Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dancing in the Dark: S&P 500 Edition

In early July of 2007, Citigroup CEO Chuck Price told the Financial Times: "As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.". Didn't work out too well for him as he was out of a job a few months later. I am not going to go into detail about the "Great Recession" of 2008-2009, but Mr. Prince and his company were an integral part of the financial collapse. Citigroup wasn't a lone actor, either. Jump cut ten years later and investors are back on the dance floor. This is the second longest Bull Market in history.

S&P 500 Bull Markets Since 1928
Tough Date Peak Date Percent Gain Number of Days
6/12/1928 9/7/1929 74.0 452
11/13/1929 4/10/1930 46.8 148
6/1/1932 9/7/1932 111.6 98
2/27/1933 7/18/1933 120.6 141
10/21/1933 2/6/1934 37.9 108
3/14/1935 4/6/1936 92.4 389
4/29/1936 3/6/1937 38.1 311
3/31/1938 11/9/1938 62.2 223
4/8/1939 10/25/1939 29.8 200
6/10/1940 11/9/1940 26.8 152
4/28/1942 7/14/1943 69.2 442
11/29/1943 5/29/1946 75.2 912
10/9/1946 6/15/1948 20.8 615
6/13/1949 8/2/1956 267.1 2607
10/22/1957 12/12/1961 86.4 1512
6/26/1962 2/9/1966 79.8 1324
10/7/1966 11/29/1968 48.0 784
5/26/1970 1/11/1973 73.5 961
10/3/1974 11/28/1980 125.6 2248
8/12/1982 8/25/1987 228.8 1839
12/4/1987 3/24/2000 582.1 4494
10/9/2002 10/9/2007 101.5 1826
3/9/2009 1/26/2018 324.6 3245

Yardeni Research provided the statistics for the above table aided by Standard & Poor's Corporation and Haver Analytics.

It's important to remember, this run began at an extremely low level thanks to Chuck Prince and his fellow investment bankers. Although a decade removed from the financial collapse, Main Street investors have long memories of the losses incurred. Those losses were realized if you sold at the bottom. Easy to do because it was not a normal correction. People were scared. The entire global financial system was at risk of annihilation. However, according to Bloomberg, if you bought equities at the previous market peak on October 9th, 2007, you would have doubled your money in ten years if you owned an S&P 500 index fund such as (SPY), (IVV), or (VOO), and reinvested your dividends.

To buttress this phenomenon, go no further than the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Retirement Guide and view the chart on the impact of being out of the market. When examining the 20 year performance of the S&P 500 between 1/1/1997 and 12/31/2016, money invested in the index had a total return of 7.68% annually. This time period includes two major market meltdowns which is probably why it returned less than the historic average of 9.5%. In contrast, if you would have tried to time the market and failed (as most do), your annualized returns would have been only 4% provided you missed the ten best trading days. Total returns decrease to 1.57% if you missed the 20 best trading days, and so on and so forth. At 1.57%, you might as well have been in a savings account to reduce your volatility.

The current acronym investment mangers utilize to underscore the importance of being long equities is TINA (There is no Alternative). Savings accounts and long duration Certificates of Deposit pay muted interest, somewhere around the one percent range give or take a few basis points. Ten Year Treasury Notes are climbing towards 3% yields, but this still pales in comparison to long-term stock returns. This is not very comforting if you are a retiree and require a steady flow of dependable income. My personal preference remains S&P 500, or Total Market index funds. Although subject to volatility, yields of these financial instruments are close to 1.8%, and if the market continues its ascent, you benefit from price appreciation.

Many investors remain concerned about the fast and loose machinations of computerized stock market exchanges. However, automated exchanges have been in existence for 50 years. Some of the increased volatility in the market can be attributed to retail investors themselves, not just the High Frequency Trading and Quant Funds with their unrestrained algorithms. Reduced commissions at discount brokers and tax deferred retirement accounts invite more trading, too. They've turned the market into a big casino. Derivatives only acerbate the matter.

Average Holding Time for Stocks by Decade:

  • 1960, eight years, four months
  • 1970, five years, three months
  • 1980, two years, nine months
  • 1990, two years, two months
  • 2000, one year, two months
  • 2010, six months
Source: Forbes

The data above stops at 2010, but from the trend, you can surmise holding periods are only getting shorter. I've seen some data that suggests three months is the most recent holding period for individual equities, and ETFs aren't immune from the short-term horizon. Those boring, plain vanilla S&P 500 index funds such as SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) are the preferred trading instruments of speculators globally.

