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People wear masks around Times Square, as cases of the infectious COVID-19 Delta variant continue to rise in New York City. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

EDUARDO MUNOZ/Reuters

What to make of the latest market wobble? If you blinked and missed it, you are in good company. But to recap, last Monday was a bit of a horror show.

The pan-regional Euro Stoxx 600 Index fell 2.3 per cent in its worst trading day of the year. The U.S. picked up the baton, sending the S&P 500 sinking by a similar degree before regaining a little poise toward the end of the day.

Oil prices took a 7 per cent hit, only part of which could be explained away by the OPEC cartel and its allies approaching a deal to raise output.

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Bonds shot higher. Yields on the 10-year benchmark note dropped below 1.18 per cent for the first time since February, down more than 0.1 percentage points on the day. Perhaps most notably, though, the pain for the reflationists did not stop there; the following day also brought sharp gains in the market’s premier haven asset, cramming yields below 1.13 per cent.

The picture was clear: this was a classic outbreak of nerves puncturing a seemingly relentlessly cheerful, if rather dull, market mood. Finding a satisfying explanation, however, is more tricky.

After-the-fact rationalization number one is that investors finally woke up to the Delta variant of COVID-19. That makes some instinctive sense; in 2020, it took weeks of devastation in Asia from the initial outbreak of COVID-19 for western investors to take it seriously. It was not until northern Italy shut down in late February of that year that investors ran for safety in earnest. This could be a rerun.

Taking that argument further, some suggest that the bond market – a magnet in times of crisis – somehow understands the grim potential economic impact of Delta better than investors in the stock market. Hence, the more significant and lasting effect there.

Bond investors tend to have a keener eye on potential doom and disaster than their equity market peers. They can smell central bank stimulus from a mile away. But this explanation doesn’t really stack up. Equity investors read the newspapers, too. Genuine shifts in market sentiment, from benign and boring to worried and wobbly, do not tend to unwind completely within two days, as this episode did.

By the middle of the week, not only had bonds backed down again, but stocks were also marching higher.

The potential impact of Delta has been a known risk to investors for weeks. Its public-health implications are clearly a concern, and businesses are suffering with the so-called “pingdemic” of workers instructed by apps to isolate. But bluntly, Delta matters to markets only to the extent that it might push major economies back in to strict, economically punishing lockdowns. Right now, that seems politically toxic.

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“We’re as worried as everyone else about the Delta variant,” wrote Oliver Brennan, senior macro strategist at Britain-based TS Lombard in a note. “But, objectively, our investment case is unswayed by the current virus wave: the link between cases and hospitalizations in this wave is weak. Don’t let your heart rule your head.”

One senior bond-trading banker in London thinks he has the answer to what is really going on here. “Well, it is August.” Calendar confusion aside, his point is that markets are in holiday mode.

It’s quiet, moves are generally small and slow, and many traders and investors desperate for a change of scene have hit the beach. Such sleepy summer days are, in any year, often characterized by abrupt, seemingly random shocks in the associated poor trading conditions.

“You often see these flights to quality, particularly during the summer,” says Mark Dowding, chief investment officer at BlueBay Asset Management LLP in London. “A lot of the flow is down to the machines and the models and you are left scratching your head. You can have days like [last] Monday when it looks like the sky is falling, then you have other days when it’s all Goldilocks.”

Bond investors and traders agree that “their” market is somewhat skittish at the moment, just as it was in the opposite direction in February. Then, yields shot higher alarmingly quickly in a rush among asset managers to dump bonds in preparation for higher growth and inflation. Now yields are demonstrating the same clunky, stop-start illiquidity on the way down.

“The [U.S. Federal Reserve Board] has said, ‘We’re watching the data,’ so it’s not giving very clear leadership,” Mr. Dowding says, adding that this leaves the bond market a little unmoored.

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Summertime silly season is not a new phenomenon. Nor, sadly, is the Delta variant. But both are likely to combine to create further slip-ups in the coming weeks and months.

Kasper Elmgreen, head of equities at Amundi SA in Dublin, says markets are starting to worry about what is “on the other side” of the COVID-19 pandemic after a very strong reflation trade.

“You can be double vaccinated and still get this. That was not the narrative last year. It’s less black and white,” he says.

Brace for bumps in the road, Mr. Elmgreen adds: “This is not a straight line. This was never going to be a straight line.”

© The Financial Times Limited 2021. All Rights Reserved. FT and Financial Times are trademarks of the Financial Times Ltd. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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