Before the Bell: Ho-Ho-Ho, Tesla Short Sellers Gloat; Will Santa Visit Wall Street This Year?

Pre-market action Friday morning has all three major U.S. indexes trading slightly higher: the Dow is up 0.34%, the S&P 500 is up 0.32%, and the Nasdaq Composite is 0.34% higher.

All 11 market sectors closed lower Thursday, with consumer cyclicals (down 2.59%) and technology (down 2.54%) dropping the most. Healthcare (down 0.16%) and consumer staples (down 0.39%) posted the day’s smallest losses. The Dow closed down 1.05%, the S&P 500 closed down 1.45%, and the Nasdaq Composite closed down 2.18%.

Friday’s major data announcement is the November report on the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. Economists expect the index to increase by 0.2% month over month, less than the October rise of 0.3%. The PCE core index (excluding food and energy) is expected to rise by 0.3%, more than the 0.2% increase reported for October. Spending is forecast to drop from a gain of 0.8% to a gain of just 0.1%.

Several issues cast a chill over the markets Thursday, in the same way that the bomb cyclone has sent temperatures across more than half the United States plunging. It all started after markets closed Wednesday and chipmaker Micron Technology Inc. (NASDAQ: MU) posted bad numbers, said it expected more of the same in 2023, and announced that it would cut about 10% of its workforce.

Semiconductor equipment makers Lam Research Corp. (NASDAQ: LRCX) and Applied Materials Inc. (NASDAQ: AMAT) dropped 8.65% and 7.84%, respectively. Partly that’s due to an oversupply of semiconductors, but the bigger factor is a decline of 40% in sales to China, the result of U.S. restrictions on sales of the most advanced chips and chipmaking equipment to the People’s Republic.

And while the third estimate of third-quarter GDP growth came in higher (3.2%) than expected (consensus estimate of 29%), stoking fears that the Fed will keep tightening for longer, and, ultimately, tighten too much, leading to a recession. Thursday’s worst-performing sectors, consumer cyclicals and technology, bore the brunt of investors’ unhappiness. The GDP price deflator, a measure of inflation, was revised upward, from 4.3% to 4.4%. Economists had expected the deflator to remain unchanged.

New claims for jobless benefits rose by 216,000, well below the expected increase of 225,000 and slightly higher than the revised total of 214,000 for the prior week. Continuing claims were flat at 1.67 million. Traders took this report as a further sign of more Fed tightening.

And then there was Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA). Shares in Elon Musk’s electric vehicle maker set a new 52-week low of $122.26 on Thursday, a level it hasn’t dropped to in more than two years. Musk’s recent sale of some $7 billion in Tesla stock to help finance his acquisition of Twitter has few admirers among traders. The company announced yesterday that consumers willing to take delivery by the end of December will get a $7,500 discount to level them up with buyers who will earn a $7,500 federal tax credit if they buy after January 1.

Musk promised to sell no more Tesla stock until 2024 or 2025, and reiterated his belief that the Fed’s interest rate hike is hurting Tesla more than his infatuation with Twitter. Tesla stock is down more than 64% this year and down 44% since Musk closed his $44 billion deal for Twitter. Since early April, when he first offered to buy the social media site, shares have lost 67%. But none of that is Musk’s fault.

Musk also handed short sellers an early Christmas present. So far in 2022, Tesla has contributed some $15 billion in mark-to-market profit for short sellers. That figure comes from S3 Partners’ Managing Director of Predictive Analytics Ihor Dusaniwsky, who tracks the short interest. Dusaniwsky noted that one of the major reasons for short sellers’ success with Tesla is the volatility that comes with having the least number of institutional shareholders (always going long) of the three most shorted stocks: Apple, Tesla, and Microsoft.

As for the Santa Claus rally that traders look for in the last five trading sessions of the year, it’s either just getting started or already over, depending on your point of view. CNBC’s Jim Cramer said earlier this week that Thursday would be an “ideal time to buy.” Maybe the buying will materialize Friday. Or maybe not?

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