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New Sabrient Dividend UIT Launched

May 23, 2024:  A new Sabrient Dividend UIT Portfolio (Ticker: FBJJSX) – 48th in the series -- was launched by First Trust Portfolios on May 23, 2024. This UIT seeks companies with above-average total return through a combination of capital appreciation and dividend income. The stocks are selected through an investment strategy process developed by Sabrient. The portfolio will terminate on May 22, 2026. For more information, a prospectus, or a fact sheet, please visit First Trust Portfolios

New Small Cap Growth UIT Launched  

May 1, 2024: The 42nd Sabrient Small Cap Growth UIT Portfolio (FCVYCX) was launched by First Trust Portfolios on May 1, 2024. This portfolio invests in top-ranked (at the time of their selection) small-cap stocks that represent a cross-section of industries that Sabrient believes are positioned to perform well in the coming year. The stocks are GARP stocks—stocks that represent "growth at a reasonable price”—and they are meant to be held for the full term of the trust, which terminates August 1, 2025. For a prospectus or fact sheet, please visit First Trust Portfolios.

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

The first half of 2024 looked a lot like the first half of 2023. As you recall, H1 2023 saw a strong stock market despite only modest GDP growth as inflation metrics fell, and H2 2023 continued on the same upward path for stocks despite a slowdown in inflation’s retreat, buoyed by robust GDP growth. Similarly, for H1 2024, stocks have surged despite a marked slowdown in GDP growth (from 4.1% in the second half of 2023 to an estimated 1.5% in the first half of 2024) and continued “stickiness” in inflation—causing rate-cut expectations to fall from 7 quarter-point cuts at the start of the year to just 2 at most.

And yet stocks have continued to surge, with 33 record highs this year for the S&P 500 through last Friday, 7/5. Of course, it is no secret that the primary driver of persistent market strength, low volatility (VIX in the mid-12’s), and an extreme low in the CBOE put/call ratio (around 0.50) has been the narrow leadership of a handful of dominant, innovative, mega-cap Tech titans and the promise of (and massive capital expenditures on) artificial intelligence. But while the S&P 500 is up +17.4% YTD and Nasdaq 100 +21.5% (both at all-time highs), the small cap indexes are flat to negative, with the Russell 2000 languishing -14% below its June 2021 all-time high.

Furthermore, recessionary signals abound. GDP and jobs growth are slowing. Various ISM indexes have fallen into economic contraction territory (below 50). Q2 earnings season kicks off in mid-July amid more cuts to EPS estimates from the analyst community. Given a slowing economy and falling estimates, it’s entirely possible we will see some high-profile misses and reduced forward guidance. So, investors evidently believe that an increasingly dovish Fed will be able to revive growth without revving up inflation.

But is this all we have to show for the rampant deficit spending that has put us at a World War II-level ratio of 120% debt (nearly $35 trillion) to GDP (nearly $29 trillion)? And that doesn’t account for estimated total unfunded liabilities—comprising the federal debt and guaranteed programs like Social Security, Medicare, employee pensions, and veterans’ benefits—estimated to be around $212 trillion and growing fast, not to mention failing banks, municipal pension liabilities, and bankrupt state budgets that might eventually need federal bailouts.

Moreover, the federal government “buying” jobs and GDP in favored industries is not the same as private sector organic growth and job creation. Although the massive deficit spending might at least partly turn out to be a shrewd strategic investment in our national and economic security, it is not the same as incentivizing organic growth via tax policies, deregulation, and a lean government. Instead, we have a “big government” politburo picking and choosing winners and losers, not to mention funding multiple foreign wars, and putting it all on a credit card to be paid by future generations. I have more to say on this—including some encouraging words—in my Final Comments section below.

As for inflation, the Fed’s preferred gauge, Core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE, aka Consumer Spending), for May was released on 6/28 showing a continued downward trend (albeit slower than we all want to see). Core PCE came in at just +0.08% month-over-month (MoM) from April and +2.57% YoY. But Core PCE ex-shelter is already below 2.5%, so as the lengthy lag in shelter cost metrics passes, Core PCE should fall below 2.5% as well, perhaps as soon as the update for June on 7/26, which could give the Fed the data it needs to cut. By the way, the latest real-time, blockchain-based Truflation rate (which historically presages CPI) hit a 52-week low the other day at just 1.83% YoY.

