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Central Banks in Headlines, Bringing Dollar Concerns to the Forefront

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Amid generally disappointing same-store sales for U.S. retailers, Wal-Mart (WMT) raised guidance for the quarter this morning. Chip equipment makers were upgraded.

Neither the WMT news nor the chip news impacted futures to any degree although both were later credited with gains on the indices. Perhaps, although it's not as well covered on mainstream financial channels, the big players on the market had turned their focus a different direction this morning.

This week, central banks across the globe have been meeting ahead of this weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) meeting. Earlier in the week, the Bank of Japan met, keeping rates the same. The central bank lowered its expectations for the performance of the economy.

After three weeks of political maneuvering, a new governor, Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, has been named. Even then, the Bank of Japan might have remained rudderless, except that there was a push to name a governor ahead of the G-7 meeting. Although some believe that the new central bank head won't have much influence at that G-7 meeting, Japan certainly joins other G-7 participants in wanting to address currency issues. In addition, a recent article on Nikkei Net says that the G-7 members have invited (Would that instead be "commanded"?) the leaders of about ten financial institutions from around the globe to discuss ways that a global financial crisis might be prevented.

The new Bank of Japan governor said, as quoted in Bloomberg.com, that he's flexible about monetary policy. He's trying to avoid preconceptions this early in his tenure during such uncertain economic times. However, most financial observers believe him to be slightly hawkish, along the lines of his predecessor, Governor Fukui. Shirakawa is widely credited with stopping the Bank of Japan's policy of flooding the economy with cash to ease deflation and with advising the raising of Japan's overnight lending rate from zero.

However, recent news and television commentary has noted that growing economic weakness in Japan will cause the central bank to reassess its goal of gradually raising interest rates. Until it does reassess, a yen that shows strength against the U.S. dollar causes problems both in the U.S. and Japan. Although the dollar has strengthened again in recent weeks, Asian currencies in general are rising against the dollar, bringing pain to Asian exporters and pain to U.S. equities in some cases, too, as carry trades are unwound.

Today, the Bank of England lowered rates by a quarter point to five percent, a widely expected move. England is being impacted by some of the same concerns hitting the U.S. The housing market suffers there, too, and new applicants now have difficulty obtaining mortgages.

Across the globe, central bankers balance fears of rising inflation against the impact they expect to feel from a slowdown in the U.S. or on their own shores. With inflation soaring in Iceland, the central bank raised interest rates by a half point. Some look to Iceland as an example of what could happen in the U.S., with that country's central bank perceived as having ignored debt and rising inflation too long. The country's prime minister puts the blame on something else: debt traders and forex traders.

The European Central Bank (ECB) was expected to keep rates steady today, and that's the decision that was made. Wage pressures are joining other inflationary pressures in some parts of Europe, staying the hand of the ECB. Germany has reported some strong numbers. Some economists forecast, however, that there will eventually be a spillover effect from weakness in the U.S. In addition, not all European countries are performing as strongly as Germany.

Today, ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet spoke of short-term inflation pressures that were strong, but many economists still believe the ECB will eventually be forced to lower rates. Trichet did acknowledge today in his post-decision press conference that European economies have now entered a period of economic uncertainty, a period that might be protracted. This was a change in wording from earlier periods, but he still emphasized the ECB's main role as maintaining price stability.

Deutsche Bank appeared to agree with the "protracted" part of that statement. The bank said today that housing weakness might be prolonged and is now spreading. The IMF today also emphasized the difficulties that countries and central banks face. Referencing the "fire" of inflation and the "ice" of recession, the IMF's managing director said that not all policymakers can make the same decisions when balancing the fire and ice.

As the G-7 meetings begin tomorrow, these decisions and discussions gain weight. Currency issues always matter, whether all equity traders pay attention or not. Today, markets appeared to be waiting, producing daily candles showing indecision. Whether they're waiting to see what happens as a result of the G-7 meeting or whether equity bulls and bears are just still battling it out remains to be seen.


Annotated Daily Chart of the SPX:

The daily Keltner chart suggests that the SPX may be headed up toward an eventual test of the 1388-1390 zone, but a daily close beneath about 1350 will change that outlook.

Annotated Daily Chart of the Dow:

A daily close beneath the 10-sma suggests that a 30-sma test could occur. A break above this week's high suggests a test of the 200-ema, but doesn't promise that the Dow can scramble above that barrier where many forms of resistance converge. I would wait for a daily close above that 200-ema before feeling too comfortable in bullish positions and would definitely have profit-protecting plans in place for a test of that moving average, if it occurs.

