Could the ‘flash crash’ of last May hurt the Federal Reserve’s effort to reflate the U.S. economy? Below is a wholly speculative connect-the-dots execricse that will, if nothing else, report on a disturbing trend in stock market investment.
Let’s start with the Fed’s presumed goals in embarking on another round of so-called quantitative easing, which the central bank is widely expected to launch after its November monetary policy meeting. The Fed is expected to resume purchases of Treasury securities, thereby pumping more money into the financial system.
Some of that additional money is expected to be invested in riskier assets (since bond returns will be held down by Fed buying). Those riskier assets include stocks. Higher stock prices would mean more wealth (at least on paper) and presumed increased consumer spending, leading to more demand, more job creation and lots of other good things.
Even at best, there are a lot of co-dependent events in this scenario.
The new concern is that individual investors appear to be staying out of the U.S. equities markets, despite the third quarter share price run-up that ususally draws them in.
“In the past 25 years, there has never been a three-month gain in the S&P 500 of 10% or more that was not accompanied by net inflows into equity mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds,” wrote Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist of LPL Financial, citing data from the Investment Company Institute.
Yet so far in the second half of 2010, Kleintop wrote, the S&P 500 is up about 15% and individual investors have been net sellers every week.
Kleintop thinks it has a lot to do with the “flash crash” of May 6, when stock prices swooned historically only to mainly snap back before the day’s trading was done. Individual investors “remain distrustful of the integrity of the U.S. stock market,” he wrote.
Others have cited signs of an increased professionalization of the U.S. stock market, with volumes pumped by high frequency traders. “Without the return of the individual investor to the U.S. stock market, further gains in the current rally may be hard to come by,” Kleintop said.
That brings us back to the stretched causal relationship mentioned up top. A “flash crash-” traumatized individual investor sector might keep stocks from continuing to climb, upsetting the Fed’s strategy for a bit more inflation and more noticeable economic growth.