In any case, as I stated in my June post, I am convinced the Fed would like to starting cutting soon—and it may happen sooner than most observers are currently predicting. Notably, ever since the final days of June—marked by the presidential debate, PCE release, various jobs reports, and the surprising results in Europe and UK elections, the dollar and the 10-year yield have both pulled back—perhaps on the view that rate cuts are indeed imminent. On the other hand, the FOMC might try to push it out as much as possible to avoid any appearance of trying to impact the November election. However, Fed chair Powell stated last week that the committee stands ready to cut rates more aggressively if the US labor market weakens significantly (and unemployment just rose above the magic 4-handle to 4.1%)—so it appears the investor-friendly “Fed put” is back in play, which has helped keep traders bullishly optimistic. The June readings for PPI and CPI come out later this week on 7/11-12, and July FOMC policy announcement comes out on 7/31.

And as inflation recedes, real interest rates rise. As it stands today, I think the real yield is too high—great for savers but bad for borrowers, which would suggest the Fed is behind the curve. The current fed funds rate is roughly 3% above the CPI inflation forecast, which means we have the tightest Fed interest rate policy since before the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (aka Great Recession). This tells me that the Fed has plenty of room to cut rates and still maintain restrictive monetary policy.

As I have said many times, I believe a terminal fed funds rate of 3.0-3.5% would be the appropriate level so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield.

Nevertheless, even with rates still elevated today, I believe any significant pullback in stocks (which I still think is coming before the November election, particularly in light of the extraordinarily poor market breadth) would be a buying opportunity. It’s all about investor expectations. As I’ve heard several commentators opine, the US, warts and all, is the “best house in a lousy [global] neighborhood.” I see US stocks and bonds (including TIPS) as good bets, particularly as the Fed and other central banks inject liquidity. But rather than chasing the high-flyers, I suggest sticking with high-quality, fundamentally strong stocks, displaying accelerating sales and earnings and positive revisions to Wall Street analysts’ consensus estimates.

By “high quality,” I mean fundamentally strong companies with a history of, and continued expectations for, consistent and reliable sales and earnings growth, upward EPS revisions from the analyst community, rising profit margins and free cash flow, solid earnings quality, and low debt burden. These are the factors Sabrient employs in selecting our growth-oriented Baker’s Dozen (primary market for the Q2 portfolio ends on 7/18), value-oriented Forward Looking Value portfolio, growth & income-oriented Dividend portfolio, and our Small Cap Growth portfolio (an alpha-seeking alternative to a passive position in the Russell 2000), as well as in our SectorCast ETF ranking model. Notably, our Earnings Quality Rank (EQR) is a key factor in each of these models, and it is also licensed to the actively managed, absolute-return-oriented First Trust Long-Short ETF (FTLS) as an initial screen.

Each of these alpha factors and how they are used within Sabrient’s Growth, Value, Dividend income, and Small Cap investing strategies is discussed in detail in David Brown’s new book, How to Build High Performance Stock Portfolios, which will be out shortly (I will send out a notification soon!).

In today’s post, I provide a detailed commentary on the economy, inflation, valuations, Fed policy expectations, and Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors, current positioning of our sector rotation model heading into earnings season, and several top-ranked ETF ideas.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format. I invite you to share it with your friends, colleagues, and clients (to the extent compliance allows). You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

Last week, the much-anticipated inflation readings for May—and the associated reaction from the Fed on planned rate cuts—was pretty much a non-event. The good news is core inflation continues to gradually fall. The bad news is it isn’t falling fast enough for the Fed. Headline CPI and PPI are pretty much stagnant over the past 12 months. This led the Fed to be mealy-mouthed about rate cuts. One might ask, why does it matter so much what the Fed does when the economy is doing fine, we have avoided recession, wages are growing, jobs are plentiful, unemployment is low, and asset prices are rising?

But the reality is there is a slow underlying deterioration happening from the lag effects of monetary tightening that is becoming increasingly apparent, including a lack of organic jobs and GDP growth (which is instead largely driven by government deficit spending) and a housing market (important for creating a “wealth effect” in our society) that is weakening (with growing inventory and slowing sales) given high mortgage rates that make for reluctant sellers and stretched buyers (notably, the 10-year yield and mortgage rates have pulled back of late just from rate cut talk). Moreover, real-time shelter inflation (e.g., rent) has been flat despite what the long-lagged CPI metrics indicate, and the real-time, blockchain-based Truflation reading has been hovering around 2.2% YoY, which happens to match the April and May PPI readings—all of which are very close to the Fed’s 2.0% inflation target.

Of course, stock market valuations are reliant upon expectations about economic growth, corporate earnings, and interest rates; and interest rates in turn are dependent on inflation readings. Although some observers saw promising trends in some components of May CPI and PPI, Fed chair Jay Powell played it down with the term “modest further progress,” and the “dot plot” on future rate cuts suggests only one or perhaps two rate cuts later this year.

