Beware of Grasping at the Shadow
“Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
The world of investing is often clouded by the allure of being right: the shadow, as Aesop would say. In our view, this loses sight of the substance: the consistent, systematic process that forms the heart of sound investing.
We believe a trend-following strategy embodies this substance. It does not get lost in the shadow of predicting market highs or lows, and it does not require cherry-picking historical charts to support a preferred argument about the over- or under-valuation of an asset. Instead, trend-following observes, understands, and responds to market trends or, said another way, the reality of what is happening in the market. Spartan’s founder, David Childs, has a regular saying – “[Trend following] is prepared for the “what ifs” but only deals in the “what is.” This year’s divergence between the equal-weighted and market-cap-weighted S&P 500 indices underscores one reason why we find wisdom in this approach.
In many market participants’ estimation, being right in markets typically means picking the top or bottom in a particular stock or asset class: the shadow. In our view, winning over time means focusing on adapting to prevailing market conditions with our systematic process, which is intended to maximize risk-adjusted compounding rates: the substance.
We spend no time predicting what will happen in any moment other than now, and our systematic investing process demonstrates resiliency, being able to capitalize on what’s working in the moment. This is the essence of our approach: not grasping at the shadow of being right but focusing on the substance of our repeatable process.
In this Monthly Note, we delve into the data behind the above-average start to the year for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq. We discuss the emotional biases that can cloud investors’ opinions of how the rest of the year will play out, and the discipline required to stay on the path regardless of short-term outcomes.
Below are the asset classes utilized in our portfolios and their model-driven exposure heading into August.
Disclaimer: This note is for general update purposes related to the general strategy and approach of Spartan Planning portfolios. Every client’s situation including Risk Profile, Time Horizon, Contributions, and Distributions is different from other clients. Your exposure to any given asset class will depend on your goals, risk profile, and how tactical or static your risk profile calls for. Adjustments can vary across strategies depending on each strategy’s objectives. What’s illustrated above most clearly reflects allocation adjustments for the Growth Strategy. If there have been changes to your risk profile and/or goals or if you wish to discuss them in more depth, please contact your advisor.
Equities & Real Estate
In July, U.S. equity markets continued the broad climb that started in June, as all major classes produced strong returns. For the first time in a while, growth and tech took a backseat to value, high-dividend, mid, and small caps as the lagging segments attempted to close the performance gap from the first half of 2023. While they still have a way to go, July’s return cemented what is quickly becoming one of the best calendar starts for equity performance in multiple decades. Later in this Monthly Note, we will address this in more detail, but the summary, for now, is that exposure will continue to be overweight in U.S. equities.
Foreign-developed equities and emerging markets also performed well in July. For the former, uptrends remain entrenched, and exposure will continue to be at the baseline level. Still, a portion of the allocation will be handed to emerging markets due to their strengthening trends. For the latter, July’s rally marked a return to long-term uptrends, with exposure increasing as a result. It is the first time EM experienced uptrends across both timeframes since November 2021. While the mix is changing, the overall exposure to international equities will not change and will be at their baseline levels across our strategies.
With peak rates potentially in sight, real estate securities have recovered enough to create an intermediate-term uptrend, but the long-term trend remains negative. The result will be increased exposure, which will be taken back from U.S. equities, but the asset class will remain underweight overall.
Fixed Income & Alternatives
Fixed income returns were mixed in July, with most slightly negative except international bonds. Downtrends remained pervasive, but an intermediate-term uptrend internationally will cause a slight increase in exposure overall. Allocations will remain underweight across the board. Yields remained strong on very short-duration instruments, so non-equity exposure in our strategies will reside primarily in ultra-short duration.
Gold rebounded in July and pushed back to uptrend status across both timeframes. The result is a return to baseline allocation to hedge positions in our portfolios and introduced a trend-following globally diversified alternative/hedging strategy ETF, TFPN, to most of our portfolios.
Sourcing for this section: Barchart.com, Growth ETF Vanguard (VUG), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023; Barchart.com, Nasdaq Composite ($NASX), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023; Barchart.com, Value ETF Vanguard (VTV), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023; Barchart.com, High Dividend Yield Vanguard ETF (VYM), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023; Barchart.com, Midcap ETF Vanguard (VO), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023; and Barchart.com, Smallcap ETF Vanguard (VB), 1/1/2023 to 7/27/2023
Three potential catalysts for trend changes:
- All Done?: The Federal Reserve and European Central Bank raised their key interest rate by a quarter percentage point this month. This is the 11th rate hike for the Federal Reserve, and it increased the benchmark rate to a 22-year high of between 5.25% and 5.50%. The ECB’s ninth rate hike also brought their benchmark level to a 22-year high of 3.75%.
