Some investors have already made up their mind the stock market rally is over. Others are convinced there’s nowhere to go but up. Both views are over-simplified market predictions considering the complicated economic environment.
A closer look at the latest stock market news proves that while things aren’t all coming up roses on Wall Street, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic the bull market will continue. Here are seven worth a look:
Crude Oil Prices Rising
Yes, crude oil prices fell to around $85 a barrel Thursday as the dollar strengthened — and today crude oil futures are a bit soft. This week the U.S. reported rising crude inventory levels, suggesting demand remains muted.
However, that doesn’t negate the fact that crude oil prices shot to an 18-month high this week, peaking at $87 a barrel. That’s up over 25% from the $69 a barrel crude oil price in early February.
U.S. consumption of for oil products has remained weak due to continued economic troubles. But there is no doubt that energy demand is slowly ramping up again despite the inventory report late this week.
Retailers Report Strong Sales Again
Warmer weather thawed consumers spending freeze in March as retailers posted strong sales on the month. Just today, we learned that big box store Target (TGT), department store Macy (M), trendy clothing retailers The Gap (GPS) and Limited Brands (LTD) all posted double-digit increases that beat Wall Street analysts’ expectations. Analysts expect that March sales at stores open at least a year should be up 6.3% from a year earlier.
An improving job market (we’ll get to that next) and an early Easter sent shoppers to the mall in force this march. Still, it’s worth noting that March 2009 was perhaps the worst month of the whole recession when the market bottomed out at a 12-year low. But easy comparisons aside, the strength in retail is certainly a sign of improvements in consumer spending.
Unemployment Rate Improving
The Labor Department announced last week that U.S. economy added 162,000 jobs in March. Though only the second time in 27 months that jobs have been created, it was a huge cause of relief for Americans looking for work.
Of course, the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.7% — way too high for investors to be comfortable. And temporary census hiring indeed skewed the numbers. But even when you cut out government jobs, private employers added 123,000 jobs. That’s the most new jobs since May 2007.
Housing Sales Stabilizing
First off, don’t let the national home sales figures or the doom and gloom from housing markets like Florida or Nevada fool you. Real estate really is all about location, location, location – and there have been plenty of regions where home sales have already firmed up.
And now, signs of life are emerging in some of the hardest hit areas. For instance, March sales in Las Vegas rose 33% over February and prices saw a slight boost. That’s not year-over-year growth – that’s month to month. Compared to last year, sales were up almost 7%.
Granted, Vegas still has a long way to go considering it was the foreclosure capital of America after the housing bubble burst. Some figures estimate that a whopping 1 in 20 mortgages are in risk of default in the desert tourist town. Still, signs of life in the worst housing markets are just as important as finding a few regions that are already back on their feet. This is an encouraging trend if it keeps up.
Dow 11,000 in Reach
Some folks think that Dow 11,000 is a ceiling. Others say it’s a floor. Whatever your thoughts, it’s important to realize that the Dow Jones industrial average bottomed out at a 12 year low in March 2009 at 6,547. That means we have tallied nearly a 70% gain in the broader market since that dark day.
True, a stock market is not exactly an accurate indicator of an economy. The major stock market indexes were flying at record highs in 2008 even as the financial sector and housing industry were speeding towards disaster. But if you want to measure the Great Recession by the amount of wealth that was erased (some estimate the financial crisis cost the world 40% of its wealth), it’s important to acknowledge the money gained in the past year or so by investors everywhere.
Stock Buybacks Pick Up
Stock buybacks are back in fashion. That’s because as the economic recovery takes hold and earnings improve across the broader market, U.S. stocks are sitting on a record pile of cash. And repurchases are one way they’re spending it.
Across the S&P 500 index, stock buybacks totaled $137.6 billion last year. But this year U.S. firms have scheduled buybacks or are planning repurchases that will almost double last year’s total — to the tune of $235 billion in 2010, according to Mizuho Financial Group Inc.
Stock buybacks are seen as a bullish sign because companies are essentially saying “There is no better investment than our own stock.” After all, Pepsi (PEP) wouldn’t have planned the largest stock buyback of 2010 if it expected its shares to drop. The Pepsi stock buyback is just one of many moves across corporate America that could be seen as a bullish sign for investors. Not only are stocks optimistic about their shares, but they finally have enough free cash laying around to make a move like a stock repurchase.
Dividend Stocks Paying More
Along the same lines, many corporations are sending cash back to shareholders via dividends. In fact, a rash of dividend increases the first quarter of 2010 boasted an additional $6.4 billion in payouts. That includes old favorites like the aforementioned Pepsi (PEP) but alsor companies like Starbucks (SBUX), which just declared its first dividend ever.
The Pepsi dividend and Starbucks dividend are part of a big reversal among dividend stocks this year. The first quarter of 2009 marked what could have been the worst period in history for income-oriented investors who look for stocks with big dividend yields. A record 367 companies slashed dividends during Q1 in 2009. But in the first-quarter of 2010, only 48 companies decreased their dividend payments.
You can expect the dividend party to continue as the year goes on. Honeywell (HON) should announce a dividend increase at its shareholder meeting later this month. The fact that stocks are spending cash on their shareholders instead of hunkering down for another disaster is certainly a cheerful sign.
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