I'm guessing that many investors were likely left scratching their heads on Friday. After six straight down days, during which time the sentiment toward the global macro view went from bad to worse, an impressive blast higher occurred on Friday. Out of nowhere and on no real news to speak of, the Dow (DIA) surged 204 points. The move erased fully four days of losses in a single session (with the majority of the rally coming in the first 35 minutes Friday morning) and the indices even managed to finish the week in the plus column. And for those keeping score at home, the S&P 500 is now just 4.5% off of its high water mark for the current bull market cycle, which began on March 9, 2009.
So what gives? Why did traders suddenly put away their fear of what might happen in Europe, how far the global economy might fall, what the economic slowdown will do to earnings, and what the Li(e)bor/JPM/PFG/BLS scandals might do to the trust of those few remaining individual investors in the game?
In order to push the DJIA up more than 200 points, there is usually some event (think EU Summit, Fed move, or important economic report) that acts as a trigger. But in this case, all traders had to work with was word that Italy's sovereign debt rating had been downgraded, a report showing that China's (FXI) GDP continued to slow (to the weakest rates since Q1 2009), JPMorgan's (JPM) earnings report (which confirmed that the bank's losses weren't horrific), a PPI report that suggested the Fed does not have a green light for more QE, and the weakest consumer sentiment number (courtesy of the University of Michigan) of the year.
In short, although the Italian bond auction wasn't bad, there was no single news item that told traders and/or their computers to "Buy 'em!" And while some analysts argued that Friday's joyride to the upside represented a sigh of relief rally in response to the fact that JPM's numbers weren't worse and that China's GDP wasn't falling off a cliff, I believe there was more at work in the market Friday.
Yes, it was a summer Friday, so yes, volume was thin. Yes, there was CLEARLY a large amount of short-covering involved. And yes, the algo's were once again in charge (they usually are). However, I believe it was really the fear of missing out on the next big trade that was behind the move.
Starting on Wednesday of last week, I began suggesting to colleagues that the market had actually "acted" reasonably well in the face of the negative macro picture. On Thursday I even asked readers of my morning market missive to consider a question or three by writing, "With all the bad news, the scandals, the crises, and the HFT-driven market volatility, why then is the S&P 500 just 5.5% from it high water mark for this bull market cycle? If the sky is really falling, why aren't stocks lower? Why is the S&P's weekly chart still in an uptrend? And why has the last hour of the trading day been up in nine of the last ten sessions?"
My point was that it seemed odd to me that stocks hadn't been hit harder over the prior six sessions. Sure, the market was down six days in a row, but the damage really wasn't all that bad. Thus, I opined that traders were buying the dips on an intraday basis because nobody wants to miss out on the next big QE-induced "risk on" trade. Remember, by now everybody on the planet knows how to put on the "risk on" trade (Long stocks - SPY, emerging markets - EEM, oil - USO, copper - JJC, gold -GLD, commodity indices - DBC, junk bonds - JNK and commodity-based currencies - FXA, and then short the dollar - UUP and bonds - TLT), so my guess is that traders simply don't want to miss out on what could very well be the biggest trade of the year.
If the last three summers of discontent has taught traders anything it is that these periods of market mayhem do eventually come to an end - and usually with the idea that the Bernanke cavalry (which includes the central bankers of the world these days) is planning to ride to the market's rescue again. So, stocks reacted positively when the whispers that the PBOC (People's Bank of China) might cut rates again over the weekend. And then when Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart (who is a voting member of the FOMC this year) told an audience on Friday that the "another policy decision looms" and that the FOMC could indeed take further action before the current round of Operation Twist ends, well, fear of missing out took over.
Does this mean that the problems in Europe are solved? Does this mean that the global economy will suddenly improve? Does this mean that the scandals on Wall Street will come to an end? Uh, no. But what it does mean is that if another round of QE is announced (or even hinted at), traders are going to buy what has worked the last three times and push "risk assets" higher. You can count on it.
How long the next QE rally will last is anybody's guess. And nobody really knows if more bond buying will actually help the economy. But from my perch, one thing is for sure... nobody wants to miss out.
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Positions in stocks mentioned: SPY