S&P 500 vs. Investors – Are Retail Investors Really the “Dumb Money?”

Retail investors have many choices to buy and sell stocks: Mutual funds and ETFs are just two of them. Regardless of the options, investors are often considered the “dumb money.” Is the dumb money really dumb?

Wall Street geniuses and the financial media often consider retail investors the “dumb money.” That’s ironic, because Wall Street and the media are notorious for dishing out group think advice that’s getting many of the small guys burned.

There’s plenty of data that shows that a plain index investing or index ETF investing approach (the real “dumb” buy and hold a basket of stocks approach) handily beats the returns achieved by Ivy League educated mutual fund managers that engage in actively buying and selling.

If you’ve read my articles before you know that I like to pick on Wall Street and the financial media, but today we’ll talk about the investing prowess of retail investors – the “dumb money.” Is the dumb money really dumb?

Is the Dumb Money Really Dumb?

One of the best measures of retail investor’s appetite for stock is the asset allocation poll conducted by the American Association for Individual Investors (AAII).

The chart below plots the S&P 500 Index (SPY) against investors’ portfolio allocation to stocks. Investors’ stock allocation pretty much waxes and wanes with the performance of the S&P and almost plots a mirror image of the S&P.

Unfortunately, the cliché is true; retail investors buy when stocks are high and sell when stocks are low. I believe this is due to crowd behavior and the forces of investing peer pressure rather than stupidity, as the term dumb money implies.

What else can we learn from this chart aside from the fact that retail investors tend to buy high and sell low?

The average allocation to stocks since the inception of the survey in 1987 is 60.9% (dashed red line). The S&P currently trades near a 52-month high, yet investors’ allocation to stocks is below average (60.5% as of August). This is unusual.

In fact, in the 21st century there’ve only been a couple of instances where investors’ stock allocation was below average when the S&P was near a 3+ year high. Those instances are marked with a red arrow. In August 2006 stocks went on to rally. In March 2012 stocks declined first and rallied later.

Lessons Learned

The lesson for investors is A) not to follow the crowd and B) not to follow Wall Street or the financial media.

The mission of the Profit Radar Report is to keep investors on the right side of the trade. A composition of indicators used identified the March 2009 and October 2011 lows as investable lows and got investors out of stocks at the 2010, 2011, and 2012 highs.

Simon Maierhofer shares his market analysis and points out high probability, low risk buy/sell recommendations via the Profit Radar Report. Click here for a free trial to Simon’s Profit Radar Report.

The Stock Market Has Spoken – Even Government’s Biggest Bailout Success is a Failure

Fact and fiction are often separated by nothing more than a thin line. Some consider GM as a government bailout success story and the performance of the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR (XLY) seems to suggest that this claim is legit. What does the final authority – the stock market – say?

General Motors is once again number one in car sales worldwide. For this and other reasons GM is often heralded as the biggest success story of government bailouts. Is that really so?

According to a September 23, 2010 Wall Street Journal article, the U.S. must sell GM shares at $133.78 to fully recoup the $49.5 billion it spent to rescue the auto maker. The United States owns about one third of General Motors.

Shares of General Motors are currently trading at $22.50, 35% below its IPO price. GM saw a 41% profit decline in the last quarter. Production for the Chevy Volt, anointed to be the car maker’s financial savior a couple years ago, is being suspended due to poor sales.

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

In an effort to make GM cars more attractive, GM is making it easier to own its product. How? With “attractive” loans, otherwise known as subprime loans.

According to an auto report published by Standard & Poor’s, the weighted average FICO scores for GM owners is only 579. 78% of all GM loans are for more than 5-years and the average loan-to-value on new cars is 110% (the average loan-to-value on used cars is 127%).

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Isn’t that what contributed to GM’s bankruptcy in 2009? Isn’t that what caused the real estate collapse in 2005?

Consumer Anomalies

The Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR (XLY) is trading at an all-time high while consumer confidence shows little confidence.

It’s ironic that the consumer discretionary sector trades at all-time highs even though consumers didn’t get bailed out. The recipient of literally tons of bailout money on the other hand, the financial sector represented by the Financial Select Sector SPDR (XLF), trades 60% below its all-time high.

What’s the moral of the story?

1) The government’s definition of success is likely different from the common sense definition of success.

2) The government can give money to the financial sector. Financial conglomerates turn around and buy consumer discretionary stocks and even though American’s are hurting it looks like consumers are buying. It’s a win/win scenario for everyone but the consumer.
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Investors Now Embrace the Most Hated Stock Rally Ever – Is it Time to Bet on Short ETFs?

