The much anticipated pullback is finally under way, some investors say, after a mid-week wobble. But the market is showing it still has some juice left — if earnings can meet towering expectations.
This earnings season, if you're good, you're just OK. If you're just OK, you're bad. And if you're bad, you're quickly taken outside and put out of your misery. Only the truly great are lauded — and even then not very much.
In an environment like that, and with a heavily extended market, disappointments are taken hard. The S&P 500 just ended its first down week in eight with underwhelming results from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold weighing on indexes.
Some big energy companies such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips are reporting results this week. Expectations have been running up in the sector, the third-largest in the S&P 500, providing plenty of room for disappointment.
"We have been climbing up a mountain, and we are on a ledge here, so there is definitely a bit of a pause as people are going to need some evidence of accelerated recovery — not just baseline recovery," said Rick Meckler, president of investment firm LibertyView Capital Management, in New York.
Analysts have beefed up expectations as stocks rocketed late last year on signs of an improving economy. S&P 500 earnings estimates for the current quarter were revised up 1 percent over the last 60 days, according to data from StarMine.
Positive revisions were heavily concentrated in the technology, energy and materials sectors. Estimates in the materials sector were raised 5.7 percent; in energy, they rose 4.8 percent, and in technology, 2.3 percent, StarMine said.
Unsurprisingly, those three sectors, along with financials, took the brunt of selling last week. Materials shares fell the most, losing 3.3 percent over the week.
On top of that, big-gaining "mo-mo" momentum stocks like F5 Networks, Salesforce.com, Netflix Inc and Riverbed Technology, are looking shaky after F5 Networks missed revenue estimates and forecast a weak second quarter. Its shares tumbled more than 20 percent.
Wall Street will tune in to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, when he is expected to make job creation the No. 1 issue.
The Federal Reserve's policy-making panel also will meet for the first time this year, convening on Tuesday and concluding on Wednesday afternoon, when the Federal Open Market Committee's statement will get Wall Street's attention. Some economists believe the FOMC may give a slight nod to signs of improvement in the U.S. economy, especially among consumers and factories.
The week's economic data includes consumer confidence, durable goods orders, a first look at January consumer sentiment from the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan surveys, and the first look at fourth-quarter gross domestic product.
CALLING A PULLBACK
Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. in San Francisco, said declines in leading sectors are a clear sign of profit taking. He is calling what he terms "a healthy pullback" through the historically weak month of February.
"We're looking for a 5 percent to 7 percent pullback range, and I think we started it" on Wednesday, he said.
A pullback of that magnitude would take the S&P 500 down to around 1,204, based on Tuesday's closing price. That is still within its uptrend channel from the March 2009 lows, which many technical analysts see as strong support for the market.
Most investors agree that stocks are overbought by most measures.
Although the recent losses have helped cool the S&P 500's short-term relative strength index, a measure that compares opening and closing highs, on a longer-term weekly basis, the benchmark index is still overbought.
Nick Kalivas, an analyst at MF Global in Chicago, is more sanguine. He is looking for a pullback that could take the S&P 500 futures to 1,245 or possibly to 1,220, which would be 4 percent to 6 percent below Tuesday's close.
"The market is basically working off an overbought condition," he said. "Profit expectations were very high and the market really has not been able to see enough positive news to keep prices at these high levels."
According to Richard Ross, global technical strategist at Auerbach Grayson in New York, a very short-term support line can be drawn at 1,280, the area of the S&P 500's 14-day moving average and the lowest close this week.
In the medium term, 1,238 would still be a healthy stop for the benchmark, Ross said. That coincides with both the current 50-day moving average and the 23.6 percent retracement of the rise from Sept. 1 to the recent high on Jan. 18.
BUT SOME SEE S&P ABOVE 1,300
Ross maintains his bullish approach despite the benchmark S&P 500's first weekly drop in eight. He said the S&P could reach 1,320 by the end of February before encountering any serious technical headwinds.
Investors will also have seasonal trends on their minds as February approaches. The month is historically the second weakest for the S&P 500, with the index down 0.2 percent on average for that month since 1950.
However, they can take comfort from "the January effect" that holds the market's direction in January points to stocks' direction for the year. The indicator has a 78.3 percent accuracy rate over the last 60 years, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac.
With just six trading days left in January, the S&P 500 is up 2.04 percent for the month.
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