Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Real Estate, Low Confidence Crush Stocks

It didn't take long for the market to re-establish some sense of direction after drifting sideways the past two sessions.

Hopes for an economic recovery were dashed with the release of two separate reports. First, at 9:00 am, the monthly S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index showed an overall 3.2% decline from a year ago. While several cities - San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Washington, DC and Dallas - showed home prices improving modestly, most of the cities in the survey displayed continued carnage, with the worst being Las Vegas (-20.6%), followed by Tampa (-11.0%), Detroit (-10.3%), Miami (-9.9%) and Seattle, Washington (-7.8%).

Widespread continuing weakness in the real estate market has been attributed to poor underwriting standards during the boom years, 2000-2006, though more and more declining property values are being cited as an effect of worsening unemployment conditions. Foreclosures keep rising without abating in most large cities and even more so in smaller communities which have a less-robust employer base. Even though delinquencies are reported, banks have been reluctant to foreclose, and there's widespread belief that a so-called "shadow inventory" of non-foreclosed and bank owned property still awaits to hit the market with a deadening thud.

Even a small addition of unsold properties reaching various markets over the next six to eighteen months would send real estate prices down even lower, but the quantities may be more of a torrent rather than a trickle. With Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac already in deep trouble, the residential real estate market is looking more and more like a wasteland and less like a "recovering" market.

That report alone was not enough to dampen spirits on Wall Street, as stocks, after opening slightly lower, were up steadily in the early going, until the second blast of negative news reached. When the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index for February came in at 46.0, down from 56.5 in January, all hope for a continuation of any rally was lost. Commentators on CNBC and elsewhere were aghast at the "unexpected" decline, mostly by the size of it. The one-month drop of more than 10 points was the most anyone could remember.

Ancillary indices, such as the present situation, also dropped sharply, from 25.2 to 19.4, its lowest level in 27 years. The expectations index declined to 63.8, from 77.3 in January. That was more than enough to send the Dow to a 100-point loss, with the other major indices in tow.

Those two reports brought the bears and bearish analysts out from the woodwork. The sheer number of people expressing negative viewpoints - on TV, radio, the internet and in print - was stunning.

Dow 10,282.41, -100.97 (0.97%)
NASDAQ 2,213.44, -28.59 (1.28%)
S&P 500 1,094.60, -13.41 (1.21%)
NYSE Composite 6,974.60, -103.93 (1.47%)

Declining issues took the edge over advancers, 4457-2057. New highs came back to earth at 202, with only 31 new lows, though, it must be pointed out that these figures are going to be skewed wildly by comparisons to stocks at market bottoms from last year. It won't be until late March or later that the high-low metric will offer much of a reliable glimpse. Volume was a bit better than yesterday's no-show, but there is now likely much more downside risk than in recent days.

NYSE Volume 4,971,602,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,139,569,750

Commodities took it on the chin as well. Crude oil for April delivery, in just the second day of the contract, fell $1.45, to $78.86. Gold lost $10.10, to close at $1,103.00. Silver fell 34 cents, to $15.91.

The onslaught of data today may be just the beginning of poor economic news heading to kill off the incipient rally in equities. While Wall Street may be reveling, most of Main Street is reeling. The persistent and deep declines in prices and markets will leave no asset class untouched, equities and commodities included.

Be aware that stocks could tumble off another cliff at any time without warning. The US and global markets have not made enough real, structural changes and are not yet strong enough to offset the overwhelming deflationary spiral that continues to plague economies from households to cities and states, to entire nations.

In the meantime, could somebody please tell the programming executives at CNBC that curling has to be the most uninteresting, boring, exasperatingly dull event to ever be afforded significant air time? Enough, already!

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