Computer trading, dark pools and exchange-traded funds are dominating market action on a daily basis, statistics show, killing the buy and hold philosophy still attempted by many professional and retail investors alike. Everything moves up or down together at a speed faster than which a normal person can react, traders said.
High frequency trading accounts for 70 percent of market volume on a daily basis, according to several traders’ estimates. The average holding period for U.S. stocks is now just 2.8 months, according to the Crosscurrents newsletter. In the 1980s, it was two years.
"The theory that buy-and-hold was the superior way to ensure gains over the long term, has been ditched completely in favor of technology," said Alan Newman, author of the monthly newsletter. "HFT promises gains are best provided by holding periods measuring as few as microseconds, possibly a few minutes, or at worst, a few hours."
The problem is only made worst by the proliferation of exchange-traded funds, traders said. The vehicles, which make trading a group of stocks as easy as buying and selling an individual security, passed the $1 trillion in assets mark at the end of last year, according to BlackRock. This is probably why all ten sectors of the S&P 500 finished in the black for two consecutive years, something that’s only happened one other time since 1960, according to Bespoke Investment Group.
"The capital raising stock market of the past hundred years has morphed in just the last 10 years into a casino," said Sal Arnuk of Themis Trading and a market infrastructure expert who advised the SEC after last year’s so-called Flash Crash. "Who is doing the fundamental work analyzing stocks? In the end, we’ve greatly increased systemic risk."
Another factor jumped into the fray in December: dark pools. Off-exchange trading accounted for more than a third of the trading volume in December, says Raymond James. While these trades are eventually reported to the public markets, they further damage price discovery, an essential element for a fair securities market, investors said.
"This was a record high market share for off-exchange trading and we believe the SEC will ultimately be forced to react to support the price discovery process by limiting off-exchange trading for all traces except for large block trades," wrote Raymond James analyst Patrick O’Shaughnessy in a note to clients yesterday.
"This destroys capital markets," said Jon Najarian, co-founder of TradeMonster and a ‘Fast Money’ trader. "Hidden trading venues, where some participants get to peek at the orders as they are entered so long as they agree to ‘interact’ with a minimum percentage, is not an exchange, it’s a license to steal."
While many see these forces aligning to cause a sort of self-correcting powerful drop in the market down the road, others feel like it’s creating an opportunity for the stock pickers to mount a comeback.
At the end of last year, something strange happened. After tracking the S&P 500 for most of 2010, the Russell 2000 Index, made up of many small companies with very different characteristics and merits, broke away in the final three months to double the gains of large cap benchmark for the year.
"Small cap outperformance in the last quarter is a very good sign this trend is ending," said Joshua Brown, money manager and author of The Reformed Broker blog. "Winners and losers are starting to separate themselves after a year of the whole risk-on (buy anything), risk off (sell everything) of the last year."
Of course, you could have just bought the iShares Russell 200 Index ETF (IWM) in September.
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John Melloy is the Executive Producer of Fast Money. Before joining CNBC, he was an editor for Bloomberg News, overseeing the U.S. Stock Market coverage team.