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Who Will ‘Buy the Dip’ in a Freefall?

(Of Two Minds) The current market melt-up is taken as nearly risk-free because the Fed has our back, i.e. the Federal Reserve will intervene long before any market decline does any damage.

It’s assumed the Fed or its proxies, i.e. the Plunge Protection Team, will be the buyer in any freefall sell-off: no matter how many punters are selling, the PPT will keep buying with its presumably unlimited billions.

If this looks risk-free, ask who else will be “buying the dip” in a freefall? Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan answered this question in his post-2008 crash essay Never Saw It Coming: Why the Financial Crisis Took Economists By Surprise (Dec. 2013 Foreign Affairs):

“They (financial firms) failed to recognize that market liquidity is largely a function of the degree of investors’ risk aversion, the most dominant animal spirit that drives financial markets. But when fear-induced market retrenchment set in, that liquidity disappeared overnight, as buyers pulled back. In fact, in many markets, at the height of the crisis of 2008, bids virtually disappeared.”

For the uninitiated, bids are the price offered to buyers of stocks and ETFs and the ask is the price offered to sellers. When bids virtually disappear, this means buyers have vanished: everyone willing to buy on the way down (known as catching the falling knife) has already bought and been crushed with losses, and so there’s nobody left (and no trading bots, either) to buy…

The issue isn’t just the price you get when you sell–it’s being able to get out of your position at all. 

A strange phenomenon occurs in freefall sell-offs: the exit door (i.e. the liquidity that allows you to liquidate your entire position at the current bid) suddenly shrinks from a barndoor to a mouse-sized hole in the baseboard.

Nobody thinks a euphoric rally could ever go bidless, but as Greenspan belatedly admitted, liquidity is not guaranteed. In a real tsunami of trading-bot selling, the Plunge Protection Team’s card table is no match for the sea of selling.

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