The 5% Solution?
by Brian Pretti CFA, Contrary Investor. March 5, 2010
Art For Art's Sake, Money For God's Sake
…No, this is not an homage to the financial archangel Lloyd Blankfein and his flock of chaste and devoted followers on Goldman's prop desk. Okay, let's get to the heart of the discussion. Be prepared, this is one of those discussions where the pictures do a lot of the talking. At Contrary Investor, we deal with a lot of fact and fundamentals, but are the first to acknowledge that technical analysis likewise takes a front row seat in the decision making and risk management process. The marriage of fundamental and technical analysis is a must. Ignore either and you might as well be flying blind. This discussion centers on the technical. Early this year on our subscriber site we looked at the analog of equity movement in the 2003-2004 period relative to 2009-present, pointing out differences in the fundamental backdrop of then versus now, but also the similarities in terms of equity market technical directional rhythm, equity sector performance, etc. Just about the last thing the consensus outlook was predicting for early year 2010 was a sideways correction. It just so happens that in 2004 after rising about 4% in the first part of the year, equities went into a sideways correction that really did not best the early January price highs until about the final six weeks of the year. As always, no two periods are ever completely identical, but after a few months of equity market action this year, it’s appropriate to review this analog now and also dig a whole lot deeper and cover a much greater amount of historical experiential territory for clues as to what might lie ahead. Yes, this is about the short term and the overriding principal of risk management. The analog of 2003-2004 relative to the present is captured in the top clip of the chart below.
At least for now, the initial price dip this year is much deeper than was the case at the outset of 2004. Where we move ahead is really anyone’s guess, I just think it useful to look at the character of the sideways consolidation pattern over the first three quarters of 2004. As documented, the worst of the sideways correction in that year was the third dip registering (7.1%) on the equity market Richter scale. From the greater period measured from the price peak in the early Feb-March period of 2004 to the bottom in August, we are talking about a high to low decline of roughly (8%). Very tolerable in a sideways correction. In fact, forget tolerable, it was healthy. Exactly the base the equity market needed to build so as to work its way higher as the economy and corporate earnings continued to improve as 2004 unfolded. In the current year, the closing high to low correction for the S&P has been 9.2%, not that far off the maximum 2004 draw down, at least so far. So before getting too worked up about the recent dip, we need to see just how the character of the equity market develops from here. If the hurt continues unabated in deeper magnitude and perhaps moves toward a double digit price erasure, then we’ll have an issue.
The 5% Solution?…It just so happens there is another technical demarcation line I mentioned when we had a look back at the 2004 experience and beyond on our subscriber site a few months back that deserves mentioning right now as we contemplate a trading range environment. It was the fact that from 2004 to the equity peak in 2007, the S&P NEVER traded at a level over 5% below its 50 day moving average. Not once, as is clearly documented below. This is the exact chart shown on our subscriber site a few months ago, now updated through February. Talk about consistency, of course in the absolute clarity of hindsight it was indeed a first rate trading tool as it just doesn’t get much better than this.
And as marked in this now updated chart it just so happens that at its low closing point this year so far, the level of the S&P below its 50 day MA hit a (4.765)% decline level. Coincidence? Or is history telling us a much bigger story in terms of just how important this 5% line may be in the current environment as a potentially important risk management tool? Certainly 2004-2007 experience is not enough data to draw hard and fast or tradable/risk management conclusions. So before trying to suggest a trading or risk management rule for the current cycle and hopefully directly applicable to what we are all now confronted with, we need more data validation. And this is exactly where the remainder of this discussion is going.
So conceptually here’s the deal. I went back and looked at periods of initial equity market liftoffs in immediate post recession environments. Of course most all of these periods were associated with prior period equity bear markets. Sound familiar? It’s the typical conjoined economic/financial market recovery periods we’ve come to know, love and now need to benchmark against. Let’s roll through these quickly. The first little top clip in the next combo chart tracks the post 1990 recession and equity recovery period. You can see that in the equity recovery of 1991 through 1993, NEVER did the S&P trade 5% below its 50 day MA. Okay, this is getting interesting, no? The case is building. Hmmm.
