Stocks kicked off 2019 with a bang as U.S.-China trade tensions simmered while the Federal Reserve signaled patience in raising rates. However, stocks will need improving economic data to make a run at the record levels set last year.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 are both 4 percent away from their all-time highs. The Nasdaq Composite is trading about 5.5 percent away from its record. However, the main catalysts that led stocks to this point — declining worries over China trade and Fed monetary policy — have largely been priced in. Meanwhile, the economic data have been mixed at best.
The recent weakness in economic data comes as at a time when global central banks fret over a potential slowdown in the global economy, which investors fear could hurt corporate profits.
“What the market needs and must have is a spate of data suggesting the economy continues to expand, albeit slowly, but not stalling,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial. “That worry that the economy could stall out has the market worried.”
The Citi Economic Surprise Index, a widely followed barometer of how economic data do relative to economist expectations, is currently near negative 35 and hit its lowest level since August 2017 earlier this month. A negative print on the index shows a majority of economic data are missing estimates; a positive print indicates data are outperforming expectations.
Citi economic surprise index in past 2 years
U.S. jobs creation came near to a screeching halt in February as only 20,000 jobs were created. While some experts attributed the weak print to factors like the weather and the government shutdown, it was still the worst month of jobs creation since September 2017.
The National Federation of Independent Business’ small-business optimism index, meanwhile, remained near its lowest levels since the 2016 election in February despite inching higher.
Retail sales, a widely followed barometer of consumer health, unexpectedly rose 0.2 percent in January. However, December sales were revised down to show a 1.6 percent decline.
“[Monday’s] retail sales report wasn’t enough to clear the earlier one out,” said Robert Pavlik, chief investment strategist at SlateStone Wealth. “December is still a question mark in people’s minds.”
“You have to see an improvement in retail sales,” he said. “That’s another potential catalyst.”