[Introduction]  [Signal arithmetic]  [Signals and noise]   [Smoothing]   [Differentiation]  [Peak Sharpening]  [Harmonic analysis]   [Fourier convolution]  [Fourier deconvolution]  [Fourier filter]  [Wavelets]   [Peak area measurement]  [Linear Least Squares]  [Multicomponent Spectroscopy]  [Iterative Curve Fitting]  [Hyperlinear quantitative absorption spectrophotometry] [Appendix and Case Studies]  [Peak Finding and Measurement]  [iPeak]   [iSignal]  [Peak Fitters]   [iFilter]  [iPower]  [List of downloadable software]  [Interactive tools]


Appendix R. Signal and Noise in the Stock Market?  Added September 2016, updated June 2020.

From a signal-to-noise perspective, the stock market is an interesting example. A national or global stock market is an aggregation of large numbers of buyers and sellers of shares in publicly traded companies. They are described by stock market indexes, which are computed as the weighted average of a large number of selected stocks. For example, the S&P 500 index is computed from the stock valuations of 500 large US companies. Millions of individuals and organizations participate in the buying and selling of stocks on a daily basis, so the S&P 500 index is a prototypical "big data" conglomerate, reflecting the overall value of 500 of the largest companies in the largest stock market on earth. Other stock indices, such as the Russel 2000, include an even larger number of smaller companies. Individual stocks can fail or fall drastically in value, but the market indexes average out the performance of hundreds of companies.

A plot of the daily value, V, of the S&P 500 index vs time, T, from 1950 through September of 2016 is shown in the following graphs.


Each plot contains 16608 data points, one for each business day, shown in red. The graph on the left plots V and the graph on the right plots the natural logarithm of V, ln(V). There are considerable up-and-down fluctuations over time that can be related to historical events: the oil crisis of the 1970s, the tech boom and bust of 2000, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. Still, the long-term trend of the value is upwards - the current value is over 100 times greater than its value in 1950. This is basically why people invest in the stock market, because on average, over the long run, stock values usually go up. The most common way to model this overall long-term increase over time is based on the equation for compound interest that predicts the growth of investments that have a constant rate of return, such as savings accounts or certificates of deposit:

V = S*(1 + R)T

where V is the value, S is the starting value, R is the annual rate of return, and T is time. By itself, this expression would yield a smooth curve, without all the peaks and dips. The values of S and R that result in the best fit to the stock market data (shown by the blue lines in the graphs) can be determined in two ways:

(1) directly, using the iterative curve fitting method, shown on the left above, or
(2) by taking the logarithm of the values and fitting those to a straight line, shown on the right above.

FitSandP.m is a Matlab/Octave script that performs both of these calculations using the data in SandPfrom1950.mat. When applied to the S&P 500 index data, the rate of return R is about 0.07 (or 7%), but interestingly these two methods give slightly different results, even though the exact same data are used for both, and even though both methods yield the same 7% rate if applied to noiseless synthetic data calculated from this expression. This difference between methods is caused by the irregularities in the stock data that deviate from a smooth line - in other words, the noise - and it is exacerbated by the large range of the value data V over time and by the fact that the average return from 1950 to 1983 is slightly lower than that from 1983 to 2016.

From the point of view of curve fitting, the deviations from a smooth curve described by the compound interest expression is just
noise. But from the point of view of the stock market investor, those deviations can be an opportunity and a warning. Naturally, most investors would like to know how the stock market will behave in the future, but that requires extrapolation beyond the range of the available data, which is always uncertain and dangerous. But still, it's most likely (but not certain) that the long term behavior of the market (say, over a period of 10 years or more) will be similar to the past - that is, growing exponentially at about the same rate as before but with unpredictable fluctuations similar to what has occurred in the past. We can take a closer look at those fluctuations by inspecting the residuals - that is, subtracting the fitted curve from the raw data, as shown in iSignal on the left. There are several notable features of this "noise". First, the deviations are roughly proportional to V and thus relatively equal when plotted on a log scale. Second, the noise has a distinctly low-frequency character; the periodogram (lower panel, in red) shows peaks at 33, 16, 8, and 4 years. There are also, notably, numerous instances over the years when there is a sharp dip followed by a slower recovery close to the previous value. And conversely, every peak is eventually followed by a dip. The conventional advice in investing is to "buy low" (on the dips) and "sell high" (on the peaks). But of course the problem is that you can not reliably determine in advance exactly where the peaks and dips will fall; you have only the past to guide you. Still, if the current market value is much higher than the long-term trend, it will likely fall, and if the market value is much lower than the long-term trend, it will likely rise, eventually. The only thing you can be sure of is that, in the long run, the market will rise. This is why saving for retirement by investing in the stock market, and starting as soon as possible, is so important: over a 30-year working life, the market is almost guaranteed to rise substantially. The most painless way to do this is with your employer's 401k or 403b automatic payroll withdrawal plan. You can not actually invest in the stock market as a whole, but you can invest in index mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs), which are collections of stocks that are constructed to match or track the components of a market index. Such funds typically have very low management fees, an important factor in selecting an investment. Other mutual funds attempt to "beat the market" by carefully buying and selling stocks in an attempt to create a return that is greater than the overall market indexes; some are temporarily successful in doing that, but they charge higher management fees. Mutual finds and ETFs are much less risky investments than individual stocks.

