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DOW Futures Hit 11,000

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The Dow futures actually hit 11,007 at this morning's early pop on the Altria news (more later) but that was the high of the day. The DOW popped up to 10938 so it has some work to do before it too can claim 11K. The media didn't seem to get all that excited about the futures hitting 11K so I guess we'll have to wait for the cash index to do it also. We may not be far from seeing it happen.

There were several economic reports released this morning but none of them seemed to have much of an effect. But when word was released about Altria (MO) and the Illinois Supreme Court's decision to reverse a lower court ruling in Price v. Philip Morris USA, more commonly known as the "lights" case. The decision overturned an award of more than $10B in damages and fees to plaintiffs, who had charged Altria with fraud for marketing light cigarettes as being less harmful than regular cigarettes. Shares of Altria shot higher on the news, up more than 5% before settling back the rest of the day, closing up +2.89 at $76.62 (+3.9%). Merck (MRK) was up about 2% today and between those two stocks the DOW had a relatively strong day as compared to the others.

Inflation numbers were released this morning and the overall number was surprisingly low. U.S. consumer prices fell -0.6% in November (vs. -0.4% expected) which is the fastest rate decline since July 1949. Energy prices dropped -8% over the past month (after increasing +12% in September) and this is credited with the decline in the CPI. Still, energy prices are up 18.3% in the past 12 months. Excluding food and energy prices, the core consumer price index rose +0.2% in November, for an annual rate of +2.4%. This +2.4% increase has been the same for the past 3 months, up from +1.4% previous to the hurricanes. This jump in core inflation is what the Fed watches carefully and they're not going to like the increase. We can expect the Fed to stay on its rate-tightening course.

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While oil and gasoline prices took a precipitous drop during November, natural gas dropped only 0.5% after seasonal adjustments. With winter heating months upon us, this is the cost that will have a real impact on consumer's psyche, more than the cost of gasoline. In other commodities, food prices rose +0.3% on a jump in pork and dairy prices.
Housing prices, which represent 42% of the CPI, rose +0.5% as hotel and motel prices rose +1.3% and owners' equivalent rent and rent of primary residence both increased +0.2%. Rising hotel and motel prices accounted for more than half of the increase in the core rate.

Medical care prices increased +0.6% in November, the largest increase since February. Hospital services prices increased +1.1%, the most in three years while drug prices increased +0.7%. Transportation prices dropped -4.8%, largely because of falling fuel prices. New car prices fell -0.1% and airfares fell -1.5%. Apparel prices were up +0.2% after seasonal adjustment. Education and communication prices rose +0.4%. Recreation prices were flat. So, depending on how and where you spend your money, the news for November was either good or bad. Remember those medical cost increases above--it will relate to a discussion below on under funded health care plans.

Natural gas prices have tumbled this week from a record front-month contract high of $15.78 on Tuesday to a closing price of $13.80 today. Today the EIA released their report on inventories and reported working gas in storage was 2,964 Bcf (billion cubic feet) as of Friday, December 9th for a net decline of 202 Bcf from the previous week. That is 195 Bcf less than last year at this time and 107 Bcf above the 5-year average of 2,857 Bcf. In the East Region, stocks were 43 Bcf above the 5-year average following net withdrawals of 118 Bcf. Stocks in the Producing Region were 26 Bcf above the 5-year average of 797 Bcf after a net withdrawal of 55 Bcf. Stocks in the West Region were 38 Bcf above the 5-year average after a net drawdown of 29 Bcf. At 2,964 Bcf, total working gas is within the 5-year historical range. A year ago did you ever think you'd give a hoot about how many Bcf's of natural gas we have where, or even what a Bcf was?

The Labor Department released the weekly earnings report which showed earnings increased +0.6% in November. The average workweek fell. Real earnings are down -0.4% in the past year. The unemployment picture was little changed from the week before with new claims rising 1,000 to 329K. The weekly continuing claims were up 21K to 2.6M.

The Empire State Index came out at 28.7 vs. 22.8 in November, which was above consensus of 19.0. This is the highest level reached in 2005. The new orders index was 30.2 vs. 25.9 in November while prices paid was 47.2 vs. 61.0. Industrial production numbers for November showed an increase of +0.7% vs. a forecast of +0.5% and industrial output for October was up a revised +1.3% vs. +0.9% in the previous estimate. November capacity utilization was 80.2% vs. a revised 79.8% in October. The Fed just stated two days ago that "possible increases in resource utilization...have the potential to add to inflation pressures." So the larger than expected rise in November capacity utilization to 80.2%, higher than the key 80% number over which inflationary pressures are generated, causes concerns that the Fed will continue to raise rates into mid-2006.

