Sell in May? The Signals to De-Risk

Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Cam Hui, CFA

In the wake of the commodity rout last week, the Inflation-Deflation Timer Model has moved into "neutral" from an "inflation" reading*. This told my inner trader that he should take some risk off the table. Given the high level of macro risk, I would be inclined to take more more defensive position than usual.

This signal to de-risk isn't a surprise. In early April, I wrote about negative divergences (see Getting ready to sell in May). How the market reacts to news is also a good short-term indicator of direction. The fizzled Osama bin Laden rally should have been as clear as ringing the bell in the town square to traders that this market was looking tired.

What happens now?
Now that the Timer Model has gone neutral, what happens now? Mr. Market could take one of two paths.

First, this could be the start of a run-of-the-mill 5-10% correction in the equity market, with an extreme downside limit of about 15%. VIX and More has tabulated the market pullbacks in the 2009-11 period and the average depth of these correction was 6.5%.

Macro risks everywhere
I am concerned that the market is acting vulnerably during a period of heightened macro risk. There are three major sources of macro risk:

  • Europe: As I write this, Greek 2-year debt is sporting an eye-popping yield north of 25%. These stratospheric levels reflect market fears that bond holders will have to take a significant haircut on Greek debt, which would be a devastating blow to the already fragile European banking system. If Greece re-structures, then it could very well take down Spain - which may be too large for the EU to rescue.
  • China: The PBoC has signaled that it will take further steps to cool its superheated economy and there are "no limit to how far it can raise the reserve requirement". Already, there are signs that its property bubble is being deflated. Recent reports indicate that Chinese property developer profits are falling and their debt is approaching $1T in a climate of rising inventory.
  • US default: The political horse-trading over the debt ceiling continues to be worrisome. A default by the US Treasury would send shock waves all around the globe and it would be the financial equivalent of the comet that hit the Earth and created the Gulf of Mexico in prehistoric times.

The current market environment is likely to resolve itself with a plain vanilla 5-10% correction. However, if any of these macro risks were to manifest themselves during that pullback, the downside has the potential to extend itself to 40-50%.

My inner investor has already heeded these warnings and de-risked his portfolio. My inner trader is inclined to be more defensive than normally called for.