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Market Wrap

Stealth Market Returns

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Today's market was a sleeper. After Monday's strong rebound from support the market action today was lackluster at best. Still the Dow managed to tack on +48 points while the broader averages managed only minor gains. It was one of those days where you could leave for a couple hours and when you got back nothing had changed. Despite the low volatility and lack of major movement there were some positive events like the S&P creeping almost unnoticed to a new six-year high. The Russell slipped quietly above prior resistance at 795 to make a new historic high at 801. Individual new highs across all markets rose to 953 and a level not seen in many months. All this movement came on a better than expected ISM Services report suggesting the soft landing was still intact.

Dow Chart - 240 min

Nasdaq Chart - Weekly

First an apology. Those of us who write about the markets every day sometimes forget that our readers may not be familiar with our daily economic jargon. A new reader emailed me after my Sunday commentary asking what these terms meant listing the ISM, PMI, GDP, PCE, VIX, Durable Goods, Construction Spending and what the strong/weak dollar meant for our economy. I suddenly realized that what I might take for granted is gibberish to new investors. I have been writing the commentary in these pages for nearly ten years now and saying ISM instead of Institute for Supply Management or Gross Domestic Product for GDP becomes a habit due to the significantly fewer keystrokes input over time. I will try and correct that in the future and I have asked the other writers to do the same. If you are familiar with the alphabet soup market analysts use daily please be patient with us for using a few extra words in the future.

Heading the list of economic reports today was the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) non-manufacturing or "services" index for November. The regular ISM covering the manufacturing sector was released last week with a reading of 49.5 indicating contraction in the manufacturing sector. A reading under 50 indicates contraction or a weakening of conditions and a reading over 50 indicates expansion. The ISM non-mfg Index relates to the service sector and covers things like fast food restaurants, hair stylists and service stations. Any business that provides a service rather than manufacturers a product sold wholesale could fall into this category. The ISM Services released on Tuesday rose to 58.9 from 57.1 and was well over the consensus estimate for a drop to 55.5. This suggests the service sector is continuing to rebound from its September low of 52.9 and the potential for an economic soft landing is still intact. An economic soft landing means the Fed was able to slow growth to a manageable level without pushing the economy into a recession. It does not happen very often, less than 20% of the time, but it is always the goal whenever the Fed enters into a rate hike cycle.


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All the production components of the ISM non-mfg rose. That includes new orders, order backlogs and employment. Components weakening included exports, inventories and supplier deliveries. The most troubling component was a sharp jump in the prices paid to 55.6 from 51.9. This indicates the cost of producing services rose and that was likely due to the rebound in oil prices and fuel surcharges for shipping. This was a bullish report since the US economy has turned to more of a service economy than a manufacturing economy over the last two decades. Most products are now manufactured overseas where labor is cheap and then shipped to the US for consumption.

It was announced this morning that Factory Orders fell -4.7% or -$19.3 billion in October and closely inline with estimates. This was the sharpest drop since July 2000. This is further proof the economy was still slowing as recent as October. The drop in Durable Goods, items like appliances which last for years, was -8.2%. In today's report the numbers for core capital goods and new orders were revised down for the prior two months suggesting a slowing of activity, which could continue for sometime. Inventories rose in all areas suggesting the manufacturing ISM could also remain weak for several months. Durable goods inventories rose +0.8%.

Worker Productivity and Costs for the third quarter was revised higher to +0.2% from the flat report at 0.0% we saw in the last update. This was still well below some analyst's estimates for a +0.6% revision. Unit labor costs were revised sharply downward from +3.8% to +2.3% and suggests wage inflation is moderating. This was confirmed by a monster revision of the +5.4% report in Q2 which was revised down to a drop of -2.4% in today's release. This is very good news on the inflation front. The Fed is always very concerned about rises in wages fueling inflation and will act to stop it whenever it is seen. Today's report and revisions take considerable pressure off the Fed to maintain a strong rate policy. You may remember back in Q1 the sharp +9.0% spike in unit labor costs and the inflation alarm bells that were triggered. The initial Q2 spike of +5.4% solidified those concerns. With today's downward revision of Q2 to a drop of -2.4% it suggests the Q1 spike was a statistical anomaly and wage costs never really took an inflationary spike.

