Market Preview: Hitting Pause

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Updated from 5:58 p.m. ET to include after-hours trading action.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The orderly rally of 2012 seems to be giving way to an equally polite sell-off.

The theory for a while now has been that stocks were just waiting for a reason to pull back. Well, it would be difficult to find a riper reason than the weak employment report that arrived Friday yet Monday's low-volume selling never reached anything near panic proportions.

That said, all three major U.S. equity indices are now the proud owners of four-day losing streaks, and the damage is starting to add up. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example, is off nearly 335 points, or 2.5%, in that stretch.

That marks the blue-chip index's largest four-day points decline since mid-December when this latest bull run was still finding its footing, according to data complied by Dow Jones Indexes. The S&P 500 has given back 2.6%, and the Nasdaq has surrendered 2.3% over the same period. At the very least, the pause button has been hit, but even the bulls would probably like to see a deeper drop with heavier volume to better establish a level to rally further from.

The problem (of sorts) though is that real fear still seems to be a ways away.

Consider that much of the commentary around the shortfall in job creation last month was inclined to view the miss against the larger backdrop of the progress made over the last few months, rather than a sign of more weakness to come. UBS, for example, is still on board with the view that the slow recovery remains intact.

"Smoothing through the monthly volatility there has been net improvement in payrolls this year," the firm said Monday. "In the first quarter, payrolls have gained 212k per month on average, up from 152k per month in 2011. The pace so far this year is more than strong enough to keep the unemployment rate declining. Healthy bank lending should help support a solid trend in payrolls. We still expect a 200k trend in private-sector job growth in coming months."

Then there's the argument that the jobs number disappointment just increases the likelihood that the Federal Reserve will need to come through with more stimulus, so that may be luring some cash off the sidelines.

Ben Bernanke & Co. definitely don't want a repeat of 2011's summer of volatility when triple-digit swings in the Dow seemed like the norm, so it's certainly possible that an extension of Operation Twist, which expires in June and doesn't boost the Fed's overall asset holdings, could get sufficient support if the economic data really starts to fall off and consumers slow spending because of high gas prices.

Poor jobs report or no, stocks were already looking overdue for a meaningful decline, according to Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Captial IQ, who pointed out that the S&P 500's surge off the October lows has outperformed historical precedent.

"At its recent recovery high of 1419.04 on April 2, 2012, the S&P 500 had risen 29% from its closing low of 1099.23 on October 3, 2011," he wrote in market commentary released Monday. "An advance of 24% is the six-month average following severe corrections or mild bear markets since 1945. Yet this six-month recovery came close to the average 32% rise in the 12 months following these declines. Has the 500's recovery borrowed from the future?"

Stovall also noted that the spread between the S&P 500 and its 200-day simple moving average reached 12.1% on March 26, the widest gap seen in 12 months.

"While not a guarantee of an eventual decline, it has been a fairly reliable indicator, in my opinion, of an eventual digestion of recent gains, or at least a pause in its future advance," he said. "The last time the S&P traded at a double-digit percentage above its 200-day moving average was May 10, 2011, very early in the eventual decline that would trim more than 19% from the value of the S&P 500."

A level to watch is the S&P 500's 50-day moving average of 1370, which would constitute a decline of 3.5% from a close of 1419 on April 2, when the current streak of down days began. Keep an eye on the VIX as well. Wall Street's so-called fear gauge jumped 12.6% to 18.81 on Monday, nearing the 20 level after which market worries are said to be meaningfully increasing.

Meantime, it wasn't all that surprising to see Apple shares shrug off a rare downgrade on Monday, but it was worth noting that the call made by BTIG Research is really looking further out, raising questions about whether the company's iPhone business could be hurt by wireless companies pushing back on subsidizing upgrades as 2012 progresses.

The firm argues that AT&T , Apple's biggest customer, and the other wireless providers have to take this step to protect margins and theorizes a repeat of Apple's one hiccup last year could be in the offing.

"We expect quarterly upgrade rates to contract further in calendar Q2 (Apple's Fiscal Q3) based on typical wireless seasonal trends and likely increased speculation on the anticipation of a new iPhone in the second half of the year," wrote BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk. "Recall that investors were surprised by Apple's Fiscal Q3 results last year because of the slowdown in iPhone sales ahead of the expected launch of the iPhone 4S. We also do not expect a material broadening of market launches for the product like what was seen in the first calendar quarter."

It's difficult to overstate Apple's importance to the broad market at this point. For example, the blended earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 currently sits at just 3.2% for the first quarter, according to Thomson Reuters, but that estimate drops down to 1.8% if Apple is removed from the equation.

