Stocks could be in for a sharper decline as Apple, big tech firms report

Some technical strategists who say the S&P 500 could fall further, see a drop of 5 percent as a possibility with the S&P dipping to a support level of around 2,500. But some analysts, like Keon, say more than declining, it would not be surprising if the market becomes locked in a sideways move for awhile.

For the month of January, the S&P 500 was up 5.2 percent as of Monday and up 12.2 percent since the Dec. 24 closing low. The S&P 500 was trading just under 2,640 Monday afternoon, a decline of 1 percent. Stocks were selling off Monday on the eve of a Fed meeting where the Fed is not expected to take any action on interest rates but is expected to sound very wiling to pause its rate hiking.

“Tactically, February does sport a mixed performance reputation and may be a catalyst for a pause or consolidation after a +15% rally. There’s been some modest loss of momentum over recent days, but we’d look to the 2500/2550 area to offer support and contain weakness moving forward,” Strategas analysts wrote in a note. On average, the S&P 500 has been flat in February, going back to 1950, according to Strategas data.

Ari Wald, technical strategist at Oppenheimer, said he believes the market is in a consolidating phase, after its big run higher from the December low. He said stocks could test lower levels, but he is not looking for a return to the December low of 2,346.

“A higher low makes more sense to us,” said Wald, noting the S&P could retest back to 2,500.

“Just in terms of near term support level, I don’t think today’s drop is necessarily meaningful in terms of falling below any important support levels. The level I’m watching on the downside is 2,600.”

That level was the Oct. 29 low, and another important level in December. “When we really started to drop again, the market really started to cascade on that initial breach of 2,600,” Wald said.

U.S.-China trade talks, which resume this week at a high level are seen as a possible catalyst for the market.

“This week and next week, we have the Fed, trade talks and earnings. For the very near term, trade is probably going to be the biggest driving force for what the market does,” said Dan Suzuki, portfolio manager at Richard Bernstein Advisors. Suzuki said he optimistic for a deal. “If you look at the way Trump negotiates, it’s going to go to the 11th hour, and it’s going to feel like there’ won’t be a deal,” he said.

The wave of earnings news could also help decide the direction. About a quarter of the S&P 500 reports this week.

“The earnings news has been mixed to some degree. We had some good reports last week, a couple big cyclical companies…[Stocks] got off to a great start this year, as we did last year and it feels like maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves,” said Keon. “…We’re heading for a slowdown and the market is trying to figure out if it’s a slowdown or recession. We still think it’s a slowdown. Once you start slowing down, it’s hard to know where you’re going to stop.”

Keon expects earnings to be flat this year, and estimates have been falling. As the fourth quarter earnings season progresses, analysts have been lowering earnings estimates for upcoming quarters. According to Refinitiv, earnings growth in the first quarter is expected to be just 1.9 percent, sharply lower than the 14 percent profit growth of the fourth quarter, which is currently being reported.

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