It's as if investors have put the entire market on the "too hard" pile. So hard, it's sinking like a rock, in fact.
The "too hard" pile is Warren Buffett partner Charlie Munger's place for investments too difficult, interlaced with too many conflicting or confusing elements, to make them either a buy or sell. After a grueling 2015 and global capital markets quaking, such equivocal confusion means few buyers are willing to take the other side of fearful liquidations from across the world.
U.S. stocks fell 6 percent last week, the worst five-day start to a year ever for the S&P 500 — and yet they outperformed all other major markets.
China's equity and currency markets jerking erratically puts a stateside trader in the position of handicapping the Chinese policy maneuvers, that market's response, and our market's reaction to that market's response. Too hard.
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Oil refuses to quit sliding, reaching prices not seen since early 2004 — when world fuel consumption was 14 percent lower — undermining the economic premise of much of our extraction industry. Oh, and transportation stocks are down 24 percent from a bit more than a year ago. Too hard.
And the American economy added 292,000 net new jobs last month, 40 percent more than forecast — yet Treasury bonds rallied and defensive market sectors outperformed, as economists were busy revising lower their fourth- and first-quarter growth projections. Once again, too hard.
For sure, it's never possible to sketch out the market's likely course with confidence. And the business cycle always confounds economists and the rest of us more than not.
But let's grant that the current moment is tougher than most, given hints of important trends turning. The stock market has been operating in the disputed borderlands between bull and bear market for months. China has never before been as big at a time it was slowing this much. And the Federal Reserve has rarely attempted a tightening campaign with the industrial sector suffering and the rest of the world going the other way.
Over all this hangs a question that few are asking but could soon become essential: Would a second "correction" in big American stocks just months after the first be a "healthy" one?