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David Moenning is a the Chief Investment Officer at Heritage Capital, which focuses on active risk management of the U.S. stock market. Dave is also the proprietor of StateoftheMarkets.com, which provides free and subscription-based portfolio services. Dave began his investment career in 1980... More
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Daily State of the Markets
  • How To Identify A Stock Picker's Market 0 comments
    Feb 26, 2014 8:03 AM

    Daily State of the Markets
    Wednesday, February 26, 2014

    After several long years of risk-on/risk-off markets during which, everything acted like the S&P 500 and adding alpha was difficult, it appears that stock-picking is back in a big way.

    The natural question, of course, is why?

    Before we get to the answer, it is first important to understand that we're not talking about closet-index stock funds or institutional strategies whose goal is to outperform the benchmark by a point or two. Remember, the fortunes of generic, plain vanilla growth funds and the like simply rise and fall with the overall market.

    No, we're talking about alpha here. We're talking about stock selection strategies designed to outperform the major indices by a hefty margin. Unfortunately though, these types of strategies had been out of favor for some time. And now they are back. Thus, the question becomes what causes alpha-driven strategies to suddenly start working again? /p>

    What is Alpha Anyway?

    For the statistically challenged (a camp I find myself in all too often when talking to my quant buddies) let's first spend a moment explaining the concept of alpha. This is not a reference to an alpha male, or the leader of the pack. No, in financial parlance, alpha is the amount of return that can be attributed to the skill of a manager or strategy over and above the return of the market itself.

    Keep in mind that the stock market goes up the vast majority of the time. And on average, the S&P 500 returns an investor somewhere in the vicinity of 8 or 9 percent per year. It's the amount of return ABOVE what the market hands you on a platter that we're talking about here.

    For example, the S&P 500 gained 29.6 percent in 2013. So, any return above that is the "alpha" your strategy provided.

    Got Alpha?

    For most stock market investors, the goal is obviously to utilize an investment strategy that adds serious alpha. Otherwise, simply buying the SPDR (NYSE: SPY) will provide you with the return of the overall market, which is easy and cheap.

    The problem is that alpha-driven stock selection strategies go in and out of favor. Sometimes they work great and sometimes not. Again, the question is why?

    Correlations Are The Key

    According to Investopedia, correlation is computed into what is known as the correlation coefficient, which ranges between -1 and +1. Perfect positive correlation (a correlation co-efficient of +1) implies that as one security moves, either up or down, the other security will move in lockstep, in the same direction. Alternatively, perfect negative correlation means that if one security moves in either direction the security that is perfectly negatively correlated will move in the opposite direction. If the correlation is 0, the movements of the securities are said to have no correlation; they are completely random.

    For our purposes, we are talking about the correlations of stocks to the S&P 500. When correlations are high, the vast majority of stocks act like the S&P. And when correlations are low, stocks tend to go their own ways. And this, dear readers, is the key to being able to identify when your alpha-driven strategy is going to be effective.

    During a market crisis, the correlation of stocks to the S&P is generally quite high as traders play the risk-on/risk-off game. In short, during a crisis, everything acts like the S&P and correlations approach +1.0.

    Correlations Have Fallen

    According to Barclays, the daily fluctuation between the 50 largest stocks in the S&P 500 and the index itself over a 3-month period reached the lowest level since 2007 recently. The bottom line is this a good thing for stock pickers and anyone trying to find alpha via stock selection.

    If we look at the median rolling 1-day correlations of S&P 500 stocks to the index over a 63-day period (3 months) from 2008 through 2012, the range of stock correlations was between about 0.50 and 0.85. And the vast majority of the time, the correlations during that time were between 0.60 and 0.80, which is VERY high on a historical basis.

    For reference purposes, from 1972 through 1986 the range of rolling 63-day correlations was between 0.30 and 0.55. And from 1988 until 2008, the rolling 63-day correlation exceeded 0.60 only three times.

    If we look at 126-day rolling correlations, from 1973 to 1987, the high end of the range exceeded 0.50 only three times and never exceeded 0.60 until 2002. However, the low end of the range from 2007 through 2011 was 0.60 while highs above 0.75 were seen three times.

