Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Week That Wasn't: February Flop Folds Into March Madness

This was a generally unsightly week for stocks. All of the major indices suffered losses, despite a late-Friday rally that boosted three of the four to positive, the notable exception, the stoic Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Taking a three percent hit for the week, the Dow suffered its third weekly setback in the last five, the most recent being the second-largest of the year, following the debacle from the first week in February. The other averages were down smaller percentages, the least of which was the NASDAQ, with just over one percent to the downside, staggered by the S&P (-2.04%) and the NYSE Composite (-2.53%).

Bonds were less volatile for the week as a whole, as the 10-year-note stabilized around 2.85%, finishing officially at 2.86%. Crude oil weakened, though not much, and gas prices eased a little as refiners switch over from winter to summer blends. With the US Dollar Index firming up early in the week, precious metals took it on the chin, but both gold and silver rebounded on Thursday and Friday as the short-lived dollar rally faded.

Most of the ballyhoo was over President Trump's announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, with a 25% fee on the former and a 10% duty on the latter. Critics mouthed off about rising prices on everything from automobiles to beer, though the effects are likely to be negligible. A 12-pack of beer is expected to cost about two cents more if duty-added aluminum is used, while a car contains roughly a ton of steel, which at $750 a ton, will amount to an additional $250 in the price of the already-bloated cost of a new vehicle.

Some countries are already crying foul, the loudest being Canada, from which the US imports the most steel, but many products from Canada, including lumber, are already highly regulated on the producer end, so even despite the NAFTA agreements, the US's neighbor to the North likely has little upon which to argue unfairness.

On the main, it was a poor week for stock holders, with mounting declines heading back toward the lows reached in the early days of February. The only index that can claim victory for the first two months of the year is the NASDAQ, holding tenuously onto a roughly three percent gain, with the S&P flat for the year, the Composite and Dow down the most, but none more than 2% for the annum.

Looking ahead, the FOMC is set to meet on March 16, with expectations of another 25 basis point hike to the federal funds rate. That is still disquieting to equity longs, and feeding into the ongoing rout in stocks. The week ahead will be indicative of the market's ability to digest another rate hike. So far, it's done well enough, but there is a point at which nearly risk-free yields will attract more money. Buoying up the stock market are massive buybacks, however, courtesy of the recent tax bill passed late last year. While companies that have been handing out bonuses have received most of the headlines, little to no reporting has been done on the same companies buying back even more of their own stock in an effort to assuage shareholders and keep their stock prices afloat at high tide.

How much money will be pumped back into stocks by the very owners and executives of said stocks is unknown, but eventually the tap will run dry and then interest rates will look more and more attractive. Without the buybacks of recent years, stocks would be more fairly valued, rather than being excessively overpriced as they have been for some time.

Sideways could be the most-favored direction for the next few weeks and months, with many experts calling for the eventual market blowout decline sometime in the third quarter (July-September), which would fit with the anti-Trump narrative leading into November's midterm elections.

Now the markets have not only become algo-driven and reactionary, but they are soon-to-be politically-charged as well.

Dow Jones Industrial Average March Scorecard:

Date Close Gain/Loss Cum. G/L
3/1/18 24,608.98 -420.22 -420.22
3/2/18 24,538.06 -70.92 -491.14

At the Close, Friday, March 2, 2018:
Dow Jones Industrial Average: 24,538.06, -70.92 (-0.29%)
NASDAQ: 7,257.87, +77.31 (+1.08%)
S&P 500: 2,691.25, +13.58 (+0.51%)
NYSE Composite: 12,557.99, +39.26 (+0.31%)

For the Week:
Dow: -771.93 (-3.05%)
NASDAQ: -79.52 (-1.08%)
S&P 500: -56.05 (-2.04%)
NYSE Composite: -326.12 (-2.53%)
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