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

Stocks and bonds both sold off in August before finishing the month with a flourish, as signs that the jobs market is weakening suggest an end to Fed rate hikes is nigh. The summer correction in equities was entirely expected after the market’s extraordinary display of strength for the first seven months of the year in the face of a relentlessly hawkish Federal Reserve, even as CPI and PPI have fallen precipitously. State Street’s Institutional Investor Risk Appetite Indicator moved dramatically from bearish in May to highly bullish at the end of July, and technical conditions were overbought. And although the depth of the correction took the bulls by surprise, it was quite orderly with the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) staying tame (i.e., never even approaching the 20 handle). In fact, a 5% pullback in the S&P 500 is not unusual given the robust 20% YTD return it had attained in those seven months. Weakness in bonds, gold, and commodity prices also reversed.

Moreover, IG, BBB, and HY bond spreads have barely moved during this market pullback despite rising real rates, which signals that the correction in stocks is more about valuations in the face of the sudden spike in interest rates (and fears of “higher for longer”) rather than the health of the economy, earnings, or fundamentals. Certainly, the US economy looks much stronger than any of our trading partners (which Fed chair Powell seems none too happy about), with the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model estimating a robust 5.6% growth for Q3 (as of 8/31) and the dollar surging in a flight to safety [in fact, the US Dollar Index Fund (UUP) recently hit a 2023 high].

However, keep in mind that the US is not an island unto itself but part of a complex global economy and thus not immune to contagion, so the GDP growth rate will likely come down. Moreover, Powell said in his Jackson Hole speech that the Fed’s job is “complicated by uncertainty about the duration of the lags with which monetary tightening affects economic activity and especially inflation.”

Investors have generally retained their enthusiasm about stocks despite elevated valuations, rising real interest rates (creating a long-lost viable alternative to stocks—and a poor climate for gold), a miniscule equity risk premium, and a Fed seemingly hell-bent on inducing recession in order to crush sticky core inflation. Perhaps stock investors have been emboldened by the unstoppable secular force of artificial intelligence (AI) and its immediate benefits to productivity and profitability (not just “hope”)—as evidenced by Nvidia’s (NVDA) incredible earnings release last week.

I have discussed in recent posts about how the Bull case seems to outweigh the (highly credible) Bear case. However, the key tenets of the Bull case—and avoidance of recession—include a stable China. Since 2015, I have been talking about a key risk to the global economy being the so-called “China Miracle” gradually being exposed as a House of Cards, and perhaps never before has it seemed so close to implosion, as it tests the limits of debt-fueled growth—and a creeping desperation coupled with an inability (or unwillingness) to pivot sharply from its longstanding policies makes it even more dangerous. I talk more about this in today’s post.

Yet despite all the significant challenges and uncertainties, I still believe stocks are in a normal/predictable summer consolidation—particularly after this year’s surprisingly strong market performance through July—with more upside to come. My only caveat has been that the 2-year Treasury yield needs to remain below 5%—a critical “line in the sand,” so to speak. Although I (and many others) often cite the 10-year yield because of its link to mortgage rates, I think the 2-year is important because it reflects a broad expectation of inflation and the duration of the Fed’s “higher for longer” policy. Notably, during this latest spike in rates, the 2-year again eclipsed that critical 5-handle for the third time this year and challenged the 7/5 intraday high of 5.12%, before pulling back sharply to close the month below 4.9%.

If the 2-year reverses again and surges to new highs, I think it threatens a greater impact on our economy (as well as our trading partners’) as businesses, consumers, and governments manage their maturing lower-rate debt—and ultimately impacts the housing market and risk assets, like stocks. But instead, I see it as just another short-term rate spike like we saw in March and July, as investors sort out the issues described in my full post below. Indeed, August finished with a big fall in rates in concert with a big jump in stocks, gold, crypto, and other risk assets across the board, as cracks in the jobs and housing markets are showing up, leading to a growing belief that the Fed is finished with its rate hikes—as I think they should be, particularly given the resumption of disinflationary secular trends and a deflationary impulse from China.

Some economists believe that extreme stock valuations and the ultra-low equity risk premium are pricing in both rising earnings and falling rates—an unlikely duo, in their view, on the belief that a strong economy is inherently inflationary while a weakening economy suggests lower earnings—and thus, recession is inevitable. But I disagree. For one, respected economist Ed Yardeni has observed that we have already been in the midst of a “rolling recession” across segments of the economy that is now turning into a “rolling expansion.” And regarding elevated valuations in the major indexes, my observation is that they are primarily driven by a handful of mega-cap Tech names. Minus those, valuations across the broader market are much more reasonable, as I discuss in today’s post.

Indeed, rather than passive positions in the broad market indexes, investors may be better served by strategies that seek to exploit improving market breadth and the performance dispersion among individual stocks. Sabrient’s portfolios include Baker’s Dozen, Forward Looking Value, Small Cap Growth, and Dividend, each of which provides exposure to market segments and individual companies that our models suggest may outperform. Let me know how I can better serve your needs, including speaking at your events (whether by video or in person).

As stocks and other risk assets finish what was once destined to be a dismal month with a show of renewed bullish conviction, allow me to step through in greater detail some of the key variables that will impact the market through year-end and beyond, including the economy, valuations, inflation, Fed policy, the dollar, and China…and why I remain bullish. I also review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quant rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (topped by Technology and Energy) and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary … or if you prefer, here is a link to my full post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested).

