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Watch margin debt as FAANGM sextet keeps powering S&P 500

2 weeks ago

The S&P 500 index continues to barrel higher, setting fresh peaks as it does so. The American benchmark has advanced for seven straight months, its best run without a loss since its 10-month romp between April 2017 and January 2018, even if some of the market’s technical signs have not convinced everyone.

As noted last month, the small-cap Russell 2000 index and the Dow Jones Transportation index have yet to set fresh peaks, to imply the current advance lacks the breadth that provides confidence in the foundations of the upward move. In this context, it is interesting to note the first dip in US margin debt since February 2020, just as the pandemic hit and investor confidence quickly drained away.

“In this context of the S&P 500’s seven straight monthly gains (the best run since 2017–18), it is interesting to note the first dip in US margin debt since February 2020, just as the pandemic hit and investor confidence quickly drained away.”

Margin debt is the amount of money an investor can borrow from their broker via a margin account to buy shares (or even short-sell them). This looks smart and gears us returns when markets are rising (as the investor or trader can get more exposure) but looks less clever when markets are falling. Indeed, falling asset prices can force so-called margin calls where the investor or trader must start repaying the loan – and sometimes they must sell other positions to fund that repayment, creating a negative feedback loop in markets.

US margin debt has dipped for the first time in 17 months

Source: FINRA, Refinitiv data

This first dip in margin debt must be watched, especially considering Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) queries about regulatory filings from the investment platform Robinhood and questions about its business model and whether payment for order flow is appropriate. It remains to be seen whether this dampens some of the liquidity flow which has done so much to elevate certain sections of the US stock market but it may be no coincidence that what looked like some of the frothier areas have started to flag.

Hot and cold

Whether trading losses are sparking a slight decrease in risk appetite or whether a more cautionary approach (perhaps considering Federal Reserve reverse repo operations and talk of tapering) is lessening demand for initial public offerings (IPOs), Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) and growth and tech stocks is hard to divine.

“What is clear is that some of the hottest areas of the US market are showing some signs of cooling.”

But what is clear is that some of the hottest areas of the US market are showing some signs of cooling.

New market entrants have started to lose their appeal, judging by the performance of the Renaissance IPO ETF and Renaissance International IPO ETF. The former is currently tracking the performance of 72 new American floats, the latter 62 global ones. The international vehicle may be suffering owing to its 44% weighting toward China and the US-oriented version is at least trying to claw back lost ground.

The performance of new market entrants has tailed off

Source: Refinitiv data

Enthusiasm for cash shells set up to acquire what they fancy is also waning. The Next Gen Defiance SPAC Derived ETF, which tracks a basket of nearly 300 SPACs, is down by more than a third from its high. This is perhaps less of a surprise when you consider the data from SPACinsider.com, which shows how 308 SPACs are looking for a target even though 263 have already floated. In the end, supply may be outstripping demand.

Investors are clamming up when it comes to cash shells and ARK Innovation ETF is in choppier waters

Source: Refinitiv data

Even Cathie Wood’s ARK Innovation ETF, the darling of growth- and momentum-seekers, has found the going to be a bit tougher of late. The $22 billion behemoth – whose biggest holdings are Tesla, Teladoc and Roku – trades a fifth below its high (although supporters will counter that it is up by a quarter from its spring lows).

Toothsome sextet

None of this is conclusive and the attempted rallies in the ARK Innovation ETF and the Renaissance IPO ETF could yet signal the next upward surge in US equities. Investors would do well to keep an eye on them, and trends on the monthly margin debt figure from FINRA as useful indicators of market sentiment.

“Yet for the US market to really roll over, its leaders must falter. And in fairness, there is little sign yet of investors falling out of love with Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google’s parent Alphabet and Microsoft.”

Yet for the US market to really roll over, its leaders must falter. And in fairness, there is little sign yet of investors falling out of love with Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google’s parent Alphabet and Microsoft.

Investors still have a taste for the FAANGM stocks

Source: Refinitiv data

“If the S&P is to stumble, these names will have to do so. Spotting what could cause that is the hard bit and, in the absence of regulation, it may take a jump in interest rates or a wider, unexpected shock to prompt investors to sell such core holdings, just as happened with the oil price shock and inflation which did for the previously unassailable ‘Nifty Fifty’ in 1973–74.”

Their aggregate $9.8 trillion market cap is the equivalent of more than three times that of the FTSE 100 and they represent a quarter of the S&P 500’s value between them. If the S&P is to stumble, these names will have to do so. Spotting what could cause that is the hard bit, such is their dominance, and, in the absence of regulation, it may take a jump in interest rates or a wider, unexpected shock to prompt investors to sell such core holdings, just as happened with the oil price shock and inflation which did for the previously unassailable ‘Nifty Fifty’ in 1973–74.

Past performance is not a guide to future performance and some investments need to be held for the long term.

Author
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Russ Mould
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Russ Mould

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AJ Bell Investment Director

Russ Mould’s long experience of the capital markets began in 1991 when he became a Fund Manager at a leading provider of life insurance, pensions and asset management services. In 1993 he joined a prestigious investment bank, working as an Equity Analyst covering the technology sector for 12 years. Russ eventually joined Shares magazine in November 2005 as Technology Correspondent and became Editor of the magazine in July 2008. Following the acquisition of Shares' parent company, MSM Media, by AJ Bell Group, he was appointed as AJ Bell’s Investment Director in summer 2013.

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