Friday, February 27, 2009

China's Golden Rule?

Recently there has been a cacophony of calls for stockholders and bond holders of zombie financials to take their lumps as part of an overall reorganization plan. Instead of injecting more government money so that these institutions could maintain their zombie status. John Hussman’s comments are a good example of this school of thought [emphasis mine]:

Take a look at Citibank's balance sheet as of the third quarter of 2008. The company had about $2 trillion in assets, versus about $132 billion in shareholder equity, for a gross leverage ratio of about 16-to-1. That's not a comfortable figure, because it indicates that a decline of about 6% in those assets would wipe out Citibank's equity and make the bank technically insolvent. Unfortunately, we saw credit default spreads screaming higher last week, while the bank's stock dropped below $2 a share, so evidently the market is deeply concerned about the possible immediacy of that outcome.

But keep looking at the liability side of Citibank's balance sheet. There is over $360 billion in long-term debt to the company's bondholders, and another $200 billion in shorter term borrowings. None of that is customer money. That puts the total capital available to absorb losses at $132 + $360 + $200 = $692 billion, which is about 35% of the $2 trillion in assets carried by Citibank. That's a huge cushion for customers, who are unlikely to lose even if Citibank becomes insolvent. Should that occur, the proper response of government will not be to defend Citi's bondholders at taxpayer expense, but rather, to take Citi into receivership, wipe out the shareholders and most of the bondholders, and sell the assets along with the liabilities to customers to another institution…

Simply put, institutions that are insolvent and would only avoid continued insolvency by large and continued infusions of taxpayer funds should be allowed to “fail” through the process of government receivership. It is wrong to squander the taxes of ordinary citizens and put a burden of indebtedness on our children in order to protect the bondholders of careless and poorly-managed financial institutions.
Ahhh, if economic policy is only so simple.

A recent article reports that China’s holdings of U.S. corporate debt may be hampering efforts to reorganize and/or nationalize banks. Rachel Ziemba, an analyst for RGE Monitor, estimates that China’s banks and investment funds holds close to $160b in U.S. corporate debt, much of which is concentrated in financials.

Could the U.S. relationship with China be the stumbling block?
I had written before that throughout this crisis, the attitude of China has been that it expects the U.S. government to insulate China from losses. The Chinese attitude to business has typically been based on long-term relationships. Part of the give and take of a relationship is to not let your business partner down.

We cannot know what has happened behind closed doors, but given the soothing sounds emerging from Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to China, could efforts to reorganize the U.S. financial system be hampered by U.S. efforts to maintain a friendly Sino-American relationship? The aforementioned article went on to speculates that “the Obama administration may be waiting for China to reduce its exposure to the debt of the latest U.S. financial institutions found lying near death’s door before it nationalizes them.”

As the saying goes, he with the gold makes the rules. China has the gold…

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Phoenix rising: Day 1 update

Nice rally yesterday! Unfortunately, yesterday's market action confirms my previous suspicions that this is a bear market rally and not a rally off THE BOTTOM.

I have commented before that true bottoms that are conducive to the Phoenix effect tend to be initially led by large caps and not small caps. Yesteday saw the small cap Russell 2000 lead the large cap S&P 500 with a return of 4.5% to 4.0%. Bespoke also reported that the best performers in yesterday's rally were smaller and beaten up stocks.

Enjoy the ride but keep tight trailing stops.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sign of the times

When states like California are starved for revenue, they'll try to get it any way they can.

Phoenix rising?

With the US equity market averages either probing or breaking down through their November lows, is it time to buy Phoenix stocks? Others have picked up on that theme, with the latest being a Minyanville article on buying beaten up stocks.

With that in mind, I screened the US market for stocks with the following characteristics:

  • Stock price between $1 and $5 (low-priced stocks)
  • Down at least 80% from a year ago (beaten up)
  • Market cap of $100 million or more (were once "real" companies)
  • Net insider buying in the last six months (some downside protection from insider activity)

This screen gives us a list of low-priced stocks of Phoenix candidates. The $100 million market cap gives us some assurance that it was once a substantial company. The net insider activity gives signals that company fundamentals are less likely to completely fall apart. The screen, which showed a count of 30 stocks that passed the criteria a week ago, jumped to 48 names when it ran after the close on Monday 23 Feb 2009:

