Author Archives: Ed

What Is a “Crowded Trade” and How Can It Effect You

Occasionally on one of the financial networks when they are interviewing a money manager or hedge fund operator you will hear the term “crowded trade”.  While a “crowded trade” is difficult to pin down definition-wise, maybe it’s best to convey what a crowded trade is by describing various characteristics that make up a crowded trade:

  • Periods of fast price appreciation seemingly by leaps and bounds, signifying large numbers of participants entering the trade.
  • The vast majority of participants share almost identical beliefs about the underlying investment, increasingly at sometimes almost maniacal, fever pitch levels.
  • A high percentage of the participants are of the short term speculators looking to make a “quick hit”, get in and get out.

Now picture if you will an empty movie theater an hour before show time. It starts out empty and only a single door needs to be open to handle the numbers of movie-goers coming in. As the patrons arrive and take their seats, their numbers are few and conversations likewise. As show time approaches,  more and more patrons arrive and more doors are opened up to handle the influx. This represents the price moving up rapidly. The higher the price, the more patrons of the stock can be allowed in.

Soon the theater gets close to full and conversations are at a fever pitch, as all are in agreement, anticipating the show. Eventually, close to all the fans are in the theater and not all the doors still need to be open, so most are closed.  The theater becomes so crowded that some patrons leave as they are getting a bit claustrophobic, and the doors still open can handle this. As the movie nears it’s some patrons recognize the end of the climax and leave, while the vast majority wait for the credits to roll and suddenly all are standing and wanting to leave, but only a few doors are open, so growing numbers of people must be patient and wait their turn to leave. Quickly the numbers are such that the backup prevents some from even leaving their rows and some from leaving their seats. Suddenly someone notices smoke, or even fire and there is a mad rush to get out of the theater / trade, but the only way to get everyone out fast is to open more doors, which represents the price falling. If not enough doors can be opened fast enough, many will be harmed, so more and more doors are opened, representing the price being in free fall.

Obviously, in investing, one wants to avoid the crowded trade. Sure, you can maybe make “easy” money, but only if you know to leave before the credits roll. Some recognize this before it happens, but most have to see them on the screen.

So how does this apply to us? We are constantly on the watch for the investment factors which may become “crowded” trades, specifically what our disciplined strategy is based on- relative strength.

The Big Picture recently discussed the annual Merrill Lynch survey of 100 institutional money managers. Of particular note to us are some tables that detailed what the most popular investment factors were in determining their investments.  Let there be no doubt that relative strength, amazingly, is nowhere near becoming a crowded trade. In fact, it doesn’t even make the Top Ten:

Here is the overall chart, with relative strength coming in at #11, but trailing the most popular by a large margin and in fact below 50%, which is even better news for us:

Even among the biggest changes in popularity, relative strength is quite unnoticed, again to our liking:

Suffice it to say that while will continue to benefit from an adaptive yet disciplined strategy, we are nowhere near being in a “crowded trade” or “crowded discipline” situation. And that is just fine with us.

– Eric Volk

Weekend Update

At a gathering this weekend I had the good fortune to meet someone who completed an MBA degree in Finance from the University of Chicago a few years ago.  Some of you may remember that the University of Chicago is the birthplace of Modern Portfolio Theory (or M.P.T. for short), and other investing / finance theories such as the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, the Mean Variance theory and the Efficient Frontier model.  These and other theories were more or less ‘rolled up’ and packaged in the form of the Modern Portfolio theory.  Good logic, thought and reasoning by Harry Markowitz, Gene Fama, Merton Miller and Myron Scholes contribute into the dominant method of managing investment portfolios today.  Virtually 99% of the investing retail world relies on it because it works.

But it only works in bull markets.

In 50% of the market environments we experience, bear markets, its flaw is exposed.

At its core, MPT is based on the non-correlation of the various asset classes.  In layman’s terms, when large cap stocks are doing poorly, for example, MPT’s contention is that it is likely that one or more other asset classes will be making gains.  Likewise, when any other asset class is under performing, the others stand a good chance of picking up the slack in the portfolio.


