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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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