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

Stocks continued their impressive 2023 rally through July, buoyed by rapidly falling inflation, steady GDP and earnings growth, improving consumer and investor sentiment, and a fear of missing out (FOMO). Of course, the big story this year has been the frenzy around the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) and leadership from the “Magnificent Seven” Tech-oriented mega caps—Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOGL), NVIDIA (NVDA), Meta (META), Tesla (TSLA), and Microsoft (MSFT), which have led the powerhouse Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) to a +44.5% YTD return (as of 7/31) and within 5% of its all-time closing high of $404 from 11/19/2021. Such as been the outperformance of these 7 stocks that Nasdaq chose to perform a special re-balancing to bring down their combined weighting in the Nasdaq 100 index from 55% to 43%!

Because the Tech-heavy Nasdaq badly underperformed during 2022, mostly due to the long-duration nature of aggressive growth stocks in the face of a rising interest rate environment, it was natural that it would lead the rally, particularly given: 1) falling inflation and an expected Fed pause/pivot on rate hikes, 2) resilience in the US economy, corporate profit margins (largely due to cost discipline), and the earnings outlook; 3) the exciting promise of disruptive/transformational technologies like regenerative artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), and quantum computing.

But narrow leadership isn’t healthy—in fact, it reflects defensive sentiment, as investors prefer to stick with the juggernauts rather than the vast sea of economically sensitive companies. However, since June 1, there have been clear signs of improving market breadth, with the iShares Russell 2000 small caps (IWM), S&P 400 mid-caps (MDY), and S&P 500 Equal Weight (RSP) all outperforming the QQQ and S&P 500 (SPY). Industrial commodities oil, silver, and copper prices rose in July. This all bodes well for market health through the second half of the year (and perhaps beyond), as I discuss in today’s post below.

But for the moment, an overbought stock market is taking a breather to consolidate gains, take some profits, and pull back. The Fitch downgrade of US debt is helping fuel the selloff. I view it as a welcome buying opportunity.

Although rates remain elevated, they haven’t reached crippling levels (yet), and although M2 money supply has topped out and fallen a bit, the decline has been offset by a surge in the velocity of money supply, as I discuss in today’s post. So, assuming the Fed is done raising rates—and I for one believe the fed funds rate is already beyond the neutral rate (and thus contractionary)—and as long as the 2-year Treasury yield remains below 5% (it’s around 4.9% today), I think the economy and stocks will be fine, and the extreme yield inversion will begin to reverse.

The Fed’s dilemma is to facilitate the continued process of disinflation without inducing deflation, which is recessionary. Looking ahead, Nick Colas at DataTrek recently highlighted the disconnect between fed funds futures (which are pricing in 1.0-1.5% in rate cuts early next year) and US Treasuries (which do not suggest imminent rate cuts). He believes, “Treasuries have it right, and that’s actually bullish for stocks” (bullish because rate cuts only become necessary when the economy falters).

So, today we see inflation has fallen precipitously as supply chains improve (manufacturing, transport, logistics, energy, labor), profit margins are beating expectations (largely driven by cost discipline), corporate earnings have been resilient, earnings forecasts are seeing upward revisions, capex and particularly construction spending on manufacturing facilities has been surging, hiring remains robust (almost 2 job openings for every willing worker), the yield curve inversion is trying to flatten, gold and high yield spreads have been falling since May 1 (due to recession risk receding, the dollar firming, and real yields rising), risk appetite (“animal spirits”) is rising, and stock market leadership is broadening. It all sounds promising to me.

Regardless, the passive broad-market mega-cap-dominated indexes that were so hard for active managers to beat in the past may well face tough constraints on performance, particularly in the face of elevated valuations (i.e., already “priced for perfection”), slow real GDP growth, and an ultra-low equity risk premium. Thus, investors may be better served by strategic-beta and active strategies that can exploit the performance dispersion among individual stocks, which should be favorable for Sabrient’s portfolios including Baker’s Dozen, Forward Looking Value, Small Cap Growth, and Dividend.

As a reminder, Sabrient’s enhanced Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) “quantamental” selection process strives to create all-weather growth portfolios, with diversified exposure to value, quality, and growth factors, while providing exposure to both longer-term secular growth trends and shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities—with the potential for significant outperformance versus market benchmarks. Indeed, the Q2 2022 Baker’s Dozen that recently terminated on 7/20 handily beat the benchmark S&P 500, +28.3% versus +3.8% gross total returns. In addition, each of our other next-to-terminate portfolios are also outperforming their relevant market benchmarks (as of 7/31), including Small Cap Growth 34 (16.9% vs. 9.9% for IWM), Dividend 37 (24.0% vs. 8.5% for SPYD), Forward Looking Value 10 (38.9% vs. 20.8% for SPY), and Q3 2022 Baker’s Dozen (28.4% vs. 17.9% for SPY).

Also, please check out Sabrient’s simple new stock and ETF screening/scoring tools called SmartSheets, which are available for free download for a limited time. SmartSheets comprise two simple downloadable spreadsheets—one displays 9 of our proprietary quant scores for stocks, and the other displays 3 of our proprietary scores for ETFs. Each is posted weekly with the latest scores. For example, Lantheus Holdings (LNTH) was ranked our #1 GARP stock at the beginning of February. Accenture (ACN) was at the top for March, Kinsdale Capital (KNSL) in April, Crowdstrike (CRWD) in May, and at the start of both June and July, it was discount retailer TJX Companies (TJX). Each of these stocks surged higher (and outperformed the S&P 500)—over the ensuing weeks after being ranked on top. We invite you to download the latest weekly sheets for stocks and ETFs using the link above—it’s free of charge for now. And please 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, including discussion of inflation, money supply, and why the Fed should be done raising rates; as well as stock valuations and opportunities going forward. I also 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…

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…