    The good news is that in 2013, the range of 126-day correlations fell dramatically, staying between 0.55 and 0.65.

    Alpha Is Back

    Cutting through all the numbers, the key is to recognize that when correlations fall, the opportunity to add alpha via selection goes up.

    So, with correlations at their lowest levels in years, stock selection is back. Industry and sub-industry allocation is back. Sector selection strategies are back. Simply put, alpha is back.

    So, if you utilize a stock selection strategy, it is important to keep an eye on those correlations. In sum, if correlations start to spike, it means your alpha strategy may begin to suffer. But as long as the correlations stay low, it's a stock picker's market.

    Looking for a disciplined approach to managing stock market risk on a daily basis? Check Out My "Daily Decision" System. Forget the fast money and the latest, greatest option trade. What investors need is a strategy to keep them "in" the stock market during bull markets and on the sidelines (or short) during bear markets.

    Turning to This Morning...

    Bitcoin and the Mt. Gox exchange that went bust are all over the news this morning. However, neither has much of an impact on equity markets. Asian markets posted a modest rebound after recent losses. The yen is moving lower this morning. European markets are moving a bit lower. And U.S. futures are higher after yesterday's afternoon selloff.

    Pre-Game Indicators

    Here are the Pre-Market indicators we review each morning before the opening bell...

    Major Foreign Markets:
    - Japan: -0.54%
    - Hong Kong: +0.54%
    - Shanghai: +0.33%
    - London: -0.30%
    - Germany: -0.25%
    - France: -0.42%
    - Italy: +0.05%
    - Spain: +0.19%

    Crude Oil Futures: +$0.54 to $102.37

    Gold: -$7.90 at $1334.80

    Dollar: lower against the yen, higher vs. euro and pound

    10-Year Bond Yield: Currently trading at 2.717%

    Stock Futures Ahead of Open in U.S. (relative to fair value):
    - S&P 500: +5.53
    - Dow Jones Industrial Average: +43
    - NASDAQ Composite: +13.21

    Thought For The Day...

    It's difficult to follow your dream. It's a tragedy not to. -- Unknown

    Positions in stocks mentioned: none

    Follow Me on Twitter: @StateDave


    The opinions and forecasts expressed herein are those of Mr. David Moenning and may not actually come to pass. Mr. Moenning's opinions and viewpoints regarding the future of the markets should not be construed as recommendations. The analysis and information in this report and on our website is for informational purposes only. No part of the material presented in this report or on our websites is intended as an investment recommendation or investment advice. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed nor any Portfolio constitutes a solicitation to purchase or sell securities or any investment program. The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of the editors of StateoftheMarkets.com and may not actually come to pass. The opinions and viewpoints regarding the future of the markets should not be construed as recommendations of any specific security nor specific investment advice. One should always consult an investment professional before making any investment.

    Any investment decisions must in all cases be made by the reader or by his or her investment adviser. Do NOT ever purchase any security without doing sufficient research. There is no guarantee that the investment objectives outlined will actually come to pass. All opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. Neither the editor, employees, nor any of their affiliates shall have any liability for any loss sustained by anyone who has relied on the information provided.

    The analysis provided is based on both technical and fundamental research and is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. Although the information contained is derived from sources which are believed to be reliable, they cannot be guaranteed.

    The information contained in this report is provided by Ridge Publishing Co. Inc. (Ridge). One of the principals of Ridge, Mr. David Moenning, is also President and majority shareholder of Heritage Capital Management, Inc. (HCM) a Chicago-based money management firm. HCM is registered as an investment adviser. HCM also serves as a sub-advisor to other investment advisory firms. Ridge is a publisher and has not registered as an investment adviser. Neither HCM nor Ridge is registered as a broker-dealer.

    Employees and affiliates of HCM and Ridge may at times have positions in the securities referred to and may make purchases or sales of these securities while publications are in circulation. Editors will indicate whether they or HCM has a position in stocks or other securities mentioned in any publication. The disclosures will be accurate as of the time of publication and may change thereafter without notice.

    Investments in equities carry an inherent element of risk including the potential for significant loss of principal. Past performance is not an indication of future results.

    Disclosure: I am long SPY.

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