The bottom clip traces out equity performance in the period many believe was the blast off of the 1980-2000 total equity bull cycle. Yes indeed there was some price volatility coming off of the 1982 recession low, but once again the pattern is wildly consistent. The S&P NEVER traded beyond 5% below its 50 day MA over the four years covering the 1983-1986 cyclical equity bull period. Another check in the plus column for the 5% below the 50-day MA being a very important technical demarcation line.
C’mon, this is the 1980 to present equity bull cycle. It’s a coincidence, right? How could all of these beginning of cycle equity bull movements look so similar in terms of price movement around 50 day moving averages? Let’s turn the pages yet again and venture back to the very mean mid-1970’s equity market decline that was indeed very comparable to what we have already lived through in terms of magnitude of market decline over the 2007 to early 2009 period. It is chronicled in the top clip of the next chart. Wow, the similarities continue. Post the 1974 lows and initially rally, from late 1975 to close to the end of 1978 the S&P NEVER traded at a level exceeding 5% below its 50 day MA. In the late 1970’s (’78 and ’79) inflation was becoming such an overriding issue that volatility in equity prices naturally kicked up. But the 5% below the 50 day demarcation line held for four straight years.
Yes, the bottom clip is a stretch as we look all the way back to the very significant equity bull market of the 1950’s. Yep, a bit hard to believe, no? 5% to the downside below the 50-day MA was a consistent bottom for virtually the entire period covered. To be honest, when writing about the 2004 analog a few months back, I had absolutely no idea how meaningful the trading range around the 50 day MA was to be really looking over the last half century. The pictures above say it all. By the way, noticeable above is a missing picture of the 1960’s. Trust me, the 5% negative volatility level was meaningful and tradable.
So, although I would be the absolute first to admit that no two market periods are ever alike, until proven otherwise history is strongly suggesting we use the 5% level below of the 50 day moving average of the S&P as a significant and meaningful risk management line in the sand. If we exceed this level to the downside for any sustainable period ahead, we’re all going to have to assume that something different is beginning to happen and that price risk is accelerating in perhaps an unacceptable manner.
Before concluding, one more quick look at the 50 day MA chart above for the 2003-present period (the second graph in the discussion). Please notice that the S&P cracked below its 50 day MA for the first time after the lows in 2003 during mid-2007 - exactly the peak of the prior equity bull. It was this price move below the 5% demarcation line that was the first foreshock in the last equity bear market earthquake. It was the clue that something was changing, and not for the better. To hopefully add a bit of validity to this potentially very important “warning sign”, have a peek at the chart below that gives us visual representation of what transpired between 2000 and 2003. The first price crack 5% below the 50 day MA occurred in September of that year, exactly when the bear cycle for that period really got underway in a very serious and capital threatening manner. The 5% violation “shocks” only got deeper from there as the bear market wore on.
So, you know the summation comments here. As we continue to move through 2010, benchmarking against the 5% 50 day MA demarcation line makes some sense as one risk management tool within the greater toolbox. Again, I wish there were Holy Grails in the wonderful world of investment management and technical analysis specifically, but there are no guarantees. These patterns of cyclical bull market development and maturation have been very consistent historically when looking at this 5% 50 day MA experience. Remember, although there are no guarantees in the financial markets, this pattern has been consistent for over a half century now, through generational credit cycles and otherwise. Over the very short term and amidst the heightened and perhaps unexpected volatility of the moment, we all want to make sure we stay in harmony with the message and movement of the market. And this is what the markets seem to be telling us as we “listen” to the risk management lessons of the last half century. A half-century of human decision making represented graphically. Don’t forget the old Jesse Livermore truism. Human decision making never changes, only the wallets do.
© 2010 Brian Pretti