Trend Following in One Minute a Month

In the article linked below, investor and Forbes columnist Kenneth Fisher writes about what to look for at a market top (How to Tell a Bull Market from a Bear Market Blip). One piece of advice that I have heard him offer before is to wait at least 3 months after a top in price to worry about whether or not we are in a bear market.  That is good advice and provided the impetus for a simple trend-following model I follow based on that “wait 3 months” idea.

First, a few key points:

*Trend-following is NOT about picking tops and bottoms or timing the market with “uncanny accuracy”.  So don’t expect any trend-following system to do so.

*The primary edge in any trend-following method is simply missing as much of the major soul – and capital – crushing bear markets as possible, with the understanding that you will miss some of the upside during bull markets.

The Good News:

*Starting in November 1970 this system has beaten a buy and hold strategy

*This system requires no math. There are no moving averages, etc.  Anyone can look at a monthly S&P 500 bar chart and generate the signals.  And it literally takes less than 1 minute per month to update.

The Bad News:

*Every trend-following method known to man experiences whipsaws, i.e., a sell signal followed by a buy signal at a higher price.  This system is no exception.

*Due to said whipsaws this system has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 buy-and-hold since the low in early 2009.

For what it’s worth, my educated guess is that following the next prolonged bear market, that will change.  But there are no guarantees.

OK, all the caveats in place, here goes.

Jay’s Monthly SPX Bar Chart Trend-Following System

*This system uses a monthly price bar chart for the S&P 500 (SPX) to generate trading signals.

*For the purposes of this method, no action is taken until the end of the month, even if a trend change is signaled earlier in the month.

*A buy signal occurs when during the current month, SPX exceeds its highest price for the previous 6 calendar months.

A sell signal occurs as follows:

a) SPX registers a month where the high for the month if above the high of the previous month. We will call this the “swing high”.

b) SPX then goes 3 consecutive monthly bars without exceeding the “swing high.” When this happens, note the lowest low price registered during those 3 months. We will call this price the “sell trigger price.”

c) An actual sell trigger occurs at the end of a month when SPX register a low that is below the “sell trigger price”, HOWEVER,

d) If SPX makes a new monthly high above the previous “swing high” BEFORE it registers a low below the “sell trigger price” the sell signal alert is aborted

Sounds complicated right?  It’s not.  Let’s illustrate on some charts.

In the charts that follow:

*An Up green arrow marks a buy signal

*A Down red arrow marks a sell signal

*A horizontal red line marks a “sell trigger price”.

Sometimes a sell trigger price is hit and is marked by a down red arrow as a sell signal.  Other times a sell trigger price is aborted by SPX making a new high and negating the potential sell signal.

spx trendf 1

Figure 1 – SPX signals 1970-1979 (Courtesy AIQ TradingExpert)

SPX trendf 2

Figure 2 – SPX signals 1980-1989 (Courtesy AIQ TradingExpert)

SPX trendf 3

Figure 3 – SPX signals 1990-1999 (Courtesy AIQ TradingExpert)

SPX trendf 4

Figure 4 – SPX signals 2000-2009 (Courtesy AIQ TradingExpert)

SPX trendf 5

Figure 5 – SPX signals 2010-present (Courtesy AIQ TradingExpert)

To demonstrate results we will use monthly close price data for SPX.  If the system is bullish then the system will hold SPX for that month.  If the system is bearish we will assume interest is earned at an annual rate of 1% per year.

Figure 6 displays the results of the System versus Buy and Hold starting with $1,000 starting November 1970 through 1994 (roughly 24 years).


Figure 6 – Growth of $1,000 invested using System versus Buy-and-Hold; Nov-1970 through Dec-1994

Figure 7 displays the results of the System versus Buy and Hold starting with $1,000 starting at the end of 1994 through the most recent close.


Figure 7 – Growth of $1,000 invested using System versus Buy-and-Hold; Dec-1994 through Feb-2018

Figure 8 displays the growth of $1,000 generated by holding the S&P 500 Index ONLY when the trend-following system is bearish.  In Figure 8 you will see exactly what I mentioned at the outset – that the key is simply to miss some of the more severe effects of bear markets along the way.


Figure 8 – Growth of $1,000 invested ONLY when trend-following model is Bearish; 1970-2018

Finally, Figure 9 displays trade-by-trade results (using month-end price data).


Figure 9 – Trade-by-trade results; Month end price data


So is this “The World Beater, Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” system?  Not at all.  If you had started using this system in real time in March of 2009 chances are by now you would have abandoned it and moved on to something else, as the whip saw signals in 2011-2012 and 2016 has the System performing worse than buy and hold over a 9 year period.

But here is the thing to remember.  Chances are prolonged bear markets have not been eradicated, never to occur again.  100+ years of market history demonstrates that bear markets of 12 to 36 months in duration are simply “part of the game”.  And it is riding these bear markets to the depths that try investors souls – and wipe out a lot of their net worth in the process.

Chances are when the next 12 to 36 month bear market rolls around – and it will – a trend-following method similar to the one detailed here may help you to “save your sorry assets” (so to speak).

Jay Kaeppel

Disclaimer:  The data presented herein were obtained from various third-party sources.  While I believe the data to be reliable, no representation is made as to, and no responsibility, warranty or liability is accepted for the accuracy or completeness of such information.  The information, opinions and ideas expressed herein are for informational and educational purposes only and do not constitute and should not be construed as investment advice, an advertisement or offering of investment advisory services, or an offer to sell or a solicitation to buy any security.

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