Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

To be sure, 2023 was another eventful year (they just keep coming at us, don’t they?), ranging from escalating hot wars to a regional banking crisis, rising interest rates, falling inflation, a dire migration crisis, and an AI-driven frenzy in the so-called “Magnificent Seven” (MAG7) corporate titans— Meta Platforms (META, ne: FB), Apple (AAPL), Nvidia (NVDA), Alphabet (GOOGL), Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon (AMZN), and Tesla (TSLA), aka “FANGMAT,” as I used to call them—which as a group contributed roughly 60% to the S&P 500’s +26.2% gain in 2023. Their hyper-growth means that they now make up roughly 30% of the index. Nvidia (NVDA), whose semiconductors have become essential for AI applications, was the best performer for the full year at +239%.

Small caps finally found some life late in the year, with the Russell 2000 small cap index essentially keeping up with the S&P 500 starting in May and significantly outperforming in December. Bonds also made a big comeback late in the year on Fed-pivot optimism, which allowed the traditional 60/40 stock/bond allocation portfolio to enjoy a healthy return, which I’m sure made a lot of investors and their advisors happy given that 60/40 had been almost left for dead. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has been below 20 for virtually the entirety of 2023 and as low as 11.81 in December, closing the year at 12.45. Also, as a breadth indicator, the percentage of stocks that finished the year above their 200-day moving average hit 75%, which is bullish.

Nevertheless, the Russell 2000 (+16.8%) and the equal-weight version of the S&P 500 (+13.7%) were up much less for the full year than the cap-weighted S&P 500 (+26.2%) and Nasdaq 100 (+54.9%). In fact, 72% of the stocks in the S&P 500 underperformed the overall index for the full year, illustrating that despite the improvement in breadth during the second half of the year, it could not overcome the huge outperformance of a small cohort of dominant companies. This suggests that either the market is set up for a fall in 2024 (as those dominant companies sell off) …or we’ll get a continued broadening into other high-quality companies, including mid- and small caps. I think it will be the latter—but not without some volatility and a significant pullback. Indeed, despite signaling investor confidence and complacency by remaining low for a long stretch, the VIX appears to be ripe for a spike in volatility. I think we could see a significant market correction during H1 (perhaps to as low as 4,500 on the S&P 500) even if, as I expect, real GDP growth slows but remains positive and disinflationary trends continue, supporting real wage growth and real yields—before seeing an H2 rally into (and hopefully following) the November election. And don’t forget there’s a potential tsunami of cash from the $6 trillion held in money market funds, as interest rates fall, much of it may well find its way into stocks.

Not surprisingly, last year ended with some tax-loss harvesting (selling of big losers), and then the new year began last week with some tax-gain harvesting—i.e., selling of big winners to defer tax liability on capital gains into 2024. There also has been some notable rotation of capital last week into 2023’s worst performers that still display strong earnings growth potential and solid prospects for a rebound this year, such as those in the Healthcare, Utilities, and Consumer Staples sectors. Homebuilders remain near all-time highs and should continue to find a tailwind as a more dovish Fed means lower mortgage rates and a possible housing boom. Energy might be interesting as well, particularly LPG shipping (a big winner last year) due to its growing demand in Europe and Asia.

As I discussed in my December commentary, I also 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 in an uncertain macro climate. Also, while Chinese stocks are near 4-year lows, many other international markets are near multi-year highs (including Europe and Japan), particularly as central banks take a more accommodative stance. Indeed, Sabrient’s SectorCast ETF rankings show high scores for some international-focused ETFs (as discussed later in this post).

While stocks rallied in 2023 (and bonds made a late-year comeback) mainly due to speculation on a Fed pivot toward lower interest rates (which supports valuations), for 2024 investors will want to see more in the way of actual earnings growth and other positive developments for the economy. I expect something of a “normalization” away from extreme valuation differentials and continued improvement in market breadth, whether it’s outperformance by last year’s laggards or a stagnation/pullback among last year’s biggest winners (especially if there are fewer rate cuts than anticipated)—or perhaps a bit of both. Notably, the S&P 500 historically has risen 20 of the last 24 election years (83%); however, a recent Investopedia poll shows that the November election is the biggest worry among investors right now, so it’s possible all the chaos, wailing and gnashing of teeth about Trump’s candidacy will make this election year unique with respect to stocks.

