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Last week there was a lot of chatter about a technical formation called a ‘golden cross’ which is considered to have bullish implications. This is when a short term moving average (usually a simple 50 day MA) crosses from below to rise higher than the long term moving average (usually a simple 200 MA). Because moving average tend to move in lethargic arcs, these types of formations are easy to foresee.
In keeping with everyone’s watchful expectation, the S&P 500’s 50 day moving average closed at 900.54 on June 24th 2009, rising slightly higher than the 200 moving average (897.19).
Since we’ve compared the current market to the nascent 2003 bull market in many different ways: breadth, wedge formation, flag formation, Weinstein analysis, etc. It is only natural then to take a look at the golden cross that presaged the bull market in 2003:
In the charts, the blue line is the 50 day moving average and the red line is the 200 day moving average. Marked by the green arrow, the medium term moving average crossed higher than the longer term moving average in May 15th, 2003.
But does the golden cross really deserve its bullish moniker? Obviously we can’t base any conclusions on one single observation in 2003.
Vincent Delisle of Scotia Capital looked at 14 previous S&P 500 bull markets (lasting on average 49 months and rising 149%). From these only about 17% of the gains materialized before a golden cross signal was given. After 12 months of a signal the average gain was 23%, implying that a golden cross doesn’t arrive too late to provide forward returns. Delisle adds that a golden cross appears to have more validity when it occurs with a rising 200 day moving average - something we had in 2003 but do not have now.
By the way, a “death cross” is the opposite and can be seen on the above chart marked by a red down arrow.
According to Jason Goepfert of SentimenTrader, any edge offered by golden crosses is minimal. Identifying the same distinction as suggested by Delisle, he looked at only instances where the 200 day moving average is declining.
…the returns going forward, up to six months later, were little better than random and not statistically significant. In fact, in the shorter-term they were a little worse than random. Only when we look out a year do we see some out-performance.
But he does agree with Delisle that most ‘unsuccessful’ golden cross signals coincide with the early 1940’s and that more recent examples have had much more success. The S&P 500 was positive 11 out of 13 times since 1942 with an average annual return of 18%.
Finally, a reader was kind enough to forward a recent research report from Merrill Lynch on golden crosses. I’ve added it to the Free Trading Resource Section and you can download it from the Articles & Reports folder.
In the Merrill Lynch report prepared by Mary Ann Bartels, it continues to distinguish between golden crosses that happen with a downward long term moving average and those when the long term moving average is rising:
Of the 42 Golden Cross signals triggered since 1928, 20 have occurred with the 200-day moving average in a declining trend or lower than it was 30 trading sessions ago. These signals on average have generated 12-month returns of 13.3%.
The remaining 22 signals occurred when the 200-day moving average was rising or higher than it was 30 trading sessions ago. The returns for these signals were much lower and on average generated 12-month returns of 5.7%.
This is bullish for today’s market since the long term moving average of the S&P 500 is still falling. The report is full of insight backed by stats so I highly recommend you download it and take a look. Bartels also adds a new overlay by looking at golden crosses that happen during a recession (as defined by NBER). Signals that meet the condition of a declining 200 MA and a recession suddenly produce an average 12 months return of 23.3%.
Not surprisingly, her conclusion is that “the equity market remains in a base-building process that should lead to higher returns.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the market automatically heads higher and higher from here. Base building can be soul crushing. Ask any trader that lived through the 1970’s - no wonder everyone started wearing platform shoes
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