A less traditional look is provided by the daily Keltner chart. That suggests that the Dow may be headed toward a test 12,711 and perhaps even 12,800, but a daily close beneath 12,575 suggests a test of 12,450 instead. The daily Keltner chart doesn't provide much of an outlook beyond that.

Annotated Daily Chart of the Nasdaq:

A daily Keltner chart suggests that the Nasdaq may be headed toward a test of 2400 and maybe even 2425-2435, but a daily close beneath yesterday's low suggests a test of 2300 instead.

Today, the Banc of America Securities raised its ratings for the electronic chip companies. Its analyst upgraded Intel (INTC), Analog Devices (ADI), National Semiconductor (NSM) and LSI Logic Corp (LSI). INTC and ADI were upgraded to buy from neutral ratings. The analyst said that he expected a move higher in chip stocks, saying that he believed the inventory oversupply has now been fully factored in. The analyst believed that chip stocks might still be impacted over the short term by overall economic factors.

In other news related to the sector, STMicroelectronics, a SOX component, said it would merge business with NXP.

Annotated Daily Chart of the SOX:

Annotated Daily Chart of the RUT:

The daily Keltner chart suggests the possibility of a RUT test of 725, but it doesn't credit it as a probability but only a possibility. A daily close beneath about 699 suggests a test of 690 instead, but doesn't give much of a prediction beyond that.

Annotated Daily Chart of the USDJPY:

With this formation looking a bit like a bear flag, a rollover from presumed strong resistance at any of these Fib levels could occur. So could a climb to the next Fib level, but watch for rollover potential again now as the USDJPY rises to retest this first Fib level again.

Today's Developments

This morning started off with same-store sales from retailers. Although some retailers issued upbeat reports, most industry watchers felt that the reports were disappointing in general, showing a pullback by the American consumer. As WMT's report showed, the discount stores performed satisfactorily, but J.C. Penney produced a disappointing report. Stores targeting teens continued a downward trend as consumers continue to cut back on discretionary spending.

The International Council of Shopping Centers blamed rising gasoline and food costs, a weak job market, and trouble with housing and credit markets. Those various pressures undermined confidence and resulted in fewer discretionary purchases.

The next report was weekly initial claims, with a report that surprised. Initial claims fell 53,000 to 357,000. Comparing last week's 407,000 claims, I see that last week's figure must have been revised higher by 3,000 claims. That higher revision has become a trend.

Still, this week's reduction in initial claims was welcome, bringing about the hope that last week's rise above 400,000 was a fluke. The four-week average of claims, deemed more reliable, still rose 2,500 to 378,250, influenced by prior weeks of gains. The four-week average is its highest in more than two years. The benchmark for measuring when the job market might be negatively impacting the economy is when initial claims stay over 350,000.


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Continuing claims rose 3,000 to 2.94 million, the highest number in almost four years. The four-week moving average climbed 36,500 to 2.9 million, also the highest number in almost four years.

At the same time, February's International Trade figures were released. Forecasters had predicted a narrowing of the deficit to $57.5 billion from the previous $58.2 billion, but the deficit widened to $62.3 billion instead. That produced a 5.7 percent increase in the deficit. January's deficit was revised to $59 billion in the same report.

This time, economists didn't blame crude costs or imbalances of imports from China. Instead, record imports of capital goods, consumer goods, food and industrial supplies created the widening. Despite the fact the U.S. exported record amounts of goods to the EU countries, the weakening dollar has meant that we've paid more for imports.

The bright light in this report, if there is one, is that the U.S. is not showing a decline in demand for imports. Excluding services, imports rose to $180.2 billion, a 3.5 percent increase. Exports rose only 2.4 percent, to 104.7 billion. The petroleum deficit narrowed, the first narrowing after eight previous months of widening petroleum imports, but that wasn't particularly good news as it was brought about by a lowering of demand as the economy slows. The trade gap with China also narrowed, but a holiday-related effect was noted due to China's New Year celebrations.

The bad news, of course, is that this deficit might negatively impact the GDP.

