Trend Investing in Choppy Markets

Well... since last January being a trend investor has not been especially fun. U.S. markets have been stopped three times. The international equity markets haven't been doing too well at all; they more or less broke down near the end of January 2018, most countries have dropped substantially, and, based on my momentum scoring, they are on the slide again despite the signs of optimism earlier this year.

Only U.S. stocks have made new highs since January 2018, but even there it has been a range-bound and choppy market. New highs haven't carried the momentum we like to see in a strong market. We have also seen a pick up in volatility.

Take a look at the size of the weekly bars in the red areas compared to the black area.

Credit: TheRichMoose.com, StockCharts.com
Right-click to expand image.

These factors spell trouble for any trend investor. Trend investing performs the best in smooth uptrending markets or in longer downtrending markets. We go with the uptrend and capitalize with leverage where we can. In a long downtrend we sit on the sidelines in cash or bonds and watch the markets burn.

These types of market conditions in stocks are not rare. This is, after all, why trend investing works. Great recent examples of clean uptrends are from March 2016 through January 2018. Or before that from January 2012 through September 2014. These are two year holding periods where trend investors capitalized. In my own account I generated a 68 percent return in the latest period.

On the downside, we all remember October 2007 to March 2009. I had no money back then, so it didn't really affect me. But the S&P 500 fell 55 percent. The trend investor using my model would be off by just 13 percent. For those interested, we're more than halfway there already in 2019.

We see a more recent picture of the protection that trend investing offers by looking outside of the United States. Emerging markets fell around 27 percent from January to December 2018. A trend investor would have been down 14 percent.

Stretching back, emerging markets are down more than 25 percent since 2007. Not a profitable investment for a buy-and-hold investor patiently waiting—with their money tied up—for more than a decade. The trend investor would be roughly flat in their emerging markets trading during the same time period, but could have profited over the years by putting their money to better use when the trend model prescribed no allocation to emerging markets (often for many months at a time).

Of course this is all without factoring in leverage—which rewards handsomely but also punishes cruelly.

The Big Picture

Trend investing offers a good long-term outcome considering there is no crystal ball. We only know what happened yesterday, last week, or in the past years. That's the data a trend investor can use to try get a long-term, but certainly not easy, edge in the portfolio.

As a trend investor, it's important to recognize different market conditions. Markets which are expected to be good for your style and markets which are not. In choppy markets—the markets of today—you will lose money. That's what happens when stocks are not trending well.

Too often we hear from the boisterous crowds employing hindsight bias and capitalizing on narrow time frames. Of course with a crystal ball we would have invested (with ample leverage) in emerging markets from 2004 to 2007, went to long-term bonds until March 2009, then put all of our money in U.S. tech stocks until today. But no one did.

As humans using their superior discretion it's more likely that in 2007 they were diving greedily into emerging markets. By 2009 they were exhausted by the losses and switched to cash. And this past year they are finally buying tech stocks on the dips hoping to catch the rise of Netflix, Uber, Lyft, and Amazon (after all, even Mr. Buffett is buying it now).

Stick with the trend. Ignore the noise. With a lot of patience, a little alignment of the stars, a few whipsaw trades, and a bit of leverage I'm pretty confident I'll be much wealthier ten or twenty years from now. You should be too.

Trend investing may be the only quantifiable, repeatable, and diversifiable way to invest in a broad range of markets with a long-term edge.

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Improving Portfolio Re-balancing

Several weeks ago I shared a post on the clear risk superiority of Leveraged Barbell Portfolios when compared to a standard 60/40 index portfolio. In my example, with a tiny 12.5 percent allocation to a 3x leveraged ETF and the rest of your portfolio in bonds, you could have matched the returns of a 60/40 portfolio over the past seven decades.

Your drawdowns would have been much smaller and your returns much smoother than a traditional 60/40 portfolio. Effectively, a Leveraged Barbell Portfolio can provide outstanding risk-adjusted and gross returns.

You can read the details in this post: Risk Mitigation with a Barbell Portfolio.

My example used simple annual re-balancing without any added strategies to further control risk. As my post shows, regular periodic re-balancing works pretty good. If you want to have a low maintenance portfolio that shows great historical returns, you can do well re-balancing your positions to target once per year, or even once every six months or quarter.

One of the downsides of periodic re-balancing is the effect of compounding losses in multi-period market drawdowns. Regularly pulling capital away from bonds and placing it into declining stocks can become very costly. If we avoid re-balancing in downtrending markets, we can reduce overall portfolio drawdowns and increase performance.

There are some relatively simple strategies we can use to improve results. Basic indicators identifying trends can help avoid pulling money away from bonds in a downtrending market.  At the same time, these indicators can help us stay in uptrending markets for as long as possible in attempt to capture the compounded gains on our equity positions.

In all of the following examples in this post we will target the following portfolio allocation on re-balancing: 15 percent 3x daily leveraged S&P 500 and 85 percent U.S. T-bill returns (no fees or taxes).

