Monday, January 26, 2009

What the Market Knows (and Washington Doesn't)

Monday's attempted push into higher ground was cut short by the very same forces which pushed it down to these levels in the first place: jobs, bank failures and government deficits.

The key sticking point, which the market understands (as do most chartists, but not politicians) is the 8149 level on the Dow. Why that spot is so stubborn and steadfast, not allowing movement beyond it, now that it has been violated, is that it is the interim closing low (Dec. 1) following the devastating bottom of November 20 (7552.29). Since violating this level by closing at 7949.09 on January 20, the index has tried to break out every day since. On January 21, the Dow did manage to hold on, at the close, at 8228.10, but since has closed below 8149 three consecutive sessions.

This is a troubling scenario. Not even the unexpected rise in existing home sales (+6.5%, though the median home price continues to fall) and the Conference Board's rosier outcome in the Leading Indicators (+0.3%) could keep stocks sufficiently in the green to call today's effort a true rally.

As a matter of fact, the Dow finished more than 100 points off its high, which was achieved shortly after the pair of announcements at 10:00 am. It was only a late day surge that allowed the index to finish with any gain at all. Other indices were similarly in positive territory at the close, though with marginal gains.

Dow 8,116.03, +38.47 (0.48%)
NASDAQ 1,489.46, +12.17 (0.82%)
S&P 500 836.57, +4.62 (0.56%)
NYSE Composite 5,244.67, +49.12 (0.95%)

Perhaps equally troubling was the lack of commitment as measured by volume, off sharply from last week's somewhat more spirited efforts. On the day, advancing issues finished well ahead of decliners, 4207-2354, though the gap between new lows and highs remains troubling, with new lows ahead once more, 200-16.

NYSE Volume 1,269,394,000
NASDAQ Volume 1,841,378,000

Crude oil finished the day with a loss of 74 cents, easing to $45.73 at the close after trading as high as $48.05. Gold continued its own little winning streak, gaining $13.00, to $910.70. the first close above the $900 mark since early December. Silver tagged along with a gain of 17 cents, closing at $12.11. We are beginning to be convinced that the only safe place for your cash - besides in a mattress - is in precious metals.

What the politicians in Washington don't seem to understand at this juncture is twofold: first, that the stock market will not respond blindly to their grandstanding on economic issues and postures on bailouts, stimulus packages and the like, and second, that the number of Americans out of work or underemployed has now reached crisis proportions.

Just today, another 68,000+ layoffs were announced, by titans such as Caterpillar (20,000), Pfizer (merging with Wyeth, 26,000), Sprint Nextel (8000) and Home Depot (7000). Other companies, such as Dutch financial firm ING, and farm equipment maker Deere, also announced layoffs which slice across national borders.

The US economy shed 2.6 million jobs in 2008 - the most since 1945 - and there have already been 200,000 announced layoffs this year, though the real figures of unemployed and underemployed continue to spiral to nosebleed levels. Some estimates have the total of both groups already at 13-15% of the adult labor force.

In Washington, there's plenty of pomp and posture about how to correct the dilemma, but it surely seems that the worst is still ahead as the effects of multiple retail chain store closings and the consequent defaults in commercial loan portfolios begin to ripple through the economy.

Our political leaders have yet to either catch on or level with the American people about the depth of our economic crisis, preferring to "stick to their agenda" while offering little in the way of serious stimulative effort.

The stock market is just another ticking time bomb at this point. Anybody telling you to buy stocks here just doesn't understand the fix we're in and might as well instruct you to throw money down a well.

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