Geopolitical concerns, Syria/Russia, and North Korea dominated trading on Tuesday. These concerns have been growing, but President Trump’s tweet on North Korea set off a mini-panic wave of selling in stocks and buying in bonds. Stocks rebounded once traders decided the tweet was just Trump being Trump.
Whereas stocks shook off that wave of fear, bond traders clung to it. The big move in bonds is typical of the fear or flight-to-quality trade. But this is not a true fear trade. This is a fear trade fabricated by bullish bond traders hoping for some quick profits.
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How can you tell the difference between a real fear or flight-to-quality trade and one that is just for fast-money traders? In a true fear trade, stocks fall sharply in heavy volume and remain lower. In a true fear trade, big money that flows out of stocks flows into short-term bonds as a place to park money.
Neither of those requirements for a real flight-to-quality trade was met. First, stock selling was light and stocks rebounded. Second, the volume in bonds was not heavy and the longer-end of the curve moved just as much as the shorter-end. This tells us that speculators, not investors, were the ones on the buy side. There isn’t much quick money to be made from short-term bonds, but there is money to be made in 10-year and 30-year notes and bonds.
Although there are reasons to be concerned about the geopolitical scene, there is no immediate threat and real investors are not preparing for one. But this is a bond bull market, and speculative traders aren’t looking for reasonable reactions and sensibility. We have fake news now, so why not have a fake fear trade?
Dwight Johnston is the chief economist of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues and president of Dwight Johnston Economics. He is the author of a popular commentary site and is a frequent speaker at credit union board planning sessions and industry conferences.