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Let’s quickly dismiss the view that investors learnt from Brexit how to react to the election of Trump. US options are the world’s most liquid and the three month market that we track has consistently shown that President-elect Trump would be a sanguine outcome for stocks. Commentators are falling over themselves after the event to explain why this is, but OTAS has portrayed a consistent message of financial calm.

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

There have been three notable spikes in implied volatility over the past 16 months. Two of those, which we have labelled China and Recession, took this measure to exceptional levels, as fears mounted that a slowdown in Asia would cause the world economy to crater. The third spike, in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit, saw risk rise to unusual, but not exceptional levels. Politics may have rediscovered Paul Graham’s mantra that “It’s charisma, stupid” to explain which candidate wins a two-horse race, but the market remains firmly fixated on the economy.

By now we all have the received wisdom that Trump is good for certain regulated industries, such as banks and pharmaceuticals and his fiscal policies will mean more inflation and higher interest rates. The perceived riskiness of utilities relative to financials has jumped to unusual levels, last seen just before everyone remembered that Greece was about to default. With a while to wait to find out what Trump really stands for, big banks could be less risky than energy distributors for a while.

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Central banks may have come to realise that forever easier money does not generate growth, but now they have the perfect foil to allow them to reverse course. Governors around the world have been beseeching politicians to do more to generate growth and the public has responded by electing those who promise to do something rather than nothing. There are incumbents who need to wise up fast. If Renzi’s reform bid fails then he may be gone, and if it succeeds and leads to a German imposed bail-in of bank depositors, then he’ll likely be gone a little later. The French also have an activist alternative to hamstrung mainstream politicians. Keep track daily of the implied volatility of the relevant markets and sectors with OTAS.

The chart of PE for the US top stocks suggests that the post-election move has room to run further and it would take a 7% re-rating to lift the valuation back to the highs of May 2015, when forward PE was last in touching distance of exceptional levels.

US Lage Cap. PE Valuation

US Large Cap. PE Valuation

One piece of received wisdom that is not playing out is that Trump will be unreservedly bad for trade and hence China and Emerging Markets. Mexico has taken a kicking, but perceived risk among China Enterprise stocks is almost unchanged. Once again it is fears of economic slowdown that floats this boat and clearly investors are not worried about a slowdown at present. Perhaps they believe that China wins relative to Mexico.

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

UK media is fretful the economy will suffer from trade restrictions. It is not obvious why Trump would single out the UK for harsh treatment when everything he has said points the other way and the immediate stock market weakness is likely to be currency related. The financial community in the UK is too savvy to confuse its own post-Brexit well-being with the health of the economy, when the opposite may be true. Keep an eye on implied volatility in the UK and be prepared to buy when threshold levels are reached. Threshold low PE ratios are also approaching.

One more thought going back to our blog of October 17, in which we argued that insurance stocks would be back in business once interest rate rises were on the cards. It may take a while for recalcitrant European central banks to get it, but the valuation of US insurance stocks in the last couple of days reinforces the conclusions we drew about what happens when they do.

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

After years of impasse, when the conclusion of culture wars rather than the economy occupied politicians, there are signs that activism is bringing markets to life. People worry that cultural change will be reversed, but let us hope that politicians and central bankers focus on the most important task of restoring growth for the benefit of all.

“It’s the devil’s way now, There is no way out

You can scream and you can shout

It is too late now, Because you have not been

Payin’ attention”

Radiohead 2+2=5

This week our Blog pulls together the themes and indicators from OTAS that we have been talking about for a while. We have been looking for clues that investors are losing faith in central bank omnipotence, which will expose those who do not adjust their portfolios from following the axiom of the past few years to a significant drawdown. There is a fierce debate among those who believe that judgement is coming and those who expect more of the same.

We tackled this issue in early September in what was probably my favourite blog, because the charts used to illustrate the points were the default charts that can be pulled up from OTAS with virtually no effort. For example, this chart of the average cost of credit for US large caps illustrates how credit risk has flat-lined this year, indicating a collective ambiguity about the direction of interest rates. Perhaps this is why the fiercest online investor arguments are about rates; because no one can be sure of where they are heading.

US Large Cap Average Cost of Credit

US Large Cap Average Cost of Credit

From here we developed the theory of Wall Street’s alternative fear gauge, where we used the relative volatility of banks and utilities to assess how relaxed investors were feeling about stock prices. In less than three weeks since then, the riskiness of banks, where low levels indicate an absence of fear, has fallen below that of utilities. This can hold true for several months, but it is not normal.

