Last week, we noted that the declining volatility of option prices ahead of this Wednesday’s FOMC meeting was curious, to say the least. As we dug in, we noted the broader scope of this trend towards declining option volatility. Today, I’ll show you another way of using the Commitments of Traders report to track investor sentiment and in this case, why the correspondingly bullish put/call ratio via the large speculators is probably bad news for the stock market.
We’ve discussed the peculiarities of the stock index futures’ expiration cycle in detail here before.
Commercial traders in the stock index futures behave quite differently than the Index traders or, small speculators who act as their counterparts. Collectively, this is perfectly logical. Index traders are positive feedback traders. Positive feedback traders add on to their bullish positions as the market climbs and scale out of their bullish positions as the market declines. This keeps their portfolio balanced to their available cash resources. This also places them on the side most likely to buy the highs and sell the lows. Typical trend following. Small speculators are a sentiment wild card. Their position is more price and sentiment based than anything else. The randomness of their sentiment makes their positions too yielding to lean on.
Is this the first failure of the coming weakness? We’ve been planning ahead in, “Equity Rally Waves a Caution Flag.”
We began our week putting traders on notice that the silver futures market appears to be nearing an end or, at least commercial traders feel that buying silver in the futures markets is becoming more economical than mining for their necessary supplies.
You can see the surge in commercial buying along with the technical analysis that shows where the bottom is expected in the piece we wrote for TraderPlanet, “Silver Decline Nearing an End.”
Tuesday and Thursday we focused on a fairly rare occurrence in the S&P 500 futures’ expiration. There was a dramatic amount of commercial trader selling into the S&P 500 futures’ expiration. We plotted the Commitment of Traders which report showed that commercial traders sold more than 25,000 contracts in the two weeks leading to the September contract’s expiration. We used this as an arbitrary bar to back test and found this happens less than 15% of the time and has a consistent, repeatable effect on the S&P 500 futures.
We’ve been tracking the commercial traders’ actions via the CFTC Commitment of Traders report for years. Over the years, we’ve determined that their anxiousness to buy or sell matters every bit as much as their total buying or selling in raw numbers. The current situation in the S&P 500 futures is a great example of this.
This is the third cautionary report I’ve written on the stock market in six weeks. The last time I focused this heavily on the stock market was in early 2009. Back then, I was making a point to everyone who’d lost their shirt on the way down that employing the leverage provided by stock index futures contracts would be a great way to recoup some of their lost funds when the market bounced. This week, we’ll discuss the same strategy only in reverse. I’ll explain how to use leveraged futures to protect your equity portfolio ahead of time in case you haven’t taken the appropriate actions.
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.
Back in the old days when the trading pits were full of people executing trades we had a saying, “The market always finds the orders.” This is quantified by the market through the comparison of volume and open interest levels against the price levels that generated the activity. The first rule of trend trading is that growing volume and open interest supports the market’s current direction. Last week we discussed the idea that the stock market may be establishing a late summer high with probable declines into fall from a big picture outlook. This week, we get technical.
Monday, August 5th, the S&P 500 futures traded approximately 850k contracts. Only one normal trading day in the last few years has done less volume than that. Typically, we’re looking for twice that much trading on a normal day with bigger days eclipsing the 3 million contract mark and big days reaching over 6 million like we did during the August sell off in 2011. Monday’s volume more closely matched the Christmas and New Year averages around 600k. Low volume is usually accompanied by low volatility and Monday’s trading range of was the smallest since August of last year and all the way back to April of 2011 before that. Thus, even the holidays of recent years generated more market movement.
Lower volume doesn’t always mean dying trends. There are times in a market’s trend typically, following the accumulation phase when volume will decline but open interest grows as the market begins its march in small orderly steps. Unfortunately, this is not where we stand within the equity markets’ current trend. The S&P 500 futures expire quarterly. Therefore, those who wish to maintain a position going forward have to re-establish it as their current contracts approach expiration. Those who do not may simply let their contract expire. Market participation in the futures markets is measured by open interest. Theoretically, open interest has no upside limit. As long as two new people come to the market and negotiate a trade, open interest will increase by two. One new person (long) is making a bet on higher prices going forward while the other new person (short) will profit from a falling market. Open interest in the S&P 500 futures is at its lowest levels in over a year. This means that the current market price is completely uninteresting to potential market participants.
This leads to the obvious question, “If the market is uninteresting, who’s trading?” We began to answer this question last week in our discussion of margin buying and human nature’s, “catch up” instinct. Margin buying in the stock market is borrowing money from your broker who charges you interest so that you can buy more stock than the available cash value in your account will allow. There have been four all-time highs in margin buying – 10/1987, 4/2000, 9/2007 and right now. The previous peaks all led to declines of at least one third within next 12 months. Remember the leveraged nature of the housing bubble? Leverage begets leverage…until it crumbles. Commercial traders and their large bank accounts have gladly sold all that the public wishes to purchase at these levels.
Finally, we have current technical and pattern analysis that clearly believes there is more money to be made on the expectation of downward pressure on the stock market rather than continuation of the upward trend we’ve been experiencing. One of the primary tools I utilize is the analysis of divergence. The idea is to gauge the market’s momentum by measuring various calculations against each other. The results are then plotted below the chart and we simply look for a market that has made a new high or low without a momentum confirmation. The all time highs made in the S&P 500 last week have not been confirmed by any of the popular indicators and their textbook, default settings. Meanwhile, pattern analysis shows that we have just created a broken cup with handle formation. This is a normally bullish formation gone wrong due to the currently overpopulated and leveraged speculative participation rate.
Owners of equities, mutual funds and their equivalent ETF’s should seriously take note of the warning bells. If recent history has taught us anything, we should know that six years of nowhere to new highs can be an emotionally traumatic interim. I’m not suggesting dumping the family holdings whose cost basis is now next to nothing. I am suggesting that those who’d like to sleep peacefully should look into the various ways of providing downside protection for their portfolios with advisors they trust. Insanity is doing the same thing repetitively while expecting different results. This time may be different but I’m not betting on it.
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