January Early Warning for Rest of Year

We now know that the first five days of the year were down which became a popular indicator for the year as a whole by Yale Hirsch of Stock Traders Almanac fame. While waiting for the month of January to conclude, I went back and looked at the first five days of every down year since 1951. Then I looked to see if January as a whole was down. Finally, I found all the times where January’s weakness exceeded the prior year’s December low as well as when the entire first quarter’s low was below the prior year’s December low.

The idea behind the research was to see which triggers were common in poor years for the stock market, not necessarily the accuracy in all years.

Listed below are all down years for the S&P 500 since 1951. Here is the key for the abbreviations used.

5 – First five days of the year were down

Jan – January as a whole was down

Dec – January’s weakness undercut the lowest closing price of December

Q – The low of the first quarter exceeded the low of prior fourth quarter’s low

2016 (so far) – 5, Dec

2015 – Jan

2008 – 5, Jan, Dec, Q

2002 – Jan, Dec, Q

2001 – 5, Q

2000 – 5 , Jan, Q

1994 – Q

1990 – Jan, Dec, Q

1981 – 5, Jan, Q

1977 – 5, Jan, Dec, Q

1974 – 5, Jan, Q

1973 – Jan, Q

1969 – 5, Jan, Q

1966 – Jan

1962 – 5, Jan

1960 – 5, Jan

1957 – 5, Jan

1953 – 5, Jan

As you can see, almost every single down year in the S&P 500 saw January as a down month. 1994 and 2001 were the exceptions. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, that’s not saying that just because January is down the whole year will be down. It just puts us on guard to look for other indicators.

What we also see is that for the more significantly down years, not only is January down, but the low of January and/or the low of the first quarter exceeds the low of the prior December.

2016 has gotten off to the worst five day start in history, but it’s still way too early to say it’s a harbinger of things to come.

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Feel is not Real

I have been playing golf for the better part of of 40+ years and I have taken my fair share of lessons. I can’t tell you how many times I have commented to my teacher that something “doesn’t feel right” or this “feels weird.” And each and every time the response has been the same; “feel is not real.” If you typically walk with a slight hunch, try walking really tall to understand what I mean. It feels funny, but barely noticeable to the eye.

As you know, I have been an unabashed bull for the past few years and that’s not changing now. I remain positive into 2015 with the chance for much higher prices next year. Over the past few weeks, it certainly “feels” like stocks have seen fresh all-time highs day after day after day. After all, stocks haven’t experienced more than a day’s hiccup since the bottom in mid October.

However, similar to what I mentioned about my golf swing, “feel” may not be real in the market right now. While the Dow Industrials have closed at fresh all-time highs three out of the last four days, the S&P 500, S&P 400, Russell 2000 and Nasdaq 100 have not matched the Dow’s short-term strength. They have been laboring along.

Seasonally, the period from late October through mid January is the most bullish time of the year to be invested, but on a smaller scale, early December has seen a few small potholes. Couple all that with a very solid employment report but tepid market response on Friday and you have a stock market looking a wee bit tired and in need of a little nap.

The healthiest and most bullish response would see the market do nothing for a days or so (essentially staying within a few percent of here) and then gear up for the traditional year-end (Santa Claus) rally. At the same time, we should see tax loss selling, the selling of losing positions for tax purposes like energy, begin to subside.

So while December always offers lots of crosscurrents in the markets, it’s almost always resolves itself to the upside to close the year. And to give the bears their fair share, should they mount an attack that lasts into year-end or the New Year, that would be a complete and total change of character for stocks and cause me to rethink my positive stance.

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Holiday Tailwind then Headwind for Stocks

Historically, this is a quiet week for the markets with an upward bias. In other words, stocks usually drift higher without much fanfare. The market looks a little tired, but reaction may have to wait until after the country stuffs itself with food, football and fun. To begin the new week after the holiday, stocks usually experience a headwind where mild weakness is seen. Of course, since early 2012 most of the negatives suggested by history have been thrown out of the window in one of the most powerful bull runs ever.

