Traders Toolbox: Psychology of a bottom

As bull markets roar to a top, it is relatively easy to see the emotional or psychological signs of an impending top. Virtually every source of news will provide coverage of the seemingly endless climb towards higher levels. Greed infests the public as the inexperienced flock to get a piece of the action. Finally, when it is "impossible" for a market to decline and everyone who wants to buy is in, the top will be struck. Buyers become sellers and a downmove ensues.

To an extent, the same sort of pattern unfolds at major bottoms. However, since the events surrounding the decline are not as exciting or newsworthy as those in a bull market, the signs are harder to see. Instead of greed permeating the atmosphere, fear becomes the emotion of significance. As the news becomes per- ceived as increasingly bearish, traders who had been bullish give up. The emotional stress of margin calls and "bad" news finally forces long liquidation.

Despair, disgust and disillusionment abound among the public traders. Producers resign themselves to selling their production near current levels and, in fact, often sell future production as well. They become convinced the market is destined to move even lower. As the bearish attitude spreads, an important sign of a nearing bottom is declining open interest. This is especially true if this long liquidation of futures positions drops the open interest below recent low levels. In markets where individuals are the original holders of production, an additional sign is liquidation of cash positions.

Traders and marketers take any rally as a "gift" to sell on. Bullish fundamental conditions which may exist are discounted as the memory of the persistent downtrend remains entrenched. As a market starts up from the lows, the rallies are viewed with suspicion. Even the few who remained bullish don't trust the rebounds and often take advantage of early rallies to liquidate long positions. Setbacks from the early rallies are often sold as the participants don't want to miss the next washout to new lows. And, if enough gain this attitude, the break will not continue and traders then have to wonder why the markets won't go down on "bad" news. Eventually, their short covering triggers additional gains.

A final important component of an approaching bottom is the inability of a market to sustain a downmove on bearish news. The most common form of this action is seen when government reports are released. The bulls no longer rationalize a bearish report into a bullish one. Instead, the bulls resign themselves to additional declines. Bears move towards overconfidence and start selling the breaks as well as the rallies. Bearish reports often trigger downmovement, initially, but then additional declines fail to materialize. Moves to new lows are rejected as everyone who wants to be short already is and the longs have been liquidated, thereby leaving the markets with no one to initiate new selling. And, as at the top, but in reversed roles, the sellers become buyers.