Is a Market Top Near? ‘Smart’ Option Traders Send a Curious Message

Option trader sentiment extremes have racked up a fairly impressive track record as a contrarian indicator in the Fed’s QE bull market. No one else is talking about a major market top, so now might be an appropriate time to ‘check in’ with option traders and see what they have to say.

The QE bull market is 53 months old. The S&P 500 trades 156% higher today than at its March 2009 low, the Nasdaq-100 and Russell 2000 are up 209%.

No one else in the mainstream media is calling for a top, which is all the more reason to open this particular can of worms: Is a market top near?

One specific segment of traders has offered valuable clues about approaching market tops in the past: Option traders.

Equity Put/Call Ratio

The Equity Put/Call Ratio and SKEW Index capture the actions of the kind of option traders considered ‘dumb money’ (please don’t shoot the messenger, I didn’t come up with the term).

The Equity Put/Call Ratio shows the put volume relative to call volume. A ratio above 1 occurs when put volume exceeds call volume. The ratio is below 1 when call volume exceeds put volume.

Puts are bought to protect portfolios against declines; calls are bought as a bet on higher prices.

Since this is a contrarian indicator, high readings (0.9 or above) are usually seen near market bottoms when fear of a decline runs high. Readings around or below 0.5 reflect a dangerous extent of complacency and occur near market highs.

Last week the Put/Call Ratio fell as low as 0.55%. What does that mean?

The chart below plots the S&P 500 (NYSEArca: SPY) against the equity Put/Call Ratio (bottom of chart) and the SKEW Index (more about the SKEW in a moment).

The vertical red lines highlight readings at market tops.

When viewed in the context, the current Equity Put/Call Ratio is approaching a level that’s caused trouble for stocks in the past.
This note, which I sent to subscribers on April 16, 2010 explains exactly why: “The put/call ratio can have far reaching consequences. Protective put-buying provides a safety net for investors. If prices fall, the value of put options increases balancing any losses accrued by the portfolio. Put-protected positions do not have to be sold to curb losses. At current levels however, it seems that only a minority of equity positions are equipped with a put safety net. Once prices do fall and investors do get afraid of incurring losses, the only option is to sell. Selling results in more selling. This negative feedback loop usually results in rapidly falling prices.
This note preceded the 2010 ‘Flash Crash’ by only 13 days.
The current reading doesn’t foreshadow a Flash Crash, but a degree of caution is warranted.
SKEW Index
Like the VIX, the SKEW is calculated by the CBOE. The SKEW is far less popular than the VIX, but has delivered much better signals than the VIX lately.
The SKEW Index in essence estimates the probability of a large decline. Readings of 135 suggest a 12% chance of a decline. Readings of 115 suggest a 6% chance of a large decline (large decline is defined as a two standard deviation move).
In other words, low extremes are bullish for stocks; high extremes are bearish for stocks.
As the chart shows, the SKEW is currently in ‘bullish for stocks’ territory.
This contradicts the more or less bearish message of the Equity Put/Call Ratio.
What do we make of this?
Past experience has taught me not to bet against the SKEW. It’s prudent to allow for higher prices, perhaps after a shallow correction.
To get the best possible read on the stock market, I look at sentiment (such as options data and other sentiment/money flow gauges, seasonality and technical signals.
Right now the technical picture for the Nasdaq-100 (Nasdaq: QQQ) is fairly crisp and clear. The Nasdaq-100 is moving towards serious resistance in a well-defined trend line channel. This resistance increases the odds of a sizeable top dramatically.
Simon Maierhofer is the publisher of the Profit Radar Report.
Follow Simon on Twitter @ iSPYETF


Despite Crazy Run and New Highs, Immediate Flash Crash Unlikely

The S&P 500 is up 15% since mid-November, while the Dow rallied to never before seen highs. Something that’s just too good to be true with a wink-of-the eye implication that another Flash Crash type event is brewing. What are the odds?

What goes up must come down. We’re all aware of this fact of life. The question is, when will stocks come down and how fast and far will they come down?

There’s been some talk about another Flash Crash event, so I wanted to check out how likely another Flash Crash-like event is right now.

The price action leading up to the May 6, 2010 Flash Crash is illustrated in the first chart below.

Note that the ominous May 6 sell off happened eight trading days after the April 26 high. By the time May 6 rolled around, the S&P 500 had broken below two support levels (green lines). It also broke out of a triangle formation.

The basic recipe of events (time lag between top and waterfall decline, break below support levels) also led up to Black Monday, the fateful day that saw stocks crash in 1987.

Another clue leading up to the 2010 high was an extremely low equity put/call ratio. In a note to subscribers on April 16, I warned of the following:

“The message conveyed by the composite bullishness is unmistakably bearish. The put/call ratio in particular can have far reaching consequences. Protective put-buying provides a safety net for investors. If prices fall, the value of put options increases balancing any losses occurred by the portfolio. Put-protected positions do not have to be sold to curb losses. At current levels however, it seems that only a minority of equity positions are equipped with a put safety net. Once prices do fall and investors do get afraid of incurring losses, the only option is to sell. Selling results in more selling. This negative feedback loop usually results in rapidly falling prices.”

The equity put/call ratio is currently in neutral territory and the S&P 500 just posted a new top tick yesterday. The S&P would have to drop below initial support at 1,540 first. This would have to be followed by a break below key support.

The time lag between a new high and break below support should give investors enough time to turn defensive.

Seasonality suggests that the time for a Black Swan sell off is not (yet?) ripe. ‘Sell in May and go away’ has been a good strategy in most recent years, especially in 2010. March/April seasonality is not nearly as bearish as May.

