Weekly Note - November 11, 2020

The post describes
  1. Options for Near Term (rev 11/12/2020)
  2. Current MRI conditions
  3. Recent performance of the popular model portfolios
  4. Current stock valuations

Options for Near Term

Over the last few weeks, I have described a few options for switching to a different model portfolio. I’d like to expand that description to form a few different scenarios for you to think about before the next Plant season. Thus, the options are as follows (rev highlighted):
  1. Continue using your current model portfolio regardless of DJIA prices moving higher or lower over the next week or so. This may be most suitable for people with longer investment horizons.
  2. If there ARE dramatic price declines (e.g., declines greater than 15%) over the next week or so, one can, soon thereafter, switch to a more aggressive model portfolio to take advantage of the rebound. I suspect a few subscribers will seek to do this.
  3. If there are NOT major price declines over the next week or so, one can switch to an Onyx Mix if not using one at this time. These portfolios are less aggressive and are likely to be more tolerant of a quickly weakening economic situation.

Current MRI Conditions

The Macro MRI—the MRI tracking a longer-term cycle of market resilience—has been in the downleg of its cycle since early 2018. It is now at the 29th percentile of all levels since 1918. Over the last 100+ years, there have been about 10 times that the Macro MRI troughed (i.e., turned positive) at this level or higher. There have been roughly 14 times that the Macro MRI has troughed at a lower level. From this perspective, I do expect a trough in the Macro MRI over the next few weeks.

Regarding the Micro MRI, it continues to trend lower and was at the 20th percentile of levels since 1918. It trended lower last week even though DJIA prices moved higher. The current level, like that of the Macro MRI, is at the lower end of its normal range, which suggests that a shift to the upleg of the cycle may occur in the next few weeks. Thus, the portfolios are likely to have increased exposure to the DJIA over the coming weeks.

Performance Review  

The tables below present performance figures for the most popular Focused 15 Investing model portfolios. Most of the other portfolios shown on the publications are more aggressive or more conservative versions of these.

      2020 Has Been a Challenging Year

This has been a challenging year for the model portfolios in terms of performance.

Of the five most popular model portfolios, only one (sg218) has performed better than the DJIA. The others had returns ranging from a loss of 10% to a 0% return.

The main cause of the low returns is that our portfolios became very conservative (high target weights in cash) in June and have missed the positive returns since then. The target weights followed the MRI cycles as intended, but market returns were heavily influenced by, I believe, low interest rates and massive economic stimulus from governments around the world. Their measures more than compensated for the lack of resilience in the market. The Focused 15 Investing approach explicitly avoids making bets on news-of-the-day events, which, in most environments, enhances returns. But in 2020 this has not been the case. I believe 2020 will be an unusual year and that no change in the approach should be made.

      The Onyx Sleeve Has Performed Well

The model portfolios that include the Onyx sleeve along with the DJIA-focused sleeve have performed better than those that focus just on the DJIA-linked ETFs. The first two listed are the DJIA-focused portfolios. The remaining three mix a DJIA-focused sleeve and the Onyx sleeve.

I designed the Onyx sleeve in 2013 to provide reliable returns in lower interest rate environments. Its goal is to provide consistent returns when bond returns are low. As you may recall, Onyx consists of four low volatility ETFs:
  • XLP – Consumer Staples Stocks
  • XLU – Utility Stocks
  • UST – US 7-10 Year Treasury bond index x2
  • SHY – 1-3 Year Treasury bond index
The MRI-based signals rotate target weights among these four ETFs favoring the more resilience and avoiding the more vulnerable. The recent 2-year period has been a useful test for the Onyx sleeve. While the DJIA-focused sleeve has history beginning in 1918, the Onyx sleeve’s history begins in 1991, which is quite a bit shorter. Over the last 2 years, we have had a major crisis (the pandemic) and periods of concerns about rising and declining interest rates. The Onyx sleeve has performed well during these periods, and I am confident that it can provide positive returns in a wide variety of market environments. It is important to note that Onyx has lower long-term returns than the DJIA-focused sleeves but is a good complement to the DJIA-focused sleeves. Thus, I provide Onyx mixes in all weekly publications.

