Wall Street has whiplash.
“Two months ago, I didn’t think there was any chance we’d slip into a recession in 2020,” said Chris Gaffney, president of the world markets division of TIAA Bank. Now? “There is that risk, though personally I think we’ll avoid it,” Gaffney, a self-described optimist, said.
Many other market watchers describe experiencing similar feelings of shock as the market plunges and soars and plunges again. “I don’t recall such a rapid change in sentiment over such a short period of time,” said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers. “Even the [historic] 1987 crash had been preceded by some selling in the prior weeks.”
At Friday’s close, leading U.S. indexes were down for the day, with the S&P 500 having lost 51.54 (1.7%), the Dow Jones Industrials off by 256.50 (0.98%), the Nasdaq having ceded 162.98 (1.9%), and the Russell 2000 off by 29.63 (2.0%).
And at the end of a turbulent week, markets overall were down from where they opened on Monday. The S&P 500 lost 177.77 (3.8%) for the week, the Dow lost 838.54 (3.1%), the Nasdaq slipped 376.55 (4.2%), and the Russell 2000 lost 69.30 (4.6%).
To Sosnick, stocks currently look like they are experiencing a blow-off top: a rapid ascent followed by an up-and-down series of slides and partial rebounds, and finally a big drop as was the case in 2007 to 2009 or 2000 to 2002. Potential signs of such an event have been visible since January.
“People are too freaked out [and] worried about their physical well-being,” Sosnick said. “Until the fear abates and we return to rationality, we’re going to be disjointed.”
In an emotion-laden atmosphere, modeling what will happen is at best difficult and may be impossible. Traders, market strategists, and investors typically depend on hard information to guide their steps. At the moment, though, that is futile.
“Hard data is virtually meaningless,” said Frank Rybinski, director of macro strategy at Aegon Asset Management. Friday morning’s jobs report for February seemed strong with 273,000 jobs added last month combined upward revisions of an additional 85,000 jobs between December 2019 and January 2020.
But the survey takes place in the week that contains the 12th of a month, which meant the second week in February.
The S&P 500 was close to an all-time high the following week and yields on 10-year Treasurys ranged between 1.56% and 1.62%. Today, the S&P is down almost 11% from that high and the 10-year Treasury closed Thursday at 0.92%—a record low and deep into negative real returns after taking inflation into account.
“The bond market is telling you that there’s greater risk of the US economy heading into recession,” said Dean Kim, executive director of equity research at brokerage firm William O’Neill & Co.
“What’s more important than the hard government data we usually use is sentiment data,” Rybinski said—warning statements from companies and consumer and corporate attitudes in surveys. Even the latter is largely lagging in time.
On the plus, there are signs that many investors aren’t succumbing to panic but, instead, looking to quickly mitigate risks.
“In the universe we’ve tracked, people have learned not to over react in the current climate with central banks pumping out money at the drop of a hat,” said Cameron Brandt, director of research at Informa Financial Intelligence EFPR, which tracks global funds flows and asset allocation. He’s seen “larger than average” selloffs of equities but says, compared to other events like the “height of Sino-U.S. tensions last year, they still seem muted.”
The reason may be lessons learned since the Great Recession. “If you bail out of any reasonably credible asset classes, the march upward will continue,” Brandt said. Once investors cash out, they are left with a slow loss of value from inflation.
Even with big sell offs in the last few weeks, “it was more risk assessment than complete capitulation,” Brandt added. People were shifting money to safer assets, like government bonds, where more demand from investors drives down yields.
Gold also became more attractive. “It’s a kind of a fear gauge,” Gaffney said. “When you see [money] go into gold, that’s a longer-term investment typically and it’s an indication to us that the rout is going to have legs.”
That is the main, and discouraging, message.
“There’s going to be, unfortunately, more to come as this virus spreads,” Gaffney said. Many market watchers told Fortune they would not be surprised to see inflation creeping up as well as more rate cuts. “The market is expecting the Fed to cut 25 basis points [or 0.25 percentage points] in April and another 25 in June,” Kim said.
At the end of the day, “You can’t blame everyone for trying to de-risk their portfolios and hide in the safe havens for now until we can get a better handle on the impact this is going to have on the economy,” Gaffney said.
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