The Standard and Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) broke out on Monday to set a new all-time high, but that was only the beginning of a very bullish week for stocks. SPX closed today at $2500, the fourth new all-time high this week.
Trading volume of the S&P 500 companies trended right at or just above the 50 day moving average (dma) all week, but spiked much higher today, up to 3.0 billion shares, as compared to the 50 dma at 1.9 billion shares. Today’s spike higher was due to what is called “quadruple witching”, the expiration Friday each quarter when stock index futures, stock index options, stock options, and single stock options all expire. This has always resulted in a high trading volume day in the markets.
The recent trends in the S&P 500 trading volume may be instructive. If we ignore the quadruple witching exception today, this week’s trading volume, as the market hit new all-time highs, was lower than last week, as the market was faltering. That tells me that traders are primarily focused on a fear of correction and avoiding losses. Market commentary this week seemed to focus on rationalizing why the market continues higher in spite of congressional dysfunction and North Korea’s saber rattling.
Last week, traders were worried about hurricane damages, and the week closed with everyone focused on North Korea’s Founders day on Saturday and what the short fat tyrant might do to celebrate. But Monday came and it was a rerun of Happy Days. The hurricanes were suddenly ancient history and even after North Korea launched another ICBM last night, and London endured another terrorist attack before the market opened this morning, the market remained ebullient.
The Russell 2000 Index (RUT) took a breather last week from its remarkable bullish run that started in late August. RUT joined its big brother indices this week and ran higher, but the difference is that Russell remains well short of its all-time highs that were set back in July. The collapse of RUT from July 28th to August 21st covered 6.4% - near market correction territory. Its run higher since then has been significant, up 5.4%, but it had a lot more to recover than SPX and the NASDAQ Composite. RUT closed today at $1432, well short of the $1450 close on August 25th. RUT seems to be behaving as the leveraged version of the S&P 500 Index. In one sense, this isn’t surprising since RUT is made up of higher beta stocks, but the behavior over the past several weeks seems extreme.
The NASDAQ Composite’s price action this week is unlike SPX or RUT. NASDAQ closed today at $6448, attempting unsuccessfully twice this week to break the resistance level set by the opening high of $6460 on July 27th.
NASDAQ trading volume was similar to SPX, trading at or just under the 50 dma all week, with the exception of today’s quadruple witching volume spike.
Market volatility remains historically low. The volatility Index for the Standard and Poors 500 Index, VIX, moved lower all week, closing today at 10.2%. I read and heard market analysts this week expressing concern that such low levels of volatility must be predicting a correction, but they are proving the old adage that the market can continue trading however it wishes far longer than your money will last.
I displayed the price charts for SPX, RUT and NASDAQ for the past 18 months and looked for the overall long-term trend. The differences were intriguing. Russell has run steadily higher since March 2016, but has largely traded sideways since May. However, Russell takes the prize for price volatility. NASDAQ displays a solid uptrend from July 2016 through July of this year, but is largely flat for the past six weeks or so. The S&P 500 has the steadiest and most consistent upward trend line from March 2016 to today’s close. This index price chart comparison reinforces the conclusion that the overall market trend is bullish, but far from a high trading volume, “risk off” or “all in” bull market. Market participants are enjoying their gains but worried that it has gone too high, too fast. We see rapid dips that are just as quickly bought back to recover the bullish trend. The more defensive stocks of the S&P 500 display the steadiest and most consistent bullish trend. The bulls are in control, but they are also nervous. Congressional dysfunction and North Korea are the “monsters in the closet”. Continue to trade largely from a bullish posture, but keep your stops tight. Don’t short this market. I was protecting my portfolio with long index puts last Friday and was burned on Monday as the markets shrugged off all worries to run higher.