Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq near records but stock-market volumes are the lowest in months — Here’s why

  • Written by MarketWatch
  • Published in Economics

Stocks are on the verge of record territory, potentially representing the end of a stretch of futility that saw a sharp retreat from the peaks hit in the late summer and fall of 2018.

However, the recent resurgence for stocks after a more than six-month, corrective hiatus has many market participants questioning its durability, as trading volumes remain near the lowest levels of 2019.

“It’s been a bit of a rocking-chair market, in that we’ve been doing a lot but haven’t been going anywhere,” Matthew Bartolini, head of SPDR Americas research at State Street Global Advisors, told MarketWatch in an interview earlier in the week.

Indeed, Monday’s action marked the lowest full-day, total composite trading volume (representing trading on the New York Stock Exchange and its main affiliates and on the Nasdaq)—roughly 5.7 billion shares—since Sept. 10, according to Dow Jones Market Data. In fact, Monday’s session was even eclipsed by the holiday-shortened Christmas Eve[1] session’s turnover of 5.79 billion shares.

To make a finer point, the rolling 10-day average of total composite volumes are their lowest since Sept. 12 and the volumes are on pace for the lowest monthly average since last August. The average volume for April, if it holds, would represent the worst April since 2013, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

It isn’t entirely clear what those lackluster volumes mean for stocks, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.42%[2]  sitting 1% short of its Oct. 3 closing peak, the S&P 500 index SPX, +0.16%[3] within 1% of its all-time closing high, and the Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +0.02%[4] just 1.4% from its all-time high, as of Thursday’s close.

Read: Which markets are closed on Good Friday[5]

Some make the case that the dearth in trading activity reflects a lack of participation in the market by a broad swath of investors.

“For the New York Stock Exchange, there has been a bit of hesitation to have full participation in the rally…with a decent amount of people on the sidelines,” State Street’s Bartolini said. He said those people who “missed the bounce back [since the December low] are waiting to see what happens on earnings season.”

To be sure, lackluster volumes, which have been trending down for years now, may not tell the full story about the state of the market.

Industry participants also have highlighted that the breadth of the market —...

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