Nevertheless, I continue to believe the Fed actually wants to cut rates sooner than later, and likely will do so during Q3—especially now that central banks in the EU, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have all cut rates. Moreover, Japan is struggling to support the yen with a positive interest rate—but it needs to keep rates low to prevent hurting its highly leveraged economy, so it needs the US to cut rates instead. The popular yen “carry trade” (short the yen, buy the dollar and US Treasuries) has been particularly difficult for the BoJ. All told, without commensurate cuts here in the US, it makes the dollar even stronger and thus harder on our trading partners to support their currencies and on emerging markets that tend to carry dollar-denominated debt. I talk more about this and other difficulties outside of the (often misleading) headline economic numbers in today’s post—including the “tapped out” consumer and the impact of unfettered (wartime-esque) federal spending on GDP, jobs, and inflation.

As for stocks, so far, the market’s “Roaring 20’s” next-century redux has proven quite resilient despite harsh obstacles like global pandemic, multiple wars, a surge in inflation, extreme political polarization and societal discord, unpredictable Fed policy, rising crime and mass immigration, not to mention doors flying off commercial aircraft (and now counterfeit titanium from China!). But investors have sought safety in a different way from the past, particularly given that stubborn inflation has hurt real returns. Rather than traditional defensive plays like non-cyclicals, international diversification, and fixed income, investors instead have turned to cash-flush, secular-growth, Big Tech. Supporting the bullishness is the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), which is back down around the 12 handle and is approaching levels not seen since 2017 during the “Trump Bump.” And given their steady performance coupled with the low market volatility, it has also encouraged risk-taking in speculative companies that may ride coattails of the Big Tech titans.

But most of all, of course, driving the rally (other than massive government deficit spending) has been the promise, rapid development, and implementation of Gen AI—as well as the new trends of “on-premises AI” for the workplace that avoids disruptions due to connectivity, latency, and cybersecurity, and AI personal computers that can perform the complex tasks of an analyst or assistant. The Technology sector has gone nearly vertical with AI giddiness, and it continues to stand alone atop Sabrient’s SectorCast rankings. And AI poster child NVIDIA (NVDA), despite being up 166% YTD, continues to score well in our Growth at Reasonable Price (GARP) model (95/100), and reasonably well in our Value model (79/100).

Nevertheless, I continue to believe there is more of a market correction in store this summer—even if for no other reason than mean reversion and the adage that nothing goes up in a straight line. Certainly, the technicals have become extremely overbought, especially on the monthly charts—which show a lot of potential downside if momentum gets a head of steam and the algo traders turn bearish. On the other hand, the giddy anticipation of rate cuts along with the massive stores of cash in money market funds as potential fuel may well keep a solid bid under stocks. Either way, longer term I expect higher prices by year end and into 2025 as high valuations are largely justified by incredible corporate earnings growth, a high ratio of corporate profits to GDP, and the promise of continued profit growth due to tremendous improvements in productivity, efficiency, and the pace of product development across the entire economy from Gen AI. In addition, central banks around the world are starting to cut rates and inject liquidity, which some expect to add as much as $2 trillion into the global economy—and into stocks and bonds.

On another note, it is striking that roughly half the world’s population goes to the polls to vote on their political leadership this year, and increasingly, people around the world have been seeking a different direction, expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo of their countries including issues like crime, mass immigration (often with a lack of assimilation), sticky inflation, stagnant economic growth, and a growing wealth gap—all of which have worsened in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdowns and acquiescence to social justice demands of the Far Left. Ever since the Brexit and Trump victories in 2016, there has been a growing undercurrent of populism, nationalism, capitalism, and frustration with perceived corruption, dishonesty, and focus on global over local priorities. Not so long ago, we saw a complete change in direction in El Salvador (Bukele) and Argentina (Milei) with impressive results (e.g., reducing rampant crime and runaway inflation), at least so far. Most recently, there were surprises in elections in India, Mexico, and across Europe. Although we are seeing plenty of turmoil of our own in the US, global upheaval and uncertainty always diverts capital to the relative safety of the US, including US stocks, bonds, and the dollar.

I expect US large caps to remain an attractive destination for global investment capital. But while Tech gets all the (well deserved) attention for its disruptive innovation and exponential earnings growth, there are many companies that can capitalize on the productivity-enhancing innovation to drive their own growth, or those that are just well positioned as “boring” but high-quality, cash-generating machines that enjoy strong institutional buying, strong technicals, and strong fundamentals in stable, growing business segments—like insurers and reinsurers for example.

So, I believe both US stocks and bonds will do well this year (and next) but should be hedged with gold, crypto, and TIPS against a loss in purchasing power (for all currencies, not just the dollar). Furthermore, I believe all investors should maintain exposure to the Big Tech titans with their huge cash stores and wide moats, as well as perhaps a few of the speculative names (as “lottery tickets”) having the potential to profit wildly as suppliers or “coat-tailers” to the titans, much of their equity exposure should be in fundamentally solid names with a history of and continued expectations for consistent and reliable sales and earnings growth, rising profit margins and cash flow, sound earnings quality, and low debt.