Relative Volatility of US Banks vs Utilities

Relative Volatility of US Banks vs Utilities

An obvious reason for the low relative riskiness of banks is that the odds of a US rate rise have increased, resulting in the dollar index breaking out of its recent trading range to the upside this week. Higher rates would raise banks’ margins, while hurting heavily borrowed utilities and diminishing the relative appeal of their dividend yields. This is a simple, but erstwhile effective investment conclusion.

Utility stocks are a stalwart of the low volatility portfolios that have been underperforming of late. This has led some to argue that the size of the unwind of the consensus trade in favour of low volatility and high yield will be the cause of the coming equity market fall. Last week we addressed the trigger point for index corrections in terms of the relative valuation of lower risk stocks. The sell-off in these names has pushed the riskiness of utility shares to extreme levels, which historically have not held for very long.

Relative Volatility of US Utilities

Relative Volatility of US Utilities

The mean reversion mechanism for this indicator is either that utilities lead and the rest follow in a coordinated meltdown in share prices, or the active few who trade relative volatility exit the stage, leaving the majority who passively expect the Fed to keep bailing them out to buy the dips.

The Radiohead song 2+2=5 references George Orwell’s 1984 and specifically Doublethink, whereby the state can compel citizens to believe something that is not true. For many investors it is axiomatic that stock prices will continue to rise, supported by easy monetary policy, because there is nowhere else for anyone to invest. The exchange rate related crushing that gold has taken this week reinforces this belief.

Radiohead subtitled their song The Lukewarm. This is a reference to those on the edge of Dante’s Inferno, who cannot figure out why they are there, because they didn’t do anything. For Dante, and the politically charged members of Radiohead, inactivity is precisely the crime for which these people are condemned. When you have an environmental activist in the family as I do, which makes Christmas colourful, you come to understand the charge sheet against the silent majority.

So who is more right; those who expect a major correction or those who believe that debt, deflation and an ageing population will result in years more pump priming by central banks. The reality is that both may be correct. A sell off in markets may be triggered by a rise in US interest rates, which could happen at the low point for our alternative fear gauge, which is now just a few points away. The resulting tumble could then trigger recognition of a policy error, leading central banks to resume the path of easy money.

In the first Blog referenced above we warned that CDS and implied volatility were sending conflicting signals. So far it is a correction in volatility that has addressed this discrepancy. US large cap CDS and implied volatility are two of the easiest charts to find and follow in OTAS. As Radiohead knew, there is no excuse for not payin’ attention.

Value is expensive. I am not sure that’s possible, etymologically speaking, although as it has happened it must be.

Investors are getting used to believing six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen could. In a world of negative interest rates, this is the norm. Overnight I read another piece about Canada’s multiple investment bubbles and I am sure that one day they will all burst.

Timing, though, is everything. As a young man I worked in Malaysia during the frenzied stock market run of the 1990s. Each year more investors would come to visit (and shop), count the cranes building skyscrapers and return home bearish. One guy turned the taxi around within ten minutes of leaving the airport and took the next flight home. Eventually one of the visiting investors got their timing right. It would be nice to think it was the airport guy, but I can’t be sure.

Low value equates to low volatility. As this survey shows, low volatility is also low beta and financial strength. Yet over the long term, neither extremely low nor exceptionally high volatility delivers the best performance. That comes from stocks with middling risk.

This is logical. One test of any mathematical model is that it delivers intuitive results. Volatility is risk and if the lowest risk stocks always delivered the highest returns, then their price would be bid up to unsustainable levels. Equally, while risk and return are related, if constantly buying the riskiest stocks delivered the best performance, the word conservative would have fallen out of use.

How do we track this in OTAS? Median implied volatility for the largest stocks in the US is 24, which means that in three months’ time the average share is predicted to be up or down by 12%. The stocks with below average implied volatility have an average forward PE around 18x. This is a slight premium to the market.

PE Relative of Low Volatility Stocks

PE Relative of Low Volatility Stocks

Over time, the stocks that currently have below average risk trade at the same PE as the market. Not all of today’s low vol stocks will always have been less risky, but a lot of them will have been. The chart shows that when the PE premium in low risk stocks reaches 7%, the next move for the market is down.

There are arguments as to why low risk stocks might have the highest potential growth. Strong balance sheets leave scope for leverage and with all the free money sloshing around, buybacks can be used to raise EPS. But Q2 buybacks were the lowest for two years.

