There’s no reason why stocks are down today

By Felix Salmon
September 22, 2011

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the global economy, and that’s the kind of thing which makes stocks volatile. This morning, we’re seeing that volatility express itself, with global stocks all falling and US stocks down about 2.5% from where they closed yesterday.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there’s any particular reason why global stocks are falling. And especially, let’s not try to invent some spurious reason for the fall, be it broad and inchoate (“global economy fears”) or weirdly specific (“Federal Reserve pessimism”).

It’s may or may not be helpful, here, to check out the price-and-volume chart of the S&P 500 over the past few days.

sp500.tiff

You see that little wobble in the mid-afternoon yesterday, before the high-volume sell-off at the end of the day? That was the immediate reaction to the release of the FOMC statement at 2:30pm. The big plunge, on unusually high volume, started about an hour later. And the big drop at the open today was much more notable in price terms than it was in volume terms.

It’s silly to think that the decline in stock-market prices was a rational reaction to the FOMC statement. If the FOMC is more pessimistic than the market expected, that’s normally a good sign for markets, since it implies that monetary policy will remain looser for longer. The market cares about the Fed because the Fed controls monetary policy. And so Fed forecasts are important because they help drive that policy. No one revised down their growth expectations as a result of the FOMC statement.

As a general rule, if you see “fears” or “pessimism” in a market-report headline, that’s code for “the market fell and we don’t know why”, or alternatively “the market is volatile and yet we feel the need to impose some spurious causality onto it”.

This kind of thing matters — because when news organizations run enormous headlines about intraday movements in the stock market, that’s likely to panic the population as a whole. They think that they should care about such things because if it wasn’t important, the media wouldn’t be shouting about it so loudly. And they internalize other fallacious bits of journalistic laziness as well: like the idea that the direction of the stock market is a good proxy for the future health of the economy, or the idea that rising stocks are always a good thing and falling stocks are always a bad thing.

Or, most invidiously, the idea that the most interesting and important time period when looking at the stock market is one day. The single most reported statistic with regard to the stock market is where it closed, today, compared to where it closed yesterday. It’s an utterly random and pointless number, but because the media treats it with such reverence, the public inevitably gets the impression that it matters.

Here’s a more useful stock market chart, for the vast majority of people for whom the stock market only matters as a long-term investment:

sp5003.tiff

I’m not going to try to read any great narrative into this chart. But if you want to explain stocks to the broad population, this is the sort of thing you should be showing them. Rather than useless and irrelevant news about what happened to stock prices this morning.

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