While it looks like the Onyx mixes are superior to the DJIA-focused portfolios, the DJIA-focused portfolios perform better just after the Macro MRI turns positive. To illustrate this, I will show additional information for only the main DJIA-focused portfolio, Diamond (sg131), and the main Onyx mix, which is the Diamond-Onyx Mix (sg218). 

The best example strong performance after a trough in the Macro MRI over the last 20 years is 2009, just after the DJIA declined by about 50% because of the Global Financial Crisis. As shown in column B below, both the DJIA-focused and Onyx mix portfolios do better than the DJIA. But the DJIA-focused Diamond (sg131) performs better, returning 39% compared to the 27% of the Diamond-Onyx Mix (sg218).   

While the Diamond-Onyx Mix (sg218) has had better performance in 2020, Diamond (sg131) has better performance over a much longer period. The table below includes the 20-year performance figures for a set of popular model portfolios. The figure in columns C, D, and E are annualized.   

One can see that even though Diamond (sg131) has had poor performance in 2020 (year-to-date), it still has better long-term returns than Diamond-Onyx Mix (sg218).

Current Stock Valuations 

Stock valuations are high compared to the historical range of the last 20 years. Common valuation measures are listed below — the higher the valuation, the more expensive the stocks. In general, one wants to buy stocks when valuations are low and sell them when valuations are high.
  • Price-to-earnings ratio: This ratio relates the current index price to the earnings of all the companies in the index. In the second quarter of 2020, company earnings declined dramatically because of the pandemic, and this temporary shift can inflate the price-to-earnings ratio.
  • Price-to-book ratio: This ratio relates the current index price to the assets of all companies. Assets include things like factories and equipment, which are not as variable as earnings. Thus, this ratio tends to be more stable by being less sensitive to earnings fluctuations from year to year.
The following data is from Bloomberg. It shows these valuation measures for the DJIA are at high levels compared to those of the last 20+ years. The top panel shows the price history for the DJIA (total return on a log scale), and the time period covered is 1997 through early November 2020.

Over the last 20 years, there were two major declines prior to 2020:
  • 2002 – Decline of roughly 30% during the post-9/11 recession
  • 2008 – Decline of roughly 50% because of the Global Financial Crisis

The subsequent panels show the valuation ratios for price-to-earnings, and price-to-book. The horizontal red lines show the current levels of those ratios. Prior to the decline of 2002, the price-to-earnings ratio was at a high level – a level similar to today’s. 

Prior to the decline of 2007/8, the price-to-book ratio was at a high level – a level similar to today’s. The high valuation levels suggest that stocks are expensive and may not move much higher.

However, at far left of the chart the valuation, note that levels are higher than the current levels indicated by the red lines. This was the end of the Internet Boom of the late 1990s. Even though the Internet Boom primarily affected the NASDAQ index, the valuation measures of the DJIA also showed high valuation statistics as well. This early period may be a useful comparison for the current period. The shutdown measures to contain the virus have boosted the prices and valuations of Amazon, Apple, Netflix, etc., and the DJIA stocks may be affected as well.

As mentioned in prior notes, there are factors that may make long-term historical valuation analyses less relevant in the current situation. One factor is the Fed’s pledge to keep interest rates very low for a long period of time and to buy assets on the open markets to reduce fears about market declines. Also, governments around the world have spent billions to compensate for reduced employment and business activity. The personal savings rate in the US has moved sharply higher in the pandemic (link: https://www.statista.com/statistics/246268/personal-savings-rate-in-the-united-states-by-month/). As soon as the risk of Covid-19 reduces because of an effective treatment and/or vaccine, spending may be unusually high as people make purchases that have been delayed during the pandemic.

Thus, the current valuation of the DJIA stocks may not be excessive considering future growth related to the massive government stimulus and low interest rates.

Nonetheless, the issue of high valuations remains a concern because a sharp rebound of economic activity could reduce the will of the Fed and Congress to provide support. They may be less willing to extend their extraordinary support for the economy, which would remove key supports for maintaining stock prices at high valuation levels.