- GDP Wow: Gross domestic product grew at a 2.4% annual rate in the second quarter. This was faster than many economists expected and higher than the 2% growth in the first quarter. Consumer spending slowed but was high enough to drive growth and stronger business investment. This report, combined with a strong labor market, raised hopes that the Fed will be able to achieve its goals of a soft landing for the economy.
- It’s All About the Consumer: U.S. consumer confidence rose to its highest level in two years this month. The data reflects a strong labor market and easing inflation. Consumers reported higher levels of confidence on all three measures of consumer confidence – the overall index, future expectations, and present situation.
Sourcing for this section: The Wall Street Journal, “Federal Reserve Raises Interest Rates to 22-Year High,” 7/26/2023; The Wall Street Journal, “European Central Bank Raises Rates, Says Pausing Is an Option,” 7/27/2023; The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Economic Growth Accelerates, Defying Slowdown Expectations,” 7/27/2023; and The Wall Street Journal Real Time Economics, “U.S. Consumers Feeling Better,” 7/26/2023
Let The Good Times Roll
“Man cannot control the current of events. He can only float with them and steer.” –Otto Von Bismarck
Last month we highlighted the absurdity of making predictions about the market. Coming out of a negative year in 2022, it is no coincidence that the most comical (in hindsight) of those predictions were those rooted in recency bias and centered on the idea of continued negative performance in 2023. After another strong month of equity performance, we wondered where 2023’s performance stands in relation to history.
Should we be happy? Should we be worried? These are relevant questions to which our answers, we hope, will provide valuable context for you.
Looking at past market performance can be potentially dangerous (moreso misleading or irrelevant), but it can be useful to maintaining what the late Trevor Moawad called “neutral thinking” in his book, “It Takes What It Takes.”
For example, if I’m pessimistic or worried about the current market or economy, it might be helpful to know that the S&P 500 index has had the third-best starting half of a year in the last three decades. That puts today’s reality in a much larger context.
Best Starts to the Year for the S&P 500
Source: GFD, SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), 2/1/1993 to 7/26/2023
The only two years with a better start than 2023 are 1995 and 1997. The years right behind 2023 are 2019 and 2013. All four were very positive environments from an economic and market standpoint.
If you look at the Nasdaq, it’s even more positive. In fact, 2023 landed at the top of the list for best first half of the year in the last 30 years, with 1995 being second.
Best Starts to the Year for the Nasdaq
Source: GFD, Nasdaq Composite (^IXIC), 1/1/1993 to 7/26/2023
If you’re a pessimist, knowing how good this year has been might frighten you further because it could confirm a bias that things feel overvalued. However, the data, small though the sample might be, says otherwise. Of the top 10 best starts in the S&P 500 over the last 30 years, the average return from July to December is 9.4%, as the table above summarizes. The Nasdaq paints a similar picture. While a couple of negative finishes to the last five months are sprinkled in, the average is more than 13%, and the median is more than 15%.
Now, lest we steer our emotional vehicle from one ditch of worry and fear to the other of irrational optimism and risk-seeking, we must remember that no one can reliably and/or consistently accurately predict how the year will finish. The beauty of using a systematic investing process is that we don’t have to. Having a system allows us to simply be at peace with where we are, enjoying the fact that we are positioned for the given set of circumstances evidenced right now, but also ready to pivot with the next set of real circumstances.
Trend following often invites bias-based critiques from observers. Pessimists may question a seemingly-slow exit during a market drop but stay silent when the trend reverses. Similarly, optimists may criticize our re-entry timing yet remain content with positioning when the market is falling.
What the Monday morning quarterbacks fail to realize is something we determined in our decades of research and observation and see yet again in 2023 thus far: The potential advantage of a trend-following system is that, while it may not appear to “win” each and every time you decide to compare it to a benchmark over a cherry-picked arbitrary time period, it gives you the best chance to “win” (realize your goals) over time when compared to that same reference. We will never leave your financial future up to predictions based on the past; rather, we will always objectively evaluate the here and now to adapt and respond to keep you on the best path toward your goals.
The Spartan Team