There’s a common misconception about what moves stock prices.
Flip on the cable news and the vibe might have you believe that political statements, economic data points, or natural disasters have some sort of predictable or unilateral effect on the stock market.
And they might! But in a slightly more roundabout way. These events well may change how investors feel about owning certain investments, which leads them to buy or sell those investments. And it is the forces of supply and demand that push asset prices higher or lower.
Said another way, investor sentiment, also known as market sentiment, can cause price volatility.
Market Sentiment Defined
The collection of all investor feelings—and actions—amounts to what is called market sentiment. It is a powerful force in the markets and is the subject of much study (and cable news discourse).
Market sentiment is affected by millions of factors daily. That’s because there are at least as many participants in popular marketplaces, like the stock market.
While one investor may be selling stocks because of poor corporate earnings, others might simply sell because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It is overly simplified to assume only one cause of changes to asset prices.
Read on for an investigation of market sentiment, including how it is used as a tool for market analysis.
Collective Mood Swings
Market sentiment is the phrase used to describe the overall spirit of investors in a market. (The stock market was used in the example above, but market sentiment exists in all investment markets.) Think of market sentiment as a giant mood ring for a particular market at a particular time.
The collective psychology of the market has the power to move prices. (How much “we” demand something gives it its value.)
When prices go up, the overall tone of the market is said to be positive, or bullish. When prices move downward, it generally means that investor sentiment is negative, or bearish. Investor attitudes about investments are realized in the price of those investments.
And anyone who watches the market knows that investors can be quite emotional at times. It’s human nature. It’s best that investors accept this reality.
In fact, investors should find it freeing that humans aren’t always rational and that sometimes asset prices can have major swings along with global moods. It is not up to the investor to control the swings of the stock market, but instead to weather them calmly.
While company earnings are the engine that drives stock market returns over time, it is the act of buying and selling that, in the shorter term, can cause the stock market to wiggle.
The stock market is of particular interest when looking at market sentiment. It’s a popular, global market, for one. Second, volatility can be dramatic, unlike markets for bonds. Third, it is easy to witness changes happening in real time.
The stock marketplace is like few marketplaces in the world, where prices are updated constantly in direct relation to the buying and selling of items in question. (Imagine how wild that would be if it happened at a grocery store.)
Market sentiment is considered an important tool for market analysis. It is used to make decisions about the very market the sentiment applies to.
Market Sentiment as an Indicator
When analyzing markets in an effort to predict them, indicators are used. An indicator is a sign or trigger that may hold some sort of valuable information. Market sentiment is one such indicator.
Compare market sentiment as an indicator with fundamental analysis, which largely relates to business performance, projected business performance, and the prevailing conditions for business performance.
Imagine a new tax law that’s expected to have a strong impact on the profitability of businesses in a certain industry. This would be considered a fundamental indicator.
Sometimes sentiment indicators and fundamental indicators can be at odds with each other. Fundamental indicators appear to point in one direction, but investor emotion may say otherwise.
For example, a business could have poor business fundamentals, and investors may still feel exuberant about that company and pile into its stock, which pushes the price of that stock higher.
Examples of Market Sentiment as an Indicator
There are many ways in which market sentiment is used as a market indicator. Then there are even more interpretations for what that data could mean.
It’s important to realize that no market indicators should be taken alone as fact. Why? Market indicators are in the business of predicting the future, which, in the stock market and otherwise, is a tough thing to do.
In forecasting the general trajectory of the stock market, investor sentiment is sometimes used as a contrary indicator.
As the old adage goes, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” In a broad sense, when market sentiment is poor, it could indicate that it’s a good time to invest. When market sentiment is hot, it could be a bad time to invest.
When do people feel the worst about investing? At market bottoms, when prices are low. When do investors feel best? After the market has done well, which could indicate that prices are too high.
This is a characteristic of market bubbles, where investor mania causes prices to soar beyond their fundamental value. (Exhibit A was the dot com bubble, which saw investors piling into internet stocks, some of which never had so much as a quarter of positive earnings.)
Another instance in which sentiment might be used to assess an investment is through a strategy called value investing. With this method, investors attempt to uncover underpriced stocks—stocks whose price is lower than the believed value.
This could mean looking for a stock that has a strong fundamental foundation but that has yet to catch fire with investors, or a stock that is being punished (perhaps unnecessarily) by investors. Finding the proverbial diamond in the rough requires both an understanding of a company’s fundamentals and the market sentiment surrounding it.
Day trading, which is the practice of making bets on the price movement of a security during the trading day, relies on what are called technical indicators. And because of the power of investor attitudes to move prices, factors of sentiment can play an important role in short-term market changes.
For example, technical traders may look at a security’s historical price movement, called moving averages, in an attempt to surmise what will happen going forward. It is common to look at both 50-day and 200-day simple moving averages in an attempt to predict what happens next.
Other examples of sentiment indices are the High-Low Index, the CBOE Volatility Index, also known as the “fear” index, and the Bullish Percent Index.
The BPI measures the number of stocks with bullish and bearish patterns according to point and figure charts, ultimately producing a read on the sentiment of the overall market. An output of 50% is neutral, while reads above 80% are bullish and below 20%, bearish.
Some investors might argue that the above technical indicators have a serious limitation: They are using data from the past to project into the future and that the future is more or less an unknown.
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