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

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

Another positive month for the major indexes, despite plenty of new bricks in the proverbial Wall of Worry. That makes 7 months in a row – the longest streak in over 30 years – and 14 of the past 17 months (since the pandemic low). From a technical (chart) perspective, the S&P 500 has tested its 50-day simple moving average seven times this year, each time going on to hit a new high. And it’s not just the cap-weighted index (SPY) as the equal-weight version (RSP) has been moving in lockstep, illustrating good market breadth and confirming market conviction. Stocks seem to have already priced in some modest tapering of asset purchases by year end, so in the wake of Fed chairman Powell’s late-August speech in Jackson Hole indicating no plans for rate hikes, stocks surged yet again. Indeed, it has become a parabolic “melt-up,” which of course cannot go on forever.

Many investors have been patiently awaiting a significant market correction to use as a buying opportunity, but it remains elusive. What happened to the typical August low-volume technical correction? The big money institutions and hedge funds certainly have stuck to the script by reducing equity exposure and increasing exposure to volatility. But retail investors didn’t get the memo as every time it appears the correction has begun, they treat it like a buyable dip – not just in meme stocks but also the disruptive, secular-growth Tech stocks that so dominate total market cap and the cap-weighted, broad-market indexes. It seems like yet another market distortion caused by government intervention and de facto Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) that has flooded the economy with free money and kept workers at home to troll on social media, gamble on DraftKings, and speculate in Dogecoin, NFTs, SPACs, and meme stocks.

Will September finally bring a significant (and overdue) correction, or will the dip buyers, led by an active, brash, and risk-loving retail investor, continue to scare off the short sellers and prop up the market? Is this week’s pullback yet another head fake? And regardless, will the S&P 500 (both cap-weight and equal-weight) finish the year higher than last week’s all-time highs?

There is little doubt in my mind that the big institutional investors continue to wait patiently in the tall grass like a cheetah to pounce on any significant market weakness, like a 10+% selloff. Valuations are dependent on earnings, interest rates, and the equity risk premium (ERP, i.e., earnings yield minus the risk-free rate), and today we have robust corporate earnings, rising forward guidance, persistently low interest rates, a dovish Fed, and a low ERP – which is related to inflation expectations that are much lower than recent CPI readings would have you expect. I continue to expect inflation to moderate in 2022 while interest rates remain constrained by a stable dollar and Treasury demand. The Fed’s ongoing asset purchases (despite some expected tapering) along with robust demand among global investors (due to global QE and low comparative yields) has put a bid under bonds and kept nominal long term yields low (albeit with negative real yields). Indeed, bond yields today are less sensitive to inflationary signals compared to the past.

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 has been strong but remains in dire need of significant (but healthy and buyable, in my view) correction; and our sector rotation model retains its bullish posture. We continue to believe in having a balance between value/cyclicals and secular growth stocks and across market caps, although defensive investors may prefer an overweight on large-cap, secular-growth Tech and high-quality dividend payers.

As a reminder, we post my latest presentation slide deck and Baker’s Dozen commentary on our public website.) Sabrient’s newer portfolios – including Q3 2021 Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth, Dividend, and Forward Looking Value– all reflect the process enhancements that we implemented in December 2019 in response to the unprecedented market distortions that created historic Value/Growth and Small/Large performance divergences. With a better balance between cyclical and secular growth and across market caps, most of our newer portfolios once again have shown solid performance relative to the benchmark during quite a range of evolving market conditions.

By the way, I welcome your comments, feedback, or just a friendly hello!  Read on….