ETF Average Holding Period
ETF Ticker AUM ($Bil) Average Holding
Period (Days)
SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust SPY 259.9 31
iShares S&P 500 Index IVV 147.0 313
Vanguard Total Stock Market VTI 90.2 679
Vanguard 500 Index Fund VOO 84.4 376
PowerShares QQQ Trust QQQ 56.1 27
iShares MSCI Emerging Markets EEM 41.2 33
iShares Russell 2000 Index IWM 40.4 23
Source: Morningstar Direct

All of these Exchange Traded Funds have ample volume and abundant assets under management. The iShares Russell 2000 Index which follows small caps has a scant holding period of just 23 days - a little over three weeks. In contrast, Vanguard Total Stock Market has a holding period of almost two years. Both are excellent investments, but my personal preference is with the more diversified fund which is the total domestic market index. Although some of these ETFs have high turnover ratios, you're not going to get burned if you invest for the long haul.


The Musical Chairs game we're continuously playing in the market may have a ways to go because records are made to be broken. We have approximately three and half years of rising stock prices to surpass the previous enduring bull market of 1987-2000. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, 5G, video and audio steaming, plus new technologies such as Quantum Computing, this market has room to run. It won't be smooth sailing, but even with increased volatility, you're probably going to make money.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

5G: The Full Tilt Boogie Band

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That's the buzz surrounding 5G, the next generation wireless network projected to roll out nationally by 2020. Connected Home devices, virtual reality goggles, sensors, driverless cars, and anything else wireless are supposed to benefit from the speedy, low latency technology. As an example, to download a two hour movie with 4G, it takes six minutes, but with 5G, that same film will take about 16 seconds.

Although the mainstream press have just begun touting the benefits of 5G technology to the masses, financial writers got on the bandwagon well over a year ago. Investment publications such as Investor's Business Daily and Barron's published pieces with suggestions as to where investors could go to get ahead of the curve. The problem I discovered, is that it's a roundup of the usual subjects. AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint (S) for the network providers. Nokia (NOK) and Ericsson (ERIC) for the network infrastructure buildout. A laundry list of semiconductor manufacturers and software service companies includes Cisco (CSCO), Broadcom (AVGO) and Intel (INTC) to round out the docket.

Despite the fanfare, the sector hasn't done well in the last two years with the SPDR S&P Telecom ETF (XTL) and its peers relatively flat since early 2016. Don't forget that 5G is just another word for telecommunications, and telecom stocks are usually purchased for their dividends, not price appreciation. These widow and orphan stocks may produce income, but not necessarily generate alpha. There are small caps that reside in the telecom sector if you're looking for potential ten baggers, but investing in individual securities is dangerous these days. Most of the time you think you're buying an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, but end up with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

Exhibit A is Ceragon Networks (CRNT). The wireless backhaul specialist has languished the past five years diving from $5 to $2.50. Investor's Business Daily won't cover stocks unless they are above $10, so you can tell it's radioactive. Nevertheless, traders are recommending the company in the hopes it's a home run. Can it happen? Absolutely, but the chances are slim. Right now you are sitting on dead money and it's very difficult to buy at the bottom and sell at the top. Ceragon Networks is a pipe dream if you are looking to increase assets.

Another pure play is Zayo Group Holdings (ZAYO), which provides bandwidth infrastructure solutions to communications companies in North America and Europe. It's had a nice run the past two years going from $25 to $37, a 48% gain which outpaced the S&P 500. A diamond in the rough. However, with the recent purchase of Electric Lightwave and an upcoming deal for Spread Networks, it may trade sideways to digest the acquisitions. Investing in individual equities after significant runs can burn you, especially for a company projected to grow only 10% per year.

Right now, the rising stars of 5G may very well be the startups looking to dethrone telecommunications royalty. According to ABI Research, Athonet, CellWize, CellMining, AirHop Communications, Core Network Dynamics, Blue Danube, and Vasona Networks are some of the privately held firms being trumpeted. The operative expression here is 'privately held', which means Venture Capitalists, Investment Banks and Hedge Funds are the entities able to invest in these pioneering organizations. Retail investors are left out of the process. Nevertheless, even for the experienced and deep pocketed money managers, it's still a crap shoot, but they're usually playing with other people's money.

