Market Volatility and the S&P 500

It was clear from investment managers’ comments at the start of the year — even Jeremy Grantham’s meltup — that most expected a rally followed by an adjustment later in the year or early next year.

Valuations are high and the focus has started to swing away from making further gains and towards protecting existing profits. The size of this week’s candles reflect the extent of the panic as gains patiently accumulated over several months evaporated in a matter of days.

S&P 500

Volatility spiked, with the VIX jumping from record lows to above the red line at 30.

S&P 500 Volatility (VIX)

VIX reflects the short-term, emotional reaction to events in the market but tends to be unreliable as an indicator of long-term sentiment. I prefer my own Volatility indicator which highlights the gradual change in market outlook. The chart below shows how Volatility rose gradually from mid-2007, exceeding 2% by early 2008 then settled in an elevated range above 1% until the collapse of Lehman Bros sparked panic.

S&P 500 in 2008

The emerging market crisis of 1998 shows a similar pattern. An elevated range in 1997 as the currency crisis grew was followed by a brief spike above 2% before another long, elevated range and then another larger spike with the Russian default.

S&P 500 in 1998

The key is not to wait for Volatility to spike above 2%. By then it is normally too late. An alternative strategy would be to scale back positions when the market remains in an elevated range, between 1% and 2%, over several months. Many traders would argue that this is too early. But the signal does indicate elevated market risk and I am reasonably certain that investors with large positions would prefer to exit too early rather than too late.

So where are we now?

Volatility on the S&P 500 spiked up after an extended period below 1%. If Volatility retreats below 1% then the extended period of low market risk is likely to continue. If not, it will warn that market risk is elevated. Should that continue for more than a few weeks I would consider it time to start scaling back positions.

S&P 500 in 2018

Only if we see a further spike above 2% would I act with any urgency.

Black Monday, October 1987

Cross-posted from

What caused the Black Monday crash of 1987? Analysts are often unable to identify a single trigger or cause.

Sniper points to a sharp run-up in short-term interest rates in the 3 months prior to the crash.

3 Month Treasury Bill Rates

Valuations were also at extreme readings, with PEmax (price-earnings based on the highest earnings to-date) near 20, close to its Black Friday high from the crash of 1929.

S&P 500 PEmax 1919 - 1989

Often overlooked is the fact that the S&P 500 was testing resistance at its previous highs between 700 and 750 from the 1960s and 70s (chart from macrotrends).

S&P 500 1960 - 1990

A combination of these three factors may have been sufficient to tip the market into a dramatic reversal.

Are we facing a similar threat today?

Short-term rates are rising but at 40 basis points over the last 4 months, compared to 170 bp in 1987, there is not much cause for concern.

13-week T-Bill rates

PEmax, however, is now at a precipitous 26.8, second only to the Dotcom bubble of 1999/2000 and way above its October 1987 reading.

S&P 500 PEmax 1980 - 2017

While the index is in blue sky territory, with no resistance in sight, there is an important psychological barrier ahead at 3000.

S&P 500

Conclusion: This does not look like a repetition of 1987. But investors who ignore the extreme valuation warning may be surprised at how fast the market can reverse (as in 1987) from such extremes.

How QE reversal will impact on financial markets

The Federal Reserve last year announced plans to shrink its balance sheet which had grown to $4.5 trillion under the quantitative easing (QE) program.

According to its June 2017 Normalization Plan, the Fed will scale back reinvestment at the rate of $10 billion per month and step this up every 3 months by a further $10 billion per month until it reaches a total of $50 billion per month in 2019. That means that $100 billion will be withheld in the first year and $200 billion each year thereafter.

How will this impact on financial markets? Here are a few clues.

First, from the Nikkei Asian Review on January 11:

The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note shot to a 10-month high of 2.59% in London, before retreating later in the day and ending roughly unchanged in New York. Yields rise when bonds are sold.

The selling was sparked by reports that China may halt or slow down its purchases of U.S. Treasury holdings. China has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves — holding $3.1 trillion, about 40% of which is in U.S. government notes, according to Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Chinese officials, as expected, denied the reports. But they would have to be pondering what to do with more than a trillion dollars of US Treasuries during a bond bear market.

Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year yield breaking through resistance at 2.60%, signaling a primary up-trend.

On the quarterly chart, 10-year yields have broken clear of the long-term trend channel drawn at 2 standard deviations, warning of reversal of the three-decade-long secular trend. But final confirmation will only come from a breakout above 3.0%, completing a large double-bottom.

Withdrawal or a slow-down of US Treasury purchases by foreign buyers (let’s not call them investors – they have other motives) would cause the Dollar to weaken. The Dollar Index recently broke support at 91, signaling another primary decline.

The falling Dollar has created a bull market for gold which is likely to continue while interest rates are low.

US equities are likely to benefit from the falling Dollar. Domestic manufacturers can compete more effectively in both local and export markets, while the weaker Dollar will boost offshore earnings of multinationals.

