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Is the Economic Rebound For Real?

Economics / Recession 2008 - 2010 Jun 22, 2009 - 02:28 AM GMT

By: Money_Morning


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleWilliam Patalon III writes: U.S. stocks suffered their first weekly loss since May last week, further exacerbating trader concern that the bullish surge that sent share prices up as much as 40% from their March lows may have been overdone.

Traders have grown increasingly fearful in recent weeks that the powerful surge in the three major U.S. stock indices – one of the strongest in history – may not have been justified because of an ongoing economic recovery that’s not as strong as originally believed.

"There’s no question in my mind that the economy is improving," Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors, told The Associated Press on Friday. "But investors are betting on some sideways consolidation rather than a continuation of a sharp spike in share prices."

All the major indexes closed the week down for the first time since the week of May 11. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 3%, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 2.6%, and the Nasdaq Composite Index 1.7%.

Stocks returned to the whipsaw trading pattern investors had grown wearily accustomed to in the months before the rally got under way.

Stocks fell early in the week as a handful of weak economic reports – including news that industrial production had fallen for the seventh straight month – contradicted other reports that seemed to depict a gradual improvement in the American economy.

But some modestly upbeat economic reports sent U.S. share prices up a bit on Thursday; one report demonstrated that the overall number of people drawing unemployment benefits fell last week for the first time since the start of January.

But it wasn’t until stocks finished the day mixed on Friday – with financial, retail and tech shares gaining, while energy and utility shares dropped – that the three major indices finished with their first weekly loss since the start of May.

Last week was a loss. And the week before the three key indices each rose less than 1%.

"It’s not going to be a one-way ride," Keith Walter, portfolio manager of Artio Global Equity Fund, told reporters.

Since periods of powerful market overperformance are usually followed by a period of sharp underperformance, institutional players have been looking for a down week.  Usually, a 40% surge like the one seen in the S&P 500 index takes years to develop, not months.

But here’s the question: Does last week’s market pullback have more to go, or can it still move higher after two consecutive weeks of sideways trading?
The conventional wisdom is calling for a stretch of choppy trading that will last through the summer, a period during which there’s low volume, until July when Corporate America begins announcing second-quarter earnings.

Market Matters     

As the Dow finished the week in the “red,” it also turns out that its push into positive territory for the year was relatively short-lived.  Just one trading session beyond the index’s surge into the “black,” traders surveyed the economic landscape, evaluated the new regulatory environment, reconsidered the ballooning deficit (not even including health care) and chose to book some profits.  While the other major indexes remain profitable year-to-date, many investors believe the markets stand at a crossroad as they attempt to determine whether the recent move has been:

  • A mere blip on the radar screen, amid a much-longer bear market.
  • A much-too-fast run-up for a rebounding economy that that still faces a plethora of challenges.
  • The start of a new bull market that simply is taking a week off to digest all the “euphoric” news.

The analysts, TV pundits, and bloggers maintain no shortages of views about the markets’ future direction.  Only time will tell.

As expected, major financial institutions rushed to pay back $68 billion in Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) money and get out from under the strong arm of the government.  JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS), and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) highlighted the list, while Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C), Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC), and Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) are among those still seeking Uncle Sam’ approval for every action.
Meanwhile, Standard & Poor’s downgraded 18 related institutions, including a few that paid back the bailout money – BB&T Corp. (NYSE: BBT) and U.S. Bancorp (NYSE: USB) – and warned about the industry’s future

The Obama administration revealed plans for the most significant financial regulatory overhaul since the Great Depression.  The proposal expands the oversight role of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and includes higher capital and liquidity requirements, stricter reviews over hedge funds and certain derivative products, and the creation of a new consumer protection agency.  U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner detailed the plan before the Senate and was met with mixed (but predictable) reactions…Republicans thought it was excessive, while Dems felt it didn’t go far enough.

If both sides dislike it equally, perhaps it’s a good plan?
Volatility returns to the markets as the VIX (Chicago Board Option Exchange Volatility Index) surged past the critical 30 mark early in the week, a sign generally associated with stock-market pessimism.  Bonds continued their ongoing roller-coaster ride as some fixed-income investors remained concerned about the global demand for U.S. debt, while others turned to the asset class as a flight-to-quality from riskier securities.

The worries continued as both China and Japan reportedly cut back their treasury holdings in April, a worrisome development considering the upcoming Treasury auctions will add a record $104 billion of government securities to the Street.

Oil hovered around the $70 a barrel level and gas prices increased for 52 straight days as consumers began to feel the pinch just in time for the summer holiday travel season.  Options expiration from “quadruple-witching Friday” brought additional volatility as each major equity index gave back some ground for the week on less-than-favorable reports from the likes of Best Buy Co. (NYSE: BBY) and FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX).                       

Market/ Index

Year Close (2008)

Qtr Close (03/31/09)

Previous Week

Current Week

YTD Change

Dow Jones Industrial 8,776.39 7,608.92 8,799.26 8,539.73 -2.70%
NASDAQ 1,577.03 1,528.59 1,858.80 1,827.47 +15.88%
S&P 500 903.25 797.87 946.21 921.23 +1.99%
Russell 2000 499.45 422.75 526.84 512.72 +2.66%
Global Dow 1526.21 1347.38 1,694.76 1,633.70 +7.04%
Fed Funds 0.25% 0.25% 0.25% 0.25% 0 bps
10 yr Treasury (Yield) 2.24% 2.68% 3.79% 3.79% +155 bps

Economically Speaking

While U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will be gaining enhanced powers under the federal financial system makeover, he must be wondering whether he will be around to experience them.  Despite the unprecedented challenges he has faced over the past few years, U.S. President Barack Obama has been tightlipped about whether he will reappoint Bernanke for another term when the central bank chairman’s current stint expires in January.

“Ben Bernanke has handled his position extraordinarily well under extraordinary circumstances…but I’m not going to make news on that right now," President Obama said.

Some Fed watchers believe that President Obama has Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and present National Economic Council chairman, in mind for the position.

On the economic front, inflation data highlighted the week’s releases as both producer price index (PPI) and the consumer price index (CPI) for May were reported as below expectations.  While certain naysayers pressed forward on the scary “deflation” argument, other naysayers point to the rapid rise in energy prices as proof that the dreaded “I” word is merely lurking on the horizon.

For now, however, inflation is not considered “Public Enemy No. 1” and economists will focus on housing, labor, and manufacturing for more signs of economic stability.

Turning to housing, new construction climbed by its largest amount in three months and even building permits jumped in May as prospects for the future look more promising.  Bear in mind, however, homebuilding activity still remains more than 45% below last year’s levels.

Industrial production fell more than 1% in May as automakers Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Corp. (OTC: GMGMQ) continued shutting down plants and limiting production as they initiated their restructuring plans.  While initial jobless claims actually increased slightly in its most recent weekly release, total insurance claims actually fell for the first time in five months.  Still, the labor market remains the primary concern as the economy begins to show some signs of improvement.

On that note, the leading economic indicators (LEI), an index thought to forecast economic activity for the next three to six months, experienced its best showing since March 2004.

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