Bubbles

If you’re in the investment biz long enough, you’ll inevitably find yourselves searching for profitable ideas when an asset class is experiencing a bubble. The term “bubble” is a heavily overused term in the financial media and among professional investors. Any large price increase over a short time period, such as a 50% gain over a year, prompts a few writers, analysts or professional investors to describe the runup as a bubble. These bearish folks are typically using the term loosely without a nuanced evaluation to determine if prices have simply reflected new highly positive information.

Additionally, how many times have we heard “bubble” used for assets that have experienced long-term, secular bull markets, such as U.S. or Japanese government bonds, when current prices are not experiencing anything like the bubble phenomenon? Then other folks use the term in a variety of ways to describe investor group think, such as “hedge funds are the next investment bubble,” or “there’s currently a bubble in investor complacency.”

I’m specifically interested in those moments in time, which can last months or even years, when price-insensitive buyers become ever more attracted to rapidly rising prices, thus bidding an asset class price way above fair value. It’s a time when pricing is determined by the one-way thinking associated with the “madness of crowds,” rather than the normal, efficient markets “wisdom of crowds” effect. The massive number of performance chasers overwhelms the financial resources of professional investors and traders attempting to push prices back to fair value by shorting and selling the asset class.

Even though the gap between price and fair value grows ever larger, uncertainty about when the market will top and how much further the price will rise creates a situation where the risk-reward of shorting the asset class becomes very unattractive. The arbs, who are usually pushing prices back to fair value, then step away, or perhaps even join the crowd. Other opportunistic professional investors join the crowd by creating new products and/or new firms to exploit the attractive optionality associated with easy money raising and rapidly rising prices.

Bubbles have occurred about once a generation throughout human history, as new investors enter the market with no experience with how bubbles eventually burst. Examples of the large bubbles include the NASDAQ bubble in the late 1990s and the Japanese stock market bubble in the late 1980s. The current bitcoin and cryptocurrency craze has all the attributes of a bubble.

Many Rapid Price Increases Are Not Bubbles

Just because an asset class has a large and rapid price run doesn’t mean it’s mispriced. One or two U.S. industry groups often have a yearly gain of greater than 50%. Most often, prices have increased to reflect unexpected improved future earnings. Also, most bull market tops don’t have a bubble associated with prices. The topping process is more drawn out as the collective wisdom is formed by market players generally using reasonable judgment of future prospects. Prices ultimately collapse when investors sense an emerging bear market or recession.

Eugene Fama, the Nobel-Prize-winning champion of the efficient markets view, believes there is no such thing as bubbles. Bubbles are only known after the fact, when there’s been a large collapse. Careful analysis of large price increases shows that many, perhaps even half, are never followed by a collapse.1 Simple price formulas for defining a bubble, even the approach used by the famous bubble studiers GMO,2,3 are not enough. We need more information. (more…)

Don’t Bet on the Active Manager Revival

The massive migration of assets from actively managed equity funds to index funds has attracted a lot of attention lately.1-6 The discussion varies, including worries about the future of active managers, concerns about market efficiency, and claims that active managers are about to outperform, and a variety of social impacts caused by this trend.

The flow of assets among U.S. equities is massive and may be a sea-change inflection point in the financial markets. The transition toward indexing has accelerated in the U.S. as more and more professional investment advisors have finally acknowledged the failure of active management. New Department of Labor fiduciary rules also make it more difficult for investment advisors to recommend active managers without exposing themselves to potential litigation risk. Figure 1 from a recent Wall Street Journal article, using data from Morningstar, shows the accelerating trend.1 Similar trends are occurring more slowly among bond funds and international equity funds.

Figure 1.

Many articles, mostly wishful thinking from those selling active stock picking, suggest the “performance pendulum” will eventually swing back in favor of active managers outperforming. John Rogers, a highly respected portfolio manager for the Ariel Funds, recently captured active stock pickers’ common sentiment about active versus passive management.

“This is going to be the decade for stock pickers. … It’s been a long trend we’ve gone through where active managers have underperformed. We know in 30 years of doing this … we have gone through these waves. Things become very popular, very hot and everyone follows that concept. What’s worked yesterday gets everyone excited and people give up on what’s not working and often that’s where the opportunities are.” 6

Barron’s seems to be hot on this idea, with multiple articles suggesting active stock picking will make a comeback.7,8 Perhaps they’re nostalgic for the investing world of the 1980s and 1990s when stock pickers were the investment stars.

A much talked about research piece out of Sanford Bernstein, titled “The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing is Worse Than Marxism”, lamented a world where indexing dominated the markets.4 Figure 2 shows the parabolic rise in the number of indices used to track various slices of the markets. (more…)

Efficient Markets Hypothesis Foundations

iStock_000044400072_FullIn a previous blog I discussed the efficient market hypothesis (EMH), which can be summed up with the following statement by recent Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama.

An efficient capital market is one in which security prices fully reflect all available information.1

I presented the following three arguments in favor of pragmatically adopting an efficient markets view when investing.

  • The logic of hyper-competition in a fair trading arena – any trading edge will quickly attract competition and be arbitraged away.
  • The mathematical fact that investors as a whole cannot beat the market, and since professional investors manage the majority of assets, aggregate professional alpha must be close to zero before fees.
  • While acknowledging that there can be long-term skilled winners, the empirical evidence suggests it’s very difficult to distinguish luck and skill when evaluating past performance, even when judging your own trading ability.

In this blog I’ll go one level deeper to discuss the fundamental foundations for an efficient market. Why review these? Mainly to develop a better understanding of “the enemy,” and to identify weaknesses in the EMH assumptions that may lead to trading edges. Rather than argue about whether a market is efficient, let’s search for nuanced moments in time and securities-space when the EMH assumptions may not hold – leading to an exploitable trading edge for us. (more…)

Efficient Markets

iStock_000038631732_XSmallThe efficient market hypothesis (EMH) can be summed up with the following statement:

An efficient capital market is one in which security prices fully reflect all available information.1

What does this statement mean? It implies that all information that is commonly used to make investment and trading decisions is already accounted for, without bias, in current prices. It implies that technical and fundamental analysis have no value in beating the market. It implies that luck is the primary factor in determining investment manager winners and losers. It implies that buying and holding the market over the long term is the most logical approach to participating in the markets.

The EMH can never be proven either empirically or mathematically. However, this is one economic idealization that is actually pretty useful in practice. There is an enormous amount of academic evidence that is consistent with the EMH. The efficient markets logic is also very compelling. As a trader, we need to acknowledge that dealing with the mechanisms that make markets efficient is part of the game.

Trading books never talk about efficient markets or its implications. If they do, it’s done quickly and disparagingly. Why is that? (more…)

Finding an Edge 

findingedge

What is the goal of trading and active portfolio management? It’s not just to make money or to get rich. The goal is to generate wealth for yourself and/or your clients at an above-average risk-adjusted return.

With respect to trading and investing, there are two major markets used for wealth creation – the stock market and the bond market. Each market represents an arena where thousands, or even millions, of competitors battle to enhance returns.

Figure 1 shows the annualized returns for U.S. stocks, bonds, T-bills (as a benchmark for cash) and inflation since 1926.1 The annualized standard deviation of returns is used as a measure of risk (there are many other risk measures to choose from).

(more…)