Wall Street and New York Stock Exchange in New York.
Stocks could be caught in a tug-of-war in the week ahead, as investors weigh the potential positives of a reopening economy against worry that the coronavirus continues to spread.
In the past week, the S&P 500’s sharp gains briefly drove the index into positive territory for the year, before a bruising sell-off at the end of the week. Stocks were more than 47% above the March 23 low before investors got spooked by signs the coronavirus is picking up in some areas.
The Fed also dampened sentiment when it released economic forecasts Wednesday that showed a slow recovery and interest rates at zero through the end of 2022. Investors will hear more of the same when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell speaks before Congress this Tuesday and Wednesday in his semi-annual economic testimony. He may provide more clarity on the Fed’s bond buying and other policy moves.
Retail sales for May are released Tuesday, and that will be an important look at consumer spending activity. It is the most important data in the coming week, other than the weekly jobless claims report on Thursday.
Stocks rose on Friday with the S&P 500 up more than 1% after Thursday’s sharp sell-off that sent the index down nearly 6%. Treasury yields, which move opposite price, also moved sharply lower as investors moved to the safety of bonds. The 10-year yield was back below 70%, well off the high of 0.95% in the week earlier.
“We’ve been overbought for awhile and digesting gains would be natural,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA.
Stovall said the fact that 97% of the S&P 500 companies’ stocks were above their 50-day moving average this past week was a warning. The 50-day moving average is a momentum indicator, and if a stock or index rises above it, it is usually a positive, but if they all do, it’s a contrarian warning.
“Historically that’s just too high … and also the P/E on the S&P was 25.1 of forward 12-months earnings, which is a 52% premium to the P/E average since 2000,” he said. The P/E, or the price-to-earnings ratio, is an important tool to value stocks, and it averages around 16.5 times.
In the sell-off, stocks that would benefit from the economy’s reopening were the hardest hit. Investors had been jumping into those names, driving them higher at a dizzying pace. They were also the sectors that were last to join the rally, like banks, casinos, airlines and hotels.
“Once the pullback runs its course I think investors will move back again into the sectors and subsectors that were most beaten up in the bear market,” said Stovall.
Scott Redler, partner with T3Live.com, said he lightened up his holdings earlier in the week. “There were some clues early in the week that the market was vulnerable, like when the S&P closed below 3,191 on Tuesday. You had some feverish trading in some of the very speculative names,” he said.
Stovall said other headwinds hang over the market, and one big one is the upcoming presidential election, which could become a bigger influence on the market. RealClearPolitics has President Donald Trump trailing former Vice President Joseph Biden by 8.1 points in the latest average of polls.
“Trump’s numbers are just looking so bad, and if the Fed needs to keep interest rates at zero and we have the potential for a resurgence in Covid cases, then Trump is not going to benefit from an economic recovery, and as a result, that gives Biden a better chance of being elected,” said Stovall. “It’s not necessarily that the market dislikes Biden, but they dislike uncertainty. And a decline in equity prices would be representative of that uncertainty.”
Retail sales are typically a barometer for consumer spending, and when Americans were shut in their homes they did much less shopping than usual. April data showed a 16.7% drop in sales, but consumers did spend online.
Economists are watching Tuesday’s report on May sales closely, particularly after the May jobs report had a large upside surprise. There were 2.5 million jobs added in May, instead of an expected loss of 8.3 million.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said business-to-business spending data for May implies that retail sales were flat to fractionally higher, up about 0.7% over April’s depressed level.
Zandi used data from Cortera, which collects information on about $1.5 trillion in business-to-business spending. In an analysis of spending by retailers in May, it found there were gains from April in some categories, including home building and gardening supplies, furniture, auto sales and parts, gasoline stations and restaurants.
But Zandi said weakness in apparel and sporting goods washed out the gains.
Strategists said Powell did not surprise the market with his comments this past week, but his sober approach reminded investors that the Fed policy will have to be in place for a very long time to pull the economy out of its deep rut. That will keep markets on high alert during his two days of testimony.
