December 11th, 2012

Our Discipline: A Case Study in MED

As I’ve written here often, I believe the best approach for the typical individual investor is to manage their portfolios employing the following three steps: 1) a well-founded, unemotional approach to market timing, 2) the notion of industry group rotation and 3) diversification that spreads risk among a fairly large number of individual stocks (i.e., investing approximately equal amounts among stocks in the portfolio).

Put another way, the portfolio management effort down to answering the following questions: How much money should be put at risk in the stock market at any particular moment and, if new money is to be put to work, which stocks should be added to the portfolio? 

I solved the first question for myself several years ago.  I collected data back to 1963 on the daily S&P 500 Index and, by asking a series of “what-if” questions determined when it would have been better to have invested money in the market making an average return than having it sit idle on the sidelines.  Or, stated in the reverse, when would having money sit on the sidelines been better for long-term returns than had it been invested earning an average market return?  The analysis resulted in my Market Momentum Meter, an unemotional barometer of market sentiment, that allows me to shut my ears to all the media noise and hype about what they claim is “Breaking News” and focus instead on the truth about conditions conducive to momentum-driven markets over the past 50 years.  Following the Meter’s signals over the long run, investors could have avoided market crashes while still taking advantage of the bull market runs.  I can attest to the fact it helped me avoid the worst of the 2007-09 Financial Crisis Crash.

Once the Meter signals that it’s relatively “safe” to put new money to work in the market,  I use a two-step approach for finding the stocks best for carrying that risk.  I scan all stocks to find those that meet one of four different sets of criteria and, once having narrowed down the population of publicly-traded stocks, I look at their charts to find those that might have a good chance of crossing above levels that stymied their past advances (in other words, those that look like they could soon breakout across significant, long-term resistance trendlines). The first stocks to breakout are first in line as investment candidates.  The discipline requires me to sometimes be fairly active and at other times to do nothing but unemotionally watch the Portfolio run with the market or sit idle safely protected in cash.

The debate/negotiations in Washington has brought us again to a crucial market pivot point.  The Meter indicates that when market conditions look as they do today it might have been best for us to have money invested.  I have begun running those scans to begin finding those stocks that look like they’re ready to trigger Buy Points in their charts by crossing above key resistance levels.

While 75% of the stocks currently in the Portfolio show gains and 69% have outperformed the S&P 500 since their purchase, few have delivered the sort of results as has MED since its purchase last March.  I had never heard of Medifast when it dropped through one of the Scans and presented a compelling chart.  When I purchased the stock, I wrote in the Instant Alert to Members that the stock is “a product of yesterday’s Stocks-on-the-Move scan.  It has formed an inverted head-and-shoulders reversal pattern at what I hope will be the bottom of a multi-year descending wedge pattern.”  Since then, the stock has advanced 95%:

As the usual disclaimer says, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance”.  But, I believe in the discipline and am using it today to find the next batch of stocks some of which, with some patience and luck, will hopefully deliver what turns out to be the outstanding performers over the next nine months or a year.

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November 29th, 2012

Head-and-Shoulders Patterns: FDX Case Study

The key point in yesterday’s discussion of the GLD and AAPL head-and-shoulders patterns can be summed up in the post’s last paragraph:

“……. no matter how good these chart patterns may look a year from now, unless and until they cross their necklines, there’s no certainty today that they won’t fail to deliver.  While getting in early will produce a greater return, the trade entails significant risk that the stock actually winds up moving in the opposite direction.”

The point perhaps not made emphatically enough is that even though head-and-shoulders stock chart patterns appears on the surface to be similar to the results of a series of random coin tosses there is a major difference between the two should the price/value cross the neckline.  The result of coin tosses merrily continues on a random path, the path in the prices/values in stocks, indexes and commodities subsequent to a cross of the neckline usually becomes impacted by a feedback loop know as “momentum”.

When they see new highs or lows being set as the price/value crosses the neckline, investors expect, even anticipate, a continuation of the prevailing trend.  That predisposition causes them to place trades (either buy if a cross above or sell if a cross below the neckline) in anticipation of being able to close those positions some time in the future at a profit.  Coin tosses have no connection with the future but investors do.

The trading rule, therefore, is that investors should wait to commit to their prospective position until momentum is launched and the signal in the form of a neckline cross is evident.  [This presumes that a neckline is something obvious and concrete but that's the topic for the next post.]

