@theMarket: Markets Get Smacked
Most investors blame the discovery of a new, possibly more virulent mutation of the coronavirus for the decline in stocks this week. No doubt there is some truth to that, but equally as important was the change in monetary policy enunciated by Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, this week.
Readers have seen the S&P 500 Index decline by about 4 percent since the Thanksgiving week. The announcement that a new COVID 19 variant, dubbed Omicron, had been discovered in Africa, surprised the investment world. Friday, Nov. 26, we saw a substantial 2 percent downdraft in the financial markets. The move was exaggerated by the absence of a sizable number of traders who had decided to take a long weekend. Since then, markets have been whipsawed daily based on the latest Omicron headlines.
Unfortunately, it will take several weeks before scientists and the medical community can determine the severity of this new threat and if the present regimen of vaccinations are effective against this new mutation. In the meantime, every strategist, pundit and taxicab driver will throw their two cents into the virus mix, creating even more confusion.
Of course, the direct outcome would be that the present vaccines are not effective against Omicron. Global economies would need to shut down once again, and new vaccinations, which would take months to create, would be required to stop the spread of sickness and death.
On the positive side, some believe that while Omicron is more contagious, it is not as lethal. In which case, the rapid spread of the mutation would first infect and then inoculate the unvaccinated worldwide, thus creating a sort of herd immunity. I think that somewhere in between lies the truth.
While Omicron has become a negative factor, it was not the only change in the financial picture. On Tuesday, Nov. 30, during testimony before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, Powell did what appeared to be an about face on monetary policy. Until now, the Fed's chief goal was to reduce unemployment at the expense of a higher inflation rate. Powell appeared to take on a new mantle, that of the nation's chief inflation fighter, casting aside his former dovish stance towards continued easing of monetary stimulus.
Readers should refer to this week's "The Retired Investor" Thursday column for the reasons why. While investors and consumers will likely be relieved that the Fed's focus is switching to fighting inflation, the policy shift presents some clear and present dangers. The main weapon in the Fed's arsenal in reducing inflation is less monetary stimulus. Powell has already said that the FOMC, in their December 2021 meeting, will be discussing moving up their timetable for reductions in asset purchases.
The obvious next move would be to move forward with their plans to raise interest rates. Higher interest rates, after over a decade of rate declines, might create more than a few hiccups in a stock market close to record highs. I suspect that much of the downside this last week in equities was as much about the Fed's plans as it was about Omicron.
So where does that leave the markets this month? I suspect we will see more of the same kind of volatile action in the weeks ahead. I am tempted to say that we have already put in the highs of the year, but I don't want to sound like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas quite yet. We could still see a Santa Claus rally, but we face some formidable barriers to more upside.
We have the debt ceiling deadline on Dec. 13, 2021, followed a day later by the two-day FOMC meeting. We could see an impasse on the debt ceiling, as well as a decision by the Fed to further reduce their asset purchase program. And Omicron could turn out to be worse than anyone expects.
What troubles me about today's market is the elevated level of the VIX, the risk index. It is at the highest level since the COVID-19 crisis of March 2020. Anything above 20 on the VIX indicates a high probability of large swings in prices for stocks and indexes. If I look at price behavior on the S&P 500 Index, I suspect we are in a wide 200-point range of volatility with as much downside risk as 100 points to 4,450 potentially 100 points higher to 4,650. If we drop below this range, prepare for a bad Christmas. On the plus side, I would give the markets an all clear above 4,650.
@theMarket: Market's Week of Indecision
Stocks and bonds traded in a tight range for most of the week. Some stocks were rewarded, while others punished, based on their earnings results. The U.S. dollar hit a series of new yearly highs, and just about everyone is waiting for President Biden's pick to head the Federal Reserve Bank.
That announcement could come as early as this weekend. Chairman Jerome Powell's term will end in February 2022. He is a Republican, picked by former President Donald Trump. He had a somewhat rocky relationship with the ex-president but did manage to maintain the independence of the central bank despite Trump's attempted interference. His track record through the pandemic makes him a strong choice for a second term.
An equally strong candidate for the job is Lael Brainard, a Fed Governor since 2014, and an economist (as well as a Democrat). She is perceived to be a bit more dovish than Powell (if that is possible), but as far as policy is concerned there is little difference between the two candidates.
There has been some talk that there may be a more hawkish dark horse candidate in the wings. Inflation has become both an economic as well as a political problem for the president. While the pandemic and its aftermath are the reasons inflation has risen, it is the person sitting in the White House who catches the blame. As such, some think Biden might be tempted to look further afield, picking someone who might be able to reign in inflation a little faster.
The House was scheduled to vote Friday on the $1.7 trillion Biden social spending program. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its estimate of what all this spending will ultimately cost the country in the years ahead. The CBO found that the bill would contribute $367 billion to the deficit over a decade. The Democrat leadership immediately pushed for a vote and will likely succeed. Next, the legislation goes to the Senate where it will be debated and changed before coming up for a vote. That process will probably require several weeks.
