Rob Isbitts – Tactical Trading And Replacing Bonds With ETFs
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Welcome to the Technical Traders Podcast with Rob Isbitts. The show that brings you technically proven strategies and trade ideas from experts around the world. We’re going to help you make more money with less risk, so you can take your trading to the next level. Now here’s your host. Jim Goddard.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (00:43):
My guest is Rob Isbitts he’s co-founder and chief investment strategist for SunGardenInvestment.com. Whereabouts are you Rob?
Rob Isbitts (00:52):
I am in South Florida, where I’ve lived for 25 years after being raised in Northern New Jersey, near New York City.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (01:01):
So you had decent pizza growing up.
Rob Isbitts (01:04):
We did – pizza, bagels, Chinese food, and we replaced the pizza down here, the bagels, not so much, and the Chinese food. Let’s talk about something else.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (01:19):
Rob Sungardeninvestment.com. Can you just tell us a little bit about what the company is all about?
Rob Isbitts (01:27):
Sure. So I’m a former financial advisor, investment advisor and we have pretty much, boiled it down. I sold my practice a couple of years ago, retained the investment management role, but, these days there are, four different things that we do. We, speak with financial advisors and investors, in kind of an open, casual format to, try to help them based on my experience. We also do some hourly consulting, because I have been around the block in the industry and advisors tend to find that helpful. The third thing we do is that we manage model signals and distribute those through platforms. And the fourth thing that we have is something that we just put the finishing touches on after, a couple of years. We affectionately call it the Rob-bot because it takes my 35 years of investment experience and pretty much turns it into a black box algorithm that enables advisors, or investors to create their own portfolios. We just provide the infrastructure, the framework, and the mechanism.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (02:56):
How did you get started in trading or investing?
Rob Isbitts (03:00):
Well, my father taught me chart stocks, when I was 16 years old. So it was back in 1980. He never did it professionally. He certainly hoped I’d get into the business eventually. And I did, and he lived long enough for me to see that he, passed away about nine years ago. And so I started with, charting, made my way to wall street starting in 1986 in the world trade center in the back office for a Japanese bank, and kind of made my way through brokerage through, fiduciary investment advisory. Along the way, I developed my own approach to technical analysis, which like I just mentioned, is now part of, whatever we end up calling what is currently known as the Rob-bot. I’m an avid chartist. Put it this way, my wife will occasionally, catch me night charting, because to me, as it relaxing in off-hours as it is exhilarating and motivational during your trading day,
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (04:12):
Nothing worse than the wife catching you charting in the middle of the night.
Rob Isbitts (04:17):
That’s right! Yep. Well, that’s kind of a takeoff on the old Chevy chase line from Caddyshack – night putting. It’s night charting, for me because I’m not a great golfer.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (04:30):
Is there anybody you really admire or influenced you to become involved in the financial markets?
Rob Isbitts (04:37):
Well, to some degree I feel like I am fulfilling, what my father was not able to do cause he had a corporate career and he was raising us in Jersey. He and my mom did make his, retirement, his modest retirement last about 30 years. So that was a big part of it. And, I think today, in the way that you kind of go, from generation to generation, what I learned from my dad, I’ve now imparted on, my son who is, a newbie in the wealth management business. And, hopefully, the work ethic that my two daughters, both so living in the Boston area, will take.
Rob Isbitts (05:29):
So I think it started with dad. I’ve certainly had plenty of other influences along the way but more in the collective than let’s say a specific, mentor. I will say this though, as I’ve gotten this point in my career, I’m in the second half of my fifties and one of the things I enjoy more than anything else is mentoring other folks, whether they be professional or otherwise, to try to teach them what I’ve learned, and try to succeed. Not just from my successes, but, even more so from the many, many, many mistakes I’ve made along the way, whether it is in, developing a technical analysis system or, in the other ways that I’ve approached, investment, management and strategy,
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (06:22):
What’s your trading philosophy? What set of principles, beliefs, or experiences drive your decisions?
Rob Isbitts (06:29):
Hmm, I like that question. Fortunately, I think I have a coach and answer. So it starts with, what we at Sungarden Investment Publishing, call ABL, avoid big loss – and ‘big’ is different for everybody. When I was an advisor and I was giving specific advice to clients everybody had a different definition of the B for big. For some people, it was a few percent, for other people it was many percent, and for some, it was in between. So it all starts with that. And then I think the sort of a corollary to that is that risk management is so important. I think a lot of people bandy around that term, but, to me, it really means that you have five possible outcomes whenever you make an investment. You can make a lot, you can make a little break even, lose a little, you could lose a lot. You need to take the lose a lot off the table. That is the biggest threat to your practice if you’re an advisor and to your lifestyle, if you’re, or an advisor or an individual investor,
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (07:44):
What is your favorite type of analysis or indicator you help find your, to time your trades or your investments?
