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

Investors found optimism and “green shoots” in the latest CPI and PPI prints. As a result, both stocks and bonds have rallied hard and interest rates have fallen on the hope that inflation will continue to subside and the Fed will soon ease up on its monetary tightening. Still, there is a lot of cash on the sidelines, many investors have given up on stocks (and the longstanding 60/40 stock/bond allocation model), and many of those who are the buying the rally fear that they might be getting sucked into another deceptive bear market rally. I discuss in today’s post my view that inflation will continue to recede, stocks and bonds both will gain traction, and what might be causing the breakdown of the classic 60/40 allocation model—and whether stocks and bonds might revert back to more “normal” relative behavior.

Like me, you might be hearing highly compelling and reasoned arguments from both bulls and bears about why stocks are destined to either: 1) surge into a new bull market as inflation falls and the Fed pivots to neutral or dovish…or 2) resume the bearish downtrend as a deep recession sets in and corporate margins and earnings fall. Ultimately, whether this rally is short-lived or the start of a new bull market will depend upon the direction of inflation, interest rates, and corporate earnings growth.

The biggest driver of financial market volatility has been uncertainty about the terminal fed funds rate. DataTrek observed that the latest rally off the October lows closely matches the rally off the 12/24/2018 bottom, which was turbocharged when Fed Chair Jerome Powell backed down from his hawkish stance, which of course has not yet happened this time around. Instead, Powell continues to actively talk up interest rates (until they are “sufficiently restrictive”) while trying to scare businesses, consumers, and investors away from spending, with the goals of: 1) demand destruction to push the economy near or into recession and raise unemployment, and 2) perpetuate the bear market in risk assets (to diminish the “wealth effect” on our collective psyche and spending habits). Powell said following the November FOMC meeting that it is “very premature” to talk about a pause in rate hikes.

Indeed, the Fed has been more aggressive in raising interest rates than I anticipated. And although some FOMC members, like Lael Brainard, have started opining that the pace of rate hikes might need to slow, others—most notably Chair Powell—have stuck unflinchingly with the hawkish inflation-fighting jawboning. However, I think it is possible that Powell has tried to maintain consistency in his narrative for two reasons: 1) to reduce the terminal fed funds rate (so he won’t have to cut as much when the time comes for a pivot), and 2) to not unduly impact the midterm election with a policy change. But now that the election has passed and momentum is growing to slow the pace given the lag effect of monetary policy, his tune might start to change.

As the Fed induces demand destruction and a likely recession, earnings will be challenged. I believe interest rates will continue to pull back but will likely remain elevated (even if hikes are paused or ended) unless we enter a deep recession and/or inflation falls off a cliff. Although the money supply growth will remain low, shrinking the Fed balance sheet may prove challenging due to our massive federal budget deficit and a global economy that is dependent upon the liquidity and availability of US dollars (for forex transactions, reserves, and cross-border loans)—not to mention the reality that a rising dollar exacerbates inflationary pressures for our trading partners and anyone with dollar-denominated debt.

Thus, the most important catalyst for achieving both falling inflation and global economic growth is improving supply chains—which include manufacturing, transportation, logistics, energy, and labor. Indeed, compared to prior inflationary periods in history, it seems to me that there is a lot more potential on the supply side of the equation to bring supply and demand into better balance and alleviate inflation, rather than relying primarily on Fed policy to depress the demand side (and perhaps induce a recession). The good news is that disrupted supply chains are rapidly mending, and China has announced plans to relax its zero-tolerance COVID restrictions, which will be helpful. Even better news would be an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine, which would have a significant impact on supply chains.

In any case, it appears likely that better opportunities can be found outside of the passive, cap-weighted market indexes like the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100, and the time may be ripe for active strategies that can exploit the performance dispersion among individual stocks. Quality and value are back in vogue (and the value factor has greatly outperformed the growth factor this year), which means active selection is poised to beat passive indexing—a climate in which Sabrient's GARP (growth at a reasonable price) approach tends to thrive. Our latest portfolios—including Q4 2022 Baker’s Dozen, Forward Looking Value 10, Small Cap Growth 36, and Dividend 41 (which sports a 4.8% current yield as of 11/15)—leverages our enhanced model-driven selection approach (which combines Quality, Value, and Growth factors) to provide exposure to both: 1) the longer-term secular growth trends and 2) the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities.

By the way, if you like to invest through a TAMP or ETF, you might be interested in learning about Sabrient’s new index strategies. I provide more detail below on some indexes that might be the timeliest for today’s market.

Here is a link to a printable version of this post. In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary (including constraints on hawkish Fed actions and causes of—and prognosis for—the breakdown of the classic 60/40 portfolio), discuss the performance of Sabrient’s live portfolios, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a modestly bullish bias, the technical picture looks short-term overbought but mid-term bullish, and our sector rotation model has moved from a defensive to neutral posture. Read on...

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

The rally to kick off Q4 was most welcome, but it quickly petered out. We must acknowledge that macro conditions are still dicey, and no industry is showing leadership—not even the Energy industry, with oil prices surging and green energy getting a tailwind from the new IRA spending bill. The traditional 60/40 stock/bond portfolio could be in for its worst year ever as interest rates surge while stocks flounder. Only the dollar is strong, as the US dollar index has hit its highest level in 20 years.

On the one hand, some commentators believe that things always look darkest before the dawn, so perhaps a bottom is near, and it is time to begin accumulating good companies. Others say there needs to be one more leg down, to perhaps 3400 on the S&P 500 (and preferably with the VIX touching 40), before the buying opportunity arrives. Either is a near-term bullish perspective, which aligns with my view.

On the other hand, there are those who say that markets don’t clear out such massive distortions quite so quickly. So, after such a long period in which “buy the dip” has always paid off (for many traders, it has been so their entire adult life), things are different now, including no “Fed put” or the shadowy “Plunge Protection Team” to backstop the market. Indeed, they say that given the persistent inflation, central banks can no longer embolden speculators by jumping in quickly to cushion market risk—and so, we should be preparing ourselves for global economic restructuring, broad liquidation, and a long, wealth-destroying bear market. This is not my expectation.

The most important number these days is the CPI, and the September number came in at 8.2%, which was only slightly below August’s 8.3%. Of course, inflation is a lagging indicator, and new Fed monetary policy actions can take several months to show their impact, but the Fed’s hawkish jawboning indicates it has less fear of a “doing too much than too little,” which I disagree with as I discuss in today’s post. Although the Fed’s preferred PCE gauge isn’t released until 10/28, market consensus following the CPI print is now for a 75-bp rate hike on 11/2 followed by another 75-bp hike on 12/14, and then a final 25-50 bps in February before it ultimately pauses with the fed funds rate around 5% or so.

However, because the September CPI print (again, a lagging indicator) shows a flatline with some slowing in inflation, it bolsters my ongoing view that inflation is on the decline, the economy is slowing down fast, and the Fed ultimately will raise less than expected (perhaps even calling for pause to watch and reflect after a 75-bp hike on 11/2) because of the vulnerabilities of a hyper-financialized global economy to rapidly rising rates and an ultra-strong dollar. Even bearish Mike Wilson of Morgan Stanley believes the Fed will need to tone down its hawkish monetary policy as global US dollar liquidity is now in the "danger zone where bad stuff happens.” In effect, a strong dollar creates QT (quantitative tightening) of global monetary policy.

It all hinges on the trajectory of corporate earnings and interest rates, both of which are largely at the mercy of the trajectory of inflation, Fed monetary policy decisions, and the state of the economy (e.g., recession). I believe inflation and bond yields are in volatile topping patterns (including the recent "blow-off top" in the 10-year Treasury yield to over 4.0%). Supply chains are gradually recovering (albeit hindered by Russia’s war) and the Fed is creating demand destruction, recession, and a global investor desire for the safety and income of elevated Treasury yields. Also constraining the Fed’s ability to shrink its balance sheet is a world hungry for dollars (for forex transactions, reserves, and cross-border loans), a massive federal debt load, and the reality that a rising dollar is painful to other currencies by exacerbating inflationary pressures for our trading partners and anyone with dollar-denominated debt service.

The biggest risks of course are catastrophic escalation in the war, or untamed inflation coupled with a rapid withdrawal of liquidity…or the possibility that central banks’ disinflationary tools of yore are no longer effective. But if inflation and nominal yields continue to fall, real yields (nominal minus inflation) should follow, leading to a neutral Fed pivot, improving corporate profitability, rising earnings, and perhaps some multiple expansion on stock valuations (e.g., higher P/Es). I discuss all of this in today’s post.

We continue to suggest staying long but hedged (e.g., with leveraged inverse ETFs and index puts). For long positions, a heightened emphasis on quality is appropriate, with a balance between value/cyclicals/dividend payers and high-quality secular growers. Sabrient’s terminating Q3 2021 Baker’ Dozen shows a +6% active gross total return versus the S&P 500 through 10/14 (even without any Energy exposure), while the latest Q3 2022 Baker’s Dozen that launched on 7/20 already shows a +8% active return of (with 23% Energy exposure). Also, our latest Dividend portfolio is sporting a 5.5% yield.

By the way, if you are a financial advisor who uses a TAMP (like SMArtX or Envestnet, for example) and might be interested in adding one of Sabrient’s new index strategies to your portfolio mix, please reach out to me directly for discussion! We have 17 strategies to consider. I provide more detail below on 3 strategies that might be the most timely today.

Here is a link to a printable version of this post. In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with the top 5 scorers being economically sensitive sectors. In addition, the technical picture shows the S&P 500 may have successfully tested critical support at its reliable 200-week moving average, although our sector rotation model remains in a defensive posture. Read on…

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

Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell sounded quite hawkish at his brief Jackson Hole speech on Friday, and investors were spooked. But keep in mind, he will be reacting to the inflation data as it comes. And although the CPI hit 40-year high of 9.1% YoY in June, I see plenty of signs that inflation is in retreat. Many commentators have been attempting to predict the future of inflation and the economy by making comparisons with prior periods of high inflation. But what makes today’s situation unique is the impact of artificial supply chain disruption due to forced lockdowns rather than economic forces. Thus, I believe the Fed has been trying to “buy time” to allow supply chains to mend by using hawkish rhetoric and creating as much demand destruction as possible – without overtly crushing the economy into recession (a la Paul Volcker). Here are some of the signs that inflationary pressures are receding:

  1. CPI began to flatten out in July after 16 straight months of increases, coming in at 8.5% YoY (after topping out at 9.1% in June).
     