   Some companies periodically distribute payouts to investors called "dividends". Those dividends are independent of the day-to-day variations in stock price, so even if the stock value drops temporarily, you still get the same dividend. For that reason it's important that you set your investment account to "automatically reinvest dividends", so when the share price drops, the dividends are buying shares at the lower price. The S&P 500 index values used above, called price returns, did not include dividend reinvestment; the total returns with dividends reinvested (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500_Index#Versions) would have been substantially higher, closer to 11%. (With an average total annual return of 11%, and starting with an investment of $170 the first month - that's less than $6 a day - and increasing it 5% each year, you could accumulate over $600,000 over a 30 year working life, or $1,000,000 if you continued investing an additional 5 years, as shown by the spreadsheet graphic on the right). And that's starting at just $6 per day, about the cost of a fancy coffee at Starbucks. Think about that the next time you see a line of young people waiting to order their daily coffee.

To illustrate how much influence stock market volatility fluctuation ("noise") has on the market gains, the Matlab/Octave script SnPsimulation.m adds proportional noise to the compound interest calculation to mimic the S&P data, performs the two curve fitting methods described above, repeats the allocations over and over with independent samples of proportional noise, and then calculates the mean and the relative standard deviation (RSD) of the rates of return. A typical result is:

TrueRateOfReturn = 0.07     
                          Measured Rate  RSD
Coordinate transformation:   0.07112     8.9%
Iterative curve fitting:     0.07972    19.9%

As you can see, the two methods don't agree. In this example, the return calculated by the iterative method is higher, but it could just have easily been the other way. The fact is that the standard deviations are fairly large, and the iterative method always has a higher standard deviation, because it weights the higher values more heavily, where deviations from the line are higher, whereas the log transformation method weights the data more evenly. Even with this uncertainty, investing in a stock market index fund almost always performs better in the long run than more predictable investments such as saving accounts or CDs, which have much lower rates of return.

In investing in the stock market, it's important to focus on the long-term trends and not to be frightened by the short-term up and down fluctuations. It's similar to the difference between weather and climate; the large and dramatic short-term weather variations tend to disguise the much smaller long term climate warming that is slowly melting the icecaps and raising the sea levels (whether it is caused by human activity or by natural causes alone or by a combination of both).

For a spreadsheet template that allows you to calculate the possible returns on long-term investments in stock market mutual funds, see https://terpconnect.umd.edu/~toh/simulations/Investment.html.

Note added in June 2020. The stock market data used above is now several years old. You might be wondering how good those data were at predicting the stock market trends since 2016. Since that time, there have been many market disruptions, in particular the trade wars of 2019 and the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

The recent changes are evident if you take a close look at the period from 2016 to 2020, for which the return over that short period was indeed greater, about 9.5%. These 2019 and 2020 dips, although they were quite sharp and caused a lot of anxiety at the time, recovered quickly and as a result had little effect on the overall long-term performance. When stocks drop, even for well-known and valid reasons, some investors buy shares at the reduced prices, and when stocks rise, especially when they hit all-time highs, some investors sell shares, to "lock in their gains". This behavior acts as a natural brake on the fluctuations of the market. 

If we extend the 1950 - 2016 plot to include the S&P results for the dates up to June 2020, you can see that doing so has remarkably little effect, as seen in the log plot below. The added data are just at the extreme top right-hand corner and those fluctuations are small compared to the previous historical events. The overall average return is still about 7% (without dividend reinvestment). In other words, the 1950 – 2016 data were pretty good predictors of more recent market performance, despite the alarming recent disruptions.

This page is part of "A Pragmatic Introduction to Signal Processing", created and maintained by Tom O'Haver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, The University of Maryland at College Park. Comments, suggestions and questions should be directed to Prof. O'Haver at toh@umd.edu. Updated Srptember, 2022.