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North Korea's latest missile launch will likely weigh heavily on traders' minds

  • The stock market's focus could be on North Korea on Tuesday, after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over Japan.
  • U.S. stock futures were sharply lower Monday evening, as traders reacted to the missile in a thin late summer market.
  • Harvey will also get attention as the storm continues to dump rain on the Gulf Coast.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) test launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017.
KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) test launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017.

North Korea has been at the top of the stock market's wall of worry all summer, and it could be a main focus Tuesday after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile that sailed across Japan before breaking apart over the Pacific Ocean.

Stock futures fell sharply Monday evening, with Dow futures down more than 100 points.

"The North Korea challenge has really been the only thing that investors have reacted to. I don't know how we're going to respond, but clearly [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un wants some attention," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. He said there had been nervousness in Asian markets Monday.

Stock traders were spooked earlier this month after reports that North Korea could produce a nuclear weapon to fit in its missiles, and President Donald Trump said Pyongyang's threats would be met with "fire and fury."

Some analysts have been expecting the stock market to pull back with the approach of September, historically the weakest month of the year. Stocks recently have been getting support from the fact that Republicans in Congress are working on a tax reform package, after developing a framework for legislation with Trump administration officials this summer.

"I would say longer term it's probably more of a buy-the-dips strategy. I think just about everybody in Trump's camp says military [action] is not an option," said Ablin, adding it may be that the U.S. again seeks China's assistance to stop North Korea.

Stocks closed mixed Monday, with the Nasdaq and S&P 500 higher but the Dow down five points at 21,808. Refining stocks were higher after Harvey, which smashed into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane Friday night, forced the shutdown of refineries, pushing margins wider for producers of gasoline.

The storm has brought an unprecedented amount of rain and flooding to Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city. Traders are watching to see if there is any serious damage done to refineries, which shut down as a preventative measure, taking more than 2 million barrels of refining capacity off line.

"Harvey is certainly short-term risk, absolutely, but a longer-term recovery. This is part of the infrastructure rebuilding," Ablin said. "These things tend to stimulate. I think the Fed is discussing the storm, recognizing there could be a near-term slowing."

At 9 a.m. ET Tuesday, S&P/Case-Shiller will release home price data. August consumer confidence data are expected at 10 a.m.