Regardless, I continue to believe that investors will be better served this year by active strategies that can identify and exploit performance dispersion among stocks across the capitalization spectrum—particularly smaller caps and the underappreciated, high-quality/low-valuation growers. Small caps tend to carry debt and be more sensitive to interest rates, so they have the potential to outperform when interest rates fall, but you should focus on stocks with an all-weather product line, a robust growth forecast, a solid balance sheet, and customer loyalty, which makes them more likely to withstand market volatility—which may well include those must-have, AI-oriented Tech stocks. Much like the impact of the Internet in the 1990s, AI/ML, blockchain/distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), and quantum computing appear to be the “it” technologies of the 2020’s that make productivity and efficiency soar. However, as I discuss in today’s post, the power requirements will be immense and rise exponentially. So, perhaps this will add urgency to what might become the technology of the 2030’s—i.e., nuclear fusion.

On that note, 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 4.5% current yield).

By the way, several revealing economic reports were released last week, which I discuss in today’s post. One was the December reading on the underappreciated New York Federal Reserve Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI), which has fallen precipitously from it pandemic-era high and now is fluctuating around the zero line. This historically suggests falling inflation readings ahead. As for the persistently inverted yield curve, I continue to believe it has more to do with the unprecedented supply chain shocks coupled with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus to maintain demand and the resulting surge in inflation, which as observed by Alpine Macro, “makes the inversion more reflective of different inflation expectations than a signal for an impending recession.”

Also, although M2 money supply fell -4.6% from its all-time high in July 2022 until its low in April 2023, it has essentially flatlined since then and in fact has been largely offset to a great extent by an increase in the velocity of money supply. Also, we have a robust jobs market that has slowed but is far from faltering. And then there is the yield curve inversion that has been gradually flattening from a low of about -108 bps last July to -35 bps today.

I discuss all of this in greater detail in today’s post, including several illustrative tables and charts. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which is topped by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so), and some actionable ETF trading ideas.

Overall, I expect inflation will resume its decline, even with positive GDP growth, particularly given stagnant money supply growth, mending and diversifying supply chains (encompassing manufacturing, transportation, logistics, energy, and labor), falling or stabilizing home sale prices and new leases, slowing wage inflation, slower consumer spending on both goods and services, and a strong deflationary impulse from China due to its economic malaise and “dumping” of consumer goods to shore up its manufacturing (US imports from China were down 25% in 2023 vs. 2022). This eventually will give the Fed (and indeed, other central banks) license to begin cutting rates—likely by mid-year, both to head off renewed crises in banking and housing and to mitigate growing strains on highly leveraged businesses, consumers, government, and trading partners. Current CBOE fed funds futures suggest a 98% chance of at least 100 bps in rate cuts by year end (target rate of 4.25-4.50%), and 54% chance of at least 150 bps.

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). 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

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

The New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI) for November was released today, and although it rose more than expected (likely due to disruptions from heightened global hostilities), it still suggests inflation will continue its gradual retreat, with a reading near the long-run average. But let me start by talking about October’s inflation indicators. Last week, the headline reading for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) for October came in at 3.0% YoY, helped quite a bit by the fall in oil and gasoline prices (note: the US is producing an all-time high of 13.2 million barrels/day of crude oil). Core PCE, which is the Federal Reserve's preferred inflation metric, came in at 3.46% year-over-year. However, the month-over-month number for October versus September, which better reflects today's inflation trends and the lag effects of higher interest rates, came in at 0.16%, which annualizes to 1.98%. Keep in mind, the Fed's inflation target is 2.0%. But monthly data can be choppy, so looking at the rolling 3-month average, it annualizes to 2.37%.

