Market risks come in three flavors: recession risk, economic shock risk, and risks within the market itself. What will the risk levels look like this month? Let’s take a closer look at the data.


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Recession risk

Recessions are strongly associated with market drawdowns. In fact, 8 of 10 bear markets have occurred during recessions. As discussed in my recent economic risk factor update, the conditions that historically have signaled a potential recession are not in place right now. As such, economic factors remain at a green light.

Economic shock risk

There are two major systemic factors—the price of oil and the price of money (better known as interest rates)—that drive the economy and the financial markets, and they have a proven ability to derail them. Both have been causal factors in previous bear markets and warrant close attention.

The price of oil. Oil prices typically cause disruption when they spike. This is a warning sign of both a recession and a bear market.

Market Risk Update

As you can see in the chart above, after getting close to a risk level, prices have decreased recently due to higher-than-expected production from OPEC and growing U.S. production. They remain at relatively low levels by recent historical standards. With the drop back in the annual change and the low overall level, this indicator is not even close to risk levels. It gets a green light.

Signal: Green light

The price of money. I cover interest rates in the economic update, but they warrant a look here as well.

market risk

The yield curve spread declined a bit in August, and the spread between short-term and longer-term rates remains low. This was driven by continued low inflation, as well as a flight to safety on North Korea and the hurricanes.

The spread between the 10-year and 3-month rates remains well outside of the risk zone. But the fact that it is now close to post-crisis lows for the third month in a row suggests that caution is warranted. I am leaving this measure at green for now, but I will be keeping an eye on it—particularly with respect to how it reacts to the evolving North Korea situation.

Signal: Green light (with a shade of yellow)

Market risk

Beyond the economy, we can also learn quite a bit by examining the market itself. For our purposes, two things are important:

  1. To recognize what factors signal high risk
  2. To try to determine when those factors signal that risk has become an immediate, rather than theoretical, concern 

Risk factor #1: Valuation levels. When it comes to assessing valuations, I find longer-term metrics—particularly the cyclically adjusted Shiller P/E ratio, which looks at average earnings over the past 10 years—to be the most useful in determining overall risk.

market risk

The chart above is interesting for a few reasons. Since the presidential election in November, equity valuations have increased to levels not seen since the early 2000s. In addition, gains this year have pushed valuations even higher, to the second-highest level of all time. Right now, they are below only 1999, as you can see from the chart.

Although they are at the highest level since 1999, valuations remain below that peak, so you might argue that this metric does not suggest immediate risk. Of course, this argument assumes we might head back to 2000 bubble conditions, which isn’t exactly reassuring.

The Shiller P/E ratio is a good risk indicator, but it’s a terrible timing indicator. One way to remedy that is to look at changes in valuation levels over time instead of absolute levels.

market risk

Here, you can see that when valuations roll over, with the change dropping below zero over a 10-month or 200-day period, the market itself typically drops shortly thereafter. Strong stock market performance has kept the long-term trend in valuations at a healthy positive level, well above the trouble zone. Therefore, this indicator shows low immediate risk.

Signal: Green light

Risk factor #2: Margin debt. Another indicator of potential trouble is margin debt.

market risk

Debt levels as a percentage of market capitalization remain near all-time highs, but they are down slightly. While this decrease is encouraging, the overall high levels of debt are concerning; however, as noted above, high risk is not immediate risk.

For immediate risk, changes in margin debt are a better indicator than the level of that debt. Consistent with this, if we look at the change over time, spikes in debt levels typically precede a drawdown.

market risk

As you can see in the chart above, the change in debt as a percentage of market capitalization has decreased slightly during the month. The overall debt level, however, remains very high, and the growth rate remains at close to risk levels. Given these two factors, the risk level is approaching the immediate levels.

Signal: Yellow light

Risk factor #3: Technical factors. A good way to track overall market trends is to review the current level versus recent performance. Two metrics I follow are the 200- and 400-day moving averages. I start to pay attention when a market breaks through its 200-day average, and a break through the 400-day often signals further trouble ahead.

market risk

These indicators remain positive, with all three major U.S. indices well above both trend lines. Even as markets continue to reach new highs, it’s quite possible that the advance will continue given growth in earnings and positive consumer, business, and investor sentiment. A break into new territory could actually propel the market higher, despite the high valuation risk level. With the index well above the trend lines, the likely trend continues to be positive.

Signal: Green light

Conclusion: Conditions weakening but remain favorable overall

The overall economic environment remains supportive, and neither of the likely shock factors is necessarily indicating immediate risk. Similarly, while several of the market indicators point to an elevated level of risk, that risk does not look to be immediate. Overall, while the risk levels have increased moderately, the market environment remains favorable in the near term, and we remain at a green light for this month.

Article by Brad McMillan, Commonwealth Financial Network