Looking at the Facts Reveals a Market in Distress
On Monday, seven out of 10 industries fell, led by consumer discretionary and industrial stocks, while health care companies gained roughly 1% and energy companies enjoyed a boost thanks to the volatility in oil prices.
Looking at sector performances over the past year helps us see where we’re at on the business cycle – a gauge for which stage of the economy we’re in. The top three winners have been telecommunications, consumer staples and utilities, while the top three losers are energy, materials and financials.
Interestingly, these performances fall in line with what you might expect to see during a recessionary phase of the economy, with defensive sectors leading the market. It’s a strong sign that the market is already preparing for an economic contraction.
The Fed is adding confusion to the market as well with its flip-flopping stances on the economy and conflicting statements regarding interest rates. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen assured markets last week that the pace of future interest rate hikes will be gradual with traders pricing in the earliest possibility of a rate hike in December. It seems very likely that even that will be pushed back to 2017, suggesting that the economy is weaker than expected at this point.
The Bottom Line
Right now, margin debt levels are hovering near all-time highs but don’t appear to be growing any higher. Securities market credit hit the mid- to high-$400 billions in 2014, but then seemed to stabilize around that level with a high of $507 billion in April of last year. According to the latest data, margin debt levels as of February have fallen to $435 billion.
There’s some mixed data regarding the direction of the economy but most evidence seems to indicate that the bull is on its last legs. Whether or not the correction will be a violent reversal or a steady contraction is now the biggest question for investors.