s degree of certainty in an uncertain world. It’s been proven over and over again that once an individual feels that they have enough information to make a decision, they will. Additional information provided after the fact typically raises the degree of certainty that the correct decision was made, rather than raising the degree of accuracy. So, I sit in front of the Federal Reserve Board’s announcement this afternoon involved up to my eyeballs in the US Dollar, Euro currency, 10-year Treasury Notes and the Russell 2000 stock index.

Each one of these positions is the result of mechanical trading programs that I’ve developed, tested and traded. Therefore, there are no arbitrary decisions or adjustments to be made. This leaves me in front of the screens sitting on pins and needles waiting for a range of possibilities to materialize. Given my experience with the markets, I expect the outcome to be somewhere in the middle. Rarely does it turn out one sided either positively or, negatively.

Let’s review the possible outcomes and the gut wrenching turmoil that comes with sitting on several large positions as I try to close out the books for 2013. My oldest position on the books is short the Euro FX. I stand to profit if the Euro currency weakens against the US Dollar. I’m short the market near the top of its range based on my research into the Commitment of Traders Reports. I know that there’s about a 60% chance the Euro will back off these highs by about a penny and a half. However, the market’s continuing consolidation near these highs puts me in a position where I could be stopped out of the market with a loss even before the Fed announces its decision this afternoon. The market’s proximity to my stop loss order contributes greatly to my angst.

The opposing position to the Euro is my long US Dollar Index position. Again, I’m long the US Dollar Index against a basket of currencies, which is dominated by the Euro. If the Fed suggests that they will begin to taper quickly, the Dollar should rally. Pulling stimulus out of the economy will place fewer Dollars in future circulation thus, increasing the value of the Dollars already in the market. The Dollar would rally and the Euro would fall. Both of my currency positions would be profitable.

Tapering by the Fed would most likely crush my 10-year Note position. Frankly, the discretionary trader in me can create the strongest case for owning 10-year Notes and betting against taper talk. Based on my analysis of the commercial traders in the 10-year Note I fully expect any decline in Treasury prices to be short lived. Commercial traders have accumulated their largest net long position in the 10-year Note since April of 2005. Commercial traders have dominated the big moves in the Treasuries with uncanny accuracy. If they’re right about no taper talk this afternoon, Treasuries will rally substantially and I’ll profit from my position….while losing on my currency trades.

This leads to my final position. I use a pretty fancy program for developing my day trading systems. Whereas my swing-trading program is based on the fundamental data inferred from the collective positions of the markets’ participants, my day trading programs are strictly technical. Knowing that the markets will unfailingly put a man to the test, it should come as no surprise that my day trading programs now have me long two units of the Russell 2000 stock index heading into this afternoon’s announcement. Furthermore, while I have some expectations of how the currencies and Treasuries will react to the Fed’s decision, the stock market’s reaction is far less predictable. If the Fed tapers, the stock market may rally further based on the assumption of a strong economy leading to further gains. However, the collective reaction could very well be violently lower as tapering could signal the end of the free money that many believe has fueled the rally to this point.

Discretionary traders face conflicting data like this all of the time and pick and choose which markets they’re in and when they’re in them. Systematic traders follow the signals generated by their programs without question. The cruelest aspect of trading is the market’s uncanny ability to seek out a traders’ weak spot and twist agony’s knife. I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years and the trepidation of a pending report never goes away. This is where the classic line, “Plan your trade. Trade your plan” has the most value. Remember, additional information acquired after the fact doesn’t increase the odds of being right, it simply tricks the mind into greater certainty of the existing thought pattern.

Equity Market’s Race to the Top

The equity markets have just been rip roaring strong. Companies like FedEx, Google, Morgan Stanley, Walt Disney and Boeing have all gained more than 40% this year. The equity markets have made new all time highs, eclipsing the pre-crash highs from 2007 with hardly a shudder and soldiering on past the tech bubble highs of 2000. Recently, the technical analysts at Merrill Lynch came up with a four-year target of 2300 in the S&P 500. This is based on their analysis of the long-term pattern that was triggered by the new highs. The S&P 500 has climbed more than 150% since March of 2009. While I’m the first to admit that I’ve left a lot of money on the table by not sticking with the long side of equities, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there’s always another trade. Therefore, I will not be committing new money to the long side of the equity market at these levels in 2014.

The way I see it, there are two opposing forces at work here. First, we have the Federal Reserve Board that keeps pumping money into our economy. The Fed continues its easy money policies indefinitely. There are seven voting members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Six of them have been broadly categorized as dovish, in favor of easy money/stimulus. There are four more rotating members from the national Federal Reserve Banks. This is where things may get a bit interesting. Three of the rotating members gaining a vote in 2014 are centrist to hawkish. While the doves are still clearly in control, especially with Janet Yellen expected to assume the Presidency of the Board, the dialogue in the minutes of their meetings could change substantially.

The easy money policies have favored the equity markets in a couple of different ways. The artificially depressed interest rates have forced investors to accept more risk for returns that used to be outside the scope of retiree investing. The stretch for yield has driven a boom in riskier corporate bonds as investors move down the ladder in an attempt to maintain their portfolio’s value. This has caused a surge in lower credit bond prices reminiscent of the sub prime mortgage debacle of the mid 2000’s.  Investors’ lack of satisfaction with the governmentally manipulated yield curve has led them to seek returns in the stock market specifically, through high yield investments like Real Estate Investment Trusts and utilities. What has gone unnoticed is the disappearance of nearly half of the companies listed on U.S. exchanges. Therefore, there’s more money than ever chasing a smaller number of stocks in the last 25 years.

Secondly, we have reached valuations that bode poorly for long term investing. Research abounds on the usefulness of long-term valuation models. Very simply, expecting these returns to continue through long-term investment at these valuations would set an historical precedence. Anything can happen in the world of markets but the odds clearly show that bull markets do not begin when the P/E ratio of the S&P 500 is above 15.  The S&P 500’s P/E ratio currently stands above 19 and Nobel Prize winning Yale economist Robert Schiller’s cyclically adjusted price earnings (CAPE) ratio is over 25. Both of these will continue higher as long as the equity markets continue to climb. Neither is sounding the, “Everyone to cash,” alarm bell. Their history simply suggests that it would be foolish to expect these multiples to continue to climb and climbing P/E ratios are necessary for stock market growth.

Closing in on 2014 has left many money managers whose performance is benchmarked against index averages scrambling to catch up. There are two ways a manager can do this. First, wait for a sell off and try to buy in at a discount. This is part of the reason that the weakness in July, August and October was so quickly recovered. Second, apply leverage so that the manager’s fund gains more than $1 for every $1 the market moves. Leverage seems to be the move of choice. This year has seen a huge inflow into equity mutual funds, which have to be benchmarked to their index. By comparison, each of the last two years saw net equity mutual fund outflows. The added influx of cash has led investment managers into the futures markets, specifically the S&P 500 futures. The most recent Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Commitment of Traders report shows a 10% growth in leveraged longs as well as a 5% decline in leveraged shorts. Finally, margin debt on the stock exchange itself has also reached an all time high.

The case I’ve laid out says nothing about where we’re going. Liken this presentation to a new home survey. The place has curb appeal. The neighborhood is growing. The government is supporting its growth. Each new home sells for more than the last. What could be wrong with buying now? Well, the inspector may inform you that everything you believe to be true is resting on a shaky foundation. The house may stand for years or, not. Personally, I’d rather be in on the ground floor than looking for a window to jump out of having climbed in at the top.