The last three weeks have been a boon for financial reporters. All of a sudden, they get the front page stories in their newspapers, a little akin to being the weather forecasters in the middle of a hurricane. At the end of each day, after another violent market move, they go to the experts (academics, practitioners) and ask them for reasons. They get the obligatory: "The market went up (down) because...." I have always been skeptical of this Monday-morning quarterbacking, and last week illustrates why.
On Monday, the market was down 778 points and the culprit was so obvious that experts were not even consulted. The bailout bill failed to pass in the House, and the market fall was attributed to this failure. The rest of the week was less explainable. On Tuesday, when there was little news about the bailout, the market bounced back up almost 500 points. On Wednesday, when things looked rosier for the bill's success, the market was down again. On Thursday, after the senate had passed the bill, the market did nothing. (Boring never felt so good.) On Friday, the bill finally passed around midday. Good news, right! The market promptly swooned.
There are several reasons why the market is so difficult to decipher. First, all events have to be measured relative to expectations. There is no good news or bad news in absolute terms but only in relative terms. An earnings increase of 50% at Google may be bad news, if investors were expecting an increase of 75%. A drop in earnings of 30% at Ford may be good news, if investors were expecting a drop of 50%. Second, there are so many events swirling around markets that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the market to move on any given day: Was it the weakening dollar? Higher interest rates? Unexpected inflation? Third, a great deal of what happens on any given day cannot be explained; putting a reason on a big move after the fact allows us to feel better about ourselves (as investors) and a little more in control of our destinies.
Do I think that experts should stop trying to provide explanations for market moves? Not at all. In addition to their entertainment value, these explanations may help markets put the past behind and move on...