Why a Breakdown in Small-Caps Could Be a Slippery Slope

Further weakness in small-caps could take the tech-heavy COMP and larger-cap SPX down a slippery slope

by Todd Salamone

Published on Aug 17, 2015 at 9:15 AM

"Through Friday's close, the SPX has now printed 2,100 on 44 of the 121 trading days since it first hit 2,100 in mid-February, which is 36.3% of the days. If past is prologue, don't be surprised to see a move back to 2,100 sometime this week … [I]t appears the COMP wants to visit 5,000 again in August, continuing a pattern of pullbacks to this millennium area that occurred in May, June, and July."

"[Y]TD breakeven levels remain potentially supportive on other indexes. In other words, if the COMP pulls back to its support area at 5,000, this could be coincident with benchmarks such as the SPX and Russell 2000 (RUT - 1,206.90) trading back to potential support at their 2014 closes, as follows:  SPX - 2,058   RUT - 1,204."

-- Monday Morning Outlook, August 10, 2015

Last week's script played out pretty much like we envisioned, when our focus was on the possibility of round numbers on key equity benchmarks coming into play, in addition to year-to-date breakeven levels flexing their muscles. Unfortunately, the end result is that equities remain locked in the trading range that we have grown accustomed to for months.

The week began with the S&P 500 Index (SPX - 2,091.54) gapping higher, hitting 2,100 and making it 45 out of 122 trading days that 2,100 had been printed. China's surprise move to devalue the yuan sent world markets tumbling the next morning, continuing a multi-month pattern in which the SPX has become unstable above 2,100. 

Per the chart below, the Nasdaq Composite (COMP - 5,048.24) revisited the round-number 5,000 millennium level last week, as we suggested would likely occur. At present, it appears this mark is acting as a major speed bump within an uptrend -- unlike the year 2000, when a move above 5,000 was immediately coincident with the start of a grueling bear market. Since the COMP reached 5,000 for the first time since 2000 this past March, it has printed 5,000 in every month since. Last week, it fell below the round number, but found support around 4,950 and its 160-day moving average -- a trendline that has been in the vicinity of multiple lows since early 2014. 

150814MMO_COMP

While the Russell 2000 Index (RUT - 1,212.69) and SPX drifted below support midweek at their respective year-to-date (YTD) breakeven zones, an impressive reversal on Wednesday allowed these benchmarks to close above their 2014 closing levels at 2,058 and 1,204. Coincidentally, the bond market, as represented by the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT - 123.96), ran into a brick wall at its 2014 close on Wednesday, further supporting the importance of being aware of YTD breakeven points as potential support/resistance areas during your trading activities.

"… [A] breakout above 2,130 would complete a bullish inverse 'head and shoulders' formation, targeting 2,205. With that said, an SPX close below the 2,065-2,070 area removes the possibility of this bullish pattern developing, and sets up the potential for a bearish 'head and shoulders' pattern on a break below 2,040. If this occurs, the target would be 1,950, or 8.5% below the July high."

-- Monday Morning Outlook, August 10, 2015

With the SPX locked in the middle of its range, a technical risk to the market is a breakdown in small-caps. As we said last week, the RUT is trading just above the 1,200-1,210 area, which is potential support from a couple of perspectives, including the fact that this is double the October 2011 low. Also, 1,200 serves as the "neckline" of a bearish "head and shoulders" formation.  If this neckline is eventually broken, the theoretical targeted downside would be 1,115, or 14% below the June high. With the RUT currently below the popular 200-day moving average, the risk is a breakdown below 1,200, in which small-caps take counterparts such as the tech-heavy COMP and larger-cap SPX down a slippery slope.

150814MMO_RUT1 

Adding a bit of complexity to the levels discussed above is August expiration week, as standard options are due to expire this Friday. Below, we present the iShares Russell 2000 Index ETF (IWM - 120.36) August open interest configuration. As long-time readers know, big put open interest below the market can impact expiration-week trading in one of two ways: 1) Act as a magnet (the bigger the open interest, the bigger the potential magnet); or 2) Create buying, as those who sold the puts unwind short positions that are hedges, as the puts are getting ready to expire.

Expiration-related buying or selling tends to exaggerate downside or upside movements, creating "fake out" moves below support or above resistance. As such, a move below the 120 strike, which is equivalent to RUT 1,200, could result in accelerated expiration-related selling. Therefore, we are also watching the RUT 1,170-1,180 area as a potential support zone in the upcoming week. The IWM 117 strike (equivalent to RUT 1,170) is home to heavy put open interest that could act as a magnet if sellers hit the market. But note how a trendline marking key lows since the October 2011 low sits just above the 1,170 area.

150814MMOOpenInterest

150814MMO_RUT2 

"… [T]he sentiment backdrop indicates that declines will be minimal relative to the upside potential, unless negative sentiment extremes go through the roof."

-- Monday Morning Outlook, August 3, 2015

While bears might get excited by the risks discussed above, the sentiment backdrop presents a risk to the bear case. As you can see on the chart below, equity option speculators are extremely bearish, and this is a group that has tended to be wrong at sentiment extremes. In fact, as we discussed on SchaeffersResearch.com last week, "… [T]he 10-day buy-to-open put/call volume ratio on the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX) sits at 0.73 -- the loftiest level since June 5, 2012, when the S&P 500 Index (SPX) was trading near 1,285. In other words, option traders are placing bearish bets at a much faster-than-usual clip, buying to open puts over calls."   

150814MMOputcall

The bulls remain in control for now, with indices above support and sentiment among equity option speculators consistent with many market troughs during the past few years.

Read more:

Indicator of the Week: Is the 'Death Cross' as Scary as It Sounds?

The Week Ahead: Home Depot, Wal-Mart Lead Retail Earnings; Fed Minutes in Focus


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