Alternatively, all the strongest stocks have the funds to invest in future growth, while the risky stocks have none and hence their earnings will fall. Also, low risk means low return, which equates to high current PE. And that is the point; when the PE of low risk stocks reaches a certain relative level, the low return element of the deal kicks in and stock prices fall.

This typically occurs when the market as a whole falls. When indices retreat from highs, the low risk stocks fall the furthest. Then a few more hedge funds close claiming the market to be irrational.

Canada’s still booming, there is tremendous demand for bonds that you pay to own and the least risky stocks have the highest expected growth. It’s not impossible that this continues, but history suggests that it is unlikely.

This week the Federal Reserve is expected to keep interest rates unchanged. Generally speaking, lower interest rates are considered a drag on the profitability of banks and a boon to leveraged investors such as utilities. This is because the two industries may be seen as opposites, as banks’ traditional role was to supply the debt that utilities used to fund power projects. Both institutions are highly geared, but one to rising rates and the other to lower.

The implied volatility of banks tends to rise relative to utilities at times of market panic. Not only is bank leverage higher than that of utilities, or any other sector, and hence the business model more risky, but the response of the Fed to market panics is to lower rates, which hurts bank profitability. This is a highly simplistic view of investing, but it is not hard to see how it has become a dominant one in a world of repeated accommodation by the Fed.

Bank risk relative to utilities

Bank risk relative to utilities

The chart shows the median implied volatility of banks in North America against that of utilities. In other words, it is a measure of how risky banks are relative to power companies. Typically banks are greater risk because the value of the index is over one, although in periods of high complacency such as Spring 2015, this was not the case. While the spikes in the chart show when selloffs in the market occurred, it is the periods prior to the spikes that we might contemplate.

The chart runs from the beginning of the second quarter of 2010 to date. There is no compelling rationale for this time period, but it illustrates neatly the periods of extreme weakness in markets and that the two most recent sell offs, in February and June, were mild compared with the late 2011 and mid 2012 events. Investors are pretty benign about the risks to banks relative to utilities at this point and, using this as a gauge of market sentiment, pretty pleased with how the market should behave through the next three months.

This may be surprising given the impending US elections and an Italian referendum that could become a vote on the EU and membership of the Euro. It does, however, show how reliant investors are on central banks keeping asset prices high.

Thus it is worth considering Ben Hunt’s latest missive, in which he puts the odds of Fed hike at three times those implied by consensus. Why should we pay attention to a lone voice when so many are of a different opinion? Because if the consensus consists of a majority that all thinks the same thing for the same reason, then it is dogma rather than the wisdom of crowds.

The other reason for contemplating what might happen should the Fed raise rates is another look at our alternative fear gauge. While bank risk relative to utilities rose last week, it remains at a low level, creating an asymmetric risk-return payoff. A few basis point on, rather than off interest rates, will not be sufficient to restore bank profitability, but it would probably be enough to cause a major rethink among portfolio managers.

Two articles published overnight indicate that the period of central bank omnipotence has ended. The Daily Telegraph carries this commentary on the ECB exhausting its ability to improve the Eurozone economy and this piece about the need for central banks to continue to project omnipotence, whatever the reality. One of our favourite analysts, Ben Hunt, has already declared  that central banking influence is on the wane.

Our recent blog on the logic of investors doubling up equity positions through the option market concluded that this strategy was rational when central banks are the primary influence over stock markets. It stands to reason that if this influence is on the wane, then the risks to equity exposure are mounting.

At OTAS we spend a lot of time looking at the indicators that may inform investors about a change in trend. One popular indicator is the level of credit default swaps, shown here for the median US large cap.

US Large Cap Median CDS

US Large Cap Median CDS

The lowest level of risk for US companies on this measure was June 2014. We have noted that this corresponded to the approximate peak in global export volumes and that economic momentum has deteriorated subsequently. The Fed indicated its taper strategy in December 2013 and officially ended bond buying in October 2014, but it was not until April 2015 that the cost of credit for US corporates began a meaningful rise. Credit risk has returned to its average level and stalled. This may indicate a reluctance to believe that the Fed can raise interest rates meaningfully.

US Large Cap Median Implied Volatility

US Large Cap Median Implied Volatility

Implied volatility is another favoured measure of risk. This also reached a trough in the summer of 2014 and showed a more meaningful pick up from Q2 2015. The reduction in implied volatility since February however, is at odds with the CDS risk indicator. This may suggest that the actions of investors are supressing volatility without the same degree of support from central banks as in the past. This is either because corporate earnings are on a growth trajectory, or because a bubble is forming based on past behaviour by central banks.

