The S&P 500 was set to extend losses after Wednesday's stock rout spread to Asia and then landed with slightly less force in Europe.
With a sector rotation hammering pricey technology stocks, Treasury yields hovering near the highest in seven years, a trade war bubbling up and luxury stocks suffering from Chinese border checks, investors had plenty of reasons for caution.
Futures indicated sentiment remained fragile ahead of Thursday's trading session, following declines in Europe and Asia. S&P 500 e-mini contracts were down 0.8 percent as of 6:25 a.m. in New York, while Nasdaq 100 futures lost 1 percent. Europe's Stoxx 600 Index slid 1.9 percent, falling to its lowest level since late 2016.
Even so, Wall Street traders kept their cool on Wednesday after S&P 500 fell the most since February and the Nasdaq 100 had its worst day in seven years. A quick survey of 10 sell-side and buy-side traders found an "uptick in hedging activity" through the day. Others said investors stepped in to add to positions, with most sell tickets driven by passive funds via program desks.
"I don't think anyone senses any panic at this point," Larry Weiss, head of trading for Instinet in New York, said by phone. "Given the levels we are currently at, a lot of people think that something like this and even more downside are slightly overdue."
At the end of September, the S&P 500 was up 9 percent on the year, while the Nasdaq 100 had risen 19 percent. At Wednesday's close, the gains had been whittled to 4 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Investors have been selling their most beloved shares in sectors like technology, and piling into discarded ones, signaling a rotation out of the "growth" investment style and into "value".
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, President Donald Trump again criticized the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates, saying the central bank "has gone crazy" tightening too fast. He called the sell-off "a correction that we've been waiting for for a long time."
Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equity strategist at Credit Suisse, said there really wasn't much in the form of new news. Rather, traders bailed out because others were.
"It's just people saying 'Gosh, my neighbor is selling,"' Golub said on Bloomberg Television. "There is no news today. That to me means you're going to take this back. I don't know if it takes a day or a week. I would absolutely be buying this."
Wednesday felt extra painful because gains had gotten so reliable lately, according to Mike Loewengart, vice president of investment strategy for E*Trade Financial Corp. From trade tensions to hints of inflation setting off scares, the market has been resilient this year.
"We've been used to one direction lately, and that's up," Loewengart said in a message. "Naturally there are ebbs and flows, and that's what we're seeing right now. While it may be tempting to make a move to mitigate portfolio risk based on today's activity, timing the market rarely works to an investor's benefit."
But some investors, including Alon Rosin, Oppenheimer's head of institutional equity derivatives, have been looking to hedge risk. His team has been looking to add November ETF downside trades and long volatility exposures over the past two weeks, as profit warnings form companies such as BorgWarner and Delphi Technologies have raised red flags.
"Many are pointing to overall confusion, gross exposure reductions (selling longs/covering shorts), risk parity/factor related unwinds, etc., driving the overall selling," Rosin said in an email. "ETF options volumes have been relatively light since Friday's initial breakdown and we would like to see that pick up and more activity in the puts before any true stabilization kicks in for a trade-able bottom."
Most attributed Wednesday's weakness across consumer goods stocks to comments from LVMH's Chief Financial Officer Jean-Jacques Guiony, who said on a call with analysts that Chinese customs authorities are stepping up border checks on returning travelers, reinforcing concerns over the U.S., China trade war.
But even with trade concerns creeping back into the limelight, consensus is that this isn't the beginning of the end. Fundamentals still look good, and earnings season is on the way.
"I do not think the cycle peak for stocks is in, if this is the start of a correction then so be it, but I think the bull market has gas left in its tank," said Michael Antonelli, an institutional equity sales trader and managing director at Robert W. Baird & Co. "Right now it's dealing with a decline in certain sectors driven by late cycle factors and it's coming to grips with it in an ugly way."
This article was written by Gregory Calderone, Sarah Ponczek, Kasper Viita, reporters for The Washington Post. Bloomberg's Elena Popina, Lu Wang, Felice Maranz and Adam Haigh contributed.