Investors stepped aside ahead of the two-day FOMC meeting, which begins on Wednesday. The Nasdaq closed at a new two week low at 2100 while the other indexes were not far behind. Despite today's decline we are still trapped inside the recent trading range but definitely testing the lows. Fed risk looms large ahead and the indecision has caused significant volatility. However, this volatility will pale in comparison to what we will experience after the rate decision is announced on Thursday.
Dow Chart - 30 min
Nasdaq Chart - 30 min
Economic reports out this morning were led by the June Consumer Confidence report. The headline confidence number was 105.7, which was a one-point gain over the upwardly revised level of 104.7 in May. The original May number was 103.2. The headline gain came from a +2.5 point jump in the expectations component. The current conditions component fell for the second month to 132.7. However, positive feelings about business conditions and employment deteriorated. Buying plans for autos and appliances fell but those considering a home purchase rose. Gasoline prices continue to hover in the $2.90 range and employment numbers from various reports are showing some weakness. This is weighing on sentiment. Rising interest rates continue to slow further cash withdrawals from home equity and that is slowing consumer spending.
Existing home sales fell again in May by -1.2% to 6.67 million annualized units. This was down from 6.75m in April and a -2.2% drop from March. Year over year home sales are down -6.6%. Inventory levels rose +5.5% to a 6.6-month supply and the largest inventory since 1998. Sales of condos rose +1.9% to 852,000. This should be good news to developers in Miami where an estimated 90,000 units are under construction. Elsewhere many developments have been cancelled including several high profile projects in Las Vegas including the 21-floor Liberty Tower and the 80 story Ivana Trump tower. The land slated for the Liberty Tower has already been sold and Ivana's 2.5 acre property at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Blvd is currently for sale for $49 million. Of the more than 70 Las Vegas condominium towers in planning stages two years ago less than a third are now expected to be built. Interest rates are the biggest factor in falling home sales with ARM loans now pricing consumers out of the market. With rates at decade lows in 2003-2004 the ARM loans made sense to those wanting to buy more house than they could afford. Now that rates have returned to the 8% level and the Fed still raising rates ARMS are a higher risk and have lost their allure as a cheap alternative to fixed rates. Investors are no longer buying up every house that appears on the market in hopes of a future flip. In many markets these investors are now trying to unload that inventory. Last week I called a number on a hand written sign at an intersection near my home in Denver because my daughter was thinking about moving. It turned out to be a desperate speculator with 81 houses for sale and the tone of the conversation was obvious panic. The payments on that many homes has got to hurt!
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The Richmond Fed Survey for June crept slightly higher to +4 from the +1 reading in May. Shipments rose only +1 point to +3 and new orders rose a point to +4. These were very anemic gains. Unfortunately order backlogs fell to -15 from -8 and the six month outlook fell -14 points to 21 from May's 35. These numbers suggest that manufacturing is struggling after sharp spike in the headline number to 21 as recently as March. This is a region specific report but still something the Fed will have to consider this week.
The Fed meeting is obviously the key to the markets and speculation is all over the map. I mentioned on Sunday that a 50-point hike was being considered as a possibility. That speculation has reached fever pitch as of Tuesday night. Pundit after pundit voiced their view of why the Fed should hike 50 and be done. While I think it would be a positive event, especially with a very clear statement, I really doubt it will happen. The futures are showing only a 12% chance at this meeting. There are several reasons why the Fed would be reluctant to hike 50 points this week. First there has been no formal attempt despite the volumes of Fedspeak to prep the market for a 50-point hike. Greenspan's lingering gradualism and incrementalism is priced into the market. Basically a "no surprise" Fed posture. A 50-point hike could produce a hard landing for the economy given its current fragile state. The cooling housing market, rising energy prices and rising rates are already a serious drag on the economy. A +50 hike could produce a sharp jump in mortgage rates and further devastate the already weak housing market. Despite a +0.3% jump for each of the last three months the core inflation rate is already peaking according to several analysts and should begin to fall with the economy. The Fed Funds Rate is already at the upper end of the neutral zone typically favored by the Fed.
On the flip side the last two Fed rate hike cycles did end with a +50 point hike. That is historically the last nail in the economic coffin since normally the Fed nearly always goes too far. The minutes of the May FOMC meeting showed that the Fed considered a 50-point hike in May. They also considered no hike but eventually agreed to raise by a quarter point for the sixteenth straight meeting. The odds of a +50 at this meeting are only +12% but that rises to +84% for a 5.50% rate by the August 8th meeting. If that is the Fed target then a one and done +50 hike this week makes more sense to some because it would send a signal to the markets that the hikes were over. A +50 hike would help Bernanke's credibility as ready to tackle inflation at any cost.
