All posts by Charlie Bilello

Defense Wins Championships: The Defensive Sector Anomaly

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More risk equals more return. Less risk equals less return. This is one of the investment maxims dictated by the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). But is this always the case or are there market anomalies that show otherwise? Simply stated, is it possible to achieve a higher or equivalent level of return with lower risk?

In two research papers we wrote earlier this year, we argued that it is indeed possible. In the first paper, An Intermarket Approach to Beta Rotation, we illustrated a rotational strategy between the more defensive Utilities sector and the more offensive broad stock market that achieved higher returns with lower volatility. In the second paper, An Intermarket Approach to Tactical Risk Rotation, we illustrated a rotational strategy between the more defensive Treasuries and more offensive broad stock market that also illustrated higher returns with lower volatility.

In both papers, the key to superior risk-adjusted returns across multiple market cycles was defense, not offense. That is to say, minimizing downside volatility by being defensive ahead of periods of market stress was more important than being offensive ahead of more benign, risk-friendly periods.

In this piece, I want to extend this thought process to the ten sectors that make up the S&P 500. While there have been a number of studies showing the low-volatility anomaly as it pertains to stocks, I am focusing here specifically on the sector phenomenon.

Sector Classification

We can break the ten S&P sectors down into “cyclical” and “defensive” categories according to their annualized volatility as follows:

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This methodology generates seven cyclical sectors (Technology, Financials, Materials, Telecom, Energy, Consumer Discretionary, and Industrials) and three defensive sectors (Health Care, Utilities and Consumer Staples).

We find a similar cyclical/defensive demarcation if we break down the S&P sectors according to beta:

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Sector Performance

How have the sectors performed since data became available in October 1989?

Energy has been the best performer with an annualized total return of 12.1%, followed by Health Care (12.0%) and Consumer Staples (11.2%). This compares to an annualized return of 9.5% for the S&P 500. The worst performing sector has been Telecom with a gain of only 5.9% per year.

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The cumulative total return of the Energy sector (1606%) is almost double that of the S&P 500 (851%) and more than five times that of the Telecom sector (313%).

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Sector performance by calendar year shows that all 10 sectors finished positive in 11 out of 24 years, including the last two years (2012 and 2013). All 10 sectors finished negative in only two calendar years, 2002 and 2008.

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Sector performance rankings by year show Tech/Financials/Health Care leadership in the 1990’s, shifting to Materials leadership from 2000-2007, shifting to Consumer Discretionary leadership in the current bull market. It should be immediately clear from the chart below just how important sector rotation can be. While most tend to focus on stock picking, in reality it is your exposure to various sectors that is often the most decisive factor in determining your equity portfolio’s return.

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Cyclical versus Defensive Sector Portfolios: Defense Wins Championships

Needless to say, most in financial industry tend to focus on the more exciting cyclical sectors, particularly Technology. These stocks tell a better story with loftier growth prospects and more interesting products than their defensive counterparts. But do the actual returns of cyclical sectors measure up to the hype?

As it turns out, they do not. Since October 1989, an equal weighted portfolio of the three defensive sectors (Health Care, Consumer Staples, and Utilities) would have outperformed an equal weighted portfolio of the cyclical sectors (Technology, Financials, Materials, Telecom, Energy, Consumer Discretionary, and Industrials) by almost 1% per year, with a 10.9% annualized return for the defensive sectors versus a 10.0% for the cyclical sectors.

More importantly, this higher return would have been achieved with lower risk, as the defensive sector portfolio had an annualized volatility of 12.0% versus 16.1% for the cyclical sectors.

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Additionally, the Beta of the defensive portfolio, at .58, was nearly half that of the cyclical portfolio at 1.03.

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Maximum drawdown is also significantly lower for the defensive portfolio at -34.9% vs. -54.3% for cyclicals (note: using monthly data).

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Conclusions

The defensive sector anomaly stands in direct conflict with the CAPM. Not only does lower sector beta not equal lower return, but it has actually yielded higher return over the past twenty-five years.