The S&P 500 is headed for a test of its long-term target at 3000*.

Target: 1500 x 2 = 3000

Emerging market borrowers may also benefit from lower domestic servicing costs on Dollar-denominated loans.

Bridgewater CEO Ray Dalio at Davos:

We are in this Goldilocks period right now. Inflation isn’t a problem. Growth is good, everything is pretty good with a big jolt of stimulation coming from changes in tax laws…

If there is a downside, it is likely to be higher US inflation as employment surges and commodity prices rise. Which would force the Fed to raise interest rates faster than the market expects.

Outlook for 2018

At this time of year we are usually inundated with projections for the year ahead, from predictions of imminent collapse to expectations of a record year.

We live in a world of uncertainty, where both extremes are possible, but neither is likely.

We are clearly in stage 3 (the final stage) of a bull market. Risk premiums are close to record lows. The yield spread between lowest investment-grade (Baa) bonds and equivalent risk-free Treasuries has crossed to below 2.0 percent, levels last seen prior to the 2008 global financial crisis. The VIX is also close to its record low, suggesting high levels of investor confidence.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Money supply continues to grow at close to 5.0 percent, reflecting an accommodative stance from the Fed. MZM, or Zero Maturity Money, is basically M1 plus travelers checks and money market funds.

Zero-Maturity Money

Inflationary forces remain subdued, with average hourly wage rates growing at below 2.5 percent per year. A rise above 3.0 percent, which would pressure the Fed to adopt a more restrictive monetary policy, does not appear imminent.

Average Hourly Wage Rates

Tax relief and higher commodity prices are likely to exert upward pressure on inflation in the year ahead. But the Fed’s stated intention of shrinking its balance sheet, with a reduction of $100 billion in the first 12 months, is likely to have an opposite, contractionary effect.

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed gave a bit of a scare, dipping below 1.0 percent towards the end of last year. But data has since been revised and the index now reflects a far healthier outlook.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

A flattening yield curve has also been mooted as a potential threat, with a negative yield curve preceding every recession over the last 50 years.

Yield Differential 10-Year compared to 2-Year and 3-Month Treasuries

A yield differential, between 10-year and either 2-year or 3-month Treasuries, below zero would warn of a recession. When long-term yields fall below short-term yields financial markets stop working efficiently and bank lending tends to contract. Banks, who generally borrow at short-term rates and lend at long-term rates, find their margins are squeezed and become strongly risk-averse. Contracting lending slows the economy and normally leads to recession.

But we are some way from there. If we take the last cycle as an example, the yield curve started flattening in 2005 (when yield differentials fell below 1 percent) but a recession only occurred in 2008. The market could continue to thrive for several years before the impact of a negative yield curve is felt. To exit now would seem premature.

PEMAX second highest peak in 100 years

I published a chart of PEMAX for the last 30 years on Saturday. PEMAX eliminates the distortion caused by cyclical earnings fluctuations, using the highest earnings to-date rather than current earnings. The idea being that cyclical declines in earnings reflect a fall in capacity utilization rather than a long-term drop in earnings potential.

Since then I have obtained long-term data dating back to 1900 for the S&P 500 and its predecessors, from

PEMAX for November 2017 is 24.34, suggesting that stocks are over-valued.


Outside of the Dotcom bubble, at 32.88, the current value is higher than at any other time in the past century. PEMAX at 24.34 is higher than the peak of 20.19 prior to the 1929 Black Tuesday crash, and higher than the 19.8 peak before Black Monday in 1987.

This does not mean that a crash is imminent but it does warn that investors are paying top-dollar for stocks. And at some point values are going to fall to the point that sanity is restored.

Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio

Here is Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio for comparison. CAPE attempts to eliminate distortion from cyclical earnings fluctuations by comparing current index values to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings.

Shiller CAPE 10 Ratio

While this works reasonably well most of the time, average earnings may be distorted by the severity of losses in the prior 10 years.

You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.

~ Warren Buffett

CAPE v PEMAX: How hot are market valuations?

Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio is currently at 32.17, the second-highest peak in recorded history. According to, prior to the Black Tuesday crash of 1929 CAPE had a reading of 30. The only peak with a higher reading is the Dotcom bubble at 44.

Shiller CAPE - click to enlarge

Click here to view at

Shiller’s CAPE, or Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio to give it its full name, compares the current S&P 500 index value to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings. The aim is to smooth out the earnings cycle and provide a stable assessment of long-term potential earnings.

But earnings have fluctuated wildly in the past 10 years, and a 10-year average which includes severe losses from 2009 may not be an accurate reflection of current earnings potential.

S&P 500 Earnings

The dark line plotted on the above chart reflects the highest earnings to-date, or maximum EPS. The market often references this as the current, long-term earnings potential, in place of cyclical earnings.

The chart below compares maximum EPS (the highest earnings to-date) to the S&P 500 index. The horizontal periods on max EPS reflect when cyclical earnings are falling.

