Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mystery Market

If, unlike James Bond, you like your martinis - and markets - shaken and stirred, then today's trading action was right up your secret agent alley.

The Dow, NASDAQ, S&P and NYSE Composite were all floating gaily in the green - with all except the NASDAQ at all-time highs - until about 1:51 pm, when out of the blue the markets were suckered with a left hook that knocked them for a loop, sending everything into a dizzying tailspin over the final two hours of trading.

Dow 14,015.12 -63.57; NASDAQ 2,772.20 -39.41; S&P 500 1,554.41 -8.06; NYSE Composite 10,245.25 -19.25

If volatility is your bag, how about a 250-point swing on the Dow for starters? The NASDAQ traveled up and down more than 76 points from the highs of the day to the lows.

And what was the impetus for these major movements? Profit taking. Or, at least that's all the financial news is about to tell us. That explanation simply will not wash. Not with the incredible decline from just before 2:00 to about 2.30. In less than 45 minutes, the NASDAQ knocked off all of its 22-point gain and fell 30 points into the red. The Dow went from a gain of 110 to a loss of 47 points. But they weren't done yet.

The Dow eventually bottomed out at a loss of 127 points before recovering in the final half hour of the session. This was no ordinary profit taking. Insiders know that something is afoot and they aren't telling. The volume over the final two hours was magnificent, as though somebody had dropped a bomb and everyone needed to flee for the exits.

Another scapegoat for what could only be described as panic selling was Axel Weber, a member of the European Central Bank Council (ECB). Weber stated that although the ECB has temporarily paused rate hikes, he was of the opinion that the ECB may need to raise rates to a level he considered restrictive due to European inflation risks.

Nobody should be buying such a lame excuse to send stocks into an all-out hysterical selling frenzy. There's more here than meets the eye, especially at the start of the 3rd quarter earnings season. There's been ample speculation that more than a handful are going to report weaker-than-expected earnings, especially in the banking sector, though the deficiency will not be confined only to that portion of the market.

Market internals were decidedly on the negative side. Declining issues beat advancers by a healthy 2-1 margin though new highs (reached before the meltdown) swamped new lows, 593-156. That's a pretty wide margin for the high-low reading, which, coupled with the market movement, may indicate a blow-off near-term top today.

On the earnings front, M&T Bank (MTB), which reported prior to the open, narrowly missed their earnings estimate but only lost 47 cents on the day to close at 104.84. Other than Pepsi reporting better-than-expected results before the market opened, there were no earth-shattering announcements from any major (or minor) firms.

The only notable company reporting tomorrow is General Electric (GE), though unless their banking unit is about to take a major writedown, they could not have been the cause for today's frenetic selling.

The commodities caught a significant tailwind on Thursday. Oil for November delivery ramped up $1.78 to close at a near-record $83.08. Gold gained another $10.70 to $756.70 and silver jumped 32 cents to $13.99, though the closing readings for the metals were at 1:30 pm, prior to the sell-off on equities. Gold, at last reading, had given up its gains, selling at $747.00 following the equities lower.

The selling in gold could indicate another credit squeeze, similar to that which occurred in August, when all manner of assets were sold to raise cash to meet obligations. That would explain the simultaneous declines of stocks and gold and is a more plausible explanation than "profit taking" or selling on the opinion of one ECB member.

Whatever the cause of today's turnaround retreat, most investors are going to be kept in the dark, but one thing is almost a certainty - it's not over. Events like this do not occur in vacuums. There's an almost palpable gut feeling that all is not well for the US economy, global economy or US stocks.

Friday may offer more clues, but Monday, when Citigroup (C) kicks off earnings reports from major banking interests, should tell us the rest of the story.

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