Canaries in a Coal Mine: Stocks Sell Off

Since taking over Daily Insights last July 1, the market has gone up steadily at an annualized pace of 19.69 percent through the close of business yesterday. In addition to the substantial gains, volatility for the S&P 500 has been uncharacteristically low.

Naturally, I’m appreciative that we’ve all been able to enjoy a straight-up market, but I’m also realistic and know that it won’t always be like this. It’s normal for stocks to lose value periodically, sometimes for a prolonged period and sometimes sharply.

Even the ‘bad’ markets aren’t that bad. So far this year, for example, the worst performing asset class that we invest in is the Russell Microcap index and it is down -6.35 percent through yesterday. In relative terms, that’s 14.3 percentage points difference from the S&P 500, but in absolute terms it’s not even a correction.

The selloff yesterday in stocks was largely attributed to news about Russian legislators that are apparently drafting laws that would allow the Russian government to seize foreign assets in retaliation for current sanctions. European economies are already weak, so they have the most to lose at this point.

While that news alone wouldn’t normally be enough to have much of an impact on US stocks since the long-term impact on earnings would be minimal, stocks are in a somewhat precarious position.

As we have mentioned before, stocks are somewhat (though not radically) overvalued at this point and we are in the midst of transition in terms of the interest rate regime. Federal Reserve officials were on the stump yesterday, but there were no major surprises.

Of course, the ugliness yesterday might not extend itself at all – this wouldn’t be the first time this year that a few sharp down days failed to turn into something larger.

A strategist at one major Wall Street firm said recently that he watches four indexes that serve as canaries in a coal mine: commodity prices, emerging market stocks, high yield bonds and small-cap stocks.

I didn’t have a chance to do a complete analysis, but those indexes hardly seem like the ones to watch because they are historically more volatile than the overall market and would therefore create a lot of false alarms.

The S&P GSCI Commodity Index, for example, has lost every year since 2011, so it’s either an extremely early warning sign or a terrible indicator.

This may be the beginning of a larger decline, which would be totally natural. I can’t say I welcome a downturn, but I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.

But when you think you know where the market is going, you don’t. Just remember that this was the year that bond returns would suffer as rates rose, and at this point, yields have fallen by a half of a percent on the 10 year US Treasury bond and the Barclays Aggregate bond index is up more than four percent so far this year.

The stock market selloff could be nothing more than the fact that the new iPhone 6+ bends when you put in the front pocket of your skinny jeans, which like the Russian legislation, is likely to be a temporary problem. Just wear ‘relaxed fit’ jeans and the problem’s solved!