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    Market analysis, technical analysis of the S&P 500, and SectorCast ETF rankings, written by Scott Martindale.
     

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Baker’s Dozen Portfolio for 4th Quarter 2020 Launched

October 20, 2020:  The 4th Quarter 2020 Baker’s Dozen UIT Portfolio (FALEPX) was launched by First Trust Portfolios on October 20, 2020. This portfolio, like all Baker's Dozen portfolios, comprises 13 top-ranked stocks from a cross-section of market caps and industries based on our GARP approach, i.e., growth at a reasonable price. Sabrient believes each of these stocks is positioned to perform well for the next 15 months. The portfolio will terminate on January 20, 2022. For more information and a fact sheet please visit First Trust Portfolios.

New Dividend UIT Portfolio Launched

September 28, 2020: A new Sabrient Dividend UIT Portfolio (Ticker: FRNHTX) – 33rd in the series -- was launched by First Trust Portfolios on September 28, 2020. This UIT seeks companies with above-average total return through a combination of capital appreciation and dividend income. The stocks are selected through an investment strategy process developed by Sabrient. The portfolio will terminate on September 28, 2022. For more information, a prospectus, or a fact sheet, please visit First Trust Portfolios

  by Bradley Cipriano, CPA
  Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

The software industry is rapidly adopting a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription model, which tends to drive higher lifetime customer values, and lower volatility in revenue and earnings growth compared to the traditional software licensing model. SaaS companies, which provide their software on a subscription basis via the cloud, have grown at a rapid pace in recent years. Moreover, they are poised to continue their strong growth trajectory as more enterprises adopt cloud-based services. And yet according to Synergy Research Group, SaaS revenue accounted for only about 23% of the total software market in 2019 despite growing 39% YOY and eclipsing $100 billion in annual sales, as shown below in Chart 1.

Chart 1. Enterprise SaaS Market Growth

The relatively low penetration rate of SaaS models implies that there is plenty of runway left for increased adoption. Unfortunately, when companies migrate toward a subscription billing model, financial transparency diminishes as the financial statements are impacted by the change. For example, sales growth tends to decelerate and cashflows tend to decline. These trends can be misconstrued as a sign of a financial distress when instead the company is rapidly growing while transitioning its billing model. However, sometimes the distress is real.

Given the benefits and the relatively low penetration rate of SaaS models, we believe that software providers will increasingly migrate towards a subscription model going forward. Therefore, we likely will continue to observe software companies reporting decelerating growth and deteriorating cashflows during the migration. However, we also must be on the lookout for companies that are under fundamental pressure and are using the SaaS migration explanation to disguise growth and cashflow headwinds.

In this article, I attempt to discern between these two possibilities. First, I describe how transitioning from a licensing sales model to a subscription billing model can impact a software company’s financial statements. Then, I examine two different companies that have undergone a SaaS billing model transition – Adobe Inc. (ADBE) and MicroStrategy Inc. (MSTR) – and point out key differences between them that can help investors differentiate between an apparent slowdown in sales caused by a successful SaaS transition and an actual slowdown caused by fundamental headwinds. In my view, ADBE is an example of a successful SaaS transition, while MSTR is an example of a company that was struggling to grow sales all along but temporarily disguised these issues as a “normal” transition. I conclude by applying the same analysis to Splunk (SPLK), which is in the midst of its own transition to a SaaS billing model.  Read on...

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

The April-August 5-month stretch was the best 5-month period for the S&P 500 (+35%) since 1938. The index was +6.3% higher than its pre-COVID high on 2/19/20 and +56.2% higher than its COVID selloff low on 3/23/20. But any market technician would tell you that the further the market rises without a pause, the more severe the inevitable pullback. And indeed, along came the traditionally challenging month of September and a nasty bout of profit-taking mixed with capital preservation – and exacerbated by the standoff on new fiscal stimulus, an uptick in COVID cases hindering global economic reopening, and the potential for a SCOTUS nomination firestorm. Many of the investor darlings from among the disruptive, secular-growth Technology companies that had been surging so strongly have suddenly fallen hard, with the S&P 500 (SPY) pulling back -10.3% from its 9/2/20 intraday high to its 9/21/20 intraday low and the tech-laden Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) falling -14.3%.

