What if the S&P 500’s September 2nd closing high were to miraculously stand as the cycle’s high-water mark? If it did, the peak was presaged—in retrospect—by two Federal Reserve Bank presidents who rode the liquidity wave all the way to its crest after assuring the floodgates would be left wide open. Both resigned in September.
Hiker #1: Can you run faster than that hungry bear looking at us?
Hiker #2: I don’t need to run faster than the bear, I just need to run faster than you.
The Momentum style of investing has a long history of generating excess returns, and ranks near the top of the list of essential smart beta factors. However, Momentum also has a dark side; it is prone to severe drawdowns whenever the market makes a significant reversal.
In the extreme case where one possesses no other information beyond last year’s total returns, the best single-asset strategy has been to buy the second-best performer (the “Bridesmaid”) and hold it for the next twelve months in hopes that the prior year’s momentum will carry it through. That approach has beaten the S&P 500 by 3.7% annualized over the past 48 years.
If Momentum and Growth investors thought they were escaping 2020 unscathed, they learned otherwise on Monday. Pfizer’s promising news about a COVID-19 vaccine was met with universal excitement and investors rearranging portfolios—taking gains in long-term winners and plowing into beaten-down cyclical stocks.
A dramatic shift of country weights within EM indexes has become an inadvertent challenge for a country rotation strategy. Due to this, we tested the integration of a momentum-based sector rotation model to attain exposure to the top-rated sectors to represent the markets of the largest country components instead of seeking to obtain “whole market” exposure.
The coronavirus epidemic/pandemic is getting the bulk of the blame for the sudden collapse in U.S. equities, and certainly qualifies as one of the few “black swans” seen in modern market history. We do not think the ultimate path of the coronavirus contagion can be analyzed at this point, and medical experts foresee possible outcomes ranging from a serious epidemic to a short burst of illness that fades with the summer weather.
Equity market themes have been boringly consistent of late; growth beating value, large beating small, and domestic beating international. In the factor world, Momentum and Low Volatility have been investor favorites for most of 2019 while Value resided in last place – the same old, same old. Then, something remarkable occurred on September 9th.
The Momentum style—in which investors buy what has been going up recently—represents an optimistic, hopeful, “I’ll take some of that” mentality. The Low Volatility factor entails a pessimistic, fearful outlook in which investors want (or need) to stay invested in stocks but desire downside protection in case the market performs badly.
Momentum is a smart beta factor that gives investors excellent upside participation in rising markets. Most other smart beta factors are defensive plays, so Momentum is the place to be in strong upward moves. Momentum filled that role admirably in recent years, rising 56% from 2016 to the September top, compared to an average of +26% for the other major factors.
Quality is one of the most popular and successful of the equity market’s quant factors. It is intuitively appealing and serves as a useful defensive strategy in falling markets. Low Volatility and Dividend Growth are also defensive factors, while Momentum and High Beta are viewed as aggressive or bullish factors. These offsetting behaviors would seem to make for excellent diversification opportunities in equity portfolios, and for the most part, that is true.
We wrote in the January Green Book that the S&P 500 Christmas Eve low did not have the “right look,” in that: (1) there had been no sign of “smart money” accumulation beforehand; and, (2) downside momentum was also at a new low for the entire correction. Smart money buying is measured by the Smart Money Flow Index, which evaluates trends in first half-hour market action (considered to be more emotional and news-driven), and the last hour of trading (viewed to be more informed and institutional in nature).
For at least the last year we have argued that late bull market conditions would tend to reward momentum strategies over mean-reverting ones. That’s played out not only during the market’s melt-up phase, but also (to our surprise) during the recent two-week air-pocket, at a time when we would have expected to see at least a temporary setback in the ratio above.