The S&P 500 Index made record highs this week. It is catching up with the Dow, which has been making new highs now for more than a month. Yet many investors do not believe this rally. Some are still sitting on the sidelines waiting and praying for a pullback that has not occurred.
There is an old saying that the market will do what is most inconvenient for the greatest number of people. Right now this slow grind higher seems to be causing more irritation and angst than anyone could imagine among many investors. Those who are in and experiencing double digit gains so far this year still worry about how high the markets have come and whether or not they should bail.
"I don’t get it," complained one such client, "The data is checkered at best. The unemployment rate is too high, but the market seems to ignore all of it and just keeps climbing."
"It is a Goldilocks market," I explained. "As long as the economic data is neither too hot nor too cold, the markets will continue to rise."
It really doesn’t matter that much whether earnings are good or bad or that the economic data is contradictory. It is all about the Fed and its ongoing stimulus. Weak numbers mean that the Fed will continue easing. This week’s Fed announcements, following its two-day policy meeting, only encouraged investors further.
Investors chose to read positive implications into the Fed’s statement that they might "increase or reduce" the size of its monthly $85 billion purchase of bonds. It will depend on the rate of unemployment and inflation. Since inflation has dropped below the Fed’s target of 2 percent annually, there is clearly a green light to increase bond buying if it wants.
As for unemployment, not only is the rate way above its target (6 percent versus today’s 7.5 percent rate), but the numbers are up one week and down the next. So given the state of both inflation and unemployment, the markets are betting that the Fed is at least going to maintain their buying. And if the numbers come in weaker than expected, there is a good chance they will increase their purchases. Thus, bad news is good news.
The good news, like Friday’s unemployment numbers of 165,000 new jobs (140,000 were expected) or the greater-than-expected rebound in national housing prices, was tempered by negative news on other fronts. March factory orders declined by 4 percent (3 percent expected) and non-manufacturing ISM data, which measures the nation’s services industry, was also a disappointment. That data presents a mixed picture at best. Taken together, the numbers hold out the hope for even more easing while at the same time remove the possibility of an end to further stimulus anytime in the near future.
Like I said, the national porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. It is just the way investors and the market like it. So where are the three bears in this story?
One bear could be that the economic data becomes so bad that investors fear even the Fed can’t prevent a recession. The Fed (and I) has made it clear that "fiscal policy is restraining economic growth." That’s Fed-speak for the wrong-headed, ill-advised policies that our Congress insists on enacting, such as the sequester cuts. There is a possibility that our elected officials could engineer our next recession.
Another bear could appear if the economic data indicated much higher growth ahead then the Fed expects. That would force the central bank to reduce its bond buying. That seems a remote possibility given Congress’ penchant for doing nothing, unless it involves increased fiscal austerity.
The third bear could be a "Black Swan" type of event. North Korea, Iran, Syria or some other geopolitical event could also cause markets to swoon. We saw how fast the stock market declined in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Something like that could trigger a rush for the doors. That third bear is always present and one reason I advise all but the most aggressive clients to keep some of their portfolio in defensive securities.
So Goldilocks is alive and well today but unlike the fair maiden, it is always smart to remain somewhat cautious when investing in markets. After all, you never know who may be lurking under those covers in your bed.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative with Berkshire Money Management.