Earlier reports had shown October PPI at 1.3% YoY and CPI at 3.2%, with core PPI (excluding food & energy) was 2.4% YoY, and core CPI was 4.0%. All of this was presaged by the GSCPI, which measures the number of standard deviations from the historical average value (aka Z-score) and generally foreshadows movements in inflation metrics. It plummeted from a December 2021 all-time high of +4.31 down to the October reading of -1.74—its lowest level ever. However, that ultra-low October reading has been revised to -0.39 due to “a change in exchange rate weighting methodology,” according to the New York Fed. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall for last week’s favorable PCE report. The chart below illustrates the correlation between GSCPI, PPI, and CPI.

GSCPI vs CPI and PPI

So, what to expect for November inflation? Well, as shown in the chart, GSCPI for November just came in today at 0.11. Although rising from its ultra-low levels, it still remains at the long-run average, and the chart illustrates that volatility is to be expected. All in all, I think it still bodes well for the next week’s CPI/PPI readings as supply chains continue to heal and diversify (albeit with occasional hiccups like we see today from heightened global hostilities), especially when you also consider that the consumer has become stretched with rising household debt and falling growth in job openings and wages, money supply growth is stagnant, and budget hawks are increasingly flexing their fiscal muscles in Congress. Thus, I believe the probability of a resurgence in either inflation or fiscal expansion is quite low.

Furthermore, although the second estimate for Q3 GDP was ultra-strong (the highest in 2 years), revised up to 5.2% annual rate (from previous 4.9%), the boost came from state and federal government spending, which was revised up to 5.5% from the prior estimate of 4.6% (i.e., more unsustainable deficit spending and issuance of Treasuries paying high coupons, mostly from an 8.2% increase in defense spending), while personal consumption was revised down to 3.6% from 4.0%. This tells me the “robust” GDP number was something of an illusion.

Indeed, looking ahead, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecasts only 1.3% GDP growth and 1.9% PCE growth for Q4 (as of 12/6). Moreover, the good folks at Real Investment Advice observed that Gross Domestic Income (GDI) for Q3 was reported at only +1.5%, displaying the widest gap below GDP in 50 years. (Note: GDP measures the value of goods and services produced, including consumption expenditures, investments and exports, while GDI measures incomes earned and costs incurred in production of GDP, including wages, profits, and taxes.) Also, last week’s Fed Beige Book showed that two-thirds of Fed districts reported slower economic activity over the prior six weeks, and the ISM Manufacturing Index came in at an anemic 46.7, showing continued contraction for the 15th straight month.

So, this all seems to be more “bad news is good news” when it comes to Fed policy moves, and investors will be eagerly watching Friday’s jobs report followed by next week’s CPI, PPI, and FOMC policy announcement. Stocks have been taking a healthy breather and consolidation in anticipation of it all, but so far, no major pullback. This year seems to be following the playbook of what economist Ed Yardeni has characterized as a series of “rolling recessions” (among sectors) and an “Immaculate Disinflation,” i.e., moderating inflation without a harsh recession or massive layoffs. As an aside, I have opined many times that it is ridiculous that we constantly find ourselves awaiting the edict of this unelected board of “wise elders” to decide our economic fate. Why can’t they take emergency measures only when absolutely necessary to avert economic cataclysm, and then once the crisis has passed, those emergency measures are quickly withdrawn so that the free market can get back to doing its productive, creative, wonderful thing? One can dream.

Regardless, in my view, the Fed is likely done with rate hikes and preparing for its eventual pivot to rate cuts—which I think will come sooner than most expect, likely before the end of H1 2024. Why? Because if inflation maintains its gradual downtrend while the Fed holds its overnight borrowing rate steady, the real (inflation-adjusted) rate keeps rising, i.e., de facto tightening. Indeed, Fed funds futures are projecting 98% chance for no rate change next week, and for 2024, 62% chance for at least one 25-bp rate cut by March, 97% for at least one 25-bp cut by June, and 89% chance of a full 1.0% in total rate cuts by December 2024, which would put the fed funds rate below 4.5%.

