Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Negative Expectations at Their Highest in History

Our MarketPsych index of negative stock market expectations is now the highest we've ever seen (we've got data back to 1984).

The Fed's actions and words -- explicitly committing to bail out mortgage lenders -- should have lowered market negativity. Instead we got a morning rally afterwards and then further selling.

What we saw last week was everyone jumping ship - a real crowd effect. The only information driving investors was downwards price action and rumors of further collapses. The more stocks dropped, the more they sold. A positive feedback loop was created.

In psychology, a positive feedback loop is created when people base their opinion of how bad a situation is on the actions of others. When everyone is doing this, we can usually call it the peak of a mania or the bottom of a panic.

The market stopped being comforted by the Fed, which is a bit scary. Fortunately, it was primarily the financials getting hit today. The Biotech index was actually up 4%. A rally is certainly near (though I was wrong last week).

Eventually, when the supply of sellers decreases, because they've run out of shares or capital to sell, positive feedback loops can't sustain their negative price momentum.

The danger is that acting on negative expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wrote about this in my book, with the example of Brazil's near debt default in 2002.

Essentially, the more investors avoid new bond offerings, and the higher rates go (especially for junk bonds), the more squeezed are companies that need to raise capital. Eventually many will go bust because they can't afford the high interest rates (which are high because investors are afraid the companies will default). If the rates had been lower (because investors were more calm), then the debt would have been service-able and the company would have survived. The crowd's pessimism really can make things worse (just as its optimism was problematic in allowing such overconfident risk taking through 2007).

At this point, it's important to ask "can it get worse?" (yes), "will it get worse?" (probably), and "has this been priced in?" (in many sectors, yes, much too much).

In financials it's not clear to me if it has been priced in, hmmm.... A rally in financials won't happen until we know where the next bogeyman is. And right now, there are lots of terrible rumors, but no new sources of pain. I think investors are waiting to see how the current pain will spread, since it's clear that the economy is slowing and the real economic slowdown hasn't been reflected in the numbers yet. "Who's next to collapse?" is often heard.

There are some amazing bargains out there. A stock or bond screen will demonstrate great values. I don't trust the numbers on financials (never have), but in some traditional industries low debt stocks with PEs of 6 and trading under their book values are much more common. I won't get specific because the blog is about psychology, not stocks picks at the moment.

But watch out for stocks vulnerable to the self-fulfilling prophecy of higher interest rates for "risky" bonds. That's whay I mentioned to look for "low debt" stocks.

Solutions to the current crisis include better political and regulatory management of the psychology of risk-taking, which isn't likely anytime soon (as I mentioned in my last blog post). It will take some deep understanding of human behavior in the Fed and SEC (and maybe an in-house psychologist or two) before we get such enlightened policy. In the meantme, there will always be bubbles and panics to take advantage of.

Historic times we're in. Now let's make the best of it!


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Expectations, the Stock Market, and The Prediction Addiction

Why is it so tempting to make stock market predictions?

Maybe it's an anxiety reliever -- predicting implies that there is a pattern, a cause, that can be found if only we look hard enough. Forecasting bolsters our sense of control.

At the same time, we all predict with similar neural "hardware." So maybe we all make predictions based on similar information, or at similar times? And if so, are we collectively usually wrong or right?

The answers to that question underlie our asset management service (MarketPsy Capital LLC).

The chart below displays negative expectations in the major business press (WSJ, Financial Times, Barrons, New York Times).

The chart shows Negative stock market expectations (the brown line) superimposed on a candlestick stock chart of the S&P 500 (SPY). As you can see in the chart, high negative expectations are not usually a good time to buy, until they fall.

Today negative expectations dropped when the Fed reported a willingness to lend to banks beyond September 2008.

However, creating a portfolio strategy out of the "buy on decreasing negativity" insight is not easy. For one thing, we can intellectualize and chart our pessimism, but we still believe it: "this time it's different, it really is THAT bad," we might tell ourselves.

And furthermore, somtimes negativity is justified, and the catastrophe really does happen.

Here is a chart of the same data series from a January blog post. Notice that we did get a stock market rally when the negativity decreased, but now it is higher than perviously.

The stock market is an anticipatory mechanism. It has priced in a lot of pain to come. The real question is, will the pain be worse than the market expects? If not, then it is likely to rally. And in general, people anticipate more pain than is actually experienced. They will even cause themselves greater pain in the present so they can stop anticipating future (smaller) pain. (This is called the cost of Dread). Many investors felt tempted to sell their stocks last week, just to save themselves the dread of further price declines.

This Fall we'll see if the credit crunch shows signs of abating. From what I hear and read (The Credit Crisis is Going to Get Worse), it will continue. And printing money (increasing liquidity) may not work as well in alleviating the squeeze this time.

