The 'Hindenburg Omen': A portent of doom in the stock markets

The 'Hindenburg Omen' has appeared once more in the stock-market charts. Tim Bennett explains how it works, and what it means for your investments.

In 1937, the German airship, the Hindenburg, went up in flames and crashed. As you can imagine, the stockmarket phenomenon named after this disaster does not portend good news. The Hindenburg Omen is a charting' or technical analysis' pattern that is said to herald a market rout and it's appeared on several occasions in the last few weeks. Should you be worried?

How it works

When the pattern known as the Hindenburg Omen has appeared in the past, say chartists, stock markets have often dipped sharply soon afterwards. Jim Miekka, the former physics teacher and newsletter writer who defined the pattern, recently said: "We're on our way down from here. I'm hunkering down for a rough ride."

The key ingredients

The key test looks at the number of stocks hitting new 52-week highs or 52-week lows. Trouble looms if this figure is unusually large. Specifically, as Steven Russolillo notes in The Wall Street Journal, the number of stocks hitting highs, and those hitting lows, must be above 2.5% of the total number of stocks being traded that day. That's about 73 or more each way, based on New York listings.

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Last Friday, which is when the Omen was last spotted, there were 156 new lows and 90 new highs, according to Jim Cramer on CNBC, a US news channel. This satisfied another of the criteria: that the number of highs cannot be more than twice the number of lows. This confirms that not only is the market getting more fractured (investors can't make up their mind which way things are going), but that sentiment is also deteriorating.

Other criteria are market volatility and fear. For example, the McClellan Oscillator' needs to be negative. Without going into all the details, this indicator tells us whether recent movements in stocks are being driven primarily by a few large stocks or not. In a bull market, this suggests any stock market rise may be about to peter out, as it is not being supported by the majority of shares in short, the indicator can warn that the rally no longer has breadth'.

Is it reliable?

Veteran investor and Big Picture blogger Barry Ritholtz reckons the indicator has been wrong as much as 75% of the time. However, it did foreshadow drops in the stock market in 1987 and 2008. On balance, with investors fretting over the withdrawal of quantitative easing, we'd certainly advise caution.

Tim graduated with a history degree from Cambridge University in 1989 and, after a year of travelling, joined the financial services firm Ernst and Young in 1990, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994.

He then moved into financial markets training, designing and running a variety of courses at graduate level and beyond for a range of organisations including the Securities and Investment Institute and UBS. He joined MoneyWeek in 2007.