On Feb. 17, I presented a watch list of conditions that, if in an improving trend, would likely indicate that a sustainable up move is possible for equities.
It is time to review this checklist (and add one more factor) to determine the market's standing. Our new grades and those of two weeks ago are in parentheses and will be updated in the weeks and months ahead.
* Bank balance sheets must be recapitalized. Yesterday a comprehensive bank rescue package was introduced. It is obviously too early to consider its full impact, but the details of the program suggest to this observer that it will likely be effective in clearing toxic bank assets. (We grade the package a B+, up from a D+ only two weeks ago.)
* Bank lending must be restored. While bank lending standards remain tight, my view is that yesterday's announcement of ring-fencing toxic bank assets will almost unquestionably succeed in unclogging the transmission of credit. (Grade B, up from a C previously.)
* Financial stocks' performance must improve. Financial stocks have finally awakened from the dead, and the recent outsized move to the upside could foreshadow continued market strength. Historically strong relative performance in the shares of asset managers -- such as Franklin Resources (BEN Quote - Cramer on BEN - Stock Picks), T. Rowe Price (TROW Quote - Cramer on TROW - Stock Picks) and AllianceBernstein (AB Quote - Cramer on AB - Stock Picks) -- presage a better equity market, and Monday's strong group action was conspicuous in its outperformance. (Grade B+, up from a D.)
* Commodity prices must rise as a confirmation of worldwide economic growth. Beginning two weeks ago, commodities' prices began to strengthen, and the Fed's message last week accelerated that trend. Gold, copper (at the highest level since November) and crude oil (over $54 a barrel) continued to rise yesterday, reflecting a combination of continuing inflationary and currency debasement fears coupled with the possibility that worldwide economic growth might stabilize sooner than later. Finally, the TIPS market is forecasting some higher inflation, and a little inflation is better than a lot of deflation. (Grade B, up from a C+.)
* Credit spreads and credit availability must improve. Spreads remain worrisome and the transmission of credit remains poor, but the economy should gain traction as public policy is implemented, money is made more available and lending terms are liberalized. (Grade D, flat from two weeks ago.)
* We need evidence of a bottom in the economy, housing markets and housing prices. The retail industry has exhibited evidence of sequential improvement in the January through March period. Other economic signs are somewhat more ambiguous but, nevertheless, are showing some life. Months of inventory of unsold homes are declining and so are mortgage rates, but home prices have yet to stabilize despite an improvement in the affordability indices and a better relationship between home ownership and rental costs. Nevertheless, yesterday's strong existing homes sales release raises the specter of a better spring selling season than most anticipate. I contend that housing could surprise to the upside and might lead most other economic indicators higher. (Grade C+, up from a C-.)
* We need evidence of more favorable reactions to disappointing earnings and weak guidance. I am encouraged by the better price action in the face of poor earnings results and guidance in a wide range of companies, including Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (FCX Quote - Cramer on FCX - Stock Picks), FedEx (FDX Quote - Cramer on FDX - Stock Picks), Airgas (ARG Quote - Cramer on ARG - Stock Picks) and General Electric (GE Quote - Cramer on GE - Stock Picks). (Grade B+, up from a C+.)
* Emerging markets must improve. China's economy (PMI and retail sales) and the performance of its year-to-date stock market have turned decidedly more constructive, but other emerging markets remain moribund. (Grade B up from a C.)
* Market volatility must decline. The world's stock markets remain more volatile than a Mexican jumping bean. (Grade C+, flat with two weeks ago.)
* Hedge fund and mutual fund redemptions must ease. I am comfortable writing that the worst of the redemptions are behind the asset management industry. Nevertheless, the disintermediation and disarray in the hedge fund and fund of fund industries still have a ways to go. And while brokerage account liquidations appeared to have decelerated last week (coincident with rising share prices), my high net worth brokerage contacts continue to experience account closures and a panicked constituency. (Grade C, up from a D.)
* Marginal buyers must emerge. Low invested positions at hedge funds and by individual investors no doubt fueled March's market rise as the fear of being out has begun to replace the fear of being in. These two classes could continue to be the near-term marginal buyers fueling stocks. Corporate acquirers could also emerge as important marginal buyers, and the recent step up in merger and acquisition activity -- for example, Genentech (DNA Quote - Cramer on DNA - Stock Picks), Petro-Canada (PCZ Quote - Cramer on PCZ - Stock Picks), Schering-Plough (SGP Quote - Cramer on SGP - Stock Picks) and Daimler (DAI Quote - Cramer on DAI - Stock Picks) -- is a concrete indicator that another important marginal buyer has surfaced. As the year progresses, a meaningful upside move awaits a broad asset allocation move of pension funds out of fixed income and into equities. (Grade B, up from a C.)
And I am adding a twelfth factor to my watch list:
* The market's internals must improve. I am comforted by a number of improving technical conditions that have emerged since the March low and that have continued in force over the past two weeks since the market has made program off that nadir. Indeed, the conditions of the recent low were different than others -- in sentiment, volume, number of new lows and in intensity. The move from the October lows to the March lows indicated growing fear and gave way to rising cash positions and the loss of hope, but the market's internals were improving. November's DJIA low of 7,552 was nearly 11% below the October low of 8,451, and the March low of 6,547 was 22.5% under October's low. While each new low was more frightening than the prior one, however, there were improving technical and sentiment signals. For example, NYSE volume at the October low expanded to 2.85 billion shares; at the November low, volume dropped to 2.23 billion shares; and at the March low, volume was only 1.56 billion shares. As well, new lows traced decreasing levels: At the October low, there were 2,900 new lows; at the November low, there were 1,515 lows; and at the March low, there were only 855 new lows on the NYSE. Moreover, the combination of last Tuesday's 12:1 ratio of advancing stocks over declining stocks coupled with that day's 27:1 up-to-down volume ratio has not occurred in almost 65 years. Remarkably, yesterday was the fifth 90% upside day in March, which is clear evidence of a broadening market.
In summary, 10 out of 12 factors (including our newest, market internals) on my watch list are in an improving mode. Though many variables are currently accorded relatively low grades and the outlook remains debatable, the delta (rate of change) in almost my entire watch list is improving and flashing a green light for the U.S. stock market.
A classic "wall of worry" is being reinforced by an overwhelming consensus that the recent advance was a bear market rally. Moreover, the negative chatter appears loosely constructed and fails to credibly argue against the salutary effect that $4 trillion of stimulus will have on the domestic economy.
Based on the 12 considerations comprising my watch list, I respectfully disagree with the prevailing negative consensus, most of whose members failed to properly analyze the cracks in the foundation of credit, in the economy and in equities two years ago. Indeed, it remains my view that the fear of further investment losses and possible investor redemptions are clouding many managers' objectivity in assessing the markets.
In the fullness of time, public policy aimed at stimulating the economy (in general) and in housing (in particular) should bear fruit, as will the ring-fencing of toxic bank assets serve to unclog the transmission of credit.
While it is unrealistic to expect a straight up move, I am growing increasingly confident in my variant and optimistic view that the early March low was not only a yearly low but, quite possibly, a generational low.
Doug Kass writes daily for RealMoney Silver, a premium bundle service from TheStreet.com.