Avoid Re-balancing Into a Downtrend

There are many ways to measure trends; the pros and cons of various tools are extensively debated. One of the most popular, tried and true methods is the simple moving average (SMA).

In this first demonstration, we will use the 12-month SMA to identify long-term trends. Our goal is to focus on long-term trends to avoid re-balancing in extended drawdowns or lose on potential gains by re-balancing in small market corrections.

Here are the re-balancing rules for this first test:

  • If the monthly close of the S&P 500 is above the 12-month SMA, we will re-balance the portfolio every twelve months.
  • If the monthly close of the S&P 500 is below the 12-month SMA, we will re-balance to take risk off (if needed) and then not re-balance again until the monthly close is back above the 12-month SMA.
  • We will only re-balance if the allocation is reset in the favour of the trend. For example, we will not re-balance if the trend turns up by adding to the bond position. Likewise, we will not re-balance if the trend turns down by adding to the leveraged equity position.

Our example will compare returns of this rule-based method with the baseline annual re-balancing method. For the baseline portfolio, the re-balancing is done at the end of each calendar year.

Sources: TheRichMoose.com, S&P, FRED-Federal Reserve St. Louis

The returns of each method overall are nearly the same. Both show a compounded annual return in the range of 9.75 percent.

The following chart shows the drawdowns for each method over the same time period.

Sources: TheRichMoose.com, S&P, FRED-Federal Reserve St. Louis

As the chart shows, the largest drawdown periods since 1950 are much lower when the 12-month SMA trend filter is added. Remember, in uptrends both portfolios are still re-balanced every year.

The 12-month SMA filter doesn't have a significant affect on the small drawdowns that occur over this backtest period. The timing, frequency, intensity, and duration of small drawdowns are nearly identical across both strategies. The small variations that do occur are primarily due to the differences in the re-balancing at the end of the calendar year (annual re-balancing) vs. 12-month intervals (12-month SMA filter).

Responsive Trend Re-balancing

In this next example, we will re-balance following trend signals only. This test will be a demonstration of the sensitivity of shorter signals in downtrends as well as the importance of staying in uptrending markets for as long as possible.

To manage risk in this scenario, we will follow a shorter term trend measurement—the 13-week SMA (one-quarter of the full year).

Here are the re-balancing rules for this test:

  • If the weekly close moves above the 13-week SMA, we will re-balance in the favour of equities.
  • If the weekly close moves below the 13-week SMA, we will re-balance in the favour of bonds.
  • Re-balancing will only be done when a new signal change is shown. We will not re-balance in the middle of a uptrend or downtrend.

The following charts will compare this 13-week SMA method with the 12-month SMA where we re-balanced annually in uptrends (the method used above).

Sources: TheRichMoose.com, S&P, FRED-Federal Reserve St. Louis

Staying in trends for as long as possible is very important and can lead to outsized returns thanks to the effects of compounding returns with leverage. The 13-week SMA method achieved a 10.6 percent compound annual growth rate over the past seven decades.

We can see a consistent pattern on meaningful performance gains across time periods using the 13-week SMA method as shown when looking at the 3-year rolling returns. Most of the excess gains come during uptrending market periods.

Sources: TheRichMoose.com, S&P, FRED-Federal Reserve St. Louis

However, as the rolling return chart above shows, the drawdowns of shorter trend signals compared with longer trend signals demonstrates a noticeably different pattern. The following drawdown chart clarifies this.

Sources: TheRichMoose.com, S&P, FRED-Federal Reserve St. Louis

While the largest drawdowns in the 12-month system capped out at approximately 14 percent, the shorter 13-week signal put us back into the market several times during a long-term downtrend leading to larger compounding losses. We see this with the larger drawdown periods in 1973-1974, 2000-2003, and 2007-2009 periods.

That said, the losses are still very tolerable at just under 18 percent in the worst case. Notably, the shorter signal had us in fewer drawdown periods otherwise. Since the shorter signal re-balanced into leveraged equities faster as new uptrends started, the drawdowns were also typically shorter in duration for the 13-week SMA method.

Summary

There are many ways to improve on a basic re-balancing technique and this article just scratches the surface of the various methods available. Our chosen preference also depends on which particular forms of risk we are trying to reduce. For example, we can focus our re-balancing on trying to reduce capital at risk, we can try reduce the severity of drawdowns, we can try reduce overall time in drawdown, or we can try stay in uptrends as long as possible.

Portfolio management and risk management is complex with many variables. We can use tools to shift risks where it best suits our needs, but we can never eliminate risk without sacrificing total returns.

I used a Leveraged Barbell Portfolio to demonstrate various re-balancing methods; these basic principles for thoughtful re-balancing could be applied to traditional 60/40 portfolios as well.

Comments & Questions

All comments are moderated before being posted for public viewing. Please don't send in multiple comments if yours doesn't appear right away. It can take up to 24 hours before comments are posted.

Comments containing links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.