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So Much for a Quiet Half-Day


Chief Strategist at Interactive Brokers

Traders are not normally big fans of the day after Thanksgiving.  A Depression-era act of Congress prohibits the stock markets from being closed for more than 3 days in a row, so at least some of us need to trudge in (or log in) for what is normally a quiet morning of digesting last night’s turkey and avoiding Black Friday shopping.  This year – pass the antacid.  Today is anything but a normal somnolent short session.

The world woke up to the news that a new Covid mutation has been discovered in South Africa, and that the new virus has already made it to other parts of the world.  While there is much that we don’t know about the mutation – whether it is more or less virulent, whether it is more or less likely to spread, and whether the existing vaccines protect us against the spread – markets have a “shoot-first, ask questions later” mentality about Covid.  Think about the risk/reward calculus.  If this is indeed a catastrophic new mutation, the socioeconomic effects will be profound. 

Part of today’s market reaction comes from the market resolving some of the one-way bets that have permeated investors’ mentalities.  When one-way trades end, they do so with a thud.  There was seemingly no doubt about the relentless rise of interest rates as global central banks reduced their monetary accommodation.  Instead, US 2-Year note yields are up over 14 basis points to yield below 0.5%  Stocks were rising because of the TINA trade – that there was no alternative to investing in blue-chip equities.  Someone seems to be looking for alternatives today, with most global markets over 2% lower.  Commodities, and the stocks that benefit from them, were rising because global demand was resuming apace in the post-Covid economy.  Most commodity futures are trading sharply lower, with oil down almost 10%.  Do we still need a release of strategic reserves?

I believe that part of today’s volatility, at least in the US, is related by the expiration of weekly options.  In an interview earlier this week, I noted “The high levels of call speculation combined with thin holiday liquidity could create some wacky situations around the close.”   My logic centered upon the idea that even though options trading was lighter than usual this week, it was still substantial relative to normal holiday weeks.  That extra volume and open interest had a high potential to add to volatility in a thin-volume session.  I didn’t expect wacky situations around the open and throughout the shorter day, though.   The nearly 50% rise in VIX was another clue that at least some traders found themselves with far less volatility protection than they really wanted.  Remember that VIX is the market’s best estimate of volatility over the coming 30 days.  An unknown Covid strain would certainly be expected to add volatility to markets over the near term.

As noted earlier, without any real scientific knowledge of the new strain, we have no way of knowing whether this will prove to be another difficult front on the war against this disease.  If it proves to be relatively benign, then we will be able look back at this yet another opportunity for traders to buy the dip.  Until then, I urge traders to do something that I have often done during other sharp drops.  Think about your risk tolerance on a day like today.  If you could handle a drawdown of this magnitude with little stress, then you are likely to be investing with the proper amount of risk tolerance to suit your needs.  If a day like today freaks you out or causes a more substantial drawdown in your portfolio, then you should consider this another reminder that you are taking on more risk than you are comfortable with.  Today’s drop should be yet another reminder that hedging should be done in anticipation of potential risks, not in reaction to them.  

Disclosure: Interactive Brokers

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