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Market Wrap

Drum Roll Please

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I can just hear it now. That slow, almost imperceptible rise in the background music as we approach the first major week of earnings. The tempo is accelerating even more because this is an expiration week. Just imagine a one of those great war movies with an ocean full of boats filled with bulls ready to charge ashore. The bears are guarding the beachfront hills (resistance highs) ready to fight to the death. The tension is mounting and the bugler is getting ready to sound the charge! The tempo brings emotions on both sides to a peak just as the action starts. What a great time to be in the markets. We have major Q3 earnings and option expiration in the same week! Volatility is going to be huge and this is going to be a pivotal point for the fourth quarter direction. Who will the winners be?

Dow Chart - Daily

Nasdaq Chart

The economics for Friday produced a Fed puzzle for analysts. The Producer Price Index (PPI) rose +1.1% for September pushing top line inflation at the producer level to 4.4% on a year-over-year basis. That inflation rate has risen +6.9% over just the last nine months. The majority of the increase came from spikes in food and energy prices. For those of you that don't use food and energy the core rate of inflation rose only +0.1% at the producer level. However, there are some strong pressures building in the crude products, things made from gas/oil, with a 21.6% gain year to date. Finished energy goods rose +4.1% for the month pushed higher by a +8.4% rise in gasoline prices. Food prices actually rose sharper than energy prices in September with a year to date rise of +26.3% and a +16.9% rise in intermediate food products. While this top line inflation appears to be rising sharply and pushing costs up for everyone in America the core rate is continuing to drop and that lets the Fed off the hook without having to worry since core inflation is still falling. This seems to me like another "emperor has no clothes" scenario. If the press and the Fed keep telling us inflation is falling we will eventually believe it even if it is not so.

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The retail sales for September rose +0.6% and twice the consensus rate of +0.3%. It is getting so you don't know whom to believe. All the retailers are complaining about bad sales but we have had positive sales growth for the last three months. What is it, good or bad? Actually both. We had positive sales growth in September because gasoline stations posted a +2.0% increase due to higher prices and auto parts dealers posted a +1.2% gain because people are fixing their older cars rather than buy new ones. Food stores saw a +0.8% gain due to higher food prices. Ex-autos and ex-gasoline the sales gain was barely positive at +0.2%. The majority of the consumer categories lost ground for the month. Furniture and home furnishings fell -0.6%, clothing and accessories -0.4%, general merchandise -0.1%. Ironically building materials dealers saw a minor gain despite the implosion in the home sector. Retailers said warmer weather depressed sales with nobody buying fall items. Meanwhile that same warmer weather should have helped building material stores by making it easier to work on those outside projects. That may have been the only thing keeping them positive with that +0.1% gain.

Consumer Sentiment for the first reading in October fell to 82.0 from September's 83.4 level. The expectations component was the drag falling from 74.1 to 71.6 while present conditions was almost flat. All the talk about a coming recession and the increase in gasoline prices was credited with the depression. The constant stream of negative housing news offset the sentiment benefits from the rising stock market. Sentiment is not expected to improve in the coming months until the home market improves and homeowners start breathing easier again.

Consumer Sentiment Chart

The economic calendar for next week has three reports that could move the market and those are the Consumer Price Index (CPI), Beige Book and Philly Fed Survey. The CPI will show how much of the increase in producer prices have been passed down to the consumer level. The Fed Beige Book is a survey of business conditions in all the Fed regions and gives an in-depth look at the current state of the economy by region. This could be very market positive if it shows conditions improving. The last report is the Philly Fed Survey. This survey tends to track well with the national ISM survey and is seen as a preview of the ISM numbers. One report that will also attract a lot of attention is the Risk of Recession on Monday. This indicator spiked to 40% in August and well out of its recent range. Expectations are for a decline but nothing is ever guaranteed. While we do have a full economic calendar next week I believe the markets will be much more interested in the full earnings calendar.