The reason for its persistence is likely similar to that of the low-volatility stock anomaly, whereby several behavioral factors are at play. The most important among these factors is that investors tend to shun low volatility areas of the market for more exciting lottery type “story stocks” that have the potential (in their minds) for higher upside.  This, in combination with an overconfidence in their ability to assess the future, causes investors to overpay for higher volatility story stocks. Unfortunately, the reality oftentimes doesn’t match the initial story and lower returns on average are the result. While some of these stocks indeed achieve higher returns and meet expectations, most do not.

The same arguments can be applied to cyclical and defensive sectors, where investors are passing over the boring defensive sectors in favor of paying up for the more exciting cyclicals. Over time this has led to subpar performance, particularly on a risk-adjusted basis.

At Pension Partners, our equity sector rotation strategy benefits from the defensive sector anomaly but takes it one step further. Our strategy seeks to be fully in defensive sectors during  periods of higher volatility. These periods tend to exhibit contractionary behavior where defensive sectors can better preserve capital. However, we recognize that there is a time and place for cyclicals in a portfolio and our strategy will rotate fully into cyclical sectors during lower volatility periods. These periods tend to exhibit expansionary behavior where cyclicals are more likely to benefit and you are compensated for the additional risk you are incurring. We use a quantitative, objective process to determine when these rotations occur.

In summary, most in the investment management business focus solely on achieving the highest returns, and in doing so they naturally gravitate toward the higher volatility areas of the market. Our research has led us on a different path as we have found that it is the management of risk that is most critical in the long run. In striking a balance between offense and defense, offense may win games, but it is indeed defense that wins championships.

CHARLIE BILELLO, CMT

Edward M. Dempsey Pension Partners New YorkCharlie 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 two award-winning research papers in 2014 on Intermarket Analysis and investing. Mr. Bilello 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, an institutional investment research firm. Previously, Mr. Bilello held positions as an Equity and Hedge Fund Analyst at billion dollar alternative investment firms, giving him unique insights into portfolio construction and asset allocation.

Mr. Bilello 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 a Member of the Market Technicians Association. Mr. Bilello also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

You can follow Charlie on twitter here.

This writing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell, a solicitation to buy, or a recommendation regarding any securities transaction, or as an offer to provide advisory or other services by Pension Partners, LLC in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation, purchase or sale would be unlawful under the securities laws of such jurisdiction. The information contained in this writing should not be construed as financial or investment advice on any subject matter. Pension Partners, LLC expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken based on any or all of the information on this writing.

 

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Slackonomics 101

Slackonomics 101

It’s back to school time and there’s a new economics course being offered this fall at universities across the country: Slackonomics 101. The course will explore the revolutionary economic theory that is driving current Federal Reserve policy. The course outline and beginners guide to Slackonomics can be found below:

Chapter 1: Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Economic crises are to be viewed as an opportunity to expand the role of the Fed and justify its existence. When a crisis occurs, throw as much money at it as possible. Expand the Fed’s balance sheet, lower interest rates to 0%, just make sure to do something. Eventually the crisis will fade and you will be given credit for taking action and praised for its resolution.

Chapter 2: The Solution To the Crisis is the Cause of the Crisis

An extended period low interest rates by the Fed is one of the primary causes of the greatest housing bubble the world has ever known. The bubble bursts. What do you do? If your answer is anything other than moving interest rates down to 0% and keeping them there for the longest period in history, you don’t understand Fed policy. If there is a bubble and it begins to burst, simply start blowing it back up and you don’t stop blowing until another bubble forms. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people; they will be none the wiser and will even thank you for propping their asset prices back up, even if it is only temporary and leads to a massive misallocation of resources.

Chapter 3: If You Build It (a Bubble), They Will Spend

Once an economic expansion takes hold, do not be hasty in tightening monetary policy as was done in the past. Simply shift the rationale for easy money from “crisis mitigation” to a “wealth effect” built on the back of higher asset prices. After all, who wouldn’t get behind an idea like a wealth effect, where higher stock prices boost consumer wealth and help increase spending in a virtuous circle? Better yet, who would dare to stand against such an idea?

