Two popular terms which often confuse investors are “trend following” and “momentum investing.” Perhaps the most glaring commonality between these two is their blatant defiance of “buy and hold,” the practice of selecting an investment and holding it indefinitely, believing that over time the market goes up, and therefore any investment will appreciate. Although the buy and hold approach has been touted for years by academics as the best method of investing, in reality it has its shortcomings, which are apparent in every Bear market.
Despite being the antithesis of buy and hold, both momentum investing and trend following strategies are predicated upon a disciplined investment approach that’s designed to buy when the price of an issue is increasing and sell when the price is declining. Additionally, an exit strategy is normally incorporated to override the human tendency to hold losing positions much too long. Yet despite the distinct characteristics that these two terms share, in reality they are quite different.
What is Trend Following?
Trend following, in its most basic definition, is a systematic investment approach predicated upon buying and selling securities based on the sustained price movement of the issue. It’s important to point out that trend followers don’t predict the future price movement of a stock; rather they examine the issue using technical analysis to determine which direction, if any, the equity is currently moving. If a bullish trend is emerging, the trend follower will likely buy a position in the stock and hold it until the trend begins to weaken or change direction. If the equity exhibits a bearish trend, the trend follower can short the position, wait until the trend reverses, or merely find another issue.
But there’s much more to being a successful trend follower than just selecting and buying securities. In fact, it can be argued that the most important aspect of trend following isn’t when and what to buy, but rather when and what to sell! Often times, successful trend followers establish a “sell rule” that must be violated prior to selling the issue. These sell rules vary depending on the risk tolerance of each investor, but they typically consist of a trailing stop loss coupled with a confirming indicator. The overarching benefit of sell rules is that they provide a disciplined, mechanical methodology which the average investor should seriously consider implementing into his investment philosophy.
What is Momentum Investing?
Momentum investors are constantly searching for companies that are moving faster than the market. They believe substantial returns can be realized if they find, buy and hold onto those issues for as long as the price continues to go up. The old axiom, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” illustrates the shared philosophy of momentum investors; those companies with the biggest price changes over the last few months are more likely to continue making substantial gains.
Fundamental analysis plays a much bigger role in momentum investing than it does in trend following. Momentum investors believe that buried within a company’s earnings statement is the reason why the price has been increasing so dramatically. And if that underlying reason is uncovered, the opportunity presents itself to capitalize on that knowledge in the future.
In the case of trend following, investors want to identify where a security may be within the performance cycle. For example, how close to the 52-week high or low is the current market price and what is the short-term direction of the issue? For the momentum investor, the key criteria may be the relative strength of the security versus the market or more importantly the peer group of the particular security in question.
How to Develop a Successful Investment Strategy
Investors often ask why go through all the effort of actively managing a portfolio. The simple answer lies in the proven behaviors of economic cycles and sector rotation. Independent studies have proven that over time the largest percentage of a securities’ price appreciation is driven by the industrial group within which the company is classified and not the performance of the individual company itself.
However, the real reason why investors should actively manage their portfolios is a concept called the “Time Value of Money,” also known as “Compounding Rate of Growth.” Many financial professionals will use the example of how a penny, if doubled every day, is worth over $10 million after only 30 days. A very impressive and eye opening number given the small amount of initial capital outlay. What would happen if instead of doubling the penny every day, it were to grow by only 75%? The investment would be worth slightly over $195,000 rather than $10.7 million. Reducing the growth rate further to 50% and the end value is now $1,917.51. A 25% growth rate for 30 days produces a value of only $8.08.
How does the concept of compounding growth translate into the selection of an investment strategy? Investors who actively manage their portfolios, either through trend following or momentum investing, have the ability to take modest gains and re-invest the profit in other trending securities over and over again. Buy and hold investors are not awarded this luxury since they rarely sell when the price is at the top. Rather, they buy a position when the price is low, ride the position all the way up in a bull market, and then watch as is loses value in a bear market. It’s a very frustrating strategy, equally hard on the stomach as it is on the wallet.
Both strategies, trend following and momentum investing, demand a certain level of self-discipline in order to be successful. A portfolio risk-management system that uses the current market price and equity level of a position and some form of market volatility measurement is recommended. An example of such a system could be a proprietary market model focused on technical indicators, back tested over time, coupled with a volatility indicator. The system might employ either the Average Directional Movement Index (ADX/R), the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) or the more traditional Advance Decline Line, Breadth or Volume indicators.