‘I think you know,’ said Miss Marple. ‘You are a very well educated woman. Nemesis is long delayed sometimes, but it comes in the end.” ― Agatha Christie,
I am indebted to the work of Jared Dillian who, as well as being a highly entertaining writer, shares a similar world view about how investing works to that deployed at OTAS. Jared likes to focus on anti-consensus ideas, picking on trends that appear to have run out of road, in a similar fashion to OTAS flagging extreme moves from the norm across the multiple factors that influence equity prices.
A typical Dillian argument will throw out an investment thesis, while recognising that the timing may not yet be perfect for the trade. These ideas can be of use to active managers who require a portfolio of ideas at different stages of the investment cycle, so that as one great investment comes to an end, there are already several others lined up to take its place. Jared’s latest bête noir is the low volatility trade, which has seen big, safe, high yielding stocks outperform, and the evidence from OTAS entirely supports his claims.
The chart shows the performance of the iShares Select Dividend (DVY) ETF against our index of the top 500 shares in the US. As the shares in this fund deliver a higher percentage of total return in the form of dividends, the returns are more stable and predictable than for other stocks, and hence the shares exhibit low relative volatility. Lower risk should equate to lower return, but as the chart shows this is patently not the case this year.
Similar outperformance can be seen in the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLP). As with DVY, the break above the normal trading range came around the turn of the year and the subsequent outperformance has lifted the fund to an extreme level.
We have written before about the desire of the world’s central banks to suppress volatility and the success with which this has been achieved. Interest rates are the return received for uncertainty about the future and by pushing multiple rates negative, central banks have created situations where the future appears more certain than the present. This is the logic-defying macro environment that our guardians have created for us and Jared, for one, is calling them out.
There are reasons to conclude that it is central bank action, rather than real macro trends, which is creating today’s investment extremes. Much has been made about German ten-year rates going negative this week, but inflation-adjusted bonds in Germany have not followed suit. This clearly suggests that it is the actions of the ECB and not imminent deflation that is determining bond prices.
OTAS shows that the cost of credit for the average German company has risen this month and is safely ensconced in the normal range over the past four years. A situation where the debt costs for companies stays stable, while risk-free rates fall, drives up the relative cost of investment for the private sector and creates a slow growth economy with falling productivity.
The outperformance of low volatility ETFs illustrates that the equity markets are now captured by the cult of the central banker in the way that other asset classes have been for some while. The question is for how long this can continue, or how much more money can back these trend following strategies. Political events may shake the faith in the establishment and there are a number of upcoming events that may do just that between now and the year end. Or, like many other bubble trades, there may simply come a day when fewer new buyers show up in the morning and commentators are left scrabbling for ex post reasons to explain a major price reversal.
As Jared Dillian says, “Up on an escalator, down on an elevator.”
Every day OTAS flags extreme positioning in stocks across markets, in a neutral, unbiased fashion that brings your attention to trends and possible turning points and assists in your decision making process. The analysis may be tailored to your personal portfolio and thereby reduce the risk that your next crowded trade is to the downside.