Can U.S. shares hold up in the wake of January’s shocks?
On January 7, China halted stock trading for the second time in four days. The benchmark Shanghai Composite sank 7.0% on January 4 and dropped 7.3% three days later, both times activating a new circuit-breaker rule that stopped the trading session.1
Markets worldwide fell in reaction to these dramatic plunges. On January 7 alone, Japan’s Nikkei 225 and Germany’s DAX both suffered selloffs of 2.3%. On the same day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost the 17,000 level and the S&P 500 closed below 2,000.1,2,3
While the Dow and S&P respectively lost 2.3% and 2.4% Thursday, the Nasdaq Composite lost 3% and actually corrected from its July record settlement of 5,218.86.3
Why is China’s stock market slipping? You can cite several reasons. You have the well-noted slowdown of the country’s manufacturing sector, its rocky credit markets, and the instability in its exchange rate. You have Chinese concerns about the slide in oil prices, heightened at the beginning of January by the erosion of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. You have China’s neighbor, North Korea, proclaiming that its arsenal now includes the hydrogen bomb. Finally, you have a wave of small investors caught up in margin trading and playing the market “like visitors to the dog track,” as reporter Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker. More than 38 million new retail brokerage accounts opened in China in a three-month period in 2015, shortly after the Communist Party spurred households to invest in stocks. Less than 10 million new brokerage accounts had opened in China in all of 2014.1,4
In trying to calm its markets, China may have done more harm than good. Chinese officials spent more than $1 trillion in 2015 to try and reassure investors, and right now they have little to show for it. Interest rates have been lowered; the yuan has been devalued again and again. The government has also made two abrupt (and to some observers, questionable) moves.2
Last July, they barred all shareholders owning 5% or more of a company from selling their stock for six months. That ban was set to expire on January 8, and that deadline stirred up bearish sentiment in the market this week. The prohibition was just renewed, with modifications, for three more months.4
On January 4, the China Securities Regulatory Commission instituted a circuit-breaker rule that would pause trading for 15 minutes upon a 5% market dive and end the trading day when stocks slumped 7% or more. On January 7, the CSRC scrapped the rule amid criticism that it was being triggered too easily; Thursday ended up being the shortest trading day in the history of China’s stock market. In the view of Hao Hong, chief China strategist at Bocom International Holdings, the circuit-breaker rule clearly backfired: it produced a “magnet effect,” with selloffs accelerating and liquidity evaporating as prices approached the breaker.1,2
As Peking University HSBC Business School economics professor Christopher Balding commented to Quartz, the CSRC seems to lack sufficient understanding of “what markets are, how they work or how they are going to react.” Quite possibly, China will make further dramatic moves to try and reduce stock market volatility this month. Will U.S. stocks rally upon such measures? Possibly, possibly not.2
Wall Street is contending with other headwinds. The oversupply of oil continues: according to Yardeni Research, world crude oil output rose 2.4% in the 12 months ending in November to a new record of 95.2 million barrels a day.1
Additionally, the pace of American manufacturing is a worldwide concern. In December, the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing PMI showed sector contraction (a reading under 50) for a second straight month. Factory orders were down for a thirteenth consecutive month in November (the first time a streak of declines that long has occurred outside of a recession) and the November durable goods orders report also disappointed investors.1,5
Citigroup maintains an Economic Surprise Index – a measure of the distance between analyst forecasts and actual numbers for various economic indicators. It just touched lows unseen since early last year, not a good sign as equities tend to react the most to surprises.1
If the Labor Department’s December employment report and the upcoming earnings season live up to expectations, stocks might recover from this descent even if China does little to stem the volatility in its market. The greater probability is that more market turmoil lies ahead. That short-term probability should not dissuade an investor from the long-run potential of stocks.
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1 – cbsnews.com/news/7-reasons-the-dow-lost-17000/ [1/7/16]
2 – qz.com/588386/chinas-new-stock-market-circuit-breaker-is-broken-and-it-is-panicking-investors/ [1/7/16]
3 – usatoday.com/story/money/markets/2016/01/06/china-stocks/78390650/ [1/7/16]
4 – latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-a-reminder-china-s-stock-market-is-a-clown-show-20160107-column.html# [1/7/16]
5 – briefing.com/investor/calendars/economic/2016/01/04-08 [1/7/16]