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2015: The rocky road to nowhere

Life, the title character proclaims in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Whether that accurately describes existence or not may be open to interpretation. But it certainly seems to describe the stock market this year.

The S&P 500 has experienced 72 sessions in which it moved 1 percent or more to either the upside or the downside. That's the largest number of 1 percent moves since 2011. And like 2011, it comes in a year in which the S&P 500 is almost perfectly flat.

For Dennis Davitt of Harvest Volatility Advisors, the big moves are ultimately a result of market structure.

"The markets go until buyer meets seller," Davitt said, meaning that a rise or fall can only be capped by an opposing force in the market. The problem is that "we've made computers as skittish as humans are as traders, and they're just faster at being skittish."

In other words, as much as a red tape might induce a trader to sell, or a green tape might induce a trader to buy, a trading algorithm will make similar decisions to follow along with the herd.

It commonly happens that "we're seeing this 1 percent move, and then everything's OK, and then the 1 percent moves back up." And Davitt predicts "continued volatility until we see a different market structure come in."

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In terms of volatility, the big turning point came in late August, when the S&P plunged in three dramatic sessions. In the 159 sessions before late August, the S&P only moved 1 percent 34 times, for a 1 percent-move rate of 21 percent; from late August through Wednesday, the move rate climbs to 41 percent.

This supports the arguments of some, such as Jim Strugger, derivatives strategist at MKM, that the market has undergone a transition into a high-volatility regime, which has been characterized by larger average moves and a generally more elevated VIX.

What 2016 holds is unclear, of course, though many predict more big moves to come.

"We think one word is going to be on the front lips of investors, and that's 'volatility,' " Dan Heckman, national investment consultant at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, told CNBC in an interview this week.

That may be good news indeed for those who, like Davitt, aim to "Harvest" it.


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Trading Nation is a multimedia financial news program that shows investors and traders how to use the news of the day to their advantage. This is where experts from across the financial world – including macro strategists, technical analysts, stock-pickers, and traders who specialize in options, currencies, and fixed income – come together to find the best ways to capitalize on recent developments in the market. Trading Nation: Where headlines become opportunities.

Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan is co-anchor of CNBC's "Power Lunch" (M-F,1PM-3PM ET), one of the network's longest running programs, as well as the host of the daily investing program "Trading Nation." He is also a frequent guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and other NBC properties.

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