Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Extending Gains, Stocks at 18-month Highs

Oh, Happy Day! If you haven't bothered to pay much attention to this space, you should be well off following the seventh straight advance for the Dow Jones Industrials, which broke and closed above the January highs and now sit at their best levels since October, 2008, when the bear market took its most prominent downside path.

What this would infer is that the financial crisis is fully behind us, recovered from and prosperity is now priced into the market to a substantial degree. Never mind that high unemployment persists and that housing remains in the throes of its worst extended period since the 1930s, money - as measured by the Fed funds rate of ZERO - is dirt cheap and stocks are flying.

Instead of looking this gift horse squarely in the mouth and playing this leg of the rally for all its worth, some of us have serious doubts going forward, though naysayers during spectacular bull trends (this is a bear market rally) are usually shuffled onto the last trains to loserville. No difference this time around, as sentiment has grown overwhelmingly positive. Stocks are the only investment with little risk and high reward, and that's what on everyone's plate.

While those viewing the macro-economic condition as less-than-healthy and still riddled with structural time-bombs, short-term, stocks have provided a great deal of upside action and quality trading plays. Note that the word "trading" was substituted for "investment," as the latter is no longer viewed with much respect. The money is there for the taking today, and take it is what most traders will do.

One tiny detail many may have missed here is that Friday marks a quad-witching day in which stock index options and futures and individual stock options and futures all expire. Being that the betting (note "betting" rather than "investment") has uniformly been to the high side, insider market participants will conclude their self-fulfilling prophecy with healthy gains, just as they have nearly every month and on every such quadruple-witching event of the past four quarters.

Also of note is that the Dow Industrials have now confirmed the breakout by the Transports, keeping Dow Theorists firmly in the back of the bus until such time as another aberration is recognized and then swiftly reconciled. If you expected stocks to rise, then you've hit the bulls-eye, though the reasons for gains may matter more than the actual finished product.

In other words, with easy money, bullish sentiment and no headwinds blowing against them, stocks had little to do but wait until people bid them higher. It's all so neat and simple when a plan comes so sweetly to fruition, no matter the underlying fundamentals.

Dow 10,733.67, +47.69 (0.45%)
NASDAQ 2,389.09, +11.08 (0.47%)
S&P 500 1,166.21, +6.75 (0.58%)
NYSE Composite 7,474.02, +47.32 (0.64%)

The internals were possibly even better than the headline numbers, with 4328 advancing stocks to 2196 losing value. New highs exploded to 1073, versus 77 new lows. That's the largest margin of difference - in either direction - in 16 months, and the best showing for new highs since prior to the bear market which began in late Summer of 2007.

Volume was very strong, owing again to the quad-witching condition.

NYSE Volume 5,549,815,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,166,110,750

Crude oil traders must be thinking there's a boom coming soon, because their pricing is out of this world. Crude closed up another $1.23, to $82.93, close to 18 month-highs itself. Gold was not so lustrous, but still up $1.80, to $1,124.00. Silver closed higher by 17 cents, to $17.50.

A few of the less-noticed economic data sets from the past few days may shed light upon why not everyone is sold on the recovery story. Capacity utilization ticked up a fraction in February, to 72.7%, still horrible. In a robust economy, that number would be over 90%. Consequently, industrial production saw a gain of only 0.1% in February, barely moving the needle.

Housing starts fell to 575,000 in January, again, a feeble number, and PPI, released this morning, showed a decline of 0.6%, or, in other words, outright deflation. However, instead of considering this a portent of a weak, stumbling, or at best, stagnant economy, the take was to call it "tame inflation" as though inflation would magically re-appear in time to rescue the pricing power of businesses.

This bear-market rally has now gone on for 13 months with only two near-corrections of 9% - in June, 2009 and February of this year - hardly the kind of performance one would expect from economic conditions such as exist today. But, Wall Street does as it pleases, and what pleases it most is stuffing more money into it's already lavishly-lined pockets.

Party on, Garth.

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