Indeed, Sabrient has long employed such factors in our GARP model for selecting our growth-oriented Baker’s Dozen portfolio, along with other factors for other portfolios like our Forward Looking Value portfolio, which relies upon our Strategic Valuation Rank (SVR), our Dividend portfolio, which is a growth & income strategy that relies on our proprietary Dividend Rank (DIV), and our Small Cap Growth portfolio, an alpha-seeking alternative to the Russell 2000. Notably, our Earnings Quality Rank (EQR) is not only a key factor we use internally for each of these portfolios, but it is also licensed to the actively managed First Trust Long-Short ETF (FTLS) as an initial screen.

Each of these alpha factors and how they are used within Sabrient’s Growth, Value, Dividend income, and Small Cap investing strategies is discussed in detail in David Brown’s new book, How to Build High Performance Stock Portfolios, which will be published imminently. (I will send out a notification soon!)

In today’s post, I talk more about inflation, the Fed, and the extreme divergences in relative performance and valuations. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which, no surprise, continue to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model, and several top-ranked ETF ideas. And don’t skip my Final Comments section, in which I have something to say about BRICS’ desire to create a parallel financial system outside of US dollar dominance, and the destructiveness of our politically polarized society and out-of-control deficit spending.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients. You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

StocksThe S&P 500 fell more than 5% over the first three weeks of April (it’s largest pullback since last October). Bonds also took it on the chin (as they have all year), with the 2-year Treasury yield briefly eclipsing 5%, which is my “line in the sand” for a healthy stock market. But the weakness proved short-lived, and both stocks and bonds have regained some footing to start May. During the drawdown, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), aka fear index, awakened from its slumber but never closed above the 20 “panic threshold.”

In a return to the “bad news is good news” market action of yore, stocks saw fit to gap up last Friday as the US dollar weakened and stocks, bonds, and crypto all caught a nice bid (with the 10-year yield falling 30 bps)—on the expectation of sooner rate cuts following the FOMC’s softer tone on monetary policy and a surprisingly weak jobs report. So, the cumulative “lag effects” of quantitative tightening (QT), falling money supply, and elevated interest rates finally may be coming to roost. In fact, Fed chairman Jay Powell suggested that any sign of weakening in inflation or employment could lead to the highly anticipated rate cuts—leaving the impression that the Fed truly wants to start cutting rates.

But I can’t help but wonder whether that 5% pullback was it for the Q2 market correction I have been predicting. It sure doesn’t seem like we got enough cleansing of the momentum algo traders and other profit-protecting “weak holders.” But no one wants to miss out on the rate-cut rally. Despite the sudden surge in optimism about rates, inflation continues to be the proverbial “fly in the ointment” for rate cuts, I believe we are likely to see more volatility before the Fed officially pivots dovish, although we may simply remain in a trading range with downside limited to 5,000 on the S&P 500. Next week’s CPI/PPI readings will be crucial given that recent inflation metrics have ticked up. But I don’t expect any unwelcome inflationary surprises, as I discuss in today’s post.

The Fed faces conflicting signals from inflation, unemployment, jobs growth, GDP, and the international impact of the strong dollar on the global economy. Its preferred metric of Core PCE released on 4/26 stayed elevated in March at 2.82% YoY and a disheartening 3-month (MoM) rolling average of 4.43%. But has been driven mostly by shelter costs and services. But fear not, as I see a light at the end of the tunnel and a resumption of the previous disinflationary trend. Following one-time, early-year repricing, services prices should stabilize as wage growth recedes while labor demand slows, labor supply rises, productivity improves, and real disposable household income falls below even the lowest pre-pandemic levels. (Yesterday, the San Francisco Fed reported that American households have officially exhausted all $2.1 trillion of their pandemic-era excess savings.) Also, rental home inflation is receding in real time (even though the 6-month-lagged CPI metrics don’t yet reflect it), and inflation expectations of consumers and businesses are falling. Moreover, Q1 saw a surge in oil prices that has since receded, the Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI) fell again in April. So, I think we will see Core PCE below 2.5% this summer. The Fed itself noted in its minutes that supply and demand are in better balance, which should allow for more disinflation. Indeed, when asked about the threat of a 1970’s-style “stagflation, the Fed chairman said, "I don't see the stag or the 'flation."

