@theMarket: Does the Fed Know Something We Don't?
Sometimes too much good news can be interpreted badly. Take the U.S. central bank's about face on monetary policy late last year. That was good news and investors responded by bidding the stock market up by 20 percent. But this week we may have received even better news, or did we?
The Fed did more than met investors' expectation this week at the central bank's monthly Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Chairman Jerome Powell indicated that there would be no more interest rate hikes for the remainder of the year (after saying back in December that two rate hikes were on the table for 2019). There was even some discussion that a rate cut might be possible, if conditions merited such a move.
One would have thought that would send the markets flying, and they did, at least on Thursday. Friday, however, the opposite occurred. Granted, the reaction could simply be dismissed as a "sell on the news" moment or algos playing their daily games. If so, nothing more needs to be said. But I ask myself — why would Powell and the Fed be contemplating a rate cut?
The news startled some analysts and left them asking questions. Is the economy weaker than most suspect? Has the slow-down in the global economy infected the U.S. as well? Afterall, the Fed did lower their forecast for GDP growth this year from 2.3 percent to 2.1 percent, but it is still growing, or is it?
As most economists know, the economy is getting a little long in the tooth; we call it a "late cycle" market. One of the reasons you might want to cut rates at this point would be if you expected the economy to slip into recession fairly soon.
There is certainly a huge discrepancy between the Fed's forecast and that of the Trump administration. In his budget for 2020, Donald Trump is forecasting 3.2 percent GDP growth this year. Given his tweets about the Fed, that is understandable. He believes that the only problem with the economy is the Fed. He does not believe they are in touch with the market or understand things like trade wars and a strong dollar. Investors are hoping that he is right. Time will tell if the Fed knows more than we do.
In the meantime, stocks continue to climb. As I wrote last week, with the world's central banks in an easing mode, stocks are benefiting from all this monetary stimulus just like they have for the past decade. Investor sentiment continues to move higher as well with the latest readings indicating 53.9 percent of investors bullish — the highest level since Oct. 1, 2018. That is the fifth straight reading above 50 percent, which is usually a sign that some caution is called for in investing.
However, the percentage of bulls are still much lower than the 61.8 percent bullish level that was registered when the stock market hit record highs back in September of last year. As a contrarian indicator, sentiment is a useful tool, but only one in my bag of tricks. Clearly, we have had a great run since the lows in December with hardly a pullback to speak of. We could easily decline a couple of percent at any time
As long as we held the 2,800 level, any sell-off would set us up to make a run at the 2,900 level on the S&P 500 Index. If that were the case, it would mean that we not only erased all of the losses of 2018 but would be looking at an almost double-digit return for the stock market year to date. That's quite impressive, given that we are not even in the second quarter of 2019 yet.
But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Just be grateful you hung in there through the fourth quarter of last year, and by all means, ignore the noise and negativity. Stay invested.
@theMarket: Pick Your Poison
Investors were greeted on Friday with two nasty surprises. Both occurred in February. Chinese exports dropped by 20.7 percent, while in the U.S., the nation added a dismal 20,000 jobs. As you might expect, the stock market did not take the news well.
What really spooked traders was how far apart these numbers were to expectations. Over here, we were expecting 180,000 jobs to be added to the payroll number. In China, where the economy had been expected to weaken, exports had been forecasted to decline by 6 percent, versus the prior year.
Before the ink had dried on the jobs data, the administration was already sending their point man on the economy, Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, on television to assure Wall Street that the February data was "fluky" and should be ignored.
As for China, investors there took the Shanghai Composite down by 4.4 percent overnight. Japan dropped half of that (minus-2 percent), even after the government said its economy grew by 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. It also didn't help that the European Central Bank lowered its forecasts Thursday for growth in the Eurozone and announced more stimulus measures to support the economy.
Over the last two weeks, I have been warning readers to expect a pullback in the markets, nothing too serious, but maybe a 3-5 percent decline. If I were to take a guess, we could see the S&P 500 Index hit 2,700 or so, before we mellow out. From there, it depends on how low those crazy algo trading machines decide to take us. Where is John Connor when you need him?
By now you should expect these consolidations especially after watching the indices free fall in the last quarter of 2018 and then climb by almost 20 percent from their December lows.
