Friday, November 18, 2011

Rough Week for Stocks Ends Mixed; Markets Gripped by fear and Uncertainty

Despite some favorable economic news during the course of the week, market participants mostly shunned equities as Europe's ongoing crisis and the lack of a deal by the congressional super-committee kept money mostly on the sidelines or taking profits (and losses).

Since the US stock market has become more akin to a day-trading casino than an investment culture, traders now routinely react swiftly to breaking news and events, preferring to stay out of the way or grab quick profits as the tableau of international economic falderal unfolds. The week was marked by more speculation than actual news, as Italian and Spanish 10-year notes criss-crossed the 7% yield threshold and Germany continues to balk at being the savior of the Southern nations, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that her country was ready to cede some degree of sovereignty in order to salvage what's left of the European monetary union.

Germany holds the key to whether the decade-old European Union will survive, being the largest and strongest economy in the region. While Merkel has made pronouncements pleasing to her neighbors to the West and South, she is losing a degree of favor at home, as many Germans don't exactly share her views and dislike the role of Germany as the bailout nation for weaker economies.

Funding for Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain has become an issue so delicate and abstract that one solution offered was for the ECB to loan money to the IMF, which would then fund the ailing nations, though that kind of Ponzi scheme would only work to relieve the ECB of their presumptive role of being the "lender of last resort" such as the US Federal Reserve was during the 2008 crisis.

It's a touchy situation in Europe, with new governments in Italy and Greece, both tottering on the brink of default, though Greece's predicament - with no new funding coming soon - is degrees more perilous.

Here in the USA, congressional members have not exactly been forthright in their effort to reach a compromise on the roughly $1.2 trillion in budget cuts which was the mandated approach after the August debt ceiling debacle.

With the US public debt officially exceeding $15 trillion on Thursday and the prospects for another $1 trillion-plus deficit in the coming fiscal year, one would think that congress and their "super-committee" would have found some resolution before their November 23rd deadline, but, as usual, congressional members are deadlocked, mostly along party lines, with Republicans steadfastly refusing to approve anything which even smells like a tax hike and Democrats seemingly all too happy to allow the blame to accrue to their across-the-aisle counterparts.

With the deadline looming just five days ahead, members of the committee are pondering letting the deadline pass, which would trigger automatic spending-cuts, otherwise known as sequestration, though that approach is also riddled with question marks as some members have openly suggested that even those automatic cuts could be ripped asunder, primarily because of opposition to cuts to the Department of Defense.

The comedy of errors which began last Spring with the threatened shutdown of the federal government over budget issues threatens the US credit rating, already taken down a notch in August by Standard and Poor's. Failure to reach agreement might not engender another rating cut, though scuttling the previously agreed-to automatic cuts just might cause S&P to downgrade the US again.

Against this backdrop of a do-nothing congress without political will or wherewithal, and a fractured Europe an landscape, one can hardly blame traders for seeking the safety of cash or Treasuries. Volume on the stock exchanges this week has been dismal, exacerbated by a missing $600 million in investor funds courtesy of the recently-bankrupt MF Global. The fund, run by former Goldman Sachs CEO and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, made heavy bets on European debt and found themselves in too deep. The current thinking is that MF Global used client funds to shore up losing positions before going belly-up, a practice that is wholly criminal.

However, since nobody ever goes to trial or jail for financial follies in the US, regulators are being very tight-lipped about the matter, even though reputations have already been badly tarnished and over half a billion dollars is either unavailable or lost.

For the week, the Dow Jones Industrials took it on the chin to the tune of a 357-point decline. The S&P 500 fell 50 points during the week, the NASDAQ down 106 points and the NYSE Composite off by 294 points, hardly a ringing endorsement during a week that ended with options expiration, normally the forebear of a rally.

Maybe, with all the hurt, pain, fear and uncertainty, the big money went short.

Dow 11,796.16, +25.43 (0.22%)
NASDAQ 2,572.50, -15.49 (0.60%)
S&P 500 1,215.65, -0.48 (0.04%)
NYSE Composite 7,282.47, +8.32 (0.11%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,754,685,000
NYSE Volume 3,679,453,750
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 3011-2563
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 40-128
WTI crude oil: 97.41, -1.41
Gold: 1,725.10, +4.90
Silver: 32.42, +0.92

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