The Treasury's quarterly refunding announcement shows it plans to borrow $243 billion in Q2, which is $41 billion more than previously projected, to continue financing our huge and growing budget deficit. Jay Powell has said that the fiscal side of the equation needs to be addressed as it counters much of the monetary policy tightening. It seems evident to me that government deficit spending has been a key driver of GDP growth and employment—as well as inflation.

And as if that all isn’t enough, some commentators think the world is teetering on the brink of a currency crisis, starting with the collapse of the Japanese yen. Indeed, Japan is in quite the pickle with the yen and interest rates, which is a major concern for global financial stability given its importance in the global economy. Escalating geopolitical tensions and ongoing wars are also worrisome as they create death, destruction, instability, misuse of resources, and inflationary pressures on energy, food, and transportation prices.

All of this supports the case for why the Fed would want to start cutting rates (likely by mid-year), which I have touched on many times in the past. Reasons include averting a renewed banking crisis, fallout from the commercial real estate depression, distortion in the critical housing market, the mirage of strong jobs growth (which has been propped up by government spending and hiring), and of course the growing federal debt, debt service, and debt/GDP ratio (with 1/3 of the annual budget now earmarked to pay interest on the massive and rapidly growing $34 trillion of federal debt), which threatens to choke off economic growth. In addition, easing financial conditions would help highly indebted businesses, consumers, and our trading partners (particularly emerging markets). Indeed, yet another reason the Fed is prepared to cut is that other central banks are cutting, which would strengthen the dollar even further if the Fed stood pat. And then we have Japan, which needs to raise rates to support the yen but doesn’t really want to, given its huge debt load; it would be better for it if our Federal Reserve cuts instead.

So, the Fed is at a crossroads. I still believe a terminal fed funds rate of 3.0% would be appropriate so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield (i.e., above the inflation rate) so they don’t have to take on undue risk to achieve meaningful income. As it stands today, assuming inflation has already (in real time, not lagged) resumed its downtrend, I think the real yield is too high—i.e., great for savers but bad for borrowers.

Nevertheless, I still believe any significant pullback in stocks would be a buying opportunity. As several commentators have opined, the US is the “best house in a lousy (global) neighborhood.” In an investment landscape fraught with danger nearly everywhere you turn, I see US stocks and bonds as the place to be invested, particularly as the Fed and other central banks restore rising liquidity (Infrastructure Capital Advisors predicts a $2 trillion global injection to make rates across the yield curve go down). But I also believe they should be hedged with gold and crypto. According to Michael Howell of CrossBorder Capital, a strong dollar will still devalue relative to gold and bitcoin when liquidity rises, and gold price tends to rise faster than the rise in liquidity—and bitcoin has an even higher beta to liquidity. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on 2/24/2022 and was sanctioned with confiscation of $300 billion in reserves, central banks around the world have been stocking up, surging gold by roughly +21% and bitcoin +60%, compared to the S&P 500 +18% (price return). During Q1, institutions bought a record 290 tons, according to the World Gold Council (WGC).

With several trillions of dollars still sitting defensively in money market funds, we are nowhere near “irrational exuberance” despite somewhat elevated valuations and the ongoing buzz around Gen AI. At the core of an equity portfolio should be US large cap exposure (despite its significantly higher P/E versus small-mid-cap). But despite strong earnings momentum of the mega-cap Tech darlings (which are largely driven by robust share buyback programs), I believe there are better investment opportunities in many under-the-radar names (across large, mid, and small caps), including among cyclicals like homebuilders, energy, financials, and REITs.

So, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the latest Q2 2024 Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance) which launched on 4/19, Small Cap Growth 42 (an alpha-seeking alternative to the Russell 2000 index) which just launched last week on 5/1, and Dividend 47 (a growth plus income strategy) paying a 3.8% current yield. Notably, Dividend 47’s top performer so far is Southern Copper (SCCO), which is riding the copper price surge and, by the way, is headquartered in Phoenix—just 10 miles from my home in Scottsdale.

I talk more about inflation, federal debt, the yen, and oil markets in today’s post. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continue to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model, and several top-ranked ETF ideas. And in my Final Comments section, I have a few things to say about the latest lunacy on our college campuses (Can this current crop of graduates ever be allowed a proper ceremony?).

Click here to continue reading my full commentary. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients. You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies (Growth, Value, Dividend, and Small Cap). It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights for investors by unveiling his secrets to identifying high-potential stocks. I will send out an email once it becomes available on Amazon.

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

Stocks are pulling back a bit to start Q2 but have shown remarkable resilience throughout their nearly 6-month (and nearly straight-up) bull run, with the S&P 500 (SPY) finding consistent support at its 20-day simple moving average on several occasions, while the slightly more volatile Nasdaq 100 (QQQ, beta=1.18) has found solid support at the 40-day moving average. Moreover, the Relative Strength Index (RSI) on SPY has reliably bounced off the neutral line (50) on every test. And it all happened again early last week—at least until Thursday afternoon when Minnesota Fed president Neel Kashkari ventured off Fed chairman Jerome Powell’s carefully crafted script to say they may not cut interest rates at all this year if inflation’s decline continues to stall.