  2. Business inventories have risen sharply (according to the St. Louis Fed), which implies disinflationary pressure on finished goods, and the important inventory/sales ratio is making its way back to pre-pandemic levels. Wholesale prices and import prices both came in better than predicted, and commodity prices, shipping rates, and home prices are all either stabilizing or falling.
     
  3. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge – Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Index excluding food and energy – has slowed each month since its February peak, falling from 5.3% to 4.7%.
     
  4. July PPI data fell 0.5%, which was the first decline in producer prices since pre-pandemic. Historically, large moves to negative PPI readings like this have led to significantly lower inflation over subsequent months.
     
  5. The New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI) has been falling rapidly since the start of the year.
     
  6. The St. Louis Fed’s 5-year Breakeven Inflation Rate has fallen to 2.73%, and the 5-year/5-year Forward Inflation Expectation Rate is only 2.41%. Also, the University of Michigan Inflation Expectations survey of consumers, median expected price change, are at 4.8% for the next 1 year and 2.9% for the next 5 years.
     
  7. Gold prices continue to languish due to the ultra-strong dollar and expectations for rising real interest rates (nominal rate minus inflation). Historically, gold thrives when inflation rises and real interest rates fall, leading to a weaker dollar, which makes gold attractive as a store of value. But there has been no rush among investors to hold gold.

Of course, Fed monetary policy can only impact demand; it has no impact on disrupted global supply chains. The Fed can only withdraw stimulus by unwinding QE (i.e., letting bonds on its balance sheet mature and/or selling some into the market) and raising interest rates to the “neutral rate.” In fact, I believe we are close to that elusive neutral rate, given how sensitive the highly leveraged US and global economies (consumers, businesses, and governments) have become to debt financing costs. Moreover, the Fed must ensure sufficient global supply of dollars in a world hungry for them (85% of foreign exchange transactions, 60% of foreign exchange reserves, and 50% of cross-border loans and international debt are in US dollars.) All ears will be on the September FOMC meeting on 9/21, when the Fed may announce a final rate hike followed by language indicating that it will “wait & see” how conditions develop going forward (in spite of the tone of Powell's written speech on Friday). 

smartindale / Tag: inflation, federal reserve, CPI, PPI, GSCPI, FOMC, stocks, neutral rate, interest rates / 0 Comments

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

So far this year, the Federal Reserve has been removing liquidity from the markets via rate hikes and quantitative tightening, hence the 1H22 crash. But stocks have rallied strongly since the mid-June lows on the growing belief that the Fed will make one more rate hike in September and then pause ahead of the midterm elections – and perhaps even start cutting rates in the New Year. However, many others remain adamant that the Fed is committed to keep raising rates until it is clear that inflation is under control.

I remain of the belief that the hyper-financialization of the US and global economies means that rising rates could cripple debt-addicted businesses and governments (including our own federal government!), and the housing market (which is critical for a healthy consumer) depends upon mortgage rates stabilizing soon. And as the dollar further strengthens (it just went above parity with the Euro!) given the relatively higher interest rates paid by the US, some emerging market economies with dollar-denominated debt may be forced to default. In other words, today’s financial system simply can’t handle much higher rates – which suggests the Fed may already be at or near the elusive “neutral rate” and will ultimately choose to live with elevated inflation.

Earnings season has turned out better than expected, even though profit margins have been challenged by inflationary pressures. Still, at an estimate of about 12.4% (down from a record 12.8% in Q1), profit margins remain well above the 5-year average of 10.8%, according to FactSet. After a long period of low and falling inflation, massive monetary and fiscal stimulus combined with extreme supply chain disruptions (including lockdowns in manufacturing centers, labor shortages, logistics bottlenecks, and elevated energy and labor costs) sent inflation soaring. This cut into profit margins (albeit less than many predicted), as did falling US labor force productivity, which has seen its worst drop so far this year since 1948, according to DataTrek.

But now, inflation is showing signs of retreating due to both demand destruction and mending supply chains (including lower energy, commodity, and shipping costs), as well as a strong dollar. U.S. business inventories are up such that the important inventory/sales ratio is back to near pre-pandemic levels, which is disinflationary. Moreover, productivity-enhancing technologies continue to proliferate along with other disinflationary structural trends, which I believe will reverse the troublesome recent trend in labor productivity and help to contain costs and boost profitability – leading to rising corporate earnings and real wages, which together reflect a healthy and sustainable economy and stock market. All of this is of critical importance because the direction of interest rates and stock prices largely depend upon the direction of inflation and the Fed’s reaction to it.

In addition, positive catalysts like an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine or China’s COVID lockdowns, and/or a Republican sweep in November that brings greater support for domestic oil & gas production, all would be expected to hasten improvement in supply chains and have an immediate impact on inflation. In other words, compared to prior inflationary periods in history, it seems to me that there is a lot more potential on the supply side of the equation to alleviate inflation rather relying primarily on Fed policy to depress the demand side.