As for Tuesday's scheduled news, Alcoa is the big name on the earnings docket Tuesday. The aluminum producer is traditionally the first Dow component to report its results each quarter, and it's slated to reveal how it fared in the first three months of 2012 after Tuesday's closing bell.

The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for a loss of 4 cents a share in the first quarter on revenue of $5.77 billion. An in-line performance would represent the company's second straight quarter in the red as Alcoa struggles with lower pricing and the impact of Europe's sovereign debt woes on demand.

That's led to the company cutting back production; most recently announcing plans last week to reduce its annual alumina production capacity by about 390,000 metric tons to match up better with previously announced smelter curtailments and the always ominous "prevailing market conditions."

Alcoa shares are up 11% so far in 2012, but it's still down more than 40% in the past year, ranging from a 52-week high of $18.19 on April 11, 2011 to a low of $8.45 in early October. The bears outnumber the bulls on the sell side with 12 of the 21 analysts covering the stock at hold (9), underperform (2) and sell (1). The median 12-month price target sits at $11.25, implying potential upside of nearly 15% from Monday's close at $9.60.

Deutsche Bank, which has a hold rating and a $10 price target on Alcoa, is expecting a loss of 5 cents a share for the quarter with the bottom line being held back by $30 million in expected raw material inflation/maintenance expenses in its Alumina business, $25 million in energy-related costs in Primary Metals operations and $10 million in headwinds from foreign currency exchange activities.

The firm pegged EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) at $422 million, which would be a 5% quarter-over-quarter decline, and said further weakness could lead to shareholder dilution.

"At 1Q12E EBITDA rates and without a significant recovery in aluminium prices, we believe Alcoa may resort to ~6% equity issuance in 2012 to fund a $650m pension gap, otherwise leverage will rise," said Deutsche Bank in its preview of the report on Monday.

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Alcoa for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

SUPERVALU also reports on Tuesday, and Wall Street is looking for a profit of 35 cents a share in the supermarket retailer's fiscal fourth quarter ended in February on revenue of $8.31 billion.

Shares of the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company haven't participated in 2012's rally, dropping more than 35% since the start of the year with declining sales prompting restructuring activities, including the Feb. 7 announcement of plans to reduce its workforce by 800 jobs.

BMO Capital Markets noted on Monday that the selling pressure on the stock has been particularly fierce of late as it's down more than 20% since March 19's close at $6.48 based on Friday's finish at $5.13. The firm has a market perform, or hold rating, on SUPERVALU with an $8 price target vs. Monday's close at $5.32

"Even with the 35% short interest, ~7% dividend yield, reasonable valuation and ample liquidity, there appears to be no support (or no incremental buyer) for the stock," said the firm, which has a market perform rating on SUPERVALU and is expecting earnings of 39 cents a share in the quarter.

"We are hopeful 4Q12 represents a trough in performance and hope the company can present investors with meaningful positive data points to appease existing investors and generate an incremental buyer, because despite significant company specific and macro challenges, we see no liquidity issues for the foreseeable future, so believe the excessive selling pressure has been unwarranted," BMO continued.

SUPERVALU's forward price-to-earnings ratio sits at 4.45X vs. 9.49X for Kroger , and 9.22X for Safeway , but bulls are still few and far between with just three of the 18 analysts covering SUPERVALU at either strong buy (1) or buy (2) and the rest split between hold (12), underperform (2) and sell (1).

Check out TheStreet's quote page for SUPERVALU for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

The economic data doesn't pick up until late in the week with the producer price index and consumer price index for March until Thursday and Friday respectively, and the first read from the University of Michigan on consumer sentiment in April due on Friday as well.

Tuesday features wholesale inventories for February at 10 a.m. ET. The consensus is for an increase of 0.5%, according to Briefing.com, but Wall Street likely won't get too excited one way or another, given how old the data is.

And finally, Harmonic and VIVUS were both trading lower in Monday's after-hours action.

A regulatory setback sent shares of VIVUS more than 8% lower to $20.98 on late volume of nearly 1.3 million. The Food and Drug Administration pushed back the Prescription Drug User Fee Act review date related to the new drug application for Qnexa, the company's proposed obesity drug, to July 17 from April 17.

Harmonic shares lost 4% to $4.76 on volume of more than 90,000, according to Nasdaq.com, after the maker of video equipment lowered its revenue and gross margin outlook for the first quarter. The company cited weak demand from its European customers as part of the reason for the diminished forecast.

--Written by Michael Baron in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.

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