@theMarket: The Market's Winter Storm
Stocks worldwide have experienced a downdraft since October. All the gains so painstakingly made thus far in 2018 have been erased. Volatility has battered markets with all the severity of a Nor'easter. Next year may prove to be a continuation of the same.
It is interesting that the culprits responsible for this change of heart in the markets have been around for just about all of the past year. Leading the list is Donald Trump. It was our president that decided to wage a trade war against the world. There has been little success in his battle thus far. The prospect of more of the same faces us well into the new year.
The Federal Reserve Bank can also take some blame. After over a decade of "easy money," the new Fed chief, Jerome Powell, (appointed by Donald Trump), has decided to raise interest rates and sell $50 billion in Treasury bonds every month for the foreseeable future. In his own way, Powell is draining the system that has been swamped with money for years.
As a result of both the continued threat of a trade war and rising interest rates, the economy is slowing. It has not lost enough steam to threaten a recession, but it has removed the wind from the market's sails, to say the least.
Let us not forget the controversy raging across the pond. The United Kingdom is having a devil of a time pulling off their exit from the European Community. On the one hand, the EU doesn't want to make it too easy for this to happen, lest other members might follow the UK's lead. At the same time, the electorate, as represented by the UK Parliament, are not happy with the deal Prime Minister Theresa May has struck with the EU.
Finally, oil prices have collapsed since October. While the price decline has been a boon to the consumer, it threatens an array of companies related to energy production. Employment, capital spending, earnings and worries about debt servicing have added to the worries of stock investors as a result. In the recent past (2014-2015), declining energy prices put a large dent in the overall earnings of the S&P 500 Index of companies and could do so again.
As if all of the above were not enough, we are now faced with two immediate threats within our own political system. The House will be turned over to the Democrats in less than a month. And, within that time frame, the long-awaited Mueller Investigation should also reveal its results. Neither event is expected to help the presidency of Donald Trump.
Investors have no idea what will happen as a result of these developments. Will Donald Trump be proven right in his almost-daily denial of any collusion in regard to the Russian investigations? What if he is exonerated in part, but his family members are not? Has he committed any impeachable offenses in other areas? If so, how will that affect his trade negotiations or any future legislation?
In summary, few, if any of these issues can be resolved any time soon. Therefore, readers should expect the markets to exhibit the same kind of volatility into January and maybe into the end of the first quarter of 2019. That is not to say that many of the issues could turn out to be positives for the markets.
The Fed, for example, is already talking about easing up on the interest rate hikes. China seems to be amenable to further trade negotiations over the next three months. And who knows, Trump could turn out to have been right all along in blaming the entire Mueller probe on the fake news media and Democrat machinations.
In the meantime, expect stocks to ride a continued wave of wild swings of one percent or more almost daily in either direction. Most of these moves are fueled by computer programs that indiscriminately buy and sell stocks, sectors and entire country markets in a blink of the eye. My advice is to ignore these moves and wait out the storm.
@theMarket: Markets Hope for Trade Breakthrough
This Saturday evening, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping will sit down to dinner in Buenos Aires at the G-20 conference. Investors are holding their breath, hoping that the two might come to some agreement that could lower tensions and avert a full-out trade war between the U.S. and China.
Given past rhetoric and the president's mercurial temperament, anything could happen. Xi Jinping and his advisors, after years of dealing with Washington, believe if they just hang tough and wait Trump out, the outcome will be "business as usual" on their terms.
Unfortunately, Wall Street and the media have created another binary event out of the dinner. Either there is a breakthrough, in which case the markets roar higher, or there is no deal and stocks fall back to the lows and maybe break them. I wish it were that easy.
The trade relations between our two countries are complicated. I mean really complicated and no single dinner or event is going to solve it. A new economic relationship with China will take months, even years, and require talks on many fronts. Tariffs are just one small issue in these talks, although the president uses that issue constantly in his tweets and rallies.
Whether he is truly that naïve (a possibility) or is just using a dumb-down approach for the benefit of his political base, is unknown. His rhetoric on many other issues (immigrants, the wall, jobs, the media, Mueller, etc.) indicates that he believes his audience has little understanding and even less patience on the issues that beset us than he does.
Clearly, the president has had a "bad hair day" on several fronts this week. GM's announced layoff of 14,000 U.S. workers and the closing of several factories damage his MAGA claims of bringing high-paid jobs back home. Mueller's investigation looms closer and new revelations on his Russian dealings during the presidential campaign have surfaced. And then there is the stock market's decline, which the president believes is his true opinion poll. Something positive out of this weekend might distract the public from these negative developments.
If we consider his "new" North American trade agreement signed this week in Argentina as a template, there is a chance that Trump could claim another trade victory on the China front. Most readers have realized by now that only marginal changes were made in this updated Mexico, U.S., Canada trade pact.
