Nobody wants to get ahead of September’s parade of potential market hazards

This is the daily notebook of Mike Santoli, CNBC’s senior markets commentator, with ideas about trends, stocks and market statistics. It’s a listless end to a brutal two weeks that made August a tough month and has investors feeling little need to step in front of a parade of potential hazards heading into September. So far Wednesday, the S & P 500 has stayed within Tuesday’s range, losing an early rally attempt and sagging back below the 4,000 level — the 50-day average — and hanging right near the noted halfway point between the June low and August high. Coming into the week, I was noting that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Friday sought to keep the market uncomfortable and get financial conditions tighter — and the silver lining was that the wall of worry was already pretty, high and investors hadn’t fully relaxed even during the strong June-August rip. Now, the tape is getting almost as oversold, by some measures, as it was around the June market low — such as the S & P 500 advance/decline line (via Bespoke). Sentiment is also pretty subdued, with put/call ratios creeping up and the weekly Investors Intelligence poll showing the bull/bear spread dropping again without having risen above “low neutral” levels. Of course, when a market is in a defined eight-month downtrend, and the Fed is tightening and seasonal factors flash caution, the bar is higher for declaring that the market is washed out and investors “too pessimistic.” But it likely wouldn’t take much more downside probing to get there. Still, the “known unknowns” of Friday’s jobs number, August CPI, the Fed meeting, traditional September weakness and impending liftoff of the Fed’s QT aren’t guaranteed to be additional negative catalysts. The observable inputs to August CPI look pretty benign. Markets already lean toward another 75 basis-point rate hike in a few weeks. QT (quantitative tightening) is little more than the reduced dosage of a placebo. September performance is rough with markets in downtrends, on average, but also tends not to be as bad in midterm election years (take your pick). No doubt valuation remains a headwind — I’ve said if all this bear brings is a drop from 21x forward earnings to 15x (at June’s low) then the pendulum will not have swung all the way to cheap for sure. Relative to inflation, dividend yields, etc., equities don’t appear bargains. That said, the five largest S & P 500 stocks add more than 2 P/E points to the index’s current 17x multiple (the other 495 more like 15x) and, post-1990, the market simply hasn’t spent much time under 15x, right or wrong. -Market breadth is dead even, with the VIX snoozing near 25. The VIX has arguably downplayed the setback of the past two weeks, not in a worrisome way, but reflecting the range-trade character of the action, perhaps.

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