My belief is that the best way to play 5G is through Telecom ETFs because in 3 years from now, 5G will be synonymous with the traditional telecom companies. Although the deployment of 5G networks will slowly roll out in the next 24 months, investors usually bid up equities in advance of the implementation of a technology. The timing may be right for you to add one of these subsector ETFs to your portfolio, not only because they will benefit from 5G, but because they've been market laggards of late. You also receive dividends while waiting for the ascension.


An important factor to consider before buying a Telecom ETF is that S&P Dow Jones Indicies and MSCI recently announced upcoming changes to the Global Industry Classification Standard. The Global Industry Classification Standard decides what companies go into what indexes. On September 29th of this year, the Telecommunications Services Sector will be expanded and renamed Communication Services. Companies providing Internet access such as Comcast (CMCSA) are to be included. Telecommunications ETFs that mirror an index will be effected by the broadening of the industry group, probably for the better because you're injecting growth into the equation.

  • SPDR S&P Telecom ETF (XTL): Introduced in 2011, this equally weighted fund has a fairly high expense ratio of 0.35%. With 48 holdings, it tracks the S&P Select Telecom Index. Industry mainstays such as AT&T and Verizon aren't included in the top 10 holdings which raises a red flag for me because you're looking for dividends in these investments. If you are an investor, you can find a lower expanse ratio. If you are a trader, you can find better volume. Dividend yield is 2%.
  • iShares Telecommunications ETF (IYZ): Although IYZ has the highest expense ratio in the group at 0.44%, it's also the most liquid and favored by traders. Founded in 2000, right after the dot com crash, it's the granddaddy of telecom ETFs. I liked the top four holdings of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. That's the way it should be in its niche. It tracks the Dow Jones U.S. Select Telecommunications Index. The investment has a hefty dividend yield of 3.38%.
  • Vanguard Telecommunication Services ETF (VOX): VOX is a market-cap weighted fund tracking the MSCI U.S. Investable Market Telecommunication Services 25/50 Index. Vanguard is synonymous with minimal expense ratios, and at 0.10%, you only pay $10 for every $10,000 invested. Verizon and AT&T comprise almost half the portfolio. Zayo Group is also included in the top ten holdings. A not so great investment for income seeking buy and hold investors with the dividend yield being a paltry 0.99%

  • Fidelity MSCI Telecommunication Services Index ETF (FCOM): FCOM is relatively new to the fold being a shade under five years old, but competes toe to toe with the Vanguard offering. In fact, it has a lower expense ratio than VOX at 0.08%. The stats are almost identical to VOX in that it mirrors the same index and has approximately indistinguishable holdings. The big difference between the two funds is the volume with VOX almost doubling FCOM. Nevertheless, if you are a buy and hold investor, and are watching your expenses, this is another great option for you. The dividend yield is 3.22% which far outpaces VOX.
  • ProShares Ultra Telecommunications ETF (LTL): The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz once said: "Do you wanna play with fire, scarecrow?". That's exactly what you're getting with LTL, a financially engineered instrument that delivers two times the profits and losses of securities in the telecom sector. It's been around for ten years, so it's probably not going anywhere. The expense ratio is steep at 0.95% and recommended for professional traders only. If you decide to venture into this option, you shouldn't hold your shares any longer than the trading day.


Although laggards to the S&P 500 where price appreciation is concerned, Telecom ETFs should be judged by their dividend yields. This is why I recommend FCOM. Not only does it boast the lowest expense ratio, but it also pays out close to twice the income of the S&P 500 on a percentage basis. In addition, when index alterations are introduced in September, it may get a boost from growth stocks included in FCOM's portfolio. Finally, if infrastructure legislation is passed by the United States Government, you may also see inflated results because 5G buildout should be included in the spending package.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Ten Percent of Nothing

Rock'em Sock'em Robots was a big game when I was a kid. Fast forward over half a century later, the robots are still battling, but this time it's in the inner workings of the stock market exchanges. There's a lot of finger pointing going on about what caused the S&P 500 to correct more than 10% in just a couple of days two weeks ago. With a significant selloff of 4.1% on February 5th that precipitated in minutes, many investors are up in arms because the algos went wild. Although the market had a nice bounce back last week, you can understand why so many are angry.

The main culprit being singled out for the collapse is the Credit Suisse issued VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (XIV). This is an Exchange Traded Note, not an Exchange Traded Fund. A financially engineered instrument. After much fanfare for over a year, it lost the majority of its value in hours causing great wealth destruction not only for its owners, but market participants globally. In examining the disruptive market tendencies of XIV, we have to go back to high school physics to Newton's First Law:

"Every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force."

