Bill Schmick: Markets are stuck in chop city | Business

Welcome to a new year of financial markets. But while the dates have changed, stocks continue to disappoint.

The S&P 500 Index has been caught in a range with the mid-point around the 3,800 level. Next week, we could see a minor break higher to the 3,920 level, but it probably won’t last. That is because Wall Street experts are as confused as the rest of us. Forecasts for 2023 are all over the place with some strategists predicting an up year while others believe the declines of last year will continue.

The confusion stems from a variety of unknowns including the path of inflation, interest rates, and the economy overall. Currently, the markets are focused on the labor market, specifically job and wage growth. That is understandable given the Fed is also focusing on this area as a ‘tell’ on whether their tight money policy is working.

However, both wages and jobs data thus far seem unaffected by higher interest rates and the Fed’s attempt to slow the economy. That may change soon since we are seeing more and more companies announce layoffs and other cost-cutting actions. Goldman Sachs, Salesforce, and Amazon, for example, announced layoffs this week.

This week’s non-farm payroll report illustrates the confusion. The number of job gains in December surpassed expectations (223,000 jobs versus 200,000 expected) but the average hourly wage growth fell slightly (from 0.3 percent compared to 0.4 percent expected). The headline unemployment rate, which politicians tend to focus on, declined from 3.7 percent to 3.5 percent.

This is the second month in a row where wage gains fell while employment gained. This is the best of all worlds for the Fed’s battle with inflation. If jobs continue to grow, but wage gains, which are a big component of future inflation, continue to decline that may give some hope to traders the Fed may not need to tighten as much this year.

The macroeconomic data continues to give conflicting signals on economic growth as well. Some sectors appear to be slowing down, while others are continuing to grow at a reasonable pace. Most economists believe we will be entering a recession in the first half of the year but how deep and long is subject to endless debate.

Other smart people I follow believe we will see a series of rolling recessions among various sectors as the year progresses as opposed to a traditional decline in sectors throughout the economy. If so, any recession will likely be moderate as some areas continue to do well while others sink.

Over on the inflation front, the data appears to be indicating further price declines, but how much and how soon is unknown. While everyone has an opinion, no one knows for sure. In essence, both investors and the Fed are in a wait-and-see environment on how monetary policy will impact the economy in 2023. All this conflicting data has created what is called a ‘chop city’ in the stock market where markets gain and lose from data point to data point sometimes on the same day or even hour.

Speaking of the market, the other area that will surely impact stock prices will be fourth-quarter corporate earnings, which are just around the corner (Jan. 13). Most analysts believe that earnings estimates, and future guidance will be disappointing. If so, it will trigger further sell-offs in stocks.

In the past, I have written that until the ‘generals’ start to fall, stocks have a long way to go before this decline will be over. The good news is that it has started to happen. The bad news is that these top five to six stocks are destroying investors’ portfolios and the market with it. The FANG stocks, which had represented 24 percent of the major indexes, are seeing major declines but still represent 19 percent of the overall market.

Names such as Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are seeing unrelenting selling, followed by short-lived bounces that indicate to me substantial liquidation from both retail and institutional investors. For the markets to finally bottom these stocks must catch up or even exceed the losses sustained by many other growth stocks.

As readers are aware, my forecast over the last month was that the S&P 500 index would trade between 3,700-3,800 through December and into January. That has come to pass. This week’s bullish sentiment reading of the AAII Sentiment Survey ranks among the 60 lowest in the survey’s history. Bearish sentiment continues to build, which is no surprise given how negative many financial players feel about the markets. Still, as a contrarian indicator, that likely indicates we are due for a bounce soon.

I can see the markets rally into mid-next week if the dollar remains weaker, and interest rates remain stable. At that point, the Consumer Price Index for December, to be released Thursday, will be the focal point, followed by bank earnings on Friday. Those events could either goose markets higher or tear them down again.

Longer-term, I believe that we will see lower lows in February through March 2023 that could take the S&P 500 Index down to 3,200 or lower. Disappointing corporate earnings, a Fed that is unmoved by improving inflation rates, higher interest rates, and a stronger dollar will be the triggers for this. That’s the bad news.

Sometime in March, however, I think the markets will bottom. We could see a substantial rally into the spring, and maybe even into the summer. I will flesh out that forecast as we go along so stay tuned.


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