There has also been a growing skepticism over the China/U.S. trade deal. Despite my own skepticism, investors were happy to drink the White House "Kool-Aid" on the timing of a breakthrough announcement. It was first thought the deal would be announced three weeks ago. It was then pushed back after the Chinese team of negotiators returned to Beijing with nothing done. Last week, negotiations were "moving along very nicely," according to the president.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that negotiators were still trying to lock down details and that Chinese officials "were wary about the final terms" because of Trump's penchant for making last-minute changes over the heads of his negotiators. But, of course, they would say that.
On Friday, Trump, when asked about the deal on the South Lawn, sounded a little less certain. He predicted "a very big spike" in the stock market "as soon as these trade deals are done, if they get done, and we're working with China. We'll see what happens."
Whether we actually do see a spike in the stock market (and for how long) depends on what happens next. Readers might recall that I believed that much of any potential upside for stocks based on a breakthrough trade deal was already discounted by market participants. When announced, it would likely be a "sell on the news" event.
If, on the other hand, the markets continue to pullback here by several percent, and then a really good deal is announced (as opposed to something which simply saves face), then the president might be right. So how do you play it? Simple: do nothing, stay invested, and strap in. The ride should be bumpy.
@theMarket: Stocks on Hold
February delivered good gains for the markets. All the main averages were up, continuing January's climb toward the old highs. This week, momentum stalled a bit, indicating that investors need more good news to continue buying.
A China trade agreement (or lack thereof) still takes center stage. Despite the Washington, D.C., circus surrounding the testimony of Michael Cohen, the president's chief "fixer" for over a decade, traders largely ignored the hype.
At the same time (no accident in the scheduling), President Donald Trump hoped to take the spotlight off Cohen and back on him by meeting with Kim Jung-un in Hanoi for a second summit. Unfortunately, that meeting was such a bust that Trump left early without any progress at all. One wonders if the whole trip was just a publicity stunt to draw attention away from the Cohen testimony before Congress. Traders ignored that event as well.
What really kept the lid on the market was U.S. Trade representative John Lighthizer's comments before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. "Let me be clear," Lighthizer said, "Much still needs to be done both before an agreement is reached and, more importantly, after it is reached, if one is reached."
The trade rep went on to say that China needed to do more than just buy more of our trade goods, citing all the other concerns such as technology transfers and intellectual property theft.
None of the above should be new to my readers, since it is something I have been talking about for months. However, this dose of reality flies in the face of all the hype and hope that propelled the market averages to where they are today. And it has not been only our market that was bid up by the tweets and off-hand comments of the president in the last few weeks.
China saw its equity market gain 5 percent overnight earlier in the week, after gaining almost as much last week. Since then, the Shanghai averages have come back down to earth. They have given up a good amount of those gains. Here in the U.S., the averages are still hanging in there and finished the week up modestly.
Almost like clockwork, Larry Kudlow, the president's chief economic advisor, tried to talk the markets and the trade-deal prospects back up on Thursday morning. He has done this good cop/bad cop routine before and after comments by Lighthizer. After an initial flurry of algo-driven buys, the rally petered out. However, on Friday, after investors digested a better than expected 2018 fourth quarter GDP number of 2.6 percent, the markets were encouraged and finished up for the week.
But it remains the job of the maestro to reassure the markets if we hope to break out of this tight trading range on the S&P 500 Index. At this point, Trump and Trump alone can dispense the hope and Beetle Juice necessary to keep the markets climbing. It is no secret that the averages are overbought, extended, and due for a pullback of sorts. The "pain trade" this week was to short the markets anticipating that decline, which did not occur. As we enter a new month, there is an even chance that, instead of a decline, we continue this sideways action or, (if there is a breakthrough on trade), the potential to move even higher.
@theMarket: Markets Gain on Hope & a Prayer
Investors remain cautiously optimistic that the wall of worry that has been plaguing us for months may now be crumbling. That's no sure thing, but at least we did have some good news this week.
While most investors were not expecting a repeat of last month's partial government shut-down, it was still a relief to see that issue put to bed on Friday. The president reluctantly signed the budget bill that Congress passed over his objections.
Granted, the president did not get his wall, although now he is threatening to get the funding by declaring a national emergency on our southern border. Whether there is or is not such an emergency, by declaring one, he bypasses Congress. That will establish a dangerous precedent for future presidents who may be frustrated with the constitution's checks and balances among the three bodies of government.
Another president could use that same tactic to circumvent Congress in order to secure his or her own objectives. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat speaker of the House, has already indicated that, for example, that same tactic could be used in the future to restrict or even outlaw guns in this country. It could be used to balance the budget, or set term limits in Congress, or any number of things that a frustrated president might wish for.