Affymetrix Inc (AFFX), Aircastle Ltd (AYR), Amkor Technology Inc (AMKR), ATP Oil & Gas Corp (ATPG), Bank of America Corp (BAC), BGC Partners Inc (BGCP), Boyd Gaming Corp (BYD), CapitalSource Inc (CSE), CB Richard Ellis Group Inc (CBG), CBL & Associates Properties Inc (CBL), Century Aluminum Co (CENX), Cenveo Inc (CVO), Citigroup Inc (C), Colonial Properties Trust (CLP), Conseco Inc (CNO), Delta Petroleum Corp (DPTR), Developers Diversified Realty Corp (DDR), Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB), First Industrial Realty Trust Inc (FR), Gannett Co Inc (GCI), Genworth Financial Inc (GNW), GFI Group Inc (GFIG), Global Industries Ltd (GLBL), Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co (GAP), Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc (HLX), Hercules Offshore Inc (HERO), Huntsman Corp (HUN), Insight Enterprises Inc (NSIT), ION Geophysical Corp (IO), Janus Capital Group Inc (JNS), Liz Claiborne Inc (LIZ), Marshall & Ilsley Corp (MI), MF Global Ltd (MF), MGIC Investment Corp (MTG), MGM Mirage (MGM), PAETEC Holding Corp (PAET), Patriot Coal Corp (PCX), Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trus (PEI), Popular Inc (BPOP), Protective Life Corp (PL), Quiksilver Inc (ZQK), Regions Financial Corp (RF), Reliant Energy Inc (RRI), Saks Inc (SKS), Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc (SHO), Tetra Technologies Inc (TTI), Wyndham Worldwide Corp (WYN) and XL Capital Ltd (XL).

I find it interesting that given the recent news on the weekend, both Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) are Phoenix candidates with positive insider activity, though insiders bought Citigroup earlier at substantially higher prices.

Phoenix: the bull case
Is it time to buy? Here is the bull case, based mainly on sentiment readings:

European pension funds are throwing in the towel and reducing equity weightings.
Brokerage firms are awash in cash.
The magazine cover indicator, always a good contrarian indicator, is flashing positive.
Bullish sentiment among individual investors is falling.

Phoenix: the bear case
Nevertheless, there are some troubling indicators out there:

CEOs aren’t buying their own stock.
AAII sentiment readings, while bearish (contrarian bullish), aren’t at bearish extremes. The chart below shows the bull and bear sentiment ratio from AAII. Note that while the market has fallen, sentiment readings aren’t as bearish as they were in November – a bearish divergence. By contrast, extreme bearish sentiment was in evidence when the market tested its 2002 lows in 2003.

Not oversold enough: Some of the proprietary overbought/oversold indicators that I watch (not shown) are not at oversold extremes.

Commitment of Traders data is leaning bearish: The latest weekly Commitment of Traders report, large speculators are net long S&P 500 futures with readings near (contrarian bearish) extremes. While they are net short NASDAQ 100 futures, readings are neutral.

Get long for a punt?
Putting this all together, my interpretation of the big picture suggests that isn't THE BOTTOM. Any rally from these levels is still a bear market rally.

While I wouldn’t recommend it, speculators could try to get long a basket of Phoenix stocks for a punt. If you do, then I would suggest that you manage risk with some tight stops in place so that the trade doesn’t totally fall apart on you.

Needless to say, this is an extremely high risk/high reward trade. This post is by no means a recommendation to buy Phoenix stocks. You are on your own on this one.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In defense of mutual fund managers

Last week there was a flurry of posts in the blogosphere about how dumb mutual fund managers are. Michael Stokes of MarketSci kicked off the discussion with I Just Don’t Get It (the Failure of Mutual Funds to Think Outside the Box). It was followed by other supportive posts such as the one by Damian at Skill Analytics.

I would like to address the very real points raised by these bloggers. Most of the complaints fall into two categories. The main one goes something like this: “I’ve got a great system, why can’t Wall Street recognize me?” In both these cases, the writers identify themselves as “quants” and blame the bottom-up fundamental stock picking mindset as mental barriers to superior mutual fund performance.

The second complaint is voiced more indirectly. If there are great quantitative systems or thinkers around, why can’t the average mutual fund outperform?

Would you go to a pizza joint for sushi?
There are a number of misconceptions at work here. These writers fail to understand that asset management is a business. More importantly, they fail to understand what mutual fund managers are selling.

Investors use mutual funds as building blocks in their portfolios. Allocate 60% to stocks, 40% to bonds. Within the stock portfolio, allocate this much to large caps, that much to small caps. Maybe if you have a great growth manager, then offset it with a value manager, etc.