As you know, my thesis hasn’t really changed in several years. The bull market is old and wrinkly, but still very much alive. Until investors stop selling into each and every single digit pullback and act like the sky is really falling, the bull market should live on. The pattern of investors waiting for a pullback during a strong rally to buy, only to see that decline and sell instead of buy has been commonplace since early 2012. When investors finally start buying any and all weakness as well as strength I will begin to get much more concerned about the end of the bull market.

Last week, I did a full Canaries in the Coal Mine article that indicated some caution flags, but nothing really serious. Since then, stocks have continued to rally, but two of the warning signs have become more severe, high yield bonds and the New York Stock Exchange Advance/Decline line. I don’t take these lightly and will be watching very closely over the coming few weeks. Because markets are in the home stretch for 2014 and so many hedge and mutual funds are trailing their benchmarks, a significant decline is very unlikely as managers will use any slight weakness at all to play the performance catch up game into year-end.

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Beware of Most Negative Seasonals of the Year

For the past three weeks I have written about the need for a short-term pullback in stocks. I have been and remain positive on the intermediate and long-term view for the stock market. Remember, pullbacks can come by stocks going sideways for a period of time or by price declining enough to entice buyers back in. In the major indices we saw a split pullback with the Dow, S&P 500 and NASDAQ 100 going sideways while the S&P 400 and Russell 2000 declines 2.65% – 3.70%. The former indices are now sitting at fresh highs and the pullback clearly ended this past Monday.

Let me be clear; I remain positive over the intermediate and long-term. However, before you assume that stocks are going to rocket higher from here, which they may, there are still a few hurdles to overcome in the seasonality department. This week, the markets bullishly digested the Fed meeting, Janet Yellen’s news conference and the Scottish vote to leave the United Kingdom.
Alibaba came public on Friday with an article devoted below. Like previous very high profile public offerings with stocks at or close to new highs, the bears came out of the woodwork last week, predicting the perfect end of the bull market on “Baba Day”. While I completely disagree with that assessment, the stock market has entered the most negative seasonal period of the year which sounds a lot worse than it actually is.

From Friday’s up opening through September 30, no other calendar period is as negative historically than right now. But before you jump into that super bear camp, realize than seasonal trends or seasonality are nothing more than a headwind or tailwind. Markets do not reverse course simply because of seasonality. It just helps add a little energy.

Besides the specific calendar challenges, there is also an added negative that follows the September expiration of options and futures which occurred on Friday. That trend shows a headwind most of this week, but particularly earlier in the week. Finally, with stocks rallying into the Fed statement as well as after it, there is another little trend I call the “Fed Hangover” which indicates some very short-term weakness this week.

How is all this research best used? From my seat since I remain positive over the intermediate and long-term, I think it will be very instructive to see how the stock market performs through month end. If stocks can hang in and only see another mild pullback, worst case, that would reinforce the bullish case and set the stage for a run to Dow 18,000 in the fourth quarter.

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Headwinds Abound This Week

Almost all markets finished on a sour note last week and that spilled over to begin the new week. While I have written about stocks needing a short-term breather, I was surprised that treasury bonds could not get a lift as stocks weakened. In fact, both stocks and bonds peaked the same week, but bonds sold off more significantly, something that is unusual.

The major stock market indices certainly look like they want at least a little rally, but the bigger question is will that occur right here or perhaps after the Fed concludes their two day meeting on Wednesday at 2pm. So far, the bulls are trying to mount an attack. Investors are concerned that Yellen & Co. might strike the words “considerable period” from the statement, which would be interpreted as the Fed hiking rates sooner than the 6 months initially described by Ms. Yellen’s at her first foot in mouth chat, also known as her press conference.

Besides tomorrow’s FOMC announcement, the market has also been facing three distinct headwinds this week. First, on a calendar basis, this is a particularly weak time of year through the end of the month. Second, market sentiment into last week had become very bullish, which can signal that investors have much of their money already in the market. Historically though, sentiment impact beyond a few weeks usually requires a catalyst to get the snowball moving downhill.

Finally, the largest initial public offering of all time, Alibaba, comes to market this week. With current pricing indications, it looks like the company will raise roughly $22-24 billion. That money has to come from somewhere and it stands to reason that it’s likely coming from funds using some spare cash and selling current tech holdings.

The rest of the week is going to be action packed, but the bull market remains alive, albeit, a little wounded.

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