You can think of the Fed's medicine as a painkiller. It allows everyone to pretend that bad stuff isn't happening, until something shatters the illusion and the comfortable numbness abruptly gives way to panic. There's massive selling. Then the Fed reassures everyone that its toolbox isn't empty just yet—witness the big upturn on Aug. 9 after the Fed said it would likely hold rates near zero until mid-2013 (a worthless prediction if inflation surges)—and the market soars. Risk on!
It's hard to develop any real conviction about the direction of the market when so much depends on the actions of the Federal Reserve. That's especially true because even the members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee aren't all in agreement. Three members voted against the Fed's Aug. 9 announcement. Complicating matters is that the short term direction of the real economy is also at the mercy of the government. The key line in this Wall Street Journal story: "As goes government spending, so goes the U.S. economy."
Another possible factor in the madness is forced selling by big hedge funds. There are rumors that funds are getting hit by margin calls, or that funds that are having a bad year are getting redemption requests from investors, thereby forcing them to sell. Most of the gossip has focused on John Paulson (the hedge fund manager who famously made his fortune by shorting securities backed by subprime mortgages), given the big positions he was known to have in stocks that have gotten trashed. But if Paulson is hurting, he's probably not alone. "No way big guys could have gotten out," one trader tells me via email. "Big hedge funds with all the same big positions. This move down happened so fast that they are trapped." If this theory is right, then sudden rallies like Thursday's upturn will be followed by more selling, as hedge funds take advantage of the ability to get out.
The last explanation I've heard is that most of the buying and selling hasn't been driven by real people, but rather by computers. Hello, HAL 9000! In the last five years, computer-driven trading, whether controversial high-frequency trading or just programs that buy baskets of stocks based on technical figures, has become a bigger and bigger part of the market. Depending on how you define it, sources tell me it constitutes 70 percent to 90 percent of trading now. "The human element is gone," one trader tells me. At least some people believe that the presence of computers exacerbates the big moves up and down. According to this paper by X. Frank Zhang, an associate professor of accounting at the Yale School of Management, "high frequency trading is positively correlated with stock price volatility." Zhang goes on to say that the "positive correlation is stronger among the top 3,000 stocks in market capitalization and among stocks with high institutional holdings. The positive correlation is also stronger during periods of high market uncertainty." Zhang's academic work is supported by the observations of those who have been in the market for a long time. "I suspect that the real culprits here are the computers Wall Street has programmed and unleashed to trade and manage portfolios," wrote John Bollinger, who has been publishing his Capital Growth Letter for more than two decades. "The sort of mindless selling that we are seeing is most likely the result of machines trading and human beings desperately trying to keep up with them."
Should you buy? Should you sell? No one knows. The world is always an uncertain place, but right now it's more uncertain than usual, whether about the ultimate resolution of Europe's crisis or about how the U.S. will reduce its debt and get the economy growing again. Or perhaps I should say reduce its debt or get the economy growing, since it's unlikely to achieve both at the same time. This inability to guess what the future holds means that madness rules.