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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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