And experience bore this out, as the average annual returns over 90 years of the various asset classes varied from around 4-6% for fixed income, 9-10% for large cap stocks and 12-13% for small cap stocks, depending on the time frame and by what definitions are used. Â While the 2003-2007 bull market is depicted in the slide above, it was the bull market from 1982 through 1999, in which the primary large cap index, the Standard and Poor’s 500, averaged 17% and really moved improved the averages, almost to the point of distortion.

However in the real world, we don’t always get to experience bull markets like the one from 1982 thru 1999. Â We also experience bear markets like the secular bear market we’ve been in since 2000. Â (Secular bull and bear markets run years and even decades, while cyclical bull and bear markets occur within the frame of a secular bull or bear and last months and years.) Â Since 2000, the S&P 500 has average around 1% or so, again depending on the exact time frame and who is doing the measuring. Â Â Sure, we had a cyclical bull market within that secular bear market, but that was easily wiped out with the following cyclical bear market that contained the melt down in 2008 and 2009. Â Note the almost direct, lock-step correlation, the narrow path of variance and the drastically squeezed spread. Â The 290% became all of 15%, an almost 90% drop.


So where has been the dis-connect between MPT and Joe Investor’s 401(k)’s (or other accounts’) real world returns? Many financial professional MPT adherents continually refer back to a popularly cited study called ‘Missing the Ten Best Days’. Different versions and write-ups of this study have come and gone over the years, but the main gist of it is that the authors were trying to promote the worn out investing axiom of ‘Time IN the market beats TIMING the market every time.’ A catchy phrase, but not true. At least not true all of the time.  And if its note true all of the time, well, look what happened to investor portfolios since 2008.

During secular bear markets like the one we are in right now, adhering to that line of MPT thinking can do some serious damage to one’s investments, be they individual stocks, mutual funds or exchange traded funds (‘ETF’s’). And we’re not just talking the occasional bad year for a manager here, such as 2008. We are talking about sustained underperformance, whichi is especially important when compared to the key assumption that almost all pension managers, retirement planners and retirement models have made over the past 30-40 years or more- the assumption of 8%. Specifically, almost every planning model in use over that time frame has either a stated (or sometimes unstated) assumption of averaging an 8% overall return over time.

In his book “Expectational Bankruptcy”, author Frank Troise describes how this has come to be:

Wall Street developed a powerfully efficient sales and marketing mechanism to spoon feed investing to their clients. Investing was reduced to easy quotable clichés: “8% per annum doubles your money every ten years!” Account minimums were driven lower and lower as were fees and transaction costs. Investors began investing in the most esoteric things such as hedge funds, private equity funds, commercial real estate funds, managed futures funds, ETFs that could short the market, and on and on. Soon, “saving for retirement” was an extinct expression in our society. “Preserving” one’s wealth was considered an antiquated expression of a time long gone by. Investors were now empowered by Wall Street with all of the technology they could use to drive the returns of their accounts higher and higher.

…Yet investors had grown complacent in their assumptions regarding risk. For over 15 years investors had gotten used to 10-12%/annum returns in the equity markets. Investors were allowed to participate in alternative investments at alarmingly high levels. The term “sophisticated investor” (legally defined as a person’s portfolio value and/or per annum income), was used loosely to entrance new high net worth clients into alternative investments that they didn’t understand. “Sophisticated investor” had no correlation whatsoever to the investor’s true ability to understand what they were investing in. It just gave the legal department in a Wall Street firm the “out” to sell higher fee products.

Despite completing risk questionnaires attesting to their risk tolerance (which was enough for any compliance department to sign off on as it abdicated the firm’s legal risk back to the client), investors never experienced a 20-40% decline in their net worth. Until 2008 it was always a hypothetical occurrence. Simply put, most folks always assumed they’d at least get their 8%/annum return. And why not…wasn’t that what the institutional community was using successfully for years?

