The Sentiment Survey Suggesting We're Nowhere Near a Market Top

A high percentage of self-identified "neutral" investors on the AAII sentiment survey may indicate the SPX's bullish run isn't over

by Alex Eppstein

Published on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:00 PM

While the S&P 500 Index (SPX) has had quite a run in 2016 -- despite today's 1.8% loss, the broad-market index is 4.8% higher year-to-date -- recent data from the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) suggests confidence levels are lukewarm. Take a look at the chart below. Despite the SPX rally, the percentage of AAII "bulls" is hovering around 30% -- paling in comparison to the historical average of 38.5%.

aaii spx disconnect september 9

But that's not the only interesting trend to note. The AAII comes out with its sentiment survey every week, and for 44 straight weeks, self-identified "neutral" investors have outstripped self-identified "bulls." Prior to the current streak, the longest series in which neutral sentiment exceeded bullish was 21 weeks -- all the way back in 1993. Historically speaking, the last time the percentage of AAII "bulls" outnumbered "neutral" traders was last October.

aaii spx september 9

The overall ho-hum nature of market expectations ought to ease the anxieties of traders fearing an imminent SPX correction. After all, market tops are generally marked by euphoria on Wall Street, rather than the caution we're currently seeing toward the S&P 500.

The data bears that out, too. Schaeffer's Quantitative Analyst Chris Prybal crunched the numbers, looking at all instances in which "neutral" AAII sentiment exceeded "bullish" for at least 15 consecutive weeks. As you can see in the chart below, the sample size is rather limited. Yet, the data at least suggests the prospects of an outsized gain over the long term are far greater than the chances of a sharp correction.

aaii september 9

While the one-, two-, and four-week average returns and percent positive hint at potential short-term speed bumps after the current streak ends, things are pretty promising from eight weeks onward. The 13-week column (roughly one quarter) is especially bullish, with an average gain of 3.1% and four of five returns positive. Moreover, at 13 weeks and 26 weeks, the respective average positive returns (3.9% and 4.6%) dwarf the average losses (0.3% and 0.9%).

Again, the sample size is limited. But if past is precedent, once the current AAII streak is snapped, we can expect some slight short-term turbulence for the S&P 500 Index (SPX) to give way to longer-term tailwinds.

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