Economic Calendar

Risk of Recession Chart

Earnings will be the focus next week with six of the big techs reporting. We will see Intel, AMD, IBM, Google, Yahoo and Ebay. On the financial side Citigroup, JP Morgan, Washington Mutual, Capital One, Wells Fargo, State Street, Bank America, Bank of New York, Wachovia, Merrill and Fifth Third report. It will be the first big week of earnings with 13 Dow stocks and 80 S&P stocks reporting. By the end of this week we will know without much doubt how this earnings cycle is going to end. That makes this week a pivotal week in the markets. Pessimism is still rampant and earnings estimates were revised down again last week to a negative growth level of -0.1%. This would be the first negative growth quarter in years and could sour investor sentiment if the negative earnings really came to pass. Not everyone believes the pessimism is warranted. The Q3 earnings will be critical but guidance is going to be the key. The earnings estimates for Q4 are still in the low double digits and traders want it to stay that way. A one-quarter dip can be ignored as a subprime disaster but earnings guidance needs to remain strong for Q4. If it appears Q4 earnings are going to fall sharply the underlying bid in this market could evaporate.

Partial Earnings Calendar

On Thursday the bears got a gift from the market in the form of a sell order for 17 million shares on the QQQQ. The order caused thousands of sell stops to be hit and knocked -1.66 off the QQQQ in just minutes. That was magnified in the broader market with the Dow falling from 14198 all the way to support at 13950. That -250 point dive shook up the markets but the impact was brief. Since there was nothing in the news the selling was initially attributed to a technical sell program. It was not until after the close that the QQQQ trade hit the wires.

If you look at the market statistic table at the top of this article you will notice that all the major indexes turned in anemic results. The Dow transports were weak because of rising oil prices and the banks were weak ahead of a long list of financial earnings reports next week. The Semiconductor sector was weak with a -2.29% loss for the week. This loss was after a strong +1% rebound in the sector on Friday. The QQQQ sell order knocked over 15 points off the index from the intraday high on Thursday. On Friday UBS upgraded Novellus (NVLS) and chip stocks began to recover. Stifel Nicholas put out a note saying that Samsung was going to boost its 2007 apex spending on semiconductor production equipment by $1.2 billion. The note said it was a clear positive for equipment makers in 2007 but it could replace orders originally scheduled for 2008. The chip companies expected to benefit from the Samsung increase were Varian (VSEA), Lam Research (LRCX), Rudolph Technologies (RTEC) and Applied Materials (AMAT). All sprinted higher giving the SOX that +1% gain for the day but it was not enough to rescue the index from a weekly loss.

Baidu (BIDU) rebounded from Thursday's -65 point drop with a $14 gain after Jim Cramer said on CNBC at 2:45 it could go to $500. The drop was due to a JP Morgan downgrade and with $150 in gains over the last 6-weeks it was a rush to the exits. Personally I like BIDU but I would rather buy it closer to $290 than its $322 close on Friday.

Apple (AAPL) was knocked for a -17 intraday drop on Thursday to $153 but the dip was quickly bought and Friday's close was only $3 below its Thursday high. Apple is expected to post strong earnings and guidance and could easily run to $200 before Q4 is over. I would be a buyer now but a seller after the holidays.

Google got another upgrade when Oppenheimer joined six other firms upping their price target to $700 or more. GOOG gained +15 on the news to $637. Analysts point to development of the product and advertising models and additional services as drivers to profits. The Oppenheimer analyst raised earnings expectations for Q3 to $3.81 per share. Google reports earnings on Thursday after the close. Google has a very bad habit of dropping sharply after earnings so I would enjoy the ride now but probably bail out before the actual report.

BEA Systems (BEAS) received a $6.7 billion unsolicited offer from Oracle and Carl Icahn got an early Christmas present. BEAS had flat lined at $14 after Icahn accumulated a large portion of the outstanding stock in the $11-$13 range. Icahn claims BEAS should sell itself to unlock value in the company. BEAS quickly rejected the Oracle offer saying it was too low and that was the equivalent of putting up a for sale sign on the company lawn. Oracle offered $17 per share but the stock shot up to nearly $19 on expectations of a larger offer ahead. Oracle has a habit of throwing out low-ball bids to flush other buyers off the sidelines. Once an offer is made anyone else considering a move has to quickly decide it they want to bid before agreements start getting signed. Other prospective bidders could be IBM or HPQ. One analyst said BEAS was probably only worth $18 and an Oracle buy could double margins overnight. The analyst speculated that Oracle could fire everybody but the software engineers without rocking the boat. Since Icahn started calling for a sale and the stock topped at $14, 21.6 million shares or nearly 5.5% of the outstanding stock was sold short on expectations that Icahn would fail in his proxy battle with the board and eventually give up the fight. The Oracle bid squeezed those shorts with a $4 gap open on Friday. Icahn just reported on Friday morning that he had increased his stake in BEAS to 51.82 million shares or 13.2%. He did this by exercising 8.5 million call options for $9 a share and 26.05 million call options for $7.50 a share. The Oracle news gave him an instant $275 million profit in addition to the gains he made while accumulating his shares from $11 to $14.

