Turn on the news when you sit down for breakfast on any given weekday, and you are likely to hear a commentator say something like “Markets are posed to open higher” or perhaps “We expect to see markets move lower at the open.” Hearing these prognostications may make you wonder how these pundits can predict the future and why investors care about the direction of the market open. After all, it’s the closing price that tells you how much money you have gained or lost in your portfolio for the day. There’s more to the behind-the-scenes story than you might expect, and for some investors it translates into profits.

How They Know
Before we get into why some investors closely track the open's likely direction, let’s look at a few indicators that help them with the task.

While the financial markets have clearly stated business hours, developments outside of those hours continue to influence both then value of securities and investor behavior. Geopolitical events and natural disasters, for example, can occur at any time. Events like the assassination of a sitting president or a major terrorist attack are likely to indicate a lower market open.

Corporate data also plays a role. Earnings announcements made after the close or before the open can influence the market’s direction. In January, April, July and October, the vast majority of firms release their results for the quarter. Good news from a bellwether firm often leads to a higher stock market open. Bad news can have the reverse effect.

Other important news comes out before the markets open. A wide variety of economic releases, including employment data, retail sales and gross domestic product results, are released at 8:30am. Once again, both good news and bad news can sway the market open direction.

Trading activity is also a common indicator. Extended-hours trading takes place after the financial markets close for the day and before they open. This activity can help investors predict the open market direction. In fact, gauges such as the Nasdaq-100 Pre-Market IndicatorSM are designed specifically for this purpose. The Nasdaq-100 After Hours IndicatorSM is a similar gauge.

International Market Influence
When domestic markets are closed for the day, international markets are open and trading. A good day in Asian markets can suggest that U.S. markets will open higher. Devastating losses overseas can lead to a lower open at home. By paying attention to developments overseas, domestic investors can get an idea about what direction they can expect local markets to move when they open for the day. Major stock exchanges in Tokyo, Germany and London are often used as barometers for what will happen in the U.S.

The futures market is yet another barometer used to predict the direction financial markets will move. Unlike the stock market, futures markets never close. Futures contracts trade based on the values of the stock market benchmark indexes they represent. S&P 500 futures trade based on the value of the Standard & Poor’s 500, just as Dow futures trade based on the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Since the securities in each of the benchmark indexes represent a specific market segment, knowing the direction of pricing on futures contracts for those indexes can be used to project the direction of prices on the actual securities and the markets in which they trade. If S&P futures are trending downward all morning, it is likely that stock prices on U.S. exchanges will move lower when trading opens for the day. Once again, the opposite is also true, with rising futures prices suggesting a higher open.

Serious market watchers wake up early, pull the data and use these various indicators singly and in combination to discern the direction of the opening moves in the U.S. market. Less ambitious investors just tune in to the morning financial news broadcasts and let the talking heads provide an update on expectations for the day. Either way, it is possible to get to a fairly solid reading on what to expect when U.S. trading starts for the day.

Why Investors Care
Market direction presents opportunity. At the broad level, if markets are set to rise, individual stock prices are likely to do so as well. Short-term traders can make buy/sell decisions based on the information. For instance, if markets are set to rise and then a technology company releases good news before the opening bell, that company’s stock is likely to rise at the open. For investors who hold the stock, this could be a signal to sell existing holdings and lock in profits. For investors who don’t own the stock, it could be a signal to buy early and sell into a rising market.

Keep in mind that if you only have a few dollars to invest, the exercise in tracking market direction may be meaningless. On the other hand, if you can buy 100,000 shares that rise 2 cents each, you could make a quick $2,000 ignoring transaction costs. Not bad for an hour’s work. If you can buy 500,000 shares that rise 10 cents, you could make a quick $50,000, and the numbers go up from here. For big institutional traders, there’s serious money to be made here. In an era of rapid-fire electronic trading, even price movement measures in a fraction of a cent can result in big gains for deep-pocketed traders who make the right call.

The Bottom Line
Accurately predicting the stock market’s opening moves can be a useful tool. If your projection is accurate, you have an opportunity to profit. Of course, the first step is to correctly gauge the market direction. That step alone isn’t enough to make money. You also need to select an investment and successfully gauge the resulting impact the market’s move will have on your investment in order to make money. You may not make the right guess on the market’s direction, and the market may move against you. Even if you get the direction right, you also need to be correct on your investment to generate a profit. Simply put, there are no guarantees that you will get the direction right or that your investment will pay off. As with all investment strategies, you should conduct a thorough analysis and understand your strategy and its implications before you place a bet on the direction of the open.

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