Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How Much Was That Partridge?

As we began the week the Dow Jones Industrial Average was still up 7.03% for the year, while the NASDAQ was holding onto a 9.13% gain and the S&P 500 managed to hang on to a 3.5% year to date gain, but concerns about flaggng growth and rising prices extended last week's losses into the final week of trading before the Christmas Holiday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 172.65 points on Monday and all the major indexes lost at least one percent. A speech Sunday night by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan added to the market's ill humor. Greenspan said "stagflation", when inflation accelerates and the economy weakens, is a growing possibility, given last week's data showing spiking consumer prices. With inflation on the rise, the Fed, which has reduced the target federal funds rate three times since the summer, might feel less inclined to lower rates again.

Meanwhile, PNC Wealth Management released its tongue in cheek Christmas Price Index based on the items in the song "The 12 Days of Christmas". According to PNC, the total cost of the items in the song is now $19,507.00, which takes into account the 3.5% increase in the Consumer Price Index so far this year. The $395 cost of 5 gold rings reflects the 21.5% increase in the price of gold over 2006. Even though the Fed primarily looks at core inflation, which excludes food and energy price increases, the overall CPI rate of 3.5% is well above their target level of a 1% to 2% rate of inflation.

The market reacted to the Feds 25 basis points cut in interest rates with a thud last week, mainly because traders wanted a 1/2 point cut. It seems like the traders might have missed the bigger point, because historically, the third in a series of rate cuts by the Fed is a charm for the market. In the year after three successive rate reductions by the Fed, the DJIA has gained an average 18%. This has happened 14 times since 1921, according to Ned Davis Research. Stocks have risen with striking consistency after three rate cuts, except in 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, when the Dow fell nearly 40% that year. Let's hope history is on our side in 2008!

There has recently been a great deal of talk about the possibility of a recession, characterized by two or more successive quarters of negative GDP growth. According to an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal, most economists they have polled put the risk of recession at around 38%, while John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's says, "The odds of a recession right now are just under 50-50." Gary Pollack a Managing Director at Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management says," The economy will skip a recession because the decline in housing will be offset by increases in exports and government spending." As you can see from the various opinions it is almost impossible to know when or if the economy will slip into recession. Recessions are generally confirmed after the fact, so the best thing investors can do is be aware of the possibility of recession and understand the implications for their investments. Markets usually decline during recessions and assets can be bought at lower prices. If you don't NEED to sell anything during a market downturn, think about adding to your investments.

Overall, the comparison of earnings in the coming year to earnings in 2007 could surprise on the upside, because they will be compared to weaker numbers from the preceding year. Whether we can avoid a recession and have another soft landing, similar to the first quarter of 2007 remains to be seen. As a student of history, I like the odds of a market gain for 2008 in the context of three Fed rate reductions, especially when the mainstream media has begun to talk about the possibility of recession. Enjoy the Holidays and let's hope the markets can stabilize and add to the meager gains for the year.

John Kaighn

Jersey Benefits Advisors

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