Tuesday, December 29, 2015

End-of-Year Santa Rally: Is It Real or the Ultimate Head-Fake?

Stocks took off like proverbial holiday bottle rockets on Tuesday, as 2015 winds down and investors (or HFT algos) scramble for the last bits of profit for the year.

All three of the major US indices were up handsomely with just two more trading days left in the year. Equity and bond markets will be open for business as usual on Thursday, the 31st, and closed for New Year's Day on Friday, January 1.

The boost today came right at the open, with all the indices shooting up roughly one percent promptly at 9:30 am ET. The remainder of the session was somewhat on the dull side with low volume, but the speculators didn't seem to mind booking one-day gains.

What little economic data there was turned out to be positive, the Case-Shiller 20-city Index showing a 5.5% gain for October and the Conference Board's measure of consumer confidence came in at 96.5, well above consensus estimates of 92.9. It seems that consumers were sharing in the holiday spirit. MasterCard yesterday reported robust holiday spending, at a pace 7.9% better than last year. the gains were attributed in part to lower gasoline prices making more income disposable for holiday spending sprees.

With data darting in and out from positive to negative over the past few weeks, the question arises whether the end-of-year rally on Wall Street is the real thing or whether it's a Grinch-y fake-out which will all be taken away come the new year.

That's a tough call, though most analysts will gladly opine that the bull market is here to stay, since the Fed's rate increase has gone off without a hitch, consumer spending (which accounts for as much as 70% of the economy, so it is said) is awesome and roaring, and funds are all in on equities.

The other side of the coin, from Main Street, is seeing heavier use of credit for everyday purchases, a job market that on the surface says full employment but at the core is made up of statistics, lies and low-paying jobs, and a middle class that continues to be eviscerated by taxes and inflation.

The glue to either side of the story is oil, the one commodity upon which the global economy spins, which is as cheap as it has been since the crisis of 08-09, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere, despite the outsize gains today (WTI closed up, at 37.35/barrel). Low oil and gas prices are boons to consumers and to business, driving input costs lower and profits higher. The only people not happy with the price of oil are the producers, especially the frackers, who have had to lay off thousands as the price of crude has declined.

What the low price of oil does beyond the gas pumps is provide margins for business production, and there's little downside to that. So, other than stocks approaching nosebleed levels, the US economy is in a strange spot. GDP may actually begin to ramp up to levels the Fed can feel more comfortable about raising rates though stocks will be hard-pressed to continue much higher. The rally is going on seven years, already the second-longest in market history since WWII and earnings have slowed for many companies, though the price of their stock remains high.

That's an unsustainable condition, one which will be worked out by the markets over time, and the general rule at these levels would be to fade any rallies, even ones which come in holiday wrappings with candy canes and sugar plums.

It's what's inside that counts, and market internals like breath and volume are pointing in the wrong direction.

Stocks are likely to rally for the remainder of the week and the year, but all-time highs are looming, and on the Dow and S&P haven't been overcome since May. It's tough to see how these indices can go much higher without significant improvement in the bottom lines of many companies.

Besides, it's never smart to buy high, and these markets have been at extremes for more than six months. There's been plenty of time to switch out of equities, but seriously, where else can money go?

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