It is my firm opinion that the large demographic changes in the U.S. economy are too large of a headwind for any economic offset to occur to reach this 8% return. This has been highlighted in other papers as the “fallacy of 8%.” I am in good company with other investors far smarter than myself. Warren Buffet has for years warned of the assumptions of the 8%:

Warren Buffett’s Letter to Shareholders: Don’t Expect Double-Digit Stock Gains Over Long Run

Posted By: Alex Crippen | Executive Producer

| 03 Mar 2008 | 12:46 PM ET

Warren Buffett’s just-released annual letter to shareholders features a blistering attack on what he calls the “fanciful figures” of Corporate America’s accounting, especially when it comes to assumptions about pension fund returns.

If a company projects larger returns from investments held by a pension fund, then it can lower its pension expenses and raise it’s “less-than-solid’ earnings.” Buffett notes that the 363 S&P companies with pension funds assume, on average, annual growth of 8 percent.

He then goes through an analysis designed to show that anyone thinking they’ll get that kind of return is not thinking realistically.

Most pension funds have about one-quarter of their assets in bonds and cash, generating about a 5 percent return. That means the remaining three-quarters of assets in stocks need to earn over 9 percent to reach overall 8 percent growth. And that’s after ever-increasing fees.

Buffett points out that the Dow’s annual compounded gain was 5.3 percent in the 20th century .. and it was a “wonderful” century. To match that rate in the 21st century, the Dow would need to close around 2,000,000 at the end of 2099. (1,988,000 Dow points to go, eight years in.)

Anyone expecting a 10 percent annual gains from stocks this century are “implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. ” (Buffett suggests you explain the math to any adviser who talks to you about double-digit gains, “not that it will faze him.”)Â

This assumption of 8% is alive and well in our country’s public and private pension plans that have erroneously used this high assumption for years. Public and private pension plans have used this simple rate of return as a given number, and a safe reliable return assumption for their liabilities.

Troise goes on to explain the looming pension crisis in the United States and what it’s implications will potentially be for the U.S. economy. I will base my next blog entry on this pension crisis.

For now however, let’s check in on the comments on MPT and other modern finance topics from Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger from the 2009 annual meeting with Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:

Mr. Buffett: “There is so much that’s false and nutty in modern investing practice and modern investment banking, that if you just reduced the nonsense, that’s a goal you should reasonably hope for.”

Mr. Buffett said he was once asked by a student from the University of Chicago, a hub of modern portfolio theory, “What are we learning that’s most wrong?” To which Charlie Munger turned to his partner Buffett and quipped, “How do you handle that in one session?”

Mr. Buffett on the efficient market hypothesis, the idea that all information is instantly priced into the market: “There’s this holy writ, the efficient market theory. How do you teach your students everything is priced properly? What do you do for the rest of the hour?”

Mr. Buffett on complex calculations used to value purchases: “If you need to use a computer or a calculator to make the calculation, you shouldn’t buy it.”

Mr. Buffett on the use of higher-order math in finance: “The more symbols they could work into their writing the more they were revered.”

Mr. Munger on the same theme: “Some of the worst business decisions I’ve ever seen are those with future projections and discounts back. It seems like the higher mathematics with more false precision should help you but it doesn’t. They teach that in business schools because, well, they’ve got to do something. ”

Mr. Buffett adds: “If you stand up in front of a business class and say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, you won’t get tenure…. Higher mathematics may be dangerous and lead you down pathways that are better left untrod.”

Mr. Buffett on the persistence of bad ideas in finance: “The famous physicist Max Planck was talking about the resistance of the human mind, even the bright human mind, to new ideas…. And he said science advances one funeral at a time, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that and it’s certainly been true in finance.”

Finally, in a recent conversation I had with Mr. Troise, of SoHo Capital, he recalled a response Mr. Munger, always a little less diplomatic in his answers and prone to speaking his mind than Mr. Buffett, gave the following response to a shareholder question regarding the merits of Modern Portfolio Theory as follows: “We’re not fans of it. In fact, Warren and I have discussed often the benefit to our shareholders of endowing a professorship position at every business school in the country for the sole purpose of study of Modern Portfolio Theory, if for no other reason than to ensure there will always be someone to sell our stock positions to.”