S&P 500 and Peak Earnings

It is clear that the index falls in response to cyclical fluctuations in earnings (the flat periods on EPS max). But it is also clear that earnings quickly recover to new highs after the index has bottomed. In Q1 of 2004 after the Dotcom crash and in Q3 of 2011 after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The next chart plots the current index price divided by maximum earnings to-date. I call it PEMAX. When earnings are making new highs, as at present, PEMAX will reflect the same ratio as for trailing 12-month PE. When earnings are below the previous high, PEMAX is lower than the trailing PE.


What the chart shows is that, outside of the Dotcom bubble, prices are highest in the last 30 years relative to current earnings potential. The current value of 22.56 is higher than at any time other than the surge leading into the Dotcom crash.

The peak value during the Dotcom bubble was 30.19 in Q2 of 1999. The highest value in the lead-up to the GFC was 20.23 in Q4 of 2003.

Does the current value of 22.56 mean that the market is about to crash?

No. The Dotcom bubble went on for two more years after reaching 22.80 in Q3 of 1997. The present run may continue for a while longer.

But it does serve as a reminder to investors that they are paying top-dollar for stocks. And at some point values are going to fall to the point that sanity is restored.

The four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different.”

~ Sir John Templeton

Leading Index gives early warning

One of the better composite indicators in the US, the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed, points to a slow-down in the US economy. A dip below 1.0% is often early, as in July 2000 and May 2006, but serves as a reliable warning of an economic slow-down.

Leading Index for the United States

The Leading Index predicts the six-month growth rate of the Philadelphia Fed Coincident Index. In addition to the Coincident Index, it includes variables that lead the economy: housing permits (1 to 4 units), initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the ISM manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.

The Coincident Index combines four indicators: nonfarm payroll employment, the unemployment rate, average hours worked in manufacturing and wages and salaries.

Coincident Index for the United States

The Leading Index signal does seem early. Low corporate bond spreads and VIX near record lows continue to indicate low market risk, typical of a bull market.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Monetary policy remains accomodative, with money stock growing at close to 5% p.a. (MZM = cash in circulation, travelers checks, money market funds and deposits with zero maturity).

MZM and Yield Differential

The yield curve has flattened, with the spread between 10-year and 3-month Treasuries falling to 1.0% on the above graph. That is what one would expect when the Fed hikes interest rates in a low inflation environment: short-term rates will rise faster than long-term rates. But a negative yield curve, where short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, is a reliable predictor of recessions in the US economy. Each time the yield differential on the above graph crossed below zero in the last 50 years, a recession has followed within 12 months.

Underlying inflation remains low, with average hourly earnings growth below 2.5% p.a., and the Fed should be careful about single-mindedly raising interest rates without considering the yield curve.

Annual Growth in Average Hourly Earnings

The bull market continues but investors need to keep a weather eye on interest rates and the yield curve.

Should we Worry that Velocity of Money is plunging?

Some writers have attributed slow GDP growth in the US to the plunging velocity of money.

In layman’s terms, the velocity of money is the ratio between your bank balance and the amount you spend. For the economy as a whole, it is measured as the ratio of GDP (or national income) against the total stock of money (or money supply).

When the economy is hot, consumers have a higher propensity to spend — or invest in the latest hot stock — and the ratio normally rises. When the economy cools, the ratio falls.

If the ratio was fixed, the job of central bankers would be simple: print more money and GDP would rise.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

Unfortunately that is not the case. GDP growth has remained slow, post-2007, despite a sharp boost in the money supply.

M1 is a narrow definition of money: cash in circulation plus travelers checks, demand deposits (at call) and check account balances.

The ratio of GDP to M1 money (or M1 Velocity) has almost halved, from a 2007 high of 10.7 to a current low of 5.5.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

Does this mean that consumers are feverishly stuffing cash into mattresses as the economy goes into a death-dive or is there a more rational explanation?

Examine the above chart more closely and you will see a clear relationship until 1980 between the velocity of money and interest rates (in this case the Fed funds rate). When interest rates rise, the velocity of money rises. So when interest rates fall, as they have post-2007, to near zero, the velocity of money should fall. As it has done.

The anomaly is not the current fall in the velocity of money but the rise in velocity of money between 1990 and 2000, when interest rates were falling. There are two explanations that I can think of. One is the digital revolution, with the advent of online bank accounts and automated clearing of business checking accounts which enabled depositors to minimize balances in non-interest bearing accounts. Second, is the rapid growth of money market funds which fall outside the ambit of M1 and M2.

Velocity of money measured as GDP/MZM gives a clearer picture, with velocity rising when rates rise and falling when rates fall. MZM is M1 plus all savings deposits and money market funds that are redeemable (at par) on demand.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

We should expect to see the velocity of money recover as interest rates rise. If that doesn’t happen, then it will be time to worry.

Strange as it may seem, we could witness something really unusual: if higher interest rates stimulate GDP.