Using History As A Guide, Without Being Married to the Past
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
In our recent client engagements, a prevailing sense of bearishness has surfaced due to negative news and declining stock prices. We recognize that such sentiments are common in challenging market conditions, reinforcing the significance of our core principles: adaptability, trend following, and disciplined execution.
At Spartan Planning Group, we take comfort in our ability to adapt to changing markets. Our commitment to trend following is a deliberate choice grounded in the belief that trends often provide the clearest and most reliable path forward. This approach aligns us with the market’s direction and helps us navigate through noise and uncertainty.
Discipline is the cornerstone of our strategy, enabling us to execute consistently, irrespective of market conditions. It ensures that we remain steadfast in serving our clients and upholding our investment principles.
In this month’s note, we delve into our systematic investment strategy, emphasizing its timeless principles. When executed with unwavering discipline, these principles tend to lead to better long-term outcomes for investors.
Below are the asset classes utilized in our portfolios and their model-driven exposure heading into November.
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
After opening the month higher, equity indexes quickly retreated to levels not seen since May. Equity investors were hard-pressed to find a segment doing well for the month as we close out October. The result is a continued emergence of downtrends and reduced exposure in our portfolios. The lone exception is U.S.-large-cap equities, which continue to hold onto a long-term uptrend. This means that despite being slightly weaker overall compared to September, U.S. exposure will experience a modest increase, rising to its baseline allocation. The increased exposure will come from weaker international equities, which now reside in downtrends across all timeframes.
It is worth noting that November will be a key month in determining how the portfolios will look as we close 2023. If equity prices remain at these levels or decline further, then it is increasingly likely that our portfolios will have minimum allocations to equities heading into December. On the other hand, a rally in November would likely lead to comparable exposure to our current stance for December and set the stage for an increase entering the new year.
Regarding real estate securities, October’s slide has prices revisiting levels not seen since the pandemic. At some point, this asset class could become an opportunity, but with trends entrenched in a downward direction, we will continue to avoid it except for only the static minimums.
Fixed Income & Alternatives
A meme recently made its rounds on our internal chat platform that accurately describes the state of the fixed-income markets. In the first panel, a man proudly states that he uses bonds to offset the risk of his stock portfolio. In the second panel, we see a drastic change in his expression as he wonders, “But what offsets the risk of my bond portfolio?”
We have the luxury of being amused by this since our allocations to fixed income of any “long duration” have been at or near its minimum for almost two years now. Others have not been so lucky. With bond markets continuing to make new lows in this downtrend, bond markets are far from us adding back exposure. As a result, our portfolios will continue to benefit from higher yields and lower risk associated with ultra-short-term instruments.
Gold exposure or hedged positions will increase. Both the intermediate- and long-term trends turned positive in October. This was presumably driven by the intensification of conflict in the Middle East. Gold has leveled off recently but is still below its 2023 high set in the second quarter.
Sourcing for this section: Barchart.com, Real Estate Vanguard ETF (VNQ), 1/1/2020 to 10/29/2023 and Barchart.com, Gold Trust Ishares (IAU), 1/1/2023 to 10/29/2023
Three potential catalysts for trend changes:
- Increasing Costs: The U.S. bond market has seen a substantial selloff, pushing the 10-year U.S. Treasury note yield to a 16-year high of 5%. This surge in yields, driven by concerns of Federal Reserve rate hikes to combat inflation since January 2022, intensified recently due to a rise in the term premium. Economists suggest this increase may be equivalent to two or three Fed rate hikes.
- Government Spending: High long-term bond yields significantly influence the Federal Reserve’s economic outlook and interest-rate decisions. The ballooning federal deficit is contributing to rising yields, even though political leaders have been hesitant to address it.
- Citizen Spending: U.S. economic growth surged during the summer, with a 4.9% GDP expansion in the third quarter, more than double the second quarter’s pace. However, after-tax, inflation-adjusted income declined by 1.0% during the third quarter, and savings as a share of income fell. A slowdown in consumer spending, despite its substantial contribution to the U.S. economy, could impact overall growth.
Sourcing for this section: The Wall Street Journal, “Bond Rout Drives 10-Year Treasury Yield to 5%,” 10/23/2023 and The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Economy Grew a Strong 4.9%, Driven by Consumer Spree That May Not Last,” 10/26/2023
Simplicity & Consistency
“History is a vast early warning system.”
