Late-day buying could be start of turnaround

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As U.S. stocks continue to struggle in 2016, equities are showing some signs selling pressure may be reaching an end.

A specialist trader works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The S&P 500 .SPX is down about 13 percent from its record high in May, as oil remains mired below $30 a barrel, while concerns about stability among banks and uncertainty about the U.S. Federal Reserve's path of rate hikes have pushed investors away from risk assets.

But recent trading action on an intraday basis suggests investors may be starting to warm up to stocks again. In three of the last four losing sessions, late-day buying took over in

a pattern that had begun to emerge at the end of January.

Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank in Chicago, views that as a positive sign. He pointed out in a recent note to clients that the so-called Smart Money Index, which compares trading action at the beginning and end of day trading, appears to have bottomed on January 12.

The rationale behind the index is that professionals tend to dominate activity later in the trading session, and buying in the latter stages is a positive signal.

“My suspicion is that you are seeing institutions nibble at extremely compressed valuations,” said Peter Kenny, equity market strategist at Kenny & Co LLC in Denver.

“The bottom line is, if you are ending the session with a positive trend, that tends to give the impression that there are buyers out there.”

However, while late-day buying may be a good sign, it also could be preventing selling pressure from being exhausted - the so-called “capitulation” that some market watchers are waiting for before they race in to buy. Even Ablin, who sees the bright side, says shares have to fall another five to ten percent before they are fairly valued.

Another contrarian indicator released this week that could bode well for stocks is the AAII investor sentiment survey, which showed 48.7 percent of investors were bearish, near a three-year high.

Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia noted the severely bearish sentiment and said in a note to clients, “while this might seem counter-intuitive, high amounts of negative sentiment versus positive sentiment often are a prelude to a move higher in stocks.”

Earnings also will remain in play next week, with names such as PCLN.O and Wal-Mart WMT.N providing insight into the health of the consumer after a positive retail sales report on Friday.

Investors will also get data next week on regional manufacturing in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, which has been weak, as well as inflation data and the minutes from the most recent Fed meeting.

“If the U.S. economic landscape remains non-recessionary, if we continue to see gains in several of the major data points that have provided for a fairly constructive, maybe not equity market, but economic narrative, then we see some traction,” said Kenny.

Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; editing by Linda Stern and Nick Zieminski