But enough politics. As I have written many times in the past few months, the markets remain China-dependent. Earlier in the week, markets swooned when reports surfaced that some of the structural issues within the Chinese economy that we want changed have become a sticking point in negotiations. A few days later, the president said he "may consider" postponing the March 1 deadline, if there was progress on the trade talks.
Almost every other day, some administration official or another makes a positive (or negative) comment that sets the markets in a tizzy. Words such as "reluctant" or "constructive" can send the Dow up or down 200 points in the blink of an eye. From my point of view, it's all-day trading and won't impact the longer-term outcome of the markets.
I have been predicting from the outset of Trump's trade war, that there will be a resolution and a compromise on these issues between the U.S. and China. No, it won't be on the market's time table or terms. I believe it will be a series of incremental agreements on one or two issues at a time.
It also happens that it is a fortuitous period of time for the United States to address these decades-old issues. Not only is the Chinese economy faltering on several fronts, but China is also in the midst of a multi-year program of becoming a consumer-driven, rather than an export-driven, economy. As such, reducing exports and increasing imports dovetails with their own economic objectives through 2025. However, altering trade deficits and surpluses is the relatively easy part of the trade discussions.
The intellectual property debate is something that will require a substantial change within China and can't be done with a brush of the pen (or keyboard). Clearly, one of China's major objectives is to become the world's leader in technology advancements. If that means stealing our secrets in any way they can, then they will do it. Not only is this a clear and present danger to our own economy, but also has enormous ramifications for our military and national defense.
Next week, the trade talks move back to Washington. As such, we can expect a series of "leaks" as the days go by, which should guarantee more volatility on a daily basis. As for the supposedly "important" stuff like earnings, economic growth, employment, etc., all of it remains relegated to second or third place as the talks progress.
As the markets climb, there are more and more calls by strategists for another one of those 6-7 percent pull-backs (that could easily turn into a 14-15 percent decline on the back of all this computer trading). I have an interesting notion. What if the news is really good on the China front and, after a brief spike up, markets use the occasion to "sell on the news"? That would be the most inconvenient thing that could occur to the greatest number of people. That's what the markets usually do.
@theMarket: Markets Are China Dependent
Profit-taking is a natural and expected part of the stock market. That's why no one should be surprised that this week we are witnessing a period of consolidation. It is actually a good thing.
Given that most investors need a reason to explain any market declines, this week's announcement that President Trump is postponing his meeting with Xi, his Chinese counterpart, was both a surprise and a disappointment. It shouldn't be.
Over the last few months, I have tried to reduce investors' expectations of an easy, one-shot, Chinese break-through on the trade front. The postponement is actually a positive, in the sense that both sides are taking the negotiations seriously. There is just too much to negotiate, which is why I expect that the March 1 deadline to institute additional tariffs will again be postponed.
Part of the problem is the president's insistence that he be the one to make most, if not all, of the decisions on the China front. That is difficult to do when his attention has been focused on getting his Wall money, fending off investigation after investigation, shutting down the government (or not), and feuding with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
There just isn't enough time in the day. To accomplish all of the above and move forward to solve an array of issues that have evolved over decades of trade with the world's second-largest economy is asking the impossible. I have to hand it to Trump for even attempting to renegotiate our long-standing China trade issues. No other president before him has tried.
As such, investors should take a more realistic view of what can and cannot be done between now and March. But try telling that to the machines that drive most of the daily trading. All they need is the word "postponement" and the selling begins.
Last week readers might recall that I expected this pullback.
"We have seen some good gains, however. So, I would expect to see a period of consolidation in the weeks ahead. Any dips in the market would be an opportunity to buy, not sell."
My target was 2,715 on the S&P 500 Index. We hit that level and a bit beyond before profit-taking began on Wednesday. Regardless of the reason, stocks were over-bought, in need of consolidation, and the China news provided the excuse.
I said last week that if you had sold out of the markets during the downdraft we experienced in the last quarter of 2018, you now have an opportunity to get back in the market. I am sure you will be wondering at what level. Short-term timing advice is purely a guesstimate. From a technical point of view, the S&P 500 Index could drop another 50 points easily from here to 2,646.
It could go lower, but I wouldn't worry about it. You see, all it would take is an encouraging tweet by the president to trigger a buying frenzy among the machines. Investors, please ignore the day-to-day noise. The economy, earnings and employment are still growing. The Fed is no longer tightening and that's all you need to know.