Investors can expect light trading and little news next week, as the market takes pause for the New Year holiday and considers its options for a fresh start after a tumultuous 2008. Official economic data will be sparse during the week, with only consumer confidence, initial jobless claims and manufacturing surveys coming out on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, respectively. But investors will be keeping a lookout for indications of how retailers have fared during the holiday and post-holiday shopping season.
Retailers across the board -- from discounters such as Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT), to department stores like Macy's ( M) and Sears ( SHLD), to electronics peddlers like Best Buy ( BBY) and Amazon.com ( AMZN) -- were offering steep discounts before and after the holidays to entice strained consumers to spend. On Jan. 8, many retailers will disclose same-store sales results for December, but until then, MasterCard's ( MA) SpendingPulse division estimates that overall retail sales dropped between 5.5% and 8% this holiday season. "People are going to start to digest how crummy the retail season was," Edward Clarke, senior partner at Lohengrin Group, says about next week's trading. "That's definitely going to have an overhang." Clarke expects stocks to make another major move southward in the near future, and he's advising clients to let the "zigzag" pattern play out over the next few weeks before getting more aggressive. He also notes that there hasn't been a great deal of year-end selling for tax purposes, which may play out next week. He believes the delay stems from investors not wanting to make the wrong move.
"People are frozen, like deer in the headlights," says Clarke. "They're doing kind of the Scarlett O'Hara thing: 'I'll think about it tomorrow,' but there are only three days left." Whether the week is influenced by tax-loss selling, or investors sniffing out opportunities in hammered-down stocks, small amounts of buying or selling could have a large impact. Clarke notes that there wasn't enough trading data this week to formulate certain charts on his screen, and expects more of the same next week. The week ahead might also unveil more news about the struggling automakers. The Treasury Department is extending up to $17.4 billion in loans to keep General Motors ( GM) and Chrysler afloat, and on Christmas Eve, the Federal Reserve agreed to allow GM's financing arm, GMAC, to officially become a bank. The move allows GMAC to gain access to additional loans from the federal government. ( Ford ( F) says it's strong enough to get by without federal aid right now.) But despite those moves, the automakers will need a major restructuring and probably a lot more cash. Though oil and gasoline prices have come down about 75% from their summer highs, consumers still aren't rushing out to buy cars. Those who are grabbing discounted wheels at the dealership are gravitating toward foreign makers, such as Toyota ( TM) and Honda ( HMC). Matthew Tuttle, president of Tuttle Wealth Management, expects the year to end on a negative note after a slew of bad news about retail, unemployment and automakers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose above 8,500 on Friday, but Tuttle predicts stormy times ahead. "We expect the Dow to eventually hit 7,200, but there probably won't be enough people around next week for any major moves," says Tuttle. Others are more circumspect. Harley Lance Kaplan, a certified financial planner with Beta Industries, agrees that investors are aware of the economic pain lying ahead and that they will take some time before reallocating assets to what they believe will be winning bets. Any sustained rally will take three to nine months to begin, he believes. However, prices have gotten knocked down so far, he says, that a dead-cat bounce is inevitable somewhere along the line. If there is a rally next week, though, investors should see it for what it is, says Kaplan: temporary and spurred by a few eager hands. "This is shell-shock week. We're in a stage of paralysis," says Kaplan. "This is when people really begin to realize what's going on. People have been together with their families and talked this over, and people are in pain."