Stocks mostly finished lower on Wednesday in what was another round of head-fake headlines out of Ukraine. Since this all started earlier this year, there have been multiple iterations of this. But Wall Street seems to fall for it every time.
You know, like when stocks rallied when Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he wasn’t interested in Crimea and that there were no Russian troops there? That was false. Or when stocks dropped in early August on reports of a Russian military convoy being destroyed by Ukrainian forces? No evidence ever surfaced.
This time, stocks jumped at the open on overnight reports of a “permanent cease-fire” deal between Moscow and Kiev. As the details emerged, folks realized that the ebullience in the overnight futures session was overdone. There was no cease-fire deal; merely the agreement of a peace framework that essentially just gives Moscow what it wants.
With pro-Russian separatist moving in on key strategic assets, including the port city of Mariupol, as NATO hurries up to get troops into Ukraine under the guise of a “training exercise,” all of this just looks like more propaganda. Stocks wilted as this became clear.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended up less than 0.1% and the S&P 500 fell 0.1%. The Nasdaq closed down 0.6% as a big drop in Apple (AAPL) ahead of the iPhone 6 unveiling pulled down the entire tech sector. The ongoing iCloud celebrity photo hacking scandal is also cited as an overhang. And the Russell 2000 lost 0.6%.
At the sector level, the day’s trade had a defensive flavor as utilities and health care led the way with gains of 0.6% and 0.4%, respectively. Crude oil jumped 2.6%. Breadth was negative, with 1.2 decliners for every advancing issue on the NYSE.
Besides the fluid situation in Ukraine, investors are looking ahead to Thursday’s European Central Bank (ECB) decision where a combination of falling inflation, faltering growth, and still high unemployment has expectations running high that ECB President Mario Draghi will unleash a large quantitative easing purchase program.
Alberto Gallo at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) said he believes folks are getting ahead of themselves on this, setting the stage for some disappointment. For technical and legal reasons, a more likely outcome is a small rate cut of 0.1% — pushing the ECB’s policy rate deeper into negative territory. Gallo is also looking for a teasing of an asset-backed securities purchase program that probably won’t be ready to launch until December. Again, all of this will probably prove to be a disappointment for the stimulus junkies on Wall Street.
Still, there is no denying the strength of the U.S. economy with auto sales jumping to their best level since January 2006 at a 17.5 million seasonally adjusted annual rate in August. We’ll see if that strength translates into another strong jobs report when the latest payroll gains are reported on Friday. We’ll have a preview of that via the private sector ADP report on Thursday.
And finally, it’s worth noting that something about September seems to be bothering investors. You can see that in the way the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has been creeping higher over the past two weeks and is challenging its 50-day moving average for the first time since July.
September’s poor seasonality might have something to do with this. It’s one of the poorer performing months of the year historically, with an average loss of 0.5% for the S&P 500 since 1950. Moreover, September has been the site of some large-scale pullbacks, including a 7.2% drop in 2011, a 9.1% drop in 2008, an 11% drop in 2002, and an 8.2% drop in 2001. September was also a down month for four years in a row through 2002.
With key market areas including mega-cap stocks and junk bonds stalling at overhead resistance from the June/July highs, and given poor seasonality and potential negative catalysts, one gets the feeling that some volatility is about to hit a market filled with overly calm and complacent investors.
You can see this in the way the Investors Intelligence Bull-to-Bear Ratio has surged to new highs as the number of bears fell to the lowest level since 1987.
In response, I’m recommending investors look at possible short side or put option plays in names like General Electric (GE), which is melting below its 200-day moving average in what looks to be a significant loss of strength. I’ve added the September $26 puts to my Edge Sample Portfolio.
Disclosure: Anthony has recommended GE puts to his clients.