Nervous investors are looking beyond positive U.S. economic signs


New home sales are up. The unemployment rate is falling. Companies are buying one another, signaling confidence in the economy.

But investors are turning their back on positive economic signs, looking nervously at Europe’s seemingly never-ending debt troubles and Facebook’s flat IPO, wondering whether the global economy is beginning yet another deep dive.

“Although better economic data did not go unnoticed, investors look forward and not backward,” said David Dietze, president and chief investment strategist at Point View Wealth Management in Summit, N.J. “All eyes are looking across the pond and seeing a bit of a meltdown in terms of the European sovereign debt crisis.”

European stocks and the euro plunged Wednesday to 2012 lows on growing fears about a potential Greek exit from the Eurozone. Rattled investors then sent major U.S. indexes sharply lower in another volatile trading session, though stocks were able to reverse losses and finish mostly flat.

Investors won’t likely see stocks rally in the near future. The Dow Jones industrial average has slid downhill since May 1, staying below 13,000 for the last two weeks. The yield on 10-year Treasuries is reaching an all-time low, and investors are even running from gold, a one-time safe bet that has fallen 12% since February.

Problems in Europe have plagued the global economic outlook for more than a year. But turmoil ahead of Greece’s June 17 elections indicates that the country’s new leadership may not follow through with agreed-upon austerity measures.

Leaders in Germany, which has the strongest economy in the Eurozone, are finding it politically difficult to continue to extend credit to Greece. But they also are loath to see the common currency crumble with a Greek exit.

Europe has so far come up with short-term solutions for these problems. Analysts say that long-term solutions are likely to be more painful than anything the continent has recently experienced.

“The economy is in a downward spiral, debt burdens are rising, the public is not accepting fiscal austerity, and at some point the Greek situation will come to its head,” said Sara Johnson, an economist with IHS Global Insight, which says the probability of a Greek exit from the Eurozone is 75%.

Though the U.S. economy is not overly dependent on European consumers, countries in Asia and South America could suffer if there is less European demand for their exports. That could in turn slow demand for U.S. products.

U.S. companies had, by and large, positive earnings reports this year, growth that does not appear sustainable for the remainder of the year.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, investors might have shrugged at a potential Greek exit from the Eurozone. Greece is, after all, a small country within the European Union. But investors have learned that crises can unravel an economy very quickly, said Wayne Lin, portfolio manager for Legg Mason Global Asset Allocation.

“Prior to Lehman, people may have taken the position ‘We know that it’s going to get settled, it will work itself out,’” he said. “But now they have a healthier fear of the unknown. 2008 made a lot of people aware that there can be a lot of adverse short-term effects from adverse event shocks.”

On Wednesday, the Dow dropped nearly 200 points early in the session before closing down 6.66 points, or 0.05%, at 12,496.15. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index also reversed losses to end up 2.23 points, or 0.17%, at 1,318.86.

Stocks appear headed for another volatile session Thursday.

Dell, usually a blue-chip stock, announced late Wednesday that its fiscal first-quarter earnings missed analyst expectations. HP said Wednesday it would lay off 27,000 workers, the most in company history, even though earnings beat analyst expectations.

Investors are also weighing a Congressional Budget Office study warning that the automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to begin in 2013, absent Congressional action, coupled with the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, could throw the country into recession.

“Recently, people are really starting to throw up their hands,” said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer’s Investment Research in Cincinnati. “They’re running for the safety of bonds and money markets.”

Some analysts had hoped last week’s initial public offering of Facebook stock would reinvigorate the markets, attracting once-jaded investors and individuals alike. Instead, shares have fallen sharply since the first day of trading, and Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating potential issues with the IPO.

“Everyone thought Facebook was going to be the catalyst to ignite Main Street’s interest in the markets,” Dietze said. “Now, instead of being a catalyst, it reinforces investors’ concerns on Main Street.”

Many portfolio managers say they’re reducing their risks and diversifying their assets to wait out the European crisis. That might make it a good time for strong-stomached investors to get into the stock market with an eye on potential long-term gains, analysts said.

They’ll have to ignore the headlines in Europe and instead focus on the positive signs in the U.S. economy.

Sales of new homes rose 3.3% in April, and analysts predict GDP growth above 2% this year and next. Merger and acquisitions are picking up: This week SAP America Inc. agreed to buy Ariba Inc. and Eaton Corp. agreed to merge with electrical products manufacturer Cooper Industries.

“We definitely feel that if there is a pullback, you could see investors with money waiting to jump in,” said Jeffrey Frankel, president of Stuart Frankel & Co. “As long as the U.S. continues to be on the road to recovery, prices will continue to be at a discount here.”