Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reversals in Minds and Markets

Consider the following scenarios:
• A highway patrol officer aims his radar gun at passing cars to determine who is
speeding. He notices a vehicle traveling 45 miles per hour in a zone that only
permits 30 mph. As it passes the patrolman, however, the car accelerates to 50,
then 60, then 70 miles per hour. The officer lets out a sigh of relief, noting to his
partner, “Well, we don’t have to worry. He’s going down the road so fast, he’ll
have to slow down eventually!”
• A psychologist meets with a client who has been complaining of feelings of
depression. For the past several weeks, she has not been eating well and her sleep
has been disrupted. At this meeting, however, the client divulges that she now
can barely get out of bed and is entertaining regular thoughts of suicide. “That’s
good news,” the psychologist responds. “You’re feeling so bad, you’ve got to be
improving shortly!”
• For the second time in a row, the stock market declines over 3% in a single
session, with the number of issues making new 52 week lows swamping the
number making annual highs. Volume and volatility have picked up on the
decline and a well-known market analyst concludes, “We’re seeing a capitulation.
This is a great time to buy.”
In all three examples, people are making inferences about a reversal of trend based upon
its increasing trajectory. Interestingly, where the first two situations seem absurd, the
third has been a staple of recent market commentary. It has also been a major reason why
investors have held onto positions through the recent decline, reluctant to sell when a
bottom might be at hand.
In this article, we would like to explore the psychology of reversals and shed some light
on how change occurs in minds and markets. We believe that such an analysis will help
investors frame their market strategies in the light of Wednesday’s dramatic reversal and
the raised hopes it has fostered.
Reversals and Emotional Change
The idea of the positive feedback loop is common to many approaches to psychotherapy.
Problems occur when people become locked into coping patterns that create negative
consequences. As the consequences mount, so do their faulty efforts at coping, creating a
downward spiral.
A classic example is insomnia. Once a person finds that she cannot sleep, she begins to
worry about sleeping and engage in a variety of actions to make herself sleep. Of course,
it is difficult to feel naturally drowsy when one is trying with all one’s might to induce
rest, so the very efforts at coping help to maintain wakefulness.
Ironically, the best treatment for such insomnia is to convince the person to cease all
efforts at making sleep happen. Simply having the individual perform a boring task is
sufficient to get their minds off their insomnia and naturally lapse into drowsiness and
sleep. The key to “cure” is reversing the faulty coping strategy with sufficient emotional
impact and/or repetition to ensure that the new pattern becomes self-sustaining.
Research conducted by cognitive psychologist Daniel Wegner of the University of
Virginia suggests that much personal change has this ironic quality. When we try to
control an action, as in attempting to not think about an unpleasant person or event, the
results typically backfire: an ironic process leads us to focus even more upon them.
People change, he observes, by reversing their coping efforts and thwarting this ironic
process.
British psychologist Michael Apter, has proposed a Reversal Theory of motivation that
helps make sense of this irony. His research suggests that emotional states are organized
in polar extremes. During a given day or week, people shift from one pole to another, as
in the case of a person moving from excitement to boredom. Much of what
psychotherapists accomplish is a shifting of individuals from one pole to another,
enabling them to access new thoughts and behaviors.
A dramatic example of Apter’s reversals can be found in the research of University of
Texas psychologist James Pennebaker. He found that people who make efforts to avoid
expressing painful emotions wind up experiencing more of those emotions, taking a toll
on their mental and physical health. Interestingly, however, individuals who write about
their suppressed emotional pain in journals find relief from their experiences and
subsequently enjoy greater health. Once again, cure is found by radically reversing
people’s coping efforts.
Reversals in the Markets
Markets, we propose, operate on the same principle of psychological reversal as people.
In a sense, this is Newton’s First Law of kinetics applied to minds and markets: an object
in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless
acted upon by an unbalanced force. It is the unbalanced force of the therapist, nudging
the person toward their opposite pole, that creates reversals of mood and behavior.
So what provides the unbalanced force among markets?
Here we turn to Edgar Peters, author of Fractal Market Analysis and Senior Manager of
Systematic Asset Allocation for PanAgora Asset Management, Inc., for an answer. He
explains that market participants are arrayed at a variety of time frames. Some trade on a
minute-to-minute basis. Others hold positions for days, still others for weeks or longer.
