Why the Brussels Bombing Travel Stock Sell-Off Is Unwarranted

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Retail investors tend to trade based on the news. Institutional investors trade based on the reaction to the news. The fact that Tuesday’s terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport brought travel stocks down is no surprise, as markets are composed of all buyers and sellers, both retail and institutional. Nevertheless, there is no indication that institutional investors dumped any major travel stocks that day. The sell-off was mostly relegated to retail, which increases the chances that losses will be quickly reversed.

Take American Airlines Group Inc. (NASDAQ: AAL). Average daily trading volume over three months is 9.27 million. Tuesday’s trading volume was 6.72 million, 28% below average. That means institutions with large positions were not heavily involved. Those selling were relatively small stakeholders. If we look back to the previous major terrorist attack in November 2015 in Paris, trading volume on November 16 — the first trading day post the Paris attacks — was 10.23 million. Shares closed higher than they opened that day, as they did Tuesday, and the stock recovered fully within 10 trading days. Zoom out on even a medium-term daily chart of American Airlines and there is nothing noticeable about November or this week.

It’s the same case with Delta Airlines Inc. (NYSE: DAL). Average daily trading volume over three months is 10.02 million shares. Tuesday, 13.35 million were traded, 33% higher than average, but nothing out of the ordinary. For an idea of what true institutional panic looks like when large shareholders are dumping stock, look no further than Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. (NYSE: VRX). On March 15, total volume was 139 million shares traded, over an average 15 million. That’s 827% above average, which is indeed noticeable.

In any case, back on November 16, trading volume for Delta was at 12.38 million, also nothing too exciting. In the three-day period following the Paris attacks, the stock was unchanged day to day. On a daily candlestick chart going back to November, you can see long wicks in both directions post attacks, indicating a mix of panic and bottom-picking by warring retail traders to close essentially even. Shares recovered in 10 trading days just the same.

Finally, United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL). Trading volume post Brussels attack was 4.47 million shares against an average 6.02 million. November 16 saw only 6.17 million shares traded, and panic eased as the day went on, just like it did on March 22.

It is clear that institutional holders of travel stocks were not shaken much by the Brussels attacks. The sector will continue to follow the rest of the stock market and economy, because as horrible as these attacks are, they won’t affect business all that much, and travelers will quickly forget what happened.