Chapter 4: When in Doubt, Do More, Never Less

Never let the facts get in the way of more easy money. If an economic expansion is the slowest in history and real wage growth is nonexistent, don’t view this as a failure of your policies. Use this as ammunition to shift the narrative once more. Instead of talking up a “wealth effect” which is becoming more difficult as the “wealth gap” has only widened under easy money policies, shift the focus to weakness in the labor market. Ignore naysayers who say that you already had the longest period of easy money in history and the labor market remains weak. They will never be able to prove the counterfactual so simply say that the labor market is still weak because we simply haven’t done enough yet. Works every time.

Chapter 5: Slack is the Word

Talk down any strength in the economy at every opportunity. Use the word “slack” as often as possible in describing the labor market.  This will maintain popular support for the longest period of low interest rates and exponential balance sheet growth in history (five and a half years and $4.4 trillion and counting). As a bonus, the trading algorithms love the word “slack” because it means extending the period of 0% interest rates. This in turn helps the wealth effect, etc., etc.

Chapter 6: Transient Noise

Dismiss any inflationary evidence as transitory or noisy. Focus not on the real life increases in costs for the average American household (housing, health care, education, taxes, food, etc.) but only your own narrow definitions of inflation (PCE, CPI, etc.). If there is no inflation under your definition, there is no inflation, period. Don’t entertain any evidence that shows otherwise. And if anyone suggests that driving up housing prices above levels that can be supported based on income is inflationary, just refer them to Chapter 3. The wealth effect outweighs any negative inflationary forces.

Chapter 7: Develop an Alibi

Don’t rest on your laurels, you know this is a short term game that will not end well. Protect your image and the Fed by making casual observations like there are “low levels of volatility” and there is “some evidence of reach for yield behavior.” The key is to make these observations with a straight face, never acknowledging the glaringly obvious relationship between Fed policy and risk-taking behavior. This is very important because despite your stated goal of propping up asset prices in the aforementioned “wealth effect” theory, you don’t want to be blamed when it all goes awry. Don’t worry, no one will call you out on this, just keep a straight face. For those killjoys complaining elevated valuations, throw them a bone by talking about “smaller firms in the social media and biotechnology industries.” Talking about a small subset of the market is ok, but don’t ever acknowledge the existence of a market wide bubble, even when it is staring you right in the face.

Chapter 8: Bubbles Will Be Bubbles

Whenever the topic of bubbles comes up, make sure to state convincingly that the Fed has no control over such things, can’t identify them, and even if they could it should not be their objective to stop or slow them down. Yes, we understand that this is a difficult concept to grasp as the Fed is allowed to inflate bubbles but this rule is not to be violated. The American people have grown to love a boom-bust economy and anyone who interferes with their precious bubbles will not be treated kindly.

Guest lectures here from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, discussing why you should never, ever acknowledge the existence of a bubble (they simply cannot be identified) and how to assume absolutely no responsibility for inflating the  bubble after it bursts.

Chapter 9: The Bigger the Word, the Better the Policy

Whenever possible, use big words that the financial media will endearingly refer to as “Fed speak.” It doesn’t matter if what you say makes no sense at all, just be sure to say it convincingly. “Macroprudential” is a wonderful word. Anything you say after it doesn’t matter. You had them all at macroprudential.

Chapter 10: But In the End…

Stop right there. Don’t worry about how it will all end; that is not your job. The buck stops with the next Fed chair, the next congress, not you. Your job is simply to keep inflating today and hope for the best. If Greenspan and Bernanke have been given a pass and even thanked for their heroic actions after bubbles have burst, you will too.

