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Without Phoenix Stocks, Volume Continues to Contract

William Hester, CFA
September 2009
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The most notable characteristic of a durable stock-market advance, which failed to appear in the recent advance, is a strong expansion of trading volume. When you adjust the trading volume data for a handful of mostly lower-quality financial stocks, the picture gets worse.

I noted in Trading Volume Separates Bull Markets from Bear Rallies that bull markets have typically begun on strong volume after selling had become exhausted. As Richard Russell has said - “volume should always be studied as a trend relative to what has preceded it”. The chart below updates one of the graphs for the elapsed time from that earlier piece. The vertical axis measures the six-month percent change in the S&P 500 from the bottom of each bear market going back to the early 1940's. The horizontal axis shows the percent change in volume over that same period.

Familiar durable bear-market bottoms stand out, like in 1982 and 1974. These rallies had strong returns that coincided with large bursts of trading volume during the first six months of the rally. There are a couple of examples, like 1998 and 2003, where bull markets had a good start on mediocre expansions in volume. But for the most part, in the cases where volume contracted the bull market beginnings have been uninspiring. More common is a strong increase in volume that coincides with gains of 20 to 25 percent during the first six months. It's clear that this year's rally is an extreme outlier in the dataset, with above-average returns and a continued contraction in volume from the levels of trading in March.

Even so, some analysts have become optimistic because volume trends first leveled off, and then have risen marginally over the last few weeks. But almost the entire rise in volume during the last month and half has come from a handful of stocks. Examples include Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, AIG, and Bank of America. These are just five. There are a couple of other stocks that are interchangeable with these companies and would produce similar results – but the characteristic they all share is that they are financial stocks that only recently were on the brink of collapse. And since the Government's rescue of these and other financial firms, the group has risen up from the ashes. For ease of reference, we'll call these Phoenix stocks.

The rise in trading volumes in some of these stocks has been considerable. The shares of AIG now often trade with 15 times the volume they traded a year ago. Citigroup has traded at 12 times the amount from a year ago. This helps explain why the trades in these companies' shares are taking up a larger fraction of total share volume. The graph below shows the trading volume in the Phoenix stocks as a percent of total NYSE share volume since 2003. You can see that the trend of rising volumes in relation to total volume began during 2008, when volumes rose as the market capitalizations of these companies shares fell. Off of this year's March low, Phoenix volumes as a percent of total volume rose above 5 percent for the first time and then fell off slightly in June and July. During the last six weeks, the trading in these stocks as a percent of total volume has jumped to almost of fifth of share trading.

Commentators and analysts have offered up a few explanations for the heavy trading in these shares – short covering, the focus of day traders, and institutional trend following programs. Each of those explanations is probably doing their part. Outside of highlighting the casino-like atmosphere that has gripped parts of the stock market, the amount of trading in these shares is less important than the role this trading is playing in the overall volume figures.

The graph below shows two measures of trading volume. The blue line is the daily share volume traded on the NYSE (smoothed). The red line is total volume less the volume traded in our group of Phoenix stocks. As the graph shows, during the last couple of years, the two lines have hardly parted. That's because the Phoenix trading volume was a small fraction of total volume. The recent divergence between the two highlights that volume outside of a handful of these financial stocks continues to contract.

On a Phoenix-volume adjusted basis, NYSE share trading is at the lowest level in years. Healthy bull markets, even if not during the earliest days of a rally, will typically recruit growing amounts of investor interest and expanding levels of volume as prices rise. Expanding volume continues to be an important characteristic missing from this rally.


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