The Dow Jones Industrial Average is on track for its sixth-straight day of moving up or down by less than 0.2 percent, the longest streak of such dullness since 1970, according to data compiled by Birinyi Associates. Overall, the Dow is little changed on Friday and little changed since December 2.
It’s either a supreme standoff between bulls and bears or simply a period of extreme uncertainty for investors reluctant to commit more capital when they’re sitting on some decent returns for the year. This period of consolidation (trader talk for "boring") comes at a time when the Dow is just a few points away from its high for the year of 11,444, hit at the start of November. The average is up 9 percent on the year.
"Markets are adrift as they continue to search for a new theme to trade," said Andrew Busch, strategist for BMO Capital Markets. "The crosscurrents of newsflow disrupts any hope for consistent profits."
The crosscurrents Busch cited including China data pointing to a strong economy, but also higher rates, the lack of a bailout plan yet for Europe and uncertainty over whether the Obama tax deal will pass both Houses.
Another cause of the doldrums could be the action in other markets, namely the selloff in the bond market. The yield on the 10-year Treasury posted its biggest weekly increase of the year, freezing equity investors in their tracks as lower rates have been the biggest boon behind the stock bull market.
"We are at the highs and we are waiting for a catalyst to be decided," said Michael Block, chief equities strategist at Phoenix Partners Group. "The consummation of the tax cut deal should be that catalyst, even if we think it’s a foregone conclusion. Hedge funds are done for the year, the majority of them any way."
Other than the vote on the tax cut, the market is running out of potential catalysts. The Federal Reserve meets next week, but economists expect the rhetoric from Ben Bernanke and crew to be little changed. This hurts the chances of those hoping for a classic ‘Santa Claus’ rally.
Said BMO’s Busch, "Given the proximity to the holidays, volumes will be low and price movement suspect."
Note: if the Dow is able to close 0.2 percent higher today, the 5-day little-changed streak will be just the fourth one to occur in 40 years.
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John Melloy is the Executive Producer of Fast Money. Before joining CNBC, he was an editor for Bloomberg News, overseeing the U.S. Stock Market coverage team.