Sample Test Questions

1) Ben Bernanke has stated that he has what degree of confidence in the Fed’s ability to prevent inflation from getting out of control due to unprecedented easy money policies?

a) 0% b) 50% c) 75% d) 100%

2) Complete the pattern: QE 1, QE 2, Operation Twist, QE 3, ____.

a) No more QE b) Twist 2 c) QE 4 d) b or c

3) Janet Yellen used the word “slack” this many times during her Jackson Hole speech on August 22, 2014:

a) 0    b) 5    c) 10   d) 25

4) Interest rates will remain low for _______ after the asset purchase program (QE) ends.

a) a day b) a week  c) a month  d) a considerable or extended period of time

5) According to Ben Bernanke, the Fed is:

a) printing money b) not printing money c) a and b.

6) Don’t _____ the Fed!

a) pity  b) fool c) mock d) fight

7) _______ Ben.

a) Ranger b) Trucker c) Captain d) Helicopter

8) Back in Prehistoric times when the Fed actually increased interest rates after an expansion took hold, this was the old saying:

a) 3 sheets to the wind b) 3 hikes and you’re out c) good things come in threes d) 3 steps and stumble

9) Job gains have exceeded 200k in each of the last six payroll reports and jobless claims are at their lowest levels since 2006. The word that best describes the current labor market?

a) sluggish b)  slowing c) slackening d) all of the above

10) There are bubbles forming in:

a) collectibles c) real estate c) junk bonds/stocks d) everything e) nothing

Bonus Question: True or False: In 1979, a newly appointed Fed chairman increased the Fed Funds rate from 11% to 12% during a weekend in October. This became known as the Saturday Night Special. Two years later, this same Fed chairman would move the Fed Funds rate as high as 20% to fight inflation, knowing that it would likely send the economy into a recession.

a) True b) False

Answer Key:

1) d

2) d

3) d

4) d

5) c

6) c

7) d

8) d

9) d

10) e (remember, act like a Fed chairman, see Chapters 7 and 8 above)

Bonus: a

CHARLIE BILELLO, CMT

Edward M. Dempsey Pension Partners New YorkCharlie 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 two award-winning research papers in 2014 on Intermarket Analysis and investing. Mr. Bilello 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, an institutional investment research firm. Previously, Mr. Bilello held positions as an Equity and Hedge Fund Analyst at billion dollar alternative investment firms, giving him unique insights into portfolio construction and asset allocation.

Mr. Bilello 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 a Member of the Market Technicians Association. Mr. Bilello also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

You can follow Charlie on twitter here.

This writing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell, a solicitation to buy, or a recommendation regarding any securities transaction, or as an offer to provide advisory or other services by Pension Partners, LLC in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation, purchase or sale would be unlawful under the securities laws of such jurisdiction. The information contained in this writing should not be construed as financial or investment advice on any subject matter. Pension Partners, LLC expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken based on any or all of the information on this writing.

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Waiting For An Inverted Yield Curve, Waiting For Godot

Two sell-side strategists are waiting on a country road by a tree. What are they waiting for? Yield curve inversion.

Why are they waiting for it? They explain: “it has a flawless track record, predicting every U.S. recession in the past fifty years.” As recessions tend to be bad for the stock market, and the yield curve is not currently close to being inverted, the sell-side strategists are extraordinarily bullish. “We have many more years to run,” they agree, “both in the economy and the stock market.”

Let’s examine this thesis.

Predictive Power

An inverted yield curve has indeed been an early warning sign of an oncoming recession. The past nine recessions in the U.S. were all preceded by yield curve inversion, with an average lead time of 14 months.

Godot1new

Note: In this analysis I am using the difference between the 10-year yield and 1-year yield as the measurement of the yield curve. Other commonly used short-term rates are the 3-month and the 2-year.

As we know, though, the stock market also tends be a leading indicator of oncoming recessions. Thus, for yield curve inversion to be a market signal it is important that the inverted yield curve not only lead the economic turn but also the turn in the stock market.

As the table below indicates, this is more often than not the case. In the past nine recessions, yield curve inversion has preceded the stock market peak six times with an average lead time of 7 months. Most recently, we saw the yield curve invert in January 2006, well in advance of the stock market peak in October 2007.