So, what comes next? I suggested in my late-June post that there were numerous signs of a market capitulation, and indeed the market has roared back. The big questions are whether we have seen the lows for the year and whether we will see new highs; whether this has been simply a strong bear-market rally or the start of a new bull market. I believe the current pullback is simply a normal reaction to the extremely overbought technical conditions after such a strong (nearly monotonic) rally. It simply ran into a brick wall at the convergence of the May highs and the 200-day moving average, mostly due to buyer exhaustion. In fact, some traders have observed that the S&P 500 historically has never fallen to new lows after retracing more than 50% of its bear-market losses, as it has done. I talk more about this in my full post.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 5 of the top 6 scorers being cyclical sectors. In addition, the technical picture looks short-term bearish but longer term bullish, and our sector rotation model has taken on a neutral posture (at least until the S&P 500 retakes its 200-day moving average). I also offer up a political comment that you might want to ponder. Read on…

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

The S&P 500 officially entered a bear market by falling more than -20% from its all-time high in January, with a max peak-to-trough drawdown of nearly -25% (as of 6/17). The Nasdaq Composite was down as much as -35% from its November all-time high. During the selloff, there was no place to hide as all asset classes floundered – even formerly uncorrelated cryptocurrencies went into a death spiral (primarily due to forced unwinding of excessive leverage). But then stocks staged an impressive bounce last week, although it was mostly driven by short covering.

Earlier this year when stocks began their initial descent, laggards and more speculative names sold-off first, but later, as the selling accelerated, the proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater as investors either were forced to deleverage (i.e., margin calls) or elected to protect profits (and their principal). Even the high-flying Energy sector sold off on this latest down leg, falling over -25% intraday in just 10 days, as the algorithmic momentum trading programs reversed from leveraged buying of Energy to leveraged selling/shorting.

These are common signs of capitulation. So is historically low consumer and investor sentiment, which I discuss in detail later in this post. But despite the negative headlines and ugly numbers, it mostly has been an orderly selloff, with few signs of panic. The VIX has not reached 40, and in fact it hasn’t eclipsed that level since April 2020 during the pandemic selloff. Moreover, equity valuations have shrunk considerably, with the S&P 500 and S&P 600 small caps falling to forward P/Es of 15.6x and 10.8x, respectively, at the depths of the selloff (6/17). This at least partially reflects an expectation that slowing growth (and the ultra-strong dollar) will lead to lower corporate earnings than the analyst community is currently forecasting. Although street estimates have been gradually falling, consensus still predicts S&P 500 earnings will grow +10.4% in aggregate for CY2022, according to FactSet. Meanwhile, Energy stocks are back on the upswing, and the impressive outperformance this year of the Energy sector has made its proportion of the S&P 500 rise from approximately 2% to 5%...and yet the P/Es of the major Energy ETFs are still in the single digits.

A mild recession is becoming more likely, and in fact it has become desirable to many as a way to hasten a reduction in inflationary pressures. Although volatility will likely persist for the foreseeable future, I think inflation and the 10-year Treasury yield are already in topping patterns. In addition, supply chains and labor markets continue their gradual recovery, the US dollar remains strong, and the Fed is reducing monetary accommodation, leading to demand destruction and slower growth, which would reduce the excess demand that is causing inflation.

Bullish catalysts for equity investors would be a ceasefire or settlement of the Russian/Ukraine conflict and/or China abandoning its zero-tolerance COVID lockdowns, which would be expected to help supply chains and further spur a meaningful decline in inflation – potentially leading to a Fed pivot to dovish (or at least neutral)…and perhaps a melt-up in stocks. Until then, a market surge like we saw last week, rather than the start of a V-shaped recovery, is more likely just a bear market short-covering rally – and an opportunity to raise cash to buy the next drawdown.

Nevertheless, we suggest staying net long but hedged, with a heightened emphasis on quality and a balance between value/cyclicals and high-quality secular growers and dividend payers. Moreover, rather than investing in the major cap-weighted index ETFs, stocks outside of the mega-caps may offer better opportunities due to lower valuations and higher growth rates. Regardless, Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen, Dividend, and Small Cap Growth portfolios leverage our enhanced model-driven selection approach (which combines Quality, Value, and Growth factors) to provide exposure to both the longer-term secular growth trends and the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities. In particular, our Dividend Portfolio – which seeks quality companies selling at a reasonable price with a solid growth forecast, a history of raising dividends, a good coverage ratio, and an aggregate dividend yield approaching 4% or more to target both capital appreciation and steady income – has been holding up well this year. So has our Armageddon Portfolio, which is available as a passive index for ETF licensing.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 5 of the top 6 scorers being cyclical sectors. In addition, the near-term technical picture looks neutral-to-bearish after last week’s impressive bounce, and our sector rotation model remains in a defensive posture.  Read on...

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

Needless to say, investors have been piling out of stocks and bonds and into cash. So much for the 60/40 portfolio approach that expects bonds to hold up when stocks sell off. In fact, few assets have escaped unscathed, leaving the US dollar as the undisputed safe haven in uncertain times like these, along with hard assets like real estate, oil, and commodities. Gold was looking great in early-March but has returned to the flatline YTD. Even cryptocurrencies have tumbled, showing that they are still too early in adoption to serve as an effective “store of value”; instead, they are still leveraged, speculative risk assets that have become highly correlated with aggressive growth stocks.

From its record high in early January to Thursday’s intraday low, the S&P 500 (SPY) was down -19.9% (representing more than $7.5 trillion in value). At its lows on Thursday, the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) was down as much as -29.2% from its November high. Both SPY and QQQ are now struggling to regain critical “round-number” support at 400 and 300, respectively. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) further illustrates the bearishness. After hitting 36.6 on May 2, which is two standard deviations above the low-run average of 20 (i.e., Z-score of 2.0), VIX stayed in the 30’s all last week, which reflects a level of panic. This broad retreat from all asset classes has been driven by fear of loss, capital preservation, deleveraging/margin calls among institutional traders, and the appeal of a strong dollar (which hit a 20-year high last week). The move to cash caused bond yields to soar and P/E ratios to crater. Also, there has been a striking preference for dividend-paying stocks over bonds.