Before that moment, Powell had been keeping his governors in line and saying all the right things about imminent rate cuts in the pipeline (albeit making sure not to provide a firm timetable). And the pervasive Goldilocks outlook has lifted stocks to uncomfortably elevated valuations (current forward P/E for SPY of 21.3x and for QQQ of 26.6x) that suggest a need for and expectation of both solid earnings growth in 2024-25 and falling interest rates (as the discount rate on future earnings streams).

Up until Kashkari’s unexpected remarks, it appeared that once again—and in fact every time since last November, when the indexes look extremely overbought and in need of a significant pullback (as typically happens periodically in any given year) a strong bid arrived like the Lone Ranger to save the day and push stocks higher. It has burned bears and kept swing traders who like to “fade” spikes hesitant. Not surprisingly, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has seen only a couple of brief excursions above the 15 line and has been nowhere near the 20 “fear threshold.”

But after his remarks, the market finished Thursday with a huge, high-volume, “bearish engulfing candle,” and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) surged 20% intraday (closing at 16.35), and all those previously reliable support levels gave way—until the very next day. On Friday, they quickly recovered those support levels following the apparently strong March jobs report, finishing with a “bullish harami” pattern (that typically leads to some further upside). As you recall from my March post, I have felt a correction is overdue—and the longer it holds off, the more severe the fall. The question now is whether SPY and QQQ are destined for an upside breakout to new highs and a continuation of the bull run…or for a downside breakdown to test lower levels of support. I believe we may get a bit of a bounce here, but more downside is likely before an eventual resumption in the bull run to new highs.

Regardless, the persistent strength in stocks has been impressive, particularly in the face of the Fed's quantitative tightening actions (balance sheet reduction and “higher for longer” rates)—along with the so-called “bond vigilantes” who protest excessive spending by not buying Treasuries and thus further driving up rates—that have created the highest risk-free real (net of inflation) interest rates since the Financial Crisis and reduced its balance sheet by $1.5 trillion from its April 2022 peak to its lowest level since February 2021.

But (surprise!) gold has been performing even better than either SPY or QQQ (as have cryptocurrencies, aka “digital gold”). Gold’s appeal to investors is likely in anticipation of continued buying by central banks around the world as a hedge against things like growing geopolitical turmoil, our government’s increasingly aggressive “weaponization” of the dollar to punish rogue nations, and rising global debt leading to a credit or currency crisis.

To be sure, solid GDP and employment data, a stall in inflation’s decline, rosy earnings growth forecasts for 2024-2025, tight investment-grade and high-yield credit spreads, low volatility in interest rates, a low VIX, and a sudden recovery in manufacturing activity, with the ISM Manufacturing Index having finally eclipsed the 50 threshold (indicating expansion) after 16 straight months below 50 (contraction), all beg the question of why the Fed would see a need to cut rates. As Powell himself said the other day, we have seen an unusual and unforeseen occurrence in which “productive capacity is going up even more than actual output. The economy actually isn't becoming tighter; it's actually becoming a little looser…” Indeed, the “higher for longer” mantra might seem more appropriate, at least on the surface.

Yet despite the rosy outlook and investor confidence/complacency (and Kashkari’s latest comments), the Fed continues to suggest there will be multiple rate cuts this year, as if it knows of something lurking in the shadows. And that something might be a credit crisis stemming from our hyper-financialized/ultra-leveraged economy—and the growing debt burden across government, small business, and consumers being refinanced at today’s high interest rates. We are all aware of the outright depression in commercial real estate today; perhaps there is a contagion lurking. Or perhaps it’s the scary projection for the federal debt/GDP ratio (rising from 97% of GDP last year to 166% by 2054). Or perhaps it is a brewing currency crisis with the Japanese yen, given its historic weakness that may lead the BOJ to hike rates to stem capital outflows. Or perhaps it’s because they follow the real-time “Truflation” estimate, which indicates a year-over-year inflation rate of 1.82% in contrast to the latest headline CPI print of 3.2% and headline PCE of 2.5%.

I discuss all these topics in today’s post, as well as the relative performance of various equity and asset-class ETFs that suggests a nascent market rotation and broadening may be underway, which is a great climate for active managers. Likewise, Michael Wilson of Morgan Stanley asserts that the stock rally since last fall has been driven more by loose financial conditions, extreme liquidity (leverage), and multiple expansion (rather than earnings growth), but now it's time to be a stock picker rather than a passive index investor.

So, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance), Small Cap Growth (an alpha-seeking alternative to the Russell 2000 index), and Dividend (a growth plus income strategy paying a 3.74% current yield). The latest Q1 2024 Baker’s Dozen launched on 1/19/24 and remains in primary market until 4/18/24 (and is already well ahead of SPY).

Click here to continue reading my full commentary in which I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continue to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so today), and several top-ranked ETF ideas. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies (Growth, Value, Dividend, and Small Cap). It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights for investors by unveiling his secrets to identifying high-potential stocks. Please let me know if you’d like to be an early book reviewer!

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

The US stock market has gone essentially straight up since late October. While the small-cap Russell 2000 (IWM) surged into year-end 2023, pulled back, and is just now retesting its December high, the mega-cap dominated S&P 500 (SPY) and Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) have both surged almost uninterruptedly to new high after new high. They have both briefly paused a few times to test support at the 20-day moving average but have not come close to testing the 50-day, while the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has closed below 16 the entire time. History says this can’t go on much longer.

I think this market rally is getting out over its skis and needs at least a breather if not a significant pullback to cleanse itself of the momentum “algo” traders and FOMO investors and wring out some of this AI-led bullish exuberance. That’s not say we are imminently due for a harsh correction back down to prior support for SPY around 465 (-9%) or to fill the gap on the daily chart from November 13 at 440 (-14%). But it will eventually retest its 200-day moving average, which sits around 450 today but is steadily rising, so perhaps the aforementioned 465 level is good target for a pullback and convergence with the 200-day MA.

Regardless, I believe that short of a Black Swan event (like a terrorist strike on US soil or another credit crisis) that puts us into recession, stocks would recover from any correction to achieve new highs by year-end. As famed economist Ed Yardeni says, “Over the years, we’ve learned that credit crunches, energy crises, and pandemic lockdowns cause recessions. We are looking out for such calamities. But for now, the outlook is for a continuation of the expansion.”

As for bonds, they have been weak so far this year (which pushes up interest rates), primarily because of the “bond vigilantes” who are not happy with the massive issuances of Treasuries and rapidly rising government debt and debt financing costs. So, stocks have been rising even as interest rates rise (and bonds fall), but bonds may soon catch a bid on any kind of talk about fiscal responsibility from our leaders (like Fed chair Powell has intimated).

So, I suspect both stocks and bonds will see more upside this year. In fact, the scene might follow a similar script to last year in which the market was strong overall but endured two significant pullbacks along the way—one in H1 and a lengthier one in H2, perhaps during the summer months or the runup to the election.

Moreover, I don’t believe stocks are in or near a “bubble.” You might be hearing in the media the adage, “If it’s a double, it’s a bubble.” Over the past 16 months since its October 2022 low, the market-leading Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) has returned 72% and the SPY is up 47%. Furthermore, DataTrek showed that, looking back from 1970, whenever the S&P has doubled in any 3-year rolling period (or less), or when the Nasdaq Composite has doubled in any 1-year rolling period, stock prices decline soon after. Well, the rolling 3-year return for the S&P 500 today is at about 30%. And the high-flying Nasdaq 100 is up about 50% over the past year. So, there appears to be no bubble by any of these metrics, and the odds of a harsh correction remain low, particularly in a presidential election year, with the added stimulus of at least a few rate cuts expected during the year.

Meanwhile, while bitcoin and Ethereum prices have surged over the past few weeks to much fanfare, oil has been quietly creeping higher, and gold and silver have suddenly caught a strong bid. As you might recall, I said in my December and January blog posts, “I like the prospects for longer-duration bonds, commodities, oil, gold, and uranium miner stocks this year, as well as physical gold, silver, and cryptocurrency as stores of value.”  I still believe all of these are good holds for 2024. The approval of 11 “spot” ETFs for bitcoin—rather than futures-based or ETNs—was a big win for all cryptocurrencies, and in fact, I hear that major institutions like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Charles Schwab (not to mention all the discount brokers) now offer the Bitcoin ETFs—like Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) and iShares Bitcoin Trust (IBIT), for example—to their wealth management clients. And they have just begun the process of allocating to those portfolios (perhaps up to the range of 2-5%).

As for inflation, I opined last month that inflation already might be below the 2% target such that the Fed can begin normalizing fed funds rate toward a “neutral rate” of around 3.0% nominal (i.e., 2% target inflation plus 1.0% r-star) versus 5.25–5.50% today. But then the January inflation data showed an uptick. Nonetheless, I think it will prove temporary, and the disinflationary trends will continue to manifest. I discuss this in greater length in today’s post. Also, I still believe a terminal fed funds rate of 3.0% would be appropriate so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield (i.e., above the inflation rate) so they don’t have to take on undue risk to achieve meaningful income. As it stands today, I think the real yield is too high—i.e., great for savers but bad for borrowers.

