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Market Wrap

Change In Plans

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Intel had planned on halting its mid quarter updates and provide only an annual outlook in January with adjustments to that outlook with earnings each quarter. Unfortunately conditions changed drastically for Intel and they had to abort those plans and issue a warning for Q1 on Friday.

SPX Chart - 240 min

Dow Chart - Daily

Nasdaq Chart - 180 min

Intel published a press release that was very harsh with numerous qualifications concerning business concessions. Intel said its previously published outlook for Q1 and for 2006 "no longer reflects the company's current expectations." They lowered revenue expectations for Q1 to $8.7B to $9.1B from expectations of $9.1B to $9.7B. This -5% cut in estimates is only the tip of the iceberg. Intel also said Q1 margins would be adversely impacted by their lower revenue and changing expense structure. Intel published a bullet list of six paragraphs containing factors that could impact operations going forward. Basically the 350 word description of adverse factors included competition, fixed costs, R&D costs, economic conditions, product mix, unit costs, obsolete inventory, order cancellations, customer order patterns, excess channel inventory and "market acceptance of Intel products." Essentially Intel threw every excuse they had against the wall hoping some of them would stick and obscure the real reason for the profit warning. The real answer in three letters is AMD. AMD is beating the heck out of Intel in the middle market. AMD is gaining share and new product offerings are exploding that use the faster/cheaper AMD chips. Intel lost its momentum and AMD is chipping away at its user base.

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Normally when Intel warns, especially an unexpected warning, the market crashes hard. Friday's initial dip was bought and the indexes rallied, some to new highs, before the Friday afternoon weakness settled in. The SOX actually rallied into positive territory with many chip stocks shaking off the Intel news as Intel specific. In reality it is Intel specific and the chip gains for the year illustrate this fact. While Intel is down -19% for 2006 and hitting a new 18 months low on Friday other chip stocks are in strong rally mode. For instance BRCM is up +58% for 2006, AMD +33%, NVDA +35%, even Cisco, a quasi chip stock of sorts is up +23%. Dell a staunch Intel supporter is also struggling with a close Friday only +50 cents above a 2.5-year low. However, Hewlett Packard has been selling out of its AMD powered computers and the stock price of HPQ at $34 is right at a five year high. It appears that hitching your wagon to the Intel star, a successful strategy in the past, has turned into a liability. Intel's star is falling fast and it is not likely to be a brief dip. Getting a momentum lead in the chip sector can be a lengthy process with lead times of 12-18 months. Once achieved the loser is faced with that same period before they can reverse the loss, sometimes even longer. Intel has the clout but it is a huge ship that turns very slow.

Intel Chart - Weekly

A milestone settlement was reached on Friday between RIMM and NTP in their long running patent infringement case. RIMM reportedly settled with NTP for $612.5 million and the court case was dismissed on Friday afternoon. This takes the cloud off of RIMM and the Blackberry product. RIMM paid the $612.5 million as payment of all past claims and for a fully paid up lifetime license covering all RIMM processes, services and technologies. Before you rush out and buy RIMM on Monday there is something else you need to know. RIMM also warned late after the close on Friday that revenue would be flat with Q3 at $550-$560 million and profits would be substantially below current analysts estimates. RIMM expects profits to be in the 64-66 cent range and analysts had been expecting 76-81 cents. They attributed the drop in revenue to a sharp drop in new subscribers over the last quarter due to the looming shutdown of the Blackberry system. This drop in revenue/earnings failed to offset the gain from the settlement of the suit. RIMM traded up +$13 in after hours despite the earnings warning.

RIMM Chart - Daily

RIMM Chart - 90 min

Friday's economic news was lost after the Intel headline with Consumer Sentiment slipping only slightly to 86.7 from 87.4. This tame report was ignored after the Intel news. The ISM non-mfg Index rose to 60.1 from 56.8 in January and was inline with the regular ISM gain we saw on Wednesday. Despite the tame economics interest rates continued their three-day rise. Yield on the ten-year note rose to close at 4.684% and a new 18-month high. This is very negative for the economy, the homebuilder sector and the markets. A 5% yield is typically acknowledged as a point where bonds become preferable to stocks. A yield over 5% provides a safe haven in times of market uncertainty. This is going to be a problem for the equity markets if it rises any higher.

Rates are going higher according to most analysts. There are rate hikes in the works on a global scale including Japan close to a very rare hike. Lehman officially raised their target for the Fed Funds rate to 5.5% on Friday. According to Lehman the inflation indicators are rising and the Fed will be forced to continue raising rates. This is contrary to a statement by Minneapolis Fed President Gary Stern on Friday. The markets were trading nearly flat until after lunch when Stern commented in a Reuters interview that he viewed current Fed rates as at or near neutral and there was no reason to raise them any further. He said incoming data could change that view but for now there was no reason to raise rates. The markets reacted strongly with the Dow spiking from 11020 to 11106 over the next 90 minutes, a jump of +86 points. The Nasdaq added +15 point on the news and the S&P +10. Those gains evaporated shortly thereafter and all the indexes fell back into the red by the close.