Rob Isbitts (07:53):
Well, you know, I did create a lot of this stuff myself and then saw my dad do it for so long toiling away when I was a kid, and again, he never did it professionally. And so when I had the opportunity and I was able to do it full time, I’ve looked at it this way. My, favorite oscillating indicator by far is the percentage price oscillator, the PPO. And in the programming that we did over the last couple of years to create this kind of automated portfolio creation tool. We worked at that pretty hard because it is difficult, whether it is that or whether it is, moving averages, or trend, things like that. It is very difficult to translate what humans do into algorithms.
Rob Isbitts (08:53):
You can do it, but I think it’s fraught with potential error. I think we did a pretty nice job of humanizing, or I should say algo-lizing humans as we can. Um, I think the other thing I would say, just in terms of sort of, the pure technicals, I have found this is more just from experiencing anything else. You look at the direction of a 20 period moving average and to me that gives you a pretty good idea. In fact, we have something, that we developed fairly recently. I’ve developed a lot of intellectual property around investing and around technical analysis. But then, one that we’ve been talking about with folks recently, we call it the crash helmet indicator time that the, 20 week moving average of the S&P500 is, where the price is 5% below that moving average or more.
Rob Isbitts (09:55):
And it has kind of an uncanny record of forecasting future stock prices. Let’s say about six months out. Let’s put it this way – that indicator fired recently. And so, there are no absolutes in investing and certainly not in technical analysis, everything that I do to invest is not about absolutes, it’s about evaluating, risk, versus the reward you’re seeking. But that indicator fired pretty recently – just in the last week or so. I would say that this is probably the most dangerous stock market that I have seen in my, 35, 36-year career. That said, that also means there’s the most opportunity because there’s a lot of folks who haven’t seen this type of environment and, they’re kind of newbies. And so they don’t know what they don’t know. So here I am, kind of feeling like I’m a little back seat, because I’ve been through five bear markets already, and you know, this is one, it’ll be six.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (11:02):
Is there something you wish you would’ve known before you started trading and investing?
Rob Isbitts (11:10):
How much time do you have? Lots!
Rob Isbitts (11:15):
Yeah, let’s see. So, it’s funny, I mean, when you and I were chatting a little bit before, this interview offline, it’s about trade, trading, and investing. Yeah. I mean, look, it’ll make you humble really quickly. I think some of the biggest, shortcomings in my track record, my audited track record is, that when you get these V bottom, and who knows when we get the next one. I mean, as we’re speaking today, there’s a V bottom, but it’s overnight, and it’s on a very, very, very short term period if you could measure it in hours and half hours. I’m not a trader as much as I am an investor who doesn’t define timeframes. Those V bottoms determine how aggressive one should be. There’s an old wall tree expression, they don’t ring a bell at the top of the bottom, but 2020 was a period in which, they kind of did.
Rob Isbitts (12:29):
Being a conservative investor by nature, you’re always kind of looking around to see if there’s another shoe to drop. And, so I think probably we’re always trying to improve, and frankly, that’s one reason we did the algorithmic version of Rob Isbitts, is because the algo we found when we backtested it, is that it, does better in all periods other than the most chaotic ones. So the downside is that a human has to step in and take the algo. So I guess if there’s anything I learned, really is that it’s good to have automated input, but at the end of the day, the human has to make the decision.
Rob Isbitts (13:24):
I think people are better off that way but also assisted. In other words, the algo is the analyst, and the human is a portfolio manager. I think that’s a great combination. I think the other thing that I wish I had known earlier is timeframe analysis. I look at about a dozen different timeframes, everything from a minute, all the way up to, monthly, prices in my charts. And, I look at about 300 ETFs, which cover about 150 market segments. So you’re always looking for something that gives you a fighting chance to make money, without having a huge loss, potential. And so I think that that’s really it. Being able to look at a wide span of things and look at them over multiple time periods, the period that we’re in here, as we talk in March of 2022, the market has been just absolutely destroyed to start the year.
