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

As expected, last week the FOMC left the fed funds rate as is at 5.25-5.50%. Fed funds futures suggest the odds of a hike at the December meeting have fallen to less than 10%, and the odds of at least three 25-bp rate cuts by the end of 2024 have risen to nearly 80%, with a 25% chance the first cut comes as soon as March. As a result, after moving rapidly to cash for the past few months, stock and bond investors came rushing back with a vengeance. But what really goosed the market were underwhelming economic reports leading to Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s comments suggesting the lag effects on surging interest rates and the strong US dollar are finally manifesting. Investors apparently believed the Fed’s promise of “higher for longer” (making the Fed’s job easier), which spiked Treasury yields (and by extension, mortgage rates) much faster and more severely than the Fed intended.

The S&P 500 had fallen well below all major moving averages, accelerating downward into correction territory, and was down 10% from its 7/31 high. Moreover, the S&P 500 Bullish Percent Index (BPSPX), which rarely drops below 25, had fallen to a highly oversold 23 (anything below 30 is considered oversold), and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) had surged above the 20 “panic threshold” to hit 23. Both were contrarian bullish signals. Then stocks began to recover ahead of the FOMC meeting, and after the less-than-hawkish policy announcement, it triggered short covering and an options-driven “gamma squeeze,” with the S&P 500 surging above its 200-day, 50-day, and 20-day moving averages (leaving only the 100-day still above as potential resistance), the BPSPX bullish percent closed the week at 43 (which is still well below the overbought level of 80 last hit on 7/31), and the VIX closed the week below 15.

The recovery rally was broad, and in five short days put the major indexes back to where they were two weeks ago. The best performers were those that sold off the most, essentially erasing the late-October swoon in any instant. As for Treasury yields, the week ended with the 2-year at 4.84% (after hitting 5.24% in mid-October) and the 10-year at 4.57% (after touching 5.0% in mid-October), putting the 2-10 inversion at -27 bps. The 30-year mortgage rate has fallen back below 7.50%. Recall that my “line in the sand” for stocks has been the 2-year staying below 5.0%, and indeed falling below that level last week correlated with the surge in equities.

Looking ahead, investors will be wondering whether last week’s huge relief rally is sustainable, i.e., the start of the much-anticipated Q4 rally. After all, it is well known that some of the most startling bull surges happen during bear markets. Regardless, stock prices are ultimately based on earnings and interest rates, and earnings look quite healthy while interest rates may have topped out, as sentiment indicators are flashing contrarian buy signals (from ultra-low levels). But much still hinges on the Fed, which is taking its cues from inflation and jobs reports. Last week’s FOMC statement suggests a lessening of its hawkishness, but what if the Fed has viewed our post-pandemic, return-to-normalcy, sticky-inflation economic situation—and the need for harsh monetary intervention—all wrong?

Much of the empirical data shows that inflation was already set to moderate without Fed intervention, given: 1) post-lockdown recovery in supply chains, rising labor force participation, and falling excess savings (e.g., the end to relief payments and student debt forbearance); and 2) stabilization/contraction in money supply growth. These dynamics alone inevitably lead to consumer belt-tightening and slower economic growth, not to mention the resumption in the disinflationary secular trends and the growing deflationary impulse from a struggling China.

Notably, the New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI), which measures the number of standard deviations from the historical average value (aka Z-score) and generally presages movements in PPI (and by extension, CPI), was released earlier today for October, and it plummeted to -1.74, which is its lowest level ever. This bodes well for CPI/PPI readings next week and PCE at month end, with a likely resumption in their downtrends. So, although the Fed insists the economy and jobs are strong and resilient so it can focus on taming the scourge of inflation through “higher for longer” interest rates, I remain less concerned about inflation than whether the Fed will pivot quickly enough to avoid inducing an unnecessary recession.

Assuming the Fed follows through on its softer tone and real yields continue to fall (and we manage to avoid World War III), I think this latest rally has given investors renewed legs—likely after a profit-taking pullback from last week’s 5-day moonshot. With over 80% of the S&P 500 having reported, Q3 earnings are handily exceeding EPS expectations (3.7% YoY growth, according to FactSet, driven mostly by a robust profit margin of 12.1%), and optimistic forecasts for 2024-2025 earnings growth are holding up. Meanwhile, a renewed appetite for bonds promises to drive down interest rates.

I like the prospects for high-quality/low-debt technology companies, bonds and bond-proxies (e.g., utilities and consumer staples), oil and uranium stocks, gold miners, and bitcoin in this macro climate. Furthermore, we continue to believe that, rather than the broad-market, passive indexes that display high valuations, investors may be better served by active stock selection Sabrient’s portfolios include the new Q4 2023 Baker’s Dozen (launched on 10/20), Small Cap Growth 40 (just launched on 11/3), and Sabrient Dividend 45 (launched on 9/1, and today offers a 5.5% dividend yield).