Expectations for a strong holiday spending season were reinforced this week by several big retail companies who are predicting that the consumers will be willing to spend, despite labor shortages, supply chain issues, and higher price tags due to inflation. While this is good news for the economy, it creates additional worries over the future rate of inflation for investors.
We are already seeing the impact of inflation on some companies where profit margins have suffered due to higher input costs. Passing those costs on to consumers works for now in some sectors, but there will come a time when consumers reduce their spending in the face of still-higher price increases.
The higher the inflation rate climbs, the more pressure it places on central banks to control it by raising interest rates. As I have written, several central banks (especially in emerging market countries) have already begun that process. Investors fret that the Fed has miscalculated the strength of inflation and will be forced to taper faster and raise interest rates sooner than they have indicated. The bond market is assuming the Fed will raise rates three times in 2022 — in June, September, and a third hike in December. A change in those assumptions could spell trouble for the financial markets.
Normally, the holiday-shortened week ahead is kind to the stock markets. But there is no such thing as normal in today's markets. Technically, financial markets are open all week, except for Thursday and half of Friday, but most traders take Friday off. Therefore, it wouldn't take much to move markets given the anemic volume and lack of participants. It wouldn't surprise me to see an abnormal week ahead, either up or down.
@theMarket: Annual Inflation Hits 30-year Highs
The stock and bond markets knew inflation was coming. This week's 6.2 percent jump in the Consumer Price Index drove home the fact that inflation has become a fact of economic life, at least for the near future.
The jury is still out on whether inflation will prove to be "transitory" as the Federal Reserve Bank argues and as some economists believe. Others fear that we could be on the verge of something a little more serious. The fear is that the Fed might be forced to raise interest rates if that were the case.
The Producer Price Index (PPI) and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) both came in a little warmer than forecasted on a year-over-year basis, but not as high as some expected. And yet the U.S. dollar spiked to new highs, the yield on the U.S. Treasury rose by more than 10 basis points, gold and silver jumped, and stocks dropped.
The culprit behind the ongoing pressure on the inflation rate, as readers know, is the heightened consumer demand caused by the reopening of the economy and the supply chain issues that do not seem to be easing. The pandemic can be blamed for both conditions.
For me, the markets were so over-extended and in need of a pullback that traders were just looking for a reason to take down the averages. As you may recall, I had been expecting a minor bout of profit-taking, no more than 3 percent or so, in the markets. This week, the S&P 500 Index lost almost 2 percent, while some other indexes like the small-cap, Russell 2000 Index and some technology areas were down more than 3 percent before rebounding.
Between the good news on the passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bi-partisan spending program (which now awaits signing by President Biden) and the climbing rate of inflation, the market winners have been mostly in sectors that benefit from construction and inflation. Mines and metals, gold and silver, basic materials, lithium, uranium and rare earth plays have climbed during the past few days. These sectors have played a back seat to large-cap technology stocks over the last two months. We have seen this kind of rotation many times in the past. Once prices have been bid up to unreasonable levels, short-term traders will switch their focus back to technology, or reopening plays. What is important to understand is that the overall markets tend to rise, or at worse move sideways, as some sectors that are out of favor are simply replaced by those in favor.
Consolidation is healthy for the markets. A period of digesting gains, possibly over the next few days, would do wonders for reducing the overbought conditions that presently plague many stocks and sectors. Investors should keep their eyes on the U.S. dollar, which appears to want to climb even higher. If it does, it could squash the present rise in commodities.
Gold is another asset I am tracking closely. It has been one of the world's worst performing assets in 2021. If inflation fears continue to worry investors, there is a possibility that gold may reemerge in its traditional role as an inflation hedge.
Last, but not least is the cannabis space. A bill introduced by Nancy Mace, a Republican House member from South Carolina, to decriminalize and regulate what is now a federally illegal substance, sent pot stocks higher. This could be a huge boost for the U.S. cannabis industry. Stock prices in this industry has languished all year, despite improving profitability in many cases.
@theMarket: Markets Get a Green Light
The Federal Reserve Bank signaled an all-clear for the financial markets this week. The tapering they promised will begin on schedule, but Fed Chairperson Jerome Powell has no plans to raise interest rates until at least some time next year.
The announcement was met with relief. Investors reacted by catapulting the stock market to yet another higher high. Bond traders were somewhat mollified, as well as seen by the lack of movement in interest rates. If anything, Chair Powell was a bit more dovish than investors expected.
He surprised markets by reducing the size of the monthly taper, which will begin later this month. At present, the U.S. Central Bank is buying $120 billion a month in assets. Investors were expecting a $20 billion monthly reduction in purchases, but the Fed decided to reduce those purchases by only $15 billion a month.
It appears that the rate of inflation is still not serious enough for the Federal Reserve to move forward their expectations on raising interest rates. Next summer is the earliest Powell sees a need to raise interest rates. However, he did admit that he expects the conditions that are pushing inflation higher could persist well into next year.
His stance is similar to the position already taken by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB expects to continue its easy money policies into next year. But while most of the developed world is applying the momentary brakes ever so gradually, many emerging market countries are already raising interest rates to head off rising inflation in their economies. Chile, Russia, and Brazil, for example, have hiked interest rates recently. Of the 38 central banks followed by the Bank for International Settlements, 13 have raised a key interest rate at least once this year.
