Program Trading, Not China, Caused Yesterdays Collision in the Markets – Where Do We Go From Here?

Shanghai down 8.8%, London down 2.3%, the Dow down 3.3%. And so far, the ASX down by 3.5%. Is this the crash for which we’ve been flying a flag for weeks now?


This, as we pointed out earlier in the week, is what you get when global markets go up for nearly eight months without a significant pull-back. It’s more of a collision than a crash, the kind of thing that happens when you go over a speed bump too quickly. You bang your bumper into the asphalt. It’s not so much that there were a lot of sellers yesterday, but that there were a lot fewer buyers.

Not that we’d ever want to be accused of being bullish, but let’s keep things in perspective. The same Shanghai 300 Index that fell 9% yesterday had been up 23%, year to date. In the context of its rise the last three years, yesterday’s collision was tiny. A real crash would be more like what happened to American sub-prime lender Novastar (NYSE: NFI). The company fell by 50% over three days when it reported rising defaults from its sub-prime borrowers. It also added, ominously (a ridiculous understatement) that it did not think it would make money any time in the next five years. Gulp.

Yet what is so different about paying too much money for a stock like Novastar and paying too much money for stocks as an asset class? In both cases the faulty assumption was the same: abundant liquidity would drive earnings and prices higher. With Novastar, it was higher interest rates that burst the bubble. With global stock markets, it was something else.

This brings us to the key vulnerability of the Goldilocks Paradigm: money supply, or liquidity. It takes a constantly increasing amount of money to drive stocks up. The same amount won’t do. Bubbles require more buying power, always more. That’s why liquidity theory is a better explanation of global stock price movements these days than valuation. Stocks long ago ceased to be correlated to real measures of value. With superannuation, private equity, and institutional buying, the ready supply of liquidity has been pretty smooth into all stocks-emerging markets and the Dow alike.

But not yesterday. So just what happened? And where to from here? Probably more selling this week to shave another 5% off index values, followed-and we’re only guessing here-by a fresh run toward record highs in the North American spring. If we’re wrong, the crash to end all crashes will be this month. And though we think that day is coming, we don’t think it’s arrived just yet. Why?

Did you know that on any given day, just over 30% of the volume on the New York Stock Exchange comes from automatic, computer-generated buy and sell programs? The NYSE makes the data public on its website. We’ll quote some of it in a minute. But it’s important for a simple reason: the direction of global markets is determined a lot less by human beings and a lot more through program trading by computer programs, models, and algorithms.

The upside of this is that automated buying power pushes stocks higher. The downside is the Dow falls 200 points in two minutes as sell orders are automatically generated and executed. There’s not even time for some good old fashioned hand-wringing and sweaty brows. Computers don’t sweat. And they don’t panic. They just execute. “Sell.”

The NYSE keeps data on a weekly basis, so we can’t see quite what happened yesterday, at least not officially. But here’s what it said about last week, “During Feb. 12-16, program trading amounted to 32.1% percent of NYSE average daily volume of 2,962 million shares, or 952 million program shares traded per day… Program trading encompasses a wide range of portfolio-trading strategies involving the purchase or sale of a basket of at least 15 stocks with a total value of $1 million or more.”

For the week, just 15 separate firms trade over 4 billion shares using program trading. The NYSE classifies about 7% of these trades as “index arbitrage,” and the rest as “all other strategies.” So just what are those strategies? We don’t know, of course. But our guess is that some of them involve liquidating a position if the Dow falls, say 100, points.

You can see how the process of program-driven selling becomes self-fulfilling, each order triggering more selling, which triggers further orders. There are computer programs designed to prevent this, called “trading collars,” which apparently failed yesterday. At some point-probably later this week-other “buy programs” will kick in, and may in turn, trigger other “buy programs.”

Our point in all of this is that all rational discretion about what a business is really worth is thrown out the window. The index is driven by the programs, which then influences fund and ETF buying, none of which has anything to do with what a particular stock is worth. Buying and selling become reflexive, rather than reflective.

This is what we call speculation driven by liquidity. And ironically, it’s why recent history shows major one-day slides in financial markets seem to have little or no impact in the real economy. And it’s not just one-day slides either. Remember the tech-wreck? The Russian bond-default? LTCM? All of these mini financial panics took place in the stock market without, apparently, causing so much as a ripple in the real economy.

What happens in markets does matter, of course, and not least because it affects the net worth of consumers, who spend and earn money in the real economy. And in that sense, the stock market is a psychological leading indicator of the real economy. If investors are getting skittish-or become skittish because program trading causes a series of steep one-day declines-it can carry over into real world behaviour.

God forbid most Western investors look at the real world. Then they’d really get scared, seeing millions of consumers in debt, with stagnant wages and large mortgage liabilities. Fully price that into the market and you’d start to see some real selling, as investor flee stocks into, of all things, short-term bonds with stable yields.

Hmm. Here’s a conspiratorial thought. Maybe all of this is an elaborate plot orchestrated by the GoldmanSachs/White House plunge protection team to drive global saving back into the U.S. bond market, just as the government needs to refinance its deficit and pay for its wars. Hmmn. Show of hands? Yea? Nay?

While you work that one out, we’ll make one additional observation that we made in the March issue of Outstanding Investments about gold stocks. In a collision/correction/liquidation, gold stocks will behave like stocks and not like the metal. In a long-term bull market, the best entry points for the equity side of gold are after these corrections.

Your risk is that the metal itself outperforms the shares over the duration of the bull market. But if, as we believe, the big third leg up in gold is coming, the post-correction rubble will be the best time this year-and maybe for the next few years-to load up on gold senior and juniors. Ironically, the juniors may hold up under a correction better because there are fewer institutional owners (fewer weak hands with twitchy sell fingers to shake out.)

Dan Denning
Markets and Money

Dan Denning

Dan Denning examines the geopolitical and economic events that can affect your investments domestically. He raises the questions you need to answer, in order to survive financially in these turbulent times.

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Program Trading, Not China, Caused Yesterdays Collision in the Markets – Where Do We Go From Here?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
The Greenspan break? Based on the rhyme of 1966-1973 and 2000-2007 I was looking for a correction in the first quarter of this year. When the market peaked on the day after President’s Day Holiday, marking the end of winter, I was reminded of the market peak on the day after Labour Day Holiday in 1929 – marking the end of summer. When Greenspan speculated about a recession at the end of the year I thought of the Babson break and speculated that there could be correction to follow; which it did. Speaking before his Annual National Business Conference on… Read more »
Turning Hot Water Green | Hybrid Auto News - Hybrid Cars

[…] was the trigger for a reasonably large fall on the markets everywhere today. Dan Denning from The Daily Reckoning has a look at recent falls on global markets, closing with an intriguing conspiracy theory (as I […]

Letters will be edited for clarity, punctuation, spelling and length. Abusive or off-topic comments will not be posted. We will not post all comments.
If you would prefer to email the editor, you can do so by sending an email to