That said -- and because I'm nervous about this market ;) -- I'd like to make a prediction. It's kind of a cheap sensationalist substitute for an educational blog post. Like the one that Frank just wrote. But here goes: I suspect we're due for another short-term rally. Expectations are vey pessimistic, and now they are becoming less so.

Those are my thoughts, but then, maybe I'm just seeing order in madness. On the contrary, given the statistical results of our research, I think we really have found predictive factors rooted in the collective psyche.

It was clever that Bernanke spoke about continuing debt relief today. Someday, I'm optimistic, the Fed will consciously direct fiscal, policy, and monetary factors to have a greater impact on the psychology of the economy's participants. This may help alleviate future bubbles and crashes.

But that may require a generational change, and I don't think we have enough evidence that it will not also do harm (though it can't be much worse than the enormous liquidity we've seen in the last decade). It's not easy to accurately model psychology or economic behavior, which keeps it out of the standard curriculum.

For now, we are seeing efforts to change fiscal policy that do have a positive effect on the psychology of consumers. Which is good. Someday those efforts will include specific language and will target more vulnerable psychological themes (housing insecurity, confidence to spend, fears of perpetual debt, etc...).


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fearless Forecasting: How Low Can You Go?

It's official. The DJIA dropped 20% from its highs last October.

In other words, the Bear is back.

Whenever we hit a nice round number (e.g., "Dow 10,000) or experience a round number move (e.g., "Down 20%) it leads to a big picture discussion of where the market has gone... and where it will go next.

That means "market predictions".

In an earlier post, I observed that employing a black-tailed marmoset to throw darts at a board would prove just as useful an exercise (and an infinitely more entertaining one.)

It may be useful in at this time to review two major causes of precisely why.

One major cause is something called the Gambler's Fallacy, a miscalculation that ironically tends to afflict more market savvy investors (pros) than casual investors (amateurs).

Quick Example: Say you're at Mohegan Sun (where I was last week) and you're observing the roulette table. The wheel turns up "red" results 7 times in a row. These results don't fit with our mental schema. We know that the odds of a ball coming up "red" vs "black" at a roulette table is roughly 50%/50% (47.368/47.368 to be more precise). Our brain says something to the effect of "Black is due"! And we feel the urge to bet (overbet?) on a black result next time. Of course, the odds of the wheel yielding a "black" result are the same as ever - roughly 50/50. But it feels like it should turn up black, and that feeling overrides our rationality.

This is the classic manifestation of the Gambler's Fallacy - the notion a series of independent events yield useful information about predicting future independent events.
Pretty elementary stuff, I grant you. So why should something so obvious effect even top Wall Street Strategists?
Because the same tendency reveals itself in Market Predictions.

Hersh Shefrin, in his landmark book, Beyond Greed and Fear, provides a relevant example. At the beginning of 1997, Barron's interviewed chief strategists from top Wall Street firms, requesting 12 month market predictions.
On June 20, the market had risen 19.7% for the year to 7796, well above every strategist had forecasted.
A chief strategist for Smith Barney said in response, "We've all been humbled".

When Barron's asked the strategists for revisions predictions in late June, the average prediction was for the DJIA to drop 10.3% by year end.

Point of fact, the DJIA close slightlty higher for the year at 7908.
So despite all we know about market tendencies to move higher, the experts predicted a steep, upstream move in the opposite direction.

Why did they do it then and why do they continue to do it?
The answer is the investing version of the Gambler's Fallacy, that template driven interpretation of regression to the mean. We know the Dow tends to go up on average 9% or so every year. And we have a strong desire to fit predictions into that template.

But there is nothing magical about a calendar year - it's just a handy way of charting time. And if stocks tend to go up 9% or so every 12 months, than regression to the mean demands we predict that stocks will go up 9% or so every 12 months - not that they will reverse themselves according to our schedule in order to provide yearly averages.

Now, I'm not throwing stones here. Believe me, I'm not. I'm wrong constantly. And certainly all the participants were wise and learned professionals whose opinions are worthy of respect. But that's part of what makes this so fascinating.

Even they (especially they?) are not immune from the same impulses that drive roulette players to overbet because they think "red" is overdue or because a single digit number hasn't popped up in a while.

And - I can't help myself, I'm gonna say it - the other factor is no, (gosh darnit) they were not humbled, despite declarations to the contrary.

Wrong? Yes. Embarrassed? Perhaps. But humbled? No way.

A crucial component to being humbled is admitting you are wrong.

By prediciting a 10% reversal, the experts adjusted their predictions to support their original predictions.

Trying to prove you were right all along is not humility. It is the opposite of humility.

So with a bear market here and the inevitable market predictions to come, what are some things for investors to keep in mind?

1) Stay ready.

2) Stay humble.

3) Recognize the mathematical illusions inherent in regression to the mean.

Happy Investing.