Let’s look at another example of that trading rule.  One advisory service recently substantiated their large position in FDX (Federal Express) by arguing that FDX was restructuring their operations so that their Express division is “refined” and their Ground operation “will lead to better margins and more market-share take against UPS.”  Somebody has to perform good fundamental analysis but it’s not clear whether individual investors are equipped or has the time to uncover and evaluate such information.  Large institutional investors (what I call “the heard”) do and what we can do is to follow their footprints in their hunt for big game.

If only a small percentage of the herd know or arrive at the same conclusion as the above the FDX analysis then price action in FDX shares will not be impacted dramatically.  If the analysis is correct and is reflected in operating results, the rest of the herd will join the chase and price momentum will begin.  If its efforts, the FDX shares will languish at best and fall at worst.  I would want to buy the shares only after, and not before, sufficient numbers of investors begin to believe in the FDX transformation and the shares begin to rise.

FDX stock has been restrained from continuing its uptrend by a resistance trendline (“neckline”) for over 5 years.  It isn’t relevant to the trading strategy whether you envision an emerging inverted head-and-shoulder pattern (square 1) or the longer-term ascending triangle (square 2).  To believe the story, you have to “show me the money”. You need to see the shares cross above the resistance trendline (the “neckline”) to have confidence that the uptrend momentum is sufficiently sustainable before foregoing other opportunities and putting your good money into FDX stock.  As my slogan says, “fundamental analysis is subjective, momentum is a fact.”

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November 28th, 2012

Head-and-Shoulders Patterns: AAPL and GLD Case Studies

In my book, Run with the Herd, I retell the coin toss experiment from Burton Malkiel’s book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street.  In it, he asked students to

“continuously toss coins with heads arbitrarily representing a move up in a stock’s price and, conversely, tails a move down.  All the price changes were assumed to be of equal magnitude and all were recorded in a line chart.  After an unspecified number of tosses, the students began to see patterns in the charts that looked similar to those of stock charts.”

One of the most talked about, recognized and perhaps most reliable stock chart patterns are the head-and-shoulders and its mirror image the inverted head-and-shoulders. What makes these patterns so important is that they fall into the reversal category (as contrasted with the continuation or trending patterns).  In these patterns, the price/value of the stock, index or commodity makes three different attempts to reverse the direction of the prevailing trend.  Characteristically, the price/value reaches approximately the same level the first two times and then falters; it succeeds in the third attempt and crosses the level reached the previous two attempts. The elements of the pattern include a shorter left “shoulder”, a longer middle “head”, and a shorter right shoulder; all are connected by a trendline at what is called a “neckline”.

As you might expect, as a chartist I believe that comparison between the randomness of coin tosses and stock chart patterns is a false one using the wrong logical argument (incorrectly using deductive reasoning rather than inductive reasoning).  But it is true, however, that the head-and-shoulder chart patterns are easier to perceive in retrospect and not as readily discernable in real-time.  Furthermore, when the pattern has evolved sufficiently in order to actually intimate its future likely outline, the practical question remains as to when might be the best (highest probability of being realized with the lowest risk of being failing) time to act on that perception.  Here are two cases in point:

    • AAPL: At the beginning of the month, I wrote a piece entitled “AAPL Gets a Cold, the Market Gets …..?” when the stock was at 563 in which I included a chart showing a partially formed head-and-shoulder pattern and wrote: “Has the stock hit bottom and is it poised for a turn around (a large Wall Street firm recently called on CNBC for AAPL to more than double over the next year)?  Double it might but in the near-term it’s setting up for another 25% decline below what might be consider the neckline of an emerging head-and-shoulder topall the way down to 390 (nearly 30% from current levels).”Compare the chart in that post with the one below and you’ll find that AAPL is closely following the course outlined there:

      Although Robert Weinstein of Cramer’s wrote today that investors should “Put Away the Prozac, Apple’s Just Fine”, this emerging pattern continues to look to me uncannily like an emerging head-and-shoulders top [Cramer's Action Alerts Plus service has been a long-term AAPL investor with a 90+% profit].  There’s no way to tell whether the stock will follow-through but it pivots and starts declining again, I would order a refill from the pharmacy.

    • GLD: I wrote a piece at the beginning of the summer entitled “When It Comes to Technical Analysis, Accuracy Depends on Time Horizon (GLD)” in which I included a chart of GLD with a pattern that looked like a descending channel and wrote: “I look at a possible breakout from my flag and see a long-term move equal to the preceding the neckline.  I see the possibility of a 75-80% move to the 250-270 level over a year or two.  It all depends on how much time you want to spend managing your portfolio and making trading decisions.”

