Wednesday, December 7, 2011

US Markets Stalled Out, Waiting for Europe's Next Gambit

There's an old Wall Street adage that goes something like, "don't short a dull market," but, if this market goes any higher and gets any duller, the adage might as well be thrown out along with most long positions in stocks.

After Tuesday's snooze-fest, Wednesday's market was even sleepier, with participation at low ebb. Volume has nearly completely dried up, but the thin trading has reduced volatility somewhat. In fact, the VIX, which measures implied volatility in the S&P 500, hasn't pitched above 30 (an abnormally high level to begin with) since November 30, or one week ago.

What traders are most concerned with is once again Europe, but more specifically, the two days of meetings scheduled in Europe, one by the ECB, tomorrow, and the other a crisis summit of leaders of the Euro-zone nations on Friday that is hoped to pave the way toward an end of the two-year-old debt crisis that has gripped European markets and locked down US markets for the past two days.

As is the usual case with relying on Europe to fix our own stock market, it's probably a bad idea. Some leading economists of the region, particularly those from Germany, who have the best view of the situation, are saying that whatever solutions come out of this week's crisis summit, Europe's problems are likely to remain contentious for another eighteen months to two years.

Noting that, and understanding that debt issues which took decades to produce are not going to be solved at one meeting (it has been promised before and not been delivered), so one has to question both the positioning in US stocks, which have been essentially flat since the middle of August, and the reliability of ancient words of wisdom in an era that has been marked by unusual actions from the Fed and other central banks in developed countries.

If everybody's waiting on Europe, just what do they expect? A grand plan which all 17 countries that use the Euro as currency can agree to? Good luck with that. European leaders are now calling for majority consensus rather than unanimity. Meanwhile the ratings agencies, specifically Standard & Poor's, are scaring the daylights out of each and every one of them, threatening credit rating downgrades across the continent if there's no substantial progress come Friday.

What this telegraphed sucker punch from S&P is saying is more political than economic, essentially telling all of Europe to stop playing around the periphery and get to the core of the matter, which would entail some countries (think Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece) having to give up some degree of sovereignty in order to remain in the good graces of the European Union and the ECB. And while fiscal unity, or, at least some semblance of fiscal responsibility would be a step in the right direction, the citizenry of those countries might not take lightly to having new masters above their own elected leaders somewhere in Germany, Brussels or France.

Since the crisis meeting isn't until Friday, that's probably when US markets might perk up, but, if the game plan remains the same in Europe - promise much, deliver little - they will be sending a message to markets around the world that the issues present are too large, too diverse and too complex for all 17 Euro-zone nations to reach agreement on any unifying principles laid down.

In that scenario, we may just get another two days of slumber on the street as even more participants make a premature exit from stocks in 2011, fleeing to cash or bonds until the dust settles after the holidays.

And what about that Santa Claus rally that usually commences over the final two weeks of the year? There may be one, but it won't have much gusto on low volume and it's not likely to last long. Stocks are already creeping back toward their late July - early August levels and there's just not enough economic "juice" in the system for which a rally can be sustained. The major US indices have flirted recently with the flat line for the year and that's probably where they're going to remain.

Meanwhile, all one can do is hold one's breath waiting for Europe's next move. Everyone is waiting to exhale.

Dow 12,196.37, +46.24 (0.38%)
NASDAQ 2,649.21, -0.35 (0.01%)
S&P 500 1,261.01, +2.54 (0.20%)
NYSE Composite 7,559.71, +20.39 (0.27%)
NASDAQ Volume 1,654,001,000
NYSE Volume 4,158,213,000
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ Advance - Decline: 2804-2747
Combined NYSE & NASDAQ New highs - New lows: 119-63
WTI crude oil: 100.49, -0.79
Gold: 1,744.80, +13.00
Silver: 32.63, -0.12

No comments: