The combination of lower commodity prices (save oil), mixed corporate earnings and Eliot Spitzer's latest investigative bombshell rattled certain stocks and sectors this week.
But major averages emerged relatively unscathed; for the week, the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
fell 1.2, the
lost 1.3% and the
Friday's action was an apt ending to a week in which the main theme was "the wave of indecision," according to Bob Basel, director of listed trading at Citigroup's Smith Barney unit. "Corporate earnings were mixed, the election is tougher to call than ever, the Middle East continues to be a question mark, oil is at near-term highs -- the overall picture remains cloudy."
On Friday, the Dow rose as high as 9983 before sliding in the final hour to close up a modest 0.4% to 9933.38. The S&P gained 0.5% to 1108.20 after trading as high as 1113 and the Nasdaq climbed 0.5% to 1911.50 vs. its intraday best of 1924.
The gains came in the wake of stronger-than-expected retail sales data and
Chairman Alan Greenspan's comment that "the impact of the current surge in oil prices, though noticeable, is likely to prove less consequential to economic growth and inflation than in the 1970s."
Treasury prices initially fell in reaction to Greenspan's comments, but rebounded to pare their losses as crude surged back toward $55 per barrel. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note fell 8 basis points for the week to 4.05% Friday.
Greenspan's lack of emphasis on the negative effects of surging oil prices sparked a downward move in the bond market, as it was taken as a sign that the Fed would continue with its steady pace of interest rate hikes, observed Tony Crescenzi,
contributor and chief bond market strategist at Miller Tabak. "Still, Greenspan made any pause scenario conditional on a 'material' rise
in crude prices as yet undefined." (Parenthetically, Crescenzi wondered: "Hasn't there already been one?")
Material or not in Greenspan's view, crude prices continued their ascent, settling higher by 3% for the week at $54.93 per barrel.
The economic data added to the muddled backdrop. Offsetting the stronger-than-expected retail sales data was a wider-than-expected August trade deficit, as well as higher-than-expected jobless claims, and weaker-than-expected reports on capacity utilization/industrial production and consumer confidence.
There was a similar lack of clarity on the technical side. On the one hand, the S&P joined the Dow in falling below its simple 200-day moving average. The index also proved unable to get through 1130 -- posting a weekly intraday high of 1127 on Wednesday -- the September closing highs and a level that has proven to be staunch resistance. On the other hand, the S&P appears to have successfully tested its Sept. 28 low of 1101.67, trading as low as 1102.08 Thursday before bouncing Friday. The week-ending rally did come on expanding volume -- a bullish sign -- although the so-called double-witching expiration of index futures and options added to the activity.
Martha and The Vandals
Amid the crosscurrents, "most people were sitting on the sidelines
this week, not sure what to do, except where news-driven events gave people impetus to move money around," Basel said.
The week's most notable market-moving event was clearly Spitzer's accusation of bid-rigging by insurance brokers. Among firms named in the suit,
Marsh & McLennan
tumbled 36% for the week, while
declined almost 15% and
Hartford Financial Services
Lacking any particular
insight on Spitzer's crusade against the insurers, I'll only say this: Losing yet another "safe haven" group cannot be considered a bullish sign. Pharmaceuticals have been battered,
Johnson & Johnson's
strong results notwithstanding. Also, some seemingly unstoppable commodity names such as
( PD) fell this week, as nonenergy commodities were whipsawed by concerns about falling copper demand, rising aluminum inventories and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's comments on conservation. Gold and related stocks also suffered, with the metal falling 0.4% to $420.10 while the Amex Gold Bugs Index declined 4.2% for the week.
Meanwhile, homebuilding stocks were buffeted between strong results by
and a decline in mortgage applications. For the week, the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Housing Sector Index fell 1.4%.
Despite blowups at firms such as
, technology stocks were arguably the safest place to be this week. The Comp enjoyed relative strength thanks to solid earnings from, most notably,
Then again, downbeat results from
and disappointing guidance from
will surely convince skeptics that any relief in the sector will prove temporary. Bulls, of course, say the "bad news" was already priced in.
In sum, there was a lot of noise this week but nothing much was settled.
P.S. I'll be back on John Batchelor's nationally syndicated ABC Radio Network show to discuss these and related issues Friday night/Saturday morning, around 9:05 p.m. PDT/12:05 a.m. EDT. Check the ABC Radio Web site for Webcast options.
Aaron L. Task is the managing editor for RealMoney.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to