On Tuesday the stock market rallied nicely because people — at least market commentators — perceived that there was good news about the virus.
And they ignored the bad news — lots of it, and not just perceived bad news — about how hard coronavirus had hit the US and world economies.
On Wednesday the switch was flipped.
The stock market got battered as soon as trading started because people — again, at least according to market commentators — decided to ignore any positive medical developments on the virus. Instead, they focused on very ugly corporate earnings that are already being released or are about to be made public.
Oh, and just to make matters even more complicated, this is one of those weeks where stock options and index options expire. So it’s in the best interest of professional traders who dabble in such things to have the market go higher.
So, of those three things — positive news on the virus, negative developments in the economy and traders’ habit of screwing with the market on options expiration weeks — which will be the dominant theme over the next few weeks?
Options manipulation will only be with us for today and tomorrow. Then traders won’t be tempted to pull their tricks again until the week that ends May 15.
So rule that out.
Positive developments in the war against coronavirus will probably keep coming and, hopefully, we will hear more talk about the “curve flattening.” But until some medical laboratory says, “Eureka! We’ve developed a cure,” the stock market isn’t going to fully rejoice.
Curve flattening and opening the economy will be nice developments. But they seem to always be followed by the phrase “but we have more work to do” or “there’s been so much damage to the economy already.”
Pick a huge number for the decline in the US gross domestic product in the first and second quarters of 2020 and nobody will argue with you: a 20 percent decline? 30 percent? 40 percent? A depression? Bad recession?
I think the economy is going to snap back faster than most people think, although it won’t be overnight. Those horrible numbers are the predictions of others, and I can see why they might believe them.
That leaves us with the third option as the main theme for Wall Street going forward — negative developments in the economy. And starting this week and going for another month, bad news about what the pandemic has done to the economy and to corporate profits will be in the spotlight.
Banks started reporting the bad news this week. JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs are just three of the banks that reported lousy first quarters. That wasn’t unexpected, nor does anyone expect any good news from manufacturers, retailers, restaurants or any company that sells face-to-face to Americans who’ve been told not to go out of the house.
Online retailers and entertainment firms that deliver their product remotely are about the only companies currently on the plus side.
Here is some startlingly bad news from Refinitiv, which tracks corporate profits.
Year-over-year earnings in the energy industry will be down 56 percent in the first quarter — while declines in the second and third quarters are expected to balloon 125 percent and 100 percent, respectively.
In the second quarter, companies that sell discretionary consumer goods will see earnings fall 57 percent; industrial firms, a decline of 62.3 percent; and financial companies, a decrease of 30 percent, says Refinitiv.
Consumer staples, which include much-needed information technology products, are the only industries with profits that are expected to drop less than 2 percent.
But here’s the wild card: When earnings are already expected to be this bad, companies are tempted to write off investments that didn’t work and shut businesses — in effect, hiding their failures in all the bad news. And if that happens, these negative projections are optimistic.