The Fed, computer trading, and hedge funds: Do they rule the market

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 12 2011 2:19 PM

Risk On!

Do the Fed, computer trading, and a few hedge funds rule the market? That might explain why it's lost its mind.

New York Stock Exchange. Click image to expand.
What's ruling the stock market?

After the madness of last week and the rollercoaster at the beginning of this week, the stock market recovered from its Aug. 10 rout to bounce 423 points on Aug. 11. It was the fourth day in a row in which the index moved by more than 400 points, which has never happened before in history. As I write this, stock prices are leveling off, but the big swings may not be over. Has the market gone mad? Actually, yes.

Bethany  McLean Bethany McLean

Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the co-author of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.

Bethany McLean writes a weekly business column for Slate and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She is the author (with Joe Nocera) of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis and (with Peter Elkind) "The Smartest Guys In The Room."

In theory, the stock market is supposed to reflect the prospects for the economy—the earnings potential of the stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But there's more than one reason to believe that what's going on now has little to do with any rational view of the future, and a lot to do with the market itself. "Dip your toes into any risk asset right now and understand that you are not entering into anything remotely resembling a normal market environment," wrote David Rosenberg, the well-respected former Merrill Lynch analyst who is now the chief economist at Canadian firm Gluskin Sheff, in his recent newsletter. "Dysfunctional is more like it."

The first factor to consider is that the huge rebound in stocks and in all sorts of risk assets from the spring of 2009 until May of this year wasn't necessarily driven by a belief that better times were coming. It was driven by a belief that investors had to buy riskier assets given the Fed's determination to hold interest rates near zero. Because investors can't get a return in "safe" assets—indeed, a small return will get chewed up by inflation—they are driven to riskier assets. As more investors pile in, everyone is driven further out along the risk curve.

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This is what traders call "risk on." What they mean is that you'll be rewarded for buying risk, regardless of reality. The Fed's second round of quantitative easing ("QE2"), in which it bought $600 billion of Treasuries in order to keep interest rates low, encouraged this investment strategy. "We had a nice two-year rally in risk assets and something close to an economic recovery, but as we had warned, it was built on sticks and straw, not bricks," wrote Rosenberg. "This isn't much different than the financial engineering in the 2002-07 cycle that gave off the appearance of prosperity."

The Fed intended this to end happily. The fake wealth created by a soaring market was supposed to turn into real wealth, because rich people, who control much of the economy and who have much of their money in the market, were supposed to spend more. But it hasn't worked, partly because of problems in the rest of the world—the tsunami in Japan, the financial crisis that's brewing in Europe—and partly because our own economy is too deep in hock to achieve the necessary stimulus. As Howard Marks, the chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, put it in his recent letter, "The world has awakened to the undesirability of ever-growing government debt."

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.