Accordingly, after kissing the 5% handle, the 10-year Treasury yield has fallen precipitously to below 4.2%—a level last seen at the end of August. So, I encourage and expect the FOMC to follow the message of the bond market and begin cutting the fed funds rate back towards the neutral rate, which I think is around 2.5-3.0% nominal (i.e., 2% target inflation plus 0.5-1.0% r-star), and hand back control of the economy to the free market. As of now, the Fed is on the verge of crushing the housing market…and by extension the broader economy. In addition, it must ensure money supply resumes a modest growth rate (albeit slowly), not continue to shrink or stagnate.

To be sure, the safe steadiness of bond yields was disrupted this year. After rising much faster than anyone anticipated, interest rates have fallen much faster than expected, especially considering that the Fed hasn’t made any dovish policy changes. Nevertheless, if rates are going to generally meander lower, investors might be expected to lock in sustainable yield with capital appreciation potential through longer-duration securities, including long-term bonds, “bond proxies” like dividend-paying equities (e.g., utilities, staples, and REITs), and growth stocks (like high-quality technology companies).

I also like oil, gold and uranium stocks, as well as gold, silver, and cryptocurrency as stores of value in an uncertain macro climate. Notably, gold is challenging its highs of the past few years as global investors and central banks are both hedging and/or speculating on a weaker dollar, falling real interest rates, rising geopolitical tensions, and potential financial crisis, and the World Gold Council reported robust demand among central banks, which purchased a record 800 tons during the first three quarters of the year. Similarly, Bitcoin is catching a bid on speculation of broader investor access (through spot-price ETFs) and dollar debasement (if debt and deficit spending continue to spiral).

Keep in mind that, when valuations get lofty within a given asset class, volatility and performance/valuation dispersion among stocks often increases while correlations decrease. For stocks, active selection strategies that can exploit the dispersion to identify under-the-radar and undervalued companies primed for explosive growth become more appealing versus passive index investing. Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Q4 2023 Baker’s Dozen (launched on 10/20), Small Cap Growth 40 (launched on 11/3), and Sabrient Dividend 46 (just launched on 11/29, and today offers a 4.7% dividend yield).

In today’s post, I further discuss inflation, the US dollar, Fed monetary policy implications, and relative performance of asset classes. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which is topped by Technology and Industrials), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so), and some actionable ETF trading ideas.

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).

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

As expected, last week the FOMC left the fed funds rate as is at 5.25-5.50%. Fed funds futures suggest the odds of a hike at the December meeting have fallen to less than 10%, and the odds of at least three 25-bp rate cuts by the end of 2024 have risen to nearly 80%, with a 25% chance the first cut comes as soon as March. As a result, after moving rapidly to cash for the past few months, stock and bond investors came rushing back with a vengeance. But what really goosed the market were underwhelming economic reports leading to Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s comments suggesting the lag effects on surging interest rates and the strong US dollar are finally manifesting. Investors apparently believed the Fed’s promise of “higher for longer” (making the Fed’s job easier), which spiked Treasury yields (and by extension, mortgage rates) much faster and more severely than the Fed intended.

The S&P 500 had fallen well below all major moving averages, accelerating downward into correction territory, and was down 10% from its 7/31 high. Moreover, the S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index (BPSPX), which rarely drops below 25, had fallen to a highly oversold 23 (anything below 30 is considered oversold), and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) had surged above the 20 “panic threshold” to hit 23. Both were contrarian bullish signals. Then stocks began to recover ahead of the FOMC meeting, and after the less-than-hawkish policy announcement, it triggered short covering and an options-driven “gamma squeeze,” with the S&P 500 surging above its 200-day, 50-day, and 20-day moving averages (leaving only the 100-day still above as potential resistance), the BPSPX bullish percent closed the week at 43 (which is still well below the overbought level of 80 last hit on 7/31), and the VIX closed the week below 15.

The recovery rally was broad, and in five short days put the major indexes back to where they were two weeks ago. The best performers were those that sold off the most, essentially erasing the late-October swoon in any instant. As for Treasury yields, the week ended with the 2-year at 4.84% (after hitting 5.24% in mid-October) and the 10-year at 4.57% (after touching 5.0% in mid-October), putting the 2-10 inversion at -27 bps. The 30-year mortgage rate has fallen back below 7.50%. Recall that my “line in the sand” for stocks has been the 2-year staying below 5.0%, and indeed falling below that level last week correlated with the surge in equities.

