Posts tagged ‘sentiment indicators’

Stirring the Sentiment Tea Leaves Redux

The equity markets have been on a volatility rollercoaster while participants continue to search for the Holy Grail of indicators – in hopes of determining whether the next large move  in the markets is upwards or downwards. Although markets may be efficient in the long-run (see Crisis Black Eye), in the short-run, financial markets are hostage to fear and greed, and these emotions have been on full display. In the last two weeks alone, we have witnessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average catapult skyward over +1,200 points, while just a few weeks earlier the Dow cratered about -800 points in a five day period. With fresh fears of a European banking collapse, a global recession, and an uncertain election in the U.S. approaching, investors are grasping for clues as they read the indicator tea leaves to better position their portfolios. Some of these contrarian sentiment indicators can be helpful to your portfolio, if used properly, however interpreting many of the sentiment indicators is as useful as reading tea leaves is for picking winning lotto numbers.

The Art of Tea Leave Reading

The premise behind contrarian investing is fairly simple – if you follow the herd, you will be led to the slaughterhouse. There is a tendency for investors to succumb to short-termism and act on their emotions rather than reason. The pendulum of investment emotions continually swings back and forth between fear and greed, and many of these indicators are designed with the goal of capturing emotion extremes.

The concept of mass hysteria is nothing new. Back in 1841, Charles Mackay published a book entitled, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which Mackay explores the psychology of crowds and mass mania through centuries of history, including the infamous Dutch Tulip Mania of the early 1600s (see Soros Super Bubble).

Out of sympathy for your eyeballs, I will not conduct an in-depth review of all the contrarian indicators, but here is brief sampling:

Sentiment Surveys: The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) releases weekly survey results from its membership. With the recent stock market bounce, bullish sentiment has escalated up near historic averages (39.8% bullish), yet the bears still remain skeptical – more than 6% higher than normal (36.4% bearish). A different survey, conducted by Investors Intelligence, called the Advisors Sentiment Index, surveys authors of various stock advice newsletters. The index showed bearish sentiment reaching 46.3%, the highest negative reading since the 2008-2009 bear market low. These data can provide some insights, but as you can probably gather, these surveys are also very subjective and often conflicting.

Put-Call Ratio: This is a widely used ratio that measures the trading volume of bearish put options to bullish call options and is used to gauge the overall mood of the market. When investors are fearful and believe prices will go lower, the ratio of puts to calls escalates. At historically high levels (see chart below), this ratio usually indicates a bottoming process in the market.

Volatility Index (VIX): The VIX indicator or “Fear Gauge” calculates inputs from various call and put options to create an approximation of the S&P 500 index implied volatility for the next 30 days. Put simply, when fear is high, the price of insurance catapults upwards and the VIX moves higher. Over the last 25 years a VIX reading of 44 or higher has only been reached nine times  (source: Don Hays), so as you can see from the chart below, the recent market rally has coincided with the short-term peak in the VIX.


Strategist Sentiment: If you’re looking for a contrarian call to payoff, I wouldn’t hold your breath by waiting for bearish strategist sentiment to kick-in. Barry Ritholtz at the Big Picture got it right when he summarized Barron’s bullish strategist outlook by saying, “File this one under Duh!” Like most Wall Street and asset management firms, strategists have an inherent conflict of interest to provide a rosy outlook. For what it’s worth, the market is up slightly since the Barron’s strategist outlook was published last month.

Short Interest: The higher the amount of shares shorted, the larger the pent-up demand to buy shares becomes in the future. Extremely high levels of short interest tend to coincide with price bottoms because as prices begin to move higher, holders of short positions often feel “squeezed” to buy shares and push prices higher. According to, hedge fund managers own the lowest percentage of stocks (45%) since March 2009 market price bottom. Research from Data Explorer also suggests that sentiment is severely negative – the highest short interest level  experienced since mid-2009.

Fund Flow Data: The direction of investment dollars flowing in and out of mutual funds can provide some perspective on the psychology of the masses. Recent data coming from the Investment Company Institute (ICI) shows that -$63.6 billion has flowed out of all equity funds in 2011, while +$81.7 billion has flowed into bond funds. Suffice it to say, investor nervousness has made stocks as about as popular as the approval ratings of Congress.

When it comes to sentiment indicators, I believe actions speak much louder than words. To the extent I actually do track some of these indicators, I pay much less attention to those indicators based on opinions, surveys, and technical analysis data (see Astrology or Lob Wedge). Most of my concentration is centered on those indicators explaining actual measurable investor behavior (i.e., Put-Call, VIX, Short Interest, Fund Flow, and other action-oriented trading metrics).