The December Philly Fed came in at 12.6 vs. 11.5 in November but below consensus of 13.6 (to as high as 15.0). The lower than expected number here may indicate that there may be some slippage in the more closely watched national ISM index. The Philly Fed price paid index was 49.0 vs. 56.8 in November which bodes well from an inflationary standpoint.

So after the initial excitement at the market open, it basically settled back the rest of the day. It wasn't so much due to a selling effort but instead looked more like a lack of buying. The advance/decline numbers showed a negative day while the new 52-week highs vs. lows showed there may have been some accumulation of stocks. If that's true, there are probably many funds looking to position for the Santa Claus rally. Whether we'll get one, or instead get an early one that sells off into the end of the month is too hard a call right now. Let's see what the charts are telling us.

DOW chart, Daily

The DOW has been cycling around the long term downtrend line from January 2000 through the March 2005 high. The fact that price is consolidating around this resistance line can be considered bullish. The turn up in the daily stochastics suggests we're going to get another push higher. If the final leg up (a 5th wave) is equal to the 1st leg up (wave-1) in the move up from the October low, I get a Fib target of 11,006. Some other things I look at suggest a higher target of 11,100-11,200 but it would be appropriate to see the DOW sneak over 11K, suck in a bunch of new longs, and then reverse hard down. Keep an eye on that 11,006 number. It also coincides with SPX 1285--see below.

SPX chart, Daily

The trend line along the highs since January 2004 is very close--just above 1280. Like the DOW, if I project the final leg up (5th wave) based on equality with the 1st wave, I get an upside target of 1285. Ideally the price pattern would give us a relatively minor pullback before proceeding higher so hitting 1285 could also give us a minor throw-over of the trend line if it gets there in the next week or so. I also have potential targets up around 1306 but 1285 would be the first level I would watch very carefully if you like picking tops.

Nasdaq chart, Daily

Unlike the DOW and SPX, the COMP has already climbed above its longer term trend line and is now using it as support. This is NOT true though for the NDX--the NDX has this trend line just above at about 1720, so about 19 points above. That would equate to about 2218 for the COMP. I show potential upside Fib targets for the COMP at 2303, 2338 and then 2356.

SOX index, Weekly chart

This weekly chart of the SOX is to give some perspective for what it's done over the past 2 years. It looks like one big bear flag and price is finding resistance at the top of the flag. It could press a little higher with a broader market rally but I wouldn't expect much more from this index. If you're long the semi's, go into profit protection mode and suck up your stops. Be studying some charts and see which stocks you may want to short, or get ready to buy some longer term puts on SMH.

Before looking at some more charts I wanted to pick up my discussion of under funded obligations, namely pension plans and now health care plans. I've been referring to the fact that many corporations are in trouble trying to fund their pension plans. Much of their problem has to do with higher expectations for returns on assets than has been, or likely will be, reality. Without higher returns, their under funding problem has only been exacerbated. Even with the bull market of the past 3 years most corporations have barely made a dent in their under-funded plans. Unfortunately there will come a day when the companies either belly up to the bar and fund their plans thereby incurring huge costs and decreasing their earnings (and stock price) or they will begin to cut benefits (or cancel their plans all together which many major corporations have already done, and saddle the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp with a huge liability).

Now we hear about public institutions joining the crowd and their main problem is health care. A recent story in the NY Times discussed the problem that cities are having with their under-funded plans (the problem is not just cities of course--it will be states, cities, towns, school districts, water authorities, etc). My purpose here is not to sound dour and put us all into a bad mood. This pension and health care burden is not being discussed enough publicly and it's the elephant in the living room right now. My purpose is to inform you so that you can be prepared as an individual who may face future squeezes in retirement benefits, and to provide you with a heads up as to what will very likely affect future stock market returns (and bond returns since downgraded bonds are not a good thing if you're the holder of those bonds). States, cities and agencies that do not move quickly enough may see their credit ratings fall. We are on the verge of some very powerful changes that will have significant economic and social ramifications.

The usual practice for public institutions has been to budget for health care a year at a time, and to leave the rest for the future. It's now becoming apparent what the future liability will be like and in order to make up for their under funding we will likely see huge tax increases, severe cut backs in other services, a reduction in retirement benefits, or probably a combination of the above. Many governments have already been struggling with big deficits in their employee pension funds and now they're recognizing the huge burden of an under funded health care plan on top of that.

