Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Optimism Can Be Good or Bad

Americans are an optimistic lot. Nothing wrong with that, as long as some of the optimistic sentiment is grounded in reality. There's a big difference between wishing and hoping for some desired result that may not have a good chance of happening and confidence based on experience and factual data.

Overnight, conditions in Japan took a turn for the worse as another reactor at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility about 100 miles North of Tokyo suffered an explosion. Japanese officials tried to appear calm, but the fear and panic on their faces was not easy to hide. Reactor #2 at the plant incurred a violent explosion that reportedly damaged part of the containment vessel which holds the unstable rods of highly-charged uranium.

Shortly after that blast, a fire in reactor #4 was reported to have occurred in the pools holding spent fuel rods, also highly toxic and radioactive. Reactors #2 and #3 had already been damaged by xplosions in the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami which hit the island nation on Friday.

The Japanese stock market, the NIKKEI 225, suffered a substantial loss of nearly 11% before trading was halted. Other Asian markets took losses as well, and European markets were down more than 2% when stocks opened in New York.

The drop on the open was a stark and panic-stricken response to what appeared to be possible meltdown in the #2 reactor and spreading risk of contamination to a large area of Japan. A radius of 20 kilometers (12 miles) was evacuated and another in another area further out - to 30 kilometers - residents were told to stay inside due to increased risk of exposure to radioactive elements in the air.

Most of the news occurred during the night for Americans, so there was a bit of unease at the open. The Dow fell 310 points in the opening minutes of the session, with the other major indices taking similar falls.

But, as it turns out, that was the worst of it for US stocks, which rallied in a diagonal path all day as no new news came from Japan. While traders put their most optimistic attitude front and center, the conditions in Japan are still very much in a state of flux. For now, most of the damage has been contained, but the risk of complete meltdown of any one of the three badly-damaged reactors is still prevalent, which is why the attitude of the American traders and investors may be a bit premature.

Besides the nuclear plant situation, conditions on about a third of the main island remain challenging and desperate. Aid is only now reaching some of the victims, the death toll continues to mount and reconstruction is still weeks and months from even beginning. The scope of the devastation is being underplayed by American media. This is a disaster that will play out over months and years, not days and weeks.

The major indices still suffered substantial losses, though they easily could have been worse. The intra-day drops of the past two days have broken through support areas - areas that will be retested before any hint of a rally occurs.

Dow 11,855.42, -137.74 (1.15%)
NASDAQ 2,667.33, -33.64 (1.25%)
S&P 500 1,281.87, -14.52 (1.12%)
NYSE Composite 8,092.11, -101.85 (1.24%)

Declining issues slaughtered advancers, 5101-1536. There were 23 new highs on the NASDAQ, but those were overshadowed by 134 new lows. On the NYSE, only 29 stocks hit new highs, while 77 made new lows. This was the 4th consecutive day of new lows beating new highs on the NASDAQ and the second in the last four for the NYSE.

From a technical perspective, the high/low readings are beginning to develop into a trend, which, if confirmed by further continuation, will produce one of the strongest directional indicators to be found. The divergence of new highs and new lows normally becomes a long trm trend, lasting anywhere from six months to more than two years as it is a primary trend indicator. While there are no hard and fast rules surrounding that particular metric, any change lasting more than a week in duration should be confirmation of the new direction of the markets, in this case, down.

What is occurring inside the US markets is very much the result of too much money in the system. Today's action in global markets was a liquidity-driven event, as assets of all nature were liquidated in favor of the relative safety of cash. Since the Federal Reserve has been pumping money out at an unprecedented rate, today's sudden drop and subsequent rally has all the characteristics of a flooded market with an unstable or unreliable base.

It's very much the same as an old car that has trouble starting and running. A jump may get the batteries to deliver enough juice to get it rolling, but problems inside the engine cause it to stall out again. Fixes are short-term, before a mechanic says the engine needs a complete overhaul.

That is precisely the situation in US markets. The issues coming from Japan are masking real, structural problems below and the daily new highs vs. new lows on the NASDAQ are flashing warning lights that many are ignoring at the peril of their capital.

Volume was extremely high today as well, another bearish indication.

NASDAQ Volume 2,371,639,000
NYSE Volume 5,944,351,500

What made matters even more convincing that the drops in global markets were driven by a rush for liquidity were evident in commodities. WTI crude oil futures were absolutely hammered, losing $4.01, to $97.18. We can only hope that the world-wide community can see the oil market for what it really is - bloated with excessive supply and wildly overpriced as compared to real economic conditions - and continue selling it off until balance is restored at around the $75-85 per barrel level.

Gold was hit hard as investors raced into cash positions, losing $32.10 on the day, to 1,392.80, but down much more in earlier trading. Silver also took a substantial hit, off $1.72, to $34.12.

Once there is some clarity to Japan's situation, the precious metals should continue their interrupted rally, or, at the worst, outperform stocks in a big way.

There's still far too much uncertainty in the world to be fooling with paper assets unless you're a skilled day-trader who can afford to take occasional large losses. For the rest of us, the safety and security of gold and/or silver are second to none.

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