Style drift is death to mutual fund marketing. Investors don’t like surprises. If you bought a fund that was labeled as a mid-term government bond fund, what would your reaction be if you found it stuffed full of emerging market bonds? What is the mutual fund manager’s business risk if the emerging markets blew up?

Do you go to a pizza restaurant and order sushi? Mutual fund managers are acting rationally. They are delivering what their customer wants. Straying from their mandate is the equivalent of offering sushi at a pizza joint. While bloggers such as Stokes, who work mainly on market timing models, have some very interesting ideas. Unfortunately for him, many of their ideas don’t fit in the mutual fund “boxes”.

He’s just not that into you
There is admittedly a cultural divide between fundamental stock pickers and quants. I have experienced that all my professional life. The job interview described by Damian, a quant, by a fundamental stock picker was an example of that divide.

Accept it. He’s just that into you.

I would take exception, however, to some of the points raised in his post.

Reliance on a single approach: Not all fund managers are fundamental stock pickers. There are many quant firms out there. One example of prominent name who has been in the news a lot recently is Jeremy Grantham of GMO.

Strategy Scaling Requirement: Damian admits that “many of the quantitative strategies that people put forward on the net (including my own) simply won’t scale to the size of a $1b fund.” If a strategy isn’t very scalable, isn’t its commercial value limited?

Fully invested: See my previous comment about ordering sushi at pizza joints. Mutual funds are there to provide an investor exposure to an asset class. Unless you style yourself as a market timing fund or an absolute value fund, then not being fully invested all the time is style drift.

100 stocks or more = Indexing: As a quant, he should know better than that. If I were to hold an equal weighted portfolio of the top 100 stocks in the S&P 500, the forecast tracking error, according to most risk models, would easily be in the 3-5% range. (Note that tracking error is defined as the forecast one-standard deviation return difference between a portfolio and its benchmark).

If you're so smart, start a hedge fund
I have also done a lot of interesting work as a quant during my life. You can find some examples here and here – and they only scratch the surface of my thinking. Most notably, some of my models didn’t blow up in August 2007 when many equity quant funds melted down, indicating a crowded trade. I recognize that in many cases, the chemistry just isn’t right.

If people who complain about mutual funds believe that they have a real alpha, then the answer is simple: go start a hedge fund! Hedge funds are supposed to be the embodiment of pure alpha.

Oops! We know how that turned out for a lot of people.

In reality, there is a lot more to portfolio management that knowing what to buy and sell. The case of Peter Schiff is a recent example but he is not alone. That’s why I am working on my book project.

Amateurs pick stocks, sectors, markets, time markets, etc. Professionals manage portfolios.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A trader's view of fundamental indexing

As fundamental indexing has gained a foothold in the consciousness of investors, there have been critiques of the theoretical underpinnings of the concept. Today, I would like to offer a trader’s view of fundamental indexing.

How fundamental indexing works
Here is how fundamental indexing works. Instead of weighting a portfolio by market capitalization, you weight it by some fundamental measure (e.g. sales, book value, etc.). In practice, fundamental indices are weighted by a combination of fundamental factors, rather than a single factor, in order to increase stability.

There is an important difference between cap weighted indices and fundamentally weighted indices. Cap weighted indices are far more passive. In the absence of membership changes and changes in shares outstanding because of buybacks or new issues, a cap weighted index portfolio requires no trading or portfolio rebalancing, other than the periodic re-investment of dividends.

By contrast, fundamental indices need to be periodically re-weighted and rebalanced. As stock prices move over time, the actual weight in a fundamentally weighted portfolio will deviate from the target fundamental weight. In practice, the rebalancing occurs annually.

The perils of rebalancing
Years ago, I was involved in the management of an international equity portfolio benchmarked to a GDP weighted EAFE index. The GDP weighting was conceptually appealing to investors at the time because Japan was such a large weight in the cap-weighted EAFE index. Virtually no manager was at cap weight in the EAFE portfolio because it would leave the portfolio with too much country specific risk. In practice, problems occurred on an annual basis when MSCI rebalanced the GDP-weighted EAFE index to its GDP weight. Japan’s weight in the index would typically move overnight by 5-10%. Such huge swings in the benchmark made it very difficult for an active, never mind passive, manager to run the portfolio.

