Hat Trick

December  9, 2018

by Steve Stofka

For the third time in six weeks, the SP500 fell below its 200-day moving average. This ten-month average of trading activity is a benchmark that indicates mid to long-term sentiment. It is a tug of war between the bulls and the bears, the buyers and sellers, over the developing trade war between the U.S. and China.

Technical market watchers call a crossing below the 200-day a Death Cross, a too dramatic name for something that may occur once or twice a year. Less frequently does it happen twice in a two-month period – a Double (Note #1). Rarely does it occur three times in such a short period of time – a Hat Trick (Note #2).

Hat Tricks signal strong investor worry about one or more structural conditions that will impact future earnings. The situation may resolve, and the market regain its upward trend. If the situation does not resolve, expect further price declines.

What does this mean for the casual investor? Contributions to an IRA at current prices will be priced as though you had dollar-cost averaged (DCA) each month of this year. As I showed in 2011 (Note #3), the DCA strategy has produced the highest long-term returns on the SP500. Look at the monthly bar on the chart below.

5de57-iracontribspy1993-2010sharesmonthly
History is the only guide we have to investor behavior. Previous Doubles occurred in 2015 and 2012. Previous Hat Tricks developed in 2011 and 2010, producing strong price corrections (Note #4) in response to budget duels between Republicans and President Obama (2011), and debt crises in the Eurozone (2010).

In hindsight, the Hat Trick that occurred during four weeks in August 2007 signaled that this was more than a well-deserved correction in the housing market. Don’t we wish we had the clarity of a rearview mirror? Another Hat Trick a few months later in November and December 2007 coincided with the beginning of the recession that lasted 20 months and chopped 60% off the price of the SP500. Another Hat Trick in May and June 2008 came just months before the onset of the Financial Crisis in September 2008.

A Hat Trick accompanied the peak of the housing market in 2006, and the peak of the dot-com market in 2000. It signaled the start and end of the 1990 recession.

Lesson: be cautious.

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Notes:
1. In technical analysis, this double bottom forms a ‘W’ and indicates a possible exhaustion of selling before a reversal to the upside.
2. Hat Trick is a name I made up for 3 dips below the 200-day in a two-month period.
3. I compared various IRA investing strategies in May 2011
4. Price declines in 2010 and 2011 barely escaped being classified as bear market corrections, defined as a closing price 20% below a previous closing high price.

Electoral College

November 20, 2016

Did you know that the U.S. has the highest Presidential voting record in the world?  100%.  No other country comes close.  How do we achieve this extraordinary participation rate?  The Electoral College (EC).

What the heck is the Electoral College and why doesn’t any other democracy use this system?  Firstly, the U.S. is not strictly a Democracy, in which people vote directly for their leader.  It is a democratic (small ‘d’) republic.  Within this republic, the states are semi-autonomous regions in a Federal alliance.  It is the states, not the people, who elect the President.

Each Prez election is a survey conducted by the state asking its citizens: who do you want the state to vote for in the Presidential race?  The survey is voluntary.  Each state has its own rules for participation in the survey.  Federal election law specifies a set of common rules that each state has to follow in conducting their survey.

Each state gets a certain number of Electoral College votes based on population.  The survey in each state simply tells the state what the wishes of the people are for President. There is no requirement in the Constitution that a state must follow the survey results, but each state has, over time, passed state laws that promise to abide by the will of the people in that state.

In 2000 and again in 2016, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote of all the states but lost the state by state vote in the Electoral College.  Some people in dense urban areas who vote Democratic would like to abolish the Electoral College.  If there were no college, Presidential  candidates could concentrate their campaign resources and promises to win the vote in the urban areas and largely leave the less populous areas of the country alone.

In the current system, a candidate must mount a campaign that involves and employs people in each state, a difficult if not impossible task.  The appeal and focus of the campaign must be broader than just urban or rural areas.  Resources and time are limited so a candidate must make critical choices regarding the deployment of those limited tools.

A candidate must surround him or herself with smart people who can:

1) organize and  deploy human and media resources within each state,
2)  organize the outreach for financial support,
3)  search for and identify undercurrents of sentiment and concern in each state,
4)  compact a message that will resonate with those sentiments and concerns,
5)  sample and analyze the ongoing responses to a candidate’s message.

There is an algorithmic strategy used in many fields called “win-stay, lose-shift.” The problem is commonly called the multi-handled bandit.  In a casino with many one-armed bandits what is the best strategy to maximize profits and minimize losses?  Mathematically, the problem may be insoluble but a reliable quasi-solution exists that is better than chance.  Stay with a particular bandit as long as it wins, then shift when it loses and start again.

Donald is a casino owner so he may be familiar with the strategy and used it quite successfully to conduct an unusual campaign.  A campaign has a number of characteristics – a saying or slogan (“Si se puede” or “Build the wall”), a policy (foreign trade or national security), an issue (abortion or honesty), or an attitude (impassioned, combative, or calm and reassuring).  A candidate feeds people’s sentiments into each of these characteristics like one would feed coins into a slot machine.  Now pull the handle.  If that theme pays off the majority of the time, then stick with it.  If it doesn’t, then shift.

