A tug-of-war is raging over control of the stock market

tug of warReuters / Michael Buholzer

  • SP 500 inter-sector correlation is close to its lowest on record, showing that industries within the index have been trading independently of one another.
  • The offsetting nature of SP 500 sector moves has been particularly pronounced in the past week as traders rotate out of tech and into financials and telecom.

The next time someone you know conflates low stock market volatility with an overall lack of excitement around equities, be sure to point them to the chart below.

It shows that intra-sector correlation — or the degree to which industries in the benchmark SP 500 index trade independently of one another — sits close to its lowest on record. Weaker only during the tech bubble, the measure suggests that trading has been heavily polarized on a sector basis.

One of the main reasons that overall market price swings have been subdued — with the CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX, sitting close to its lowest ever for much of 2017 — is that these sector fluctuations have offset one another. So while your friend has repeatedly bemoaned the lack of trading opportunities in a low-volatility environment, the truth is that there have been shifts happening at the industry level.

12 5 17 inter sector correlations COTDCredit Suisse

This dynamic has been in play for much of the past week, which has coincided with the above measure’s drop to fresh multiyear lows. On Monday, the SP 500 slid by less than 0.1% as tech stocks, which have led the market higher for much of the year, lost nearly 2%. Balancing that out were gains of more than 1.5% in financial and telecom stocks.

It also perfectly encapsulated trading late last week, in the lead-up to the Senate’s successful passing of the GOP tax bill, when traders drove a so-called rotation out of expensive tech positions to finance purchases of lagging sectors like — you guessed it — financials and telecom. This was especially pronounced on November 29, when the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 dropped 1.7%, while the SP 500 was little changed.

“The extreme sector dispersion explains why index moves have been so muted this year, as the market has really been driven by sector rotation,” the equity derivatives strategist Mandy Xu wrote in a client note.

With that in mind, it looks as if low-volatility truthers may need to find a new excuse for their underperforming portfolios.

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