Finally, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance), Small Cap Growth (an alpha-seeking alternative to a passive index like the Russell 2000), and Dividend (a growth plus income strategy paying a 3.8% current yield). The new Q1 2024 Baker’s Dozen just launched on 1/19/24.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary in which I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continues to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so today), and several top-ranked ETF ideas. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies. It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights geared mostly to individual investors, although financial advisors may find it valuable as well. I will provide more information as we get closer to launch. In the meantime, as a loyal subscriber, please let me know if you’d like to be an early book reviewer!

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

As an update to some of the topics I discussed in my lengthy early-January post, I wanted to share an update in advance of the FOMC announcement on Wednesday based on several economic reports that were released last week.

The Fed’s preferred inflation metric, Core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE, excluding food & energy) for December came in on Friday at 2.93% YoY and 0.17% MoM. However, I prefer to focus on the most recent trend over the past 3 months. Annualizing the Core PCE price index change over the past 3 months (0.14% in Oct, 0.06% in Nov and 0.17% in Dec) computes a 1.52% annualized inflation rate, as shown in the chart below.

So, it appears to me that inflation today is likely below the 2% target such that the Fed can begin normalizing fed funds rate toward the “neutral rate” (neither contractionary nor expansionary), which I believe ultimately will be around 3.0% nominal (i.e., 2% target inflation plus 1.0% r-star) versus 5.25–5.50% today. Moreover, I think the 10-year Treasury will settle at about 4.0–4.50%, assuming we don’t continue flood the Treasury market with new issuances to fund fiscal boondoggles and rising debt service (we’ll get a clue on Wednesday with the Treasury Refunding announcement). The rate levels I am suggesting seem appropriate so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield (i.e., above the inflation rate) so they don’t have to take on undue risk to achieve meaningful income.

The Fed believes the composition of PCE more accurately reflects current impacts on consumers than does CPI. This is because it more quickly adapts to consumer choices through its weighting adjustments to individual items (e.g., shifts from pricier brands to discount brands). Also, while CPI narrowly considers only urban expenditures, PCE considers both urban and rural consumers as well as third-party purchases on behalf of a consumer, such as healthcare insurers buying prescription drugs. Furthermore, items are weighted differently—for example, shelter is the largest component of CPI at 32.9% but only 15.9% of PCE, and healthcare is the largest component of PCE at 16.8% but only 7.0% of CPI. So, while Core PCE shows a 1.52% 3-month annualized inflation rate, Core CPI is 3.33%.

So, let's talk more about shelter cost. I have often discussed the lag in shelter cost metrics distorting both PCE and CPI, particularly as new leases gradually roll over throughout the course of a year while existing lease rates persist. So, let me introduce another metric published by the BLS that provides more current insights into the trend in shelter cost, namely the New Tenant Rent Index (NTR).

The NTR data peaked in Q2 2022 while CPI Shelter didn’t peak until Q2 2023. And NTR has fallen precipitously since then, showing a substantial -8.75% quarter-over-quarter decline in Q4 2023 versus Q3 2023. But because such QoQ comparisons can be quite volatile with this metric, I’m not going to annualize that number. Instead, let’s stick with the year-over-year or 4-quarter comparison, which shows a more modest (but still significant) decline of -4.74% versus Q4 2022. Although CPI Shelter index is still elevated, it is also falling (as shown in the chart), now showing a YoY rate of 6.15% for December.

Inflation metrics

Furthermore, the BLS also publishes an All Tenant Regressed Rent Index (ATRR), which is not restricted only to new leases, so it moves more slowly and with less volatility. ATRR also has been in a steady decline since peaking in Q4 2022 at 7.84%, and it has been steadily falling over the past 4 quarters to its latest Q4 2023 reading of 5.27% YoY, which again reflects rapidly falling rental prices and is in-line with CPI Shelter.

This suggests to me that falling shelter costs will soon be more impactful to PCE and CPI readings. The FOMC is surely aware of this.

As for other economic reports last week, we saw the BEA’s advance (first) estimate of Q4 GDP growth surprised to the upside at a 3.3% annual rate, largely driven by personal consumption. Also, the December reading for M2SL money supply shows it has stayed basically flat since last March, while velocity of money (M2V) continues to ramp up. This suggests that more transactions are occurring in the economy for each dollar in circulation, which has offset the negative impact of stagnant money supply, thus supporting GDP, corporate earnings, and stock prices—although lack of M2 growth creates other strains on liquidity. I discuss this further in today’s post below.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary. And please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

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