3 Ways To Assess Fear In the Market

Investors had to be encouraged by the preholiday rally in U.S. equities last week. The Dow had moved into positive territory on the year. The S&P 500 had catapulted 5.6% higher off an intraweek low. And the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) had dropped below a 50-day moving average.

Taking it one step further, the VIX has hit "lower highs" in every consecutive month since May. This additional bit of data is evidence fear may be slowly subsiding.

On the flip side, the fear of allocating to U.S. stocks can't be addressed by the VIX alone. Here are three reasons to think thrice about developed market stocks:

1. CurrencyShares Yen Trust ( FXY) Investor willingness to sell/short/borrow the low-yielding yen to invest in higher-yielding assets (for instance, high yield bonds, higher-yielding currencies or stocks) -- a practice frequently referred to as the "yen carry trade" -- is yet another method for assessing fear. If the yen is losing ground, investors are probably confident. If the yen is appreciating in value, investors are probably scared.

On Jan. 7, the yen hit a 15-year high against the dollar during intraday trading. It follows that as long as FXY is winning, investors in U.S. stocks may be timid.

2. iShares 1-3 year Treasury Bond ( SHY) Demand for short-term treasury bonds is another dagger in the heart of equities. On Tuesday's auction of three-year Treasury notes, the high yield of 0.79% set a record low. The consistent price appreciation for SHY is not easily dismissed by diversification models or increases in total AUM for the ETF industry; rather, it's one more sign that principal conservation is still in season.

3. SPDR Gold Trust ( GLD) Every time the media dismisses the yellow metal, they get it wrong. Writers keep using the word "bubble" to describe a precious metal that does far more than protect against inflation. Gold hedges against sovereign debt default, currency crises, dollar devaluation and fear itself. Not to forget that China and India love the stuff.

I've been advocating gold at every significant pullback over the past 12 months, whether stock assets were heading higher or lower. With stocks below 200-day moving averages, however, and with gold settling at yet another all-time high, exchange-traded vehicles such as GLD are clear indications of economic uncertainty/fear of ongoing economic distress.

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