From Greed to Fear

“Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” – Warren Buffett

Greed and Fear.

One of the fascinating things about markets is how quickly investors can shift from one emotion to the other.

At the start of the year, investors were unequivocally greedy. And who could blame them? The S&P 500 had just completed its 9th straight up year and it did so without a pullback greater than 3%. In the AAII Sentiment Poll, Bulls outnumbered Bears by 44%. This was in the top 5% of all readings dating back to 1987.

Fast forward to today and sentiment has shifted 180 degrees. Volatility has increased as the S&P 500 has experienced a pair of 10% corrections. In the same AAII Poll, Bears now outnumber Bulls by 22%, which is in the bottom 5% of all readings. Investors are now fearful.

AAII Sentiment Survey from 1987 to 2018 graph1

Data Source for all charts/tables herein: AAII

What does this mean when it comes to markets?

As I indicated back in early January, extreme greed tends to be followed by below-average forward returns. Not in all cases, but more often than not.

Below average S&P500 forward returns chart2

That’s indeed what we have seen since the start of the year, with the S&P 500 down 1.5%.

Greed fear S&P500 large cap index graph3

But today, with extreme fear in place, the opposite tendency is observable. When investors are fearful, forward returns tend to improve, with above-average outcomes over the subsequent year.

S&P 500 average forward price returns since 1987 chart4

Does that always happen? No, there’s no such thing as always in markets. In late 2007 and throughout 2008, bearish sentiment extremes were hit while the market continued lower. But the more common outcome has been higher prices a year later, as we have seen time and again since the equity market bottomed in 2009 (most recently in Jan/Feb 2016).

Table: Bottom 5% of AAII Bulls-Bears Readings and S&P 500 Forward Price Returns

Bottom 5% of AAII Bulls-Bears Readings and S&P 500 Forward Price Returns chart5

What will happen today?

The best we can say based on the historical record is that forward returns are significantly better following extreme fear than extreme greed. Put simply: the odds favor a bounce.

The odds favor a bounce S&P 500 average forward price returns chart6

The caveat: if we are in a juncture similar to late 2007, all bets are off. Under that scenario, we would see much more fear and lower prices before a sustainable rally took hold.


Related Posts:

The 5 Kinds of Bounces

“Markets in Turmoil” – The Upside of Downside



Charlie Bilello is the Director of Research at Pension Partners, LLC, an investment advisor that manages mutual funds and separate accounts. He is the co-author of four award-winning research papers on market anomalies and investing. Charlie is responsible for strategy development, investment research and communicating the firm’s investment themes and portfolio positioning to clients. Prior to joining Pension Partners, he was the Managing Member of Momentum Global Advisors and previously held positions as a Credit, Equity and Hedge Fund Analyst at billion dollar alternative investment firms.

Charlie holds a J.D. and M.B.A. in Finance and Accounting from Fordham University and a B.A. in Economics from Binghamton University. He is a Chartered Market Technician (CMT) and also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

In 2017, Charlie was named the StockTwits Person of the Year. He has been named by Business Insider and MarketWatch as one of the top people to follow on Twitter and his work has been featured in Barron’s, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal.

You can follow Charlie on twitter here.


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The S&P 500 is an American stock market index based on the market capitalizations of 500 large companies having common stock listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ. An index is an unmanaged portfolio of specific securities which is often used as a benchmark in judging relative performance of certain asset classes. An index does not charge management fees or brokerage expenses and no such fees or expenses were deducted from the performance shown.

Past performance is not indicative nor a guarantee of future results.


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