Home / Markets / Stock Markets /  Tech stocks volatility roller coaster is back at pandemic-crash level

A year after the crash, March is proving to be another brutal month for investor nerves.

The Nasdaq 100 Index has moved at least 1% in either direction on eight of March’s 10 trading days, a string not seen since the depths of the pandemic-fueled bear market a year ago.

After enjoying bullet-proof status for most of 2020, uncertainty over tech stocks is building as 10-year Treasury yields push above 1.6% and the strengthening economy focuses more attention on cheaper cyclical companies.

“These are the generals that have lifted equity markets over the last year, so there is caution when these tech giants start to see some corrective price action," said Matt Miskin, co-chief investment strategist at John Hancock Investment Management. “It’s going to be hard for them without a fundamental catalyst to make a strong comeback."

Just this week, the Nasdaq 100 fell 2.9% on Monday, rose 4% Tuesday, then switched its direction in each of the next three sessions before finishing the week down 0.9%. Tech stocks rose when the 10-year yield fell and vice versa, pushing a five-day correlation between the two to -0.63, where a reading of -1 means they’re moving in opposite directions.

Yet the Nasdaq 100 has recouped almost half of its $1.8 trillion loss from a high in February. So the gauge’s 6.3% dip from a record is by no means a catastrophe, especially next its 97% rally since last year’s pandemic trough. But what’s worrying investors is the threat from Treasury yields.

A jump in the 10-year benchmark to 2% could result in a 20% correction for the Nasdaq 100, warn strategists at Ned Davis Research. The concern is echoed over at Miller Tabak + Co., where chief market strategist Matt Maley said a low double-digit correction is not unlikely for the tech group.

“Some froth needs to be taken off of the sector," Maley said by phone from Massachusetts. “There is nothing unhealthy in it after a rally we’ve witnessed since last March. There are signs showing it’s ripe for a pullback, and I don’t know if it’s a 10% correction or a 15% correction. But a decline of this magnitude can set the stage for a bigger advance down the road."

An arguably bigger headwind than rising yields is the broader rotation into cyclical value names and out of growth stocks that’s played out at the beginning of almost every previous economic cycle. That’s already triggered double-digit declines in stocks that were perceived as the most desirable on Wall Street as recently as a couple of months ago.

Tesla Inc. is down 21% from its high in late January, despite a 16% rebound this week. Apple Inc. posted its fourth weekly drop in five weeks, and streaming giant Netflix Inc. fell in three out of the last four weeks. That’s pushed a measure of 10-day realized volatility in the Nasdaq 100 toward 40, close to price swings in the Russell Microcap Index, where half the constituents had no earnings in the past year.

All told, the Nasdaq 100 is down 0.2% this month compared with a 3.5% gain in the S&P 500, making the gap between two the biggest since April 2016. This, in turn, is influencing traders’ expectations of future price swings. The Cboe NDX Volatility Index is hovering near 30, compared with 21 for the VIX Index, with the spread between them at a level last seen in September.

To Glenmede’s Michael Reynolds, this means volatility is here to stay.

“We were at some pretty historical levels of growth outperformance of value even before the pandemic started, and the pandemic actually really accelerated that," Reynolds said by phone. “We’re sort of seeing the opposite happening now, where we’ve seen some pretty material increases in interest rates and the growth stocks showing a good amount of sensitivity to that rise in interest rates."

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