The Elbert Files: Market watchers are on edge
Friday, May 30, 2014 6:00 AM
As 2014 approaches the halfway mark, it’s time for retirees and other investors to get out their calculators and math-check their portfolios.
Most will find – to no great surprise – that they haven’t moved much since the first of the year.
As I write this, all three major market indexes are within two points of where they began the year. The Dow Jones industrial average and Nasdaq composite index are down less than 1 percent each, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 is up about 2 percent.
That’s disheartening to many because it is nowhere near the double-digit growth of 2013, when the Dow gained 27 percent, the S&P was up 30 percent and the Nasdaq climbed 38 percent.
Even worse, crystal ball gazers don’t expect a lot of improvement in the second half of the year.
Nor can you improve your situation by shifting to fixed-rate investments. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes increased a little during the last half of 2013, peaking at around 3 percent at year’s end, before falling back to around 2.5 percent.
That’s barely above the inflation rate, which the government puts in the 1 to 2 percent range, but which feels more like 5 to 10 percent for many people.
So, what’s the problem now? Why can’t this market get any real traction?
Minneapolis-based economist James Paulsen argues in a recent newsletter that the problems are more technical than fundamental.
Today’s low inflation and low interest rates are not consistent with the economic fundamentals of recent months, and that is paralyzing investors, said Paulsen, who is chief investment strategist at Wells Fargo & Co.’s Wells Capital Management.
The economy in general, he said, appears to be solid, as evidenced by “the array of economic reports which have surpassed expectations in recent months.”
Jobless claims have fallen and job growth has been consistent, although slower than many would like. Personal income, consumer spending and bank lending are all rising, he added.
But that success is not reflected in the markets, where Paulsen said “five major technical breakdowns have market watchers on edge.”
The first disconnect, he said, was a 20 percent bear market collapse for what are known as high-flying momentum stocks. In recent years, that category has included social media companies Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook, as well as such glamour stocks as Netflix, Alexion Pharmaceuticals and electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors.
The collapse of the momentum stocks began in March and continued through April, although it appears to have bottomed out in May.
A second problem is the value of the U.S. dollar. In early May, the trade-weighted U.S. Dollar Index fell to its lowest level since 2012, prompting Paulsen to ask: “What does it say that the world is shunning the dollar?”
Problem No. 3 is small-cap stocks, which appeared headed into a full-blown correction when the Russell 2000 index fell 10 percent between early March and mid-May. In more recent days, they’ve regained some of that ground, but the question remains: Why the collapse in March and April?
Problem No. 4 is lower yields in the bond market, which is typically a sign of a weak or weakening economy.
Finally, Paulsen said, the S&P 500 repeatedly failed during several efforts in March, April and May to reach new all-time highs above 1,900.
All five of the technical indicators cited by Paulsen are typically associated with problems that don’t seem to be present in the wider economy, or at least not to the degree indicated by the technical breaks.
While it is true that some of the technical problems appear to have lessened in recent weeks, it’s also true that the motivating uncertainties – low interest rates and low inflation – remain.
Don’t be surprised if the second half of 2014 is as bumpy as the first.
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