Godot2

Yield Curve Today

As of the end of July, the spread between the 10-year Treasury yield (2.54%) and 1-year Treasury yield (0.11%) was 2.43%. At 2.43%, the yield curve is far from inversion, supporting the argument of the sell-side strategist.

Godot3

The Fed

The problem with this simple interpretation, though, is that current Federal Reserve policy is unlike any of the prior recoveries in which the yield curve eventually inverted. The difference is glaring when looking at the chart below. We are now over five years into the recovery that began in June 2009 and the Federal Funds Rate remains at 0%-0.25%, the same level it stood at in December 2008. This is by far the longest period of time the Fed has left the Funds Rate at a trough level following a rate-cutting cycle and new economic expansion.

Godot4

Manipulating the Curve

By holding short-term interest rates near 0%, the Fed has effectively made it impossible for the yield curve to invert. With the 1-year Treasury yield at 0.11%, for the curve to invert the 10-year Treasury yield would have to cross below this level, an unlikely event. The table below illustrates that the average Effective Federal Funds Rate at the time of prior yield curve inversions was 6.16%, and the lowest Funds Rate at inversion was 2.94% back in 1956. At a 0.09% Effective Funds Rate, we are far from such levels today.

Godot5

Still, most will argue that if the Fed has the ability to prevent a yield curve inversion then they have the ability to prevent recessions and bear markets. Fair enough assumption, but…

Then There’s Japan

The Bank of Japan has held their discount rate near 0% for nearly twenty years, since 1995.

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While this has been successful in preventing an inverted yield curve, it has been less successful in preventing recessions as can be seen in the chart below. Japan has experienced recessions time and time again since 1995 in spite of 0% rate policy.

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But “We’re Not Japan”

The counter to the Japan example is the simple statement that “we’re not Japan.” This is certainly true as there are many differences in our economies and we are not fighting outright deflation as our demographic issues are not nearly as troubling as in Japan.

Still, while we may not be exactly like Japan, there are a number of similarities. Most important among these is that our central bank seems to believe that we are very much like Japan as they are following the same monetary policy. Both in terms of endless balance sheet expansion through quantitative easing and extended zero-interest rate policy, we look very much like Japan.

We also look like Japan in that growth during this recovery has been the weakest in history, hovering between 1-2% per year.

Godot8

Another similarity is the stagnation in real wages. This has been the weakest expansion in terms of real wage growth in history.

Godot9

Still, you remain unconvinced. Japan may have had multiple recessions/bear markets without a yield curve inversion, but we’re different. Perhaps, but…

You Can Have a Bear Market Without An Inverted Yield Curve

The stock market is not the economy and vice versa. While an inverted yield curve has tended to precede stock market weakness, you don’t need an inverted yield curve to have stock market weakness. There have been five bear markets without any yield curve inversion or recession, most recently in 2011.

Bear Mkts WO Inversion - 8-27

You can also have an inverted yield curve without a recession, as we saw in December 1965 through February 1967. There was, however, a bear market during that time, from February 1966 through October 1966 when the S&P 500 declined 23.7%.

Waiting for Godot

In the famous absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” the two main characters (Vladimir and Estragon) wait endlessly for a man named, you guesses it, “Godot.” Needless to say, Godot never arrives.

In today’s markets, we have a similar parallel where most strategists and economists are waiting for yield curve inversion before they take a more cautious or defensive stance. However, as long as zero-interest rate policy continues, yield curve inversion is unlikely to arrive. They are likely to keep waiting.

Does that mean that U.S. equity markets are without risk?

Certainly not, though this seems to be the consensus these days. First, we have the example of Japan that has not changed its interest rate policies in twenty years but has had multiple recessions and bear markets during that time. Second, we know that even in the U.S. we have had multiple bear markets (as recently as 2011) without yield curve inversion. Thus, risk still remains but a yield curve inversion is simply unlikely to signal it this time around.