BEAS Chart - Daily

Biogen Idec Chart - Daily

After the bell Biogen Idec (BIIB) said it was putting itself up for sale, possibly to Carl Icahn. Why not, he is definitely flush with a little extra cash after the BEAS deal. BIIB said it had hired Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch to pursue offers and billionaire Carl Icahn had already expressed interest. Icahn already took control of ImClone and appears to be interested in other biotechs. Analysts said there will likely be some big name drug companies also in the bidding. BIIB spiked to $81.50 on the announcement in after hours trading from its $69 close. Icahn already has a sizeable position in BIIB. The rich get richer and we get to tag along. Option Investor will be closing the long call position on BIIB on Monday.

Electronic Arts (ERTS) sprinted higher with a +2.71 gain after saying it expects to beat its Q3 earnings forecast. ERTS also said it was buying VG Holdings the parent of BioWare Corp and Pandemic Studios for $860 million. Those two studios produce action-adventure games. Several analysts questioned the high price and thought they paid too much and could have bought other game makers with better games for the same price. Traders evidently like the deal and the positive guidance.

On the surface last week looked bullish ahead of earnings. However, there were sell offs, one on Wednesday morning and one on Thursday afternoon. Those erased the gains for the week leaving the indexes relatively flat except for the NDX. The Nasdaq 100, the biggest stocks on the Nasdaq, continues to push higher with EBAY, RIMM, GOOG, etc adding to their gains. The NDX and the corresponding ETF the QQQQ have been on a vertical ascent since the last dip in early September. I see nothing on the horizon to change that but it will all depend on earnings of those same bid caps techs next week.

Merrill Lynch analyst, Mary Ann Bartels, thinks the markets will go higher thanks to the large short position held by hedge funds speculators. According to Bartels there is roughly $60 billion in buying power represented by these shorts. She gets her data from analyzing fund trading patterns and from the commitment of traders reports. Bartels said the speculators have been adding to short positions at the new highs and would eventually have to cover and go long if the indexes kept moving higher on earnings. With plenty of pessimism flowing about earnings it is drawing additional hedge fund shorts. Bartels said there was approximately $600 million in buying power on the NDX futures if shorts were forced to change sides. That was the lowest level of short interest on the futures she tracks. She said the Russell-2000 futures were second with $14 billion in buying power followed by the S&P futures at $47 billion. That is a lot of short interest in a bull market. I had been worried that the shorts were already converting to longs and that would reduce the buying power on an upside surprise. Bartels does not think so. Merrill has a 1670-1700 target on the S&P for year-end and they are reportedly buying the dips. Merrill may not have $60 billion to go long futures but I would not want them to be betting against me. What they may lack in dollars to commit to battling the bears they more than make up for with the power of their press releases. They can create any scenario they desire in the press to get the market moving in their direction. This looks like a short squeeze that will eventually end badly as long as the earnings don't disappoint.

The Dow may have only gained +29 points for the week but it is still holding very close to its all time highs set on Thursday at 14198. It would not take very much good news to produce another breakout that may have some conviction attached to it. With 13 Dow stocks reporting this week it would be an understatement to say there will probably be some increased volatility. Obviously all 13 will not surprise to the upside but all they have to do is not disappoint and let those that can surprise produce the gains. Current resistance is 14200-14250 and a strong break over that range could set the trend for the next several weeks.

The Nasdaq has more to risk since it has been the most bullish index. Positive earnings are already priced in and it will take a lot of good news to push it higher. I worry about Google earnings on Thursday night. I did not go back and research it again but I seem to remember that Google was knocked for losses on something like 9 of the last 11 earnings reports. Seems nothing they can say in earnings ever makes up for the unbridled expectations investors have placed on them. I think they dropped something like -28 on their last report. Makes me want to buy an expiring October put option just out of the money at Thursday's close. It would be a coin toss for Friday. You will either lose the entire premium or hit a home run. If Google announced their anticipated gPhone with earnings it would be a game changer and the monster of all short squeezes.

