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 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…