Friday, February 15, 2008

Tired Markets End Week Mixed; Economy Remains Top Concern

The floor traders weren't the only ones tuckered out as another volatile week came to an end. Economists and financial news journalists tired themselves out dissecting Thursday's remarks to Congress by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

There was more substance than style to the Chairman's message. He basically held nothing back, telling anyone within earshot (read: the entire civilized world) that the American economy was in a very rough patch.

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Most of the action in stocks took place during and immediately after his testimony, leaving little to the imaginative traders who might have been looking for a bounce on Friday.

Sadly for those on the bullish side of the trade, Friday began in the red and remained there all day. There was some indication of PPT activity near the close, though it could just as easily have been short-covering that boosted the markets in the final hour.

The overall tone of trade was as dull as a old spoon, as the day's volume tapered off to merely a trickle, and with nearly no resistance, the insiders saw an easy path to offering some small glimmer of hope and goosed the indices up in the final fifteen minutes of the session.

The S&P popped over to positive with just ten minutes left to trade. With the markets closed on Monday in observance of President's Day, there weren't many traders left to compete with whomever was driving the mini-rally.

The overall effort was half-hearted and meant nothing in the larger scheme, still biased to the downside.

Dow 12,348.21 -28.77; NASDAQ 2,321.80 -10.74; S&P 500 1,349.99 +1.13; NYSE Composite 8,970.76 +2.35

Friday's main driver was industrial production, a figure released prior to the market opening, which showed an economy flat lining, with growth of 0.1%, essentially nothing. Capacity utilization remained flat at 81.5%, and that's a number that bears watching. If production tails off, that will be a prime indicator with layoffs following quickly behind.

Adding to the Street's bad mood, the Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment fell to 69.6 in February from 78.4 in January, the lowest level since 1992.

The shocker from the New York Empire State Index, which fell to a level not seen since March of 2003 (the end of the last bear market and recession), at -11.7, was just more grist for the recession mill and certainly aided in the pervasively dour mood that clouded markets as the week ended.

Declining issues actually registered somewhat of an outsize edge over gainers, 3765-2456, and new lows trumped new highs once more, 275-56. The highs vs. lows reading implied that more stocks were being dumped on Friday and some sector adjustments were being made in larger portfolios. Difficult to tell with any degree of accuracy, but the shift seemed to be away from small cap techs (especially those in need of capital) toward larger caps with positive balance sheets.

Money on hand is going to be all the rage as economic forces push lenders closer to illiquid levels and insolvency in coming months. Cash will indeed be king, which also goes to explain the low volume of late. Smart money is sitting this dance out.

Commodities, even oil, languished. Oil was up just 4 cents to close at 95.50. Gold dipped $4.70 to $906.10 and silver fell 14 cents to $17.12.

Economic issues will take center stage again for the next four to six weeks, now that most companies have reported earnings. The outlook, including, somewhat amazingly, appears more dire than ever as America tilts closer the low end of the business cycle.

NYSE Volume 3,485,640,750
NASDAQ Volume 1,999,531,625

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