The final report for the day was the Challenger Layoff Report for November. Announced job cuts rose to 76,773 and slightly higher than the 69,177 announced in October. The headline number was -23% below the same month in 2005 suggesting the hiring sector is still strong despite the slight rise. Year to date 785,179 workers have been affected and this is -19% from the same period in 2005 and the lowest since 2000. Job cuts tend to accelerate as the year ends with many workers getting a pink slip rather than a Christmas bonus. The Challenger layoff report is normally released a couple days ahead of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Non-farm Payroll report for the prior month. That report for November is due out on Friday and estimates are for job gains in November of +100,000 compared to gains of only +92,000 in October. There are no material economic reports due out on Wednesday. Mortgage Applications and Oil and Gas Inventories are the sole items on the schedule.

In stock news this was also a sleeper day with only a few making the headlines. Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI) was one of the big loser on a percentage basis after cutting its subscriber targets for the year. Sirius now expects between 5.9 to 6.1 million total subscribers compared to initial estimates of 6.3 million. The company said sales results since Thanksgiving had been disappointing. This led numerous banks and brokers to downgrade SIRI and resurrected the talk about a possible merger of XMSR and SIRI.

IBM rose to a new historic high at $95 after announcing it was acquiring Consul Risk Management, a Dutch software company. IBM also announced the IBM System Storage DS8300, introduced last August, was the fastest enterprise class storage system in the industry as measured by the SPC-1 benchmark. The current DS8300 model, dubbed Turbo, outperformed the prior model by +22%.

Toll Brothers tacked on another buck after warning that profits for the current year would drop -62%. You would think this would merit an instant trip behind the barn for a beating. However, the Toll Brothers CEO said, "it appears we are off the bottom or a level above it." This energized the sector once again with most builders showing gains. The leader in the point gain category was NVR Inc (NVR) with a +36.57 gain. Before you rush to the charts I should warn you that it is a $665 stock and it has no options. You could have bought it for $390 back in July. NVR moves put Google to shame.

Baidu (BIDU) posted a gain of +7.84 after saying it was close to inking a deal with Microsoft's MSN to provide its search capabilities in China. Baidu estimated it would add 50 million more daily searches on Baidu's system. That is a serious traffic increase!

Autozone announced results that beat the street and rocketed for +4.82. The auto sector has been a ghost town for buyers but a feeding frenzy for shorts. Those AZO shorts were crushed by the surprise AZO earnings. Who would have thought that AZO or anybody in the auto sector would grow earnings given the current Ford and GM problems. Obviously the shorts were expecting a miss instead.

Oil was very volatile with nearly a $2 range but it ended almost exactly where it started at $62.50. Inventories are due out tomorrow and warmer weather is expected next week. With less than two weeks left on the January contract it would take a material news event to move the price much higher. Those who actually want to take delivery have already locked in their orders leaving only speculators trading the short-term volatility. With strong resistance at $63.25 the path of least resistance is down as we approach expiration. However, with the OPEC meeting on the 14th there is always a chance for a sound bite that might move us higher. Personally I think the meeting is already priced into the January contract. Energy stocks still posted gains in expectations that OPEC will eventually manage to move the price higher.

