The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) are closing out January just as the month began: with a triple-digit loss. This morning, stocks dropped on concerns on multiple fronts, with the Dow falling 170 points as of 11 a.m. EST. An earnings warning from retail juggernaut Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and ill-received results from energy giant Chevron (NYSE:CVX) must take some of the blame. On the economic front, a third-straight monthly drop in the Chicago Purchasing Managers' Index pointed to choppiness in the U.S. economy, and a key reading of consumer sentiment dropped in January from the previous month's levels. At the same time, ongoing stresses in emerging-market economies could lead to further central bank action to stem the threat of trouble spreading into other countries. With the Dow slated to post a huge loss for January, many wonder if the stock market is doomed to poor performance in 2014.
At current levels, the Dow has lost almost 900 points this month, and unless the average recovers later today, investors will finally have the 5% blue-chip index correction that many have been anticipating. With so much volatility in the market lately, it's easy for investors to conclude that the time is ripe to get out of stocks with the lion's share of their gains over the past five years.
But when you look at individual stocks within the Dow, you get two different pictures of the market. On one hand, Chevron is driving today's losses, with a 32% drop in earnings coming from lower oil prices and falling production both domestically and worldwide. Coming on the heels of rival ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) earnings report yesterday, the challenges that huge oil companies are having in maintaining production levels as energy prices fall could continue to impact the market throughout the year. So far, those concerns really haven't spread to most of the smaller energy companies that have driven the U.S. boom in energy production, but the entire industry is sensitive to changing market conditions for crude oil and natural gas products.
On the other hand, one surprising winner today is Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), which is up almost 1%. The heavy-equipment maker has suffered from poor economic prospects for China and other key markets for a long time, but shareholders are increasingly optimistic that the worst could be over for the company. Optimism about Caterpillar points to the potential for the entire stock market to rebound even if January's mini-correction turns into more extensive losses in future months, as long as a market decline doesn't reverse the macroeconomic progress that the U.S. has seen since the 2008 recession ended.
Investors shouldn't conclude that the Dow will have a down 2014 just because of January's results. But they should also be prepared for what would be a natural loss for stocks after five consecutive years of gains. By preparing for all eventualities, investors can position themselves to take maximum advantage of whatever conditions they face in 2014.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.