In the parlance of Thomas Friedman, the world never looked flatter than it did this week. A 9% stock market sell-off in China on Feb. 27 prompted sharp drops almost everywhere else around the globe. Suddenly, money managers and traders, lulled into a trance by seven months of steadily rising share prices, felt like they'd been hit over the head with a best-selling hardcover. With one big thwack, they were reminded that stocks are risky and that emerging markets are riskier.
In hindsight, no one should have been surprised. China surged an amazing 130% last year and 13% in the week ahead of the plunge, as millions of newbie day traders punched in buy orders on rumors about shares they'd never heard of. Stocks zoomed in other overseas markets for half a year; U.S. shares, which have lagged the rest of the world since 2000, rose steadily and with little volatility. Something had to give.
The question is what happens next. This latest episode of jitters could be the opening shock-and-awe campaign of something more lasting. The U.S. economy is suddenly looking weaker than it has in a long time. Fears are mounting that troubles in the mortgage market could spread to other sectors. And profit growth seems to be slowing markedly—a troublesome sign, to be sure.
But a stronger case can be made that Feb. 27 will turn out to be more of a tremor than an earthquake. Notably, U.S. indexes gained on Feb. 28. That's in part because powerful forces are undergirding stocks now in a way they weren't in earlier bear markets. The last bear came on the heels of a long bull market that included the biggest five-year run-up since the 1920s. Share prices are only now beginning to revisit their 2000 levels. The amount of cash sitting on the sidelines is at a record. Individual investors haven't jumped into the market en masse.
What's more, private equity is now a major factor. Buyout firms have raised billions in the past two years. Furious dealmaking is keeping asset prices buoyant and also cutting the supply of shares available to investors. That squeeze is being magnified by activist hedge funds, which are badgering companies into stock repurchases like never before. With the inventory of equities down and so much money already on the sidelines, the market appears to have a steady floor underfoot.
What the market is telling us
Business Week has a optimistic take on the market. One thing is for sure there will be one big rally in the market in later part of this year. The earning picture is still very healthy.