Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Stocks Were Up, in One Word

I'm going to keep today's notes brief, since it's a beautiful summer day and the market is, as usual, defying all logic.

Were stocks ahead because key economic data was better than expected? Possibly. The PPI for July was up 0.2%, with the core up a whopping 0.3%, allaying fears of deflation for the moment. Housing Starts and building permits were somewhat of a disappointment, however, though July industrial production was up by a full percentage point and Capacity Utilization stood at 74.8%, up from 74.1% in June.

Those numbers were benign, and volume was once again extremely sluggish, so there's only one reason stocks went up today: options. Or, more accurately, the expiration of stock options this Friday.

In recent trading - over the past 7 months which we bothered to check - the major indices have almost always shown some kind of gains early in the week leading up to options expiration, like clockwork, except in May, when stocks and the economy were actually showing real strain from problems. It's pretty simple, and an easy strategy for market-timers. But, is it investor sentiment or manipulation, and, does it matter?

Short term, trading moves matter, especially when you have money at risk, as in the options market. Long term, the blips obtained in weeks of options expirations or the weeks preceding them are more noise than valuable data points. As for whether the pattern arises out of investor sentiment or manipulation, which have been becoming more synonymous of late, the latter seems a too-obvious choice, but there it is, laid out for everyone to see.

Supposing you had some money riding on certain strike points, or you could make money on gains, and, if you were a major investment house, like Goldman Sachs, BofA, et. al., with tons of excess capital sitting around gathering dust, wouldn't it behoove you to invest some of that idle capital in the stocks you need to rise, thus ensuring short term gains in your options trading? Absolutely. Do the big firms do that? Positively.

While they call it astute trading discipline, others might figure it a little less than honest poker, but, since options are highly unregulated conveyances, nobody bothers to make a squeal about it. For the investor, it makes for a simple calendar rule: buy stocks near the end of the month or early in the month, preferably the first week, because the price you pay will almost always be lower than it will approaching options expiration.

And that's why stocks were up today, and the only reason why. For more proof, just take a gander at the volumes, which were again at "help me, I'm drowning" levels. The low volume regime persists, so higher closes, especially major advances, like today's, should be weighted accordingly. Better yet, compare the highs of the day to the close. A bit of a selloff there in the last hour, the tell-tale sign of options sales and/or redemption, and plenty of play on the intra-day movement. The Dow lost about 70 points in the final hour. Healthy markets don't do that, they close at or near the highs. Conclusion: this was yet another manipulated trading move; market weakness still exists; nobody is really buying.

Dow 10,405.85, +103.84 (1.01%)
NASDAQ 2,209.44, +27.57 (1.26%)
S&P 500 1,092.54, +13.16 (1.22%)
NYSE Composite 6,959.79, +88.21 (1.28%)

Naturally, advancers beat decliners handily, 5008-1490. New highs soared past new lows, 335-80.

NASDAQ Volume 1,631,266,000
NYSE Volume 4,241,545,500

Commodities were mostly higher. Oil traded up by 53 cents, to $75.77. Gold gained $2.10, to $1,226.60. Silver added 17 cents to $18.59.

Stocks should continue this pattern for another day or two, probably peaking on Thursday, which would be a great time to go short the market. By Monday of next week, everything should be trading at lower levels, if history proves correct.

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