Investors are paying close attention to the stalled situation surrounding the two large Biden infrastructure bills after the resounding thrashing the Democrats suffered this week in various elections. Voters seem to be increasingly unhappy with what they perceive as their "do nothing." President Biden's approval ratings are dismal, and time is running out to reverse the situation before the mid-term elections.
It remains to be seen whether this week's election results will spur this fractured party to come together and start legislating or sink further into disarray. The House is expected to vote on at least one if not both bills on Friday, Nov. 5.
There is a lot riding on the outcome for the economy and the markets. And while the price tag for both bills is high, as a percentage of GDP, in reality the expenditures are a drop in the bucket when compared to what other countries are spending on their own infrastructure plans. Is it any wonder that China sees us as no more than a "paper tiger," whose politicians lack the will to compete in the areas that really matter?
Earnings season is winding down, but once again the results defied even the most bullish of expectations. That bodes well for stocks. More and more sectors are participating in the upturn and there doesn't seem to be many storm clouds on the horizon until we head into December, if then. This week's decline in oil may also act as a tailwind for stocks. Higher energy prices have been leading inflation higher for the last few months. If oil pulls back from here, or just remains in a trading range, equities could get a boost from that as well.
To me, however, the most important event of the week was drug company Pfizer's announcement that Paxlovid, a COVID-19 pill, reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 80 percent in a clinical trial that tested the drug in adults with the disease who were also in high-risk health groups.
Pfizer CEO and Chairman, Albert Bourla, said, "These data suggest that our oral antiviral candidate, if approved or authorized by regulatory authorities, has the potential to save patients' lives, reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections, and eliminate nine out of 10 hospitalizations." To me, this pill could be a game changer for the economy and for people all over the world. It is possible that we could see the coronavirus battle won by sometime next year.
I have been expecting a shallow pullback in the markets for the past two weeks. Instead, stocks have just climbed higher and higher. They are extended, but history says they can get even more so. As such, I am not holding my breath, nor waiting around for it. Whatever pullback does occur should be bought.
@theMarket: Good Earnings Support Markets
Third-quarter earnings have cheered investors, sending markets to new highs. The bullish wave of buying was so strong that investors ignored the disappointing third quarter read on the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Economists were looking for the economy to grow by 2.6 percent, but instead, GDP gained a mere 2 percent, which was the slowest rate in over a year. Economic activity was damaged by the Delta variant as well as continuing supply-side constraints. The market's reaction indicates that investors are looking through the weak number and expecting the economy to continue to grow.
It seems to be a question of demand versus supply. Yes, the economy slowed, but it wasn't because demand is slowing. It was simply a matter of supply chain bottlenecks that are forcing pent-up demand further into the future.
As we close out this week of earnings the "beat" rate of corporations is more than 80 percent. Most of the big mega-cap technology companies (with some exceptions) have once again delivered good results, which has kept the markets buoyed. Managements continue to complain about supply constraints and higher prices, which are compressing profit margins in some sectors, but not enough to really hurt overall results.
As for the Fed, next week on Nov. 3, the long-awaited FOMC meeting will occur and with it the expected start date of the tapering of asset purchases. It seems to me that the Federal Reserve Bank and its Chairman Jerome Powell have done everything in their power to prepare the markets for the onset of tapering. It remains to be seen how the markets will react to the actual implementation of tapering. We could see some nervousness leading up to the meeting.
But the new topic of conversation — a rise in interest rates. When will the Fed start raising interest rates from the near-zero levels at present? Some traders believe that interest rates will be hiked faster than most investors are expecting. Rising inflation is the impetus behind that conviction. Persistent and accelerating inflation is the biggest risk to the market right now, in my opinion. If the inflation rate continues to gain, investors would worry that the Fed might be forced to raise interest rates by as many as two hikes next year, and three in 2023. That would most likely create severe negative repercussions for the stock market.
Democrats are struggling to compromise on some version of an infrastructure bill with President Joe Biden urging House Democrats to accept a scaled-down version of his Build Back Better proposal. This week, the package would amount to $1.75 trillion versus the $3.5 trillion he originally requested. Progressive Democrats would have to agree to jettison pet projects such as paid family leave and expanded Medicare coverage of vision and dental for elders. Both of which were popular with voters and a priority for several woman lawmakers. A 15 percent minimum corporate tax, a 50 percent minimum tax on foreign profits of U.S. corporations, tax hikes on the highest income Americans, and possibly a surtax on multimillionaires and billionaires are still on the revenue raiser list.
As for stocks, most markets are extended. That may mean we see some profit-taking during the next week. I am not looking for anything serious, maybe a 2-3 percent spate of selling (at most) that might take us into next Wednesday's FOMC meeting on November 3, 2021.
My own bet is that investors will like what Chair Powell will say, and if so, we could see another leg higher for the markets. If Congress does come through with an infrastructure compromise bill, the markets would get a lift. As such, I would use any dip to add to equities. After that, I think we have smooth sailing into the end of November.