It appears I underestimated the potential for market carnage, having expected that the March lows would hold as support and the “taper tantrum” surge in bond yields would soon top out once the 10-year yield rose much above 2%, due to a combination of US dollar strength as the global safe haven, lower comparable rates in most developed markets, moderating inflation, leverage and “financialization” of the global economy, and regulatory or investor mandates for holding “cash or cash equivalents.” There are some signs that surging yields and the stock/bond correlation may be petering out, as last week was characterized by stock/bond divergence. After spiking as high as 3.16% last Monday, the 10-year yield fell back to close Thursday at 2.82% (i.e., bonds attracted capital) while stocks continued to sell off, and then Friday was the opposite, as capital rolled out of bonds into stocks.

Although nominal yields may be finally ready to recede a bit, real yields (net of inflation) are still solidly negative. Although inflation may be peaking, the moderation I have expected has not commenced – at least not yet – as supply chains have been slow to mend given new challenges from escalation in Russian’s war on Ukraine, China’s growth slowdown and prolonged zero-tolerance COVID lockdowns in important manufacturing cities, and various other hindrances. Indeed, the risks to my expectations that I outlined in earlier blog posts and in my Baker’s Dozen slide deck have largely come to pass, as I discuss in this post.

Nevertheless, I still expect a sequence of events over the coming months as follows: more hawkish Fed rhetoric and some tightening actions, modest demand destruction, a temporary economic slowdown, and more stock market volatility … followed by mending supply chains, some catch-up of supply to slowing demand, moderating inflationary pressures, bonds continuing to find buyers (and yields falling), and a dovish turn from the Fed – plus (if necessary) a return of the “Fed put” to support markets. Time will tell. Too bad the Fed can’t turn its printing press into a 3D printer and start printing supply chain parts, semiconductors, oil, commodities, fertilizers, and all the other goods in short supply – that would be far more helpful than the limited tools they have at hand.

Although both consumer and investor sentiment are quite weak (as I discuss below), and there has been no sustained dip-buying since March, history tells us bear markets do not start when everyone is already bearish, so perhaps Friday’s strong rally is the start of something better. Perhaps the near -20% decline in the S&P 500 is all it took to wring out the excesses, with Thursday closing at a forward P/E of 16.8x ahead of Friday’s rally, which is the lowest since April 2020. So, the S&P 500 is trading at a steep 22% discount compared to 21.7x at the start of the year, a 5-year average of 18.6x, and a 20-year post-Internet-bubble average of 15.5x (according to FactSet), Moreover, the Invesco S&P 500 Equal Weight (RSP) is at 15.0x compared to 17.7x at the beginning of the year, and the S&P 600 small cap forward P/E fell to just 11.6x (versus 15.2x at start of the year).

But from an equity risk premium standpoint, which measures the spread between equity earnings yields and long-term bond yields, stock valuations have actually worsened relative to bonds. So, although this may well be a great buying opportunity, especially given the solid earnings growth outlook, the big wildcards for stocks are whether current estimates are too optimistic and whether bond yields continue to recede (or at least hold steady).

Recall Christmas Eve of 2018, when the market capitulated to peak-to-trough selloff of -19.7% – again, just shy of the 20% bear market threshold – before recovering in dazzling fashion. The drivers today are not the same, so it’s not necessarily and indicator of what comes next. Regardless, you should be prepared for continued volatility ahead.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 5 of the top 6 scorers being cyclical sectors, Energy, Basic Materials, Financials, Industrials, and Technology. In addition, the near-term technical picture looks bullish for at least a solid bounce, if not more (although the mid-to-long-term is still murky, subject to news developments), but our sector rotation model switched to a defensive posture last month when technical conditions weakened.

Regardless, Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen, Dividend, and Small Cap Growth portfolios leverage our enhanced Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) selection approach (which combines Quality, Value, and Growth factors) to provide exposure to both the longer-term secular growth trends and the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities – without sacrificing strong performance potential. Sabrient’s latest Q2 2022 Baker’s Dozen launched on 4/20/2022 and is off to a good start versus the benchmark, led by three Energy firms, with a diverse mix across market caps and industries. In addition, the live Dividend and Small Cap Growth portfolios have performed quite well relative to their benchmarks. Read on....

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

As the economy has emerged from the pandemic and some sense of normalcy has returned around the world, investors had returned to wrestling with the potential impacts of unwinding 13 years of unprecedented monetary stimulus (QE and ZIRP). But then new uncertainties piled on with the onset of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s impressive resistance, and the resulting refugee crisis, not to mention new COVID mutations and some renewed lockdowns – all of which has led to historic inflationary pressures on energy, commodities, and food prices, as well as elevated market volatility.