Natural gas inventories this morning fell 14 billion cubic feet, bringing inventories below the five-year average. That wasn't the only news in the energy sector, however. Crude futures dropped after the Commerce Department reported that February's crude imports dropped to 286.5 million barrels, down from January's 322.2 million. Demand may be softening, but concerns about supply still exist, said an industry watcher. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) had on Tuesday provided figures that resulted in a downward revision of daily petroleum consumption. Crude ended the day down $0.89, at $109.98. Natural gas, however, climbed $0.014 to $10.07.

Beginning at 1:00 pm ET, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke participated in a World Affairs Council forum in Richmond on the President's Working Group, the PWG, and financial stability. One topic this week has been the change from the "originate to distribute" business model adopted by corporations over the last twenty years from the previous "originate to hold" model. This would be the model employed by mortgage originators, for example, and all those who repackaged and distributed those mortgage-backed assets. While Bernanke agreed that the model fell apart in a number of key ways, it remains an effective model with some repairs, he said. He addressed concerns that the lack of credit was contributing to pressures that would stifle sustainable growth.

Repairs don't necessitate radical reform, Fed Chairman Bernanke noted. The PWG has created a plan for dealing with repairing the problems that led to the current crisis. He also declared that the current climate is nothing like the one that led into the Great Depression.

Leading into tomorrow's G-7 meeting and after this week's many central bank decisions, the state of the credit markets assumes importance. Today, the Federal Reserve released its weekly figures on outstanding commercial paper. Once again, for the fourth week out of the last five and the second week in a row, outstanding commercial paper dropped. If credit woes are easing, it's not showing up in these figures. Outstanding paper, seasonally adjusted, dropped $10.8 billion. The drop was produced in financials, with non-financials eking out small gains.

However, there was supposedly better news in the afternoon as a result of the Fed's latest Term Securities Lending Facility. That action had a bid-to-cover rate below 1.00, at 0.68. The stop-out rate, the lowest rate the Fed would accept, was 0.25 percent. These two indicated that desperation felt by financial firms was easing, some concluded.

Housing remains in focus, too, here and in the U.K. Today a development focused on this country's housing woes. In a controversial bill opposed by the White House, lawmakers seek to provide tax breaks for corporations along with some help for homeowners. One version was approved by a House panel yesterday and another by the Senate today. In the Senate version, homebuilders could benefit from a temporary extension of a rule that allows businesses to count the losses they're experiencing now against prior years that were profitable. This is termed the net operating loss carry-back rule. The Senate version proposed today will cost $15 billion over ten years, but the House version does not include this extension.

The help to homeowners would come as a result of a $7,000 tax credit spread over a couple of years for those buying homes in or near foreclosure. It would also raise the limits of mortgages the FHA could insure to $550,000.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson also spoke today. In a speech in Washington, he warned that the economy had, in fact, turned down sharply, repeating the tenor of his remarks from a week ago. He believes, however, that the fiscal stimulus checks and the efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to raise capital, if successful, could help the economy. He wants legislation to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The last release of the day was the March Federal Budget, at 2:00 pm ET. Forecasters had predicted a deficit of $70.3-80.5 billion, depending on the source. The predictions were lower than the previous $96.27 billion deficit. Instead, the government posted a deficit of $48.14 billion.

In company-related news, Lehman Brothers Holdings (LEH) announced that it was liquidating three investments funds. LEH said disruptions in the market during the last half of last year and continuing into this year forced the liquidations. The funds had lost value. LEH gained and lost today, ending up with a doji that created a small loss for the day.

The attention grabber in the retail same-store sales was Wal-Mart (WMT), as noted earlier. WMT reported that March same-store sales rose 1.1 percent with fuel sales and 0.7 percent without them, missing expectations for sales without fuel. However, the company issued higher guidance for the quarter. The company said first quarter earnings per share from continuing operations should now be $0.74-0.76. The previous forecast had been $0.70-0.74.

When raising guidance this morning, WMT said strong Easter sales and performances in grocery, health and wellness and entertainment units were responsible for the better-than-expected performance. Apparel sales were weak, but the company blamed cold weather. Sales in the home unit remained weak, but we all know what to blame there: the continued softness in the housing market. That softness did not impact sales of flat-panel TVs, however, as those sales were strong, as were sales of other electronics such as GPS units, laptop computers, video games and digital computers. Being closed Easter negatively impacted year-ago comparables.

I looked at the year-ago comparables, and I'm not so sure that the Easter one-day closure could have impacted the sales so strongly. For example, with fuel sales, the year-ago period reported same-store sales that rose 4 percent compared to this period's 1.1 percent gains. Without fuel, the year-ago period reported same-store sales that rose 4.0 percent, as compared to this period's 0.7 percent.