With Quant Hedge Funds programming investor sentiment and momentum into their algorithms, investment managers made fortunes as the S&P 500 went up in a straight line with low volatility for almost 15 months. Then that low volatility spiked. The external force occurred in the form of the liquidation of XIV as traders jettisoned the ETN. According to Jim Collins in Forbes:

"While some news outlets are describing XIV as an "obscure" security, the market value of XIV was nearly $2 billion last week, so it is clearly a meaningful name to professional traders...XIV holds no assets; the value of the notes is determined by an underlying index that represents the inverse of futures linked to the VIX volatility index...In two trading days XIV went from hedge fund darling to effectively a defunct security."

XIV lost 80% of its value in one day.

The liquidation of XIV caused an industrial strength chain reaction in the entire global marketplace because of that same foil in The Crash of 1929 - margin calls. In a Washington Post article, Steven Pearlstein gives a succinct explanation concerning the circular trading logic and the margin calls that ensued:

"It apparently created a vicious cycle in which selling begat more selling and wound up wiping out nearly $3 billion in valuation for investors...the amount of trading done with borrowed money is higher than it has ever been...major central banks that allow hedge funds to borrow $4 or $5 for every one of their own they put at risk. When prices start to fall rapidly, the funds are forced to sell their positions to pay back the banks and brokerage houses, driving down the price even further."

Although there is some discrepancy between the two preceding quotes as to how much money investors lost in XIV to the tune of a billion dollars, you can clearly ascertain that a significant amount of assets eroded. To paraphrase an old Wall Street idiom: "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money.".

Even though I don't condone or engage in financial engineering, especially after the Great Recession of 2008-2009, I'd like to point a few things out concerning the recent market drop.:

  • The market was way over its skis, gaining close to 7.5% since New Year's and in need of a long overdue correction. Ten percent corrections happen annually on a historic basis, and we hadn't had one since early 2016. Additionally, we've had a reduced amount of both 5% and 10% pullbacks since the market bottom in March 2009. Investors got used the the gravy train.
  • Things aren't what they used to be. In the recent movie "All the Money in the World", Christopher Plummer playing Jean Paul Getty circa 1973, continuously checks stock quotes via a Ticker Tape Machine. That world is dead and buried. Laymen now get split second access to stock quotes on smartphones from globally connected financial exchanges. In fact, not only did the recent correction effect the domestic markets, but the international markets sold off 10% in concert.
  • In the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the DOW fell 20% in two days in an analogue world. Traders were exchanging buy and sell orders manually on pieces of paper, not via bits and bytes through mainframes and servers. Fiscally painful corrections happen, sometimes without the threat of recession during bull markets.

Double Digit S&P 500 Losses With No Recession

1939-40 (31.9%)
1941 (34.5%)
1943 (13.1%)
1947 (14.7%)
1961-62 (26.4%)
1966 (22.2%)
1967-68 (10.1%)
1971 (13.9%)
1978 (13.6%)
1983-84 (14.4%)
1987 (33.5%)
1998 (19.3%)
2002 (14.7%)
2010 (16%)
2011 (19.4%)
2015 (12.4%)

(source: A Wealth of Common Sense)

If you examine the chart, you can see that some of these double digit corrections occurred during boom times. The one most investors may relate to because it's the most recent excluding the current advance, is the run the S&P 500 had from approximately 1974-2000. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Crash of 1987 transpired in the middle of the run, but it's included in the chart above. Three other non-recessionary selloffs happened during this period - 1978, 1983-84, and 1998. Those were good times for investors, and these are, too.

You need catalysts to keep the economic engine running and we've got many of them now - artificial intelligence, 5G, and, blockchain just to name a few. Even with interest rates rising, this market has room to run. As I have mentioned before, the hashtag is ten years old, Best Buy will discontinue selling compact discs and The Village Voice no longer has a print edition. We're not quite in Fahrenheit 451 territory, but times have changed. The market should reflect that in an era of rapid technological advancement although there will be bumps along the way.


Credit Suisse is closing VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN. By next month, it will be a footnote in the annals of Wall Street. However, financially engineered instruments are like the city bus - there's always another one coming around the corner. They will make hedge funds and investment bankers a lot of money, but Main Street investors will be left holding the bag. Avoid them. That said, you can't avoid computerized stock exchanges. They're here to stay, so use diversified S&P 500 and Total Market index funds. You will lose principal during market selloffs, but historically you gain close to 10% annually if you reinvest your dividends.