Why stocks keep moving higher. And higher. And higher.

Author: Julia Horowitz / CNN Business
Published: Updated:
The statue of George Washington is seen in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on October 11, 2019 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks jumped early Friday on optimism for progress in US-China negotiations, including a possible agreement to pause new tariff measures. The talks in Washington, now in their second day, were given a positive push by US President Donald Trump, who said the negotiations were "going really well" and was scheduled to meet later Friday with China's top trade envoy Liu He. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Why do stocks continue to rise in the face of anxiety about the coronavirus? Ongoing support from the Federal Reserve, a stable outlook for corporate earnings and fear of missing out may have something to do with it.

The latest: The Dow finished the week up 1%, while the S&P 500 closed 1.6% higher. Both indexes hit all-time highs mid-week. The STOXX Europe 600 index rose nearly 1.5% after climbing to a fresh midday record on Friday. Even the Shanghai Composite managed to lodge a 1.4% increase for the week.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak shows no sign of losing steam, as the death toll and number of people infected continues to climb.

Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group, thinks the explanation is simple: It’s about overconfidence in the Fed.

“I think the stock market is just under this belief that no matter what comes our way the Fed is going to save us,” he told me. “I honestly believe it’s as simplistic as that.”

He has a point: The S&P 500 has added more than 12% since the Fed stepped in to rescue overnight lending markets last September. Purchases of short-term bonds known as T-bills, announced in October, have helped loosen financial conditions. The real test, Boockvar notes, will come when the central bank stops expanding its balance sheet, possibly in April.

It also helps that guidance for first quarter earnings has not been worse than usual, even as companies express concern about the coronavirus outbreak.

Earnings update: 77% of S&P 500 companies have reported earnings for the last three months of 2019, and 71% have beat profit expectations, according to FactSet’s John Butters. More importantly, fewer companies than average have lowered their expectations for the first quarter, feeding the sense among investors that the business impact may be short-lived after all.

There have been exceptions. Take Under Armour, which said last week that it could lose up to $60 million in sales this quarter, and that “given the significant level of uncertainty with this dynamic and evolving situation, full year results could be further materially impacted.” Shares finished the week down 15%.

But by and large, bullish investors who like stocks can find plenty of reasons to stick around. Boockvar, however, warned that investors should be more circumspect. “There’s just a lot of nonchalance with this virus,” he said. “Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s something.”

He pointed to the more cautious attitude reflected in bond markets, where yields remain depressed as more conservative investors pile in. Last week saw the biggest weekly inflow ever into bond funds, according to Bank of America.

Walmart will cap a tough earnings season for retail

With six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was a disappointing holiday season for US retailers. Was Walmart any exception?

That’s the big question for investors, who will look to America’s largest retailer on Tuesday for signs that consumer spending stayed strong heading into 2020. They’ll also want evidence that foot traffic is holding up as coronavirus concerns take hold.

Analysts have been moderating their predictions, which means Walmart could deliver a positive surprise.

What they’re saying: “The 2019 holiday season could come in a bit short of expectations, based on results from other retailers, and the early start to 2020 could be impacted by the coronavirus,” analysts at Telsey Advisory Group said in a note to clients. “However, we view these issues as transitory and continue to expect Walmart to be a leader and market share gainer in the industry.”

That view was supported by a fresh batch of data on Friday. The University of Michigan’s latest measure of consumer confidence rose to a nearly two-year high, helped along by rising stocks and lower gas prices. This “more than offset any coronavirus fears,” per Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics.

Up next

Monday: US markets closed; Japan GDP

Tuesday: Germany economic sentiment; HSBC, Glencore, Deutsche Telekom, Walmart earnings; NAHB Housing Market Index

Wednesday: Japan balance of trade; US housing starts and building permits; Blue Apron and Zillow earnings

Thursday: Germany consumer confidence; Domino’s and Dropbox earnings

Friday: Purchasing Managers’ Index readings; US existing home sales; Cinemark earnings

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