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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Scott 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

The year began with the market showing resilience in the face of the Fed’s rate hikes, balance sheet contraction, hawkish rhetoric, and willingness to inflict further economic pain, including a recession and rising unemployment (if that’s what it takes). Of course, we also had a treacherous geopolitical landscape of escalating aggression by Russia in Ukraine, by China (regarding both Ukraine and Taiwan), and North Korea (persistent rocket launches and saber-rattling). But really, the direction for stocks came down to the trend in inflation and the Fed’s response—and the latest readings on CPI and especially PPI are quite encouraging. But alas, it now appears it isn’t quite that simple, as we have a burgeoning banking crisis to throw another monkey wrench into the mix. As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say in the early Saturday Night Live sketches, "It just goes to show you, it's always something—if it ain't one thing, it's another."

I warned in my January post that 1H 2023 would be volatile as investors searched for clarity amid a fog of macro uncertainties. And I often opine that the Fed can’t rapidly raise rates on a heavily leveraged economy—which was incentivized by ZIRP and massive money supply growth to speculate for higher returns—without fallout (aka “breaking something”). Besides impacts like exporting inflation and societal turmoil to our trading partners, the rapid pace of rate hikes has quickly lowered the value of bank reserves (as bond prices fell). Last week this in turn led to massive portfolio losses and a federal takeover for SVB Financial (SIVB) which caters to California’s start-up and technology community, as it was pushed into selling reserves to meet an onslaught of customer withdrawals. The normally stable 2-year T-Note spiked, crashing its yield by over 100 bps in just a few days. Other regional banks have required rescue or support as well, including stalwarts like Signature Bank (SBNY) and First Republic (FRC)…and then scandal-prone European behemoth Credit Suisse (CS) revealed “material weaknesses” in its accounting…and Moody’s cut its outlook on US banks from stable to negative. So, something indeed broke in the financial system.

Fortunately, inflation fears were somewhat assuaged this week, as all reports showed trends that the Fed (and investors) hoped to see. February CPI registered 6.0%, which is the lowest reading since September 2021. Despite the historical observation that a CPI above 5% has never come back down to a desirable level without the fed funds rate exceeding CPI, we already have seen CPI fall substantially from 9.1% last June without fed funds even cracking the 5% handle, much less 6%—and CPI is a lagging indicator. So, given the 12 encouraging signs I describe in my full post below, I believe the writing is on the wall, so to speak, for a continued inflation downtrend.

So, the question is, will the Fed feel it must follow-through on its hawkish inflation-busting jawboning at the FOMC meeting next week to force the economy into recession? Or will recovering supply chains (including manufacturing, transportation, logistics, energy, labor) and disinflationary secular trends continue to provide the restraint on wage and price inflation that the Fed seeks without having to double-down on its intervention/manipulation?

My expectation is the latter—and it’s not just due to the sudden banking crisis magnifying fragility in our economy. Nothing goes in a straight line for long, and inflation is no different, i.e., the path is volatile, but disinflationary trends remain intact. I talk more about this in my full post below. Regardless, given the anemic GDP growth forecast (well below inflation) and the historical 90% correlation between economic growth and aggregate corporate profits, the passive broad-market mega-cap-dominated indexes that have been so hard for active managers to beat in the past may well continue to see volatility.

Nevertheless, many individual companies—particularly within the stronger sectors—could still do well. Thus, investors may be better served by pursuing equal-weight and strategic-beta ETFs as well as active strategies that can exploit the performance dispersion among individual stocks—which should be favorable for Sabrient’s portfolios, including the newest Q1 2023 Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth 37, and Dividend 43 (offering both capital appreciation potential and a current yield of 5.2%), all of which combine value, quality, and growth factors while providing exposure to both longer-term secular growth trends and shorter-term cyclical growth opportunities.

Quick plug for Sabrient’s newest product, a stock and ETF screening and scoring tool called SmartSheets, which comprise two simple downloadable spreadsheets that provide access to 9 of our proprietary quant scores. Prior to the sudden fall of SIVB, on a scale of 0-100 with 100 the “best,” our rankings showed SIVB carried a low score in our proprietary Earnings Quality Rank of 35, a GARP (growth at a reasonable price) score of 37, and a BEAR score (relative performance in weak market conditions) of 13. Also worth mentioning, Lantheus Holdings (LNTH) was consistently ranked our #1 GARP stock for the first several months of the year before it knocked its earnings report out of the park on 2/23 and shot up over +20% in one day. (Note: you can find our full Baker’s Dozen performance details here.) Feel free to download the latest weekly sheets using the link above—free of charge for now—and please send us your feedback!

