Many times you hear market commentators claim an event is “already priced in” even though it hasn’t occurred yet. What does this mean, how does it happen, and what does that mean for trading? Read on to find out.
The most important thing to keep in mind is people don’t make trading decisions based on what has already happened, they trade what they think will happen. That’s because it is too late to profit on the past. If a stock already went up 10%, then it is too late to profit from that 10% rise in price. But if you think a stock will rise 10% and you buy it now, you make 10% when it increases in price. Successful traders buy before something happens, not after. This concept is obvious, but it has profound implications for how we approach trading.
As traders we are always trying to figure out what will happen before it happens. Will the next iPhone be a hit or a flop? If we know the answer before everyone else, we can profit from that insight. But since we are trading based on speculation of something that hasn’t happened yet, there are risks we could be wrong. And that risk is what creates the profit opportunity. Some people will bet the next iPhone will be a hit, while others believe it will be a flop. The current market price balances these two extreme views and every shade in between. And when sales numbers are announced, one side makes money and the other side loses.
If the outcome is random, then by rule this event cannot be priced into the market because the crowd doesn’t have insight into what will happen. But this rarely occurs because someone always knows something and eventually that knowledge spreads through the market.
Sticking with the iPhone example, we only know for sure how many iPhones were sold in a quarter when the company reports its earnings several weeks after the quarter ends. But there are plenty of ways to get ahead of the news and figure out what those sales numbers will be good or bad. The simplest is your personal opinion. Does the new iPhone excite you? Are you tempted to upgrade? How about your friends? Are they talking about the new iPhone? Do tech writers recommend upgrading or keeping your existing model? What about the lines at the launch? Bigger or smaller than last year? How quickly does the iPhone sellout? How long are backorder times? What are suppliers telling analysts about the size of Apple’s component orders? Even though we won’t know what the official iPhone sales numbers are for several months, traders paying attention to these clues will have a good idea of what the sales will be. And these traders start buying or selling based on what those clues tell them. Once those clues are obvious to the crowd, it is too late to buy or sell the news because it has already been priced in. Great reviews and the stock’s price shoots up. If most reviewers say it isn’t worth upgrading, then the price falls in anticipation of a bad earnings. If you wait to trade the earnings announcement, you will be too late.
This phenomena occurs naturally because traders are always trying to get ahead of each other. Getting there first is how we make money. We buy before the price goes up and sell before it goes down, but we can only do that if we make our trades before everyone else. And to trade before everyone else means we need to be early. And we’re not the only one who trades this way. When the crowd trades early, the expected result gets priced in long before it happens. And if the crowd is right, which it usually is, then the stock market only moves a small bit when the news becomes official. That’s because the bulk of the move occurred in anticipation of the news.
A current example is Tax Reform. Traders have eagerly been looking forward to tax cuts since Trump won the election last November. The S&P500 has risen nearly 30% since Republicans won the White House and maintained control of Congress. In finance class we learned stock prices are based on corporate earnings, but S&P500 earnings are only forecast to be up around 10%. That’s a pretty big gap between earnings growth and stock market gains. The bulk of the stock market’s gains over the last 13 months are based on hope and anticipation of regulatory relaxations and tax cuts.
If a person was waiting until Trump signed the tax cuts into law, they would have missed 30% in gains over the last 13 months. Thirty percent is a tremendous number and reflects almost all of the tax cut gains. Congress will vote on and approve the bill within days and Trump will sign it into law before Christmas. Without a doubt we could see a one or two percent pop when this happens, but one or two percent pop is peanuts compared to the nearly straight up 30% move we’ve witnessed over the last 13 months.
If a person is waiting to buy until after Tax Reform is signed into law, they are really, really late. And not only did they miss almost all of the gains, they are putting themselves at risk because following highly anticipated headlines we often run into a “sell the news” phenomena. If everyone bought in anticipation of a widely expected event, then there is no one left to buy the news when it finally happens. And the law of supply and demand dictates that if no one buys the news, ie no demand, then prices fall. So not only is the person who waits for the news too late to profit, they could actually end up losing money in the subsequent pullback. There is solid science behind the market cliche, “Buy the rumor, sell the news”.
Without a doubt the stock market can rally can continue in 2018. But we need new reasons to rally once Tax Reform becomes law.
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Jani Ziedins (pronounced Ya-nee) is a full-time investor and writer who has successfully traded stocks and options for more than a decade. He earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and an MBA and M.S. Marketing from the University of Colorado Denver. His prior professional experience includes manufacturing engineering at Fortune 500 companies, structural engineering, small business consultant, collegiate instructor, and managing investment real estate. He is now fortunate enough to trade full-time from home, affording him the luxury of spending extra time with his wife and two young children.