weekly sector review written by Scott Martindale

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

As the New Year gets underway, stocks have continued their impressive march higher. Comparing the start of this year to the start of 2019 reveals some big contrasts. Last January, the market had just started to recover from a nasty 4Q18 selloff of about 20% (a 3-month bear market?), but this time stocks have essentially gone straight up since early October. Last January, we were still in the midst of nasty trade wars with rising tariffs, but now we have a “Phase 1” deal signed with China and the USMCA deal with Mexico and Canada has passed both houses of Congress. At the beginning of last year, the Fed had just softened its hawkish rhetoric on raising rates to being "patient and flexible" and nixing the “autopilot” unwinding of its balance sheet (and in fact we saw three rate cuts), while today the Fed has settled into a neutral stance on rates for the foreseeable future and is expanding its balance sheet once again (to shore up the repo market and finance federal deficit spending (but don’t call it QE, they say!). Last year began in the midst of the longest government shutdown in US history (35 days, 12/22/18–1/25/19), but this year’s budget easily breezed through Congress. And finally, last year began with clear signs of a global slowdown (particularly in manufacturing), ultimately leading to three straight quarters of YOY US earnings contraction (and likely Q4, as well), but today the expectation is that the slowdown has bottomed and there is no recession in sight.

As a result, 2019 started with the S&P 500 displaying a forward P/E ratio of 14.5x, while this year began with a forward P/E of 18.5x – which also happens to be what it was at the start of 2018, when optimism reigned following passage of the tax cuts but before the China trade war got nasty. So, while 2018 endured largely unwarranted P/E contraction that was more reflective of rising interest rates and an impending recession, 2019 enjoyed P/E expansion that essentially accounted for the index’s entire performance (+31% total return). Today, the forward P/E for the S&P 500 is about one full standard deviation above its long-term average, but the price/free cash flow ratio actually is right at its long-term average. Moreover, I think the elevated forward P/E is largely justified in the context of even pricier bond valuations, low interest rates, favorable fiscal policies, the appeal of the US over foreign markets, and supply/demand (given the abundance of global liquidity and the shrinking float of public companies due to buybacks and M&A).

However, I don’t think stocks will be driven much higher by multiple expansion, as investors will want to see rising earnings once again, which will depend upon a revival in corporate capital spending. The analyst consensus according to FactSet is for just under 10% EPS growth this year for the S&P 500, so that might be about all we get in index return without widespread earnings beats, although of course well-selected individual stocks could do much better. Last year was thought to be a great setup for small caps, but alas the trade wars held them back from much of the year, so perhaps this will be the year for small caps. While the S&P 500 forward P/E has already risen to 19.0x as of 1/17, the Russell 2000 small cap index is 17.2x and the S&P 600 is only 16.8x.

Of course, there are still plenty of potential risks out there – such as a China debt meltdown, a US dollar meltdown (due to massive liquidity infusions for the dysfunctional repo market and government deficit spending), a US vote for democratic-socialism and MMT, a military confrontation with Iran, or a reescalation in trade wars – but all seem to be at bay for now.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings still look bullish, while the technical picture also is quite bullish (although grossly overbought and desperately in need of a pullback or consolidation period), and our sector rotation model retains its bullish posture. Notably, the rally has been quite broad-based and there is a lot of idle cash ready to buy up any significant dip.

As a reminder, Sabrient now publishes a new Baker’s Dozen on a quarterly basis, and the Q1 2020 portfolio just launched on January 17. You can find my latest slide deck and Baker’s Dozen commentary at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials, which provide discussion and graphics on process, performance, and market conditions, as well as the introduction of two new process enhancements to our long-standing GARP (growth at a reasonable price) strategy, including: 1) our new Growth Quality Rank (GQR) as an alpha factor, which our testing suggests will reduce volatility and provide better all-weather performance, and 2) “guardrails” against extreme sector tilts away from the benchmark’s allocations to reduce relative volatility. Read on....

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

As yet another decade comes to a close, the US continues to enjoy the longest economic expansion on record. And as if to put a cherry on top, the economic reports last week hardly could have been more encouraging for the New Year, propelling the S&P 500 index into its third major technical breakout since the recovery from the financial crisis began well over 10 years ago. In particular, the jobs report blew away estimates with 266,000 new jobs, the prior month’s report was revised upward, and the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low of 3.5%. Importantly, those new jobs included 54,000 manufacturing jobs. Indeed, a growing view is that the manufacturing/industrial segment of the economy has bottomed out along with the corporate earnings recession and capital investment, with an economic upswing in the cards, which has been a key driver for the resurgence in value and cyclical stocks with solid fundamentals.

The good news kept coming, with the Consumer Sentiment report jumping back up to 99.2 (and averaging 97.0 over the past three years, which is the highest sustained level since the Clinton administration’s all-time highs), while wages are up 3.1% year-over-year, and household income is up 4.8% (to the highest levels in 20 years). And with capital rotating out of pricey bonds into riskier assets, it all seems to me to be more indicative of a recovery or expansionary phase of the economic cycle – which could go on for a few more years, given a continuation of current monetary and fiscal policies and a continued de-escalation in trade wars.  