After a solid post-FOMC rally, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) fell from a panicky high near 37 – which is more than two sigma above its long-term average of 20 – to close last week at 20.81. At their lows, the S&P 500 had corrected by -13.1% and the Nasdaq Comp by -21.7% (from their all-time high closing prices last November to their lowest close on Monday 3/14/22). But the price action in the SPDR S&P 500 and Tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 over the past few weeks looks very much like a bottoming process going into the FOMC meeting, culminating in a bullish “W” technical formation that broke out strongly to the upside, with recoveries of +9.2% for the S&P 500 and +12.9% for Nasdaq through last Friday. The rally has seen a resurgence in the more speculative growth stocks that had become severely oversold, as illustrated by the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), which has risen nearly 25%.

Except for some gyrations in the immediate aftermath of the FOMC announcement, price essentially went straight up. I believe the rocket fuel came from a combination of the Fed providing greater clarity (and not hiking by 50 bps), China’s soothing words (including assurances to global investors and distancing itself from Russia’s aggression), as well as a general fear of missing out (FOMO) among investors on an oversold rally.

Notably, commodities and crude oil have been strong from the start of the year, with oil at one point (March 7) touching $130/bbl after starting the year at $75 (that’s a 73% spike!). For now, oil seems to have stabilized in a trading range, although the future is uncertain and summer driving season is on the horizon. It seems that President Putin finally acting out his goal of restoring historical Russian lands (similar to the jihadist dream of redrawing an Islamic caliphate) may be shaking up our leftists’ utopian vision of a Great Reset and “stakeholder capitalism” and into realizing (at least for the moment) the pitfalls of rapid decarbonization, denuclearization, the embracing of green/renewable energy before the technologies are ready for the role of primary energy source, and the outsourcing of critical energy supplies (the very lifeblood of a modern economy) to mercurial/adversarial dictators. I talk at length about oil production and supply dynamics in today’s post.

So, have we seen the lows for the year in stocks? Is this merely an oversold bounce and end-of-quarter “window dressing” for mutual funds that will soon reverse, or is it a sustainable recovery? Well, my view is that we may have indeed seen the lows, depending upon how the war develops from here, how aggressive the Fed’s actions (not just its language) actually turn out, and how economic growth and corporate earnings are impacted. But I also think there is too much uncertainty – including a possible recessionary dip for one quarter – for there to be new highs in the broad indexes anytime soon. Instead, I think we are in a trader’s market. Although I think stocks will end the year in positive territory, they are unlikely to reach new highs given the vast new disruptions to supply chains and the less-speculative nature of current investor sentiment – meaning that valuations will depend more on earnings growth rather than multiple expansion. In any case, I believe there are many high-quality stocks to be found outside of the mega-cap Tech darlings offering better opportunities.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 4 of the top 5 scorers being cyclical sectors, Energy, Basic Materials, Financials, and Technology. In addition, the near-term technical picture looks weak, but the mid-to-long-term looks like a bottom is in, and our sector rotation model is back in a bullish posture.

Regardless, Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen, Dividend, and Small Cap Growth portfolios leverage our enhanced Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) selection approach (which combines quality, value, and growth factors) to provide exposure to both the longer-term secular growth trends and the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities – without sacrificing strong performance potential. Sabrient’s latest Q1 2022 Baker’s Dozen launched on 1/20/2022 and is off to a good start versus the benchmark, led by an oil & gas firm. In addition, the live Dividend and Small Cap Growth portfolios are performing quite well relative to their benchmarks.  Read on....

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

I have been warning that the longer the market goes up without a significant pullback, the worse the ultimate correction is likely to be. So, with that in mind, we might not have seen the lows for the year quite yet, as I discuss in the chart analysis later in this post. January saw a maximum intraday peak-to-trough drawdown on the S&P 500 of -12.3% and the worst monthly performance (-5.3%) for the S&P 500 since March 2020 (-12.4%). It was the worst performance for the month of January since 2009 (during the final capitulation phase of the financial crisis) and one of the five worst performances for any January since 1980. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), aka “fear gauge,” briefly spiked to nearly 39 before settling back down to the low-20s.

It primarily was driven by persistently high inflation readings – and a suddenly hawkish-sounding Federal Reserve – as the CPI for the 12 months ending in December came in at 7.0% YoY, which was the largest increase for any calendar year since 1981. Then on Feb 10, the BLS released a 7.5% CPI for January, the highest YoY monthly reading since 1982. Of course, stocks fell hard, and the 10-year T-note briefly spiked above 2% for the first time since August 2019.

Looking under the hood is even worse. Twelve months ago, new 52-week highs were vastly outpacing new 52-week lows. But this year, even though new highs on the broad indexes were achieved during January, we see that 2/3 of the 3,650 stocks in the Nasdaq Composite have fallen at least 20% at some point over the past 12 months – and over half the stocks in the index continue to trade at prices 40% or more below their peaks, including prominent names like DocuSign (DOCU), Peloton Interactive (PTON), and of course, Meta Platforms, nee Facebook (FB). Likewise, speculative funds have fallen, including the popular ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), which has been down as much as -60% from its high exactly one year ago (and which continues to score near the bottom of Sabrient’s fundamentals based SectorCast ETF rankings).

Pundits are saying that the “Buy the Dip” mentality has suddenly turned into “Sell the Rip” (i.e., rallies) in the belief that the fuel for rising asset prices (i.e., unlimited money supply and zero interest rates) soon will be taken away. To be sure, the inflation numbers are scary and unfamiliar. In fact, only a minority of the population likely can even remember what those days of high inflation were like; most of the population only has experienced decades of falling CPI. But comparing the latest CPI prints to those from 40 years ago has little relevance, in my view, as I discuss in the commentary below. I continue to believe inflation has been driven by the snapback in demand coupled with slow recovery in hobbled supply chains – largely due to “Nanny State” restrictions – and that inflationary pressures are peaking and likely to fall as the year progresses.

