What is Momentum and Why Does it Work?


min read

September 7, 2018

The concept of momentum originated with regard to classical mechanics, in which it refers to the tendency of a moving object to keep moving along its direction of travel. In finance, and especially with regard to investing, we talk in terms of price momentum. As you can infer, this is the tendency for asset prices to continue moving in the same direction they are currently heading.

Momentum has both direction and magnitude. With regard to investing, the price momentum of an asset can be either positive or negative (direction) and can vary in strength (magnitude). Price momentum can be strong, it can be weak, or it can not exist at all.

Momentum In The Markets

A casual observation of the stock market, or any financial market for that matter, will demonstrate this concept at work. Bull markets, periods of rising asset prices, tend to continue for many years until a final tipping point is reached. An ensuing bear market, in which asset prices fall, exhibits a similar phenomenon in which the price declines persist much longer than many believe possible.

If you’re familiar with the concept of a trend, you intuitively understand how momentum works. When there is a bullish trend, whether it be in real estate, bonds, stocks, or even sports, the trend has a tendency to continue. Perhaps you’ve heard one of the oldest and wisest quips when it comes to investing, “the trend is your friend.” This statement encompasses what is important to understand about momentum, and that is to make sure it is always working for you and not against you.

Have you ever owned an investment that performed well, which you sold to lock in gains, only to watch it move inexorably higher in the following months and years? What about the opposite, have you ever owned a losing investment, but stuck with it hoping it would rebound, only to watch it drift lower and lower? This is how most investors are first introduced to the concept of momentum. What they don’t realize is that winners have a tendency to keep on winning, and losers have a tendency to keep on losing.

The History of Momentum

Price momentum is not a new concept when it comes to investing. In fact, momentum has been around for as long as financial markets have existed. Successful traders rely heavily on momentum, but they are too often focused on short-term momentum, and miss reaping the benefits of longer trends. If you can learn to apply momentum to investing, you can do incredibly well and find yourself consistently on the right side of the market. Those who have learned to harness the power of momentum consider it the single greatest tool for achieving outsized returns.

If momentum is so powerful, you might be wondering why it works. We’re about to get to that. But first, it’s important that you understand that this is not some untested, opinionated belief about markets and how they operate.

The concept of momentum has been studied by academia for decades. As you know, there are large sums of money to be made by correctly positioning oneself in the financial markets. As a result, mathematicians, quants, and super geeks around the world have flocked to the financial markets in search of a way to consistently beat the market.

As you can probably guess, nearly every theory that academia has studied with regard to predicting and outperforming the market has failed. All except for one that is … momentum. You don’t have to believe us, you can do your own research. There are many books on the subject and a litany of academic studies and research papers discussing the findings of multi-decade studies. Nearly all of them come to the same conclusion: Momentum is the one market anomaly that has persisted through time. If applied correctly, it can become the basis of a playbook for generating substantial wealth.

Why Does It Work?

While the academic community admits that price momentum exists as a market anomaly, they are less certain about why. One of the main theories put forth that is continually gaining more and more traction relates to behavioral finance. You will find that Sigma Point Capital puts a strong emphasis on analyzing the psychology of markets and market participants. This is because the economy, markets, and asset prices are all driven predominantly by human behavior.

This may come as a shock to you, but humans don’t behave rationally. Yes, I’m talking about you, but I’m also talking about myself and everyone else, including portfolio managers, traders, institutional investors, you name it. We’re all subject to the same set of emotions that cloud our judgement and cause us to make non-optimal decisions. Often times, our irrational nature plays out in systematic and predictable ways.

If you’ve paid any attention to markets, you’ve likely noticed a strange phenomenon. An inordinately large number of investors have a tendency to buy when stock prices are too high, and sell when they are too low. This is emotionally driven behavior, and it is a driving force behind price momentum.

When the stock market is in rally mode, a sense of greed sets in. Folks who have not been participating watch others getting rich and want a taste of the action for themselves. So they buy in once asset prices are already inflated, prolonging the move upward, only to find that they’ve arrived too late to the party and most of the gains have been had. Rising asset prices continue their momentum because of widespread emotional greed and a habit of chasing the market.

The same effect occurs during bear markets. Perhaps you or someone you know sold their investments near the bottom of the most recent financial crisis. They watched the market deteriorate for years before finally fear and despair set in, at which point they said enough is enough, and sold their positions. Again, this was emotional driven investing. Instead of selling, those very same investors should have been buying. But instead they succumbed to emotional distress and sold their holdings, prolonging and continuing the bear market. This type of behavior is an example of the driving force behind negative price momentum.

Momentum Is Everywhere

Momentum works not only at the aggregate market level, it works at each and every level of the market. It works with stocks, with sectors, and it also works across other markets, whether it be currencies, bonds, or precious metals.

Understanding how to apply momentum to your investment strategy is a prerequisite for long-term success. Without momentum providing a tail wind, you’re likely to find investing a difficult, frustrating, and wealth-destroying venture. But if you can harness this tested and proven strategy for generating enhanced returns, success is easily within reach.

