Last week, the January stock market decline was interrupted by a Friday afternoon rally.
“The S&P 500 rose 2.4 percent, its biggest one-day jump since June 2020, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq composite rose 3.1 percent. Friday’s gain snapped a three-day streak of losses and left the S&P 500 up 0.8 percent for the week, its first weekly gain this year,” reported Coral Murphy Marcos of The New York Times.
The change in direction may have reflected:
It’s difficult to know which direction markets will go next; however, an asset manager cited by Nicholas Jasinski of Barron’s characterized the January drop as:
“…a ‘garden variety technical correction,’ as opposed to a more pernicious cyclical downturn or systemic problem facing the market. Stocks aren’t falling because analysts are lowering profit forecasts en masse, or because economists are predicting a recession on the horizon. Instead, the correction has taken place because of how richly the market is valued.”
Major U.S. stock indices were flat or up for the week, according to Al Root of Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries rose during the week before subsiding.
When is a barometer not a barometer?
It’s widely recognized that people do not make perfect financial decisions. In fact, many investors rely on mental shortcuts when asked to make complex decisions. That may be why there are theories that correlate stock market performance to football, hemlines and sales of headache remedies.
For example, last week several articles about the U.S. stock market used the adage, “As goes January, so goes the year.” The saying describes the January Barometer, which holds that the performance of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in January has predictive value. If stocks gain in January, then the Index may gain over the full year. If stocks decline in January, then the Index may suffer losses over the full year.
According to Jeffrey Hirsch and Christopher Mistal of the Stock Trader’s Almanac, the January Barometer has been 84.5 percent accurate since 1950. Of course, the January Barometer was invented in 1972, and when you evaluate its performance since then:
“The January Barometer, in fact, fails real-time tests at the 95 percent confidence level that statisticians often use when determining whether a pattern is genuine. Since 1972 its track record is indistinguishable from a random pattern,” wrote Mark Hulbert in MarketWatch.
You don’t have to look far to find flaws in the pattern.
In 2021, the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index fell during the month of January and gained 26.8 percent over the full year. The same thing happened in 2020. The S&P 500 declined in January and finished the year with a gain of more than 16 percent. Perhaps this phenomenon will one day be known as the “Pandemic Exception.”
The real takeaway from the past two years isn’t that the January Barometer is flawed, it’s that the U.S. economy, companies and financial markets have proven to be quite resilient.
Last week, major U.S. stock indices moved lower on uncertainty about inflation, the pandemic and Federal Reserve policy, reported Mark DeCambre of MarketWatch. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 4.6 percent. The S&P 500 was down 5.7 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 7.6 percent, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
Is the economy doing well, or not?
If you skimmed the headlines last week, you may have seen that retail sales – the purchases we make from stores in-person or online – declined 1.9 percent in December. The statistic may have raised questions about the strength of the economy. After all, how could retail sales move lower during the holiday season?
Media headlines speculated that the spread of the Omicron variant, rising inflation, and consumer grumpiness were to blame. Economists had other ideas, according to Logan Moore and Megan Cassella of Barron’s. “Consumers had long been expected to pull forward their holiday shopping to get ahead of any supply chain backlogs, economists say.”
As you think back on when you did your holiday shopping, there is another important question to ask: What time frame does the 1.9 percent capture?
The retail sales report showed that sales were:
So, back to the original question: is the economy doing well, or not?
If you are judging based on retail sales – or any other piece of economic data – your conclusion is likely to depend on the time frame the data reflect.
For instance, if retail sales are down 1.9 percent from November to December, it tells a different story than if retail sales are up 19.3 percent for the year. The story may also be affected by the fact that 2021’s retail sales gain built on 2020’s gain. Retail sales rose 3.1 percent from 2019 to 2020, despite the pandemic.
Of course, the story of the dip in month-to-month numbers could be that we are at an inflection point. Barron’s reported, “While the December report showed an unexpected drop in retail sales from the catapult in spending November data showed, the slowdown is expected to be short-lived. Put more simply: ‘Don’t panic’…”
Last week, major U.S. stock indices moved lower, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
Here’s a little story about a group called the Fed…
In the 1950’s, then Fed Chair William McChesney Martin described the Federal Reserve as “the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.”
In 2020, the opposite was true. The Fed, along with fiscal policymakers, filled the stimulus punch bowl to the brim to keep the country from falling into a recession or depression. In November 2021, Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida explained:
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the mitigation efforts put in place to contain it delivered the most severe blow to the U.S. and global economies since the Great Depression. Gross domestic product (GDP) collapsed at a nearly 33 percent annual rate in the second quarter of 2020. More than 22 million jobs were lost in just the first two months of the crisis, and the unemployment rate rose from a 50-year low of 3.5 percent in February to a postwar peak of almost 15 percent in April 2020…The fiscal and monetary policy response in the United States to the COVID crisis was unprecedented in its scale, scope, and speed.”
That stimulus helped the economy recover quickly. As a result, demand for goods rose and exceeded supply, pushing prices higher. The Fed did not act immediately to tame inflation because its members believed price increases would subside as supply chain issues eased. Then, in November, inflation was 6.8 percent year-over-year, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The cost of shelter, which typically is not transitory, was up more than 3 percent year-over-year.
In December, the Fed adjusted its outlook on inflation, removing the word “transitory,” and accelerated the pace at which it would reduce monetary stimulus (i.e., remove the punchbowl). Fed Chair Jerome Powell explained, “…in light of the strengthening labor market and elevated inflation pressures, we decided to speed up the reductions in our asset purchases. As I will explain, economic developments and changes in the outlook warrant this evolution of monetary policy, which will continue to provide appropriate support for the economy.”
Major United States stock indices dropped lower after Powell’s remarks before climbing to new highs in December.
Last Wednesday, the minutes of the Fed’s December meeting were released. Investors appeared to be surprised by the changes in the Fed’s change in tone, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. Share prices tumbled again and the yield on 10-year Treasury notes moved higher.
2021 was a fizzing mints-in-soda kind of year.
Everything seemed to shoot higher – from COVID-19 cases and vaccinations to economic growth and global stock markets. Everything except for optimism. As the year came to an end, a CBS News poll found that 40 percent of Americans felt 2021 was mostly filled with sadness, although almost three out of four people polled said they were hopeful for 2022.
As we head into the new year, let’s a look back at 2021.