Stock Traders Thought This Quarter Would Be Worse Than the First

How can traders in the equity market be so sanguine when economic tumult on the order of a depression is blaring all around them? Possibly because they expected even worse.

That’s one takeaway from data compiled by Charles Schwab Corp. on the brokerage’s most active clients, which shows almost 60% were bracing for volatility to rise in the second quarter. Dread is a natural emotion when things are falling apart, but that’s an awfully pessimistic take considering the first three months of the year saw equity turbulence surpass levels seen in the 2008 financial crisis.

“Nobody knows what to expect right now,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab.

Volatility has subsided in April compared with the back half of the first quarter, when the coronavirus sent stocks to the fastest 30% drawdown on record. The Cboe Volatility Index, known as the VIX, averaged 49 from Feb. 19 to end of March, after holding near 14 for the first part of the year. It has averaged 44 so far this month.

The S&P 500, down 34% at its lows, rose or fell by 1% or more on 30 occasions during the first quarter, almost three times what’s typically seen in the first three months of the year, according to DataTrek Research. The VIX surged to a record in March, and the S&P lost more than 5% on multiple occasions, with March 16 seeing a 12% decline, the worst one-day drop since 1987. It’s now up more than 25% from its March lows.

Three in five respondents to the Schwab survey of 500 active traders said they expect the stock market to remain in a bear market for the remainder of the year, and only a quarter of the traders say they’re bullish on U.S. equities.

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