Posts Tagged ‘Research Universe’
Monday, September 13th, 2010
“And a partridge in a ‘pair’ tree”
Jeffrey Saut, Raymond James, September 13, 2010
I recalled the lyrics “and a partridge in a pear tree” when an institutional account asked me for some “pair trade” ideas. Recall that “pair trading” is considered a market neutral strategy whereby you match a long position in one stock while selling short an equal dollar amount of another stock that is strongly correlated with the long stock position. Then, if the correlation weakens, hopefully your long position rises while your short position falls. For example, from our research universe a pair trade might consist of buying Regal Cinemas (RGC/$12.25/Strong Buy) and selling short an equal dollar amount of Speedway Motorsports (TRK/$14.97/ Underperform). For guidance, I called one of the smartest pair traders I know. His response was, “Don’t do it!” “Why?” I asked. “Because correlations are as high as they have been since 1987,” he replied. Further research reveals that he’s right, for arguably the best pair trading hedge fund in the business is down 11% year to date. Here’s why.
The chart on page 3 shows the correlation of S&P 500 stocks to the S&P 500 Index. Studying the chart one finds that the correlation from September 2009 through early May 2010 ranged between 55 – 65. However, following the May 6th “flash crash” the correlation leaps to ~78 and eventually ~82, which is indeed the highest correlation since the 1987 crash. So what caused this fairly rare event? In my opinion it is because the retail investor – disgusted with high-frequency trading, dark pools, trading huddles, inter-market sweep orders, etc. – simply left the game, leaving the “pros” to trade among themselves. Obviously, when the alleged “dumb money” left the party correlation had to rise. Adding to the situation has been Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). To wit, when volume increases in say the Powershares Consumer Discretionary ETF (PEZ/$21.08), that ETF automatically goes in and buys ALL 60 of the mid-cap stocks within the fund. Plainly, that causes correlation to rise.
The conclusion from my brief study is that pair trades are not working. Consequently, to make money you must take only one side of a position, either long or short. A potential insight is that as correlation recedes it might imply retail investors are returning to the equity markets. Currently, however, this is not the case, for as repeatedly stated, “I have not seen retail investors so unwilling to discuss stocks since the fourth quarter of 1974.” That gleaning is reflected by the sentiment figures and the money flows out of equity mutual funds. With such a dour mindset, I think “Something’s Gotta Give.” That belief is driven by the fact that corporate profits continue to explode. Indeed, with 99% of the S&P 500 (SPX/1109.55) companies reporting, operating earnings for 2Q10 have increased roughly 52% year-over-year to $21. Ladies and gentlemen, the peak in quarterly earnings tagged $24.06 a few years ago. Hence, we are roughly $3 away from bettering all-time peak earnings! Currently, this year’s earnings estimates for the SPX are hovering around $83, while next year’s are sticky around $95. The question then becomes, “What price-to-earnings multiple will Mr. Market put on said earnings if those estimates prove accurate?”
Alas, that is always a difficult question because the stock market is truly “fear, hope and greed only loosely connected to the business cycle.” Some negative nabobs suggest that the P/E multiple should be in the single digits. Other, more optimistic types argue that with interest rates and inflation exceptionally low the P/E multiple should be 20x. The right answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Using a median P/E multiple of 15x yields a price objective of 1425 for the SPX based on a $95 estimate. Using a 12x P/E multiple renders an 1140 price target. Yet one inquisitive portfolio manager asked me, “Jeff, how do you arrive at that $95 number?” I responded that I don’t engage in such exercises, preferring to try and get things directionally correct. I then proceeded to relate to him what one of Wall Street’s best and brightest stated on a recent conference call. The speaker was Dr. David Kelley, strategist for J.P Morgan Funds, and he had this to say (as paraphrased by me):
I arrive at my $95 earnings estimate for the S&P 500 in 2011 by assuming interest rates stay below 4%, nominal GDP grows at 5.8%, a 2% hop in productivity, and with unit labor costs falling by -0.3%. Considering that unit labor costs have fallen by -2.1% for the second year in a row, this is not an unreasonable assumption. If correct, at least in real terms, the value of output per laborer is increasing faster than workers’ wages. Inasmuch, the gains in productivity are accruing to corporations. Add in low depreciation expense and the result is a profits explosion.
Tags: Correlations, Dark Pools, Dumb Money, ETF, ETFs, Exchange Traded Funds, Hedge Fund, Institutional Account, jeffrey saut, Pair Trading, Partridge In A Pair Tree, Partridge In A Pear, Partridge In A Pear Tree, Rare Event, Raymond James, Regal Cinemas, Research Universe, Retail Investor, Short Position, Speedway Motorsports, Stock Position, Strong Buy
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