What does the stock sell-off mean?

By Felix Salmon
August 4, 2011
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At 8:30 tomorrow morning, the July jobs report will come out, and it’s almost certainly going to be pretty miserable, with headline employment growth of maybe 100,000 new jobs, significantly less than needed just to keep up with population growth. The jobs report is rightly renowned as the most market-moving of all economic indicators, and so market action in the immediate wake of its release is closely watched.

What’s going on here? If anybody tries to tell you we’re seeing “fears of a double-dip recession,” or somesuch, ignore them. Fears of a double-dip recession do not appear overnight, and do not send markets down 3.5% in the course of a morning. When vague “fears” are cited as the prime reason for a sell-off, you can be sure that in fact there’s no reason at all. Markets are volatile things, and sometimes this kind of thing happens. If you can’t stand it, you shouldn’t be invested in stocks in the first place.

One thing you can be sure of: all tomorrow’s reports about how markets have reacted to the employment report should be taken with an enormous pinch of salt. At this point, it’s impossible to know what’s priced in and what isn’t, and in any case this kind of volatility would normally last a second day in any case. Whatever markets do tomorrow, they might well have done anyway even if the employment report hadn’t come out.

If markets hadn’t moved much today and instead this sell-off had happened tomorrow, it’s certain that everybody would blame the employment report, no matter how good it was. It’s one of the basic tenets of market reporting: if markets move on the day that non-farm payrolls are released, then there’s always a direct causal relationship between the move and the report.

So it’s worth remembering, on days like this, that sometimes we don’t know why markets have moved, and sometimes there simply is no reason.

But that said, a couple of things are worth noting.

Firstly, this is not necessarily a Bad Thing. If you’re saving for retirement, stocks are cheaper now, and your 401(k) contribution goes further than it did a few weeks or months ago. That’s good.

Secondly, if there ever were serious doubts about the USA’s creditworthiness, they’re gone now. The 10-year bond is yielding less than 2.5%: there are no worries in evidence there.

Put those two things together, and you can even be quite happy about today’s sell-off. If you’re a debtor rather than a saver, then falling interest rates are good for you. If you want to buy a house, then falling mortgage rates — not to mention falling home prices — are also good news. And if you want to invest in some wonderful future income stream, then money’s cheap right now to do so.

Still, the future of the global economy is very uncertain, and southern Europe in particular is still far from any kind of sustainable resolution. The US economy has no particular exposure to Greece — but Italy is another matter entirely. This is a global sell-off, with European markets down just as much as those in the US; Asia’s sure to follow suit when it opens. Now that the Fed has stopped dropping dollar bills on the US economy, it’s hard to see where confidence and optimism are going to come from in the coming months.

In general, I’m not a fan of extrapolating broad macroeconomic hopes and fears from the first derivative of the S&P 500. We’re at 1,220 right now: that’s low compared to the 1,350 of a few weeks ago, but it’s high compared to the 1,120 we saw a year ago — and certainly compared to the 735 we saw at the depths of the sell-off in 2009. If you look at levels rather than deltas, there doesn’t seem to be any big reason to worry — the stock market is showing a reasonably healthy optimism about future long-term growth.

Which, of course, just means that there’s a lot further to fall if we are indeed headed into a double-dip recession.

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