The NY Times article referred to the city of Duluth, MN as an example. Since 1983, Duluth has been promising free lifetime health care to all of its retired workers, their spouses and their children up to age 26. This was done in an effort to compensate for lower salaries in the public sector and seemed "cheap" at the time. No one really knew how much it would cost. For years, governments have been promising generous medical benefits to millions of public employees when they retire, but virtually none of these governments have kept track of the mounting price tag.

Three years ago, Duluth decided to find out and hired an actuary to do some calculations--the total came to about $178M, or more than double the city's operating budget. And the bill was growing. Hoping to see some improvement over the past 3 years, because economic conditions had changed and the new accounting rule had been announced, the city's leaders asked the actuary to update her numbers--it's now up to $280M, a 57% increase. As a side note, actuaries will likely be in short supply in the coming years as many public and private institutions grapple with this problem. Could be a lucrative job market for the actuarially gifted.

This is only the tip of the iceberg as many public institutions go through the same exercise. In fact they'll have to. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is going to be issuing a new ruling (GASB Statement No. 45) that will require this analysis of future costs that they will incur over the next 30 years. This needs to be done so that they can report their obligation to their taxpayers and bond holders. They are finding that under the new method, the benefit costs for a particular year can be anywhere from 2 to 20 times the pay-as-you-go costs they have been showing on their books. The new accounting rule will be phased in over 3 years, with all 50 states and hundreds of large cities and counties required to comply first. If they fail to put money behind their promises to retirees, they may feel the wrath of the financial markets as their credit ratings get lowered, making it harder and more expensive to sell bonds or otherwise borrow money.

Stephen T. McElhaney, an actuary and principal at Mercer Human Resources, a benefits consulting firm that advises states and local governments, estimated that the national total [obligation] could be $1 trillion. "This is a huge liability," said Jan Lazar, an independent benefits consultant in Lansing, Mich. "If anybody understands it, they'll freak out." When we think about the massive debt our country has, whether it's individuals, corporations or governments, and then throw this debt and the pension debts on top of all that, one has to wonder how long foreigners will continue to enjoy funding our profligacy. Hence the worry about "freaking out".

Alaska went through a similar exercise and after saying that Alaska's future combined obligations for pensions and retiree health care were under funded by $5.7B, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski called a special session of the Legislature and pushed through changes in pension and retirement health care benefits for new state employees. (The state Constitution forbids changing the benefits of current employees.) His actions caused a major ruckus with unions, advocates for the elderly (you know AARP will fight any changes here big time) and the Juneau schools superintendent. This battle will be heard loud and clear around the country soon. Michigan, with its possible $30B in largely unfunded health care promises, is already considering legislation that would shift "a considerable amount of the cost for health insurance to the retiree." Maryland now spends about $311M annually on retiree health premiums and the yearly cost will jump to $1.9B under the new GASB rule. But when that state calculated the value of the retirement benefits it has promised to current employees, the total was $20.4B.

OK, feeling all depressed now? Sorry, sometimes reality sucks. But tis better to be prepared than shocked with no game plan. On a lighter note, before continuing to look at a couple more charts, and for you technology buffs, I came across some research about a new element that has been discovered. Apparently it's a side benefit of some research based around the recent hurricanes. A major research institution (one that probably has its pension and health care plans already fully funded) has been able to prove the existence of a new element that they've named "Governmentium." This is from their press release:

"Governmentium (Gv) has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called 'morons' which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called 'peons.' Since Gv has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Gv causes one reaction to take over four days to complete, when it would normally take less than a second!

Gv has a normal half-life of 4 years; it does not decay; but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming 'isodopes.' This characteristic of moron promotion leads most scientists to believe that Gv is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as 'Critical Morass.'

When catalyzed with money, Gv becomes "Administratium' (Am) - an element which radiates just as much energy as Gv, since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

Onto some more charts. Next up are the banks.

BKX banking index, Weekly chart

This weekly chart of the banks is to again give a longer term perspective of what they've been doing. In its rally from the October 2002 low, the long coiling consolidation that it went through since January 2004 predicted the sharp rally out of it. One thing about these coils in this position of the pattern (wave-4 leading to wave-5) is that it sets up the last leg up. Based on that interpretation, the current rally leg is the last one for the whole rally from October 2002. This is clear as a bell on this index. The only question in my mind is where exactly it will end. If it manages to rally up to a Fib target of 111.83 I'd be looking for signals to put on some long term short positions.

