Heading into December, a majority of traders still quietly hoped that the volatility observed in October and November would finally fade, and give way to the traditional Santa rally allowing them to escape what in just two months had mutated into a devastating year for most, unscathed: after all, in the past century, December has not only been the month with the highest average stock market return, but the month which has closed in the green on 74% of instances, the most of all other months of the year.
It was not meant to be.
Instead of being the best month of the year, this December has been the worst month for the stock market since the Great Depression - the average one-day drop in the S&P this month has been 1.6% - and was appropriately capped with a Christmas Eve crash which not only saw it plunge almost 3% - the biggest pre-Christmas plunge on record - closing at a 20-month low, but in the frenzied liquidation which saw more than 1.7 billion shares changing hands in the painfully illiquid half-day session which deepened losses after the worst week since 2011, as it closed, the S&P triggered a bear market, sliding 20% from the Sept 20 all time highs, and putting an end to the longest bull market in history.
While the reasons for the relentless three month selloff are legion, starting with the "renormalization" (i.e., bursting) of the biggest asset bubble blown in history by the Fed and other central banks, and continuing through trade war tensions, rising and/or falling interest rates, political gridlock and instability in the US and elsewhere, peak profit fears, and economic slowdown concerns, the immediate catalysts for today's plunge are two: Trump's ongoing feud with the Federal Reserve (which today we learned, can't putt) and its Chairman, Jerome Powell, who may or may not be fired soon, and Mnuchin bizarre, crisis-era announcement that bank liquidity is fine, even though not a single person in the market doubted that not to be the case, prompting a chill down traders' spines that bank liquidity was not, in fact, fine.
So while we got the market's verdict loud and clear to what will forever be known as the "Mnuchin Massacre", here is a sample of what analysts, investors and pundits are saying:
Cowen & Co.’s Jaret Seiberg
- “None of these controversies are positive,” the senior policy analyst wrote. “All of them put the economy at risk, which is negative for financial firms and housing. And all three incidents are unforced errors," Seiberg wrote, referring to Trump’s discussion of Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s ouster, the partial government shutdown and Mnuchin raising questions about financial stability.
- "Our broad concern is that Team Trump might trigger the very downturn it wants to avoid."
Amundi Pioneer Asset Management’s, Paresh Upadhyaya
- Mnuchin’s statement about banks “clearly backfired,” Upadhyaya said. “It smacks of desperation and nervousness. I found it odd that he spoke to them about liquidity when it’s obvious that banks would be aware of it. I’m not sure what they planned to achieve with this plunge protection team since none of the agencies involved have legal authority to intervene in the equity markets.”
- The portfolio manager sees little risk of Powell being ousted. He said that Trump’s undermining of the Fed could reduce the appeal of the U.S. dollar. What’s more troubling is the selloff in bank stocks, which signals distress in the credit market.
MRV Associates Inc.’s Mayra Rodriguez Valladares
- “The timing is terrible” amid thin markets before a holiday, said Valladares, a former Fed foreign-exchange analyst who conducts training for bankers and regulators. “It’s going to make people in the markets even more nervous.”
- “When you have a president treating Powell as a pinata, it’s really terrible and undermines the credibility of the central bank as an independent authority.”
Whalen Global Advisors’ Christopher Whalen
- Mnuchin’s tweet about his talks with bank CEOs was “not helpful,” Whalen said.
- “It is normal for a secretary of the Treasury to talk to banks privately, but not on Twitter,” he said, citing a “near disaster” in 2008 when markets cratered after then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson discussed buying bad bank assets.
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP’s Rodgin Cohen
- Cohen was at the center of the bank bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis. He said he didn’t field calls from finance executives over the weekend, an indication that the industry isn’t facing the same concerns it was a decade ago.
- “If you ever get contagion, that could sweep away reality and logic,” Cohen said in an email. “But today, we just don’t have anything like 2008. You’ve got banks which have two to three times the capital, and even more importantly -- what really brings banks down -- is a liquidity shortage. And these banks are incredibly liquid.”
Last but not least, here is Maxine Waters, soon to be the Chair of the House Committee on Financial Services:
- "The financial markets need certainty, and a Federal Reserve that can independently set monetary policy. The recent actions of the President and the Treasury Secretary, however, have been erratic and are creating uncertainty and instability in the markets. It would be in our nation’s best interest if they stopped what they are doing."
And the scariest news: there are 3 more trading days in 2018, and at this rate we may be looking at a 1-handle in the S&P as we usher in the new year.