With economic recovery still in doubt and sentiment readings at their highest levels since the S&P 500 topped in 2007 some market prognosticators find the latest surge in stocks to have been irrational. There is now a near universal belief that stocks have but one direction to go and that has some investors feeling uneasy. This weekend’s Barrons showed the diametrically opposing views as two of their leading columnists (Alan Abelson and Mike Santoli) discussed why they believe this is a major market top (or not).
Abelson refers to a certain veteran market technician (whom he doesn’t identify):
“And he shares our concern about the epidemic of optimism that has gripped the Street, manifest in any number of wildly bullish forecasts for the market in 2011. It is the kind of explosive optimism that is usually witnessed, he says more in wonder than rue, at market tops, either temporary or something worse.
He doesn’t buy the argument that the huge stash of cash supposedly sitting on the sidelines is a guarantee of a steady source of fuel for the equity rally. Rather, he calls that hefty pile of cash, which is being augmented by a fresh infusion from fixed-income investors now that bonds are getting clocked, “scared money.” It belongs, he elaborates, to folks who all this time have been leery of committing their dough to stocks but, thanks to December’s quantum leap in share prices, have grown increasingly fearful of missing the next leg up, and are itching to put all that scratch to work.
That such nervous-newbie equity buyers will stay the course and step up their buying after the initial, inevitable correction is hardly a given. Our bet is that they would jackrabbit out at the first hint of trouble.
The peerless technician is also bothered by the leadership of the end-of-the-year rally. More specifically, the shares of commodity-related companies are in the vanguard of the advance at a time when China, the big global buyer of virtually every commodity known to man, is striving to rein in inflation. It is no accident, he suggests, that Chinese stock markets have been lagging, and he feels they may prove a pretty good precursor for our own dear market.
In sum, he sees stocks making at least a temporary top early in the new year. It’s hard to say, he readily admits, just how bad or enduring a setback equities will suffer. But obviously, he’s talking something more substantial than a flickering decline or a tiny crack.”
Santoli’s case against a major market top has been more commonly discussed:
“The reasons the bulls are bullish are also pretty universally agreed upon. The industrial economy has gathered some momentum, the emerging markets are surging, companies are flush, profits look set to rise decently again, the Federal Reserve is seeking new ways to penalize risk aversion, taxes won’t go up and the market tends to do well in the year after a midterm election.
And we can add to the list the likelihood that another financial-engineering cycle is just getting into gear, so expect lots of equity-friendly refinancings by stretched companies, re-leveraging by cash-rich ones and buyouts hither and yon.
Indeed, the happy feeling and the recent climb in margin borrowing and drop in short interest, by one way of looking at them, simply show that what has been a bull market for the better part of two years is finally being viewed as one. The last time we had such a run of investor optimism, indeed, was late 2004, before a calm but not terribly exuberant year.
The risk, then, is more about the near term, about expectations of ease meeting some unforeseen complication early this year, and that what’s likely to be a firm fundamental and technical case for riskier financial assets in 2011 has, to a fair degree, been priced in by the market lift of late 2010.”
Interestingly, both appear to agree that the major risk is in the near-term. Santoli, however, clearly believes any sell-off will prove to be a buying opportunity. Abelson tends to still be in the bear market camp. Major market top or a prelude to a continuation of the bull market? Only time will tell.