Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Greece, Italy Send Stocks Overboard Again

Doings on the Continent have been keeping traders on their toes for months, but today's antics bordered on the bizarre.

First Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou called for a public referendum on the latest bailout plan, just approved days ago in late-night negotiations by European leaders. Making matters even more confused, Papandreaou scheduled the referendum for some time early next year, which would hold global markets hostage for months while the Greeks decide their own fate.

A "NO" vote on the austerity plans tied to Greece receiving more funds from the EU and IMF, would scuttle months of planning and negotiations and would likely result in Greece being tossed from the European Union. Such an outcome would surely roil markets terribly, though the mere thought of waiting two to three months for what almost certainly would be a negative result sent shock waves through European bourses and US exchanges today.

Reacting to the news, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned emergency talks with leaders of the EU and the IMF, though it was not clear whether Mr. Papandreou would be invited.

And, if Greece's gambit wasn't enough to turn investors away, there's a confidence vote set for Friday, in which Papandreou's Socialist Party could lose control of the government, which it holds by only two seats in the parliament. The situation in the Mediterranean nation have moved from bad to worse to bizarre over the past few months.

In Italy, despite the agreements worked out last week, bond yields continued to spike higher, with the 10-year Italian bond reaching upwards of 6.22%, a more than 400-basis point difference over the stable German Bund. The bond spread blowout added to fears that Italy might be in more danger than previously thought - which, in itself was already severe - as the Italian government has to roll over nearly $2 trillion in bonds over the next year, a hefty sum.

Under the leadership - if one can call it such - of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy has failed to act on measures set down by the EU in August and leaders of two main banking and business associations have called on the prime minister to act swiftly or step aside. For his part, Berlusconi has made promises to act quickly, though many doubt he has the emotional or political will to implement the harsh austerity measures called for by other European leaders. As can-kicking goes, Berlusconi is world class, a foot-dragger with a penchant for putting off the obvious, though most of the other leaders in the EU have displayed similar inability to act courageously or quickly.

Also nagging US markets was the early-in-the-day report on ISM Manufacturing Index, which showed a marked decline, from 51.6 in September to 50.8 in October, another sign that the US economy was in danger of falling into another recession.

Stocks were pounded right from the opening bell, though a late day rally was attempted and then scuttled as news from Greece suggested more of a guessing game than any kind of deliberate policy action.

Speaking of policy, the Federal Reserve is locked in meetings on rate policy, which will be announced at 12:30 pm Wednesday, a deviation from the usual 2:15 pm time. The policy decision will be followed by a press conference with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. While it is virtually assured that the Fed will not change the federal funds rate from levels approaching zero, some are betting that another round of QE will be announced in some form, though the effectiveness of such an undertaking - already tried twice since the 2008 financial crisis, without effect - is very much in doubt.

Prior to that, ADP will release its private payroll data for October, which serves as a proxy for the "official" non-farm payroll data release by the Labor Dept. on Friday.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest losers on the day were the large banks, such as Wells-Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), JP Morgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C) and Goldman Sachs (GS), the usual culprits now caught between a sagging economy, exposure to Europe and the unwinding of MF Global, which filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday.

The silver lining for consumers came from a two-day rally in the dollar - mainly against the Yen and Euro - sending commodity prices lower across the entire complex.

Dow 11,657.96, -297.05 (2.48%)
NASDAQ 2,606.96, -77.45 (2.89%)
S&P 500 1,218.28, -35.02 (2.79%)
NYSE Composite 7,338.48, -226.55 (2.99%)
NASDAQ Volume 2,314,571,500
NYSE Volume 5,656,978,000
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 859-4813
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 24-89 (flipped)
WTI crude oil: 92.19, -1.00
Gold: 1,711.80, -13.40
Silver: 32.73, -1.62

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