Health care reform could be a temporary dose of bad medicine for stocks, at least in the immediate term.
As the House of Representatives moved toward a vote on a health care reform bill, Wall Street was gaming both the legislation's chance of success and its potential impact on markets.
"Buy if it fails. Sell if it passes. But I don't think it will have any sustained and significant market impact," said Larry Kantor, head of research at Barclay's.
"They're going to tax insurance companies, so they're losers. Small firms with more than 15 employees are going to have to provide health care or they're going to have to pay a fee, so they're hit. One would think hospitals would be winners because hospitals pick up the tab for uninsured people. It's not that there's no change. It's just that there's so much controversy around it, you think it's radical change but it's not that radical," he said.
The House voted was expected to be held Sunday if Democrats could secure enough votes to pass the bill.
"It's going to be razor thin either way," said Dan Clifton, policy analyst at Strategas Research. Clifton said the market's reaction was a bit surprising this week, as health insurance stocks advanced even as the the bill moved closer to a vote. "I didn't expect them to be up 9 percent in a week. You'll probably see them drop if this passes," he said.
"There's nothing positive about the government spending $1 trillion over 10 years, and using capital gains taxes to pay for it. It's going to stifle growth," said Clifton.
Jeffery Saut, Raymond James chief investment strategist, said the market could use the vote as an opportunity to sell into a very overbought condition. "The market is very long in the tooth right here. The New York Stock Exchange overbought indicator is over 90. That's historic," he said noting that's happened 62 times since 1926.
The market slowly drifted higher this past week, closing at an 18-month high. The Dow was up 1.1 percent to 10,741. The Dow slipped 37 points Friday, breaking an eight day winning streak. The S&P 500 rose 9, or 0.9 percent to 1159, and the Nasdaq was up 0.3 percent to 2374. The week's best performing S&P sector was telecom, up 2.4 percent, followed by industrials, up 2.2 percent. Health care was up 1.5 percent. Materials and Energy were the laggards down just under 1 percent.
"We've got almost 90 percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 above their 50-day moving average. It rarely gets that high. The point is that in the very short term, the markets are way overextended and they're looking for a reason to pull back. Whether they pull back next week is question because you have end of quarter window dressing," said Saut.
"The question is does the window dressing turn into undressing if the bill passes," he said.
UBS chief equities strategy Binky Chadha, however, said that aside from a possible immediate reaction, the passage of the bill would not be a negative for stocks.
"Uncertainty is the key issue in the market. Equities is about earnings, but even more I would argue it's about multiple. The multiple responds to uncertainty," he said, adding resolution either way should ultimately help the market higher. Chadha sees the market continuing its upward move and says the S&P could reach 1250 by the report of the April jobs report in early May.
Kantor said the next economic report of importance for the markets, in fact, is the March jobs report. "I do think that employment report on April 2 is going to be key. It wasn't like the last one was strong. It was just not terribly weak. If you don't see something over 100,000 in payrolls, that's going to be a big disappointment and the market's going to have a setback. You need to see significant job growth to keep the markets moving up," he said.
Earnings, and What Else to Watch
In the week ahead, there is key housing data, including existing home sales on Tuesday and new home sales on Wednesday.
The Chicago Fed releases its national activity index for February on Monday. Durable goods are reported Wednesday and weekly jobless claims are reported Thursday. The final reading on fourth quarter GDP is released Friday, as is consumer sentiment. The Treasury auctions
What Else to Watch
The dollar in the past week gained 1.7 percent against the euro, as worries about the Greek debt crisis pulled the currency down. Greece will again be in focus in the coming week as the EU holds a summit in Brussels Thursday and Friday. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso urged EU leaders to spell out how they would provide aid to Greece.
The U.S. Treasury will auction $118 billion in 2-, 5- and 7-year notes in three auctions Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Click here for bond prices.
China in the News
Google on Monday may announce its exit plan from China, following a major cyber attack on its site and a dispute with the Chinese government over censorship.
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on China's currency policies, after members of Congress in the past week lobbied Treasury to term China a currency "manipulator."
In Shanghai, meanwhile, the trial of four Rio Tinto executives accused of stealing commercial secrets and taking bribes begins on Monday.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was to speak to ICBA community bankers in Florida Saturday.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard appears Monday on "Squawk Box," with CNBC economics correspondent Steve Liesman.
There are quite a few other Fed speakers out and about. Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart speaks Monday on the economic outlook.
San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen, nominee for Vice Chair, speaks Tuesday on the economic outlook. Philadelphia Fed Chairman Charles Plosser speaks on policy issues in Prague Tuesday, and Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig speaks Wednesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn also speaks Wednesday in North Carolina, and Fed Governor Kevin Warsh speaks on central bank independence Thursday. Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo speaks in Washington Thursday at the International Research Forum on Monetary Policy.
The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the bankruptcy of Lehman, following a scathing report by the court appointed bankruptcy examiner on the firm's failure. Lehman officials were accused of using "gimmicky" accounting, and the Fed and other regulators were criticized in the report.
There are a few earnings in the coming week, including Oracle and Best Buy , which report Thursday. Tiffany reports Monday, Walgreen reports Tuesday, and General Mills reports Wednesday.
The wireless industry holds its big CTIA show in Las Vegas this week.
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