The markets don’t appear ready to make up their minds. Since Friday, April 4, the major indices have swung up and down without appearing to find a sense of identity. Big swings driven largely by shifts in industries perceived to hold growth stocks have shown both big losses and major gains.
Major Indices Drop Sharply
The Nasdaq Composite index had lost over 2.6 percent by 1:30pm ET and appeared to be headed even lower. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was off almost 1.25 percent and the S&P 400 over 1.5 percent over that same period. This comes after alternating two-day stretches of losses (Friday of last week and Monday of this week) and gains (Tuesday and Wednesday).
This is particularly apparent when looking at the movement of the Nasdaq, which contains more tech, biotech, and small-cap stocks than the S&P or DJIA. Friday and Monday combined for a 1.83 percent decline, and reached a bottom of 4,053 on Monday before a last-hour rally pushed it back up. However, Tuesday and Wednesday saw the index regain lost ground as investors appeared to find buying opportunities in the newly cheap growth stocks. The index gained 2.55 percent over those two days, with much of that coming on Wednesday.
However, while Wednesday’s big gains had some believing that the losses on Friday and Monday simple represented a hiccup, the heavy losses taking place today make the overall picture much murkier. On the whole, middling economic data continues to make it difficult to determine to what degree December, January, and February’s data on jobs and economic growth were due to the weather and to what degree they might be a sign of a broader turnaround.
For the time being, the starts and stops of the last five days seem to indicate that traders are anticipating a big move in one direction or the other in the coming weeks; they just aren’t in agreement about which direction the move will be.
Growth Stocks Hit Hard
Thursday’s losses are particularly hard on growth stocks, making it appear as though the shift into a “risk-off” environment may continue. The Russell 2000, the most prominent index of small-cap stocks, was down more than 2 percent in early trading.
A look at some ETFs tracking these stocks shows the flight from high-risk-high-reward plays appears to be driving the market’s broader losses.
The Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN) was off over 5.5 percent heading into the final 90 minutes of trading, the Global X Social Media ETF (SOCL) fell over 3.5 percent, the First Trust DJ Internet Index Fund (FDN) plunged over 3.75 percent, the PowerShares NASDAQ Internet ETF (PNQI) lost just under 4 percent, and the iShares Russell 2000 Growth Index ETF (IWO) was down over 3 percent.
Biotech Continues to Bewilder Investors
Once again, the sector with the most question marks surrounding it continued to be biotech, where stocks were hit the hardest on Thursday.
The price action on these two ETFs and the stocks that they’re composed of leaves the question of a biotech bubble hanging in the air. After a long run of gains, including almost 70 percent last year, many have started to wonder aloud if the entire industry is due for a correction. As such, these big swings have been closely watched for a clue as to where the segment is headed.
Unfortunately for investment professionals, the results remain mixed. Biotech’s big run carried over into 2014, with IBB reaching a peak on February 25 that represented a gain of over 20 percent in just the first two months of the year. However, since that point, the ETF has shed just under 18 percent of its value.
However, the decline has been interrupted by spurts of heavy buying. The index got back 5.35 percent on March 31 and April 1 and 3.64 percent over Wednesday and Thursday, seeming to indicate that for all the sellers there remain at least some investors interested in getting back into these stocks once they reach certain low points.
Market Uncertainty Persists
Meanwhile, these rapid swings have meant the VIX, an index that measures anticipated volatility over the next 30 days amongst stocks on the S&P 500, climbed almost 10 percent today. This would seem to indicate that options traders see the current state of uncertainty leading to a big move in the near future. On the whole, the index is up almost 6.5 percent over the last five days, including an upswing of 8.05 percent over Friday and Monday, an 11.24 percent decline over Tuesday and Wednesday as markets rose, and then today’s huge spike.
This could indicate that the current state of uncertainty is going to ultimately result in a major pullback for the markets. This sort of fluctuation could potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy as investors, unsure of the future, continue shifting into risk-off mode and selling off the growth stocks they poured into over the course of 2013.
However, Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to indicate that there’s at least some following Warren Buffett’s old maxim to “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy while others are fearful.” If enough strength remains in the markets, strength that could potentially get a boost from economic data positive enough to allow people to write off slow growth during winter months as a consequence of the harsh winter weather, these big downturns could just be setting up another run as low share prices create a new chance for value buys.
And all of this is occurring just at the start of earnings season, which clearly has the capacity to swing things in one direction or the other completely on its own. On the whole, while the future remains unclear, it does appear as though April is going to be an interesting month for watching the markets.
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