YYahoo earnings are not expected to produce fireworks and Ebay may have a little too much in the expectations department. Intel should do well but probably not a blowout. AMD is taking back share even if it is only a miniscule amount. It is forcing Intel to lower prices to compete. Like I said, this will be a pivotal week. IBM, not a Nasdaq stock but still an influence on techs, is the sleeping giant. Accenture recently reported +23% revenue growth and that should bode well for IBM. I scanned several weeks of news headlines on IBM and could not find anything other than the normal carbon copy press release by analysts saying revenue will be X and earnings Y. Replace those letters with differing amounts depending on the analyst. There was no excitement and no fears. With IBM stock moving sideways since Sept-1st there appears to be no expectations building. This could be a bright spot in next week's tech results.

The S&P is still struggling. It did move over resistance at 1555 but it can't seem to find any traction over that level. With 25% of the S&P earnings coming from financial stocks next week will be critical for direction. With more than a dozen big name financials reporting it would not take much to influence S&P earnings in either direction. The financials have been beaten, flogged, burned at the stake and buried alive in an attempt to rid Wall Street of the subprime stench. Expectations are non-existent and the bank index lost -2.29% last week. The potential for an upside surprise is huge. How bad would their earnings have to be for them to move any lower? I can't imagine anything they could say that we have not already heard. On the flip side the next largest segment is the energy sector with 18% of the S&P earnings. Incredibly we have been getting almost daily warnings from energy companies even when oil is at record highs. That sector could actually surprise to the downside. With 80 S&P companies reporting next week the odds are good we will not be pinned at 1560 this time next week. With support at 1540 and again at 1520 along with abundant pessimism should be a good recipe for a move higher. Bartels thinks any pullback on earnings could be 2-3% and that puts us right at 1520 support. I would like to see a surprise 3% breakout instead but the market rarely cares about what I would like. We just need to realize that there is still a bid under the market and how long that bid remains is predicated on the strength of earnings next week.

S&P-500 Chart - Daily

Russell-2000 Chart - Daily

The Russell 2000 actually lost its momentum last week with a small -3 point loss. I don't know if it was just fund managers withholding any more funds until the see how earnings are going to turn out or if it was those hedgies getting short at resistance. Resistance appeared at 846 and held firm all week. We also need to realize that Q3 end of the quarter retirement contributions have slowed to a trickle. Thursday's opening spike across all indexes carried the Russell to 851 but it was short lived and ended badly with the Thursday afternoon sell off to nearly 830. In the end the Russell returned to 840 to wait another day for the earnings cycle to begin. No harm, no foul and still within striking distance of a new high at 857. Since all the indexes ended the week about where they started it is hard to make a case that fund managers abandoned the Russell since there was no real selling. I think it was simply a case of buyers having established their positions ahead of earnings and settling in to wait for the first batch of results. Nothing should be deduced from the lack of movement.

This is earnings week and just like Oscar week the preparations have been made. The reporters compiled their lists and made their guesses. The companies are making their way down the red carpet and headed for their seats. The curtain will go up Monday morning followed by an endless stream of earnings applause and catcalls. Reporters will be jockeying to ask those seemingly important sound bite questions and corporations will be employing their own form of Greenspeak to spin the answers. Those answers found pleasing will be rewarded with a rise in their stock price. Those answers confessing misdeeds and failed expectations will be punished severely. We the spectators will be able to share in the rewards if we guessed right and be punished if we guessed wrong. It is a great week to be option traders!

Friday will be the 20th anniversary of Black Monday and the worst one-day decline in the U.S. markets. The Dow fell 508 points or 22.6% on one day. Analysts doubt it we could ever see a repeat because markets are more diverse and leverage is considerably less. The economic backdrop to the crash was materially different. We were facing a looming recession then and interest rates were high. The things that could trigger a market collapse today are much different including a derivatives disaster or a terrorist event. There will be numerous specials on TV this week to take you back in time and explore what happened and why. It would probably be very educational to watch at least one even if you lived through the real crash. Our brains numb over time and we forget how panic can grip the markets. As Harry Brown said so often, "Never count on being able to recreate your wealth." Protect it as though you never could. The first step in protecting it is to know how it could evaporate in another market crash. The equivalent 22% crash today would be -3209 Dow points. How would that change the value of your current positions?
 

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