After a 12% rally investors are starting to buy into the S&P 500 and other indexes again. At the same time technical resistance is getting stiffer and seasonality is turning bearish. Is it time to buck the trend and start nibbling on short/inverse ETFs?

PIMCO’s king of bond funds, Bill Gross, joined the “stocks are dead’ club in late July and CNBC calls the latest rise in stocks the “most hated stock rally in history.”

At the June 4 low (1,267 for the S&P 500) investors and investment advisors hated stocks like fish hate hooks. Despite (actually because of) this negativity stocks keep on keeping on and June 4th turned out to be the second best buying opportunity of the year (see charts below).

But nothing is as persuasive as rising prices, and 12% into the rally investors are starting to embrace the idea of continually rising stocks. The crowd is generally late to the party (thus the term “dumb money”) and this time may be no different.

Investor sentiment is an incredibly potent contrarian indicator. Unfortunately, sentiment-based signals in recent months have been murky, but are starting to make sense again.

Murky Doesn’t Have to be Bad

Murky is not always bad though. The following is what I mean by murky during this summer and how the sentiment picture is starting to clear up.

The Profit Radar Report (PRR) continually monitors various investor sentiment measures, which includes the Investors Intelligence (II) and American Association for Individual Investors (AAII) polls as well as the Equity Put/Call Ratio and VIX.

The Sentiment Picture below was published by the PRR on July 20, 2012. Quite frankly it was one of the oddest sentiment constellations I’ve ever seen. The VIX was near a 60-month low parallel to a multi-month pessimistic reading of the AAII poll.

This just didn’t make sense and the simple conclusion was that there is no high probability trading opportunity.

Six weeks and several head fakes later the S&P 500 Index (SPY) is trading a measly 30 points higher than it did on July 20, and even in hindsight we know that there was no high probability trade.

Current Sentiment Picture

The second chart reflects the change of sentiment of investment advisors (II) and retail investors (AAII) since July 20. There’s no excessive bullishness, but rising prices are starting to resonate with investors.

Sentiment alone doesn’t tell us how high stocks may rally or if they are ready to crack right now. When we expand our horizon to include seasonality and technicals we see that September (especially starting after Labor Day) sports a bearish seasonal bias and that there’s strong resistance at S&P 1,425 – 1,440.

There is little reason for investors to own stocks right now. Aggressive investors may choose to pick up some short or even leveraged short ETFs at higher prices.

The Short S&P 500 ProShares (SH) and UltraShort S&P 500 ProShares (SDS) are two inverse ETF options that increase in value when the S&P slumps.

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Apple Bullies the Nasdaq and S&P 500 But May Soon Disappoint Investors

The S&P 500, Nasdaq-100 and Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF are rallying to new multi-year recovery highs spurred by Apple’s record setting performance. As Apple goes, so goes the market, so what’s next for Apple?

Monday, August 20, 2012 is the day when Apple became the most valuable publicly traded company ever. That day the stock closed at $665.15 a share, giving it a market capitalization of $623.52 billion.

The previous record was set by Microsoft in 1999 when it was valued at $616.34 billion.

Apple is most certainly the biggest fish in the pond. How big? Apple accounts for 4.73% of the S&P 500 Index tracked by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY). The closest second is Exxon Mobil with a weighting of 3.22%.

All by itself, Apple’s share price matters almost as much as that of IBM, Microsoft and General Electric combined. While Apple dominates the S&P 500, it outright bullies the Nasdaq-100.

At $665 a share Apple controls 19.65% of the Nasdaq-100 and the ETF that tracks this index, the PowerShares QQQ (QQQ). Even more lopsided is AAPL’s share in the Technology Sector SPDR ETF (XLK), where it accounts for 20%.

Apple is so big that when Apple sneezes the U.S. stock market gets a cold. So how is Apple’s health?

Fundamental Analysis – New iPhone, New iPad … New Highs?

Consumers and investors are highly anticipating the new iPhone 5, the new iPad mini and Apple TV. With the holiday season coming up there are plenty of reasons to expect new all-time highs and record valuations for AAPL.

Apple trades at only 13 times earnings and many analysts consider Apple stock cheap.

Technical Analysis – Strong Resistance in Sight

The chart below shows AAPL on a log scale since 2000. I have shown the chart before, most recently in the July 22 Profit Radar Report, which stated that: “The upper red resistance channel will be around 660 later this week. A final push to kiss this trend line good bye would provide a beautiful technical picture and a solid sell signal.”

On Tuesday, August 21, the upper trend line resistance is at 679. Shares weren’t quite able to touch the line, which allows for new highs in the coming days.

