It was just the 2nd down-week of the year, but below the surface many individual names have been consolidating since mid-February. The S&P500 gave back -2.1%, but the more cyclical and strongest YTD performing areas are pulling back more sharply with transportation stocks down -3.3% and small-caps off -4.3% (Russell 2000). This weakness should embolden the somewhat consensus call that that the rally since the Christmas eve low was too strong for such a short-period of time and without any retesting.
Major US indexes added to already impressive gains last week with the Dow, S&P500 and Nasdaq each adding between +2.4% – 3.0%. Just eight trading weeks into the new year, the Dow and S&P500 are up roughly +11% from where they entered; and higher-beta corners of the market (such as small-caps and cyclical transportation stocks) are enjoying even stronger recoveries in the neighborhood of +15%. The numbers are even more impressive if one begins their count from the Christmas Eve low. Interestingly, as equities have improved back to, and even through, the most obvious levels of technical resistance the pace does not seem to be slowing despite what remains a quite lengthy list of items that need to “go right” for the US economy to manage a soft economic landing.
After an impressive 4-week rally, US equities appear to be butting up against arguably their first formal area of technical resistance being near the 200-day moving average. The broad-based strength that began the day after Christmas is in recent days turning decidedly more sideways; for the week ending January 25 the Dow managed to finish slightly higher and extend its weekly winning streak to 5, but the S&P500 (considered to be broader and more representative of the overall market) slipped slightly.
US equities capped a 4th consecutive week of gains, bringing US equities back roughly +13% thru this past Friday from its Christmas-eve lows. As one might anticipate, the markets are also off to an extraordinarily strong New Year start with the S&P500 up +6.6%; encouraging, more economically sensitive areas of the market like small-size companies are faring even stronger over that period with gains of roughly +10% (Russell 2000). Most of that strength is being attributed to a more collaborative narrative surrounding trade negotiations between the US and China, as well as a more data-dependent and cautious Federal Reserve as it relates to normalization of monetary policy. The only missing element of full improvement from a domestic policy perspective at this point is that the US government remains partially shut down and there is little sign of either side appearing willing or desirous of reaching compromise. In any event, the stock market’s strong rebound serves valid reminder of how quick and suddenly direction can reverse course in financial markets, even as worries are not fully resolved.
Following the worst performance for the S&P500 since 1931, the tone so far in these early weeks of 2019 is more hopeful. This is evidenced by broad and strong consecutive-day winning streaks; the S&P for instance was up +2.6% last week and +3.6% month-to-date. Even stronger are some areas of the market traditionally considered risk-seeking; the small-cap Russell 2000 climbed +4.8% last week and +7.4% in January. Key commodities viewed as a bellwether to economic growth including oil are also seeing their price recover notably off stressed December lows and international equities are participating in-line with the S&P. The cause? From a fundamental perspective, very little. But Fedspeak turned decidedly more dovish from the worrisome pre-disposed and not-so-data-dependent (toward additional hikes) tone that Chairman Powell conveyed with the rate decision in December.
Uncle Sam stole the year-end Santa rally. The worst December since 1931 and the worst Christmas Eve stock market performance of all time occurred this year. From my perspective, it is all politics this December. Yes, our great Uncle Sam “Scrooge” stole Christmas and a small positive investment performance for 2018. It traces to bad politics coming together in a “perfect storm.” A “perfect political storm” is the coming together of at least 2 bad events at the same time. We count at least 3 negative political charges right now: the Fed, Tariffs, and government shutdown (budget).
With just 5 trading days remaining in 2018, Santa is missing, failing to deliver any holiday cheer more familiar to investors at this time of year. Even a lump of coal might feel better at this point. Instead, the ill-behavior of financial markets would suggest that something very bad is happening to the global economy. On the heels of a -1.2% slide during the week ended December 14, the selloff intensified with the S&P tumbling another –7.0% for the week. It was the worst week for US equities in 10 years, and stocks are now off more than -12% for the month. Smaller-size US companies are generally faring even worse with the Russell 2000 small-cap index down -15% for the month and crossed the bear market threshold of -20% from its peak. The tech-heavy Nasdaq is also officially closed in bear territory on Friday (12/21) from its peak after leading the charge throughout most of the last two years. But regardless of size, US stocks are decidedly negative for 2018 to varying degrees.
Barron’s front cover over the weekend (12/15/2018) read “2019 Outlook: US Stocks Could Rally More Than 10%”; while the New York Times front page (12/15/2018) was “The Best Place to Put Money? Your Mattress” and in the Style Section (same paper/date) read “Are You Ready for the Financial Crisis of 2019?” Quite divergent headlines on the same day.
As we noted in these pages at the beginning of last week, we find it simply remarkable how quick the market’s mood can change against a fluid and stressed environment like the recent two months. Entering the week, the stars seemed to be aligning for those hopeful a more dovish Fed and collaborative tone between the US and China over ongoing friction about trade might develop. As recent as last Monday, optimists were starting to feel as if the storm clouds were receding during the final week of November, and a much longed-for Santa Rally in December might be starting to take shape. Then, with seemingly little warning, the bears were awakened again with declines throughout the balance of the week. The carnage began to unfold Tuesday, with blame by the media mostly being attributed to investors having second thoughts about the trade truce with China, although less recognized was a troubling development in Europe with British Prime Minister May suffering a setback in her government and undermining the Brexit proposals. We also believe that the inversion of the yield curve among some shorter maturities likely triggered indiscriminate and heavy risk-off program selling of US equities exacerbating any fundamental concerns. Despite the tail end of a strong multi-day rally on Monday, and the market being closed in honor of the passing of the 41st President Bush on Wednesday, the major US indexes still found themselves -4.6% in the hole to conclude the first week of December. From a psychological standpoint, the market backdrop is feeling increasingly pessimistic. Most challenging however is for investors to try and keep in mind how quickly the environment could take a turn for the better again seeing as how so many of the worries are “man-made” and policy-related.
In our November market commentary entitled “Shake or Break”, as well as periodic updates in recent weeks, we’ve spoke extensively about how the market’s October swoon and elevated volatility were not without justification. The sudden awakening by investors following conclusion of the 3Q can be linked to persistent worries that the economic strength being witnessed in the US for 2018 might be “as good as it gets”, set to fade as we anniversary tax reform; when paired with the lack of constructive progress between Trump and China over trade and the Fed communicating in a way that felt decreasingly data-dependent and instead on autopilot with respect to additional interest rate hikes it makes sense why so many market participants were in bad moods. We’ve stated throughout the duration of this corrective phase that the economic data in the US remained supportive and the probability of recession in the near-term would still appear remote. But the financial markets needed to quickly see a more conciliatory tone begin to develop from both Trump and Fed Chairman Powell before further psychological confidence damage and any meaningful stock market recovery could develop. That’s exactly what we received last week and financial markets responded strongly with their best week in two years.