The Sam's Club unit's sales showed some of the same trends, with fuel sales driving up the same-store sales figures and the Easter closure negatively impacting year-ago comparables. WMT company said it was pleased with international sales.

The Yahoo/AOL/Google/Microsoft drama continued today. As some subscribers may have noted yesterday, Yahoo (YHOO) tried to cook up a three-way deal with Time Warner's AOL and Google, but today The New York Times reported that Rupert Murdoch's News Corps might couple with Microsoft to acquire Yahoo. Many industry watchers believe that Microsoft will ultimately prevail in acquiring YHOO, but YHOO is reportedly close to deals to test outsourcing web search advertising to Google and fold AOL into a combined company.

The airline industry was also under the microscope as American Airlines announced more cancellations and the FAA warned that MD-80 jets could experience an explosion if the wires inside the wheel wells aren't bundled properly.

After hours, Genentech (DNA) reported earnings that beat year-ago levels but that were still termed below expectations by some financial writers. Sales of cancer therapies increased. Shares were lower in after-hours trading. PDL Biopharma said that it would offer investments in one of its operations to the public.

Tomorrow's Economic and Earnings Releases

Tomorrow's most important economic release is likely to be the April University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment, to be released at 9:55 am ET. Economists predict 69.0, down slightly from the previous 69.5. The current condition component is expected to decline to 83.5 from the previous 84.2, and the expectations component is expected to drop inch lower to 60.0 from the previous 60.1.

Any upside surprise might energize markets. This is especially true since some retailers today blamed a decline in consumer confidence for declines in their same-store sales.

Other reports for the day will include March Import/Export Prices. Import prices are projected to rise 2.0 percent, far higher than the previous 0.2 percent. Export prices are rise 0.5 percent, far less than the previous 0.9 percent. Soaring prices on imports and less significant gains on export prices don't sound like a good thing, but most people who know more than I do don't expect this to be a market-moving number.

Tomorrow, General Electric (GE) is slated to release earnings.

What about Tomorrow?

Annotated 15-Minute Chart of the SPX:

Annotated 15-Minute Chart of the Dow:

Annotated 15-Minute Chart of the Nasdaq:

Annotated 15-Minute Chart of the Russell 2000:

The last-minute decline and pop back higher today on all these indices turned the choppy consolidation that I had expected to see into potential bull flags, but bull flags that threaten to fall apart. So far, bulls weren't having anything to do with any last-minute drop and quickly bought the drop.

If you're a subscriber to the Market Monitor, the live portion of our site, you know that shortly before noon ET, I began warning that the indices could settle into tight consolidation ranges that lasted a day or more. Those driving indices lower and creating the last-minute dip and bounce attempted to break the indices out of those consolidation ranges, but weren't successful. The fact that the dip was bought so quickly actually looked more short-term bullish than bearish.

However, the fact remains that the indices ended the day back in those tight consolidation ranges that are themselves within consolidation ranges. Daily Keltner charts currently suggest that indices are slightly more likely to rise to test resistance on those consolidation ranges on daily charts, but only slightly more likely. Developments in the G-7 meetings, tonight's Corporate Price Index in Japan or tomorrow morning's GE earnings and University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment can undo that.

For now, try to avoid forming too strong opinions while prices hold mostly in the choppy zone from this afternoon, especially ahead of the release of the consumer sentiment number. Watch for a possibility of an upside break out of these formations, but don't count too strongly on it happening and, if it does, have profit-protecting plans in place for tests of the resistance levels indicated on the daily charts.

The SPX is attempted to repeat its old rally-days pattern of gaining strongly, consolidating sideways two-five days, dipping to the rising 10-sma and then repeating the whole process. There are differences, however. In those old rally days, today would have produced strong gains, not consolidation at the 10-sma. The SPX wouldn't have been locked in a months-long consolidation zone at the bottom of a steep decline. The G-7 members wouldn't be inviting representatives of the globe's big financial institutions to advise them on how a financial crisis can be averted. The dollar wouldn't have been near record lows against many other currencies.

My general impression is that the desire to drive markets higher is there and bulls are gaining just a little confidence, but that it's all still very tentative.

My longer-term view is that markets are still vulnerable to deep and scary downturns, so trade the upside if you're inclined and there's an upside break but keep vigilant and be quicker to take profits when offered than you would have been in the past.

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