An invitation for front-running
Any trader will tell you that the worst place to be as a trader is when the rest of the world knows what you have to do – and you have to do it despite that knowledge. This foreknowledge exacerbated the effects of the market crash of 1987 as market makers knew the portfolio insurers/program traders needed to sell more stocks as the market moved down. It also played a part in the sinking of Long Term Capital Management. The Street knew LTCM’s book. They knew the firm was in trouble. Arbs were front-running the firm’s positions, which worsened their losses.

As fundamental indexing gains in popularity, arbitrageurs, hedge funds and position traders can estimate the amount of rebalancing that will need to be done by the fundamental indexers – and front run them. This form of front running is not illegal, just smart trading, and it will serve to reduce the returns to fundamental indexing.

Investing in semi-passive investment strategies such as fundamental indexing is a game of inches. As fundamental indexing becomes more popular, rebalancing and implementation costs could easily take away any gains from the underlying investment concept.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Deep value plays

As S&P 500 earnings have started their collapse (see articles here and here), there has been a debate about whether this market constitutes good value. From a bottom up basis, however, I am seeing values that I haven’t seen in a long time.

Screening on net-net working capital
Using the free data from the Yahoo! finance website, I wrote a program that screened an investment universe that is roughly equivalent to the Russell 3000 members. The test is: stocks that trade below net-net working capital (current assets less all liabilities and preferred) and has positive trailing 12 month earnings. The net-net working capital requirement is a classic Ben Graham deep value criteria. The earnings test represents an additional margin of safety of corporate viability.

I got 39 names. Even if I threw out the microcaps (market cap below $100 million), I still got 13 stocks that passed the test:

Adaptec Inc (ADPT), Cynosure Inc (CYNO), Fuqi International Inc (FUQI), Horsehead Holding Corp (ZINC), Ingram Micro Inc (IM), Movado Group Inc (MOV), Olympic Steel Inc (ZEUS), PC Connection Inc (PCCC), Shoe Carnival Inc (SCVL), Skechers U.S.A. Inc (SKX), Tech Data Corp (TECD), Tecumseh Products Co (TECUA) and Volt Information Sciences Inc (VOL).

Stocks trading below net cash
Using the more restrictive criteria of non-financial stocks trading below net cash (cash less short and long term debt) and that are earnings positive, I got three names:

Adaptec Inc (ADPT), AuthenTec Inc (AUTH) and Cutera Inc (CUTR).
Two of the three trading below net cash are Technology stocks. This is confirmed by a recent story stating that many Tech companies are sitting on large cash hordes.

On a slightly unrelated note, a recent paper by Dino Palazzo shows that shares of companies with large amounts of cash exhibited higher returns.

Value in this market
I would disagree with those who say that there isn’t value in this market. There are good fundamental values to be found for investors who are willing to dig around and these screens support my contention that the downside risk to this market is limited.

Disclaimer: The caveat to these lists is that they represent a starting point for further research and you should not blindly go out and buy them without further investigation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don’t let the sorcerer’s apprentices hijack this model

As I perused my latest edition of the Financial Analysts Journal, two interesting articles came to light. The first entitled Estimating Operational Risk for Hedge Funds, detailed a quantitative scoring methodology for hedge fund operational due diligence:

The authors found high return volatility and high levels of conflict of interest at hedge funds may lead to problems, such as fraud and fund failure. Even though the authors noted that “a quantitative model can never fully replace human judgment”, no doubt some sorcerer’s apprentice will formalize some version of this into a quantitative score, much like the Altman Z, and it will go into wide usage for OPDD.

I don’t know about you, but I would not like to entrust my money to a manager of a corporate bond fund who bases his decisions mainly on the Altman Z score.

This hedge fund operational risk model is an extremely useful model as a first cut at due diligence, but it is not a substitute for clear thinking. Most importantly, if the inputs to a model are known, the score can be gamed and manipulated by unscrupulous users.

Interestingly, the same edition of the FAJ had an article called Models, by Emanuel Derman, where he echoes my feelings on quant models:
Financial models are therefore best regarded as a collection of mathematically consistent, parallel “thought universes,” each of which will always be far too simple to resemble the real financial world, but whose exploration as a whole can nevertheless provide valuable insight.

Quants need to learn to be more empirical
The mortgage meltdown was caused by the blind application of dubious models by quants who didn't know any better. I hope that the financial world has learned its lesson.

