It was a tough session, but not one that came as a total surprise. After the calendar changed to 2014, it has felt like everyone has been marking time waiting for something disappointing to happen. Ironically, blue chip stocks have come under the most pressure paying a big price for any disappointment. So, while the market exhibited a soft underbelly, few would be shocked if there were some kind of correction. Still, that overhand blow from the Far East did a fair amount of damage.
China posted a PMI reading that indicated their economy is contracting. This news comes after it was revealed that economic output last year was the slowest since 1999. Of course, China has been trying to engineer a slowdown akin to tampering with the brakes of a runaway locomotive. I actually think they've done a pretty good job, but there are serious questions, including the shadow banking threat. There is also the question of how to hold down wages now that it's clear their one-child policy has created a labor force crisis.
It's also clear that China has been the straw stirring the drink. Even improving news from Europe and solid news for America's PMI reading aren't enough to offset a contracting Chinese economy.
There are other factors weighing on the market:
A 10,000 point move in five years is very impressive, especially with a 30% rally last year. Some would simply say it’s time. (Not luck of the draw kind of "due," but a new reality that puts greater onus on strong top and bottom-line growth to justify further upside.
On that note, there is a fair amount of dissatisfaction with earnings since this is shaping up to be the least impressive earnings period in a long time. To a lesser degree, there could be angst over Fed policy. However, there hasn't been any news on that front that would alter the conversation (tapering has begun, and until it is increased or halted, it’s not headline stuff.)
Late in the session a few buyers materialized just in time to keep the Dow from closing beneath a key support point (50-day moving average). We are a long way from panicking, but nearing critical support points could hasten a faster decline if violated. The "must hold" support points are where even rock solid buy-and-hold bulls might blink. Note: For the Dow it would be the December 17, 2013 close, which came the day before the Fed announced tapering.