Investors are buying the beaten-up stocks

Key Points
  • The S&P 500 has been flirting with a key technical level, dropping below it on Thursday and then snapping back.
  • Investors bought up the S&P sectors that have had the worst price momentum in the last few weeks, suggesting they are trying to find a bottom for the market.
  • It is not at all clear how much global growth is slowing and how hot inflation will be running in the near future.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

These days, you can go through an entire investment cycle in an afternoon. It seemed that way on Thursday.

The market fell at the open, but when the broke below its 200-day moving average at mid-morning, the market swooned. The S&P dropped more than 20 points over the next half hour.

But then, during lunch, the market turned around. Volume picked up. But not just anything turned around. Investors appeared to be trying to pick at beaten-up sectors. The sectors that have had the worst price momentum in the past two weeks — consumer staples, industrials, semiconductors and gold — all rallied into positive territory.

This is good news. It suggests there are attempts at finding at least a short-term bottom.

It's about the only good news the bulls have had in many days. Bulls have been baffled as the three pillars of the stock rally going into 2018 (record earnings, global synchronous economic expansion, contained inflation) have been turned 180 degrees into peak earnings, a global economic slowdown, and a pick-up in inflation.

Bulls turned apoplectic when earnings came out even better than expected. And guidance was better than expected. Even capital expenditures were better. Buybacks and dividends increased more than expected. But nobody seeed to care.

Indeed, the bears have successfully seized on a potent "stew" of issues.

1. The Fed is raising rates.

2. Numerous geopolitical issues are creating distractions, including battles with China over trade, the Mueller probe and the uncertainty about what the U.S. will do with regard to the Iran nuclear deal.

3. It is turning into a seasonally weak trading period. "Sell in May" is the old saying. On top of that, the mid-term election cycle is a time when stocks traditionally drop.

All of this may be surmountable except the bears have added two issues that are driving the bulls nuts. Global growth is slowing and inflation is picking up.

But here is the crux of the problem. It is not at all clear how much global growth is slowing and how hot inflation will be running in the near future.

Bank of America analyst Ross Gilardi is typical of the "trend is lower" crowd. In downgrading Caterpillar's shares on Thursday, he noted a drop in manufacturing activity reflected in numbers from the Institute for Supply Management.

"The April decline in the ISM to 57.3 was not a major surprise as we see some normalization from peak levels, but direction from here is probably lower," he said.

This "trend is probably lower" story (not just for ISM but for most global indicators) is hotly contested. Sam Stovall, CFRA's chief investment strategist, said yesterday that "The reports of the death of global economic growth are exaggerated. We see worldwide GDP expanding by 4.0% in 2018, up from the 3.8% rise in 2017."

But my favorite riposte comes from Charles P. Himmelberg, the co-head of global markets research for Goldman Sachs. He calls all the current worries "transitory" and maintains a strong outlook for global growth. He says the concerns over the Fed tightening are "overdone," and that all these fears about "technical headwinds" will likely ease.

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