Don’t let the sorcerer’s apprentices hijack this hedge fund due diligence model. Otherwise this will get out of control and lead to another meltdown a few years from now.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Which standard to judge Peter Schiff?

Given the recent controversy about Peter Schiff’s recommendations, I thought that it is useful to explore the framework that investors should judge his record, or anyone else's record for that matter.

A framework for analysis
Investment processes vary from portfolio manager to portfolio manager, but this is a basic outline of what an investment process looks like:

Selection: What do you buy and sell?
Portfolio construction: How much do you buy and sell (in a risk controlled fashion)?
Trading: Pulling the trigger, or when and how do you buy and sell it?
Review and control: Did you do everything (all of the above) right?

We spend most of our time thinking about the first step of the investment process of what to buy and sell. Brokerage analysts do that every day. In addition, there are various services that try to emulate the buys and sells of other investors such as Gurufocus and Mebane Faber’s alphaclone.

Two standards to judge Schiff, or any other advisor
Given our natural intense focus on selection, it is natural to judge an investment advisor on the quality of his picks and opinions. By that standard, his opinions weren’t too bad. He did call the economy's decline correctly and it was a great call. He was, however, wrong on the decoupling thesis and the emerging market/commodity play.

There is a second much tougher standard to judge Schiff – as a portfolio manager. A portfolio manager is held to not just the first step of the investment process (what to buy and sell) but on all parts of the process based on his overall performance. By that standard, Schiff failed dismally. As I understand it, he overstayed his welcome in the commodity and emerging market trade and performance suffered as a result.

(Incidentally, my opinions are similar to Schiff but the positions in my own portfolio were stopped out in the decline. That is why I don’t represent this blog as investment advice. I know nothing about your preferences. I don’t always tell you when to sell, because I don’t know your risk appetite. I don’t tell you how much to buy and sell. If you really wanted all of the above you would be paying me and we would have a real business relationship.)

What do you do after you’ve decided on what to buy & sell?
This is a cautionary story for investors. Beyond the buy and sell decision, they need to pay attention to all the other stuff of putting together a portfolio. That is the reason why I have felt a need to explore this topic in my book project, What do you do after you’ve decided to buy and sell? [*]

For example, if an advisor recommends a buy on Citigroup, is that a bet on the specifics of the stock or the financial services sector? That’s also why I spent a lot of time on portfolio characteristics (example here, here and here).

[*] If any reader in the publishing industry would like to take this further or if you know of anyone in the publishing industry who would like to take this further please contact me at cam at hbhinvestments dot com.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Breakout or fake-out?

Technicians characterize triangular patterns as a “coiled spring”. Triangles represent consolidation and indecision. Breakouts from triangles are considered significant as they tend to forecast the next major direction of the underlying index or stock.

As I write this, the non-farm payroll figure came in slightly worse than expected but the market rallied anyhow. More importantly for technicians, the S&P 500 staged an upside breakout from a triangular pattern.

A similar breakout can also be seen in the broader NYSE Composite:

The NASDAQ 100, which had been the leadership recently, is also staging a good old-fashioned upside breakout:

This bear market rally is for traders only
At these levels, valuations look reasonable, even by Warren Buffett’s standards. I have blogged before that we are seeing signs of healing in the markets. Is this the start of a new bull?

Not so fast.

Mark Hulbert reports that newsletter writer sentiment seems to be too bullish.

Bear markets take price and time to resolve. We have seen the price move but it needs more time. This is probably still a bear market rally. We are likely still in a basing/consolidation/trading range period until this summer. The S&P 500 has seen resistance at the 900-920 level and it will likely pause there again in this rally before come back down to test the old lows set in November 2008.

A new hedge fund business model

As hedge fund returns continue to disappoint, there has been a cacophony of voices calling for changes in approach to investment in hedge funds and for reform in the industry. Some are pure marketing hype, while others do have some value. Here are some a couple of notable examples (and my reactions):

Hedge funds as alternative beta instruments
Lars Jaeger suggested that investors should view hedge funds as sources of alternative beta, which I take to mean that they are diversifying. He went on to indicate that investor should take a macroeconomic based approach to managing these hedge fund betas as a way of adding alpha to the overall portfolio.

I blogged some time ago that a Bridgewater study showed that hedge fund strategies have definite return patterns. For example, emerging market hedge fund returns could largely be replicated by a portfolio of 50% emerging market stocks and 50% emerging market bonds. If hedge fund strategies have betas, why not structure their incentive fee to their passive benchmark? In the case of an emerging market hedge fund, pay 20% of the outperformance against a 50/50 emerging market stock/bond benchmark, rather than an absolute return benchmark?