Oil prices hit $63.80 intraday and closed only slightly below that level. The three-week high in oil prices combined with high interest rates and the Intel warning to kill any market gains by days end. OPEC president Edmond Daukoru said at a Press Club meeting on Friday that OPEC would discuss price cuts when it meets on March 8th. He did not expect any cuts but a -500,000 bpd drop was possible. He also said that while oil prices were over $60 production would continue at the current levels. The context of his comments were clear. $60 is now the floor that OPEC is comfortable with and the price is rising. Remember only a couple months ago it was $50 then $55 and now $60. Daukoru also said OPEC "may" meet between the scheduled March and June meetings to discuss production cuts. This tease only serves to keep prices higher on the possibility OPEC might meet. They are milking this production cut thing for all it is worth. The entire production quota ruse is a sham anyway since several countries can't meet current quotas due to production declines and equipment problems from lack of investment. Others are pumping at 100% of capability regardless of quotas. Still OPEC is managing the price almost perfectly with a rising price floor. Daukoru also played "pin the blame on speculators" for the current price level. This is also a recurring ploy to take the blame off OPEC for rising prices. Last year it was "blame it on the refiners." It boggles my mind they can play "support the price at $60" in one sentence and then blame speculators for the price hikes several sentences later.

Crude Oil Chart - Daily

Other factors impacting oil prices continue to be the Nigerian rebel problem and Iran. Iran will be probably be referred on Monday to the UN security council. With the Russian enrichment deal crumbling around the edges the outcome of the referral may not be very positive. Check the LEAPS Trader this weekend for more about Iran and the coming problem. China is also nearing completion of their strategic petroleum reserve and they will start diverting oil from the market to fill this stockpile this summer. The first facility will hold 33 million bbls with another 101.9 million bbls in three other sites on the eastern seaboard. China's oil demand is expected to grow +8% in 2006 to 7 mbpd making them the second largest oil consumer nation. This is half of last years growth rate but still very strong. China is planning on building their SPR to hold up to a 90-day supply by 2010. That would be close to a billion barrels by 2010 given their current growth rate. The U.S. is also adding to its SPR ahead of the coming hurricane season. The 26-member International Energy Agency is also quietly refilling its 1.4 billion bbl emergency stockpile after 60 days of draws to fill the void left by hurricane disruptions. India recently announced they were going to build a strategic reserve as well and it is initially expected to hold 40 million bbls. To put these numbers in perspective a fill rate of 100,000 bpd, the same rate the U.S. uses to limit the impact to prices, would take 400 days to fill the Indian reserve. Add in the 26-nation IEA reserve, China and the U.S. and that is a huge drain on supply on for the next several years.

Next week should see volatility in oil prices as the OPEC chatter comes to a head with their meeting. Interest rates are expected to continue to rise ahead of the March 28th Fed meeting. Both of those factors will influence the market. However, the economic calendar is very light. The only report of any real consequence is the employment report on Friday. Expectations are for a gain of +185,000 jobs. Pundits are very quiet on unofficial estimates given the recent volatility. Over the last four months job gains have fluctuated wildly from only +37,000 in October to +354,000 in November with Dec/Jan retreating into the middle of that range at +140K and +193K. The Friday number could miss estimates substantially and create havoc in the marketplace. Too strong a number would stimulate the Fed even higher and too weak a number could cause slowdown worries. This concern over jobs could keep the markets uneasy ahead of the report.

Other than economics there is little news to move the market. Q1 earnings are over and we are still a couple weeks ahead of the Q2 warnings cycle. This is the perfect time for the market to pick a direction unhampered by facts. Unfortunately we are still stuck at the recent highs with material gains very hard to make and hold. The Dow is starting to look like the Nasdaq of several weeks ago. The recent high was set back on Feb-22nd with a series of volatility spikes to progressively lower highs and a pattern of nearly instant retracements. Five times since the 22nd we have seen serious selling spurts and Dow 11000 is looking more like the Alamo every day. Bulls are shoring up their defenses at 11000 while the bears amass by the thousands just overhead. If that support level breaks it could be a long drop.

The Nasdaq has suddenly found buyers and it came within 8 points of a new high on Friday. That +25 point spike off the Intel induced lows was quickly erased and support at 2300 was the only thing that kept us from a dramatic sell off. The support for the Nasdaq rally came from the SOX, which rallied +27 points from Tuesday's close to hit 550 on Thursday. The SOX gave a bunch of that back on Friday. With Intel poisoning the chip sector we could see some more weakness despite some of the majors trying to break free from Intel's shadow.

Nasdaq Chart - 30 min

The SPX rallied to hit 1297 on Monday and promptly retreated to 1280 on end of month selling on Tuesday. After fighting for three days to recover that 1297 high it was successful on Friday despite Intel. Unfortunately it could not hold the high ground and collapsed to 1287 at the close.

While I would like to believe that there is a stealth rally still lurking behind all of this volatility we still need a breakout to confirm it. The repeated attempts to make that break continue to fail but we are chipping away at the overhead resistance. The other side of the coin is the March history I provided for you on Tuesday night. With the history of March declines so bearish there are clearly quite a few bears sitting on the highs hoping for a repeat. This sets up the potential for a bear-b-que if something does produce a sudden breakout.

I would continue to honor our new long/short indicator at 1280. As long as we hold over that level I would remain long in hopes of the stealth rally making a charge. However, as each day passes without a breakout the chances for a breakdown increase. Do not hesitate to short a break of 1280. Keep your eyes on the chatter about the jobs report due out Friday and try not to let it sneak up on you. That could be the pivot point for the week and what the bulls are waiting for to power a breakout. Should the markets turn negative before the report the numbers will probably be ignored until the correction runs its course. Remember the table of March declines I posted in the Tuesday newsletter. This is March and the clock is ticking.
 

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