So why do 99% of the financial advisors and CFP’s (Certified Financial Planner) in the U.S. cling to these flawed theories? Maybe the answer can come from the University of Chicago’s Economics Department itself. In his book “The Myth of the Rational Market”, author Justin Fox details how over the years most of the principals involved have qualified and / or vaguely backed off much of the “meat” behind these theories. One even went so far as to say they never meant for MPT to be the “correct” answer in the question of what is the best way to manage investments. Rather, they were asked by people from the financial industry to come up with a method that was A.) able to be mathematically modeled and B.) able to be marketed to the masses.

While paraphrasing and not a direct quote from the book, mainly in the interest of space and time, that was main point.

So again, we are left to ask ourselves if a flawed theory, based on faulty assumptions and on stock market history from 80-100 years ago, and developed as a solution that is not with our outcomes specifically in mind, is something we should bank on.  Most investors, lacking any known alternatives and wishing to spend the least amount of time, critical thinking and effort, become victims of the recency bias we’ve spoken of in the past and simply default to MPT. It worked from 1980 through 1999, and their advisors were telling them it was the correct way and to not question it- to instead bury their heads in the sand more or less and “…be a good long term investor.” (Ever heard that before?)

It’s now been 12 years and investor accounts have averaged nowhere near 8%.  The damage has been done slowly over that time if not suddenly in 2008-2009.

I must say it is particularly comforting knowing we can rely on a disciplined, adaptive strategy that is unemotional and self-correcting. Â It is by nature based on the facts of the present, not predictions, assumptions or market behavior of 100 years ago, nor flawed theories of more recent times. Â As it is based on what is performing now, instead of flawed theories, we named it “Fact-based investing”, Â It is the opposite of almost all Modern Portfolio Theory principles, which makes it somewhat contrarian by nature. Â Being contrarian to the dominant portfolio method of the time is a good thing, and the numbers back us up.

-Eric Volk

Where to from here?

Investor Question I get frequently:  “When is this bear market going to end and when is the next bull market going to start?” My Answer:   “I don’t know and anyone that says they know is lying to you. However, I know it won’t be soon.” I know, just call me a “big bowl ‘o investing sunshine”! But wait! All is NOT gloomy here at Volk and Associates Inc. This secular bear market we are currently in year 13 of, started in 2000 and has shown no signs of ending any time soon. Am I violating Volk and Associates’ self-imposed “no predictions’ mantra? No. And here’s what the facts say about why it won’t be ending any time soon, and how we can nevertheless still fare pretty well. Clients and observers of our investing models know this first hand. First, let’s take a look at where the market is in relative terms. One way to do this is to use Yale Professor of Economics Robert Schiller’s cyclically adjusted PE ratio on the S&P 500, the most common measure of the market.* (yes, an economics professor…if you’ll recall, I did say that their information is good, it’s just in the implementation they take a left turn.) Also known as the ‘CAPE’ for “cyclically adjusted price earnings”, it represents a rolling 10 year moving average PE on the S&P 500. Schiller has tracked this number for years and has gone back in history to plot that also. This can be found at If we were to overlay this chart with market performance, we would see that no long term bull market has ever started from anything other than a single digit reading on this number. Given that we are currently at a 22.81 reading on this measurement, it provides part of the answer to our question of when the next bull market will begin- not soon. There are only two ways to go from where we are right now down to a single digit PE ratio:

