Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Premature Celebration

Yesterday, all anyone could talk about was the one-year anniversary of the market bottom. This was all the fashion on America's financial network, CNBC, where the usual suspect hosts were gushing with numbers and statistics about the "rally" off the bottom from March 9, 2009. Jim Cramer, the Mad Money host and serial bull%*( artist, even adorned his set with a cake replete with candles.

Sad to say, but the celebratory theme was a day early, as today, by most calendars, is March 9, not yesterday, and the market was responsive, at least in the early going, as investors kept shoveling money into stocks, pushing the Dow up 60 points at its zenith.

However, right around 2:30 in the afternoon, some people were apparently having second thoughts, and the rally was truncated, eventually sending all of the major indices briefly into the red shortly after 3:00 pm. Cooler heads, we suppose, prevailed in the end, with stocks finishing with small gains on low volume.

One wonders where markets are headed now that the "recovery" is underway. Or is it? The stock market rally of the past 12 months was built on bailout money, cheap credit and arguably depressed prices. We stand today at something approaching fair value, yet bulls abound. It seems to be something approaching heresy to suggest that stocks should correct, take a breather or cool off in some fashion. That would not please investors, understandably, but these markets have been so hot for so long, values have become distorted and bubbles - those things that caused the '08 collapse - could be developing once again.

We don't have Alan Greenspan around to suggest that markets are experiencing "irrational exuberance." He's been replaced by the scholarly Mr. Bernanke, who's been forced into a no-win condition at the Fed with the federal funds rate at zero and the balance sheet bloated with toxic mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that still nobody wants to own at face value. It's likely that Mr. Bernanke would like to raise interest rates a little bit, but he is so bound to keeping them low and keeping the fledgling recovery going that he dare not make a move, at least not presently. Eventually, however, he must raise rates, and when he does, the chorus of booing and hissing from Wall Street will probably be heard on the Santa Monica Pier.

Of course, now that the double-dip argument has been roundly discredited, nothing could be better for stocks and the economy than a nice, relaxing hiatus. Profits could be taken and reinvested in other companies at lower prices, but that idea is still anathema to those who only know one way for stocks to go... up, up, and away.

Today's brief selling might be a clue for investors as to what lies ahead, not immediately, but maybe four to six months from now. If the economy isn't absolutely humming along by then, there will surely be a sell-off, so, let's make sure the pom-pom waving gets more furious and animated over the coming weeks.

Dow 10,564.38, +11.86 (0.11%)
NASDAQ 2,340.68, +8.47 (0.36%)
S&P 500 1,140.44, +1.94 (0.17%)
NYSE Composite 7,294.02, +1.49 (0.02%)

On the session, advancing issues held sway over decliners, 3631-2870. There were fewer new highs than expected, and fewer than yesterday, though their level remains elevated at 740. There were just 59 new lows, though these numbers may begin to fall into more normal patterns as comparisons will increasingly become less stark. Low volume remains a major issue, today being no exception, though it was better than most recent efforts. There simply is not the same level of participation or enthusiasm as there was prior to the collapse.

NYSE Volume 5,802,183,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,558,147,000

Commodity market did actually act somewhat rationally today. Oil lost half a buck, to $81.37, still overpriced by almost any metric. Gold lost $2.20, to $1,121.80, but silver gained 6 cents, to $17.33.

The paucity of economic data leaves investors with little to trade upon, making major moves in either direction difficult, though the bulls remain firmly in control.

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