US Large Cap Median PE

US Large Cap Median PE

The PE valuation of US large caps is above its average range and on the verge of completing four weeks of decline from close to record highs this cycle. PE can fall due to rising earnings or falling prices and there is nothing to stop the two occurring simultaneously.

The situation in Europe sees the PE valuation of large caps at the very top of the average range. Relative to US stocks the valuation is mid-range, as shown below. The relative valuation has been rising since early July, which may be currency related. It does not, however, bear out relative rates of growth and is not factoring in that further ECB action may be detrimental to the economy, as suggested in the first article referred to above.

European Large Cap Median PE relative to US Large Cap

European Large Cap Median PE relative to US Large Cap

Our final chart shows the valuation of large cap UK stocks. This looks a lot like the US chart, albeit at slightly lower levels of PE. Short term positive EPS revisions are dominated by the Materials sector; much as Energy stocks dominate the list of most recently upgraded US shares. In Europe, ex the UK, without such a prominent resources sector, upgrades show no obvious sector bias.

UK Large Cap Median PE

UK Large Cap Median PE

The last month suggests that cracks are beginning to form in the equity bull market thesis. One rationale for this is that the power of central banks to influence stock prices is diminishing, perhaps at an accelerating rate. The bigger point is that monetary policy alone has been insufficient to drive an economic recovery that translates into corporate earnings rising as quickly as stock prices. One has to doubt that investors will afford politicians and fiscal policy the same perceived omnipotence as they have allowed central banks and monetary policy in recent years.

Sustained periods of low volatility correlate well with steadily rising equity prices. Yet concern is mounting that the current low volatility is storing up future problems, because investors are doubling up on high share prices. By selling put options on shares and indices, thereby committing themselves to buy shares should the prices fall, these funds are exposed to an equity market sell-off through both their ownership of stock and the recently written put options.

It is perfectly rationale to sell puts if you believe that markets are rising. The concern however, is that funds are so starved of yield that they are writing puts for the short-term income benefit and relying on the world’s central banks to bail them out should stock markets take a dive. A parallel is drawn with the sub-prime mortgage debacle, when it was not the size of the market for poorly underwritten mortgage loans that triggered the financial crisis, but the vast number of derivatives layered on top that magnified risk throughout the financial system.

US Implied Volatility - 2 Years

Implied volatility for the top 500 US stocks has fallen sharply since the post-Brexit panic and even more significantly since the worries about global growth were at their height in February. Yet as the chart above shows, two year implied volatility remains in its average range and around 10% above the successive lows of 2015.

US Implied Volatility - Longer Term

On a longer timeframe the shock from the financial crisis and its echo in 2011 are clearly visible, but the current level of implied volatility is not unusual in the post-crisis period when central banks have been deliberately dampening volatility in order to encourage risk-taking. Implied volatility for US large caps is 6% above the low point of its average spread. In Europe the picture is similar and implied volatility is 18% above the bottom end of its normal range, which has repeatedly marked the low point for this indicator.

Europe Implied Volatility

The charts appear to support the strategy of the put sellers, because implied volatility still has room to fall to reach previous lows, during which time the options sold will expire worthless. The put writers are also doing central bankers’ bidding by taking more risk, so they will feel justified in expecting central banks to bail them out when necessary. Large, long-only funds find it difficult to react to sudden moves in markets, meaning that they miss their chance to scoop up large quantities of shares before prices rally back to where they were. A logical way to ensure that these funds benefit from temporary corrections is to write puts so that they are guaranteed stock immediately prior to a central bank induced bounce.

There is a near-term benefit in enhanced portfolio returns because of the income from writing puts, but the longer-term gains are based on the assumption that central banks will continue to do what they have been doing since 2009. Janet Yellen may lay out the path to higher interest rates in her speeches, but as long as the Fed is seen to be ready to ease monetary policy whenever markets are in stress, the put-writing investment strategy will work.

OTAS users may keep a close eye on the trends in implied volatility to see when the current normal moves become exceptional. They should also look for confirmation from other indicators presented in a similar fashion, such as the cost of credit for corporates derived from the CDS market.

 

We have written a lot about using implied volatility as the measure of how equity markets will react to supposedly high risk political events, including Brexit and the US Presidential Election. This week, Institutional Investor has been good enough to publish our article making precisely this point. Today, however, I want to focus on corporate credit and its importance in determining the success of central bank policy.