About the only real surprise would be a pass and that is not entirely out of the realm of speculation. Considerable recent Fedspeak has mentioned the lag time from hike to impact and the considerable impact from past hikes still not felt in the system. If those Fed members lobbying for a pause are vocal enough then a real surprise could be headed our way. Remember Bernanke did say that a pause might not mean the end to hikes. He could pause now and wait for more data ahead of the August meeting. It is only 39 days after this meeting but would contain nearly two months of additional data according to the report schedule. I would seriously doubt a pause scenario because the Fed always takes a hike when it is already priced into the market. It is a free move in their opinion like getting a get out of jail free card in Monopoly. While I think there are more reasons for the Fed to stick with the incremental approach I am certainly not going to speculate as to which will happen. I have seen too many people make fools of themselves in the past to join that club. I am content to lay out the scenario and let everyone make their own decision.
The markets are having their own problem trying to determine the best course of action ahead of the meeting. Hampering any attempt to rally were several earnings warnings, further option grant subpoenas and news impacting Dow stocks. The two biggest losers on the Dow were GM and Boeing. GM announced a reduction of 35,000 hourly workers by year-end along with another 12,600 workers at Delphi. You would think this would be good news given the dramatic cost reduction but other factors were still pressing GM lower. They warned today that sales comparisons for June could be brutal with as much as a -30% drop compared to June-2005. The company was offering stronger incentives last year. GM has pledged to wean itself off the incentive program and just sell great cars at reasonable prices. That diet ended today with a new zero percent financing program on all 2006 models except the Corvette. GM has to combat lingering inventory problems and higher incentives by other manufacturers. Within four hours of the announcement I received an automated phone call from my local GM dealer advertising the promotion. The average incentive at GM before today was $2781 compared to Ford $3863, Chrysler $3900 but well above Toyota at $734. Chrysler incentives are over $6000 on some vehicles and they are rumored to be considering an employee-pricing program like the successful GM program last year. All of these factors pushed GM to a -1.85 loss or -6.6%.
Boeing fell -1.96 after saying it was considering sale of its Connexion business unit. The airborne broadband Internet business never found broad acceptance and Boeing was halting further expansion. Airlines are reportedly more interested in providing in-flight Internet over traditional cellular networks. JetBlue won a license last week to provide thus type of service.
After the close Cheesecake Factory (CAKE) warned that it expected flat to negative same store sales for Q2. They also said they expect revenue to climb +12% for the quarter implying they will miss prior earnings guidance. Wendy's (WEN) also warned that it would post lower same store sales for Q2 and projected higher expenses. CKR Restaurants (CKR) said sales were up in June but warned that sales could slow over the summer due to rising gasoline prices.
Nike fell -$3.00 in after hours after saying profits fell due to higher expenses. Buyers reduced that loss to only -1.18 before trading closed. Rambus (RMBS) fell -1.50, -6%, after saying it may have to restate earnings due to problems with dating of option grants. Rambus said its audit committee found dates for past option grants differed from the recorded grant dates.
Wells Fargo announced after the close a 25 million share buyback and a 2:1 split.
The biggest loser of the day was Marvell Technology (MRVL) at -$7.76 after saying it was buying a division from Intel that makes processors for handheld devices for $600 million. Those chips are used in devices like the BlackBerry and Palm Treo. 1400 employees are employed by this division raising the employee count at MRVL by +50%. The sale is expected to close in 4-5 months but will not be accretive to MRVL earnings until 2008 and could drag down earnings in 2007.
The public found out more about the $12 billion Rosneft IPO and part of that information was 25 pages of warnings to potential investors. One warning stated "Rosneft may engage in business practices that will not maximize shareholder value." Rosneft may have an extremely large asset base of both oil and gas reserves but I would run from this IPO. There is no rule of law in Russia and those 25 pages of warnings should be taken literally. At any given point Putin could change the rules and that stock become lining for the cat box.
Oil prices rose again today as forecasters suggested current tropical depressions could possible turn into Gulf storms. There was also a continued backlash from the oil spill at the Citgo refinery near Lake Charles. Three refineries and one LNG plant announced a reduction in output until crude deliveries could resume. The ship channel serving the refineries was closed due to the spill and will remain closed to oil tankers for 2-4 more days.
Iran warned again on Sunday that it WOULD use its oil as a weapon if it was pressured on the nuclear issue. After months of saying they would not use the weapon the official position was reversed over the last few weeks. I told everyone it would happen and I doubt anyone was surprised. With the artificial mid July deadline moving closer we can expect this war of words to increase.
August Crude Oil Chart - Daily
Oil prices were also higher on a report showing increased demand. China's oil demand growth accelerated +13.5% in May according to numbers released by Reuters today. Year to date China's demand growth is already +6.5% compared to the IEA estimates of +5.7% for the entire year. Crude oil imports jumped +20.5% in May with imports for the year up +17.9%. Imports of fuel oil jumped by more than +50% to an 11-month high. China also cut gasoline exports by -61% in order to meet internal demand from its swelling fleet of autos. Auto sales in China jumped +24.1% in May alone. China also cut diesel exports by -40% to cover demand by literally hundreds of millions of small farmers producing food for the growing population. A jump in agriculture use is in addition to strong demand for diesel from the construction and transportation sectors.
