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Corporate insiders show no fear, despite pullback warnings

  • The recent dip in major averages has brought insiders off the sidelines, even though the S&P 500 was down just 2 percent from its all-time high.
  • Argus Research says the current ratio of insider activity indicates 1.94 sell transactions per every buy.

As Wall Street strategists intensify warnings about a looming market pullback, corporate insiders aren't showing any fear.

The recent dip in major averages has brought insiders off the sidelines, even though the S&P 500 was down just a little more than 2 percent from its all-time high heading into Tuesday trading. Argus Research tracks the level of buying from corporate executives of their own company stocks and said the current ratio indicates 1.94 sell transactions per every buy.

While similar readings sometimes can be contrarian indicators — when sentiment moves too far in one direction, that's a signal to go the other way — Argus said its ratio does not work that way. When the market swoons, it's important when insiders show confidence that the decline won't last long.

Argus analyst David Coleman said insider behavior will be a good indicator of whether those predictions for a market pullback come true. He noted that insider buying and selling has been especially brisk, with 1,638 transactions recorded over the past week, compared with an average of about 800 during the recently completed corporate earnings season.

"Should we see a further decline in the broad market averages, we would expect insider sentiment to strengthen further because insiders historically take advantage of periods of consolidation to increase their holdings," Coleman said in a note.

"Should stocks fall further and insiders fail to step up to the plate, that would be a cause for concern," he added. "For now, we are cautiously optimistic."

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York as the Dow surpasses 22,000.
Bryan R. Smith | AFP | Getty Images
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York as the Dow surpasses 22,000.

The one-week sell-buy ratio is below 2 and thus in bullish territory. However, over the longer term the eight-week ratio is at 3.05, which is still bearish. In February, the Argus gauge showed insiders feverishly dumping stocks, which turned out to be a bad bet.

The increase in insider buying activity runs counter to a broader trend this year of companies shying away from repurchases and reduction in share count — not unusual considering the market has set a series of new historic highs this year. Takeovers and share buybacks have totaled about $59 billion in July and August, the lowest two-month pace since April and May of 2012, according to TrimTabs.

Sentiment both from retail investors and pros has slid in recent days.

The American Association of Individual Investors survey — seen as a gauge of the mom and pop crowd — most recently showed bulls and bears in a near dead heat, with the divide at 34.2 percent to 32.8 percent.

Professional investors have become less bullish as well, though the bears are scarcer than in the AAII survey. Bullishness among newsletter authors is at 50.5 percent, against just 18.1 percent in the bear camp, according to the latest Investors Intelligence survey. Just three weeks ago, bulls had been above 60 percent.

The decline in sentiment comes amid fears on Wall Street that the market surge this year won't last. Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA, said the firm believes "a further falloff is likely" as "the market's current technical action points to the possibility of a decline of deeper proportions."

Stovall said there's an important technical test for the S&P 500 at 2,423, or just below Monday's market close. Should that test fail, the bottom of the next important range would be 2,385, or another 2 percent or so decline.

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