Looking ahead, investors will be wondering whether last week’s huge relief rally is sustainable, i.e., the start of the much-anticipated Q4 rally. After all, it is well known that some of the most startling bull surges happen during bear markets. Regardless, stock prices are ultimately based on earnings and interest rates, and earnings look quite healthy while interest rates may have topped out, as sentiment indicators are flashing contrarian buy signals (from ultra-low levels). But much still hinges on the Fed, which is taking its cues from inflation and jobs reports. Last week’s FOMC statement suggests a lessening of its hawkishness, but what if the Fed has viewed our post-pandemic, return-to-normalcy, sticky-inflation economic situation—and the need for harsh monetary intervention—all wrong?

Much of the empirical data shows that inflation was already set to moderate without Fed intervention, given: 1) post-lockdown recovery in supply chains, rising labor force participation, and falling excess savings (e.g., the end to relief payments and student debt forbearance); and 2) stabilization/contraction in money supply growth. These dynamics alone inevitably lead to consumer belt-tightening and slower economic growth, not to mention the resumption in the disinflationary secular trends and the growing deflationary impulse from a struggling China.

Notably, the New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI), which measures the number of standard deviations from the historical average value (aka Z-score) and generally presages movements in PPI (and by extension, CPI), was released earlier today for October, and it plummeted to -1.74, which is its lowest level ever. This bodes well for CPI/PPI readings next week and PCE at month end, with a likely resumption in their downtrends. So, although the Fed insists the economy and jobs are strong and resilient so it can focus on taming the scourge of inflation through “higher for longer” interest rates, I remain less concerned about inflation than whether the Fed will pivot quickly enough to avoid inducing an unnecessary recession.

Assuming the Fed follows through on its softer tone and real yields continue to fall (and we manage to avoid World War III), I think this latest rally has given investors renewed legs—likely after a profit-taking pullback from last week’s 5-day moonshot. With over 80% of the S&P 500 having reported, Q3 earnings are handily exceeding EPS expectations (3.7% YoY growth, according to FactSet, driven mostly by a robust profit margin of 12.1%), and optimistic forecasts for 2024-2025 earnings growth are holding up. Meanwhile, a renewed appetite for bonds promises to drive down interest rates.

I like the prospects for high-quality/low-debt technology companies, bonds and bond-proxies (e.g., utilities and consumer staples), oil and uranium stocks, gold miners, and bitcoin in this macro climate. Furthermore, we continue to believe that, rather than the broad-market, passive indexes that display high valuations, investors may be better served by active stock selection Sabrient’s portfolios include the new Q4 2023 Baker’s Dozen (launched on 10/20), Small Cap Growth 40 (just launched on 11/3), and Sabrient Dividend 45 (launched on 9/1, and today offers a 5.5% dividend yield).

In today’s post, I discuss the trend in supply chains and inflation, equity valuations, and Fed monetary policy implications. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which is topped by Technology and Industrials), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which is switching from neutral to a bullish bias, assuming support at the 50-day moving average holds for the S&P 500), and some actionable ETF trading ideas.

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).

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

Federal shutdown averted, at least for another 6 weeks, which may give investors some optimism that cooler heads will prevail in the nasty tug-of-war between the budget hawks and the spendthrifts on the right and left flanks. Nevertheless, I think stocks still may endure some turmoil over the next few weeks before the historically bullish Q4 seasonality kicks in—because, yes, there are still plenty of tailwinds.

From a technical standpoint, at the depths of the September selloff, 85% of stocks were trading below their 50-day moving averages, which is quite rare, and extreme September weakness typically leads to a strong Q4 rally. And from a fundamental standpoint, corporate earnings expectations are looking good for the upcoming Q3 reporting season and beyond, as analysts are calling for earnings growth of 12.2% in 2024 versus 2023, according to FactSet. But that still leaves us with the interest rate problem—for the economy and federal debt, as well as valuation multiples (e.g., P/E) and the equity risk premium—given that my “line in the sand” for the 2-year Treasury yield at the 5% handle has been solidly breached.

