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The Market's Measure
market's measure

Take Two ETFs and Call Me

Last week’s headaches are likely to continue.

A couple of weeks ago, we fretted about a possible stampede from equities because of an unnerving air of complacency. As it turned out, that trepidation was prescient. Four days later, on Feb. 2, stocks tumbled into a crevasse.

So, what happened? And, more important, what’s likely to happen going forward?

Plainly, there were a lot of folks with short volatility and, when the tide turned on fears of rising interest rates and inflation, a LOT of unwinding was forced by margin calls. These were trades made by pros—not your average Joe or Jane. Joe and Jane weren’t fazed by the market’s plunge. Not at first anyway.

How do we know this? The exchange traded fund market tells us so.

First of all, there was the price spread between the S&P 500 SPDR ETF (NYSE Arca: SPY) and the iShares S&P 100 ETF (NYSE Arca: OEF). OEF is made up of the 100 bluest S&P 500 blue chip stocks, mostly mega-caps. Exuberance for equities is reflected in the two ETFs’ price differentials. The broader-based SPY’s price appreciation is more expansive in bull markets, widening the spread. Caution or downright fear is characterized by a narrowing spread.

In the chart below, you can see the recent topping in the spread. How recent? Well, a peak was actually reached on Jan. 26, with the first daily 1 percent break occurring two trading days later. That was the warning bell since there hadn’t been a 1 percent slip since August 2017.

There was still bullish exuberance elsewhere. We’ve talked about ETF indicators of market enthusiasm in the past. Back in January, for example, we examined the upside potential in the XLY/XLP ratio, a measure of consumer and investor confidence.

The ratio is the price quotient of the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSE Arca: XLY) over the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSE: XLP). XLP is made up of providers of the stuff you “gotta” have—toothpaste, groceries and the like. XLY constituents offer goods and services you “wanna” have. When punters feel flush, XLY outperforms XLP and the ratio rises. In bad times, the ratio sinks as investors and consumers become defensive.

When the column was written on Jan. 10, the XLY/XLP ratio had just tested 1.80 and seemed to have the momentum to reach a 1.91 technical target. That prognostication was actually off—but by just a basis point. XLY/XLP twice touched 1.90 on a closing basis—a double top—on Feb. 5 and 6 before falling away. Now Joe and Jane are getting spooked.

Is the bull market kaput? We can’t say that it is. Not, at least, ‘til that yellow uptrend line in the SPY-OEF chart is broken. That’s still a long way off. Still, equities could be in for a rough patch in the near term. The SPY-OEF spread is nearing support at its 200-day moving average at $141. If that’s taken out, there’s likely to be more downside pressure put on equities.

All this means the headaches are likely to continue for a while, challenging bulls’ pain tolerance.

Brad Zigler is WealthManagement’s Alternative Investments Editor. Previously, he was the head of Marketing, Research and Education for the Pacific Exchange’s (now NYSE Arca) option market and the iShares complex of exchange traded funds.

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