Is a market storm coming? Ask an escort

If you're wondering if it's safe to put some new money to work in the stock market, the first question you have to ask is: How much fear is already priced in?

I put that question to several hedge-fund managers, traders, sales traders, analysts and day traders I know.

The collective sentiment could be summed up in two words: cautiously optimistic.

This, personally, scares me. Most finance professionals seem to think there was some capitulation (a feeling of maximum pessimism where people can't take it anymore and panic sell) last week, which usually signals the end of the pain trade. But I'm not sure we saw enough of it.

So, I asked: What are you afraid of?

"It's all performance anxiety," one hedge-fund manager said. "We're not worried about another 2008."

That thought echoed through each and every call I made within the industry.

So, I decided to check in with some of my secondary sources – the people whose businesses thrive on Wall Street money – to see if they were picking up on any fear on Wall Street.

The escort indicator

My first stop was to check back in on the escort indicator. Back in May, the escorts I spoke to said that business was bouncing back since the financial crisis. But with the market being so tumultuous lately, are they seeing a slowdown?

"Chelsea," a high-end escort in Manhattan who is originally from Canada, said business has only dropped off slightly into this year.

"I still gotta hustle," Chelsea said. "But I haven't really seen a dropoff."

Escort prostitute
Steve Read | Getty Images

Has she sensed any fear from her Wall Street clientele?

"Not really, but most of them have been bitching about their bonus. I guess they didn't get paid what they thought they deserved," she said.

Her friend "Holly," who is also a professional escort, agreed. "There's not much difference between this year and last year, but I have noticed more guys wanting to party a little harder." She went on to say several of her peers have noticed the same thing—an appetite to party harder.

And after speaking with both of them it seems there isn't a lot of fear that their business will slow down anytime soon.

Bottom line: The escort industry has no fear of a slowdown.

The Manhattan and Hamptons real-estate indicator

Douglas Elliman's latest market report show that sale prices in Manhattan hit an all-time high in the fourth quarter of 2015 — the average sales price and average price per square foot broke records.

"Demand is the highest it's been since the financial crisis," a Manhattan real estate agent told me. "I've got a few Wall Street professionals looking to buy. And nobody is too concerned with the markets."

But not everyone agrees, StreetEasy Blog is predicicting rental markets will ease and price growth is expected to be slower in 2016.

I spoke with a few prospective buyers in the market and they seem confident that it's OK to buy right now. They have no intentions of getting into a bidding war – which means we're nowhere near a top — but if they find the house or apartment they want, they'll bid on it.

Source: Douglas Elliman Real Estate

So, what's summer in the Hamptons looking like?

I spoke with numerous real-estate agents located all over the Hamptons. The common theme among them was that inventory for rentals are low but families have already begun renewing for this summer. The younger renters who typically rent share houses have yet to start making inquiries.

"It's totally a strong market — for properties that are correctly priced," said Robert Nelson, senior managing director for Brown Harris Stevens. "It's not a market for overpriced properties, but we've seen plenty of those." He also explained that some buyers are completely comfortable with taking money out of the volatile markets to purchase a home.

Bottom line: Real estate market fear is neutral.

The Main Street indicator

They say Main Street is always the last to know when things start slowing down. Still, I decided to check in with a few different shops to see what the word on the street was.

My daughter's mother, Jennifer Scully, is an interior designer on Long Island. In the past week, four finance professionals hired her for new jobs — they range from a redesign in the city to new construction in the Hamptons.

"They all talked about the markets going lower, but nobody is pulling back on their desired projects," she said.

Michael, a pizzeria owner in the Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, says he hasn't seen any slowdown in business in the past. "People are still going out to eat," he said.

Bottom Line: Main Street has no fear of market slowdown.

The bling indicator

I spoke with a few high-end jewelers — and not all of them were optimistic. Most had good holiday seasons, but January has been too quiet to feel comfortable. One store owner told me that jewelry is the first to go.

Luxury spending overall has changed post-2008 — people just aren't as into status buying as they were back then.

John DeNatale, who owns DeNatale Jewelers in Manhattan's financial district with his brothers, said there is one category that's getting a bump.

"You know what all of Wall Street is spending their money on these days? Lingerie," he said.

Bottom Line: A little bit of fear creeping into jewelry. A few people getting lucky.

There isn't a lot of fear out there within and outside of the finance professionals, though we are seeing a bit of it creeping into the canary in the coal mine — jewelry.

This is the kind of thing that scares me: It feels like collectively everyone knows there could be a storm coming, but for now, everyone is okay waiting for it to be official.

It's ugly out there. And no amount of lipstick is going to make it look prettier. The markets have gotten off to a rough start in 2016 and investors are wondering what to do next. They want to know if it's time to dip their toe back in the water. My simple answer: No.

Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side." He's also a consultant on the upcoming Showtime show, "Billions," starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.

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