After giving back all of August’s strong gains, perhaps Monday was the capitulation day from which the market can recover anew. Q3 earnings reporting season starts in a couple of weeks, so it will be important to get a read on the trajectory of earnings recovery and forward guidance.

I have written often about the stark market bifurcation that has developed over the past few years, beginning with the unwinding of the “Trump Bump” reflation trade in light of the emerging trade wars. It led to historic extremes in Growth over Value and Large over Small caps, with the broad-market, cap-weighted indexes hitting new highs as investment capital has favored mega-cap, secular-growth Tech and passive, market-cap-weighted ETFs. But today, although I think it is unlikely that investors are giving up on Technology names, their high relative valuations as the economy enters what I see as an early-stage expansionary cycle appear to be opening the door for greater market breadth and some capital rotation into value, cyclicals, and smaller caps.

My expectation is that, as the historic imbalances in Value/Growth and Small/Large performance ratios gradually revert and market leadership broadens, strategic beta ETFs, active selection, and equal weighting should thrive once again. This should be favorable for value, growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP), and quality-oriented strategies like Sabrient’s, although not to the exclusion of secular growth industries. In other words, an investor should be positioned for both cyclical and secular growth.

This is why, rather than continuing to wait around for the value/growth performance gap to converge, we chose to introduce new enhancements to our GARP stock selection process to better balance value-oriented cyclical growers with consistent secular growers while also reducing relative volatility versus the benchmark. Moreover, we have leveraged our full suite of 7 core quantitative models to create 11 new strategic-beta, passive indexes. You will be hearing more about these in the near future.

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 rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, while I still have a favorable long-term view on stocks, there will be plenty of volatility ahead. In addition, our sector rankings have a moderately defensive bias (given that the near-term outlook in our fundamentals-based model is muddled and the Outlook scores are tightly bunched), the technical picture looks might be setting up for a bullish reversal, and our sector rotation model sits in a neutral posture. As a reminder, you can find my latest Baker’s Dozen slide deck and commentary on terminating portfolios at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials.

Read on....

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

Quick assessment:  We have an historic pandemic wreaking havoc upon the global economy, with many US states reversing their reopenings. We just got the worst ever quarterly GDP growth number, and jobless claims are resurging. The Federal Reserve is frantically printing money at breakneck pace to keep our government solvent, with M3 money supply growth having gone parabolic. We have a highly contentious presidential election that many consider to be the most consequential of our lifetimes. There is unyielding and unappeasable social unrest, with nightly rioting in the streets in many of our major cities. Tensions with China are again on the rise, with a new Cold War seemingly at hand. Hurricanes are threatening severe damage in states that are already reeling from a surge in COVID hospitalizations. And yet the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) has burst out to new highs while the S&P 500 (SPY) is within 3% of its all-time high (although, quite notably, both of these cap-weighted indexes are dominated by a handful of mega-cap, disruptive juggernauts).

Of course, stocks have been bolstered by unprecedented congressional fiscal programs and Fed monetary support, including zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), open-ended quantitative easing (QE), de facto yield curve control (YCC), and the buying of corporate bonds (including junk bonds and fixed-income ETFs – and perhaps will include equity ETFs at some point). This de facto “Fed put” has induced a speculative fervor, FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and a TINA (“There is No Alternative!”) mindset for risk assets – particularly given infinitesimal bond yields and a falling dollar. Furthermore, while COVID cases have risen with the economy’s attempt at reopening, the death rate is down 75% since its peak in April, as the people being infected this time around are generally younger and less vulnerable and hospitals are better prepared.

However, we have witnessed extreme bifurcation in this market, with certain secular growth segments performing extremely well and hitting new all-time highs, while other segments are quite literally in a depression. And although the pandemic has exacerbated this situation, it has been developing for a while. As I have often discussed, when the trade war with China escalated in mid-2018, the market became highly bifurcated to seek the perceived safety of the dominant mega caps over smaller caps, growth over value, and secular growth Technology over the neglected cyclical growth sectors like Financials, Industrials, Materials, and Energy. It rotated defensive and risk-off even given the positive economic outlook. This is also when the price of gold began to ascend. Yes, gold has become much more than just a hedge; it now has its own secular growth story (as discussed below), which is why Sabrient’s new Baker’s Dozen for Q3 2020 includes a gold miner.

