How we hate the idea of removing a bandage. It so nicely covers the damage and the pain underneath that we soon prefer the façade to the reality. We especially fear its removal as we know the adhesive will only reluctantly and painfully give up its sticky hold on our very sensitive skin. Knowing the quick yank is best, we often resort to the painfully slow tugging approach.

Until Monday, investors seemed little interested in rising oil prices.  But oil’s crossing of the $60.00 threshold rattled more than a few.  Stocks declined for the past four days as oil prices increased.  When the price of crude briefly crossed $60.00 yesterday for the second time this week on the New York Mercantile Exchange, even more headed for the exits.  FedEx didn’t help matters as they reported earnings that fell short of expectations; blaming high fuel process for some of their problem.  The DOW was down 1.6% and the broader S&P 500 was down a little over one percent. 

The headline Unemployment Rate, announced this morning, fell by a tenth of a percent to 5.6%, the lowest since January 2002.  But today’s focus is on the number of jobs created.  The change in non-farm (service) payrolls was up by 112,000 jobs, the biggest jump in three years, but less than expected.  Everyone from economists, to analysts, from bond traders to stock traders, and I suspect the White House expected a bigger number.  Why?  Virtually every measure of growth in theU.S.economy points to increased job formation.

To the casual observer, this week’s markets seem overly concerned with news that should have been expected and already priced into stocks.  We know, for instance, that a recession means higher unemployment numbers, declining payrolls, and weaker retail sales.  So why did it seem like investors ran for the exits this week after the buying spree of the week before?  The answer lies somewhere between human nature and the tax code.  Last week saw a market poised shake off months of pessimism in favor of the possibility that the economy would be turning soon.  Stocks rallied as investors and portfolio managers bought to avoid being left behind in case a new bull market was emerging.  Another common characteristic of investors is their tendency to hold positions with losses as long as possible hoping that time will reduce their losses.  As the year comes to a close, investors must sell their losses to recognize them for tax purposes.  Some years the process is orderly.  This year’s tax selling season will likely be more erratic because of the significant losses sustained by investors in 2001, generally bad economic news, and disappointing quarterly corporate earnings reports.  Sellers may panic into ‘selling at any price’ on market decline days, forcing some stocks to decline further than they would in more normal markets.