New highs followed by some selling, then a little back and fill, before climbing to yet another new high. That’s the environment we are in and it happens to be a great recipe for making money in the stock market.
The last few days are a great example of what I’m talking about. Last Friday the Nasdaq finally breached the 5,000 level. Now there was nothing magical about that number. Its round and the media decided to use it as some sort of goal post for the technology index. As I predicted in recent columns, the Nasdaq scored that touchdown and then this week, promptly fell back 40-plus points. The other averages sold off in sympathy and here we sit in yet another trading range.
The media needs to manufacture a reason why markets move and sometimes those reasons can be full of contradictions. Friday’s non-farm payroll data is a case in point. The employment gains surprised investors. The cold snap in the northeast had many economists looking for weaker job growth. U.S. payrolls actually came in much higher at 295,000, versus a mean estimate of 235,000 jobs. One data point does not a trend make, but if you look at the three-month average of 288,000 job gains/month, the employment data is clearly rising.
That puts the unemployment rate at 5.5%, down from 5.7%, even though the month to month rise in wages is still fairly anemic. Nonetheless, those are good numbers and combined with the continued low price of energy, should convince most investors that this economy is doing just fine. Why, therefore, did the stock market sell off?
We are in one of those periods where traders have decided that good news is actually bad news. Stronger job growth, to them, means the Fed is going to raise rates sooner than later. Duh, hasn’t the Fed already notified us that they plan to raise short-term rates sometime in mid–year? Whether that happens in June or September is immaterial, but traders insist on trading every data point as if it is meaningful. Don’t you fall for it.
The point to focus on is that all of this trading to and fro is simply noise. Understand that we are now in a new trading range on the S&P 500 Index, somewhere between 2,085 and 2,115. And like previous trading ranges, this one represents a higher low and a higher high from the previous range. If you look back through the last 12 months, time and again, you could identify the same type of trading behavior. The moral of this story is that as long as the markets continue to exhibit this kind of behavior we are all in Fat City.
How long before the next move higher? I wish I knew. Sometimes trading ranges are short-lived, a week or two. At other times, they can last for months. After all, stocks go sideways better than 60% of the time, so patience is a real virtue when it comes to investing. Historically, March and April are up months in the stock market. Odds are this year will be no different. What you need to understand is that in this kind of stair-step market, you simply hunker down and wait for your rewards.