Investors and traders face many obstacles in their quest for profits. Throughout even the longest uptrends, investors experience declines against the main trend. These are referred to as corrections. At other times, markets correct more than expected in a short period of time. Such occurrences are called crashes. Both of these can lead to a misunderstood situation called capitulation. We'll look at these three concepts, their connections and what they mean for investors. (To learn more about market direction, read Which Direction Is The Market Heading?)
Wall Street's White Flag
In stark terms, capitulation refers to market participants' final surrender to hard times and, consequently, the beginning of a market recovery. For most investors, capitulation means being so beaten down that they will sell at any price. True capitulation, however, doesn't occur until the selling ends.
When panic selling stops, the remaining investors tend to be bottom fishers and traders who are holding on for a rise. This is when the price drop flattens into a bottom. One problem with calling the bottom is that it can only be accurately identified in hindsight. In fact, many traders and value investors have been caught buying into false bottoms only to watch the price continue to plunge - the so-called falling knife trap. (Traders can try to trade this phenomenon. Check out Catching A Falling Knife: Picking Intraday Turning Points for more.)
Capitulation or Correction?
When and where a market should bottom is a matter of opinion. To long-term investors, the series of retracements inside of a long-term uptrend are referred to as corrections in a bull market. A bottom is formed after each correction. Each time the market forms a bottom in an uptrend, the majority of investors do not consider it capitulation, but a corrective break to a price area where investors want to reestablish their long positions in the direction of the uptrend. Simply put, early buyers take profits, pushing the stock low enough to be a value buy again.
An investor can tell a correction from capitulation only after the trend has turned down and the downward break has exceeded the projected support levels and established a new bottom from which to trend up again. The question should not be whether capitulation is taking place, but whether the market has, in fact, bottomed.
Connecting to Crashes
A crash is a sharp, sudden decline that exceeds previous downside price action. This excessive break can be defined in real dollars as a market percentage or by volatility measures, but a crash typically involves an index losing at least 20% of its value. (To learn more, read The Crash of 1929 – Could It Happen Again?)
A crash is distinct from capitulation in two important ways. First, the crash leads to capitulation, but the time frame of the actual crash doesn't necessarily mean capitulation will follow immediately. A market may hit capitulation – and the bottom – months after the initial crash. Second, a crash will always end in capitulation, but not all capitulations are preceded by a market crash.
In the long view, a crash occurs when there are substantially more sellers than buyers; the market falls until the there are no more sellers. For this reason, crashes are most often associated with panic selling. Sudden bearish news or margin call liquidations contribute to the severity a crash. Crashes usually occur in the midst of a downtrend after old bottoms are broken as both short sales and stop-loss orders are triggered, sending the market sharply lower. Capitulation is what comes next. (Learn more about buying on margin and margin calls in our Margin Tutorial.)
Finding the Bottom
A bottom can occur in two ways. Short selling can cease or a large buyer can emerge. Short sellers often quit shorting stocks when the market reaches historical lows or a value area they have identified as an exit point. When buyers see that the shorting has stopped, they start chasing the rising offers, thereby increasing a stock's price. As the price begins to increase, the remaining shorts start to cover. It is this short covering that essentially forms the bottom that precedes an upward rally.
As mentioned, the emergence of a large buy order can also spook shorts out of the market. It is not until the trend turns up, however, that one can truly say that buyers have emerged and capitulation has taken place. Large buyers occasionally try to move the market against the fundamental trends for a variety of reasons, but, like Sisyphus and his boulder, their efforts will fail if the timing is wrong. In timing capitulation, investors have to choose between going long on a rally started by short-covering or getting back in when actual buying – and the bottom – has been established. (For more, see Profit From Panic Selling.)
Catching the Turning of the Trend
Technical analysis can help determine capitulation because subtle changes in technical indicators such as volume are often heavily correlated with bottoms. A surge in volume is an indicator of a possible bottom in the stock market, while a drop in open interest is used in the commodity markets. Trend indicators such as moving average crossovers or swing chart breakouts are ways that chart patterns can help identify when a bottom or a change in trend has taken place.
Crashes and capitulations are most often associated with equities, and the language is slippery. If we use percentage moves to determine whether a crash or capitulation has taken place in the stock market, then why is a downward move of over 20% in the commodities market always called a correction rather than a crash?
Moreover, one market event can also act as a crash, correction and capitulation. For example, a gradual break from 14,000 in the Dow Jones to 7,000 can be called a 50% correction of the top, but if the market drops the last 2,000 points in a short period of time, it will be called a crash. If the Dow then makes a bottom at 7,000, it will be called capitulation.
Real-World Crashes and Capitulations
Good historical examples are the Black Mondays of 1929 and 1987. In both cases, investors ran for the exits, producing big market drops. In 1929, the drop was prolonged as bad economic policies aggravated the situation and created a depression that lasted until World War II. The crash occurred in 1929, capitulation occurred in 1932, and then the actual rally occurred despite the economic conditions at the time. (For more, see What Caused The Great Depression?)
In 1987, the drop was painful, but stocks started to climb within the next few days and continued until March 2000. Surprisingly, the sudden drop in the stock market in October 1987 was called neither a capitulation nor a crash. Other euphemisms such as "correction" were used at the time. While some people realized what had occurred, it took the media years to label the event correctly. (For related reading, check out October: The Month Of Market Crashes?)
After studying price movement, one can conclude that crashes and capitulation are parts of the same process. When a bottom occurs, traders can buy into the uptrend and watch the new support and resistance zones form as they navigate the rally until the next downtrend. So for them, it represents an opportunity. Long-term investors can also benefit from capitulation by getting into value stocks at extremely low prices. So, even though crashes, corrections and capitulations are bad news for investors holding the stock, there are still ways to profit. (Should you get out of a stock after a drop? Read When To Sell Stocks and To Sell Or Not To Sell for more.)
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