Volatility Returns

Last month we stated that “we continue to believe that a cyclical bull market is in process. One disquieting feature is that over more than 100 years of stock market history a correction of 10-30% typically occurs before equities rebound to a new high. So far, corrections since March have been about 7%. Consequently, history would support 2010 as being an up and down year, compared to a dramatically positive year in 2009.”

Little did we realize that the up and down for the stock market would commence in January, especially at a time of strong earnings reports. From the high point in mid-January, the S&P 500 has declined over 5%.

A number of factors have contributed to the market’s correction in January, some obvious and at least one that has not been generally discussed. One negative for the market has been the continuing tightening of credit by the Chinese. From a longer term perspective, a more restrictive Chinese monetary policy should be bullish for sustaining growth without exacerbating inflation. Nonetheless, U.S. investors interpret this tightening as a negative for the demand for commodities and oil; hence a recent sell off in stocks associated with these two areas. Next President Obama had some harsh things to say about the banks, including proposals to separate commercial banks and investment banks and a requirement that banks contribute each year to a fund to provide a safety net for any future bank disasters. In response, bank stock prices have declined despite signs that many banks are making progress financially. Uncertainty about the Senate confirmation of Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve Board drove the market lower. Since then, the market rallied on news of his confirmation and then headed down. Worries about the fiscal situation of Greece coming on the heels of Dubai’s financial troubles produced another source of volatility. Meanwhile, a number of positive earnings reports and new product announcements have been greeted by sell offs in stocks reflecting positive news.

In the background though, two other developments have been unfolding. The volatility index (VIX) reached a relatively low point at 17 from last March’s high of 85. Volatility at such a low level was not likely to be sustained. In our opinion, the principal driving force of the current correction is the Elliott Wave Theory, a technical analysis tool, which called for a significant market top in late January. Revelation of this view hit the market just before the aforementioned factors became evident. These factors provided the catalysts to encourage the selling that has so far produced self-fulfillment for the Elliott Wave folks.

Some observers would argue that after a 70% rise the stock market was due for a correction. We agree. Moreover, the consensus has been that the market would rise in the first half of the year and fall in the second half for reasons due to either slowing growth or rising interest rates. Our view is the stock market may be already beginning to worry about both of these prospects. The strong GDP growth for the fourth quarter is not likely to be sustained and at least one member of the Fed would like to raise interest rates. Both of these views were discussed in the media during the past week.

Frankly, we would like to see some pull back in prices to provide more attractive entry points. A 10-20% correction would be constructive after the huge gains of the past year. Investor sentiment would turn more cautious and better values would appear to provide more attractive entry points. Nonetheless, the risks to the outlook are governmental policy errors, a fading economy, re-emergence of financial pressures, and geopolitics.

We believe that a sustained moderate economic recovery will mark 2010 with rising profits. It is the improvement of earnings that will stabilize and possibly improve employment. Moreover, profits growth and new products will provide the alpha for eventual better stock performance. For the time being, it appears that beta (volatility) may trump alpha (return excess to that of the market). We continue to believe an active strategy will be warranted in the months ahead.

A. Marshall Acuff, Jr., CFA
Managing Director
Chair, Cary Street Partners Investment Committee
Cary Street Partners Investment Advisory, LLC