Turbulence Beneath Still Waters

Tread carefully near new highs as signs point to a transition period.

The S&P 500 is up less than 1.5% so far this year and has basically been bound within a 3% range for the past two months. The VIX is flirting with six month lows near the 13% level. But these numbers don’t tell the tale of the turbulence that’s been occurring beneath the surface. There’s obviously been great divergence as energy got decimated while biotech has surged some 16% for the year. This type of reduced correlation is not necessarily a bad thing, as money managers can try make their bones in a “stock pickers” market and option traders can deploy complex dispersion strategies. But there are signs that the underlying shifting is creating a weakening foundation.

Despite those headline numbers of the VIX and range bound nature of the S&P 500 the index has actually seen an increase in volatility over the past few months in terms of both day to day and intraday price movement.   During February and March there were 9 days that recorded a daily change of 1% or more; 4 up and 5 down. That’s a measurable increase than the monthly average occurrence of 2.5x over the prior three years. This past week added to those numbers as Friday saw a 1.2% decline followed by Monday’s 1.1% surge.

There has also been an increase in intraday volatility as measured by the Daily Average True Range (ATR) which measures the range from a day’s high to its low or from the previous day’s close to today’s high or low.   Over the past month the ATR has lifted by 11%. ATR had already jumped by 33% from last December to February.

So what we have are increase in big one day swings all negating each other within a seemingly low volatility environment. All while we sit within 2% of all-time highs. Typically this type of action occurs at a transition stage. This could easily mean the market is setting up for a new leg higher. Or that it will finally give the bears the long awaited “bad ending” such as Stanley Druckenmiller recently said he “feels in his bones” is coming.

It’s a real tug of war as whether the weirdness of negative interest rates in which Spanish homeowners get paid by the banks for taking out mortgages and China funnels its real estate and infrastructure bubble into the stock market or companies such as Panera (PNRA) can borrow money to buyback stock and boost their market cap by 12% in a single day can continue to inflate asset prices. Or will it indeed “end badly?”

I’ve discussed some of the macro issues such as the strong dollar and the profits vs GDP ratio that has Warren Buffet worried and the various red flags that had been appearing.

I’m not predicting a crash. Just pointing out this recent internal turbulence suggests you tread carefully and think about using some of the ways to protect your portfolio I discussed here.

Photo: Thomas Mueller via photopin (license)

— Steve Smith

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About the Author: Steve Smith