If Apple shares follow the path of seasonal patterns in election years, we should see a top in Apple in late August followed by another seasonal high in November/December.

 

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The Dow Jones – Close to a Once-in-a-Lifetime Signal?

The Dow Jones sports perhaps the most unique constellation of our generation. Constellations don’t make money, buy or sell signals do. The Dow’s constellation may double as a signal and is of importance for investors.

Since the year 2000 we’ve seen the tail end of a technology boom without parallel, the lost decade, the biggest decline and recession since the Great Depression, record monetary intervention and the strongest rally since the Great Depression.

Bulls and Bears can probably agree that we live in unique times. A look at a long-term chart (with long-term I mean going back all the way to 1896) of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA – corresponding ETF: Dow Diamonds: DIA) shows just how unique.

The chart below shows the Dow Jones in a monthly log scale. Here are the most salient points:

·      There are two long-term trend channels (dotted grey lines). One stretches from 1903 as far as 1954. The other one starts in 1937 and is still active today.

·      The 50 and 200-month moving average (blue and red line) are on track to cross each other for the first time since the Great Depression.

I find the Dow’s interaction with its trend channel very intriguing. The 1903 – 1954 channel offered support and resistance at no less than seven major turning points.

Most notable is sequence of trend line interaction that occurred following the bust of the 1929 bubble. The Dow sliced back below the upper channel line and continued tumbling below the lower channel line.

This led to a strong rally that once again tested the upper channel line (red arrow). The same thing is happening now. The strong post 2009 rally has lifted the Dow high enough to test trend channel resistance.

In fact, the Dow has been flirting with this upper channel line off and on since late 2010, but hasn’t been able to stay above it for long. Channel resistance is currently around 13,200.

What does this unique constellation mean for investors? Since we are looking at a multi-decade trend line, we can’t use it as a short-term investment tool or signal.

Long-term investors should closely watch the Dow 13,200 range. Based on the 1938 analogy, the likely current is a counter trend and long-term investors should use current prices to unload equities and nibble on short positions.

Sentiment Picture – Stocks are Not Ripe for a Prolonged Decline

Sentiment readings have sent conflicting messages. The VIX is near danger levels for the S&P 500 while the AAII crowd is almost record bearish (which is bullish for stocks). Here’s the current sentiment picture and what to make of it.

Investor sentiment is closely related to money flow and therefore an important indicator. How is sentiment related to money/cash flow overall liquidity?

Investor sentiment tells us how investors feel about stocks. If they are bullish, we assume that they own stocks. If bullishness reaches an extreme, we know there’s not much more cash left for buying.

If investors are bearish we assume they are sitting on a mountain of cash. The cash will go to work eventually and drive stocks up.

There are different ways to measure investor sentiment.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) uses S&P 500 index options and projects the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility. Readings around 16 or below are indicative of investor complacency and tend to result in an up tick of volatility and lower stock prices.

The Equity Put/Call Ratio represents a proportion between all put and call options purchased on any given day. A low put/call ratio means that investors are buying more calls than puts. This is a reflection of bullish sentiment; therefore readings around 0.6 tend to coincide with market tops.

A high put/call ratio means that investors are buying more puts than calls. This is indicative of fear. Readings of 0.9 tend to occur at the end of down trends.

The sentiment survey conducted by the American Association for Individual Investors (AAII) reflects how individual investors feel about stocks: bullish, bearish or neutral.

Investors Intelligence (II) polls investment advisors and newsletter writers. Their opinions are categorized as bullish, bearish and correction.

There are other sentiment and cash flow measures, but those four offer a balanced few of sentiment.

The Profit Radar Report always monitors sentiment and publishes a detailed sentiment report at least once a month. The chart below was published (available to subscribers only) on July 20, 2012.

The VIX was trading below 16 (bearish for stocks) while AAII investors were extremely bearish (bullish for stocks). II investment advisors on the other hand were becoming more bullish as the AAII crowd turned bearish.

Unfortunately, sentiment did not provide a clear signal then (it still doesn’t), but it showed a) that stocks may not be able to decline for good and b) that there was no high probability trade set up. This prevented investors from making trades they might regret afterwards. Based purely on sentiment, choppy market action may continue.

 

What A Difference Would QE3 Have Made?

“No QE3 for you” the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday. The market showed it’s disappointment. What a difference would QE3 have made?

“Central bank interventions are like sausages. They taste better if you don’t know what’s in them.” – Some German guy who writes a Newsletter.

The Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have cooked up a smorgasbord of ‘financial sausages’ since the 2007 bust. Stuffed in appealing high performance casings, the Fed was able to sell all kinds of smelly sub-par trimmings (QE1, QE2, etc.) as prime beef.

