It's now or never for the 2018 stock market, which seems immune to any good news

Key Points
  • The big stock indexes have been unable to escape the bottom of their 2018 correction range despite several factors that were billed as bullish catalysts. The S&P 500 is now down 2.7 percent this year.
  • Gauges of investor mood have soured including weekly retail-investor polls, futures positioning and even a New York Times Sunday Styles section feature foretelling a coming financial crash.
  • From a technical and tactical angle, the market enters the final 10 days of the year at something like a now-or-never moment.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. 
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

What do we call a stock market for which good news is never good enough to hold off the sellers, where every excuse to look on the bright side goes unused, where the half-full glass always seem to spill by the close of trading? This is the market we have, and some would call it a bear.

Certainly, this kind of behavior is what prevails during bear markets. But it's also how a market would act during a complex, late-cycle correction that might or might not lead to serious and long-lasting declines.

CNBC Markets Now: December 17, 2018
CNBC Markets Now: December 17, 2018

Since October, the following promised "bullish catalysts" failed to support the indexes: a third straight 20 percent annual gain in reported corporate profits, the reopening of the "stock buyback window," the passage of the midterm elections which "always" leads markets higher, a dovish turn in Fed messaging, a trade truce with China and the onset of the bullish November-December seasonal phase.

The market has likewise been unable to capitalize on periodic "oversold" readings to generate a sustainable or convincing rally. The closed Friday at the very bottom of its correction range after finishing lower than it opened each of the past four days.

All year, in fact, the market was resistant to plausibly positive influences. In a column here Oct. 8, this was cited as a point for the bears:

"One skeptical observation of 2018 is just how much profoundly good news it has taken to muscle the S&P 500 higher by 'only' 8 percent: 20 percent profit growth, 3.8 percent unemployment, a 3-4 percent GDP pace, and some $1.2 trillion in annualized cash sent to shareholders this year via dividends and stock repurchases.

"What happens when the news gets slightly less great?"

We're finding that out, with the S&P having disgorged that 8 percent year-to-date gain and further to a 2.7 percent drop for the year. Tightening credit conditions, a shakier global economy and pervasive "late-cycle" psychology mean that relief for the market will likely come only when the default expectation priced into stocks is "bad news."

Are we there yet?

Stocks are definitely cheaper on paper than they've been in a while, though that cheapness will only be validated if earnings next year don't roll over too much harder than current expectations.

Citigroup strategist Tobias Levkovich calculates that the S&P 500 right now builds in an implicit forecast of zero earnings growth next year (subject to several assumptions about "fair value" under current conditions). If so, that would mean the market is building a cushion against some tougher times, but the process of analysts chopping down quarterly forecasts from the current expectation of 8 percent profit gains would not likely please investors along the way.

The free-cash-flow yield of the S&P 500 based on the past year's results — simply the inverse of the price-to-free-cash-flow ratio — is approaching levels it reached toward the end of the grinding, multistage downturn of 2015-2016. (The higher the FCF yield, the lower the valuation.)

That was another period that got into the gray area between "correction" and "virtual bear market" and gave way to a two-year rally helped first by a dovish central bank response then the presidential election surge in confidence, growth expectations and tax cut anticipation.

But the offset now is a higher cost of corporate capital, especially reflected in higher borrowing rates on the lowest tier of investment-grade bonds, rated triple-B.

Higher corporate debt yields, all else equal, will restrain equity valuations. Entering 2019, a lot of anxiety is focused toward corporate credit as a key headwind, even though there is not a fearsome percentage of that debt that needs to be paid down or refinanced next year. Whether the markets are over-anticipating a credit-stress buildup or properly handicapping a stingier credit backdrop is pretty much the fulcrum of the bull—vs.—bear story for next year.

Levkovich also did a survey of institutional clients, in which they predicted around 4 percent 2019 S&P 500 earnings growth — about half the consensus analyst forecast right now. These professional investors now see the S&P 500 finishing 2019 at 2,850. Sure, that's up nearly 10 percent from here but is 100 points lower than the prior survey in late September.

This fits with other gauges of investor mood (weekly retail-investor polls, futures positioning, a New York Times Sunday Styles section feature foretelling a coming financial crash) showing market participants are concerned and defensive, but not all-out fearful. By bull market rules, sentiment is cautious enough to substantiate the case for a rebound rally soon.

But what rules apply now?

That 2015-'16 map might seem comforting in retrospect given the number of factors (valuation, sentiment, oil crash and credit pressure) that now approximate conditions then.

But that episode lasted a lot longer and by the end the S&P 500 was back at levels first reached 26 months earlier — twice the present situation, in which the index is back near the highs of November 2017. Let's not forget the market is "only" off 11 percent from a record high and down less than 3 percent in the first 50 weeks of this year.

Here's what strategists are watching for in 2019
Here's what strategists are watching for in 2019

From a technical and tactical angle, the market enters the final 10 days of the year at something like a now-or-never moment. Chart readers are generally cautious-to-bearish, noting widespread downtrends, defensive-sector leadership, death crosses and nasty breadth readings.

Yet if seasonal factors and tactical rally chances are to matter at all, this should be the week. December's historical seasonal trend bottomed Friday, the Fed is probably looking to placate irritated markets with its Wednesday decision and hedge funds should be done purging unwanted equity risk by now.

All this would be more comforting to the bulls if the market wasn't in the habit of rejecting perfectly convenient reasons to rally.