In response, the Federal Reserve has been talking down animal spirits and talking up interest rates without actually doing much of anything yet other than tapering its bond buying and releasing some thoughts and guidance. The Fed’s challenge will be to raise rates enough to dampen inflation without overshooting and causing a recession, i.e., the classic policy mistake. My prediction is there will be three rate hikes over the course of the year, plus some modest unwinding of its $9 trillion balance sheet by letting some maturing bonds roll off. Note that Monday’s emergency FOMC meeting did not result in a rate hike due to broad global uncertainties.

Longer term, I do not believe the Fed will be able to “normalize” interest rates over the next decade, much less the next couple of years, without causing severe pain in the economy and in the stock and bond markets. Our economy is simply too levered and “financialized” to absorb a “normalized” level of interest rates. But if governments around the world (starting with the US and Canada!) can stand aside and let the economy work without heavy-handed societal restrictions and fearmongering, we might see the high supply-driven excess-demand gap close much more quickly.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with the top three scorers being deep-cyclical sectors, Energy, Basic Materials, and Financials. In addition, the near-term technical picture remains weak, and our sector rotation model moved from a neutral to a defensive posture this week as the market has pulled back.

Overall, I expect a continuation of the nascent rotation from aggressive growth and many “malinvestments” that were popular during the speculative recovery phase into the value and quality factors as the Fed tries to rein in the speculation-inducing liquidity bubble. And although I don’t foresee a major selloff in the high-valuation-multiple mega-cap Tech names, I think investors can find better opportunities this year among high-quality stocks outside of the Big Tech favorites – particularly among small and mid-caps – due to lower valuations and/or higher growth rates, plus some of the high-quality secular growth names that were essentially the proverbial “baby thrown out with the bathwater.” But that’s not say we aren’t in for further downside in this market over the near term. In fact, I think we will see continued volatility and technical weakness over the next few months – until the Fed’s policy moves become clearer – before the market turns sustainably higher later in the year.

Regardless, Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen, Dividend, and Small Cap Growth portfolios leverage our enhanced Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) selection approach (which combines quality, value, and growth factors) to provide exposure to both the longer-term secular growth trends and the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities – without sacrificing strong performance potential. Sabrient’s new Q1 2022 Baker’s Dozen launched on 1/20/2022 and is already off to a good start versus the benchmark. In addition, our Dividend and Small Cap Growth portfolios have been performing well versus their benchmarks. In fact, all 7 of the Small Cap Growth portfolios launched since the March 2020 COVID selloff have outperformed the S&P 600 SmallCap Growth ETF (SLYG), and 7 of the 8 Dividend portfolios have outperformed the S&P 500 (SPY). In particular, the Energy sector still seems like a good bet, as indicated by its low valuation and high score in our SectorCast ETF rankings.

Furthermore, we have created the Sabrient Quality Index Series comprising 5 broad-market and 5 sector-specific, rules-based, strategic beta and thematic indexes for ETF licensing, which we are pitching to various ETF issuers. Please ask your favorite ETF wholesaler to mention it to their product team!
Read on....

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

I have been expecting elevated volatility, and it has surely arrived. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) briefly spiked above 35 on 12/3 before settling back down below 20 last week as stocks resurged. Given lofty valuations (S&P 500 at 21.4x forward P/E) that appear to be pricing in continued economic recovery and strong corporate earnings further exceeding expectations, any hint of new obstacles – like onerous new COVID variants, renewed lockdowns, persistent supply chain disruptions, anemic jobs report, or relentless inflationary pressures – naturally sends fidgety investors to the sell button on their keyboards, at least momentarily. And now we learn that the Fed might have joined the legions of dour pundits by removing the word “transitory” from its inflation description while hastening its timetable for QE tapering (but don’t call it QE!) and interest rate hikes. Nevertheless, despite the near-term challenges that likely will lead to more spikes in volatility, investors are buying the dip, and I believe the path of least resistance is still higher for stocks over the medium term, but with a greater focus on quality rather than speculation.

However, investors are going to have to muster up stronger bullish conviction for the market to achieve a sustainable upside breakout. Perhaps Santa will arrive on queue to help. But with this new and unfamiliar uncertainty around Fed monetary policy, and with FOMC meeting and announcement later this week combined with an overbought technical picture (as I discuss in today’s post below), I think stocks may pull back into the FOMC meeting – at which time we should get a bit more clarity on its intentions regarding tapering of its bond buying and plan for interest rate hikes. Keep in mind, the Fed still insists that “tapering is not tightening,” i.e., they remain accommodative.

The new hawkish noises from the Fed came out of left field to most observers, and many growth stocks took quite a hit. Witness the shocking 42% single-day haircut on 12/3 for a prominent company like DocuSign (DOCU), for example. And similar things have happened to other such high-potential but speculative/low-quality names, many of which are held by the ARK family of ETFs. In fact, of the 1,086 ETFs scored by Sabrient’s fundamentals based SectorCast rankings this week, most of Cathie Woods’ ARK funds are ranked at or near the bottom.

