Are your trades bearish or bullish?

April 21, 2016
By Vlad Karpel

Stocks struggled at the open, but have pared much of the losses heading into midday Thursday. The S&P 500 Index is off .65 to 2101.75 and 6 points from session lows.

Treasury bonds are again lower and continuing a sharp sell-off that started Wednesday morning, despite a grim reading from the most recent Philly Fed index for April (-1.6 vs. 9.9 consensus). The yield on the benchmark ten-year Treasury is climbing to 1.88%, from just 1.78% two days ago.

Crude oil is off 65c to $43.50 after big gains Wednesday and gold is down $1.5 to $1253.

In the equities market, trading is decidedly mixed for a second day. Four of ten market sectors are lower, led by a second day of relative weakness in Consumer Staples (XLP) and Utilities (XLU). Healthcare (XLV), Telecomm (IYZ), and Energy (XLE) are seeing modest strength.

CBOE Volatility Index (.VIX) is up .39 to 13.67 after falling to 2016 lows of just 12.5 intraday Wednesday.

Overall trading in the options market is relatively active. 3.7 million calls and 3.2 million puts changed hands through the first two hours. Projected volume for the day is 16 million and about 10% above the one-month daily average.

The fourteen most active options contracts so far today are on exchange-traded funds (ETFs). iShares Japan Fund (EWJ) Jun 10 puts, iShares Emerging Markets Fund (EEM) Jun 37 calls, EEM Jun 36 calls, and XLP May 51 puts are at the top of the list.

Indeed, while the earnings results continue to pour in, the interest in ETF options today seems to reflect a sense of uncertainty, or mixed sentiment, on the macro front. Some products, like SPDR Financial Fund (XLF), SPDR Biotech Fund (XBI), and EEM are seeing increased call activity or bullish trading. Yet, others, like XLP, SPDR Oil Exploration and Production (XOP), and SPDR Metals and Mining Fund (XME), are seeing notable bearish trading.


As we can see from the chart above, this growing sense of uncertainty comes at an interesting time for the S&P 500. It has been pinned near the 2,100 level this week after the 15% rally off of mid-February lows. It is attempting to break its 2015 highs and move to record levels. The developing crossover of the 50 and 200-day moving averages would suggest that the bullish trend certainly has some legs.

However, after the 70% rally in crude oil prices since February, it would not be too surprising to see the energy sector, which has been the leader in the S&P 500 over the past two months, take a pause or even retrace some gains. Meanwhile, relative weakness in the utilities and consumer staples over the past two days is perhaps reflecting some concerns about rates, as Treasury bonds have been reeling and yields rise. Meanwhile, the earnings season is now unfolding and likely to yield a steady mix of winners and losers in the weeks ahead.

Against this backdrop, “mixed” and somewhat directionless trading in the equities market might remain the order of the day until some catalyst emerges to: 1) propel the S&P 500 record highs or 2) set the table for correction after the big gains mustered over the past two months.

The S&P 500 has short-term resistance at 2,100, 2,110 and 2,115. Look to 2,096, 2,091, and 2,075 as potential areas of support.

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