While the magnitude of average price changes vary as a function of holding period, the
distribution of those changes is shaped similarly across time frames.
What holds the market together, Peters explains, is that low probability events at a short
time frame—extreme rises or declines—are normal events at higher time frames. When a
steep short-term rise or decline occurs, relative values for selling or buying are created
for participants at longer time frames, who then enter the marketplace. They provide the
unbalanced force that reverses the short-term trend. In a very real sense, traders and
investors at longer time frames are therapists for the market. By entering the markets in
force when prices become attractively high or low, they become agents of reversal.
One important, Newtonian implication of this line of reasoning is that trends will stay in
place until price extremes are reached that convince the longer time frame participants to
enter the fray. Markets, it would appear, are prey to the same ironic process as people.
While traders and investors are actively seeking tops and bottoms, markets inexorably
continue their rises or declines. Only the reversing effects of the longer time frame
participants can nudge a market trend to its opposite pole.
Reversals in Market History
A study by Paul F. Desmond in the February 26, 2002 issue of Lowry’s Reports supports
this notion of market reversals. Going back to 1938, Desmond investigated all instances
of significant market declines. He specifically looked at the distribution of volume
among rising and declining stocks each day and the distribution of total point changes
among rising and declining stocks.
Desmond found that major market declines were typically accompanied by a series of
days in which 90% of volume was concentrated in falling stocks and 90% of price
changes were concentrated in declining issues. This suggested to him that panic and
indiscriminate selling was a hallmark of the latter stages of market declines.
He also found, however, that declines did not terminate until there were one or more days
in which 90% of volume was concentrated in rising stocks and 90% of price changes
were concentrated in rising issues. This, to use our phrase, was the unbalanced force that
created the reversal. Vicious downtrends tended to remain in place until such bargain
conditions were created that buyers (presumably from longer time frames) piled into
stocks.
Could the market lows have been predicted in advance? No, although they can be
identified quickly once the strong upthrust days have occurred. Market bottoms do not
exist independent of subsequent market action. It is the mass buying noted by Desmond
that creates bottom points in the markets. “Days of panic selling cannot, by themselves,
produce a market reversal,” Desmond notes, “any more than simply lowering the sale
price on a house will suddenly produce an enthusiastic buyer…It takes strong Demand,
not just a reduction in Supply, to cause prices to rise substantially.”
What Does This Mean For Investors in Today’s Market?
Desmond notes that the September, 2001 decline did not produce a single day in which
90% of volume and price changes were concentrated in falling stocks. Similarly, during
the rise that followed the September lows, there were no strong demand days in which
90% of volume and price change were concentrated in rising issues. This led Lowry’s
Reports to conclude that we had not seen the ultimate market bottom, despite the severity
of the September drop. In retrospect, their call was correct.
In the recent market, the closest we came to a day with 90% of volume concentrated in
declining stocks was July 2nd, when the figure was in the high 80s. The sharp rise on July
5th saw 90% of volume concentrated in rising issues, but then the meltdown accelerated
without a single 90% day in either direction. Most notably, the rise this past Wednesday
did not meet the criteria of vigorous buying despite the magnitude of the price changes
achieved. This raises the very uncomfortable proposition noted by Desmond that the
market’s eventual fall may not be broken until we have seen a series of down days with
90% negative volume and price—enough of a decline to bring the longer term bargain
hunters out in force.
“Look at the extent of the decline we have had,” Desmond exclaims in wonder, “and we
havent even had the panic stage yet! … We had the long bull market where investors
were trained like Pavlov’s dogs to buy every dip and it takes a long time for people to
unlearn those lessons.” Indeed, Desmond notes, this may explain why major bear
markets tend to occur once in each generation.
If Wegner, Apter, Pennebaker, Newton, and Desmond are correct, only significant
reversals create change. Prices have retreated significantly from their highs, but not yet
so significantly that buyers are stampeding to pick up the bargains. Wednesday’s rally
may have been therapeutic for traders and investors, but it was not the therapy Paul
Desmond—and market bulls—need to see.









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