The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (
) -- Wall Street welcomed in the inauguratory week of 2012 pretty much as it had finished the final month of 2011: Slightly to the upside, but predominantly continuing in a sideways vein.
Top Gun Options believes there will certainly be sufficient opportunities for the market to stake a firmer claim to a clear direction this week as the latest round of economic and financial data emerge from both sides of the Atlantic.
Last week, investors welcomed the news that the U.S. economy might actually have a pulse, as evidenced by the fact that the unemployment rate fell to 8.5%. This has become something of a mini-trend, as the rate has fallen for four consecutive months. The 200,000 jobs that were gained in December, however, was hardly sufficient to jolt the Bulls into anything even remotely resembling a buying frenzy, though all three of the major indices ended the week in the black. This was accomplished on relatively thin trading volume, however, though levels should rise in subsequent weeks.
Dow Jones Industrial Average
(DJIA) rose 1.2% for the week, while the benchmark
S&P 500 Index
(SPX) outperformed the Dow ever so slightly, finishing up 1.6%. Not to be outdone, the tech-heavy
Nasdaq Composite Index
(COMP) posted a solid 2.7% gain on the week, indicating the possibility that tech stocks, many beaten down over the last half of 2011, could find some footing into the new year.
This week will give corporate America time to show its stuff, with the new earnings season kicking into a slightly higher gear. Collectively speaking, U.S. corporations are sitting on more cash than they ever have, but whether that translates into higher profits or just lower debt remains to be seen.
Europe remains as the elephant in the room, even when there is no compelling new news. Last week was a relatively quiet one for both European bourses in general and the eurozone in particular, with the most noise being made in the Italian bond market, where yields once again rose above 7% on 10-year notes, putting them back into the "unsustainable level" category.
Quick Look at the VIX
The VIX (Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index), often referred to as the "investor fear gauge", finished the first week of the year at 20.63, placing it well towards the bottom of its most recent six-month trading range. This relatively low level of the VIX would seem to indicate that the fear over the European Union's sovereign debt crisis has already been baked into the market.
This current price level of the VIX continues to make it an extremely solid hedge against the inevitable volatility that will arise as the European Union's sovereign debt crisis continues to play out.
On the Options Front
One of the mysteries that have left many energy investors slightly flummoxed is the fact that natural gas prices have dropped steadily throughout the year. That may change, however, as new laws out of Washington could provide the necessary impetus for industry to embrace this cheap source of fuel. The
United States Natural Gas Fund
, which tracks natural gas futures, currently sits at its historically lowest levels. It is never prudent to call a bottom on anything, but this could be the time to make an exception to that rule.
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.