“Canceling Signals”

“This is a big, big gamble to be manipulating the most important price in free markets, interest rates. These purchases are canceling market signals. The bond market and the stock market have provided wonderful signals for many years as to potential problems. And when you cancel those signals, you could run into a problem. I don’t know when it’s going to end, but my guess is it’s going to end very badly.” – Stanley Druckenmiller

You simply cannot analyze today’s markets with an indicator like yield curve inversion because the Fed is doing something they never did before: holding rates at 0% for over five and a half years. Economic theories that explain how yields vary with maturity have been rendered irrelevant. The liquidity premium theory? Throw it out. The market segmentation theory? Forget it. The preferred habitat theory? Useless. The Pure expectations hypothesis? Unusable.

The reason why an inverted yield curve is predictive of economic weakness is that long-term bond investors will settle for lower yields if they start to believe the economy will slow or decline in the future. They accept lower yields in because they believe short-term rates will fall as the real demand for credit weakens during a recession and the Fed starts cutting rates. Locking in a lower yield on a 10-year bond than what you could earn on 1-year bond makes economic sense if you believe that when the 1-year bond matures the rate you can reinvest at will be much lower.

In today’s market environment, you already have short-term rates at 0%, so market participants cannot assume that the Fed will lower rates if economic weakness ensues. The most that they can assume is that the Fed will simply keep rates at 0% for a longer period of time. This would in turn drive demand for longer-term debt, leading to a flattening, but not outright inversion, of the yield curve.

This is precisely what has been occurring all year in 2014, with the yield curve flattening. It won’t lead to inversion because investors are unlikely to accept 0% on a 10-year bond, no matter how bad they expect future economic growth to be. We have seen this in Japan which has experienced multiple recessions without the 10-year yield moving below the 1-year yield.

Bottom Line

The implications for investors and markets today are as follows.

1) As long as the Fed is operating under 0% policy, yield curve inversion is not a valid risk management signal as inversion is essentially impossible. What would the yield curve look like today if the Fed had normalized policy years ago as they did following every other recession in the past fifty years? Would the yield curve already be inverting here? We simply don’t know.

2) It remains to be seen what occurs first, a change in Fed policy or economic weakness. Most are assuming the former, where the slow growth expansion continues and the Fed starts raising rates next July. At that point, market participants are expecting the Fed to slowly raise rates and the yield curve inversion signal to eventually come back into play years later, signaling future economic weakness. While this is certainly one scenario, it is not the only scenario. If the latter (economic weakness) occurs first, we could be looking at a Japan scenario of a recession/bear market during an extended period of low interest rates. Most investors consider this scenario unlikely but it is something we should at least be considering.

3) In any case, the idea that equity markets are currently risk free because the yield curve is not inverted is not supported by history, most recently in 2011.

4) As long as ZIRP remains in place, investors would be wise to look beyond yield curve inversion for guides to risk management and asset allocation. At Pension Partners, we authored two award-winning papers in 2014 that focus on the unique behavior of the utilities sector and Treasuries as indicators of increased volatility and risk in the market. These signals are used in our mutual funds and separate accounts where we employ a quantitative investment and risk management process. Importantly, these signals are not reliant on yield curve inversion.

5) Regardless of the shape of the yield curve, for the reasons outlined in “Has The Fed Doomed Buy And Hold,” I believe the environment going forward is likely to favor more tactical strategies over buy and hold. I also believe that risk management is likely to be a more important factor as we approach the end of QE3 in October (see “The Fed Prisoner’s Dilemma”).

CHARLIE BILELLO, CMT

Edward M. Dempsey Pension Partners New YorkCharlie 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 two award-winning research papers in 2014 on Intermarket Analysis and investing. Mr. Bilello 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, an institutional investment research firm. Previously, Mr. Bilello held positions as an Equity and Hedge Fund Analyst at billion dollar alternative investment firms, giving him unique insights into portfolio construction and asset allocation.

Mr. Bilello 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 a Member of the Market Technicians Association. Mr. Bilello also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

You can follow Charlie on twitter here.

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