By Remy Blaire
The New Year is off to a murky start. The broader market managed to ease off lows seen at the end of last year and recover key technical levels. Yet volatility continues to keep investors on their toes. Gone are the days when “minor” triple-digit moves for the Dow Jones Industrial Average elicit nary a raised eyebrow.
2018 came to an end with a sigh of relief. After a tumultuous December the U.S. stock indexes posted their worst performance since the financial crisis. For the year, the Dow closed down 5.6% while the S&P 500 index declined 6.2%. The Nasdaq Composite shed 3.9% in 2018 and bid adieu to the worst year in a decade.
Revelers rang in the New Year with a pause in global trading. The holiday season brought its ups and downs with the S&P 500 off by a double-digit percentage point on Christmas Eve from its record highs. With the index touching bear market territory, perhaps setting the precedent for an investor’s version of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Nonetheless, the market rally on the day after Christmas on Dec. 26 boosted the Dow to hit its biggest gain on record.
There are plenty of unanswered questions on the fundamental front. Uncertainty has set the tone and put a damper on overall investor sentiment. The headwinds of yesteryear remain steadfast in 2019. The potential fallout from the longest U.S. government shutdown in history coupled with the ongoing U.S.-China trade negotiations as well as Brexit woes are doing little to boost confidence in this year’s outlook.
2019 WORD OF THE YEAR: PARTIAL
We can’t have partial growth or expansion; we can’t have a partial recession. The partial U.S. government shutdown is having a complete and negative impact on the economy.
As the shutdown enters Day 28, the U.S. market averages have bounced back from the Christmas lows with the major indexes out of correction territory. The partial government shutdown has halted a myriad of government operations. The Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), considered non-essential, has ceased the review of keg collars for beer. This means breweries can’t ship product outside state lines without regulatory approval. Bad news for small craft brewers with perishable IPA and seasonal releases.
The IPO traffic jam is also notable as the result of the shutdown. Companies planning to go public could face delays in launching. The SEC shutdown plan includes only essential staff who are keeping an eye on the markets and responding to emergency situations. The government furlough could stall the pipeline for IPOs in 2019.
With federal agencies such as the FDA working only on “imminent threats” and federal workers missing paychecks, the headlines about national security and disruptions to government programs are sure to evoke distress.
BANKING ON INCENTIVES
As earnings season got underway, the major banks reported results that showed mixed results. Results marked by a mostly positive season for banks were hampered by underperformance by one of the big banks at the end of the week. Of course, one of the investment banks missing profit forecasts reflected the volatility in trading and dour capital-raising environment during the last month of 2018.
The drum beat of recession may be getting louder and it’s not just Main Street expressing concern over mounting risks.
According to the latest survey by the Conference Board, recession is a major concern for CEOs around the world. The business research group conducted the survey of over 800 chief executives and found that out of the 28 issues, recession risk ranked as the main concern. The fact that the survey was conducted in the autumn of 2018, before the turbulent pullback in equity prices points to risks to the world economies.
Trading incentives may be limited for the time being amid a backlog of economic data and lack of breakthroughs in the global political arena. At the same time, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a vote of no-confidence following her Brexit deal defeat in Parliament. As earnings season continues in earnest, keep an eye on any surprises that could shed light on industry or sector shifts.
BAND-AID ON A BULLET WOUND
It’s not business as usual in the nation’s capital. With no end in sight for the partial government shutdown, key economic data including Q4 2018 GDP may not be released on schedule. Of course, the estimates for how the shutdown is already affecting the economy in Q1 2019 are nothing short of worrisome.
Market corrections can present opportunities, but prolonged uncertainty does little for economic growth. The domino effect of uncertainty on business investment amid murmurs of an end to the Federal Reserve’s tightening cycle will weigh on sentiment.
Should progress be swift on tariffs and a resolution reached on the partial shutdown, opportunity for growth remains a possibility. The risks to growth in the two largest economies can be characterized as self-inflicted ones. With government efforts to stimulate growth being dismantled by risks to stability, the recovery trajectory is fragile.