Once again I am grateful for outside help, in this instance EvergreenGK for pointing out when and why “Don’t fight the Fed” works. The crux of the argument is that our mantra should really be “Don’t fight the Spread“.

The message from implied volatility in equity markets is that stocks and shares are set fair for the next three months at least, which takes us to the eve of the Presidential election, supposedly the most polarising event in living memory. Equity investors are relying on volatility-crushing central bank interventions to maintain an upward trajectory to equity markets.

Evergreen notes that the early 1930s, the start of the 2000s and mid-2008 to early 2009, were all periods of expansionary monetary policy and terrible stock market performance. If you hadn’t fought the Fed on those occasions, your portfolio would have come-a-cropper. The signal to break from orthodoxy was the rise in corporate credit spreads, because investors considered the risk of companies defaulting to be so great that no authority could do anything about it. This proved to be the case for periods of time that we now call the Great Depression, the bursting of the Dot-Com Bubble and the Global Financial Crisis.

So to today and the five-year credit default swap for the average large cap US company as an indicator of risk for equities. The low point of the median CDS was June 2014 and there has been a steady rise since April 2015. This coincides with total global trade by volume (not value) starting its decline; hard evidence that the trend towards globalisation ended well before protectionists were the only choice for the White House.

Average 5Y CDS for US Large Caps

Average 5Y CDS for US Large Caps

I have shown the chart over a five year period. What this highlights is that corporate credit risk is now very close to the average level over that period and below levels seen in 2011 (thus well below extremes three years earlier). The high point of central bank potency has passed, because the links between money and trade, a primary conduit of long-term global growth, are just too tenuous. What central banks appear to have done however, thanks to the ECB’s intervention in February, is cap the level of risk for now.

EUR CDS

Average 5Y CDS for European Large Caps

The trends for large European corporate credit are similar to those in the US. Average credit costs are 13% higher in Europe, despite US policy rates being above those in Europe. This means that the risk of companies defaulting is greater than in the US, even though the ECB has been buying corporate debt directly since June.

This week the Bank of England announced that it would purchase up to £10bn of corporate debt. The rationale for this is that it will do more to make investors buy other corporate securities (i.e. equities) than if the Bank simply purchased more gilts. Also, with the cost of debt reduced, companies should issue more debt. It remains to be seen whether this has any impact on corporate investment, but recent history suggests that it will boost share buybacks and M&A.

UK CDS

Average 5Y CDS for UK Large Caps

Credit risk in the UK is higher than both the US and Europe. The highest risk is for mining companies, followed by supermarkets and then financial companies. The issues with each of these industries pre-dates Brexit by some way, although as we argue in the Institutional Investor article, the rapid response to Brexit by the Bank of England will only exacerbate the woes of banks and insurers. The UK economy is peculiarly dependent on financial industries.

The success of central banks in holding down corporate credit costs may well determine whether you should be “fighting the Fed” or going with the flow. OTAS presentation of corporate credit is relevant because of the deep statistical analysis that sits behind every chart and table and in the flags that alert you, stock-by-stock, to significant credit events. You can stare at other screens for hours if your firm buys the data feeds, but without the statistical significance, it’s all just noise.

‘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, Nemesis

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.

DVY June 2016

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.

XLP June 2016

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.

German CDS June 2016

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.

The results are in for the first quarter earnings season in the US and do not make for pretty reading. For the sixth consecutive season, operating earnings of the largest companies have declined. A little over one fifth of companies issued earnings guidance and, of those, 71% advised analysts to lower their expectations. The gradual erosion of the earnings base of the country’s largest companies has taken its toll on the valuation of the stock market.

US May 16

The valuation of the market peaked in May 2015, just over a year ago. There was a first quarter rally on the back of more monetary easing in Europe, but the impact on US companies is likely to be short lived. When the ECB announced that it would be buying European corporate debt, this boosted the value of debt and pushed down the yield that borrowers have to pay. Large US companies can take advantage of this to raise debt in Europe and use the proceeds to buy back shares to temporarily support stock prices.

The decline in earnings also has a short term impact on valuation, by raising the market multiple, but as the chart shows, the more powerful force is the growing momentum out of US equities in response to declining profitability.

There is some good news, however. OTAS makes it easy to filter a market or portfolio of stocks to find those where the trend in earnings is bucking the general malaise. There are 33 companies with falling share prices and rising EPS estimates, where this contrast is sufficiently significant to stand out from the rest of the market. Ten of these shares are in the energy and materials sectors, which are whipsawed by the anticipated moves in currency and commodity markets, but the remaining 23 shares are trading at a 22% discount to the average valuation of the broader market.