Few people cared because stocks were up and the sausages looked good. After a few cases of financial food poisoning however, people are starting to wonder what the Fed and ECB have been mixing in their QE sausages.

Still, for some “odd” reason Wall Street is begging for more of the same. This week the Fed played hardball and didn’t allow more than a sniff of the next sausage. That’ll have to do for now.

No Accountability to a Higher Authority

The chart below emulates the label central banks have been putting on their faulty products. The slogan is something like this: “Financial sausage consumption increases wealth.” At first glance, who could argue? QE1 resulted in higher stock prices, so did QE2 and LTRO I + II. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA) trades only 9% lower today than 58 months ago at its all-time high.

But the DJIA is not the only measure that matters. People can’t eat DJIA, and the kind of indicators that measure prosperity (or lack thereof) of average American’s look pretty dismal.

Below is the one chart that shows what QE can and cannot do and who QE does and doesn’t benefit (hint: Wall Street bankers still get to celebrate their bonuses at Ruth’s Chris).

2007 vs. 2012

The Dow Jones today is only 9% below it’s 2007 peak reading.

Unemployment is about 85% higher today than in 2007.

U.S. debt (based on Treasury issuance) has roughly doubled since 2007 and is about 4 times higher than in 1995.

Starting in 2008, the U.S. has consistently been running monthly deficits.

The number of Americans on food stamps is almost twice as high as in 2007.

The balance sheet of the European Central Bank has ballooned by about 100%.

The Dow measured in the currency that’s hardest to manipulate (gold) is lower today than in 2007.

Election Year “Bonus”

This year is an election year. The incumbent party will do what it takes to stay in the drivers seat and the Fed (and ECB) won’t hesitate to resuscitate.

Is it money well spent? Wall Street will tell you yes. 46 million Americans on food stamps will beg to differ. Wall Street feasts on prime rib while the average Joe is stuck with the “Fed’s sausage.” No food stamps needed.

Is The S&P Carving Out a Super-Sized Major Top?

Are stocks in the late stages of a bull market rally, in a bear market rally, rolling over, or getting ready for another leg up? Regardless of the actual state, the conclusion and outlook seems to be basically the same.

Are we in a bull market, bear market, or go nowhere market? I guess we can all agree that we are in a rigged market, but that doesn’t answer the question. A bit more research may help though.

According to Lowry’s, bull markets historically last an average of 39 months. Assuming that the March 2009 low at S&P 666 was the beginning of a new bull market, it was 37 months old at its April high of 1,422. If that bull is still alive, it’s 40 months old today. The bull is old and gray (perhaps already bald).

Although the S&P gained 113% from March 2009 – April 2012, there’s one problem with categorizing the rally from the March 2009 low as a bull market.

Since 1940 no bull market has ever experienced more than one decline of 10% or more. The alleged post 2009 bull saw two major declines. One in 2010 (-17%) and another in 2011 (-21%). Make it three (-11% from April – June 2012) if you consider the bull is still alive.

Statistically (using the commonly accepted 20% decline equals bear market rule) the 2011 decline was actually deep enough to usher in a new bear market, but we know that’s nonsense because the S&P, Dow Jones, Nasdaq and other broad indexes completely recovered their losses.

A Less Confusing Alternative

How about this for an explanation? A new bear market started in 2007 and has been in force ever since. All the rallies we’ve seen since then have been counter trend or bear market rallies.

Obviously, this 3-year rally is not your average garden-variety rally either. In hindsight, the character of seemingly ever rising prices makes sense. After all, the world’s central banks have spent trillions of dollars propping up stocks.

In the middle of May I wrote about the timing component of the topping process and noted the time it took to carve out the 2007 top (about 9 months) and the 2011 top (about 6 months). Based purely on timing, stocks shouldn’t have been ready to fall hard without looking back in May.

Today the picture looks a bit different. Stocks popped, topped, and dropped but 5 months later the S&P 500 (SPY) is still hanging around in the mid 1,300s. Based on timing, selling pressure could accelerate from now on.

Chart Lessons

The chart below frames the 2009 and 2011 topping processes and highlights the 17%, 21% (and 11%) “bull market” declines. But there’s much more to this chart.

The October 2007 – March 2009 decline erased 909 S&P points within 18 months (50.5 point per month). The ensuing rally is now 40 months old but has recovered only 755 points (19 points per month).

Declines have been swift and sudden, while rallies have been drawn out and gooey with much sideways churning in between.

Regardless of whether the rally from the March 2009 lows is considered a new bull market or a bear market rally, it is already over or close to being over.

Odds are when the bear comes back it will be fast and furious once again.