Now here’s the brilliant part that Donald played whether he was conscious of it or not.  Every political bandit that was a loser for Donald Trump was not only abandoned but moved over to Hillary’s casino.  In many cases, she couldn’t win at them either.

Honesty?  Donald had a problem.  Load up the honesty bandit and move it over to Hillary’s casino. Let her feed people’s sentiments into that bandit and see if it pays off.  The woman issue?  Another non-paying bandit for Donald.  Again, move it over to Hillary’s side and let her see if she can win with the machine.  In both cases, she pulled the handles over and over again with only modest success.

Each Presidential campaign seems to bring some new innovation.  Successes are often incorporated into later campaigns.  Obama’s campaign was noted for its ability to raise money online with many small donations.  The campaign carefully tested the appearance of different web pages, measuring even the appearance of one click button over another.  Obama outraised his opponents in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.   In the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton and her superPACS outraised Donald Trump almost 2:1, yet he won. (Bloomberg)

We should all wish that a President has a successful term.  Unsuccessful terms are usually accompanied by economic and military events that are not good for ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Whether Donald Trump has a successful term or not, he has certainly made a long lasting impact on future campaigns for President.  Who can be out with the first book?  Already CNN is advertising a comprehensive look at the election. As we put a bit more distance in the hindsight mirror, expect a number of books on the election.  Masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations will explore the many aspects of the campaign.

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Election Autopsy 

After each Presidential election, those in the campaign business do an autopsy of both the losing and winning campaigns.  What worked?  What didn’t?  Dems need to ask themselves if they neglected the needs of everyday working Americans. In 2008, Obama promised that the needs, values and perspective of his grandparents, who raised him, would guide his decisions. Then he and his party started bailing out the banks, car companies and solar industry as many ordinary people struggled and suffered with job loss, home loss and bankruptcy. With majorities in both Houses, he fiddled with decades old Democratic dreams like healthcare and climate change while working class Americans felt discarded.

Some attribute the heavy Demcratic losses in 2010 to Obamacare but that was only a symbol for the larger betrayal that many Obama voters felt. Having control of both the Presidency and Congress is a mandate that a party can abuse.  It is given to that party to get something done fairly quickly.  When a political party uses it for pet projects, people turn away or vote the other way.  Many turned away in the 2010 election.  Six years later, Republicans control the majority of state legistatures, the governerships, the House and Senate.

As Majority House Leader, Nancy Pelosi certainly had a hand in the growing disaffection with the Party yet she insists that she should continue in her role as Minority Leader.  Her strength as a formidable fund-raiser may prove to be the winning card that trumps her past errors.

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Vaccines

A familiar meme on social media is that there is a vaccine conspiracy between pharmaceutical companies and the government who force parents to vaccinate their children and pad the pockets of Big Pharma.  The U.S. has a policy of giving infants and children more vaccines than any other developed country.  Do pharmaceutical companies make millions off vaccines? You be the judge.

The PVC13 vaccine given to older people costs the provider $16 per dose (CDC Price List). In March 2016, the discounted price from Kaiser was $313 for the vaccine alone. The labor to give the vaccine was a separate line item. That is a 2000% markup on the vaccine itself by Kaiser, not the manufacturer.

It is the providers who administer the vaccines who make the money.  Investors who own the stocks of a pharmaceutical company often pressure the company to get out of the vaccine business because most vaccines are low margin products and yet carry partial liability.

If the pharma companies don’t want to bother making many vaccines, should the government simply build their own vaccine manufacturing labs?  Patents and other intellectual property could be a hurdle but Congress could arrange to purchase them or use eminent domain to set a price and seize the intellectual property.

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Retail Sales

Average = Strong.  When growth is rather anemic, a return to average seems strong.  In October, retail sales rose 4.3% above October sales in 2015, a welcome bump up from the lackluster growth of the past two years.  Last month I showed that recent sales growth less population and inflation growth has been negative or close to 0.

The stock and bond markets have been shifting money around in anticipation of fiscal stimulus and more relaxed regulation from a Republican Party in control of the levers of government.  Small business stocks (VBR) are up more than 10% and financial companies (XLF, VFH) have shot up about 12%.  Consumer discretionary stocks (XLY, VCR) are up about 4% while the more defensive consumer staples stocks (XLP, VDC) are down 2%. Oil stocks (XLE, VDE) are up about 3%.

Will consumers put aside their cautions and spend more?  Active stock managers are certainly hoping so.

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Ideas for IRA contributions

Emerging market stocks are still up 8% YTD after falling more than 6% in November.  Much of that decline has come on the heels of Trump’s election win.

A broad bond index has fallen almost 4% in the past few months.

IRA Contributions On Sale

In late March, I was speaking with someone about IRA contributions.  Both of us agreed that we were hoping that the market would come down a bit before the April 15th deadline to make a contribution for the 2009 tax year.  By April 15th, the market had gone even higher on early signs that a recovery was gaining steam. 

Recent data in this past month has cast doubt on hopes for a strong recovery and the market has declined 16% from its high on April 23rd.  Now might be a good time to think about making some part of a 2010 IRA contribution.  If you think the market could fall further into bear market territory, a 20% or greater correction, then stagger or dollar cost average your contributions.  Too often we make the mistake of not thinking about IRA contributions till a few months before the deadline.