The EIA, Dept of Energy's Energy Information Administration, predicted today that OPEC would continue raising output through 2030 and would keep prices in a range of $50-$60 in 2005 dollars. They should be called the Energy Imagination Agency because it takes a whopping imagination to suggest such an absurd outcome. I am going to cover why the IEA/EIA routinely produces bad data in my end of year Oil Report. They also said oil import prices would decline through 2015 then rise. Whatever drug they are smoking I want some. With OPEC already unhappy with $63 oil and planning even further production cuts to push it higher it is absurd to think OPEC will suddenly decide that selling oil for $50 would be better for their cash flow. Secondly it is literally impossible for OPEC to triple their production by 2030 as the agencies predict given the age of their fields and current depletion rate. Saudi is currently spending nearly $20 billion to hopefully add 1.2 mbpd of production by 2009. The IEA, International Energy Agency, said it would take a $1 trillion investment in exploration and production by 2030 to double OPEC production. Both agencies completely disregard the geologic facts that all oil bearing formations have already been found. We may not have drilled them yet but we know approximately how much oil may be found there. If there were any major fields left to be drilled it would be a multi-billion dollar race to drill them. All the major independent oil companies, XOM, COP, CVX, RDS, BP, OXY, etc, have admitted there is nowhere else to look and it will be difficult to add to reserves in the future. They are spending billions to drill in a shrinking number of hard to reach deposits and have only replaced an average of one bbl for every three consumed over the last 10 years. They are buying back stock in record amounts because they have no better place to put the money. If there were any material oil deposits left to find they would be using those tens of billions in stock buyback dollars to go find it.

The news moving the markets was the economics and the better than expected ISM data. Unfortunately it did not convince everyone that better times are ahead. Pimco's Bill Gross, head of the largest bond fund on the planet, said today that economy will likely weaken further in 2007. He predicted the yield on the ten-year note would fall to the low 3% range or even into the high 2% range. This is an earthshaking forecast by Bill and completely different than he was predicting just a week ago. In a CNBC interview last week he alluded to the possibility that the bond rally was nearly done. He said it was possible to see a high 3 handle on the yield in the spring. A 3 handle means any yield in the 3.xx% range. Today's interview saw Bill suggesting that a normal yield retracement from a cycle peak was in the neighborhood of 250-300 basis points. There are 100 basis points in 1%. Taking the 5.25% peak in 2006 and subtracting 300 basis points knocks the yield back to 2.25%. That is light years in bond terms from the 4.44% close today. Needless to say almost nobody agrees with him today. Even Bill said in a later interview that hearing his comments on the wires was unsettling. That would be putting it mildly Bill since a retracement that far would mean the Fed was on a rampant rate cut binge in an effort to stimulate the economy. By definition that would mean the economy needed strong stimulation and that suggests an economy significantly weaker than we have today. Let's hope Bill was smoking the same drugs as the Energy Imagination Agency and just had a bad trip.

As I said earlier the gains in the markets today were stealth like. The Dow gained +48 points mostly on the back of KO, BA, IBM and Disney. It was a slow steady pace with very little volatility other than a slight dip when the Bill Gross comments hit the wires. The Nasdaq traded in a very tight six-point range after its initial opening spike. There was zero volatility on the Nasdaq. It was as quiet as a cemetery. The Russell spiked to a new historic high over 800 at the open but instantly pulled back to trade in a very tight 3 point range between 796.50-799.50 for the rest of the day. That lack of Russell volatility is like watching paint dry.

NYSE Composite Chart - Weekly

S&P-500 Chart - Daily

The most bullish performance came from the NYSE Composite, which gained +45 points to a new historic high. This appears to be a very strong sign the broader market is ready to rumble. The S&P was the second sign of bullish intent with a rally to a new 6-year high at 1415. The two-day breakout over prior resistance at 1405 suggests there may be more life left in the current bull. The challenge for the rest of the week is the 12350 resistance level on the Dow, 2465 on the Nasdaq and fear of the non-Farm Payrolls on Friday. Today's Challenger report may have quelled jobs fears to some extent but in a weakening economy there is always the chance of negative job growth. That would reawaken the economic bears and could produce another market shock. For our purposes the S&P breakout to new highs over 1405 was a long signal as I recommended in Sunday's newsletter. I would remain cautiously long with the next resistance at 1425. Our gains this week could be the inflows of month end retirement cash and the beginning of year-end bonus money hitting those same accounts. I may be bullish over 1405 but I am not crazy. The lack of any material correction since July is still a haunting factor. I would like to think the one-day drop on Nov-27th and the ISM drop on Friday took all the weak holders out of the market but I will keep my stops tight just in case. For the rest of the week I would remain long with a tight stop but plan on reversing to short/flat on any weakness under 1400.

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