Although I do not necessarily see DOCU and its ilk as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the broader market, it does serve to reinforce that investors are displaying a greater focus on quality as the economy has moved past the speculative recovery phase, which is a healthy development in my view. In response, we have created the Sabrient Quality Index Series comprising 5 broad-market and 5 sector-specific, rules-based, strategic beta and thematic indexes for ETF licensing, which we are pitching to various ETF issuers. Moreover, we continue to suggest staying long but hedged, with a balance between 1) value/cyclicals and 2) high-quality secular growers & dividend payers. Hedges might come from inverse ETFs, out-of-the-money put options, gold, and cryptocurrencies (I personally hold all of them).

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a highly bullish bias, with the top two scorers being deep-cyclical sectors, Basic Materials and Energy, which are seeing surging forward EPS estimates and ultra-low forward PEG ratios (forward P/E divided by projected EPS growth rate) under 0.50. In addition, the technical picture is somewhat mixed and suggestive of a near-term pullback, although our sector rotation model maintains its bullish posture.

By the way, Sabrient’s latest Q4 2021 Baker’s Dozen model portfolio is already displaying solid performance despite having a small-cap bias and equal weighted position sizes that would typically suggest underperformance during periods of elevated market volatility. It is up +5.3% since its 10/20/2021 launch through 12/10/2021 versus +4.1% for the cap-weighted S&P 500, +1.2% for the equal-weight S&P 500, and -3.3% for the Russell 2000. Also, last year’s Q4 2020 Baker’s Dozen model portfolio, which terminates next month on 1/20/2022, is looking good after 14 months of life with a gross return of +43%. As a reminder, our various portfolios – including Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth, and Dividend – all employ our enhanced growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) approach that combines value, growth, and quality factors while seeking a balance between secular growth and cyclical/value stocks and across market caps. Read on....

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

I mentioned early last month that it had been quite a long stretch since the market had seen even a -5% correction, but we finally got it, with the S&P 500 falling -6% (intraday). Although many commentators (including myself) felt we needed even more of a correction in the major market indexes to really wring out some excesses and the “weak” holders, the underlying internals tell a different story of a much harsher “stealth” correction. Alpine Macro reported that 90% of the stocks in the S&P 500 have fallen at least -10% from their recent highs, with an average decline of -17% … and -38% in the Nasdaq Composite! A casual observer might not have noticed this since these individual stock corrections didn’t occur all at once, but rather in more of a rolling fashion as various industries fell in and out of favor at different times. The masking by the major indexes of these underlying corrections is the magic of passive index investing, as the diversification limits downside (albeit upside as well, of course).

Moreover, while the cap-weighted indexes have surged to new highs as recently as early September, the equal-weight and small-cap indexes have been trading sideways since March. Regardless, investors took the September correction as a buyable dip. Last Thursday-Friday provided two bullish breakout gaps, and in fact Thursday was the strongest day for the S&P 500 since March. Looking ahead, the question is whether the rapid 2-day surge is sustainable, or if there is some technical consolidation (aka “backing & filling”) to be done – or perhaps something much worse, as several prominent Wall Street veterans have predicted.

No doubt, economic challenges abound. Energy prices are surging. COVID persists in much of the world, especially emerging markets, which is at least partly responsible for the persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages in the manufacturing and transportation segments that are proving slow to resolve. Retail and restaurant industries continue to have difficulty filling jobs (and they are seeing a high rate of “quits”). And now we are seeing fiscal and monetary tightening in China – likely leading to lower GDP growth (if not a “hard landing”) – due to long-festering financial leverage and “shadow banking” finally coming to roost (witness the Evergrande property development debacle, and now it appears developer Modern Land is next). Indeed, we see many similarities with Q4 2018 (including the S&P 500 price chart), when the market endured a nasty selloff. Investors should be mindful of these risks. So, although TINA-minded (“there is no alternative”) equity investors continue to pour money into stocks, and an exuberant FOMO (“fear of missing out”) melt-up is possible going into year-end, there likely will be elevated volatility.

I write in greater depth about oil prices and China’s troubles in this article.

Q3 earnings reporting season is now underway, and I expect the number and magnitude of upside surprises and forward guidance will determine the next directional trend. In any case, we continue to like the Energy sector, even after its recent run (in fact, you will find a couple of oil exploration & production firms in the new Baker’s Dozen coming out this week). Wall Street estimates in the sector still appear to be too low based on projected prices, and the dividend yields are attractive. Sabrient’s SectorCast ETF rankings continue to show Energy at or near the top. Actually, from a broader perspective, the “deep cyclical” sectors (especially Energy, Materials, and Industrials), with their more volatile revenue streams but relatively fixed (albeit high) cost structure (and high earnings leverage), remain well positioned to show strong sales growth and, by extension, upside earnings surprises.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a solidly bullish bias; the technical picture is somewhat mixed; and our sector rotation model has regained its bullish posture (pending technical confirmation early this week).

By the way, Sabrient’s new Q4 2021 Baker’s Dozen launches on Wednesday, 10/20/21. As a reminder, our newer portfolios – including Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth, Dividend, and Forward Looking Value – all reflect the process enhancements we implemented in December 2019 in response to the unprecedented market distortions that created historic Value/Growth and Small/Large performance divergences. Our enhanced growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) approach combines value, growth, and quality factors while seeking a balance between secular growth and cyclical/value stocks and across market caps.  Read on....

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