Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Week Ahead: Health Care

Tradition says the most influential report of the week will be the 4th-quarter gross domestic product final on Thursday.

But I would argue that the big event of the week is political: The Supreme Court's three-day hearings into legal challenges to the health-care reforms proposed by President Obama and passed by Congress in 2010.

The questions posed by justices will give the first hint regarding their thinking on the issue, and we can bet that the pundits and crystal-ball gazers will be out in full force with commentary.

Health care spending accounts for 18% of the American economy. The purpose of the reforms was, among other things, to get health-care spending under control. If the law is struck down, the lack of health-care spending controls will have a depressing effect of economic activiity and will increase the dififculty of balancing the federal budget.

So the court's opinion will matter -- if not immediately then down the road -- and the hearing will at the least provide a broad undercurrent to traders' assessment of future market prospects.

The hearings are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern, and Wednesday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The court is expected to issue an opinion in June. Transcripts and recordings will be released by 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and by 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

Politics aside, there are four major reports scheduled for the week.

Durable goods orders, released Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., tracks purchases of big-ticket items -- the sorts of things that are on the capital budget. It is an indicator of business confidence, and also future manufacturing.

GDP, at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, is the final and, in theory, most accurate assessment of business activity in the fourth quarter. A surprise here would be unusual, but should it happen, it would be impactful.

Weekly jobless claims, also at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, are the most timely indicator of how the always important job market is faring.

Personal income and outlays, at 8:30 a.m. Friday, tracks how much we're getting and how much of that we're spending. Subtract the spending from the getting, and the result is the saving. Some economists say a high savings rate, as worried consumers sock it away rather than shopping till they drop, is a major cause of the slow recovery from the recent recession.

Lesser reports of interest: 

Monday: Pending home sales at 10 a.m. and the Dallas Fed's survey of manufacturing at 10:30 a.m.

Tuesday: The S&P Case-Shiller home price index, which tracks prices in 20 metro areas. Housing markets are local, and I consider this report to provide the best insight into what's really happening in housing. Also, consumer confidence from the Conference Board at 10 a.m.

Wednesday: Petroleum inventories at 10:30 a.m.

Friday: The Chicago purchasing managers survey (As goes Chicagoland so goes the Nation!) at 9:45 a.m. and consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan at 9:55 a.m. 

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke addresses the National Association for Business Economics on Monday at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday, at 12:45 p.m., he gives another in a series of lectures at the George Washington School of Business.

Two other members of the Federal Open Market Committee, Philadelphia Fed Pres. Charles Plosser and Richmond Fed Pres. Jeffrey Lacker, are on the speaking circuit.

Plosser, a member of the Gang of Three dissident Fedsters who voted last year against expanding the money supply, speaks Monday at 7:30 a.m. and Thursday at 1 p.m.

He has had institutional ties to Chase Manhattan Bank, Eastman Kodak Co., Wyatt Co., ViaHealth Inc., RGS Energy Group Inc. and Chase Manhattan Bank, all in consulting or advisory capacities. He also co-chaired the Shadow Open Market Committee, which second-guessed the Fed’s monetary policy.

Lacker, who in January dissented over an expansion of the Fed's openness, voting against a statement that the FOMC would keep rates low into late 2014, speaks Thursday at 6:45 p.m. He taught economics at Purdue University before coming to work for the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank in 1989.

Two FOMC alternates will also speak.

Boston Fed Pres. Eric Rosengren speaks Tuesday, and St. Louis Fed Pres. James Bullard on Wednesday.

Both came up through the Fed system. Rosengren has expertise in the Japanese banking system.

All of the Fed speakers, including Bernanke, took office under President George W. Bush.

By my rules, as of Monday I can trade April diagonal, butterfly, calendar and vertical spreads, iron condors and covered calls, and July single options and straddles. Of course, shares are good at any time.

Good trading!

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