The first couple of weeks in January are usually bad ones for stocks. Taxable investors typically start their annual portfolio revamping by selling their losers near yearend but they tend to nurse their winners into the following tax year. From the first trading day in January on, they aggressively prune or jettison profitable positions they no longer think will outperform.
As a result, stocks usually go down in early January.
(An aside: December losers, especially small caps selling for below $5 a share, tend to bounce back sharply from late-year lows in January. This is called the “January effect.” I don’t think it will play an important role this year.)
Not so, so far in 2017. Instead, the upward movement in the S&P 500 triggered by the surprise election of Donald Trump as president has continued.
Two key differences between today and the last two months of 2016:
–the US$ has, at least for the moment, stopped rising, and
–the market seems to be rotating away from putative Trump administration beneficiaries into left-behind sectors like IT and REITs.
What does this mean?
I think it says that the initial rally on the anticipation of possible pluses from an end to dysfunction in Washington–corporate tax reform, infrastructure spending, and a more normal monetary policy–is getting long in the tooth. Yes, economic growth appears to be accelerating and consumer confidence is rising. But potential winners from a Trump administration have advanced by, let’s say, 20% since the election, while more defensive issues have fallen.
Investors are shifting from being driven by concept to being motivated by valuation. They think, correctly in my view, that the leaders are looking a bit pricey and laggards are looking like relative bargains. So they’re moving from the first group to the second.
What happens next?
Absent new information, or new inflows of money to equity managers, the market is likely to stall and then sag a little. The most important factor here is the consensus expectation that the S&P 500 is likely to rise by about 5% for the year as a whole–which would imply there’s severely limited upside, at least until we get further concrete information about the economy or about Congress.
My guess is that the next major move is up. If so, it will be triggered either by surprisingly good economic data or by bold action to stimulate the economy from Congress. We should be watching carefully for either.
In the meantime, we can deepen our analysis of Trump beneficiaries, especially, I think, in the Energy sector. My sense is, day traders aside, there’s no reason to sell (of course, I’m bullish by disposition, so this is my default position).