"My wife turned around ... picked up a yardstick, and announced that the beatings were about to begin by saying, 'I have had ... enough ... of ... you!!!!' " -- Bill Cosby
Wall Street may wish next week is a short week also.
On some weeks, investors head into the week wondering what's going to help the market rise a bit higher in the coming five trading sessions. This week, they'll be looking for something, anything, to stop the bleeding.
Some would say that the sense of desperation means that the major market indices, experiencing their worst activity since the swoon in March 2000, are close to hitting the bottom. Right now, it seems the opposite is a bit more plausible: that folks identifying some sort of "bottom" are expressing a sense of desperation and confidently calling for an end to the madness is the only positive aspect to hang on to.
That, or the noose. The past few days of trading -- despite Friday's late
Nasdaq bounce -- showed that not only are technology stocks in the toilet, but that the poor action is spreading to other stocks that investors use to predict economic activity. Financial stocks were buried this week, and capital goods stocks and retail stocks also suffered through a bad week.
"It's not just a few sellers causing this to go down, it's an apathy among buyers," said Phil Ruffat, senior vice president and manager at
An Old Friend
That apathy indicates growing pessimism and panic in the stock market. True to form, the market's decided to turn back to what's worked in the past -- the
Calls for an intermeeting rate cut are growing with every percentage point lost on the Nasdaq Composite Index and the
Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Problem is, the Fed can't react to the stock market because that makes it clear that the stock market (and therefore the perception among investors of what the Fed may do, not just what it thinks it should do) is running the economy and monetary policy. No, the Fed needs other reasons.
And it may get them this week with two key economic releases that the market is going to be watching very closely. The problems in this economy right now, despite the most recent
Consumer Price Index release, are related to demand, both business and consumer. This week, the former will be the focus. There's the double whammy of the Tuesday release of January's
durable goods orders report and the Thursday
purchasing managers' index, released by the
National Association of Purchasing Management
. In addition, there's the
Index of Consumer Confidence, but that's a harder nut to crack.
Unfortunately, it's likely that both reports are going to confirm continuing trends that show weakness in demand. There's been little evidence yet that there's been improvement in orders for capital goods, that is, business equipment that companies use for production reasons. The key figure to look for, and it's a mouthful, is nondefense capital goods (excluding aircraft), which eliminates military orders not reflective of the overall economy and aircraft orders (because an order of a few big planes throws the entire series out of whack).
On a year-over-year basis, that series is rising just 1.5%, indicative of very slow demand for equipment in this economy. In June, for instance, these orders were rising at a 21% rate; growth in this figure has generally been more than 10% during the past several years. Because companies (save for those who are warning) haven't said much about their equipment orders, these data will have to suffice for now.
Meanwhile, the PMI, colloquially referred to as the NAPM report, is expected to come out weak, reading less than 50 for the seventh month in a row. A reading below 50 is consistent with contraction in the manufacturing sector. That contraction has already been acknowledged by the market, but what's unknown is whether various components related to new orders or inventories will improve. The survey's generally considered a decent indicator of the direction of economic growth, even though it's not the ultimate arbiter by any means (the sector struggled in late 1998 following the Asian crisis, when the rest of the economy was going bonkers).
As for the Consumer Confidence Index, "I don't think that the Fed would act on
Consumer Confidence alone," said Tony Crescenzi, chief bond market strategist at
. "If they feel the data justifies it, they should wait until NAPM on Thursday -- then they could hide behind that. I just don't think it would be prudent for them to focus on weakness in confidence alone."
Weakness in all those reports would give the Federal Reserve enough ammunition -- and enough cover -- to cut the
fed funds rate from its current 5.50%. The market is certainly begging for a cut; it's already expected the Fed, at least, will drop rates by 50 basis points at its upcoming March 20 meeting.
It's weird to think the market's best hope is more bad news, but these pieces of data, should they come out weak, may be enough to sway the Fed. Continued sour performance in financial stocks and retail stocks suggests the market doesn't see bright spots on the horizon, if it sees the horizon at all.