Markets usually need something to move them. Good news or bad, the markets want an excuse to go up or down. Now that the government, the debt ceiling, the budget and the Fed are temporarily out of the picture, investors are finally focusing on something meaningful—earnings.
Actually, that is a good thing. It may indicate that the financial sector is at last returning to its historical roots after years of government bail-outs, monetary control and political drama. There was a time, some of you may remember, when earnings could make or break the markets. I don’t think we are there yet, but company earnings this week have given the market cause to pause.
The sampling of company data thus far in this earnings season has been lackluster at best. Companies in the financial, health care, retail and several other sectors have disappointed. The Christmas season, for example, was evidently a disappointment for many traditional, non-internet retailers. Consumer shopping behavior is clearly changing as more and more people shop the web and shun the malls.
To tell you the truth, I am one of those who have abandoned the store for the ease, convenience and competitive prices offered through my computer. Just about all of my holiday shopping was done that way, including the gift certificate I purchased for my wife at a local clothing store.
In the financial sector, banks and brokers are struggling with the new curbs on proprietary trading as well as regulations that require them to amass more capital to offset the risks they are taking in their businesses. Bond trading, which had been a big profit center for financial institutions, also did poorly thanks to rising interest rates.
Granted, it is still early days in the earnings season. I am sure that there will be some absolute gems in upside earnings surprises. The trick is to identify those companies that shine and avoid those that won’t. Wow! Could we really be at that point in the recovery where the fundamentals of individual companies have once again become important to their stock price?
As readers are aware, I believe the economy is accelerating and employment rising. All is well in the world right now. Markets over the last few years have climbed a wall of worry but it appears that those worries have faded. We have yet to replace them with new ones or maybe the new worry is that there isn’t anything to worry about it?
So what are the negatives?
We are in the second year of a four-year presidential cycle. If one looks back through the post-World War II period, we find that these ‘second years’ have been the absolute worst performance years in the stock market. To make matters worse, stock market returns have been even lower than normal when the president has been a Democrat.
Valuation also bears watching. Markets are not yet expensive, but could become so if enough companies fail to live up to expectations. What is now simply a pause in the market’s advance could become a rout, if too many companies disappoint. But what continues to bother me the most is the sentiment indicators. There are just too many bulls out there for my taste. As a contrarian, I like the markets most when no one else does. However, none of the potential negatives tempt me to bail on stocks. Stay the course.