“I think the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t think he can sugarcoat it. The thing he’s got to worry about is he needs help. He needs Congress and the administration to come up with another fiscal rescue package. He can’t do it on his own,” said Zandi. “He has to keep the pressure on them and get a piece of legislation before they go on August recess. … He’s speaking as much to the American people as he is to the policy makers.”
Zandi said the Fed has acted aggressively and swiftly to unfreeze credit markets when they locked up in March, but the economy needs more stimulus ahead of a wave of potential business defaults and with a high level of unemployment. The Fed’s balance sheet has ballooned to $7.2 trillion, and on Wednesday the central bank committed to monthly purchases of $80 billion in Treasury securities and $40 billion in mortgage securities.
“I think he continues to lay the foundation for policy changes to come,” said Zandi. “He’s strongly suggesting there’s going to be more monetary support, and that would come in the form of a few things – it would be performance dependent forward guidance. … He’s going to make it clear until the economy is at full employment and inflation is at least at target, if not above.”
Zandi said Powell may discuss yield curve controls, which would mean the Fed would set targets for interest rate levels in the Treasury market, and make purchases to influence rates. Some economists believe the Fed will adopt that tool before the end of the year.
“I think he’s going to more clearly define the amount of QE they’re doing going forward. He’ll try to preserve some optionality, but he’ll try to make it known, they’re buying a lot of bonds for a long time to come,” Zandi said.
But the hearings could be more politicized, and Powell may be criticized by Congress for helping financial markets more than Main Street, said John Briggs, head of strategy at NatWest Markets. “I’d be surprised if there’s a lot new, given it comes on the heels of the FOMC meeting,” Briggs said.
Week ahead calendar
8:30 a.m. Empire State survey
4:00 p.m. Treasury TIC data
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell before Senate banking
8:30 a.m. Retail sales
8:30 a.m. Business leaders survey
9:15 a.m. Industrial production
10:00 a.m. Business inventories
10:00 a.m. NAHB survey
Fed Chairman before House Financial Services Committee
8:30 a.m. Housing starts
8:30 a.m. Initial jobless claims
8:30 a.m. Philadelphia Fed
8:30 a.m. Q1 current account
10:15 a.m. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren
Pinterest is reportedly in talks to acquire VSCO
So what can Pinterest do to jump higher up the list of social networking sites? According to a report by the New York Times, one possibility is acquiring the owner of VSCO, the app for editing / sharing photos and videos that has brought in-depth tools to mobile users for years. Neither side directly confirmed the negotiations, and there’s no word on a possible price, but maybe combining forces can bring some Instagram-like glow.
As it is, Pinterest is still mostly known for planning and organizing, and as the NYT article points out, other than some recent acquisitions, VSCO is currently best known for the “VSCO girls” meme.
A sealed copy of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ just sold for $660,000
A nearly perfect copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES has sold for $660,000 at auction. In what turned out to be a 13-bidder contest, $550,000 went to the game’s original owner. The copy was one of the earliest shrink-wrapped versions of the games you could buy in the US (Super Mario Bros. eventually had 11 different box variants, according to WATA Games).
Heritage Auctions, the firm that oversaw the sale, told Ars Technica it dates back to late 1986. It was reportedly bought as a Christmas gift and sat unopened in a desk drawer for the better part of four decades. “I never thought anything about it,” the seller, who asked to remain anonymous, told the auction house.
The $660,000 this copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for is crazy when you consider the Nintendo PlayStation, a one-of-a-kind prototype representing a unique piece of gaming history, sold for $360,000 at auction last year. More recently, someone paid $156,000 to buy a pristine copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. It makes you wonder how much the owner would have walked away with had they simultaneously tried to cash in on the NFT craze somehow.