  1. Earnings more than double on the S&P 500; or
  2. The S&P 500 takes a more than 50% drop.

So which will it be? -Do you think the American economy will be able to more than double the profits of the S&P 500 over the next 5 or 10 years?  Using the “Rule of 72”, we know that over a 10 year span it takes 7.2% per year to double an investment. Has the U.S. economy EVER grown at a 7.2% rate in the past 100 years? I seriously doubt it. And if it does, where does that say inflation will be? Consider that in the greatest economic boom our country has ever seen, the U.S. only averaged about 4%, and the 1980’s-1990’s economic growth was at about a 3% rate. -OR- -Do you think the S&P 500 will take a more than 50% haircut? The answer will probably be a combination of the two, but we have no idea what mix that combination will be. Let’s say the growth rate is an optimistic 3% (the reason I say optimistic is because the facts say the driver of the last 50 years of economic growth in the U.S., the Baby Boom generation, is now retiring at the rate of 10,000 every day and will for the next 19 years or so. What effect will that have on the stock market? For one answer, we can take into account the report the San Francisco Fed branch put out last August, entitled  “Boomer Retirement: Headwinds for U.S. Equity Markets?” So without much hope for help through economic growth, that leaves us with taking a greater-than-50% ‘hit’ to the S&P 500. So what’s an investor to do? Head for the hills? Not if you want to make any money. Now that we know the market is not going to head north on a secular (meaning lasting years and decades) bull market any time soon, we can take advantage of knowing where we stand. You see, the great part of a bear market is that while it is busy burning off that excess PE, it behaves in some fairly reliable ways. For instance, if we absolutely must invest in the United States markets, it’s good to know some historical facts of previous long term secular bear markets. For instance, they are characterized by continual shifts from the shorter term cyclical (months and years) bull markets (which we may be seeing the end of one now) to cyclical bear markets. These ‘shifts’ alternate, on average, about +/- 25%. That is a valuable observation to know. Another valuable observation to know is that the investments that perform worse than the overall market in the cyclical bull runs, stand a good chance of performing worse than the overall market in the cyclical bear run that ensues. While it oversimplifies the matter at hand almost grotesquely, it does do an acceptable job of illustrating at a 50,000 foot view of what we do to produce strong results for our clients in their company sponsored 401(k) accounts, their IRA’s, their variable annuities and their brokerage accounts. It forces us to be continually adapting and flexible, something that will be more and more critical in the future. Static investment theories and hypotheses will suffer irreparable harm if the markets are not in their favor, mainly due to their static nature. How much harm? That provides us the subject for our next blog entry, as most investors have no clue as to how much damage happens to their portfolios in down years. As I’ve said many times before, it’s o.k. to be wrong, it’s not o.k. to STAY wrong. As the old market adage relates, cut your losses and let your winners run. It’s comforting to know that our systematic, disciplined approach to the markets will automatically yield this type of situation. -Eric Volk

Economists and Chief Market Strategists

95% of advisors today read, cite or are influenced by the predictions of one or many economists. Economists are good at making observations and pulling information out of statistics. It’s answering the question of “What does it all mean for the future?” where they get themselves and their clients into trouble.  Often these are called “Market Updates”, “Outlooks” or “Forecasts”. No matter the name, they are predictions.

Economists are often paid quite handsomely for their opinions and predictions, either on a for-hire basis or on the payroll of some brokerage. has what I feel is a particularly accurate definition of the profession:

“(Those who practice) the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.”

Further, John Kenneth Galbraith, who served in economic roles in Administrations from FDR to LBJ, said:

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Another group similar to economists is given such fancy titles as “Chief Market Strategist” or some other similar moniker. Likewise, they are paid to give predictions and, in my opinion, they are glorified economists with a tad more trading knowledge. Why the forecasts of these groups of people are relied upon is amazing.

Recently I came upon an interview of Schwab’s Liz Ann Sonders, their “Chief Market Strategist”, commenting to Investment News on the recent market rally. Sonders’ opinion is that the recent market bull run is merely a “double recovery” for the economy.  She maintains that a “double recovery” is “an idea(!) that doesn’t have any adherence yet.”

I first came across Sonders when she was a regular guest on the late and venerable Louis Rukeyser’s old weekly PBS show “Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser”. Back in the 90’s, I was mesmerized by her good looks.  Not any longer.  Don’t get me wrong- she’s still very easy on the eyes.  However, I’ve now watched this clip four times and I’m still trying to figure out what an “idea that doesn’t have any adherence yet” means exactly, other than possibly  “I have zero clue on what is going on right now in the economy but I wanted to float an idea on this weather balloon of an interview to see if you or anyone else is willing to take the bait.”

Sonders even cracks a half smile / smirk when she says it, as she knows its mularky, to put it mildly. I guess we shouldn’t laugh, as she’s probably being paid by Schwab quite handsomely for her observations and predictions.  Sonders is very intelligent, make no doubt.  I just think she falls into the camp with 98% of the investing industry that believes you can rely on predictions and theories that rely on 90 year old assumptions.