Longer lockups and different incentive structure
Another suggestion is for a longer lockup but the incentive fee doesn’t get paid out until the end of the lockup. In this case, there is a three year lockup in the fund, but the incentive fee doesn’t get calculated and paid out until the end of the three years.

I think that this is a good idea. It takes away some of the short term-ism that exists among hedge fund managers. Having worked at a fund with quarterly incentive payouts, I personally experienced the mentality that there are only four important dates in the year – the quarter end dates.

Heads I win, tails I walk away
One of the problems with the hedge fund industry is the asymmetric nature of the return incentives. Heads I win. Tails I walk away. If the fund return suffers and the unit value falls significantly below the high-water mark, the manager’s incentive to run the fund diminishes. The temptation to close the fund, walk away and start afresh grows as the fund returns get more negative.

Here are my suggestions for structuring a hedge fund in a way that is fair to the investor:

Benchmark: Benchmark the fund’s returns to the strategy proxy (see above example of the emerging market fund). When I moved from the long-only asset management world to the hedge fund world, I was shocked to see that there was a recognition that different strategies had return betas but incentive fees were not calculated in excess of the beta of the fund. Intermediaries were already pigeonholing hedge funds into different strategy groups (e.g. convertible arbitrage, global macro, etc.), so that was not a problem. Why are investors paying alpha fees for beta?

If a fund can truly demonstrate that it has an undiversified alpha that is uncorrelated to any of the other hedge fund strategy benchmarks, then by all means structure the incentive fee to a cash benchmark.

Incentive fees: Make the manager truly eat their own cooking. Instead of paying an incentive fee in cash, pay it in units of the fund, with a lockup. For example, a fund could pay an incentive fee of 20% of a return in excess of a benchmark. The manager would then be required to reinvest the incentive fee back into the fund, with a three-year lockup. That way, the manager would have strong incentives for risk control and blowups would hurt his own wallet a lot more.

Additionally, the fund could be structured with a longer lockup with an incentive fee payout at the end of the lockup.

People respond to incentives
The problem so far has been the incentives in the financial markets have been wrongly structured. A lot of people made a lot of money without adding a lot of value, or added value short-term by increasing risk longer term. I have suggested before that making the reward system symmetric in investment banks could solve a lot of the structural problems on Wall Street.

We can use the same approach to fix the hedge fund industry too.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Don’t panic: Real-time data points to stabilization

When I have done fundamental research in the past, I focused on the company’s strategy and its drivers of profitability and growth. When I expand my investment universe to thousands of companies using quantitative techniques, I used multi-factor models based on the usual suspects: value, growth, momentum, sentiment, signals (e.g. insider activity, buybacks, etc.)

When I do top-down analysis, my philosophy differs from many other researchers in the field. During these times when economists bicker about the stimulus package, it’s important to keep in mind that 2009 will be the year when the economic crisis fully migrates from Wall Street to Main Street. The headlines will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Particularly during periods like this, economic statistics are not very useful because they are mainly backward looking. For top-down analysis, I prefer to rely on real-time market signals.

Don’t panic
The real time data is constructive for the economic outlook. The equities of two leading industries that I watch closely, homebuilding and temp agencies, are showing signs of stabilization.

Homebuilders appear to be trying to put in a bottom compared to the market. I also put together a composite of the stock of Staffing and Temp Agencies and compared their performance relative to the S&P 500. As the chart below shows, this group has broken out of a relative downtrend. More importantly, this group doesn’t seem to be totally falling apart despite the dire headlines hitting the mainstream media. The chart indicates that the group has only retreated to a relative support zone dating back from 2003-5.

Bad news already discounted?
Another important sign to watch is how the market reacts to bad news. A case in point, the outlook for Tech earnings looks terrible, but the chart below shows the NASDAQ 100 outperforming the S&P 500. Is most of the bad news in the market already?

It’s so bad it’s good
The psychology is terrible. It is so terrible that the blooger VIX and More is reporting a buy signal from his global volatility index.

We seem to be entering a “bad news is good news” phase for the market. In fact, there are indications that there is an inverse long-term relationship between employment and equity returns.

I believe that as long as we don’t see an ugly surprise like protectionism rear its ugly head, most of the bad news is in the equity market and the downside is limited at current levels.