Rob Isbitts (14:32):
I’m happy to say I’m one of the few people on the street that has actually made money this year, so far so good. And I think what that comes down to is that, one of the adjustments that I did not make when I was a young chartist, but I do make as an older chartist, is that I focus most of my time on daily, weekly charts, even the monthly, but when volatility kicks up and, and you have, external factors like we have going on with a horrific war, inflation, fed, everything speeds up and you have to speed up your analysis too. So as we’re sitting here, in March of 2022, I’m looking at, two-hour and four-hour charts, the way I normally look at daily and weekly charts and making that conversion to correspond to the market that you’re in, kind of like play. Play the market that you’re in, not the market that you wish you were in. I think that’s generally just part of being a good, flexible charter and flexible investor.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (15:45):
You focus on ETFs only. Why is that?
Rob Isbitts (15:49):
Well, that was the process of elimination. I was a stock investor for a long time. I do a lot of options work in my personal account, but they’re really difficult options. They’re difficult to scale. And when you manage money in scale for a lot of different accounts, I mean, I’d love, to find somebody that feels like they can do it. I’ve managed mutual funds on three different occasions, and I use options in the mutual fund, and I happen to think they’re an incredible tool, especially if you know how to use them. But it’s difficult. Let’s say if you’re, back in my financial advisor days, when you’re trying to run it, across a lot of accounts, get all the trades, you’re in systems aren’t set up to handle that as smoothly as they are listed, securities like stocks. It got to the point where, sort of like fool me once, shame on you, fool me a dozen times, shame on me.
Rob Isbitts (16:53):
So many times where you buy good companies, the charts are in sync, and then quarterly earnings come out and they miss by a penny or whatever. Wall Street has this game that one of my peers in the business calls, millennial, old soccer, everybody gets a trophy. So you see the estimates come down, down, down, down, then they beat by a penny, or they miss by a penny either way. When you see blue-chip company drop 10% before you can do a thing, I start to realize that if we’re gonna manage money for a total return, avoid big loss, then make as much as you can, it’s kind of the second rule. Then individual stocks carry too much peripheral risk compared to ETFs.
Rob Isbitts (17:55):
Frankly, in a lot of the ETF work that we do, I mentioned we follow about 300 of them, we look very closely at the underlying holding and I am a big fan of concentrated ETFs. That’s kind of how we bridge the gap. Like to me, just speaking sort of generically, I would rather own an ETF that is based on the Dow than on, let’s say the S&P500 or the NASDAQ or the Russell 2000 because I can chart 30 companies and I can get a pretty good idea. In fact, one of the things we do with D is we look at the Dow the way it’s normally posted, but it’s got this quirky waiting system, whereas by price there are ETFs for equal-weighted Dow.
Rob Isbitts (18:46):
There are ETFs for dividend and weighted Dow. And so, if you only have to analyze 30 socks and, they’re all well-known, blue-chip companies, you can look inside and, and that gives you a better idea about how the full ETF is gonna do. The one last thing I’d say about things I invest in and things I don’t – probably my biggest, the biggest flag that I’ve been waving for the past decade is that bonds as an investment class are not dying. When they’re past 10, they’re gone. You can use them as trading tools, through an ETF if you want to. And we do long and short, but, in terms of bonds as part of a 60 40 portfolio, yeah, bonds as a standalone asset class debt, and, my main strategy, the Sungarden core portfolio, which we’ve run for a long time, almost 20 years now, was created to specifically target and give investors something that they, substitute for their high-quality bonds and their corporate bonds because those are areas that are treacherous for investors that investors do not quite realize is how treacherous they are.
Rob Isbitts (20:05):
I think they’re starting to find out
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (20:08):
You’re known for your bond replacement portfolio. What is it, and how does it work?
Rob Isbitts (20:14):
So what we do is we play offense and defense at the same time. That’s really the key. It not long short per se because we use ETFs and we are buying, or we are long ETF on both sides, but, offense and defense. Think of it this way, in the same way a football team in the US, an NFL team, the offense is on the field and the defense is on the field. Well, the offense does the scoring, right? Well, no, the defense can score too, but the defense’s main job is to play defense. So I think a portfolio should always have an offense and a defense, and frankly, especially since, I’m a big fan of our Northern neighbors, Canada.
Rob Isbitts (21:06):
And that’s where you, hail from then I think, you know, analogizing it to hockey is even better depending on the game situation in hockey. You are either gonna be pressing or you are going to be in a defensive shell. Are you gonna be somewhere in between? I was a very, very, very amateur hockey player for about a decade of my life, loved the sport, still a big fan does my son. And what I see when I watch a hockey game now, I think about stuff. Hmm. Okay. If I see an offensive defenseman sort of pinching in and trying to get another goal on the board, versus, that same defenseman really not pressing up too much, that is almost identical to the way I think of navigating the market in a portfolio.
