We’ve been following the risk on/risk off trading conditions for a while now, and this year has not brought a return to the more “normal” market environment that we’d hoped for. For the uninitiated, “risk on/risk off” is a way of saying that large groups of markets have a tendency to rise or fall in unison. And while a rising tide may lift all ships, that also means that a falling tide lets them all down at once.
Well, yesterday we saw even more evidence that this isn’t just a figment of our imagination – Alcoa executives echoed our frustrations during their conference call. Via the Washington Post (emphasis ours):
In the past year or so, Alcoa executives said in a conference call and to investors, the price of aluminum on the London Metal Exchange has cut the usual ties to the metal’s fundamental demand and supply. Instead, the share price is now responding to the latest headlines on government economic measures, especially to actions taken by central banks, that affect the world economy overall.
To demonstrate its point, Alcoa used a slide show that linked big moves in the price of aluminum to a Chinese stimulus plan announced Sept. 7, a German court ruling in favor of Europe’s bailout efforts on Sept. 12 and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s announcement of its “QE3” program of bond buying on Sept. 13.
“The market today is basically driven by headlines and not market fundamentals,” Alcoa chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld said in the conference call.
This headline-driven market has been particularly tough on managed futures, which are largely made up of systematic trend following CTAs. Trend followers need trends to last for a while – long enough for the trend to emerge, for the CTA to initiate a position, and then to ride the trend for a profit. When trends are too short or nonexistent, CTAs will be hopping on too many false breakouts, meaning quick reversals for a loss after their positions are initiated.
Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve seen all year with managed futures. The Newedge CTA index was up in May, down in June, up in July, down in August… (Dislaimer: past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results). Trends would get started and produce one good month of returns, only to see a snapback that erased those gains in the following month – due in large part to those global economic concerns Kleinfeld was referring to.
Unlike the actual tides, headline-driven markets are anything but predictable. When diversification opportunities are scant and the tide can – and does – reverse at any moment, it takes a great deal of skill (and even a little luck) to avoid getting beach – or dragged out to sea and smashed on the rocks.