Early last week, stocks broke out, with the S&P 500 setting a new high with blue skies overhead. But then the market basically flat-lined for the rest of the week as bulls just couldn’t gather the fuel and conviction to take prices higher. In fact, the technical picture now has turned a bit defensive, at least for the short term, thus joining what has been a neutral-to-defensive tilt to our fundamentals-based Outlook rankings.

Stocks closed last week on a strong note, with the S&P 500 notching a new high, despite lackluster economic data and growth. I have been suggesting in previous articles that stocks appeared to be coiling for a significant move but that the ingredients were not yet in place for either a major breakout or a corrective selloff. However, bulls appear to be losing patience awaiting their next definitive catalyst, and the higher-likelihood upside move may now be underway. Yet despite the bullish technical picture, this week’s fundamentals-based Outlook rankings look even more defensive.

After posting record highs the previous week, stocks closed last week slightly down overall. But the major indexes held their psychological levels, including Dow at 18,000, S&P 500 at 2100, NASDAQ at 5,000, and Russell 2000 at 1200. Although the bulls continue to find reliable support levels nearby, strong overhead technical resistance and neutral-to-defensive rankings in our SectorCast fundamentals-based quant model continue to suggest that a major upside breakout is not quite imminent, although a selloff doesn’t seem to be in the cards, either.

Last week, stocks cycled bullish yet again. In fact, the S&P 500, NYSE Composite, and NASDAQ each closed at record highs as investors positioned for the heart of earnings season in the wake of strong reports from some of the Tech giants. Notably, Utilities stocks got some renewed traction as yield-starved investors returned to the sector.

As we get into the heart of earnings season and anticipate the GDP report for Q1, the investor spotlight has been taken off the Federal Reserve and timing of its first interest rate hike, at least temporarily. Even though Q1 economic growth will undoubtedly look weak, the future remains bright for the U.S economy – even though many multinationals will struggle with top-line growth due to the strong dollar – and any near-term selloff resulting from weak economic or earnings news should be bought yet again in expectation of better results for the balance of the year.

When I’m in my sales role, I view every prospective client as falling into one of two broad baskets: those looking for a reason to say yes, and those looking for a reason to say no. I always try to focus on the former and spend little time on the latter. Likewise, last week’s market was dominated by those looking for a reason to sell. And so they did. Good news in the jobs and unemployment reports spooked investors on Friday, and stocks fell hard. So, for the moment we are back to a Fed-driven good-news-is-bad-news story line, or so it would seem.

Despite low trading volume, a strong dollar, mixed economic and earnings reports, paralyzing weather conditions throughout much of the U.S., and ominous global news events, stocks continue to march ever higher. The world remains on edge about potential Black Swan events from the likes of Russia, Greece, or ISIS (or lone wolf extremists). Moreover, the economic recovery of the U.S. may be feeling the pull of the proverbial ball-and-chain from the rest of the world’s economies. Nevertheless, awash in investable cash, global investors see few choices better than U.S. equities.

Stocks are hitting new highs across the board, even though earnings reports have been somewhat disappointing. Actually, to be more precise, Q4 results have been pretty good, but it is forward guidance that has been cautious and/or cloudy as sales into overseas markets are expected to suffer due to strength in the US dollar.

Volatility continues as the parade of mixed earnings and economic reports marches along amidst a backdrop of global unrest and economic uncertainties. This has led to a neutral near-term outlook for both the technical picture and fundamentals-based sector rankings. Nevertheless, the longer-term trends appear to favor further flattening of the yield curve and continued strength in the dollar, gold, volatility, and equities.

Volatility reigned in January on elevated volume as stock investors shifted their focus from global events to U.S. earnings reports, which have ranged from amazing (e.g., Apple) to crushing (e.g., Microsoft). Although the earnings reports have brought plenty of surprises, the volatility is no surprise, as I and many other market commentators predicted for the New Year.

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