"If you want to conquer fear, don't sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy." - Dale Carnegie
Wall Street has been locked into a sideways trend for the last month or so, see-sawing between January's predominately bullish momentum and a newfound wave of investor indecisiveness, something that was mostly absent the first four weeks of the year to date.
Is Ben Bernanke about to change all that? And if so, which side of the fulcrum will he tilt the market towards?
Investors may not have long to find out the answer, as the head of the nation's central bank will hold court next week, when he is scheduled to testify before Congress. And should Ben manage to serve up a plate of neutral, noncommittal testimony before that august body, as he is certainly capable of doing, Wall Street will likely get a more definitive bottom line during his scheduled press conference following the March 19th and 20th Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting.
So what is going on with the Fed right now that is impacting the market?
Investors may be now entertaining the chilling notion of "no more free money."
Last week, the major indices, including the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) and the S&P 500 Index (SPX), took a hit in response to the most recent FOMC minutes, which revealed that some of the members of the Fed voiced concerns as to the impact of the ongoing monthly bond purchases that the central bank is currently undertaking. Those purchases, coming in at an $85-billion-per-month clip, are apparently feared by some of the Fed members to have the potential to cause some sizable losses in the Federal balance sheet, as well as contributing towards the creation of the next great asset bubble.
Based on a reading of the FOMC minutes, it is clear that, at the very least, the Fed is experiencing an increasingly vocal split on the matter of stimulus, specifically as to the wisdom of continuing the bond purchase program, at least in terms of scope and duration.
So why exactly is the market spooked? Again, no more free money. This, in turn, means a decrease in the level of stimulus that the Fed has generated since 2009 via the various incarnations of its Quantitative Easing Program.
So now, the market could easily make a shift back into the mode where negative news could move the market more than positive news, a reverse of what has been in effect for much of 2013.
Such a sentiment shift could arise from multiple fronts.
First, fear of the sequester getting implemented which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would send the nation's fragile economy back into a tailspin.
Second, stirrings out of Europe that key upcoming national elections, notably those in Italy and Germany, could herald a major shift of leadership in the eurozone. This potential change certainly alarms investors on both sides of the Atlantic, as the current leadership is seen as a stabilizing force on a region that seems to be perpetually tottering on the brink of a deep recession.
Third and finally, should Bernanke and his band of stimulus doves seem to be acquiescing to the central bank's hawks, Wall Street might find itself shifting momentum to the downside, as the majority of investors don't seem to appreciate anyone or anything saying adieu to the promise of perpetual free money.
So investor eyeballs will keep the Fed in front of its collective focus for the month of March. Let's see how Big Ben plays out all the attention.
What The Periscope Sees
The Technology Sector continues to dominate the Sabrient SectorCast ETF Rankings leaderboard, leading the Financial Sector by a substantial margin. The Rankings, which rate each of the 10 U.S. industrial sector iShares (ETFs) by Sabrient's proprietary Outlook Score, are revised on a weekly basis.
Here is a list of some of this year's top performing Technology Sector ETFs to date, as of the third week of February:
SOXX - iShares PHLX SOX Semiconductor Sector Index Fund, +11.07%
FDN - First Trust Dow Jones Internet Index Fund, +9.52%
SMH - Market Vectors Semiconductor ETF, +8.57%
FXL - First Trust Technology AlphaDEX Fund, +6.92%
IGV - iShares S&P GSTI Software Index Fund, +6.62%
QTEC - First Trust NASDAQ-100 Technology Sector Index Fund, +6.34%
IGN - iShares S&P GSTI Networking Index Fund, +6.08%
For those who prefer to use options when available, consider buying call options as an effective tool for leveraging your portfolio's funds. The May 2013 expiration calls, two or three strikes out-of-the-money, can be considered adequate for this purpose.
Disclosure: The author does not personally hold any of the ETFs mentioned in this week's "What the Periscope Sees," and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
Business relationship disclosure: I am receiving compensation to write this article in my capacity as senior analyst for Sabrient Systems. I do not have a business relationship with a company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Disclaimer: This newsletter is published solely for informational purposes and is not to be construed as advice or a recommendation to specific individuals. Individuals should take into account their personal financial circumstances in acting on any rankings or stock selections provided by either Daniel Sckolnik or Sabrient. Neither Daniel Sckolnik nor Sabrient makes any representations that the techniques used in its rankings or selections will result in or guarantee profits in trading. Trading involves risk, including possible loss of principal and other losses, and past performance is no indication of future results.