Stock rout sparks year-end angst

Elena Popina, Sarah Ponczek and Vildana Hajric
Bloomberg News

If you asked investors a few months ago what they’d remember about this year’s market, it would’ve been the storm of volatility that laid everything low in February.

That episode is starting to seem quaint. While it’s true nothing out of the ordinary is happening to stocks by historical standards, try telling that to traders, who instead of relaxing for the holidays just lived through one of the most trying stretches since the bull market began.

Losses have been unrelenting. In a year of big reversals, equities just notched their worst week since 2011, with the S&P 500 falling 7.1 percent and the Nasdaq Composite descending into a bear market. Equally troubling was the sheer volume descending on exchanges during a typically sleepy stretch.

More: A decade-long rally on Wall Street looks like it’s ending

Whipped up by option expirations, some 27 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges Thursday and Friday, the most for any two-day period in seven years. Trading this week was 40 percent higher than the average before Christmases going back to 2008. The holiday spirit has been replaced by panic.

“If you don’t have a few anxieties in markets like this, I have no response,” said Tom Stringfellow, chief investment officer at Frost Investment Advisors. “The good news is the markets are closed on Christmas.”

It’s been a long time since investors lived through this torturous a decline, a point in explaining their emotional response to volatility that by most standards remains fairly normal. While the Cboe Volatility Index surged above 30 Friday, it remains below its highs in February, late 2015 and during the European debt crisis.

Still, it only took about eight weeks for last winter’s meltdown to reach its nadir. The current sell-off has now lasted 13, and just featured declines of greater than 1.5 percent in five of the last six days. Protracted routs happen – it just takes a lot to remember anything this bad.

“The one at the beginning of the year was incredibly sharp, quick, and resolved itself quickly, and it was related all to the VIX. It took a little while to shake out but it didn’t take too terribly long,” Paul Nolte, a portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management, said by phone. “This has been going on and it’s been persistent now for the full quarter. It’s been a much more persistent decline with very few respites than what we saw in February.”

For some, that means get ready for the big one, perhaps a 20 percent drop that finally ends the longest S&P 500 bull market ever recorded. The index ended within 3 percent of that level Friday. For others all the turbulence smells like opportunity, a chance to find bargains for when the rebound inevitably comes.

“We’re not down here just whining, we’re upbeat, saying, man this thing could have some explosive moves to it,” said Gary Bradshaw, a portfolio manager at Hodges Capital Management in Dallas. “You’re upgrading the portfolio in our opinion. We’re working our tails off but it wouldn’t surprise us to see an explosive rally going into next year. We don’t see any recession on the horizon.”

Heading into the holiday, the market is a compendium of sobering statistics. On the bright side, both losses and volatility remain well within recognizable ranges. The S&P 500 is sitting with a 10 percent decline over the last year, a 20 percent gain over the last three and a 33 percent rally since December 2013. None of it is anything to write home about.

On the other hand, day-to-day moves have been traumatic. In the Nasdaq 100, there have been 17 sessions with losses greater than 1.5 percent this quarter, the most since 2009. The biggest exchange-traded fund tracking momentum stocks is having its worst month, quarter and year since being launched in 2013. Small caps are down 26 percent from a record. The Nasdaq Biotech Index has dropped at least 1 percent on seven straight days, the longest streak since its inception in 1993.

“This reversal, the dramatic turn in the fourth quarter, I don’t think we were expecting,” said Lamar Villere, partner and portfolio manager of Villere Balanced Fund. “I didn’t see that coming – a correction I get – but we’re floored by the magnitude of the shift in sentiment.”

Near the center of the tumult sits the Federal Reserve, whose chairman, Jerome Powell, stuck to script in delivering a rate decision that for the seventh straight time sent stocks lower. Powell raised rates, said the pace may slow next year, and generally refused to offer investors the coddling they’d gotten used to under Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke.

And why should he? By virtually any measure the economy is strong, on pace to deliver growth next year that even by pessimistic forecasts will exceed 2 percent. The median estimate of economists is for the U.S. to add 180,000 jobs to payrolls this month, consumer confidence is close to the highest ever, and S&P 500 earnings are still expected to rise by more than 8 percent.

Powell spoke confidently about the outlook and the result was an 800-point downward swing in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. To some that bespeaks a market that has lost touch with reality.

“I don’t remember December being this bad, which doesn’t make the holidays very wonderful,” said Frank Ingarra, the head trader at NorthCoast Asset Management LLC. “I don’t think people have any semblance of where it’s going in the New Year. When we get more certainty, they will be able to form a better plan and in general digest the news and react to it. Right now, people are still trying to find their feet and figure out what this means.”