In today’s post, I discuss the trend in supply chains and inflation, equity valuations, and Fed monetary policy implications. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which is topped by Technology and Industrials), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which is switching from neutral to a bullish bias, assuming support at the 50-day moving average holds for the S&P 500), and some actionable ETF trading ideas.

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).

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

After five straight weeks of gains—goosed by a sudden surge in excitement around the rapid advances, huge capex expectations, and promise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and supported by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) falling to its lowest levels since early 2020 (pre-pandemic)—it was inevitable that stocks would eventually take a breather. Besides the AI frenzy, market strength also has been driven by a combination of “climbing a Wall of Worry,” falling inflation, optimism about a continued Fed pause or dovish pivot, and the proverbial fear of missing out (aka FOMO).

Once a debt ceiling deal was struck at the end of May, a sudden jump in sentiment among consumers, investors, and momentum-oriented “quants” sent the mega-cap-dominated, broad-market indexes to new 52-week highs. Moreover, the June rally broadened beyond the AI-oriented Tech giants, which is a healthy sign. AAIA sentiment moved quickly from fearful to solidly bullish (45%, the highest since 11/11/2021), and investment managers are increasing equity exposure, even before the FOMC skipped a rate hike at its June meeting. Other positive signs include $7 trillion in money market funds that could provide a sea of liquidity into stocks (despite M2 money supply falling), the US economy still forecasted to be in growth mode (albeit slowly), corporate profit margins beating expectations (largely driven by cost discipline), and improvements in economic data, supply chains, and the corporate earnings outlook.

Although the small and mid-cap benchmarks joined the surge in early June, partly boosted by the Russell Index realignment, they are still lagging quite significantly year-to-date while reflecting much more attractive valuations, which suggests they may provide leadership—and more upside potential—in a broad-based rally. Regardless, the S&P 500 has risen +20% from its lows, which market technicians say virtually always indicates a new bull market has begun. Of course, the Tech-heavy Nasdaq badly underperformed during 2022, mostly due to the long-duration nature of growth stocks in the face of a rising interest rate environment, so it is no surprise that it has greatly outperformed on expectations of a Fed pause/pivot.

With improving market breadth, Sabrient’s portfolios—which employ a value-biased Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) style and hold a balance between cyclical sectors and secular-growth Tech and across market caps—this month have displayed some of their best-ever outperformance days versus the benchmark S&P 500.

Of course, much still rides on Fed policy decisions. Inflation continues its gradual retreat due to a combination of the Fed allowing money supply to fall nearly 5% from its pandemic-response high along with a huge recovery in supply chains. Nevertheless, the Fed has continued to exhibit a persistently hawkish tone intended to suppress an exuberant stock market “melt-up” and consumer spending surge (on optimism about inflation and a soft landing and the psychological “wealth effect”) that could hinder the inflation battle.

Falling M2 money supply has been gradually draining liquidity from the financial system (although the latest reading for May showed a slight uptick). And although fed funds futures show a 77% probably of a 25-bp hike at the July meeting, I’m not so sure that’s going to happen, as I discuss in today’s post. In fact, I believe the Fed should be done with rate hikes…and may soon reverse the downtrend in money supply, albeit at a measured pace. (In fact, the May reading for M2SL came in as I was writing this, and it indeed shows a slight uptick in money supply.) The second half of the year should continue to see improving market breadth, in my view, as capital flows into the stock market in general and high-quality names in particular, from across the cap spectrum, including the neglected cyclical sectors (like regional banks).

Regardless, the passive broad-market mega-cap-dominated indexes that were so hard for active managers to beat in the past may well face high-valuation constraints on performance, particularly in the face of slow real GDP growth (below inflation rate), sluggish corporate earnings growth, elevated valuations, and a 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 Q2 2023 Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth 38, and Dividend 44—all of which combine value, quality, and growth factors while providing exposure to both longer-term secular growth trends and shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities. (Note that Dividend 44 offers both capital appreciation potential and a current yield of 5.1%.)

Quick reminder about Sabrient’s stock and ETF screening/scoring tool called SmartSheets, which is 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 before it knocked its earnings report out of the park on 2/23 and shot up over +20% in one day (and kept climbing). At the start of March, it was Accenture (ACN). At the beginning of April, it was Kinsdale Capital (KNSL). At the beginning of May, it was Crowdstrike (CRWD). At the start of June, it was again KNSL (after a technical pullback). All of these stocks surged higher—while significantly outperforming the S&P 500—over the ensuing weeks. Most recently, our top-ranked GARP stock has been discount retailer TJX Companies (TJX), which was up nicely last week while the market fell. 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 my full post in printable format. In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, including discussion of inflation and why the Fed should be done raising rates, stock valuations, and the Bull versus Bear cases. 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…