Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stocks Continue Taking It on the Chin

Today's market - no, check that, the past two weeks - have been similar to watching an overmatched heavyweight slogging through the late rounds of a fight. The stumbling, grasping hulk is doing everything he can to stay on his feet, but his opponent, peppering him with body shots and head blows, is wearing him down, and eventually, that's where he's going: down to the mat for a long rest.

After a stirring speech by President Obama in the State of the Union Wednesday night, there were ample amounts of optimism, though not enough to lift stocks off the break even mark at the open. Jobless claims once again disappointed, and durable goods orders, which were expected to grow by as much as 2% in December, came in at a feeble 0.3%, giving even more credence to the thinking that the nascent recovery is giving way to larger pressures.

The deflationary cycle will not relent. Consumers aren't spending, which means companies won't hire, which will eventually be reflected in slower sales, weaker earnings and potentially even more job losses. Unemployment continues to be the weight on the economy, though housing isn't far behind.

Just an anecdotal reference from my vantage point bears reflection on where housing prices are headed. Three months ago, here in an upstate New York suburb, I searched the local multiple listing service site for homes under $90,000, and found four. Now, this is a relatively modest area, which wasn't damaged by the ups and downs of the housing boom and subsequent bust. Prices remained fairly stable throughout the years from 2003-2009. However, when I checked the same reference with the same parameters, my search showed 49 properties under $90,000, a 10-fold increase since late October, with the lowest price coming in at $36,500.

I was absolutely stunned to see so many properties around me at such low prices. In many cases, the property taxes would exceed the monthly mortgage payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan at 5.5%. I can only imagine the number of bank-owned properties that are being kept off the market (the so-called "shadow inventory") and the heartache and pain many of my neighbors are suffering.

With real estate in such a dreadful condition, if the stock market takes an extended dive - which it appears to be doing - many more families are going to be hurt, especially those with kids in college or nearing retirement. Their two great stores of value - their home and their retirement savings - are both losing value simultaneously, an unsustainable condition.

America sits on the precipice of a grand collapse and there aren't many people offering solutions, especially in Washington, where the fight is mostly political. It's almost comical to watch the daily panorama of posturing from a detached position; who in their right mind would want to be in a political position of power at this juncture? Maybe politicians are all just closet masochists, waiting to be flogged by an angry populace.

Wall Street seems to have noticed. Over the last seven sessions, the Dow has dropped 605 points, or nearly 5%. If the downdraft turns into a full-blown correction - a likely scenario - another 8-15% could be shaved off in short order, bringing the Dow not only back below the 10,000 mark, but even below 9000, a place where fear and panic both reside. It just doesn't look very pretty right now.

Dow 10,120.46, -115.70 (1.13%)
NASDAQ 2,179.00, -42.41 (1.91%)
S&P 500 1,084.53, -12.97 (1.18%)
NYSE Composite 6,956.99, -78.62 (1.12%)

Declining issues easily outdistanced gainers, 4690-1826. New highs remained modestly ahead of new lows, 131-79. Volume was strong.

NYSE Volume 6,385,494,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,906,497,750

Commodities were steady, after a few weeks of declines. Oil gained 11 cents, to $73.75; gold lost $1.20, to $1,084.50; silver finished at 16.21, down 23 cents on the day.

Friday offers the first government estimate on 4th quarter GDP, at 8:30 am, prior the the opening bell. experts are looking for gains of 4.7% to 6.8% over last year. The projects may appear overly optimistic, and may well be, but, then again, the final quarter of 2008 was one of the worst in years. Some improvement is surely there in the economy, the larger question is whether it will last.

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