So Far, Technical Support Levels Holding Up Well

During crazy market times like this I can talk my head off about fundamental issues that show the market is undervalued, but fundamentals don’t matter right now. Stock prices are claims on future corporate profits forever? Who cares, earnings are going to be terrible in 2008, 2009, and maybe even 2010. Rather than trying to convince people (correctly) that earnings this year or next really don’t have a material impact on a company’s long term equity value, let’s focus on what does seem to be working right now… technical analysis!

Long time readers of this blog know I don’t use technical analysis because for a long term investor, charts don’t tell us what stocks will do, earnings and valuations will. Still, technicals do work quite often in the short term because thousands of people are looking at the same thing and acting in the same way. Today was no exception, as the 10-yer S&P 500 chart below shows.

The 2002 closing low for the index was 776. Today we sank at the open, hit 776 and bounced significantly (818 as I write this). The long-term 2002 support level has held, which is crucial for the short term market environment. I might not care where the market trades today, next week, or next month, but a lot of people do.

Market Action Shows How Much Negativity Is Priced Into Stock Prices

One of the most important things to know about investing is that the stock market is a discounting mechanism. That does that mean? It means that expectations for future events are reflected in stock prices ahead of time, before the events actually occur. People who try to guess what the headlines next week are going to be, and invest accordingly, might not make any money in the market. Remember, stock prices go up or down not based on how well the underlying companies do, but rather how well the companies do relative to the market’s expectations.

I bring this up because today’s market action shows us that a lot of bad news has already been priced into equities. UBS (UBS) reported astonishing writedowns of $19 billion and Lehman Brothers (LEH) raised $4 billion of capital even though they claim they don’t really need it. Pretty bad headlines, but the Dow is up 260 points as I write this. Last month when Bear Stearns (BSC) nearly went belly-up the market reacted by dropping 1%, and has risen ever since. Many might have expected a far worse reaction to such startling news.

Now, this is not to say we are completely out of the woods and the market will soar from here. In fact, I think we will be range-bound for the foreseeable future. That said, it appears that things would have to get significantly worse for the market to take a huge hit from current levels. Hopefully first quarter earnings reports won’t have any big negative surprises. If that is the case, those who are claiming we are in a bottoming process might be right, in the short term anyway.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing

Differentiating Between Trading and Investing

John writes:

Hi Chad,

How do you differentiate between “trading” and “investing”? I’m always curious to hear what people think is the difference.

Thanks for the question, John. I don’t think there is too much of a debate over the difference, and my views likely aren’t much different than most, but I’m happy to give my personal thoughts on the topic.

The main difference between “trading” and “investing” is time horizon. Investors are long term players. They are investing in a business and are making an optimistic bet about the fundamentals of that business in the future. If they pay a reasonable price, and their analysis of the business prospects are correct, they will make money over time (regardless of overall market environment) because over the long term both valuation and earnings determine the value of a business, and thus the per share price of a company’s stock.

Furthermore, since investors are willing to take a long term view (years rather than days, weeks, or even months) on an investment, they are likely to buy more shares as a stock drops in price. The main goal is to minimize one’s cost basis in order to maximize profits over time. Temporary drops in share price aren’t likely to change an investor’s opinion of a stock’s long term investment merit, unless of course the fundamental outlook changes in a meaningful way.

Conversely, traders are short term oriented. They tend to care very little about valuation or the long term earnings power of a business. Since they won’t own the stock long enough for future business fundamentals to influence share price, they are more likely to use chart patterns and follow the momentum when buying stocks.

Since traders are more like speculators (making educated guesses as to short term price movements) than investors are, they are likely to use stop loss orders to limit downside risk. If a trade goes against them, they cut their losses quickly and look for other opportunities. Even if the market reaction in the short term is illogical and unsubstantiated, since they aren’t willing to hold the stock long term and wait for the inefficient market to correct itself, they can not afford to wait things out until cooler heads prevail.

Here is an analogy for you; investors are the casinos, whereas traders are the gamblers. Investors have the odds stacked in their favor, just as the casinos are guaranteed winners over time because the games they offer have a win percentage built-in. Over time, the economy grows and corporate earnings grow, hence stock prices rise over long periods of time. Thus, investors (who by definition are long term players) have the odds stacked in their favor.

Traders, on the other hand, are trying to win big on short term trends, much like a blackjack player hopes for a hot shoe and then cashes out his/her chips. The gambler knows that they don’t have a statistical advantage but they play nonetheless, trying to make some money and getting out before they give it all back. Now, I grant you that traders aren’t at a statistical disadvantage, so the comparison isn’t perfect, but whether or not the market goes up or down tomorrow is pretty much a coin flip, so traders’ odds are about 50/50, although they try and boost those numbers with technical analysis, momentum trading, etc. Much like a trader’s stop loss order will limit losses in the market, many gamblers will come to a casino with a certain amount in their wallets, to ensure they don’t incur severe losses.

Casinos and investors know very well that in the short term they might lose money to a hot table or an analyst downgrade, but over time they feel comfortable because they know the odds are in their favor to make money. They are patient enough to wait for their payout, whether it comes from the 5% edge at the roulette table they operate, or long term earnings growth generated by a publicly traded company they have invested in.