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 U.S. business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a slightly bullish-to-neutral bias, the technical picture looks short-term oversold, and our sector rotation model has taken a defensive posture. Technology has taken over the top position in our sector rankings. Read on…

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

The future direction of both stocks and bonds hinges on the trajectory of corporate earnings and interest rates, both of which are largely at the mercy of inflation, Fed monetary policy, and the state of the economy (e.g., recession). So far, 2023 is off to an impressive start, with both stocks and bonds surging higher on speculation that inflation will continue to subside, the Fed will soon pause rate hikes, the economy will endure at most a mild recession, China reopens, and corporate earnings will hold up…not to mention, stocks have risen in the year following a midterm election in every one of the past 20 cycles. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) is at a 52-week low.

Moreover, although inflation and interest rates surged much higher than I predicted at the beginning of 2022, my broad storyline around inflation and Fed policy remains intact:  i.e., a softening of its hawkish jawboning, followed by slower rate hikes and some balance sheet runoff (QT), a pause (or neutral pivot) to give the rapid rate hikes a chance to marinate (typically it takes 9-12 months for a rate hike to have its full effect), and then as inflation readings retreat and/or recession sets in, rate cuts commence leading to an extended relief rally and perhaps the start of a new (and lasting) bull market. Investors seem to be trying to get a jump on that rally. Witness the strength in small caps, which tend to outperform during recoveries from bear markets. However, I think it could be a “bull trap” …at least for now.

Although so far consumer spending, corporate earnings, and profitability have held up, I don’t believe we have the climate quite yet for a sustained bull run, which will require an actual Fed pause on rate hikes and more predictable policy (an immediate dovish pivot probably not necessary), better visibility on corporate earnings, and lower market volatility. Until we get greater clarity, I expect more turbulence in the stock market. In my view, the passive, broad-market, mega-cap-dominated indexes that have been so hard for active managers to beat in the past may see further weakness during H1 2023. The S&P 500 might simply gyrate in a trading range, perhaps 3600–4100.

But there is hope for greater clarity as we get closer to H2 2023. If indeed inflation continues to recede, China reopens, the war in Ukraine doesn’t draw in NATO (or turn nuclear), the dollar weakens, and bond yields fall further, then investor interest should broaden beyond value and defensive names to include well-valued growth stocks help to fuel a surge in investor confidence. I believe both stocks and bonds will do well this year, and the classic 60/40 stock/bond allocation model should regain its appeal.

Regardless, even if the major indexes falter, that doesn’t mean all stocks will fall. Indeed, certain sectors (most notably Energy) should continue to thrive, in my view, so long as the global economy doesn’t sink into a deep recession. Quality and value have regained their former luster (and the value factor has greatly outperformed the growth factor over the past year), which means active selection and smart beta strategies that can exploit the performance dispersion among individual stocks seem poised to continue to beat passive indexing in 2023—a climate in which Sabrient’s approach tends to thrive.

For example, our Q4 2021 Baker’s Dozen, which launched on 10/20/21 and terminates on Friday 1/20/23, is outperforming by a wide margin all relevant market benchmarks (including various mid- and small-cap indexes, both cap-weighted and equal-weight) with a gross total return of +9.3% versus -10.2% for the S&P 500 as of 1/13, which implies a +19.5% active return, led by a diverse group encompassing two oil & gas firms, an insurer, a retailer, and a semiconductor equipment company. Later in this post, I show performance for all of Sabrient’s live portfolios—including the Baker’s Dozen, Forward Looking Value, Small Cap Growth, and Dividend (which offers a 4.7% current yield). Each leverages our enhanced model that combines Value, Quality, and Growth factors to provide exposure to both longer-term secular growth trends and shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities. By the way, the new Q1 2023 Baker’s Dozen launches on 1/20.

Here is a link to a printable version of this post. In this periodic update to start the new year, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, 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 neutral, and our sector rotation model remains in a neutral posture. Energy continues to sit atop our sector rankings, given its still ultra-low (single digit) forward P/E and expectations for strong earnings growth, given likely upside pricing pressure on oil due to the end of Strategic Petroleum Reserve releases (and flip to purchases), continued sanctions on Russia, and China’s reopening…and assuming we see only a mild recession and a second half recovery. Read on…

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

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…

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