Sigma Point Capital provides a series of investment models as part our premium service. These models leverage various forms of momentum and use a rules-based approach to provide market-beating returns. The models were largely able to sidestep both the dot-com collapse as well as the financial crisis. While asset values were collapsing, our models were enjoying the safety of cash, cash equivalents, and fixed income. If you haven't explored our investment models to see how they can benefit your portfolio, you owe it to yourself to do so.

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Investment Model Disclosures


Sigma Point Capital, LLC (“SPC”) is a Registered Investment Advisor. All information provided herein is for educational purposes only and does not constitute investment, legal or tax advice, an offer to buy or sell any security or insurance product; or an endorsement of any third party or such third party’s views.

Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful.

All examples are hypothetical and designed solely to convey information about our investment philosophy and strategies. Investing involves a great deal of risk including the loss of some or all of your investment. Past performance is not an indication or guarantee of future performance and Sigma Point Capital does not warrant or guarantee any minimum level of investment performance. No representation is being made that any SPC client account will or is likely to achieve profits or losses similar to those shown in the hypothetical back tested performance.

Backtested Performance Disclosure Statement

Hypothetical performance shown on the Sigma Point Capital website (the “Site”) is backtested and does not represent the performance of any account managed by Sigma Point Capital. The hypothetical performance depicted was achieved by means of the retroactive application of investment strategies that were designed with the benefit of hindsight.

Backtested performance is NOT an indicator of future actual results. Hypothetical results have inherent limitations, particularly that the performance results do not reflect the results of actual trading using client assets. Additional limitations of backtested performance include, but are not limited to, the effects of material economic and market factors on the decision-making process, and the ability for the security selection methodology to be adjusted until past returns are maximized.

The performance of any account managed by Sigma Point Capital will differ from the backtested performance shown on the Site for a variety of reasons, including without limitation the following:

  • Sigma Point Capital may consider from time to time one or more factors that are not accounted for in the models, or it may not consider any or all of such factors. The inclusion or exclusion of such factors may cause Sigma Point Capital to override the model’s recommendations, which could result in performance that is higher or lower than shown.
  • The hypothetical backtested performance results assume full investment, whereas an account managed by SPC may have a positive cash balance upon rebalance. Had the backtested performance results included a positive cash position, the results would have been different and generally would have been lower.
  • The backtested performance results for each strategy are based on the daily closing prices of each security. Accounts managed by SPC will rarely, if ever, be able to transact at the exact daily closing prices, and as a result, security purchases and sales may be at higher or lower prices than those depicted in the model’s returns. This could result in performance that is higher or lower than what is depicted on the Site.
  • The timing of trades and transactions in an account managed by SPC may differ from the timing of trades and transactions shown in the backtested performance. This could result in performance that is higher or lower than what is depicted on the Site.
  • Hypothetical performance includes the reinvestment of dividends and interest, but no management fees or transaction costs are included. If management fees and transaction costs were included, the results would have been different and generally would have been lower.
  • Hypothetical performance does not reflect the impact of taxes on non-qualified accounts. If taxes were included, the results for non-qualified accounts would have been different and generally would have been lower.
  • Accounts managed by SPC are subject to additions and redemptions of assets under management, which may positively or negatively affect performance depending on the the timing of such events in relation to market conditions.
  • Simulated returns may be dependent on the market and economic conditions that existed during the backtested period. Future market or economic conditions can adversely affect the returns shown.

Performance results have been compiled solely by Sigma Point Capital, LLC and have not been independently verified.

3rd Party Data

Sigma Point Capital relies on third-party data sources for portions of its data. The information derived from these sources is believed to be accurate, but no warranties or representations are made with respect to its accuracy or completeness.

Neither Sigma Point Capital nor any third-party data provider are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information.

Fund Ticker Symbols and Definitions

In order to help existing and prospective clients understand the performance characteristics of the SPC Tactical Investment Models, backtested performance on the Site is shown in relation to three benchmarks: The S&P 500 Index, The U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, and a 60/40 blend of those two indexes (benchmarks are shown using Exchange-Traded Funds which track each index).

Sigma Point Capital Tactical Models use a combination of equity and fixed-income ETFs to achieve their results; therefore, these benchmarks provide a reasonable example of the performance that one would achieve from a buy-and-hold approach using a similar set of securities.

SPY represents the SPDR S&P 500 ETF. It is an exchange-traded fund designed to track the performance of the S&P 500 Index. It does not represent the index itself.

AGG represents the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF. It is an exchange-traded fund designed to track the performance of the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. It does not represent the index itself. The inception date for AGG is 9-22-2003. As a result, in our analysis and backtested performance, we use price data for VBMFX (the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index) as a proxy for AGG price data for all dates prior to 10-01-2003, at which point we switch to using actual AGG price data.

"60/40 Stocks/Bonds" refers to a hypothetical portfolio that would have kept 60% of its assets invested in SPY - the SPDR S&P 500 ETF and 40% of its assets invested in AGG - the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF.



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