Gasoline demand was also strong in the US and is expected to rise sharply over the extended July-4th weekend. The inventory report on Wednesday is expected to show a drop in crude of -1.5 MB, a rise in gasoline of only +500,000 bbls and a rise in distillates of +1.3 MB. Some traders fear a drop in gasoline due to the lower refinery output.
Bonds ended their worst nine-day drop since 1974 with a small gain on Tuesday. Ten-year yields reached 5.245% on Monday as the streak ended. There were $20 billion in 2-year notes auctioned off today with another $14B in 5-year notes due tomorrow.
Google announced a new project called Google Buy to compete with PayPal. Ebay's PayPal has more than 100 million users and produced revenue of $335 million in Q1. This was a jump of +44%. Since Ebay has been one of Google's biggest advertisers for years it is an example of biting the hand that feeds you. Ebay announced a deal with Yahoo last month to enhance acceptance of PayPal even further and cement the EBAY/YHOO relationship. Obviously Ebay new it was coming and took steps to prevent Google from garnering that Yahoo deal. Google Buy will cost more than PayPal for merchants that use it. Google buy rates will start at 2.2% of the transaction compared to 1.9% for PayPal. Google is expected to offer rebates to shoppers to entice them to switch from PayPal. Since Google has a history of announcing dozens of new offerings but seldom getting any out of beta testing it will be interesting to see if Google Buy every becomes a real competitor to PayPal. The offering does make sense for Google since it already has relationships with millions of vendors whose items are found in Google searches. Time will tell.
If you have been following my commentary you know the current trading range is nothing new. Today's drop to the bottom of the range was simply traders stepping aside ahead of the FOMC meeting. The fireworks should not start until after the meeting is over. Volume started out light but accelerated into the close trading nearly 1B shares more than Monday's 3.67 billion with most of it to the downside. The Dow fell to 10920 and managed only a weak rebound at the close to 10927. The bottom of the range for the Dow would be just above 10900 and we came very close. Only four Dow components were positive, XOM, T, MO and MSFT. Losing more than a buck were BA -1.96, GM -1.85, MMM -1.51 and DD -1.16.
The Nasdaq fell hard with a -33 point loss and a fractional break below 2100. The anchor dragging down the Nasdaq was the SOX with -16 point drop to an eight month low at 431. The SOX was suffering under the -$8 drop in MRVL and declines in several other chip stocks. While the Nasdaq Composite only broke its range slightly by a couple of points the Nasdaq-100 cratered for a -29 point drop to -16 below its two week range. The NDX closed at 1527 and only a few points away from the 1511 low set back on June-13th. A break below that level would trigger all kinds of technical sell programs.
The S&P-500 clung valiantly to 1240 and bottom range support but closed only .26 off its lows. The stage is set for another wave of selling if that 1240 level breaks. Futures are flat overnight after a brief post-close bounce. There is little for traders to focus on tomorrow other than Oil Inventories, Mortgage Applications and the constant Fed chatter. We know which item will get the most attention.
Historically the worst period for the markets is Q2 and Q3 of a midterm election year. It is normally worse when a second term president is in office. Typically June is the worst month for declines but the lows are established late in the summer with an average drop of -20%. Obviously history MAY repeat itself but there are never any guarantees. Analysts are still expecting higher highs by year-end so any late summer drops should be buying opportunities. That leaves us with a trading quandary for the next two months. We know there is going to be intense volatility after the meeting. Depending on the outcome it could last several days or be over by the weekend. It would be pointless for me to suggest a strategy ahead of the decision. Even if Bernanke called me with the plan ahead of time I could not predict with any certainty what the market reaction would be. Personally I am going to wait for the decision and then follow the trend. We know initial resistance is 1260 on the S&P with support on a range break about 20 points lower at 1220. If we did have a range break after the meeting I would expect more program selling and a new leg down for the current correction. If the markets respond favorably to the decision and break out of the current range I would expect our old top of 1290-1295 to hold. With resistance at 1260 and 1295, support at 1240 and 1220, that gives us targets for any directional move.
SPX Chart - 60 min
Russell Chart - Daily
Don't forget the Russell rebalance at Friday's close will likely start to impact
the markets late in
the week. The Russell futures were down -18 points (-2.5%)
off their morning high just before the close and that is a substantially bigger
drop than the other indexes. Funds and/or speculators are boarding that train
now for a Friday evening arrival. I am on that train and that may be the closest
thing to a guaranteed trade for the rest of the week. There are never any
guarantees but history is on our side. Bottom line, avoid the pre-announcement
doldrums and trade the trend once the
meeting passes. One last word to the wise.
The initial direction immediately after the announcement is seldom the final
direction. Use the initial move as an entry point for a potential reversal.