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More stockmarket swings likely this week
IF you were travelling in outer space without access to the Internet last week, you would be forgiven for thinking stocks had a quiet week. The blue-chip indexes Standard & Poor's 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by about one percentage point from a week earlier.
If you were anywhere near a computer, newspaper or smartphone, however, you probably caught wind of the panic during one of the most volatile weeks in stockmarket history.
Unless you are travelling in outer space again this week, you are likely to hear more about stockmarket swings as statements emerge from Federal Reserve officials at an informal summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and traders anticipate Friday's monthly jobs report.
The Dow suffered its biggest point loss in history at the opening last Monday, falling more than 1,000 points as contagion from the Chinese stock-market crash spread worldwide. While the move was not historic on a percentage basis, there are few occasions in living memory when a major index went so rapidly from within a percentage point of a record high - as the Dow was in late July - to stand 14 per cent from that peak at the Monday low, barely three weeks later.
Some market strategists are scratching their heads at the undue influence which the notoriously wild Shanghai and Shenzhen markets are having on stock markets that are usually more stable worldwide.
If the crash in Chinese stocks turns out to be a false alarm and the underlying economy stays on track for the 7 per cent growth now targeted by the Beijing government, such scepticism will be warranted.
If, as some traders fear, China's economic miracle is in the process of ending, however, the aftershocks in US markets make perfect economic sense. After all, many US multinationals - from Apple to Caterpillar - count China as a critical customer base.
To take another example, the boom on the US shale oilfields cannot last with oil prices at these levels, even after a surge last week from levels around US$38 to finish at roughly US$45 a barrel.
One roustabout, or oil-field labourer, in Denton, Texas said he had quit his job in Oklahoma to seek work in another industry recently because of persistent rumours that many wells there were about to be "shut in".
Some bearish investors believe last week's rebound in China and the United States was a false dawn.
"This crisis can last a while," said Lorenzo Di Mattia, manager of hedge fund Sibilla Global Fund, which makes "macro" bets on currency and stock markets worldwide. "It's more a problem of slow growth than a real crisis actually."
The US may take over from China as the driver of volatility this week. On Friday, traders sold out of rate-sensitive areas such as utility stocks after Fed vice-chairman Stanley Fischer hinted the central bank had not ruled out a September hike.
On Wednesday, stock indexes had their biggest gains since 2011 after New York Fed president William Dudley said a September hike looked "less compelling" after the Chinese-inspired rout.
"Now you have Fischer in essence putting September back on the table with the caveat that we still need to know what ramifications are of Chinese devaluation," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial.
The Fed has painted itself into a corner. If the central bank's rate-setting committee decides to plough on with the planned rate hikes in September or even October, US stock traders could panic, and the near-bear market experienced early this week could become an actual bear market.
If the Fed postpones rate hikes yet again, the central bank could help reinflate the bubbles in Chinese, emerging-markets stocks and biotech stocks that some say was the root cause of the recent crash in the first place.
To some, the frustrating thing is that outside of the rate-hike and Chinese-market dramas, the environment for US stocks is very conducive to a bull market.
"Look at domestic data points: Corporate earnings for the second-quarter were better than expected, gross domestic product was better than expected," said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at mutual fund firm Federated Investors.
"Labour markets are strong, autos are strong, housing is strong. The collapse in energy prices converts to another energy dividend for the consumer at exactly the right time-heading into the back-to-school and winter shopping seasons.
"As we look at the domestic landscape, things don't look bad at all," said Mr Orlando.
During the 2008 global financial crisis, economists learnt that China could not maintain its robust growth rate in the absence of strength in key trading partners such as the US. This year, investors may find out whether the US can grow in the absence of support from China.
Last week, strategists at Goldman Sachs published a note comparing this year's China scare to the 1998 Russian financial crisis. In autumn 1998, stocks fell sharply only for the fleeting bear market to be eclipsed by the massive late 1990s rally.
As on that occasion, growth prospects in the US will soon outweigh worries about overseas growth, the Goldman Sachs analysts argued, cautioning that investors should own stocks of companies with a high proportion of US sales.
"Macro data next week include Institute for Supply Management manufacturing and payroll reports," the Goldman analysts wrote. "Solid releases would suggest US expansion continues despite China slowdown."