Why are stocks selling off?

First let’s dive in to the mechanics of what’s changed. We were accustomed to a market where there was practically no volatility. Complacency was high and on a technical basis the Dow and S&P were more overbought than at any period since perhaps 1929. In essence euphoria and perhaps even blind optimism were becoming extreme. That condition quickly and violently reversed as more than five trillion dollars of market capitalization have been wiped out by selling since January 26th, 2018.

Volatility has returned

We’re now seeing volatility pick up and equities give back much of their gains over the past several months rapidly. Downward moves are generally faster paced and more intense than moves upward. Easy come, easier go.

That relatively uneventful journey up in most of 2017 is part of the problem with markets right now. During the rise in prices equities didn’t consolidate or correct which led to almost no technical support for buyers.

This is important because when there is volatility, market participants often utilize charts and technical patterns to determine areas of support. But in moves that are parabolic there generally aren’t such areas of technical support on the chart to rely on. So buyers (both human and bots) are more shy to put a bid out.

Fear is a powerful emotion

When volatility picks up and losses accumulate, speculators that used leverage (debt) to buy equities are often hit the hardest, forced to liquidate their positions. When this sort of activity crescendos with other investors panicking we typically see a capitulation selling event. I’m not certain we’ve seen that event as of yet, though. The market will have to demonstrate whether or not it has buyers here.

An example of how powerful fear can be is how inverse volatility index (VIX) ETFs have imploded in the wake of volatility returning to markets, meaning buyers who bet against intense trading price ranges were essentially wiped out. This trade worked well for years — until one day it didn’t.

These dislocations are not enough to create a full on selling panic on their own. Instead they are representative of instruments that were too heavily bought in to on the long side unraveling as the markets normalize to higher levels of volatility.

Bots are not buyers during sell-offs

High frequency trading bots have overtaken humans as the largest component of buying and selling volume for US equities. That seems efficient in theory, but the problem we see is when the selling intensifies the bots stop bidding. That allows declines to intensify as those wishing to exit will be fighting against a larger spread and less buy-side liquidity.

Indeed, during the last week we’ve seen situations where smaller lots were moving markets up and down by handles, rather than ticks. That’s the sort of activity one expects in an illiquid and immature market. Yet we are seeing it on a continuing basis here in the US with its extremely deep and previously liquid stock markets.

Technically speaking

Zooming out to a 30,000ft perspective, we haven’t seen any truly significant selling. Even though many points have been lost on major indices, this selling event is relatively normal. The pace of it is a bit intense, but for a maturing bull market one should expect increasing volatility along with leadership consolidation.

S&P 500 technical analysis

The S&P 500 appears to be hitting a lower area of support. Watching to see whether cautious buyers come in for a move more substantive than a “dead cat bounce” is crucial in determining whether or not the downward move is ending or if there is more to go. If we move meaningfully down from here across the US equity indices I believe we are going to see much more significant selling pressure and volatility.

It’s almost entirely about rates

The selling intensity and loss of confidence in bidding up equities seems to be tied to increasing rates on the longer end of the yield curve. Related to that development is that inflation expectations are beginning to change and concerns are rising. That is to say, bond buyers may be questioning whether a 10 year bond at 2.851% is a fair interest rate or if perhaps a higher rate is justified based on what the rate of inflation may be over the next 10 year period. If buyers commit to an interest rate that is lower than inflation they walk away with a loss when the coupon matures.

While the yield curve has had a flattening spread for several years — it is beginning to steepen again. Higher interest rates are also inducing higher borrowing costs for mortgages, margin debt as well as other variable rate debts and could compress consumer spending as well as market buy-side participation. Borrowing costs are one of the most important factors in market psychology as well as interest earned on presumably safe government bonds.

That means if the 10 year bond continues higher, say at 3% or more, then many equity participants may re-balance their portfolio away from equities and more towards US Treasury bonds. Assuming other shorter dated bonds were not as well bought, that change would steepen the yield curve which would also potentially assist lenders in capturing a larger interest rate delta between the short term borrowing they engage in vs. the long term lending at higher rates.

On the other side of that, if yields peak and meaningfully decline then there is a fair chance that a bid returns to the equity markets and they move meaningfully higher. Whether or not stocks are able to make a higher high in prices is the most important technical consideration for maintaining a healthy bull market uptrend.

Economic development trajectory

If economic data begins to slow meaningfully, which it may with higher rates, that is another area where weakness may be demonstrated as a result of reduced economic participant confidence. Such slowdowns often happen as rates increase and borrowing costs rise at the end of a business cycle. The most leveraged companies, states, cities and private debt holders are hit the hardest.

Closing thoughts

As I told a friend, the “crisis” now is that there is a lack of a crisis to keep crisis-level accommodations flowing. In essence the central bank liquidity spigots are slowing and commercial lending is taking a breather. The Fed has also recently made it clear that the “Powell Put” is at much lower price levels.

These developments impact both equity markets and real-world economic activity.  I’ll be watching the economic data releases, interest rate complex, especially 10 year yields and junk bonds, to see where equities may go from here.