He could use this same kind of sleight of hand in negotiations with China. We know, for example, that the Chinese have already offered a number of concessions to the U.S. on trade, although the administration has not been forthcoming in revealing the details. It would be easy (as it was with Mexico and Canada) to claim victory by simply accepting superficial changes to an existing trade pact.
As for this weekend, if I were passing the gravy, I would agree to a joint statement with Xi after dinner that indicates "progress." Some nebulous statement from Xi, such an increase of soybean purchases by China, or postponing the January deadline on tariff increases by the U.S. from "Don, the Con" could give the markets new hope without much content.
In the meantime, you may be wondering why the markets turned around this week. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, in a speech before the Economic Club of New York, announced that interest rates were just below a level where further rate hikes might not be necessary. Investors liked that — a lot. As a result, the S&P 500 Index has gained back some of its losses since Oct. 3. It is now down 6 percent from the beginning of last month, and up slightly for the year.
Good news out of Buenos Aires could ignite a Christmas rally and send the Dow up 500-700 points in a short period of time. Bad news might do the opposite. As it stands, November was a positive month for the markets. Stay tuned for the fireworks.
@theMarket: It Is a Black Friday on Wall Street
Black Friday sales are in full swing. Normally, today is all about the retail trade. Consumers spend the day waiting in line, picking up heavily discounted "door buster" deals, and generally starting their holiday gift shopping. This year, it appears traders are also holding their own Black Friday sales.
The day after Thanksgiving, the stock and bond markets are open for a half day. Few turn up for work, so trading desks are usually manned by a skeleton crew, volumes are light and the indexes meander about the center line. As such, what happens on Black Friday has little consequence in the grand scheme of things.
The real action is before a holiday, especially one that coincides with a long weekend, like this one. In volatile markets, such as the one we have this year, few traders want to go "long" stocks through this long weekend. Their preference is to sell before the holiday and re-examine things when they come back on Monday.
This year, thanks to the Trump trade war fears, the concerns over raising interest rates, and a possible slowing of the economy next year, stocks continued their two-month, long decline on Friday. As I warned readers last week, if the S&P 500 Index failed to hold 2,720, the next stop would be somewhere around 2,600. That is exactly what happened.
So here we are testing the lows that we put in back in February. From a technical point of view, we have a classic case of a "double bottom." That's when stock indexes reach a low, bounce up, and then re-test that low once again. At times it only takes a few weeks or months. In this case, it took longer. Many times, a correction will not be over until a double bottom occurs. Are we at that point now?
I would like to say yes, so I will, but there are conflicting signals. Take sentiment indicators, for example. The number of bulls has dropped to a little less than 40 percent. That's a good sign if you are looking for a contrary indicator. But back in February, bullish sentiment hit a low of 24.7 percent. That would seem to indicate that investors will need to become even more bearish before this pullback is over.
We are also seeing some early signs of "divergence." Back in October, when the S&P 500 hit 2,600, the peak daily reading of new lows for individual stocks was just under 18 percent. But this week, those same stocks hitting new lows was a mere 4.16 percent. So, what?
When you have a situation where the broader market is making new lows (like Tuesday), while the percentage of stocks trading to new lows shrinks, it is considered a positive divergence. If we see this continue next week, it would be a signal that investors are being more selective in their sales rather than just committed to a wholesale selling of all equities. That would be another positive sign.
What would be a bad sign, is if the S&P 500 Index failed to hold this 2,600 level. That would indicate more pain in the near future and lower stock market averages across the board.
Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that according to early reports, this year's holiday shopping season is starting off with a bang. Consumer confidence is fueling higher holiday spending, even while the stock market is selling off the retail stocks that will most benefit from this trend.
Hang in there, folks, this too shall pass.
@theMarket: Markets Need to Hold Here
This week saw a re-test of the October lows. That is to be expected in most stock market corrections. What is important to the future well-being of equities globally is that the averages do not decline much further from here.
That does not mean that if the S&P 500 Index, for example, falls by another percent or so the ball game is over. Remember, folks, calling the levels of the stock market is an art, not a science. Sure, we could overshoot (most times we do), thrash around a bit more, and then recover. What I don't want to see is a solid and definitive drop lower over a week or more.
On the S&P 500, if we were to break 2,685, the next level of technical support would be 2,603. That would, in my opinion, trigger a panicky rush for the exits. If the 2,603 support breaks, then who knows.
From a fundamental point of view, there isn't much different that has transpired since last week or, for that matter, the last few months. The elections are over, but the new Congress doesn't get a chance to bat until after the New Year. In the meantime, we are already hearing the
noise levels rise.
One Democrat, California's Rep. Maxine Walters, a ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, has promised to roll back some of the bank deregulation of the past two years. Another Democrat warned that signing on to the new North American Trade Agreement will require "adjustments" in the deal.
