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?).

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By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through 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.