Plummeting US markets put traders on watch

Of all the threats, surging Treasury rates and their implications for inflation are vexing investors the most

A screen above the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the closing number for the Dow Jones industrial average, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. The stock market closed sharply lower, extending a weeklong slide, as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 600 points. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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For almost a decade, investors have waited patiently for any hint of inflation in the US economy, a sign the recovery can sustain itself without emergency stimulus from the Federal Reserve.

Now they’re getting it, and many are shocked at the reaction.

It landed last week with the worst stock market plunge since January 2016. A stronger-than-expected employment report with signs of strengthening wage growth sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 666 points on Friday, bringing its five-day loss to almost 1,100 points. Share volatility surged.

Accounts of how concerned investors should be ran the gamut, from confidence traders will rush in and buy the dip, to warnings this time is different - that sell-offs that begin in the bond market have a habit of snowballing.

“It is now signalling, potentially, the end of this eight-year bull rally,” said Rich Weiss, chief investment officer and senior portfolio manager of multi-asset strategies at American Century Investments. The firm manages $179 billion. “The Fed is going to have to move the interest rates, the bond market is recognising that this incremental economic growth will spur on inflation from various sources.”

Little escaped the sell-off. All 11 industries in the S&P 500 tumbled, a co-ordinated plunge that had not happened since the month of Donald Trump's election. Yields on 10-year Treasuries surged as much as 6 basis points on Friday to 2.85 per cent, the highest in four years. Oil dropped and the Bloomberg Commodity Index capped its biggest weekly slide in two months.

Of all the threats, surging Treasury rates and their implications for inflation are vexing investors the most, with this year’s half-percentage-point climb calling into question a valuation case on equities tied to how much more you get from corporate earnings than in bond interest. For last week, anyway, nobody seemed to care about the ostensibly positive signals coming from the bond market, the idea that higher yields bespeak rising demand for money among borrowers.

“It’s kind of a strange time and we seem to be driven by a fear of what everyone wants, and that’s higher rates,” said Joe “JJ” Kinahan, the chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade. “Higher rates confirm a stronger economy, and the market was very afraid of that all week long. And that’s been a big reason for selling.”

Strategies that worked for years buckled in the rout. So-called short-volatility, in which traders bet that share turbulence will remain restrained, reversed, as Friday’s 29 per cent spike in the Cboe Volatility Index on Friday triggered a 13 per cent plunge in the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures exchange-traded fund. About 27 million shares changed hands, the most since the Brexit vote.

An irony for bulls is that the sell-off arrived amid one of the best rounds of corporate earnings upgrades ever seen in the S&P 500. Combined estimates for 2018 profits among companies in the index have gone from $145.90 a share on December 15 to $156.20 on Friday, a rate of increase that is four times faster than any stretch since at least 2012, data compiled by Bloomberg show.


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In theory, the increase should help assuage fear bred by charts of the US stock market’s price-earnings ratio. Using profits from the last 12 months, companies in the S&P 500 are trading for 22.5 times income, a level that since the dot-com bubble burst is matched only during the aftermath of the financial crisis, when earnings were close to nothing.

Using 2018 estimates, on the other hand, stocks fetch a slightly sturdier multiple of 17.7, while going out to the 2019 forecast of $172.30 takes the P/E down to 16.

“During the core of earnings season, stocks almost always react to whatever their earnings announcements are, and broadly, earnings were positive,” said Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones. “But as investors worry about whether this is enough and whether it can continue, we’re likely to keep seeing stocks become more volatile.”

Central to the current anxiety is how far stocks have come in so short a time. Last month’s 5.6 per cent gain in the S&P 500 was the biggest for any January since 1997, and using the index’s total return it has now risen for 15 straight months. Friday’s selloff finally ended a streak of 404 days in which the S&P 500 sailed along without a 3 per cent decline from any previous point, a record in data going all the way back to 1928.

Michael Purves, Weeden & Co's chief global strategist, says investors should get used to turbulence given the strength of the market’s run-up. But it shouldn’t derail a bull market that is seven months away from becoming the longest ever.

‘‘I’ll bet you a bag of donuts that by Wednesday or Thursday of next week the equity market starts finding its footing against the backdrop of more stable bond yields,” Mr Purves said. “And then, like any bottoming process, the market tests it and tests it again and then all of a sudden, boom, new buyers come in.”

“The overall complexion here is that earnings have been pretty robust, economic data is holding together well, inflation is starting to pick up - there’s nothing really different in terms of an overall bull trend,” he said. “We were way over extended on the way up, we were so immune to it. I think we could get another 2 per cent or 3 per cent down. That would retract back to December levels when things went bonkers.”