Is Bad Good?

Global markets have dropped considerably the past three months. The Dow Jones has fallen about 8% as investors react to negative headlines about trade wars, Brexit, interest rates, and several other issues. They have been selling stocks to buy bonds or park money in a cash account. These remedies may feel good in the short-term, especially as markets fall, but over time it’s not a wise strategy.

Quantifying investor behavior is challenging. Calculating emotions in a spreadsheet is impossible. However, sentiment indicators try to capture this information.

Sentiment indicators are contrarian, by nature, and they tend to follow the market’s direction. If stocks rise, so do the indicators.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), CBOE Equity Put/Call Ratio, the American Association of Individual Investors Bull-Bear Spread, and mutual fund flows are a few of the more popular sentiment surveys.

The CBOE Volatility Index, the VIX, is the fear gauge. When fear is high, it rises. On November 20, 2008, it peaked at 80.86, indicating an extreme level of fear in the markets. Stocks would fall for a few more months before rising 267%. The average VIX reading is 18.39. It currently stands at 21.63.

The CBOE Equity Put/Call ratio is an indicator utilizing options. When it’s above .7 investors are buying more puts than calls. Put buyers expect the market to fall so they’ll profit if it does. When investors buy calls, they expect the market to rise. If the reading is above .7, it’s bullish. Below .45 is bearish. The current reading is .79. On August 21, 2008, the put/call ratio was .39. Investors were buying calls because they were optimistic the market would continue to rise. They were very confident – too confident. The market fell 37% by the end of 2008.

Measuring mutual fund flows is another solid indicator for investors. When they feel secure, investors buy mutual funds. When they’re scared, they sell. From April 2016 to December 2016 investors withdrew $199 billion from equity mutual funds fearing a market drop. In 2017, the Dow Jones rose 24.33% – a great year for the index. In the past three months investors have sold $62 billion worth of mutual funds.

My favorite sentiment indicator is from the American Association of Individual Investors. When this indicator is high, investors are confident. On August 21, 1987, the indicator reached 66. Two months later the Dow Jones fell 22% – the worst one-day drop in its history. On January 6, 2000, it hit an all-time high of 75. Three months later the Tech Wreck would arrive. The NASDAQ index would fall more than 50% over the next two years.  One of the most pessimist readings ever recorded was March 5, 2009 when it touched 18.92. Four days later stocks hit bottom and started a nine-year bull run. Today the indicator is flashing a pessimistic warning of 20.90%. The historical average is 38.24.

These indicators are currently in negative territory, a positive for stocks. When pessimism and fear rise, stocks look more attractive. The market likes to climb a wall of worry.

Not to be left out of the indicator game, the New York Times ran an article about the 2019 financial crisis that hasn’t happened yet. The article appeared in their style section.[1] Business Week’s famous headline, “The Death of Equities” appeared in August 1979. Had you purchased stocks on the day it ran, you would have enjoyed a gain of 2,641%!

Ron Paul is also getting into the prediction business. He’s predicting a 50% correction that will “spark depression-like conditions that may be ‘worse than 1929.’”[2]

Of course, no indicator is perfect. A negative one isn’t always positive. It’s imperative to focus on your goals. If they haven’t changed, stay the course. It takes courage and fortitude to hold stocks when everybody is selling but owning great companies for the long haul is how wealth is created.

The big money is not in the buying and the selling, but in the waiting. ~ Charlie Munger

December 17, 2018

Bill Parrott is the President and CEO of Parrott Wealth Management firm located in Austin, Texas. Parrott Wealth Management is a fee-only, fiduciary, registered investment advisor firm. Our goal is to remove complexity, confusion, and worry from the investment and financial planning process to help our clients pursue a life of purpose.

Note: Investments are not guaranteed and do involve risk. Your returns may differ than those posted in this blog.


[1], by Alex Williams, 12/10/2018

[2], by Stephanie Landsom

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