But the good news is, we learned last week that the Fed’s preferred inflation metric, core PCE (ex-food & energy), showed its headline year-over-year (YoY) reading fall to 3.9% in August (from 4.3% in July). And more importantly in my view, it showed a month-over-month (MoM) reading of only 0.14%, which is a better indicator of the current trend in consumer prices (rather than comparing to prices 12 months ago), which annualizes to 1.75%—which of course is well below the Fed’s 2% inflation target. Even if we smooth the last 3 MoM reports for core PCE of 0.17% in June, 0.22% in July, and 0.14% in August, the rolling 3-month average annualizes to 2.16%. Either way, it stands in stark contrast to the upward reversal in CPI that previously sent the FOMC and stock and bond investors into a tizzy.

Notably, US home sales have retreated shelter costs have slowed, wage inflation is dropping, and China is unleashing a deflationary impulse by dumping consumer goods and parts on the global market in a fit of desperation to maintain some semblance of GDP growth while its critical real estate market teeters on the verge of implosion.

So, core inflation is in a downtrend while nominal interest rates are rising, which is rapidly driving up real rates, excessively strengthening the dollar, threatening our economy, and contributing to distress among our trading partners and emerging markets—including capital flight, destabilization, and economic migration. Also, First Trust is projecting interest on federal debt to hit 2.5% of GDP by year-end, up sharply from 1.85% last year (which was the highest since 2001 during a steep decline from its 1991 peak of 3.16%).

Therefore, I believe the Fed is going to have to lighten up soon on hawkish rate policy and stagnant/falling money supply. When the Fed decides it’s time to cut rates—both to head off escalating crises in banking and housing and to mitigate growing strains on highly leveraged businesses, consumers, and foreign countries (from an ultra-strong dollar and high interest rates when rolling maturing debt)—it would be expected to ignite a sustained rally in both stocks and bonds.

But even if the AI-leading, Big Tech titans can justify their elevated valuations with extraordinary growth—and according to The Market Ear, they trade at the largest discount to the median stock in the S&P 500 stock in over 6 years on a growth-adjusted basis—investors still may be better served by active strategies that exploit improving market breadth by seeking “under the radar” opportunities poised for explosive growth, rather than the broad passive indexes. So, we believe this is a good time to be invested in Sabrient’s portfolios—including the new Q3 2023 Baker’s Dozen (launched on 7/20), Forward Looking Value 11 (launched on 7/24), Small Cap Growth 39 (launched on 8/7), and Sabrient Dividend 45 (launched on 9/1 and today offers a 5.5% dividend yield).

In today’s post, I discuss inflation, stock-bond relative performance, equity valuations, and Fed monetary policy implications. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continues to be topped by Technology and Energy), current positioning of our sector rotation model (neutral bias), and some actionable ETF trading ideas. Your feedback is always welcome!

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).

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

April CPI and PPI both reflect continued moderation—albeit as much as the precipitous fall in the Global Supply Chain Pressure Index would suggest (given that supply chains comprise nearly 40% of inflation, according to the New York Fed). The fed funds rate is now officially above both CPI and PCE. Nevertheless, despite hinting in their May FOMC statement that a pause in rate hikes may be imminent, the Fed insists there are no rate cuts in the foreseeable future because inflation remains stubbornly high. But this singular focus on inflation is ignoring all the fallout their hawkishness is causing—which is why investors are not buying it, and instead are pricing in a 99% chance of at least one 25-bp rate cut by year-end and a 17% chance of four cuts (according to CME Group fed funds futures, as of 5/12) while scooping up Treasuries. Regardless, I expect inflation readings to fall substantially over the coming months.