At the same time, the FANG stocks, led by Apple, continue to batter the technology sector, dragging the NASDAQ index lower. Many individual stocks have already dropped 10 percent, which would technically qualify as a "correction."
In a race to the bottom, oil prices have also come under pressure, declining over 20 percent in the last month or so. In hindsight, the oil price was over-extended. Oil is in the throes of a sharp, short sell-off, which is exactly why most investors should steer clear of commodities. It takes a strong stomach to weather the ups and downs of a commodity cycle.
Both equities and energy, however, are due for a bounce, which should happen soon. The Iranian embargo, as I predicted, is not working out as well as the president had hoped this second time around. Since many nations did not and do not agree with Trump's unilateral decision to re-instate an embargo on Iranian oil, its effectiveness has been dramatically reduced. Cheating is rampant. Nations may be grudgingly forced to pay lip-service to the U.S. embargo but are looking the other way, allowing their companies to find ways around the Iranian oil embargo.
Of course, if you follow the financial news, the bulls of September have now all turned bearish. The TV Talking Heads are showcasing one "Permabear" after another, who are confidently predicting (for the 100th time in the last two years) that this time they are going to be
right. Calls that "The end is nigh," or "Run for the hills," should be ignored.
In this atmosphere of panic, pain and fear, try to remember the positives. Seasonality is in the bull's favor. The S&P 500 was up every year after a mid-term election since WW II. And if this were truly the end of the upside for this cycle, where was the blow-off top that has always marked the end of a bull market? No, it is too early to get defensive and it is way too late to sell.
Hunker down and wait. You will likely be rewarded.
@theMarket: Stocks Take a Breather
Stocks are in the process of consolidating after the big gains over the last week or so. So far, the October sell-off has led to a recovery of about half of what was lost. In the two months ahead, we should see even further gains.
No matter how much we would like it to, the stock market rarely goes straight up. It is one reason why I constantly advise clients not to check their portfolios on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. And never check them in down markets. Why put yourself through that emotional turmoil — especially when you have no intention of using the money anytime soon.
As we now know, the Democrats regained the House this week. As I, and everyone else on Wall Street predicted, the Republicans maintained their hold on the Senate. Some races, such as Florida, are still too close to call. But the results were predictable enough for the markets to rally over 2 percent the day after the results.
Since then, traders have been selling. That's natural. Once they bank some profits, and some of the overbought technical conditions as well as investment sentiment is reduced, stocks will find their footing and advance once again. In the meantime, get ready for the political noise that will most assuredly begin emanating from Washington.
President Trump, at long last, has fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. It won't matter who he appoints in his stead, in my opinion, because nothing will stop the Mueller investigation and its findings from being disseminated. The Democrats will see to that.
The question that the markets will ask is:
"Who, if anyone, did anything wrong?"
Chances are it won't be Donald Trump, if history is any guide. Rarely does the captain go down with the ship in politics. His first mate, bosun, and any number of sailors might drown, but unless he has been stupid and failed in some way to cover his trail, the president will come out blameless. In which case, the markets will celebrate that victory.
My column yesterday pointed out that little, if anything, can be expected in the way of legislation over the next two years. That removes an unknown variable from the financial markets. What's left?
Trump's trade war and rising interest rates. Both will receive undue attention from investors. Trade will likely take a back-seat until Trump meets his Chinese counterpart this month, which leaves interest rates.
Throughout their careers, few of Wall Street's professionals have ever experienced a rising interest rate environment. Most are too young to remember. Many were not even born during the era of the oil embargo, double-digit interest rates and inflation. To them, this is all theoretical and not anchored in experience.
Therefore, they won't know when and how rising interest rates may trigger a recession. What's worse, they also won't know when too much inflation, versus too little inflation, is good (or bad) for the stock markets. As such, most of the investment community will live in a state of perpetual jumpiness. Jumpiness is a state of nervousness marked by sudden jerky movements. We just had such a day on Friday.
The Fed met this week and simply repeated what the markets already knew: that a rate hike was in the offing next month and further hikes should be expected next year. The only "new" comment was a sentence indicating that business investment seemed to be moderating slightly. Nonetheless, global markets fell on Thursday night and into Friday because many felt disappointment that the Fed was still on course.
My belief is that kind of overreaction may continue to occur. When few in the markets understands the natural process of a growing economy, rising interest rates, and over (versus under) heating, any hike in interest rates is automatically considered negative for stocks.
It is not, but one must live through the experience of rising interest rates in order to understand them and to take the process in stride. Unfortunately, our "professionals" are all on a learning curve. What is theory and what is true will only be realized in hindsight. This is the world we live in, so expect more jumpiness in the foreseeable future.