Rob Isbitts (22:09):
Sometimes you’re pushing it a little bit more, sometimes a little less, and this is not go-to cash and then invest, be all invested or not invested strategy. A lot of people do that. They certainly can do it better than I can, but to me, it’s always striking a balance between offense and defense and being as tactical as possible, not being afraid to say, either this isn’t working or this did work, but I don’t think it’s gonna continue to work because the markets of today, of all the new players in it and, and so many other reasons, the markets of today reward folks who invest tactically. What I mean is weeks and months, as opposed to investing, buy and hold, for years. So I think if you combine the offense-defense, with the tactical nature that to me is a replacement for what bonds used to do.
Rob Isbitts (23:06):
Do you get the cash flow income? No, you’re not gonna get 6% cash flow, but you can pursue a mid to high single-digit return. And like I said, sometimes you could surprise yourself. Or you surprised the people that you’re investing for and you put out some pretty eye-popping numbers, or in a year like this one where it started so poorly, we can make money and it’s not about earning the cash flow because rates are so low across the globe that if you reach for cash flow if you reach even for dividend income too much, you might make a 5-6% yield and then lose five times that in principle. So that doesn’t make any sense either. I’ve created not a bond substitute using a bond. I have created through Sungarden’s core portfolio, a replacement for the role that bonds used to play for investors in their portfolio. And frankly, I think it’ll be a decade or more before we ever go back to doing it the other way. And I’ll be the first one on board when the conditions are right. But we’re so far from that I don’t count on anytime soon. And that’s why we do what we do the way we do it.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (24:29):
So much money has gone into cryptocurrencies as a person, who’s a technical trader, is this a good move by people, sheer speculation, or are they, is this another, south seas adventure from the 1720s? As I like to say, tulips from, the 1600s?
Rob Isbitts (24:50):
Well, I will refer everybody to what I’ve written, and funny Jim, I thought that I was gonna get away with not having to address crypto on this call. I was wrong now. I mean, looks to me, a chart is a chart is a chart. As long as you have some semblance of understanding of what’s going on around it, we screen down to 300 ETFs, that’s our universe. That does include several in the crypto space, whether it’s direct through the ETF to try to track the coins or, through a blockchain as a mechanism. I’m a much bigger believer in the future of blockchain than I am in the coins being anything other than the speculative vehicle. But you know what, at the end of the day, it’s about money and about not losing big.
Rob Isbitts (25:50):
And, if crypto is one asset that allows us to do it, though some of those ETFs, I’m as, as game as anybody else. I will say this when it comes to the longer-term view on crypto, I wrote an article not too long ago for Forbes, and I write a regular column on investment strategy, for financial advisors at US news and world report. So at Forbes, I recently put one out and it basically said, here’s how Bitcoin could go to 10,000 instead of a hundred thousand. Now, I don’t know where it’s gonna go. I’m just saying that when I look at the chart, I see the possibility of a crypto crash, but it’s gonna take a while because there’s so much resistance to it.
Rob Isbitts (26:50):
So in the meantime, we might as well enjoy the ride. Frankly, I look at there’s always a little spot in our portfolio, even though it’s a bond substitute or bond replacement portfolio, there’s always a little spot that we call kind of the volatility section. And in that section, we might buy actual volatility, ETFs, which are very volatile themselves. Whether it’s long volatility or short volatility, you can do it both ways. But that’s also typically where we put our crypto position. So maybe it’s a 2-3% position. Whereas normally we would have, five or more likely 10% in, in a single PF, if not more,
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (27:33):
We’ll have more with Rob ISVI right after this.
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Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (27:59):
Welcome Back. We’re speaking with Rob Isbitts – how does rampant inflation affect technical trading?
Rob Isbitts (28:07):
So that brings me back to, I would say probably the most important thing that I can say to anybody that is whether you’re a new investor or an experienced investor who is trying to make sense of these markets. So, I am firmly, firmly of the belief that the following statement is true. In fact, when I give PowerPoint presentations, we have this quote up there and it says, the markets tell us a continuous story. We just have to listen to what summarizes charting in the advantages of charting in a nutshell. So reverting that back to inflation. How can you see that there’s inflation pressure building up before it’s actually building up? Just look at the charts and don’t just look at one chart. Don’t just look at the SP500.