‘Lost Tapes of the 27 Club’ used Google AI to ‘write’ a new Nirvana song
Were he still alive today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would be 52 years old. Every February 20th, on the day of his birthday, fans wonder what songs he would write if he hadn’t died of suicide nearly 30 years ago. While we’ll never know the answer to that question, an AI is attempting to fill the gap.
A mental health organization called Over the Bridge used Google’s Magenta AI and a generic neural network to examine more than two dozen songs by Nirvana to create a ‘new’ track from the band. “Drowned in the Sun” opens with reverb-soaked plucking before turning into an assault of distorted power chords. “I don’t care/I feel as one, drowned in the sun,” Nirvana tribute band frontman Eric Hogan sings in the chorus. In execution, it sounds not all that dissimilar from “You Know You’re Right,” one of the last songs Nirvana recorded before Cobain’s death in 1994.
Other than the voice of Hogan, everything you hear in the song was generated by the two AI programs Over the Bridge used. The organization first fed Magenta songs as MIDI files so that the software could learn the specific notes and harmonies that made the band’s tunes so iconic. Humorously, Cobain’s loose and aggressive guitar playing style gave Magenta some trouble, with the AI mostly outputting a wall of distortion instead of something akin to his signature melodies. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Over the Bridge board member Sean O’Connor told Rolling Stone. Once they had some musical and lyrical samples, the creative team picked the best bits to record. Most of the instrumentation you hear are MIDI tracks with different effects layered on top.
One thing neither AI gave direction on is how exactly Cobain would have sung the song. Outside of cadence and tone, Hogan had to interpret how the grunge star, who famously suffered from crippling stomach pain, would have channeled his anguish into the lyrics.
Over the Bridge isn’t the first group to use AI to emulate a dead artist. But the intent here is different from similar past projects. “Drowned in the Sun” is part of the organization’s Lost Tapes of the 27 Club initiative. They set out to record AI-generated songs by musicians who died at the age of 27 to raise awareness about mental health resources musicians, and people more generally, can turn to when they feel they need help. The Toronto-based non-profit has a Facebook page where it offers support. It also offers online sessions and workshops.
If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or over an online chat.
Microsoft’s online-only Build conference starts on May 25th
Spring is fully upon us, which means the calendar is starting to fill up with high-profile tech events. And the latest addition? Microsoft confirmed today that its online-only Build developer conference will run between May 25th and May 27th, though there’s still no word on when registration will open. (If last year is any indication, our money is on “the end of April.”)
“Microsoft Build is where developers, architects, start-ups, and students learn, connect, and code together, sharing knowledge and expanding their skillset, while exploring new ways of innovating for tomorrow,” the company’s events page explains.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has yet to update its Build-specific webpage with information about this year’s priorities or schedule, but we’re almost certainly looking at another packed event. Last year, Microsoft went on (among other things) about improved collaboration tools for its suite of Office productivity apps, an AI-focused supercomputer running on its Azure cloud platform, and new cloud tools designed specifically for healthcare practitioners.
Historically, spring and summer are been jam-packed with large, in-person events where app and software developers get their first glimpse at upcoming platform and strategy updates, attend workshops and code reviews, and generally mingle with their colleagues. Starting last year, though, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has forced companies that stage these events to rapidly rethink their approaches.
Some, like Microsoft and Apple, quickly pivoted to informative online-only affairs that include full days worth of sessions, demos and fireside chats. (For what it’s worth, Apple announced this week that its own Worldwide Developer Conference will also proceed as an online-only event from June 7-11.) Meanwhile, Google has not yet confirmed whether it plans to stage its Google I/O developer conference at all this year — the company cancelled the show entirely in 2020, but said last month that it does plan to host some version of its annual Google Cloud Next event this October.
Between a surge in COVID-19 vaccine production and news of relaxed restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Build 2021 may well be the last purely virtual developer conference Microsoft will ever need to put on. With any luck, devs will resume their pilgrimages to Seattle next year, and who knows — maybe those tiny emotional support horses from Build 2018 will show up again too.
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