With just two more monthly updates remaining in 2023, we find ourselves reflecting on what has been a year marked by notable shifts in investor sentiment. It is worth noting that even we, as believers in systematic asset management, are not immune to human tendencies and feelings such as recency bias, and our perspective may also be shaped by recent events. However, it is hard to recall a year that has experienced such pronounced swings in sentiment:
- From fear at the beginning of 2023, due to memories of 2022’s inflation and interest rate-driven declines
- To optimism at the midpoint of the year, fueled by hopes of declining or stabilizing interest rates and a rally in artificial intelligence and technology
- Then back to fear again due to the looming threat of war in the Middle East
On the other hand, one could argue that’s all just fear in different forms. Fear of loss is replaced by fear of missing out (FOMO), followed by more fear of loss.
Investors have beliefs about markets and money that develop and evolve as they grow and mature. Their environment (family, friends, co-workers, media, etc.) either reinforces or conflicts with those beliefs, cementing or chipping away at them.
As humans have emotional tendencies and biases, it is a constant battle to filter the noise and stick to a plan. That is why financial advisors are so important. It’s the reason even great players like Michael Jordan need great coaches like Phil Jackson to win championships. Great coaches and great advisors can help you filter through the noise, identify your plan, and stick to your plan. They can see and point out any blind spots that may be threatening your likelihood of success in carrying out your goals.
The beauty of systematic trend following is in its simplicity and consistency. In our opinion, it is among the most adaptable strategies one can use. A rules-based process using price as its only input, if engineered robustly, is built for the long term. The process uses data from the past but limits the influence of any set of historical conditions. Let us explain by breaking this down:
- What is a robust strategy? The way we define it is one that can stand the test of time. Over many different scenarios, it may not always be the strategy with the top returns overall short time periods, but it will be skewed toward almost always providing a more favorable outcome consistent with a reasonable goal. Based on our research, it will rarely have a negative outcome over a timeframe that matters to achieving the intended goal. If it does have a negative outcome, it will likely still be better than the alternative.
- How is a robust strategy built? Again, in our opinion, the best way to build a robust strategy is to do it over as much time/data as possible and with as few variables as possible. The most valuable feature of historical price data is that it gives a window into investor sentiment and behavior in reaction to various events, which, in our opinion, is what drives markets. Look no further than 2023.
Having few variables is essential because of a statistical concept called degrees of freedom. Degrees of freedom are the maximum number of logically independent variables used to calculate a statistical relationship (i.e., cause and effect). In a large sample, more variables mean more ability to find a significant relationship among the different possibilities. However, in a smaller sample, more variables can increase the ability of randomness to disrupt the model moving forward.
An example of modeling a robust system can be found in the whitepaper that we wrote alongside our colleagues that can be found here (Applying a Systematic Investment Process to Distributive Portfolios: A 150 Year Study Demonstrating Enhanced Outcomes Through Trend Following). This whitepaper combed through 150 year of data in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Through the bond market and the stock market. That covered world wars, great depressions, inflation crises, and more. The conclusion is quite clear: trend-following tended to give the most stability and predictability around outcomes in distributive (when you’re retired and taking money out) and non-distributive (investing pre-retirement) portfolios.
In financial markets, it is difficult to know whether a sample is large enough, so in our opinion, it is better to err on the side of fewer variables. Ultimately, we are simply modeling investor behavior and incorporating rules to react as it changes. That’s how one builds a strategy for the long term, in our view.
While a systematic trend-following strategy uses historical price data, it is not married to the past to the same degree as a human-based decision-making process. Think about it this way: a typical investor will make decisions based on all their experience, or at least the moments they recall in a more or less biased way. This can be individual moments, years, or even decades, depending on the individual. Now compare that to the typical trend-following process or even the one we use. While our rules are developed over many decades, even hundreds of years of data, they never look at more than the last 200 trading days to make decisions in real-time. This means that we are reacting to what is happening at the moment. Not only is the influence of past data minimized, it is outright ignored. In our opinion, this is the best way to build and execute a robust strategy that can constantly adapt to what is happening in the markets. This is always important but has arguably never been more so than in 2023.
To summarize this section, you may often hear us say, “We are always prepared for the ‘what-ifs,’ but we only currently deal in the ‘what is’.” Be ready for any scenario, but don’t let personal biased predictions stop you from faithfully executing your robust strategy.
The Spartan Team