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Stocks bounced Monday and Tuesday, but a real year end rally may be elusive unless the market gets positive headlines from President Trump on trade and more dovish comments from the Fed.
Much market talk has focused on the upcoming Fed meeting Dec. 19, as well as the meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires at the end of the week. But the market also risks being held back by the fact that the stocks have suffered so much technical damage in the selloff, the third-worst by this point in the fourth quarter in nearly 70 years.
Trump added a new level of nervousness to the market when he said in a Wall Street Journal interview Monday that he would likely proceed with 25 percent tariffs on Chinese goods in January. But comments from top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow Tuesday helped lift stocks, when he said the White House was in talks with China "at all levels" ahead of Trump's meeting with Xi on Saturday.
"The frustration levels are rising, regardless of whether this correction goes deeper or morphs into something else, which we think it will, but it's very much contingent on the outcome of both the Trump, Xi meeting later this week and the Fed in December," said Julian Emanuel, chief equities and derivatives strategist at BTIG.
Emanuel said there could be a sharp sell off — as much as 14 percent from current levels — if there is no sign of progress on trade.
"Given the fact positioning is so light and people are so defensive, even if there's a worst case outcome, the downside could be cushioned for now, but it tells a completely different tale for 2019 because a more protracted economic cold war means multiples have to come in," he said.
Emanuel said the market is frustrating both bulls and bears. "The fact that you've had so many gaps in the tape in a sideways market over the past month really just shows the fear of the bulls, which has turned into both fear and frustration," he said, noting bulls have been expecting a strong year-end rally.
"The bears are getting nervous about their positions as well," he said. "The fact tech is trying to make a bottom makes everybody nervous...It's the opposite of what we've seen when tech was the momentum darling in 2017, when people got nervous. Now, if you're long, you're afraid it's going to go down more, and if you're short, you've done very well in a very short period of time."
Even if there is a bigger December bounce coming, unless the market's internals begin to improve, the market could have a rough road in the beginning of the year. Strategists had expected a rally after the November mid-term elections, but instead there was just more selling that wiped out most of the market's gains for the year.
Todd Sohn, technical analyst at Strategas. Sohn said it's possible the market could still rally in the historically strong month of December.
Apple did muster a rally Monday, but it was slightly weaker Tuesday after Trump also said in the interview that he could put tariffs on iPhones. Apple is seen as a battleground stock, and bulls are hoping if it stems losses, the market can move higher.
"You could get a rally into the end of the year, but if the participation concerns don't subside, that could present some problems for next year," said Sohn. He said about half the stocks in the S&P 500 are no longer in an uptrend.
Sohn said, as of Monday, about half the stocks in the S&P 500 had their 50-day moving averages below their 200-day moving averages. When that happens, and the market is heading lower, it is seen as a negative trend.
Apple has corrected 27 percent, and shares of Amazon, Google and Facebook have also sold off. "The tough part will be [knowing whether] it's the low or just an oversold bounce going into the seasonal period," he said.
As for the major events that could move the market higher, strategists say there has been some improvement on China even if it is superficial, and the Fed needs to sound more cautious about raising rates.
"Investors are expecting at least some softening in the rhetoric between the U.S. and China. That will be a milestone," said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors. "If there is an agreement to negotiate and an agreement to hold off on more tariffs, the market could have a strong rally. But if there are more threats and no signs of peace, stocks could see more selling.
Arone said Fed Chairman Jerome Powell could use his speech on Wednesday at the Economic Club of New York to relieve some market anxiety about the Fed. Powell is unlikely to indicate that the Fed will pause in its rate hiking, as some market pros expect, but he could undo some of the aggressive tone from his early October speech when he said the Fed was far from the neutral rate.
"They're already starting to walk back some of this. I don't think Powell's intent in early October was to signal anything about the pace or direction of interest rate hikes, and I think the market overreacted," Arone said.
He said stocks currently reflect little chance of a trade deal so there could be a bounce once it's clear which way the meeting between Trump and Xi is going.