Today that channel has morphed into what might turn out ultimately to be an inverted head-and-shoulder pattern.  The hesitation in calling it that is that the pattern is developing after a major bull run rather than at the bottom of a major decline.  Consequently, this inverted head-and-shoulder will further morph a consolidation pattern or some type of reversal top pattern.

Bottom line, no matter how good these chart patterns may look a year from now, unless and until they cross their necklines, there’s no certainty that they won’t fail to deliver.  While getting in early will produce a greater return, the trade entails more risk that the stock moves in the opposite direction.  [In fact, even after a trendline is crossed, the stock will often reverse and test the trendline in what is called a "Buyers'/Sellers' Remorse Correction".]


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July 6th, 2012

In Celebration of New Beginnings

Hope everyone is having a nice day off celebrating the birth of the nation on this Fourth of July. It also seems to be a fitting time to celebrate what perhaps might turn out to be the beginning of a strong second half for the stock market. Each day since the beginning of June, the market has successfully knocked over one obstacle after another and could be free to ascend all the way to the market’s previous all-time high close of 1565.15 set on October 9, 2007. The last remaining hurdle is the previous interim high close of 1419.04 set this past April 2. It would be fitting indeed if that high-water mark were reached on its fifth anniversary this coming October, a 13.9% increase above Friday’s close.

Since I’m in a celebratory mood, I thought I’d share with you some of the more successful stock picks that Members and I have enjoyed over the past six months. I offer them more as a tribute to the truth of market timing and chart analysis than my own foresight. The stocks were purchased at different times over the past six months but they all have one thing in common; they were all purchased when they crossed above significant resistance levels.

The comments below on each stock were excerpted from the Instant Alerts emailed to Members at the time of the purchase; each was also accompanied by a chart as of that date. The symbols are links to charts as of Wednesday’s close:

  • IPHS (June 14 at 52.77; last 58.01): “The stock has steadily moved significantly higher since the 2009 Financial Crisis Crash bottom; it had its IPO in 2006. The stock appears to have completed what IBD calls a cup-and-handle formation and by crossing above the resistance area is now entering new all-time highs.”
  • CRUS (February 29 at 23.74; last 29.11): “Another stock that’s been trapped by several recent “Stocks on the Move” scans. The stock has an extremely interesting pattern which, like many others now, could be interpreted as either a reversal top or a consolidation depending on your outlook (bull or bear) and the market’s future direction. One can see in the chart either a partially-completed “double head-and-shoulders” reversal top or a horizontal consolidation channel with a possible near-term cross above the upper boundary. Since my current view of the market is bullish (and the fact that I’ve seen many other stocks break on the upside), I’m taking a chance that the pattern will eventually turn out to have been a consolidation channel.”
  • MED (March 14 at 16.58; last 20.46): “The stock is a product of yesterday’s Stocks on the Move scan. It has formed an inverted head-and-shoulders reversal pattern at what I hope will be the bottom of a multi-year descending wedge pattern.”
  • CYMI (May 3 at 52.51; last 60.00): “The stock was on the recent Watchlist. It is primed and with a supportive push from a strong market is hopefully ready to cross above a multi-year resistance level into all-time new high territory.”
  • VTR (June 26 at 61.07; last 63.85): “Technically, it looks as if VTR completed an 18 month “cup-and-handle” consolidation formation and may resume its upward advance.”
  • DDD (May 2 at 31.07; last 35.57): “I’ve had my eye on DDD ever since I noticed it crossing into all-time new high territory and beginning what appeared to be a “buyers’ remorse correction”. Just recently it crossed above what could be considered the upper resistance boundary of that correction and ready to be one of the leading stocks that continues moving further into all-time new high territory when the market resumes its ascent.”
  • EQIX (February 2 at 122.65; last 177.38): “Stock has crossed into all-time new-high territory set at its IPO at the peak of the Tech Bubble in 2000. This stock is also a momentum scan favorite.”
  • EBAY (March 2 at 36.01; last 41.02): “The stock is another Stocks on the Move scan result. The chart has formed and is now crossing out of a buyers’ remorse pattern that might be interpreted as a channel, complex inverted head-and-shoulder or complex cup-and-handle. This congestion follows EBAY successfully moving out of a long-term descending wedge and crossing above the neckline of a multi-year reversal base after the Tech Bubble Burst.”

The Model Portfolio currently includes 55 stocks; these are among the best performers of the lot. Several poor performers have been sold and a couple were sold when they were the subject of an acquisition or merger. I still have confidence in these and the rest of the stocks in the Portfolio and believe they will continue advancing in the wake of a strong market. As far as whether I will continue to hold them even with substantial profits, I refer you to my “Sell Rules” discipline.