Mania in stocks like GameStop, surging options activity suggest a market pullback is coming

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Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Speculative trading in some high momentum stocks and options could be signaling a near-term top, but the bull market is likely to run on for some time, stoked by prospects of an improving economy and easy Fed money, investors said.

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Julian Emanuel, head of equity and derivative strategy at BTIG, said the surge of options buying and frothy trading in some high-flying stocks is very similar to the period leading up to the tech bubble crash in 2000. He said it’s very possible if the market behaves the same the S&P 500 could go to a lofty 5,047 before the bull market ends, though he is not forecasting such a surge.

Most strategist expect the S&P 500 to end this year higher, with CNBC’s strategist survey at a median 4,100. But many do expect at least one pullback early in the year. The S&P 500 closed at 3,855 Monday, up 0.4%.

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“We don’t see any signs yet, concrete signs, of a medium term trading top, but this type of volatility leads us to believe that similar to 1999 to 2000, you could get a 10% to 15% pullback at any time,” said Emanuel. “From what we see right now the level of speculation leads us to conclude the typical retail investor is as bullish in the aggregate as we have seen in over 20 years. With valuations where they are now, that is the recipe for potentially rapid, albeit temporary set back in the market.”

Bank of America global strategists also don’t see the market bubble popping soon. “Even the frothiest equity indices still lag well behind performance during previous bubbles. The NASDAQ is up 96% over the past three years,” they wrote. “It rose 201% before its early 2000 peak (after which it fell by 72%). The S&P is up 44% compared to 98% in the late 1990s. The MSCI World ex US is currently flat over 3 years, so no bubble there.”

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Short Squeeze Frenzy

Monday’ s trading in some high momentum names sent a flash warning to some traders. GameStop, the poster child of the recent frenzy, surged to a high of $159.18 before reversing hard, to fall below $70. It ended the day at $76.79, up 18% on the day. The company has a high short position, and it is one of a number of stocks being targeted.

“In the last few days, they’re just going at the names that are most shorted, to create one last squeeze,” said Scott Redler, partner with T3Live.com. GameStop is a popular name on Reddit’s Wall Street message board.

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AMC is another stock that was surging , closing up 26% Monday. Another short, Bed Bath and Beyond was very volatile, hitting a high of $47.73, before closing at $30.68, still up 1.6% on the day. Other retailers’ stocks got swept up in the ferver Monday, like Nordstrom which soared more than 10% before falling back to close up 1.7%.

“There’s definitely some excessiveness out there right now, which has some professionals scratching their heads,” said Redler, who focuses on short-term technicals. “You don’t want to fight the excessiveness, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little more cautious. Why be aggressive with something like Apple, when it’s heading into earnings on a Wednesday.”

Redler said he has become more cautious, and the wild trading Monday brought a level of fear back into the market for the first time in a while.

Piling into call options

The frenzied trading comes at at time when smaller investors are contributing much more of the daily volume in the stock market. That’s been especially true since the pandemic, with no fee, internet trading creating easy access to investing. At the same time, investors are piling into call options at a record pace on individual names and have been rewarded as the action drives dealers to buy stocks.

“It is the network effect of social media amplifying the types of things we saw in 1999 and 2000 in terms of day traders being able to move select stocks higher,” said Emanuel. “It’s further amplified by the fact you now have limited risk, limited reward and they’re doing so in the guise of short-dated options, which we’ve seen used very heavily in late summer. At that time it caused an overshoot in technology and value stocks. We’re seeing that now, not only in the same large cap tech stocks but also in the second and third order type of stocks.”

Emanuel said the 2000 bubble burst had dire effects for retail investors, with many fearing to return to the market for a long time and some still too conservative. “I would be loathe to call this the full on mania phase but based on what we’ve seen in the last few days it has every indication, if that momentum continues that’s what you’re going to have,” he said.

Emanuel said the pandemic could become a key driver of the market again, and there’s a concern that investors will have to face concerns again about a double dip recession in the second quarter, if the vaccine rollout does not improve and the virus worsens.

Trading around the pandemic was apparent Monday with investors dumping travel stocks, like airlines, casinos and cruise ships. Tech, the stay-at-home play, was higher, with names like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon all gaining.

Emanuel said even if there is a pullback, the trend higher seems far from over. If the S&P did get to over 5,000, it would be trading a multiple of 30, from its current 23. It would not be without precedent, since in the tech bubble, and also in 1929, the price to earnings ratio of the market was at about 33, he said.

“We’re in 1999 again. I just don’t know which part of that year,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group.

(With inputs from CNBC)

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