So, while Sabrient’s flagship Baker’s Dozen portfolios over the past two years have been dominated by smaller caps, the value factor, and cyclical sectors – to their detriment in this highly bifurcated market – you can see that our newer portfolios since the enhancements were implemented have been much more balanced among large, mid, and small caps, with a slight growth bias over value, and a balance between secular growth and cyclical growth companies.

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, and review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, while our sector rankings look neutral (as you might expect given the poor visibility for earnings), the technical picture is bullish, and our sector rotation model remains bullish.

As a reminder, Sabrient has introduced process enhancements to our forward-looking and valuation-oriented stock selection strategy to improve all-weather performance and reduce relative volatility versus the benchmark S&P 500, as well as to put secular-growth companies (which often display higher valuations) on more equal footing with cyclical-growth companies (which tend to display lower valuations). You can find my latest Baker’s Dozen slide deck and commentary on terminating portfolios at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials. To read on, click here....

Ryan DesJardin  by Ryan DesJardin
  Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

Here at Gradient Analytics, our focus extends far beyond domestic equity research. We are known to cover an extensive group of publicly traded companies whose shares trade on a wide variety of stock exchanges around the globe. Our team of analysts must be vigilant in keeping up to date on new accounting standards issued by both the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). More importantly, our team must be able to understand and reconcile the key differences between United States Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (US GAAP) and International Financial Accounting Standards (IFRS) in order to accurately assess a firm's financial health.

The ability to distinguish between these accounting standards has become a crucial skill for investors as IFRS has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Today, more than 140 countries worldwide (including the United States in some cases) either permit or require the use of IFRS for publicly listed companies. In fact, there are only three major capital markets that don't currently mandate the use of IFRS for publicly traded firms: Japan, China, and the United States. Since 2010, when Japan added IFRS to its list of approved standards for domestic issuers, more than a third of companies traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange have either adopted or instituted a plan to adopt IFRS in the near future. China continues to amend its accounting standards to broadly align with IFRS. Furthermore, domestic investors must also be mindful of the variations between accounting standards as the SEC allows foreign issuers to report under IFRS despite trading on US exchanges.

In 2002, the FASB and IASB entered into the "Norwalk Agreement," which aimed to eliminate the many variations between US GAAP and IFRS. Since then, the boards have worked together to issue several accounting standard updates in an attempt to enhance the consistency and comparability of global accounting standards. Despite these ongoing efforts, many key dissimilarities remain between the two standards that present a number of obstacles to investors. This article uses earnings quality and fundamental perspectives to discuss key challenges while providing tips on evaluating a firm’s true earnings power.  Read on....

Rachel Bradley  by Rachel Bradley
  Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

At times, there are conflicts of interest between a company’s management and its investors, specifically shareholders, which creates a structural agency problem. So, it is common for companies to try to align the monetary interests of management with shareholders by awarding a large part of executive compensation in equity. As a result, management performance metrics often create an incentive to present the current period financials in the best light possible, even if it is unsustainable in the longer-term. This dynamic creates opportunities for a forensic accounting firm like Gradient Analytics, which specializes in assessing the quality of reported earnings of publicly traded companies to both vet long candidates and to identify short candidates.

An astute investor might ask the perfectly reasonable question, “If publicly traded companies are regulated and audited, then aren’t all reported earnings of passable quality?” However, consider that it is possible for a company to engage in “earnings management” by publishing financial statements that may mislead investors as to the firm’s true financial health without violating accounting standards. Moreover, we would argue that even though two given companies both followed GAAP accounting standards and received clean opinions from their auditor, earnings growth at Company A may be dramatically more sustainable than at Company B. Of course, it can be quite valuable for an investor to know when a firm is showing signs of unsustainability in its reported earnings growth.

In this article, I use three real-life examples to provide a high-level overview of our analysis process, which includes assessing earnings quality, anomalous insider trading activity, audit control risk, and corporate governance. Although Gradient does not employ a team of investigative journalists to knock on doors, interview company employees, or rummage through the trash for evidence, our comprehensive analysis of the published financial statements (and, importantly, the footnotes) can help stack the odds a little bit more in investors’ favor.  Read on....

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