Stocks sent an unsettling message today, with the Dow Jones Industrials closing below the market low set back in November 2008. The Dow had dipped below the November low earlier in the week but finished the day higher. Thursday's close below the November low is to some a confirmation of the market's bearish trend, implying lower prices ahead. The Dow index, which finished the day at 7465.79, is down 10% over the last eight trading days, and is also at a new five-year low. (See the top 10 Dow Jones drops of all time.)
Not all market analysts agree on the significance of today's market signal. "I follow the S&P 500 because that's where the money is," says Phil Roth chief technical analyst at Miller Tabak in New York City. "And there the index is still about 4% above its November low." Even so, Roth believes Thursday's Dow drop and its new low-water mark will make the next few trading days anxious ones. "It's important psychologically," he says, noting that negative sentiment has kept buyers at bay, and today's technically significant drop could make them even more skittish. Days like this can also be a tipping point of sorts. "It will be important to see over the next week who this motivates, new buyers or new sellers," Roth says.
Financial stocks were a big drag on Thursday's market banks fell 6.6%, led by Bank of America's 14% decline. Real estate-related sectors were also sharp decliners, with home construction stocks falling 9%. Both sectors, finance and housing, are at the heart of the goverment's efforts to address the financial crisis. On February 10 Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled a multi-pronged plan for troubled banks, and on Wednesday President Barack Obama announced a $275 billion program to stem foreclosures and support the housing market. Today's stock market action suggests investors are still in doubt about the potential efficacy of both plans. Defensive stocks showed modest relative strength on Thursday: shares of consumer staple companies were up 1% on the day.
Normally in economic cycles, stocks bottom several months before an economic recovery gets underway. Investors' hope for such a turn was surely dampened by the Federal Reserve's new reading on the economy. Details of a meeting of Fed officials in late January reveal that they expect the economy to contract this year as much as 1.3%, a sharp downgrade from their expectation for modest growth in 2009, expressed last fall. The Fed also said that unemployment could reach 9% by the end of the year.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared Wednesday at the National Press Club and said that the federal effort to address the financial crisis could produce improvements in 2009. But he also cautioned that there was no economic momentum, and that inadequate federal action could result in a continued deterioration in the economy. (Find out why the stock market keeps dropping.)
So given all the worrisome economic news and negative market momentum, what would it take to turn a market bullish? Says Roth: "I'd become more bullish if I saw traders get very bearish and sell out, taking short interest much higher relative to volume." Beyond that sort of investor capitulation he'd also become more bullish, he says, if there were a big drop in long-term interest rates, especially in corporate bonds, which could prompt investors to shift their focus to stocks. At the moment, he says, it's a waiting game.