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August is usually volatile for the market, but the Fed is a wild card and could agitate things further

A trader works on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, August 20, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

The markets: It’s August, but it’s also Covid. Normal August trading flows are being greatly complicated by the delta variant.

A third but still important complication — increasingly authoritarian action in China is causing some to reprice China’s demand for commodities, and the valuation of its entire market.

A normal August

On one level, this is a normal August: mostly low volume, followed by short bursts of downside volatility.

Many were alarmed when the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) hit almost 25 on Thursday morning, but that’s only because volatility has been abnormally low, with only a few 1% daily moves in the S&P 500 in the last few months (way below the historic average, which is about one every week).

It’s typical for the VIX to spike at least once — and often several times — in August and September, and even into October. It was 25 at this time last year, and spiked into the 40s in October:

VIX: recent Aug-Oct. highs
2020 41
2019 24.8
2018 28.8

August to September is typically strong for defensive sectors like consumer staples, health care, utilities and weak for cyclicals like energy, materials and industrials, and “less positive” for technology, according to BofA Securities.

So far, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Not a normal August

Is the Fed now the marginal mover of the market?

With the markets fragile, some believe the Fed has now become very important as a wild card. The markets are comfortable with a possible September announcement of a tapering timeline, with tapering starting at the end of the year, and ending sometime in the middle of next year, with rate hikes starting after that.

But if that were to suddenly change, the markets could go into a tizzy, unable to deal with earlier tapering and rate hikes and the delta variant all at once. A sudden move to a higher rate stance is historically the Great Killer of Bull Markets.

Traders have emphasized that the Fed must carefully manage its message — if it does not, and rates rise suddenly, tech will sell off dramatically and what is now a modest 2% correction will quickly turn into a 10% rout.

Delta variant remains the big unknown

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