"The whole year's been like an elevator up, elevator down. There's been no commitment to any move or direction. The question is will we hold the majority of this week's action. If the S&P can hold 2,040 for a few sessions, there's a chance when we start the year, we take out 2,090 and 2,100 with authority and we could see a stronger start for the year. That would be the bullish scenario," said Scott Redler, partner with T3Live.com.
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"Important for that would be for oil to hold a decent amount of the last two days' gains," he said.
Redler said the year-end "Santa rally" could already have come and gone, and it's now a question of whether the bulls or bears have control heading into the new year.
JJ Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade, said the S&P 500 could eke out a gain for the year, and the Dow could finish flat for 2015. He expects to see the market up about 3 to 5 percent in 2016. "I'm not wildly bullish by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Kinahan said he's watching the stocks that have performed well this year to see if investors are trimming positions for tax reasons or just rolling out of positions.
"You may start to get your first hint of what sectors might start becoming the leaders of 2016," said Kinahan. He expects to see financials in a lead position in 2016, since they should benefit from higher rates and were down about 2.5 percent so far in 2015. He also expects technology to pick up. It's up 3 percent this year and should continue to do well, boosted in part by cybersecurity spending.
"I think you'll start to see people, as they start to rotate out of some of the winners of this year, rotate into some of the things they think will be winners next year. If you look at individual higher volume names, those with higher volumes that were underperformers or average performers are names that you think will continue to be accumulated in 2016," he said.
Redler said it would be preferable to see some of the year's stronger groups take the lead in the coming week, instead of the poor-performing energy and materials groups. Like Kinahan, he said another indicator to watch is how this year's leaders — Facebook, Amazon.com, Netflix and Google — perform both in the last week of the year and into the new year.
Oil rose 5.7 percent in the past week, lifted in part by reports of falling supply and also the congressional action that removed a 40-year-old ban on exports. WTI settled Thursday at $38.10 a barrel, up 1.6 percent on the day. That move in West Texas Intermediate crude futures also helped lift energy stocks, up 4.6 percent for the week and the best performing S&P sector. Next best was the 4.3 percent gain in materials shares.
Some oil analysts believe the fact that oil retested its low this past week means it has set at least a temporary bottom just below $35, but they don't rule out that it could revisit those levels late in the first quarter or in the second quarter, depending on supply. Stocks have been tethered to oil so its performance in the final week of the year is key.
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"If the bears were to sink their claws in, the first signal would be no commitment to the recent bounce back in oil, and a break below 1,990-ish (on the S&P)," said Redler, who follows the market's short term technicals. "That would lead to money managers closing their pocketbooks to wait and see what kind of correction phase happens. 1,950 is some support but you couldn't rule out the possibility of testing the 2015 lows." The year low was 1,867, but the range below that stretches to 1,840.
"What would really trigger new money coming in is a close above 2,090 to start the year. More money would be put to work versus sitting it out and waiting for better prices," said Redler. However, he said it could also go the other way. "Scenario B is the move we just saw in oil is short-lived and the Christmas move we just saw fades quickly versus getting some support, and a break below 1,990 to start the year would probably induce more selling, and that would put money managers on hold to see what's next."
There are a few final pieces of data for the year, including home prices Tuesday, pending home sales Wednesday and weekly jobless claims Thursday.
Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank, said he is watching the advanced report on trade Tuesday.
"Exports tumbled last month. We want to see if exports come off the bottom. One of the weak points for the economy has been that exports slowed and that led factories to run at a slower rate. Manufacturing isn't running at great guns. We'll see what the strong dollar is doing to the export picture," he said.
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Consumer confidence is also reported Tuesday, and Rupkey expects it to bounce back. He said the economy is doing OK, but it will be interesting to see if the consumer registered any concerns about the Fed raising interest rates, well publicized ahead of the Dec. 16 rate hike.
"You would think consumer spending is not that great because consumers don't like what retailers have on their shelves. This is a time of year when you're supposed to have sweaters and winter coats, and it's 60 degrees outside. You don't want to buy sweaters and winter coats," Rupkey said. But he does not expect the warmer weather influence on retail to hurt the economy longer term. "It's nothing that's alters the long-term outlook. There's usually catch up."
Besides data, the bond market will be watching $90 billion in Treasury auctions in the coming week. There are $26 billion in two-year notes Monday, $35 billion in five-year notes Tuesday and $29 billion in seven-year notes Wednesday.
"I think they'll be fairly priced. Obviously we've seen a little concession in here in twos and fives and I think there will be decent buyers," said Justin Lederer, rate strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald. Since the Fed's rate hike is now out of the way, he expects the market to remain quiet. The two-year note yield was at just about 1 percent Thursday, and the five-year note was yielding about 1.71 percent.
"We'll continue to look at oil, how the oil market holds up, and how equities trade into the new year, and we'll just look at global markets. Net net, it looks like it will be a fairly orderly close to into the end of the year," he said.
What to Watch
1:00 p.m. Treasury auctions $26 billion two-year notes
9:00 a.m. S&P/Case Shiller home prices
10:00 a.m. Consumer confidence
1:00 p.m. Treasury auctions $35 billion five-year notes
10:00 a.m. Pending home sales
1:00 p.m. Treasury auctions $29 billion seven-year notes
8:30 a.m. Initial claims
9:45 a.m. Chicago PMI