As we know from filtering through the avalanche of daily news data, the world can obviously become a much worse place (i.e., Greece, eurozone collapse, double-dip, inflation, banking collapse, muni defaults, widening CDS spreads, etc,). If you believe the world is on the cusp of ending and/or you do not believe investors are sufficiently bearish, I encourage you to build your bunker stuffed with gold, and/or join the nearest local Occupy Wall Street chapter. If, however, you are looking to sharpen the returns on your portfolio and are thirsty for some emotional answers, pour yourself a cup of tea and pore over some sentiment indicators.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 16, 2011 at 9:22 am 2 comments

Waiting for the Hundred Minute Flood

Investors have been scarred over the last decade and many retirees have seen massive setbacks to their retirement plans. We have witnessed the proverbial “100 year flood” twice in the 2000s in the shape of a bursting technology and credit bubble in 2000 and 2008, respectively. The instantaneous transmission of data around the globe, facilitated by 24/7 news cycles and non-stop internet access, has only accelerated investor panic attacks – the 100 year flood is now expected every 100 minutes.

If drowning in the 100 year flood of events surrounding Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, TARP bank bailouts, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and Eliot Spitzer’s prostitute appreciation activities were not enough in 2008, investors (and many bearish bloggers) have been left facing the challenge of reconciling an +80% move in the S&P 500 index and +100% move in the NASDAQ index with the following outcomes (through the bulk of 2009 and 2010):

  • Flash crash, high frequency traders, and “dark pools”
  • GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcies
  • Dubai debt crisis
  • Goldman Sachs – John Paulson hearings
  • Tiger Woods cheating scandal
  • Greece bailout
  • BP oil spill
  • Healthcare reform
  • China real estate bubble concerns
  • Congressional leadership changes
  • European austerity riots
  • North Korea – South Korea provocations
  • Insider trading raids
  • Ireland bailout
  • Next: ?????

With all this dreadful news, how in the heck have the equity markets about doubled from the lows of last year? The “Zombie Bears,” as Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture has affectionately coined, would have you believe this is merely a dead-cat bounce in a longer-term bear-market. Never mind the five consecutive quarters of GDP growth, the 10 consecutive months of private job creation, or the record 2010 projected profits, the Zombie Bears attribute this fleeting rebound to temporary stimulus, short-term inventory rebuild, and unsustainable printing press activity by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Perhaps the Zombie Bears will change their mind once the markets advance another 25-30%? Regardless of the market action, individual investors have taken the pessimism bait and continue to hide in their caves. This strategy makes sense for wealthy retirees with adequate resources, but for the vast majority of Americans, earning next to nothing on their nest egg in cash and overpriced Treasuries isn’t going to help much in achieving your retirement goals. Unless of course, you like working  as a greeter at Wal-Mart in your 80s and eating mac & cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This Time is Different

The Zombies would also have you believe this time is different, or in other words, historical economic cycles do not apply to the recent recession. I’ll stick with French novelist Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) who famously stated, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”

As you can see from the data below, the recent recession lasted two months longer than the 16 month cycle average from 1854 – 2009. We have had 33 recessions and 33 recoveries, so I am going to go out on a limb and say this time will not be any different. Could we have a double dip recession? Sure, but odds are on our side for an average five year expansion, not the 18 month expansion experienced thus far.

The Grandma Sentiment Indicator

I love all these sentiment indicators, surveys, and various ratios that constantly get thrown around the blogosphere because it is never difficult to choose one matching a specific investment thesis. Strategists urge us to follow the actions of the “smart money” and do the opposite (like George Costanza) when looking at the “dumb money” indicators. The bears would also have you believe the world is coming to an end if you look at the current put/call data (see Smart Money Prepares for Sell Off). Instead, I choose to listen to my grandma, who has wisely reminded me that actions speak louder than words. Right now, those actions are screaming pure, unadulterated fear – a positive contrarian dynamic.

Over the last few years there has been more than $250 billion in equity outflows according to data from the Investment Company Institute (ICI). Bond funds on the other hand have taken in an unprecedented $376 billion in 2009 and about another $216 billion in 2010 through August.

As investment guru Sir John Templeton famously stated, “Bull markets are born on pessimism and they grow on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria.” Judging by the asset outflows, I would say we haven’t quite reached the euphoria phase quite yet. I won’t complain though because the more fear out there, the more opportunity for me and my investors.

