This week the markets traded in a tight range. Traders were taking profits from the gains generated by the Santa Claus rally while bullish investors were buying each dip. It is exactly what should be happening after the gains of last year.
Some say it is just a matter of time before this profit taking escalates and stocks experience a long-awaited general correction. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this prediction in the last 12 months I would be a very rich man. As I’ve said before, markets can work off excess enthusiasm by either going through a period of consolidation or by experiencing a general decline. It seems to me that we are experiencing the former and not the latter.
Investors are also coping well with the flow of economic data both good and bad. U.S. exports surged to a record high in November, led by, of all things, the energy sector. Unemployment, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. The private sector experienced the fewest layoffs in years, however, Friday’s jobs number was a downside surprise.
Economists were looking for something north of 200,000 new jobs added in December. Instead, only 74,000 workers found employment around the nation. Yes, the overall unemployment dropped to 6.7%, but most of that decline was accounted for by a shrinking labor force as more people quit looking for work.
Although I have long ago counseled readers to ignore these week-by-week macro statistics since they will be revised up or down several times over the weeks ahead, the markets usually insist on reacting to them immediately. The bears argue that the markets are no longer reacting to good news, while the bulls point out that while the jobs data was a major disappointment, the market did not sell off. I’m simply hoping that investors are beginning to understand that this short-term data is largely noise. It is the trend that counts and the trend over the last 12 months has been up in both economic growth and job creation.
In my last column “Statistically Speaking,” I discussed some investors’ belief that if the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is higher by the fifth day of trading in the New Year, then January overall should see gains. If you subscribe to that belief, then you should take heart since the DJIA began the year at 16,441.35 and by the close of that fifth day of trading the Dow stood at 16,462.74, so far so good.
Over the same time period the S&P 500 Index has seen consistent selling and repeated attempts to push the average below 1,830. It has failed every time. In my experience fragile markets crack easily. Sellers sell for a variety of reasons but investors usually only buy because they believe that stock prices are going higher. We have seen consistent selling and markets that want to go down do so fairly quickly. That does not appear to be the case right now.
My advice remains the same. Stay invested, sell bonds and buy the dips.