How’s your macro?
Not too good? Terrible? Unsure what that even means?
Market-moving headlines would seem to present an opportunity to capitalize on the potential volatility that often follows.
But here’s the big risk for investors who try to game the headlines: Figuring out what just happened is hard enough; the macro investor must guess at what’s ahead — outcomes for the near and far future as well as the market reaction to those outcomes.
Psychologists would describe it as creating a “variant perception,” which requires you to imagine what the crowd thinks it knows, what it owns and where it is probably wrong. Determining when the crowd will figure out that it’s wrong, and what it is likely to do about it, is even more difficult. Oh, then you have to get the timing of it all precisely right.
You might imagine that these big headlines would make this process easy on the macro investors. Anticipate the next big story, position yourself against the wrong-leaning crowd ahead of time and boom! Easy money!
Only it is not so easy. Despite the headlines, markets have mostly ignored the macro. Sure, we have seen some strong moves up and down and next-day reversals — but more than halfway through the year, the market has been stuck in a surprisingly tight range. Consider this data point: It has been 645 days since the S&P 500 saw even a 10 percent drawdown.
What does this mean to the average investor? Before becoming a “macro tourist” foolishly trading on headlines, consider these truths:
• News is factored into stock prices by the time it’s on the front page. These stories all develop over time. The headlines tend not to come out of the blue but are the result of incremental events over months and years.
• Headlines don’t drive markets. Profits and valuations do. These geopolitical events make for big splashy headlines, but ultimately have little affect on what matters to stock prices: corporate profits. Earnings are a fundamental driver of company valuations and therefore equity returns.
• Guessing isn’t investing: Making big bets on outcomes that are binary — i.e., a 50-50 probability — is not investing, it’s speculation.
It’s no wonder the macro tourists, both professional manager and amateur investor alike, have been for the most part unsuccessful.
Birinyi Associates creates one of my favorite research pieces each year. Laszlo Birinyi and his staff collect mainstream news articles and compile them all in an annual review. Seeing these headlines, all ominous warnings of terrible things to come — with their dates, after the fact — is downright hilarious.
Add to that the fundamental misunderstanding of risk that is prevalent among you humans. As it turns out, you worry about all the wrong things. You stress over the fiscal cliff and the sequester and Greece — all things over which you have no control and no way to figure out how the chips may fall if they do or don’t occur. Talk about wasted effort.
Instead, why not think about what you can control? Such as having a plan, reducing your costs, lowering your turnover and paying less in short-term capital gains taxes? These are things you can do, and the impact will be much more meaningful to your long-term returns than whether the Greek currency is the euro or the drachma.