As I have consistently stated, I have no clue what equity markets are going to do over the next six to twelve months, nor does my bottom-up philosophy rely upon making market forecasts to succeed. Evaluating investor sentiment and timing economic cycles are difficult skills to master, but judging by the panicked actions and bond heavy asset inflows, investors are nervously awaiting another 100 year flood to occur in the next hundred minutes.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, WMT, and AIG derivative security, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, JPM, Washington Mutual, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, GS, BP, GM, Chrysler, and any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 29, 2010 at 1:09 am 3 comments

Sentiment Indicators: Reading the Tea Leaves

Market commentators and TV pundits are constantly debating whether the market is overbought or oversold. Quantitative measures, often based on valuation measures, are used to support either case. But the debate doesn’t stop there. As a backup, reading the emotional tea leaves of investor attitudes is relied upon as a fortune telling stock market ritual (see alsoTechnical Analysis article). Generally these tools are used on a contrarian basis when deciding about purchase or sale timing. The train of thought follows excessive optimism is tied to being fully invested, therefore the belief is only one future direction left…down. The thought process is also believed to work in reverse.

Actions Louder Than Words

When it comes to investing, I believe actions speak louder than words. For example, words answered in a subjective survey mean much less to me in gauging optimism or pessimism than what investors are really doing with their cool, hard cash. Asset flow data indicates where money is in fact going. Currently the vast majority of money is going into bonds, meaning the public hates stocks. That’s fine, because without pessimism, there would be fewer opportunities.

Most sentiment indicators are an unscientific cobbling of mood surveys designed to check the pulse of investors. How is the data used? As mentioned above, the sentiment indicators are commonly used as a contrarian tool…meaning: sell the market when the mood is hot and buy the market when it is cold.

Here are some of the more popular sentiment indicators:

1)      Sentiment Surveys (AAII/NAAIM/Advisors): Each measures different bullish/bearish opinions regarding the stock market.

2)      CBOE Volatility Index (VIX): The “fear gauge” developed using implied option volatility (read also VIX article).

3)      Breadth Indicators (including Advanced-Decline and High-Low Ratios): Measures the number of up stocks vs. down stocks. Used as measurement device to identify extreme points in a market cycle.

4)      NYSE Bullish Percentage: Calculates the percentage of bullish stock price patterns and used as a contrarian indicator.

5)      NYSE 50-Day and 200-Day Moving Average: Another technical price indicator that is used to determine overbought and oversold price conditions.

6)      Put/Call Ratio: The number of puts purchased relative to calls is used by some to measure the relative optimism/pessimism of investors.

7)      Volume Spikes: Optimistic or pessimistic traders will transact more shares, therefore sentiment can be gauged by tracking volume metrics versus historical averages.

Sentiment Shortcomings

From a ten thousand foot level, the contrarian premise of sentiment indicators makes sense, if you believe as Warren Buffett does that it is beneficial to buy fear and sell greed. However, many of these indicators are more akin to reading tea leaves, than utilizing a scientific tool. Investors enjoy black and white simplicity, but regrettably the world and the stock market come in many shades of gray. Even if you believe mood can be accurately measured, that doesn’t account for the ever-changing state of human temperament. For instance, in a restaurant setting, my wife will change her menu choice four times before the waiter/waitress takes her order. Investor sentiment can be just as fickle depending on the Dubai, Greece, Swine Flu, or foreclosure headline du jour.

Other major problems with these indicators are time horizon and degree of imbalance. Yeah, an index or stock may be oversold, but by how much and over what timeframe? Perhaps a security is oversold on an intraday chart, but dramatically overbought on a monthly basis? Then what?

The sentiment indicators can also become distorted by a changing survey population. Average investors have fled the equity markets and have followed the pied piper Bill Gross to fixed income nirvana. What we have left are a lot of unstable high frequency traders who often change opinions in a matter of seconds. These loose hands are likely to warp the sentiment indicator results.

Strange Breed

Investors are strange and unique animals that continually react to economic noise and emotional headlines in the financial markets. Despite the infinitely complex world we live in, people and investors use everything available at their disposal in an attempt to make sense of our endlessly random financial markets. One day interest rate declines are said to be the cause of market declines because of interest rate concerns. The next day, interest rate declines due to “quantitative easing” comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke are attributed to the rise in stock prices. So, which one is it? Are rate declines positive or negative for the market?

On a daily basis, the media outlets are arrogant enough to act like they have all the answers to any price movement, rather than chalking up the true reason to random market volatility, sensationalistic noise, or simply more sellers than buyers. Virtually any news event will be handicapped for its market impact. If Ben Bernanke farts, people want to know what he ate and what impact it will have on Fed policy.

Sentiment indicators are some of the many tools used by professionals and non-professionals alike. While these indicators pose some usefulness, overreliance on reading these sentiment tea leaves could prove hazardous to your fortune telling future.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 22, 2010 at 1:53 am 1 comment

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