Traders Bracing for Retest of January Lows

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fundamental-based investor. As a result, over the long term the two key determinants of future stock price performance that I focus on are earnings and valuation. Although I strongly believe that technical analysis only works over short periods of time, in the absence of new material information, enough people read charts (especially traders, as opposed to investors) that they can predict near term market movements due to thousands of people acting on them in the same manner simultaneously.

I bring this up because when we got the huge leg down in January, which served as a short term bottom after the Fed temporarily rescued us with an emergency rate cut, traders were adamant that we did not see capitulation (Bernanke didn’t let that happen) and would have to retest the lows after an oversold bounce. Sure enough, we got a bounce up toward 1,400 on the S&P 500, moved along in a narrow 1300-1400 band for a little while, and now are moving back down to the lows, as the chart below indicates.

Let’s give the chartists credit for their call. Market bottoms often look like the letter “W” on a chart, a pattern I have noticed since I started following the markets. The next step is to see if we in fact retest the lows (we are a few points on the S&P away from the closing low of 1310 as I write this, but still a few percentage points away from the intra-day lows of 1270).

If we get a retest, followed by buying interest sparked by all those chartists salivating at a potential double bottom formation, we could certainly have another bounce in coming months. Depending on the economic and earnings picture at that point, it could very well give investors a chance to take some chips off the table. That is only one possible scenario, but it is the one bulls should be hoping for.

The S&P 500’s closing low was 1310.50 on January 22nd. Today the index hit an intra-day low of 1310.49 and has since bounced about 4 points.

Market Fails to Dismiss Double Top Scenario

About a month ago I mentioned that it was possible the market could find resistance near the old highs on the S&P 500 index and perhaps make a seven-year double top. Interestingly, yesterday marked the third straight day the market could not register a new closing high on the S&P 500 (1,527 and change).

I’m not really into short-term market predictions (You’re better off just flipping a coin if you want to know what will happen in coming days), but we are setting up for a near-term top unless we can break through this level. Oddly, the all-time intra-day high is above 1,550. That must have been a wild day back in March 2000.

Here is what the last decade looks like on the SPX:

Dow Winning Streak Longest in 80 Years

It has truly been a breathtaking run, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising in 24 of 27 sessions, the longest streak since eight decades ago in 1927. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s four point drop snapped the streak. How should investors play this? Many are stuck between two prevailing ideas, either ride the momentum to ensure not missing it, or wait for a pullback and buy on the dip. The problem is, there aren’t any dips. We got a 7 percent correction a couple months ago but it was so short-lived that many didn’t have time to get back on the train before it left the station again.

I am sitting on an above-average amount of cash right now, due to an overbought market that I am uninterested in chasing, coupled with a seasonal inflow of deposits. Since I’m a value investor, not a momentum trader, I am content with sitting on cash and waiting for an excellent opportunity. With the broad market rallying so strongly, such a dip might only occur in select names, as opposed to a widespread sell-off that makes many stocks compelling.

Why not just get my money in when short term momentum is strong? There are far fewer bargains now than there were six months or a year ago. Although I might miss some upside in the short term, due to above-average cash positions during a long winning streak, I still believe that buying dips and not rallies will prove to be more profitable when we look back a year from now.

The result could be lagging returns in coming days and weeks, but when we get another pullback and I have the ammunition to jump at true bargains, those purchases will more than likely make up the lost ground and plenty more over the intermediate to longer term.

Could We Get a 7-Year Double Top on the S&P 500?

This really isn’t a prediction as much as it is just mere speculation about what could happen to the market in the coming weeks and months. Short term movements don’t really concern me as I mostly just focus on undervalued companies regardless of market level, but sometimes it’s still interesting to point things out.

A lot is being made about the Dow making new all-time highs lately, but as many of you know, the S&P 500 is still about 3 percent below its peak from the year 2000 at the 1,527 level. Here’s a 10-year chart of the S&P 500 index:

One possible scenario would be for a long term double top around that level. A lot of strategists are dissatisfied with the 7 percent correction we got in March and want some kind of retest of that level, or even better, a full 10 percent correction in the S&P 500 so we can get that monkey off our back.

Is a double top around 1,527 the most likely scenario? Of course not, but it’s still interesting to think about. I definitely would not rule it out and it would make for some good headlines. The market is clearly overbought, so if we truly need another pullback, as many seem to think we do, what better way for it to play out? It would make for a very intriguing chart pattern, one that technical analysts could cite for years.

Overbought Market Nears Dow 12,000

The current market rally has exceeded my expectations, both in duration and in strength. After such a move, am I correct in characterizing the U.S. equity market as overbought? Consider this astonishing statistic. We have now gone 66 straight trading days without a 1 percent drop in the S&P 500 in any given session (July 13th marked the last drop of such magnitude). During that three month period, the S&P has rallied more than 10 percent.

Now I have no idea what the record is for consecutive days without a drop of 1 percent, but given the current streak, I have little doubt we are getting quite overbought at these levels. Unfortunately, much like overbought stocks, just because markets are overbought, it does not mean the rise will stop on a dime. Nonetheless, I am waiting to commit new money to the market. Perhaps some quarterly earnings disappointment will provide attractive entry points for certain stocks in the coming weeks.