In summary, the risk of an immediate Flash Crash type event is negligible, but that doesn’t mean that prices will only go up.

The potential for a Black Swan event and larger decline becomes greater if we zoom out of the very near-term into the mid-and longer-term timeframe.

Diversification: The Correlation Risk Trap is Real

A rising tide lifts all boats and liquidity buoys all asset classes. That’s great, but it’s not diversification. In fact, it presents a whole new type of hidden risk. Many ‘diversified’ portfolios today would fail miserably at any sort of Black Swan event.

The purpose of diversification is to reduce risk. The rationale behind diversification used to be that booming cycles of some asset classes offset the bust cycle of other assets.

Diversification made sense in an environment where some asset classes boomed while others got busted, but that isn’t the case anymore.

Today most asset classes ebb and flow at the same time, but at different degrees. This makes diversification less effective and possibly dangerous.

The first chart shows the percentage change of the following asset classes/ETFs since January 2007: S&P 500 SPDR (SPY), iShares Core Total US Bond ETF (AGG), iShares Dow Jones US Real Estate ETF (IYR), and iShares S&P GSCI Commodity ETF (GSG).

In early 2007 stocks and commodities cushioned the decline in real estate prices. In 2008 commodities lessened the sting of falling stock and real estate prices.

Then came quantitative easing and it’s become clear ever since that all asset classes swim in the same liquidity pool. Some swim faster, some slower, but all float with the tide.

Different Approach to Diversification

A less popular, more contrarian and quite possibly more effective approach to diversification involves simple under appreciated cash.

Based on Rydex funds flow data, investors are despising cash like never before. Low interest rates are partially to blame for the great cash exodus, but excessive enthusiasm for stocks is probably the main motivation.

The second chart illustrates basic support (green) and resistance (red) ranges for the S&P 500. The S&P tends to get overbought in the red and oversold in the green zone.

Over the past years, investors did well to diversify out of stocks (and other assets) into cash when prices reached the red resistance range and rotate out of cash into stocks (and other assets) in the green range.

The S&P is about to reach overbought territory and risk is rising. Raising cash may offer more risk protection than diversification.

The Profit Radar Report will provide specific trigger levels indicative of a trend change from up to down.

S&P 500, Dow Jones and Nasdaq – The Deceptive Intricacies of Popular Stock Market Indexes

On first glance the performance of the Dow Diamonds (DIA), S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) and Nasdaq QQQ (QQQ) seems to be closely correlated. This first glance assessment, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Here’s what separates the indexes from each other and why it’s important.

Index investing or ETF index investing is a popular and low-cost way to put your dollars to work, it’s like putting your portfolio on cruise control.

But driving on cruise control isn’t always the best way to get from A to B and doesn’t mean you won’t get into an accident. It merely means that you delegate speed control to your car.

Your level of commitment to your own portfolio ultimately dictates your style of investing: buy and hold via indexes or ETFs, buy and hold via actively managed mutual funds, or a more active approach to buying and selling.

Regardless of what type of investor you are, you need to be familiar with your investment vehicle(s) of choice, just like a driver needs to know the difference between automatic and stick shift.

Look Under the Hood

The S&P 500, Dow Jones, and Nasdaq are the most popular U.S. indexes and if you are an investor, odds are some of your money is invested in one or more of those three indexes.

Equity indexes are often described as a basket of stocks. Retirees or near retirees are familiar with the term nest egg and the comforting picture of many golden eggs nested up to provide a comfortable retirement.

But what if the basket of eggs is made up of one or two giant ostrich eggs that limit the space for other eggs? That wouldn’t be well diversified and one knock against the basket could scramble most of the retirement.

Hidden Ostrich Eggs

Financial ostrich eggs among major U.S. indexes are more common than you think.

IBM accounts for nearly 12% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA or Dow Jones). Technically speaking, the DJIA is an average not an index. The DJIA is price weighted, in other words only the price of a stock matters, nothing else.

IBM is the most expensive stock of the DJIA and moves the index (or average) 20x more than Bank of America (BAC) even though IBM has only about twice the market capitalization (the price per share multiplied by the amount of outstanding shares) of BAC.

The ETF that best represents the DJIA is the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF. Its ticker is DIA, that’s why it has the nickname Dow Diamonds ETF.

The Nasdaq-100 and the PowerShares Nasdaq QQQ ETF (QQQ) hide another “ostrich egg,” – Apple. Apple accounts for a whopping 20% of the Nasdaq-100 Index. If you already own Apple or don’t believe Apple is the way to play technology, you may not want to own QQQ.

The S&P 500 Index – represented by the S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) – provides more balanced diversification than the DJIA or Nasdaq-100. Apple, still the biggest player of the S&P 500, accounts for less than 5%. IBM has a weight of only 1.8%.

Considering the different composition of the three indexes, it’s remarkable how closely their day-to-day moves correlate.

The chart below provides a visual of the long-term correlation between the Dow Diamonds (DIA), S&P SPDR (SPY), and QQQs. Illustrated is the percentage change since April 1999 (when the QQQs began trading) to provide an apples to apples comparison of the three indexes.

The SPY and QQQ delivered a near identical return (+38%). The DIA is up 68% since April 1999. Of course the picture looks much different if you start measuring the return from the 2000 highs.

All three indexes and index ETFs share the commonality of having had very sizeable swings ranging from -60% to +60%. The Profit Radar Report advocates an investment approach that capitalizes on larger up moves and turns neutral or short during major down moves.

This approach can significantly enhance your return and reduce your exposure to risk.

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.

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.