Even Dow 14,000 Won't Lure Many Off Sidelines
With investors jaded by years of turbulence and low returns, the Dow's break through 14,000 did not trigger bells and whistles, but it should still portend a slow march higher for stocks.
That came after January's employment report showed job growth, as expected, of 157,000 in January but revisions that put job growth closer to 200,000 in the fourth quarter. (Read More: Economy Adds Another 157,000 Jobs; Rate Up to 7.9%)
The S&P 500, meanwhile, which had crossed the psychologically key 1,500 level last Friday, continued its climb higher and was trading at 1,512. Bond yields slipped slightly, but commodities also rose in a risk rally, pulling metals and energy higher. The euro, the emblem of risk, briefly shot above 1.37, its highest level since November 2011.
"I think more importantly to me is the S&P getting up through 1,510, but the two of them confirming each other is going to bring some of the money in off the sidelines. It's great that it happened on a Friday," said Art Cashin, director of floor trading at UBS. "There's going to be a lot of talk about it on the weekend and we'll see early next week if there's going to be follow through."
Still, analysts don't expect to see a great gusher of cash coming in from individual investors despite signs that they have been toe testing the market with new investment in mutual funds and ETFs in January. Traders are also watching the more important all-time highs of 14,164 on the Dow and 1,565 on the S&P.
"I would say in the 30 years I've been watching it, this is the least amount of retail interest waiting for a pullback, or waiting to jump in that I've ever seen," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors, which focuses on retail investors. "Probably and unfortunately for a lot, it's going to be a lot higher before they get in."
Wren said the move to 14,000 is at most psychological and won't be that important to disenfranchised investors. "When you run into people at parties, unless they're in the business … the stock market isn't even a point of discussion. There's very little conversation. There's very little excitement about the market," he said. "It feels to me like there's a little bit of chasing going on, but not very much at all. I don't expect it any time soon."
Wren is positive on stocks, but he doesn't see the retiring baby boom generation jumping in with much vigor.
"This rally is going to take a lot longer for people to get drawn in and it has taken a lot for people to even start being drawn in. This is totally different than any of the ones I've been around. Retail investors would already have been sweating to get in a while ago and they're not," he said, adding a lot of investors are heavily into bonds and holding a lot of cash.
The Dow has risen about 114 percent since bottoming at 6,547 in March 2009. But it's the double-digit gains of 2012 that were most elusive to some investors who were soured on the market by its volatility, the continuing weak economy, and Washington's infighting and uncertain path, even more dramatic because of the election. Since hitting its 2012 low of 12,035 in June, the Dow has risen 16.4 percent, and it has gained 12.3 percent since its post-election low of 12,471.
In the past few weeks, as Congress addressed some fiscal concerns, the Dow has moved ahead with more momentum, rising 8.7 percent since Dec. 31.
"The fact that there isn't enthusiasm, that valuations are not stretched, that we're at a much better place fundamentally with companies than we were five years ago, that's great," said Daniel Greenhaus, global market strategist at BTIG. "That supports higher prices. In the short term, I think people are forgetting how maddening Washington can be. I'm not sure come March with the sequester, the budget debate and ultimately the debt ceiling that that won't have an impact on the market. I think it will."
The sequester is automatic spending cuts that will start hitting March 1 if Congress does not act (learn more here). Some economists think the economy can sustain the hit from $65 billion in automatic cuts this year, with half from defense. But there's an anxious undercurrent in the market about the potential for more congressional infighting and a coming ruckus over spending and taxes. (Read More: Congress Clears Increase in Debt Limit Through May 18)
The market has been climbing the over-used "wall of worry" for months, but some of the biggest fears have been subsiding. Traders are less anxious about Chinese economic growth and Europe's debt crisis.
They also see some signs of life in the U.S. economy, and while robust some of those signs could bring more job growth. One of those areas is the improvement in housing. (Read More: Housing Recovery Spurs Pickup in Remodeling)
The consumer continues to spend, despite new head winds of higher payroll taxes and rising gasoline prices, up 10 cents a gallon in just a few days. (Read More: Consumer Sentiment Up on Fiscal Deal Optimism) Auto sales in January were better than expected, with Toyota gaining 27 percent and Ford, 22 percent, and GM noted there was a 37 percent jump in the kinds of trucks it sells to small business. (Read More: Automakers Post Strong January Sales)
But the rally is still hated, and uncertainty about the outlook remains.
"It's not the big pop that one would think you'd get, and I for one, think that's good. You know, when mutual fund investors pile into equities, it's usually a very negative sign for the market," Jack Bogle, chairman and founder of Vanguard, said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" show. "So, something like the Dow going to 14,000, I can contain my enthusiasm about that. It doesn't mean very much."
"It seems very, very likely that over a decade stocks should give a return of 7 percent per year," Bogle said, "that's a 100 percent return on stocks" if his expectations are realized.