U.S. Home Construction Index chart, DJUSHB, Daily

Lennar Corp's (LEN 62.59 +2.03) reported a strong 4th quarter and their stock had a nice rally (but left a bearish looking hanging man doji on its daily chart). The daily chart of the housing index shows a long tail above a small body--a shooting start doji which again is bearish. A red candle tomorrow would be a confirmed reversal signal. But if it can manage a little more rally, there should be resistance up near the top of its bear flag pattern and a 62% retracement at 1001.

Oil chart, December contract, Daily

After breaking its downtrend, oil retraced 38% of it decline and now looks ready to roll back over. If that's all the bounce oil will be able to muster, it will be bearish for oil. It closed back below its 50-dma but has potential support at its 200-dma and previously broken downtrend line. It could drop back down for a retest of the low which might coincide with a test of its longer term uptrend line. Bullish divergence with another test of that low would suggest a higher bounce is coming. Otherwise, look out below. And again, a drop in oil price here would be a warning siren about a slowing economy dead ahead.

Oil Index chart, Daily

The oil index did a slight over-throw of the top of its ascending triangle pattern and closed back inside it today. That's a sell signal, confirmed with negative divergence on the oscillators. I'm expecting another leg down in the decline of this index.

Transportation Index chart, TRAN, Weekly

The weekly chart of the Trannies shows another sideways coil that formed in 2005 and a spike to the upside out of it. This should be the last leg up in its rally from 2003 and again it's just a matter of figuring an upside target. A potential Fib target is at 4275.

U.S. Dollar chart, Daily

The U.S. dollar broke support this week and sold off with a bunch of commodities, including gold and oil. A further pullback should find support at its uptrend line near $89.

Gold chart, August contract, Daily

If you were long gold I hope you pulled your stops up tight and took as much out of that rally as you could. The pullback should be swift although we could see some volatility surrounding the pullback. I'm looking for a pullback to the $460-470 area.

Results of today's economic reports and tomorrow's reports include the following:

Sector action was mixed today, reflective of today's relatively flat market. Leaders to the upside were the airlines, disk drive index, gold and silver (a little dead cat bounce?), Transports and biotechs. Those in the red today were led by the energy indexes, the SOX and financials. Biotechs got a boost early today when Amgen (AMGN $80.43 +3.66)) announced its decision to acquire Abgenix (ABGX $21.68 +7.03) for $2.2B and an additional $1.0B in savings from restructuring efforts. Merck (MRK 29.77 +0.57) reaffirmed FY05 and FY06 guidance and was the DOW's 2nd leading component today, right behind Altria (MO 76.62 +2.89). Consumer staples were hurt today by Proctor & Gamble (PG 58.99 -0.63) which saw some profit taking today after hitting a new 52-week high yesterday, which followed upside Q2 guidance.

Oracle (ORCL 12.81 +0.02) reported after the bell that profits fell 2.1% while total revenue rose 19.4% (meaning their gross margins decreased). Their Q2 net earnings were $798M, or 15 cents a share, compared with $815M, or 16 cents a share, last year. Total revenue was $3.29B vs. $2.76B last year. Expectations had been for ORCL to report earnings of 19 cents a share on $3.41B in revenue, so a miss on both revenue and earnings. Their price dropped after hours to a low of $12.20 and closed at $12.48 which is back to the pullback low on Dec 9th.

Adobe (ADBE $34.85 + 0.41) on the other hand rose after hours after reporting its Q$ profit rose to $156.3M, or 31 cents a share, vs. $113.5M, or 23 cents a share, a year ago. Total revenue for the quarter rose 19% to $510.4M from $429.5M and they obviously were able to keep their costs under control. Price popped up to $36.44 and closed at $36.25 after hours. Interestingly enough, like ORCL, this brings price back to where it was on Dec 9th; they're just moving in opposite directions.

For tomorrow, remember it's a quadruple witching options expiration day, which can cause increased volatility which in the end doesnt necessarily mean anything in the larger price pattern. I get a different impression based on different indices. The DOW tells me to expect a rally tomorrow, SPX and the others tell me to expect a deeper pullback first. Opex Friday's are many times quiet and directionless, interspersed with fits of volatility. Be careful. Waiting until Monday to try a "normal" trade might not be a bad idea. Hopefully we'll see some good setups tomorrow on the Monitor. See you there and good luck tomorrow.
 

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