So, here’s the clip, which is fairly short, and be forewarned, there is a good bit of background noise to contend with, but you can understand what she and the interviewer are saying:

So the question is, do you currently trust your investment decisions and guidance on theories and predictions or do you base your investments on facts? Â Do you know which tact your advisor takes? Â What about their firm as a whole? Â Which do you feel more comfortable basing your investing future or retirement on- predictions and theories that are based on flawed assumptions , or facts?

-Eric Volk


The most frequent question I am asked is “What should I be doing now in my 401(k) account at work? What about my brokerage account?” The answer to that question lies where it always has- the facts that we know to be true.

A good way to go broke is to rely on someone who claims they have a crystal ball.  Former Assistant to the US Treasury Secretary Edgar Fiedler once said “…Those who live by the crystal ball soon learn to eat ground glass.” Truer words were never spoken. That is why at Volk and Associates we try our best never to make predictions or assumptions.  And that may be what sets us apart from virtually every other advisor or broker in the industry. We believe in the irrefutable Law of Supply and Demand and the guiding hand of relative strength.  It has served us well, as our investment models indicate over the last 11 years.

The beauty of our relative strength approach is two-fold: First, its simplicity and second, it’s adaptability not just to market conditions but also to being systematic. While no approach to investing can claim complete impartiality, being systematic breeds three things for us that are to our advantage: A.)  It keeps our perspective in the present;  B.) It eliminates as much emotion as possible; and C.) It prevents our winners from being sold too early and keeps us from hanging on to losers. It’s ok to be wrong about a stock or fund investment. it’s NOT ok to stay wrong.

As many of you know, we call our approach to investing “Fact-Based Investing”. The reasons for this are simple:

  1. There is so much dis-information coming out of the fire hose of information we call the Internet, combined with directives from the financial media and advisory communities, it is difficult to filter that down into something we can actually take a drink from..
  2. Even if you do get the information flow down to a trickle, who is to say who is truthful and who is lying? I’m sure investors in Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, etc.,…all thought they and the analysts that followed those companies thought they could trust the information coming from them.
  3. If the information can be trusted, what makes us think the analysts and money managers selected are any smarter than the other thousands of the same sort of analysts utilizing the same education and methods? Do we believe he’s just a better interrogator of the CFO’s of the potential companies to invest in?
  4. Whatever manager selected, he must make the right market call on the stock.
  5. Even if the manager IS right, now he has to have the market agree with him, otherwise there will be no demand to push the price higher.

Another favorite quote from Edgar Fiedler:  “The herd instinct among forecasters makes sheep look like independent thinkers.”

So, back to the question at hand: “What should I be doing now in my 401(k) account at work or in my brokerage accounts?”

Here are the facts you should consider and steps you should be taking NOW:

  1. The market started this latest cyclical bull run back in the beginning of October.
  2. With last week’s market action, this cyclical bull market may be coming to an end, or it might not be. We’re not going to predict. We will only go on what happens for fact.
  3. Go back to your 401(k) statement and your brokerage account statements from the end of September and mark down the prices of all your investments at the time.
  4. Now pull up their current prices and figure the percentage returns since that time.
  5. Do the same for the S&P 500, or better, to the Russell 3000 Index, which is actually a better representation of the overall market.
  6. Compare each of your investments’ returns to the benchmark index’s return.
  7. Whichever under performed the benchmark index you selected will most likely be the biggest under performers in the coming cyclical bear market, but most likely in a big way. There was some factor that was making them under perform in a bull market. Most likely that hasn’t been resolved.

Or, another alternative:

Let Volk and Associates handle managing your 401(k) for you, either within your 401(k) menu plan of choices or inside a self-directed 401(k) account or rollover. We currently follow and make recommendations on dozens of large and small company 401(k) plans’ choices on a weekly basis.

Do you really have time to be consistently doing the research necessary, on a continual basis, to manage your largest asset? Would it not be a better use of your time to turn this management over to a professional advisory firm with the track records our models have shown?

-Eric Volk

Next Time:Â An illustration of how Volk and Associates can pay for its services. Â -or- Why it makes sense use our services.