Rob Isbitts (29:03):
Don’t just look at gold. Look at 15 or 18 commodities. Look at, like I said, 300 ETFs we track, but they represent, I believe it’s about 160 market segments. So you get to see everything now through the more mature world of ETFs, and you get to see it play out intraday every so how do you see inflation and how do you take advantage of it? Well, first you get a consensus by looking at enough charts, whether it’s day charting or night charting, going back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago And you will start to get a consensus, you’ll start to see the same thing. And so in today’s world, you might see, okay, commodities on an intermediate-term basis are a little bit pooped out, but, but you know, a long term basis, there could be tremendous potential going from, and so you have to manage that to your timeframe.
Rob Isbitts (30:04):
Then, the other thing that we see is, is interest rates. And particularly when I look at our interest rates, one of the ways that we have taken advantage of rising inflation is to buy, unlevered, because I don’t like leverage. But we buy ETFs that profit from rising rates. So basically you’re shorting bonds, but you doing it through a long position in an ETF. And I think there’s a lot of that type of stuff out there. I think the bottom line question, I get this all the time when the market’s going down, what do you do? You just gotta go to cash, right? Well, no, if the market’s going down, if the market’s going up and I mean, any market, not just the main averages, well, if, if you have access to investment, okay, ETFs in our case that is specifically designed to go the opposite of what a certain index is doing, then that’s your answer. So you don’t have to sit on the sidelines forever. Cash build-up doesn’t hurt if you have the market picture is opaque, but firmly believe that investors need to understand that there are a lot of ways that they can profit from a price of something going down and, and more and more, those types of things are, are, are coming out.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (31:39):
Rob, if you had just one piece of advice for people, people who are looking to get into investments or wanna protect their investments, what would it be?
Rob Isbitts (31:49):
Avoid the scammers and the folks that look like it’s too good to be true. Investing has become a rat nest. I heard somebody say the other day, I think was watching one of those, greed shows, so many of which take place in my home state of Florida, by the way, for some reason, anytime you have money involved and a lot of money involved, the ner-do wells are going to come in be because they see an opportunity to exploit. I see so much of that out there on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s intentional, there are people really trying to just take your money, without offering much in return. And I kind of take that personally given the hundred and thousand some odd hours I put into doing this the right way.
Rob Isbitts (32:48):
The other type is the type that doesn’t know what they don’t know. And, those would be, the folks that are on some of them, let’s say more progressive social media channels, the newer ones, the TikTok Instagram, as opposed to the LinkedIn types or the Twitter types even, that people have to be very careful as soon as something seems like it’s too good to be true or too easy. You have to have a critical mind and you have to second guess before you move forward. And frankly, that’s part of charting too, but I think it’s also part of life, especially, in the age of social media.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (33:32):
How important is it for investors to inform themselves about how things work so that they understand what’s going on when they talk to their investment counselor?
Rob Isbitts (33:43):
Oh, I am a huge believer. The very first newsletter that I wrote directly to clients, was called the educator. And I have believed for a couple of decades now that people should want to be about this. The problem is when you have a 13, 14 year period in which nothing goes wrong when it does, it’s only for a blip, then it’s easier for people to either get overconfident, indifferent apathetic, or all the above. And the problem with that is that you are not prepared for what will happen. I have seen enough in my years of being a professional investor and, from my days of being an advisor, the individual clients, and managing mutual funds, so I think that people should do, if they’re gonna put that much of their money into it, they should do it with intent.
Rob Isbitts (34:52):
They shouldn’t just leave it to somebody without understanding that doesn’t mean you have to understand it so well, you could do their job because that’s a long way. I mean, a lot of people would be like, ‘Hey, can you teach me, what you know’. Well, we’ve got 110,000 hours to catch up. I’m not sure how quickly we can do that, even in the internet age. So I think, people should get educated. And really frankly, I think a lot of that falls on the advisors. I praise where necessary, and where appropriate in my industry. I’m also very, very critical of my industry. And I feel like a lot of financial advisors today are kind of punting on the investment management process. They’re outsourcing to third parties that are really built for scale and efficiency on their end. That doesn’t do anything for the advisor’s client ultimately, and the advisor needs to understand the difference, frankly, that’s why we built the, as we’re calling it now, the Rob-bot we’ll see what we call it, but, because we wanted to put a framework into any financial advisor’s hand so that they can make their own rules with a little bit of coaching from us and, and then deliver something to their clients, that asset management and an actual asset to their practice.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (36:21):
Rob, thank you so much for chatting with us.
Rob Isbitts (36:24):
Well, thank you, Jim. This was a pleasure. And, thank you very much for the questions
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (36:30):
My guest has been. Rob Isbitts co-founder and chief investment strategist for sungardeninvestment.com. I’m Jim Goddard.
Jim – TheTechnicalTraders (36:39):
Thanks for joining us this week on TheTechnicalTraders podcast.
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