The equity markets have been on a volatility rollercoaster while participants continue to search for the Holy Grail of indicators – in hopes of determining whether the next large move in the markets is upwards or downwards. Although markets may be efficient in the long-run, in the short-run, financial markets are hostage to fear and greed, and these emotions have been on full display. In the last two weeks alone, we have witnessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSE:DIA) catapult skyward over +1,200 points, while just a few weeks earlier the Dow cratered about -800 points in a five day period. With fresh fears of a European banking collapse, a global recession, and an uncertain election in the U.S. approaching, investors are grasping for clues as they read the indicator tea leaves to better position their portfolios. Some of these contrarian sentiment indicators can be helpful to your portfolio, if used properly, however interpreting many of the sentiment indicators is as useful as reading tea leaves is for picking winning lotto numbers.
The Art of Tea Leave Reading
The premise behind contrarian investing is fairly simple – if you follow the herd, you will be led to the slaughterhouse. There is a tendency for investors to succumb to short-termism and act on their emotions rather than reason. The pendulum of investment emotions continually swings back and forth between fear and greed, and many of these indicators are designed with the goal of capturing emotion extremes.
The concept of mass hysteria is nothing new. Back in 1841, Charles Mackay published a book entitled, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which Mackay explores the psychology of crowds and mass mania through centuries of history, including the infamous Dutch Tulip Mania of the early 1600s.
Out of sympathy for your eyeballs, I will not conduct an in-depth review of all the contrarian indicators, but here is brief sampling:
Sentiment Surveys: The American Association of Individual Investors releases weekly survey results from its membership. With the recent stock market bounce, bullish sentiment has escalated up near historic averages (39.8% bullish), yet the bears still remain skeptical – more than 6% higher than normal (36.4% bearish). A different survey, conducted by Investors Intelligence, called the Advisors Sentiment Index, surveys authors of various stock advice newsletters. The index showed bearish sentiment reaching 46.3%, the highest negative reading since the 2008-2009 bear market low. These data can provide some insights, but as you can probably gather, these surveys are also very subjective and often conflicting.
Put-Call Ratio: This is a widely used ratio that measures the trading volume of bearish put options to bullish call options and is used to gauge the overall mood of the market. When investors are fearful and believe prices will go lower, the ratio of puts to calls escalates. At historically high levels (see chart below), this ratio usually indicates a bottoming process in the market.
Volatility Index (VIX): The VIX indicator or “Fear Gauge” calculates inputs from various call and put options to create an approximation of the S&P 500 index implied volatility for the next 30 days. Put simply, when fear is high, the price of insurance catapults upwards and the VIX moves higher. Over the last 25 years a VIX reading of 44 or higher has only been reached nine times (source: Don Hays), so as you can see from the chart below, the recent market rally has coincided with the short-term peak in the VIX.
Strategist Sentiment: If you’re looking for a contrarian call to payoff, I wouldn’t hold your breath by waiting for bearish strategist sentiment to kick-in. Barry Ritholtz at the Big Picture got it right when he summarized Barron’s bullish strategist outlook by saying, “File this one under Duh!” Like most Wall Street and asset management firms, strategists have an inherent conflict of interest to provide a rosy outlook. For what it’s worth, the market is up slightly since the Barron’s strategist outlook was published last month.
Short Interest: The higher the amount of shares shorted, the larger the pent-up demand to buy shares becomes in the future. Extremely high levels of short interest tend to coincide with price bottoms because as prices begin to move higher, holders of short positions often feel “squeezed” to buy shares and push prices higher. According to SmartMoney.com, hedge fund managers own the lowest percentage of stocks (45%) since March 2009 market price bottom. Research from Data Explorer also suggests that sentiment is severely negative – the highest short interest level experienced since mid-2009.
Fund Flow Data: The direction of investment dollars flowing in and out of mutual funds can provide some perspective on the psychology of the masses. Recent data coming from the Investment Company Institute shows that -$63.6 billion has flowed out of all equity funds in 2011, while +$81.7 billion has flowed into bond funds. Suffice it to say, investor nervousness has made stocks as about as popular as the approval ratings of Congress.
When it comes to sentiment indicators, I believe actions speak much louder than words. To the extent I actually do track some of these indicators, I pay much less attention to those indicators based on opinions, surveys, and technical analysis data.. Most of my concentration is centered on those indicators explaining actual measurable investor behavior (i.e., Put-Call, VIX, Short Interest, Fund Flow, and other action-oriented trading metrics).
As we know from filtering through the avalanche of daily news data, the world can obviously become a much worse place (i.e., Greece, eurozone collapse, double-dip, inflation, banking collapse, muni defaults, widening CDS spreads, etc,). If you believe the world is on the cusp of ending and/or you do not believe investors are sufficiently bearish, I encourage you to build your bunker stuffed with gold, and/or join the nearest local Occupy Wall Street chapter. If, however, you are looking to sharpen the returns on your portfolio and are thirsty for some emotional answers, pour yourself a cup of tea and pore over some sentiment indicators.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, or any other security referenced in this article.