Trader Talk

Ugly day for the stock market, but no panic

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

An ugly day for the markets, which were battered by events outside the China, in the Ukraine and in Germany.

We saw:

  1. Poor economic news in China, where industrial production and retail sales were both weaker-than-expected in February, confirming China is slowing;
  2. rising tensions in Ukraine, where the acting president there said he saw a risk of war with Russia and there were reports that Russia fired on a Ukrainian plane over Crimea; and
  3. strongly-worded comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the German Parliament in whichs he warned of a "catastrophe" unless Russia backed down, saying it would change the European Union's relationship with Russia.

That affected Europe--the German stock market is now at a three-month low. It's been an ugly five days.

One key is to understand what happens when China weakens and its impact on the yen carry trade, where investors borrow cheap yen and invest in other assets around the world. When China weakens:

  1. Investors repatriate foreign investments
  2. Japanese, U.S. money comes home
  3. Those borrowing yen have to cover
  4. Traders buy yen, sell stocks

And that's exactly what happened: The yen strengthened, and stocks slumped. You can see this in the very heavy volume of the Wisdomtree Japan Hedged Equity ETF (DXJ), a basket of Japanese stocks that hedges out the effects of the yen, which has been down three percent all day and will close with roughly 10 million shares changing hands, roughly 50 percent more than normal.

Still, if you are looking for obvious signs of panic, it's hard to see. First, the NYSE consolidated tape volume (all trading in all NYSE stocks) was roughly 3.6 billion shares, in line with the average for the year.

Second, while the Volatility Index (VIX) did pop up to the highest levels since the beginning of the month, a level of 16 on the VIX is still not very fact, it was over 20 just five weeks ago. Over twenty is my typical threshold for paying attention to the VIX.

We did see slightly higher volume in the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), which are the two ETFs most widely used by traders, but not so much as to raise eyebrows.

Finally, while it was indeed an ugly day, bear in mind that the S&P 500 is still less than two percent below its all-time highs.

By CNBC's Bob Pisani