Volatile markets are facing the 'old normal'

Correction watch: Is this the big one?   

Those looking to stay in the financial markets may want to keep a steady supply of antacids nearby.

The stomach-churning volatility the market has seen in recent days likely isn't going anywhere—not with the Federal Reserve trying to prepare a graceful exit from monetary easing while a panoply of other concerns haunt investors.

Forget the "new normal," which bond giant Pimco defined as a long-term period of low growth. This looks like something different.

"It's going back to the old normal," said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Annuities. "Markets have volatility and markets used to have pullbacks," she added, referring to the more than two years the S&P 500 has gone without at least a 10 percent correction.

"As we get closer to normalization by the Fed, which means the rising of rates, the market is going to demonstrate characteristics it always had, which included pullbacks and basically trying to decide what valuations should be," she added.

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Old-fashioned price discovery indeed has become a relic in the time of unprecedented Fed easing. The central bank has expanded its balance sheet past the $4.5 trillion mark as it has injected liquidity into the markets and given new meaning to the old "don't fight the Fed" adage.

The S&P 500 has surged nearly 200 percent since the financial crisis on the back of the Fed's quantitative easing, but gains ahead could be harder to come by, or at least require more work on the part of investors.

The Fed is set to end QE later this month but probably will keep interest rates anchored near zero until well into 2015.

Still, uncertainty persists about the timing of the rate hike. Stocks surged Wednesday for their biggest gains of the year when minutes from the most recent Federal Open Market Committee indicated a persistent dovish bias, but the momentum did not carry over to Thursday's session, which saw losses that wiped out all of Wednesday's gains.

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"The market's going through a period of discovery. That's how the market's going to normalize," Krosby said. "They're going to decipher whether the valuations are commensurate with what companies are telling us. When all is said and done, the market should be about what companies are doing."

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Getty Images
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Earnings season, which begins in earnest in the coming days, actually could help tame some of that volatility as investors move past macro concerns.

"Volatility is going to be with us when the market's focus is the global macro," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. "My guess is volatility calms down when the focus is micro."

David Rosenberg, economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, compared the market disruptions to a scene in "The Godfather," when the mobster Clemenza explains to Michael Corleone that mafia family wars are healthy occasionally as they "get rid of the bad blood."

"As for the equity market, the volatility remains acute, but accentuated by the last three years of unusual calm," Rosenberg wrote in his daily note to clients. "It's been so long people have forgotten what an actual correction actually looks like—and that they are both normal and healthy phases as the froth gets cleared out."