On the good-news front, both investment grade and high yield bond spreads remain tame and in fact are roughly the same level as they were one year ago. Typically, a rise in credit spreads corresponds to a drop in the S&P 500, and indeed the SPY is roughly unchanged over the past year as well. So, apparently there is little fear of a “hard landing” or mass defaults on corporate debt. And given the historical 90% correlation between economic growth and corporate profits, the better-than-expected Q1 earnings season is promising. Certainly juggernaut/bellwether Apple (AAPL) and most of its mega-cap Tech (or near-Tech) cohorts (aka FAANGM) have done their part.

So, this all supports the bull case, right? If inflation remains in a downward trend while earnings are holding up, and investors are so confident in imminent rate cuts, then why are most stocks (other than the aforementioned mega caps) struggling for traction?

Well, it seems there’s always something else to worry about. There is the regional banking crisis (and associated credit crunch) that refuses to go away quietly, thanks to nervous depositors who don’t want to be the last ones left holding the bag. And then there is that pesky debt ceiling standoff, which is easily fixable but also highly politically charged. Amazingly, US credit default swaps are currently priced higher than in emerging markets (including debt graveyards like Mexico, Greece, and Brazil), with potential payouts upwards of 2,500% if the crap hits the fan, according to Bloomberg! Why then are Treasuries simultaneously getting bought up? I think it’s because there’s no doubt about “if” interest will be paid but rather “when,” so they serve as both a value play and a safe haven.

In my view, overly dovish fiscal and monetary policies during the pandemic lockdowns (helicopter money and surging money supply) followed by hawkish policies (rapid increase in interest rates and shrinking of money supply) have been overly disruptive to the both the US and global economies, including a severely inverted yield curve (consistently 50-60 bps on the 10-2 year Treasuries), a banking crisis, and a strong dollar (as a safe haven, despite the recent pullback), which has exported inflation to emerging markets, exacerbating geopolitical turmoil and mass migration (including our border crisis)—not to mention paralysis in the US housing market as homeowners are reluctant to sell and give up their low interest rate mortgages. So, I continue to believe the FOMC has gone too far, too fast in raising rates in its single-minded focus on inflation—which was already destined to fall as supply chains (including manufacturing, transportation, logistics, labor, and energy) gradually recovered.

Moreover, the apparent strength and resilience of the mega-cap-dominated S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 is a bit of an illusion. While the FAANGM stocks provided strong earnings reports and have performed quite well this year, beneath the surface the story is less inspiring, as illustrated by the relative performance of the equal-weight and small-cap indexes, as I discuss below. From a positive standpoint, fearful investor sentiment is often a contrarian signal, and elevated valuations of the broad market indexes—24.6x forward P/E for the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) and 18.1x for the S&P 500 (SPY)—suggest that investors expect lower interest rates ahead. However, the high valuations and relatively low equity risk premium (ERP) on those mega-cap-dominated indexes may lead institutional investors to target small and mid-cap stocks as inflation falls and rate cuts arrive, such that market breadth improves.

I believe this enhances the opportunity for skilled active selection and strategic beta indexes that can exploit elevated dispersion among individual stocks. It was money supply (and the resultant asset inflation) that pushed up stock prices. So, if money supply continues to recede, while it will help suppress inflationary pressures, it will be difficult for the mega-cap-driven market indexes to advance—although well-chosen, high-quality individual stocks can still do well.

On that note, the Q2 2023 Baker’s Dozen launched on 4/20. The portfolio has a diverse mix across market caps, equally split between value and growth and between cyclical and secular growers. Some of the constituents are familiar names, like large-cap Delta Airlines (DAL), but many are relatively “under the radar” stocks, like mid-cap cloud security firm Zscaler (ZS), small-cap oil & gas services firm NextTier Oilfield Solutions (NEX), and small-cap mortgage servicer Mr. Cooper Group (COOP). By the way, Sabrient’s newest investor tool is called SmartSheets, providing fast and easy scoring, screening, and monitoring of over 4,200 stocks and 1,200 equity ETFs, and they are available for free download for a limited time. SmartSheets comprise two simple downloadable spreadsheets with 9 of our proprietary quant scores for stocks and 3 scores for ETFs. Please check them out and send me your feedback!

Here is a link to my full post in printable format. In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. Read on…