Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Herd Mentality

We enjoy reading the monthly BAML global fund manager survey to get a better idea of current sentiment and bias in the world markets.  However, we wanted to revisit last years survey to see how traders were positioned going into 2018.  Below is a recap of December 2017 survey.
  • Golditrumps: consensus still smitten by Goldilocks...54% expect “high growth, low inflation” in 2018. Almost 2/3 investors believe US tax reform will induce higher stocks& rates, but fiscal stimulus has coincided with lower, not higher profit expectations, and that will need to change given EPS leads relative performance of cyclicals by 3 month(Exhibit 10).
  • Pro-cyclical Consensus: Investors are long macro “boom”, short “bust”; long stocks,EU/Japan/EM stocks, financials (2nd largest ever), materials (highest since 2/2012) vs short government bonds, US stocks, healthcare & utilities. Pro-cyclical consensus entrenched by US tax reform across asset classes, bar, intriguingly, leading tech sector where allocations dropped to lowest since June 2014 (Exhibit 4).
  • FMS Crowded Trades: ...#1 long Bitcoin (32%), #2 long FAANG+BAT (29%), #3 short volatility (14%), while expectations for a “flatter yield curve” surged (highest in 18months), all trades vulnerable to higher inflation & aggressive ECB/BoJ Quantitative Tightening in 2018.
It's amazing how wrong the herd was with the two most crowded trades experiencing bear markets in 2018.  Both Bitcoin and FANG have gotten crushed this year.  Most were bullish and positioned their portfolios for continued upside in 2018.  Lets use this in context when looking at the most recent survey.  Below is a recap of the December survey. 
  • Dec FMS close to "extreme bearishness"; dovish Fed this week = bear market bounce; but Big Low in '19 awaits end of recession and credit concerns.
  • One year ago FMS investors bullish, long Bitcoin (it hit $19,611 on Dec 19th 2017), global stocks, banks, and short bonds and defensivesone year later FMS investors bearish, long cash, US dollar, defensives, short global stocks, tech, industrials.
  • Dec'18 FMS "bearish"global GDP/EPS expectations down big, stocks allocations at two-year lowsbut cash level at 4.8% not enough to trigger contrarian "buy signal" for risk assets from BofAML Bull & Bear Indicator…now 2.5.
  • New FMS Trading Rules (link) still bearish…US HY Rule = short credit (implies HY spread of 825bps); FMS Treasury Rule = long 10y UST (implies 2.7%); FMS Equity/Bond Rule = long bonds (implies bonds outperform equities by 690bps).
  • Dec '18 FMS shows investors want corporates to improve balance sheets rather than increase capex, return cash to shareholders = first time since '08/'09.
  • Bullish Fed this week: a. 25bps hike plus message of "no inflation" allows pause in hikes and balance sheet tightening, b. US dollar falls, c. positive RTY, BKX, XHB reaction.
  • Bearish Fed this week: a. no hike which triggers recession concern; b. US dollar rally continues; c. sell-off in rate-sensitives and cyclicals (watch RTY) prompts US stocks to join global bear market with SPX flush to 2400.
  • #1 FMS crowded trade = "long USD" (overtakes "long FAANG+BAT"); only reason bullish US$ + bearish risk consensus + Fed capitulation ≠ stocks and credit trading rally is…recession or credit event imminent.
Clearly the tone has changed heading into 2019.  There is a decisively bearish attitude and the survey compliments this.  The December survey shows the biggest ever one month rotation into bonds with large moves into defensive names.


Allocation to bonds rips 23ppt to net 35% underweight, the highest bond allocation since the Brexit vote in Jun'16. 


53% of the FMS investors expect the global growth to weaken over the next 12 months, the worst outlook on the global economy since Oct'08

FMS investor concern about corporate leverage (highest since Oct'09) tracks equities vs. bond performance closely and implies considerable downside for equities relative to bonds in the coming quarter.


Allocation to equities crashes 15pt to net 16% overweight, a 2-year low.  Current allocation is 0.6 below its long-term average. 

However, just 9% of FMS investors expect a global economic recession in 2019, down from 11% last month. 


All this negativity lines up with plenty of indicators flashing oversold conditions.  One breadth indicator we follow is the number of monthly lows.  Yesterday hit levels that are associated with short term bottoms.  Below we can see when these levels spike the S&P has been close to a short term low and attempted to bounce.

The markets are currently experiencing a correction.  This correction has been more severe than the past few corrections but for now remains within the parameters of a normal correction.  The question many people ask is will it lead to an outright bear market.  I wish I knew the answer.  Since I can't predict the market, risk management becomes paramount during corrections.  If this correction turns into a bear market, oversold conditions will remain oversold.  However, the market will still endure violent rallies.  When breadth and sentiment gets stretched to the downside, these are areas to exploit for counter trend moves. 

In summary, the majority has turned bearish according to the recent FMS survey.  They were the exact opposite this time last year.  Will the herd be proven wrong yet again and will 2019 bring in equity strength?  If a recession is avoided in 2019 as most predict, this correction will most likely be seen as a great buying opportunity.  However, if something worse is lurking around the corning we could be in for more pain.  Only time will tell.