For a while on Monday morning, it began to feel like the holidays had started early. While stocks had opened down on some new weak data in Europe, the indices recovered relatively quickly. No, make that almost instantaneously, as the opening down draft lasted a total of two minutes. And after the requisite rebound, things got fairly quiet for a couple of hours.
But then it happened. Out of the blue and on absolutely no discernible news, the S&P 500 dove 8 points in 8 minutes. We checked our news wire sources and found nothing. We checked the major financial sites. Nada. We checked our Twitter feed. Zip. Heck, we even turned the sound up on the television for a while. But, yep, you guessed it; there was no explanation for the sudden dive picture below.
In short, the chart shows sell algos in action. This is what happens during the day when you are in a meeting, on the phone, or at lunch. Regardless of how quiet things are, there is always a computer-driven trade ready to be dropped.
And on a day when there were already “technical difficulties” in the market, the 6100 eMini’s that were sold in 1 second at 12:20:05 (hat tip to Eric Scott Hundsader of Nanex) were simply too much for the market to handle. This “out of the blue” action is represented by the first red box in the chart below.
S&P 500 – 1-Minute
The game of Dump the eMini’s continued about an hour later. But this time around there were some “excuses” associated with the selling – namely the ongoing dive in oil and what was turning into a pretty intense smack-down in the social media names.
The second red box shows another 13 S&P points coming off the index as the waves of selling just kept on coming on, oh that’s right… no news.
So fans, this is what happens when the boyz and their high-powered computer toys try to get ahead of the game. Or in this case, it may have been more a case of traders knowing that buyers would be standing aside. You see, with the market having run a very long way in a very short period of time, sellers knew that they probably had a free pass for a while. So, with buyers fidgeting on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets, the action depicted in the second red box tends to occur.
The Oil Argument
To hear traders tell it, yesterday’s intraday dive was tied to oil breaking down to fresh new lows. Apparently oil fell to levels not seen since February 2009 on… well, nothing new really, just more selling. But while consumers may be rejoicing, our furry friends in the bear camp tell us that the ongoing decline in oil is bad – perhaps even very bad.
First there is the argument that falling oil prices will kill the shale/fracking boom and all the job growth that goes along with it.
As the thinking goes, lower prices will cause the highly levered/marginal players to go belly up. In turn, this will lead to defaults on junk bonds. Perhaps even a lot of defaults in junk bonds.
US Oil Fund (NYSE: USO) – Daily
Why should investors in the stock market care, you ask? Well, here’s the rub. Those defaults will eventually come home to roost in the banking system. And as everyone learned in 2008, anything that threatens the banking system is a problem.
All those investors who didn’t manage risk very well in ’08 have since made it their life’s work to never get fooled like that again. And as such, everyone and their uncle is looking for the next thing that could damage the banking system.
Frankly, the idea of oil companies in North Dakota bringing down the banking system seems like a monumental stretch. But there are a couple other worries on this topic worth noting.
Falling Oil is NOT Good For Emerging Markets
The decline in oil prices means less revenues to all oil producing countries. But unlike Saudi Arabia, not all oil producers are in a state of strong fiscal health. And in places like Iraq and Syria, falling prices will hurt their ability to fight ISIS. Thus, the next logical progression is that if prices continue to fall, so too might some governments. This, of course, would lead to more unrest in the Middle East. Joy.
Then there is the financial ramifications to the oil producing countries. While places like Qatar and Kuwait have plenty of cash on hand and don’t need high oil prices in order to keep the country’s finances in order, an analysis of the fiscal breakeven oil price relative to a country’s debt is very interesting.
According to a study done by MEES, IMF and Citi Research, Saudi Arabia needs oil at $103 in order to balance their budget in 2015. Russia needs $107. Oman requires $103. So, $60 might be a problem for these countries, right?
But here is where it gets interesting/scary. Libya needs oil at $184 to balance their budget. Venezuela is at $151 and Iran needs $131. Therefore, $60 is likely a VERY big problem here!
Therefore, the thinking is that either oil prices will find a way to move back up or many of these countries will fall on hard times. And what happens when these countries fall on hard times? Oh, that’s right, they start to default on their sovereign debt. And what happens to the financial markets when countries start to default? The short answer is, nothing good.
So, while many view falling oil as the next great thing for the U.S. economy, the fear is that the resulting fallout around the globe might not be so positive. Therefore, it might be best to steer clear of junk bonds, emerging markets equities and emerging market bonds for a while until things settle down.
Turning To This Morning
If the worries about the decline in oil and the potential ripple effects in the emerging markets weren’t enough, today traders have a new reason to fret: China. Chinese stocks, currency, and corporate bonds all suffered their biggest declines in years Tuesday in response to changes in regulations regarding collateral rules. The rule change took investors by surprise and served as a reminder that the country’s financial system may have serious risks. In addition, there is talk that China’s growth target may be lowered to 7% from 7.5% in the coming days. The Shanghai Composite plunged -5.4%, its biggest one-day percentage decline in over five years (although it is important to note that the index had surged approximately 25% over the last month). In Europe, worries over Greece are back (yes, again) as Greek stocks are down -10% at mid-day and all the major Europe indices are off more than 1%. Here at home, speculation about what the Fed will or won’t say at the 12/17 meeting continues to weigh on sentiment. Traders fear that the “considerable time” language may be removed from the FOMC statement, suggesting that rates could begin to rise before the consensus expectation of June 2014. U.S. stock futures currently point to a negative open on Wall Street.