The US stocks bucking the earnings malaise

By applying one filter for stocks with significant divergence between falling price and rising EPS estimates, and a second excluding energy and materials shares, in just a handful of clicks we are left with a chart showing only the outliers across the whole market. Hovering over each yellow disc reveals the name and recent performance of the company. Frontier Communications is highlighted below.

Another look at the stocks bucking the negative trendDouble clicking the name takes you to the EPS Momentum page for Frontier Communications and to a chart that shows the relationship between the share price and estimates of upcoming earnings. In the case of Frontier, investors were faster than analysts to realise the downgrades that plagued the last nine months of 2015, but both analysts and investors have been in step since the beginning of this year. Then the share price weakness over the past month contrasts sharply with the average 8% upgrade to forward earnings posted by the analyst community.

Frontier Communications' Loss Estimates Fall

Obviously it is up to investors to decide whether the recent share price weakness heralds another false dawn for the company, but OTAS provides layers of analysis to help make this judgement. For example, Frontier’s estimates have risen for the years to December 2016 and 2018, but fallen for 2017, so it may be that investors are most focused on next year. Frontier’s borrowing costs over seven times that of its industry peers and the shares may thus have reacted to the renewed prospects for a summer rate hike. Frontier will also pay a dividend in 20 days times and has a forward yield of 8.6%, but while free cash flow covers the pay-out, earnings do not.

All of these factors influence the decision to buy or sell Frontier, or indeed any stock. OTAS provides a one-stop shop for all the market intelligence that you need to make sure that you are as fully informed in your trading or investment decision as you can be. OTAS also draws out the priority issues that are impacting share prices, to help fundamental investors frame the most pertinent and timely questions when they interrogate a company’s performance, its financials and its management.

Short VIX positions are at an all-time high, while net shorts are at an eight month high. For those not versed in financial speak, this means that investors are expecting a low level of volatility, or uncertainty, and that share prices are not expected to change much in the short to medium term.

Low levels of uncertainty are traditionally associated with gradually rising stock prices, because investors pay more when they are confident about the future. Central banks have attempted to crush volatility precisely to boost investor confidence, in the hope that this would spread to the broader economy. Whether this has happened is fiercely debated, but a leading investment bank tells us that more than 60% of US large companies are buying back shares, a similar level to the 2007 peak. This certainly helps offset any weakness in share prices when earnings disappoint.

US large co. implied volatilityThe chart above shows that option traders expect US stocks to rise or fall by 12% over the next three months. There is no bias towards rising or falling in this analysis, but the chart clearly shows that implied volatility is at the low end of the average range over the past eight years. This is down by a third since February, when economic woes and earnings concerns were at their recent peak.

The February top had briefly exceeded the June 2012 high, just before Mario Draghi’s (in)famous “whatever it takes” speech. Since then, markets have been calmed once more, chiefly due to Draghi promising to buy up any piece of debt that investors in Europe can produce for him. The impact on volatility in Germany has been much the same as in the US.

German large company Implied Volatility

Investors expect German stocks to rise or fall by 13% over three months, which is in lock step with US shares. This level of volatility is also at the low end of the long-run average range and has fallen by a little under a third since February. The February peak level also exceeded, briefly, the early summer 2012 jump in volatility that did much to trigger ECB action back then (the US having already acted long before to crush the extraordinary volatility of the financial crisis).

The chart tells us that volatility can fall further, in both the US and Europe and still be within the average long term range. At implied volatility of between 19 and 20 (+/- 10% three month share price moves) the US chart would be back at levels that were sustained from March to July last year. This was a period of high and stable values for the US stock market, but critically indices did not break through to new highs.

Once again, under the captive eye of the investment world, central banks have poured oil on troubled water and may succeed in coaxing markets back towards record levels. If so, this will have been achieved by creating copious amounts of money and having it buy back stock. The accumulation of debt for this type of investment, which has no obvious productive purpose, will do nothing for earnings growth other than create a dependency on even more buybacks next year if companies are to beat their earnings.

Once again, an extended period of low volatility is likely to be interrupted by a panic about economic growth and sustainability of earnings, and the investment world will turn to the central banks and demand another shot in the arm. By using OTAS to follow EPS Momentum changes and movements in implied volatility, traders and investors can expect to gain advance warning of impending moves.