El-Erian: What the Return of Market Volatility Tells Us

Four of last week's five daily trading sessions saw the Dow move by more than a hundred points. The wide fluctuations of the index reminded investors of the unsettling market volatility of last year. In the process, and after a wonderfully strong first quarter, questions multiplied as to whether stocks would again be subject to a mid-year correction.

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Photo: Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com
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By looking at the factors behind the recent volatility, including how it played out in different segments of the global markets, you will see that a big part of the answer depends on policymaking here and in Europe — a particularly uncomfortable situation for those who rightly believe that valuations and correlations should reflect underlying fundamentals.

The renewed volatility in stocks was due to conflicting signs of additional central bank liquiditysupport, both in Europe and the US. By providing time (and hope) for economic and financial fundamentals to heal properly, such support is seen as critical to sustain the recent rally in risk assets.

Yet, in listening to different voices here and across the Atlantic, equity investors come to different conclusionsas to whether additional liquidity will indeed be forthcoming.

Some officials seem committed to renewed unusual central bank activism. Others feel that this would only postpone the inevitable adjustments required on the part of governments, companies and individuals. And there seems to be no way, as yet, to get both groups on the same wavelength quickly.

Market volatility has also been accentuated by competing narratives about the economic outlook.

Last week, several companies' quarterly earnings reports, led by Alcoa , were supportive. The problem is that they conflicted with the more worrisome macro data, including a Chinese growth slowdown (though 8.1 percent would be deemed great anywhere else in the world), the undershooting of a much-followed US sentiment indicator, and mounting signs of recession in Europe.

These two narratives are, once more, finely balanced; and the tug of war will continue until one side asserts itself — either through a policy breakthrough or through a policy breakdown.

No wonder so many analysts are warning that stock market volatility may be with us for a while. In understanding the implications, it is good to reflect on what other market segments are telling us — particularly global bonds where last week's differentiation was both noteworthy and insightful.

Compared to stocks, US Treasury bonds experienced less volatility (both in absolute and relative terms). This was partly due to a measurement issue: As only the bond market was open when the disappointing March employment number was released, yields reacted on that Friday while stocks had to wait for the following Monday.

But even when adjusting for this by extending the comparison to two weeks, the contrast is still there. Investors in the Treasury segment appears less conflicted. This market segment signals a muted growth outlook, and one that may even trigger additional Federal Reserve intervention in the form of a new QE .

Signals of a challenging outlook are much, much louder in European bond markets — and rightly so. Last week, yields on peripheral government securities went from flashing orange to again flashing red, with Spanish risk spreads near or at record levels (as measured by credit default swaps).

All this speaks to the unsettling situation of markets that remain highly dependent on policymakers who, themselves, are stuck in the muddled middle: unable to deliver sustainable outcomes or to exit from their market interventions. This is the unfortunate reality of an "unusually uncertain" outlook, blunt policy tools, and a rather dysfunctional political context.

—Mohamed El-Erian is the co-CEO of Pimco, which oversees nearly $1.8 trillion in assets and runs the Pimco Total Return Fund, the largest bond fund in the world.