To be sure, there have been plenty of major uncertainties hanging over the global economy, including a protracted trade war with China, an unresolved Brexit deal, an unsigned USMCA deal, and so on. And indeed, investors will want to see the December 15 trade deal deadline for new tariffs on China postponed. But suddenly, each of these seems to have a path to resolution, which gave a big boost to stocks today (Thursday). Moreover, a pervasive fear that we are in a “late-cycle” economy on the verge of recession was becoming more of a self-fulfilling prophesy than a fundamental reality, and now there is little doubt that investor sentiment is starting to ignore the fearmongers and move from risk-averse to risk-embracing, which better matches the fundamental outlook for the US economy and stocks, according to Sabrient’s model.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings have turned bullish, while the longer-term technical picture remains bullish, and our sector rotation model also retains a solidly bullish posture.

By the way, you can find my latest slide deck and Baker’s Dozen commentary at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials, which provide details and graphics on two key developments:

  1. The bullish risk-on rotation since 8/27/19 is persisting, in which investors have shifted away from their previous defensive risk-off sentiment and back to a more optimistic risk-on preference that better aligns with the solid fundamental expectations of Wall Street analysts and Corporate America.
  1. We have developed and introduced a new Growth Quality Rank (GQR) as an enhancement to our growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) model. It is intended to help provide better “all-weather” performance, even when investor sentiment seems “irrational.”  Read on….

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The market this year has been oscillating between fear and optimism, risk-off and risk-on. Until 8/27/19, risk-off defensive sentiment was winning, but since that date a risk-on sentiment has taken hold, and the historic divergence favoring secular growth, low-volatility and momentum factors, defensive sectors, and large caps (i.e., late-stage economic cycle behavior) over cyclical growth, value and high-beta factors, cyclical sectors, and small-mid caps (i.e., expansionary cycle behavior) continues to reverse, as fickle investors have become optimistic about at least a partial resolution to the trade war (including the lifting of tariffs), an improving outlook for 2020-21 corporate earnings, and resurgent capital investment. Investors have moved from displaying tepid and fleeting signs of risk-on rotation to full-blown bullish enthusiasm and reluctance to sell in a fear of missing out (FOMO), even though the short-term technical picture has become overbought.

The late-August risk-on rotation came in the nick of time. Last year at that same time of the year, the S&P 500 was marching higher until peaking on 9/20/18, but it was doing so on the backs of defensive sectors along with secular-growth Tech mega-caps, and I was opining at the time that the rally would fizzle if there wasn’t some rotation into the risk-on cyclicals and small-mid caps – which as you know didn’t happen, leading to the Q4 selloff. But, happily, this year has played out quite differently.

Nevertheless, a lot of successful fundamentals-based strategies (including powerhouse quant firm AQR Capital, discussed below) really took it on the chin for the roughly 14-18 months preceding 8/27, ostensibly due to fear that a “late-cycle” economy was on the verge of recession. And indeed it was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the dominos seemed to be falling one by one:  escalating trade wars creating uncertainty leading to a global manufacturing slowdown, a hold-off in corporate capital spending, and negative interest rates overseas, which pushed global capital into US debt, which temporarily inverted the yield curve, which brought out the doomsaying pundits – all of which was beginning to negatively impact the previously-bulletproof consumer sentiment that had been carrying US GDP growth.

But it was all based on false pretenses, in my view, and investors now seem to be convinced that the bottom is in for the industrial cycle and the corporate earnings recession, and particularly for prices of value/cyclical stocks with solid fundamentals. Results haven’t been as bad as feared, and some of the macro clouds are parting. Ultimately, stock prices are driven by earnings expectations and interest rates (for discounted cash flow valuation), and as the external obstacles hindering the free market are lessened or removed, the outlook brightens. And when investors focus on the fundamentals rather than the latest tweet, CNN headline, or single economic number taken out of context, it bodes well for Sabrient’s value-tilted GARP (growth at a reasonable price) portfolios, which of course includes our flagship Baker’s Dozen.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings still look neutral to me, while the longer-term technical picture remains bullish, and our sector rotation model retains a solidly bullish posture. Read on….

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The early weeks of September were looking so promising as a brief but impressive surge gave hope of a revival in the long-neglected market segments. This sustained risk-on rotation seemed to be marking a bullish change of market character from the risk-off defensive sentiment that I have been writing about extensively for the past 18 months (ever since the China trade war escalated in June of last year), specifically the massive divergence favoring the low-volatility, growth, and momentum factors, defensive sectors, and large caps over the value and high-beta factors, cyclical sectors, and small-mid caps. But then, for the next few weeks, those risk-on market segments were once again lagging, as fickle investors keep returning to stocks displaying stronger balance sheets, high dividend yields, and/or secular growth stories – in spite of high valuations – rather than the more speculative cyclical growth stocks selling at attractive valuations that typically lead an upside breakout. It appeared that the fledging bullish rotation was caput – or perhaps not. Suddenly, there have been positive developments in the trade negotiations and in the Brexit saga, and the past several days have brought back renewed signs of a pent-up desire to take stocks higher. Signs of a better than expected Q3 earnings season may be the final catalyst.

Of course, although YTD returns in US stocks are impressive, if you look back over the past year to when the major indexes peaked in 3Q2018, stocks really have made very little headway. As of the close on Tuesday, the S&P 500 is +21.3% YTD but only +1.7% since its 2018 high on 9/20/18, while the more speculative Russell 2000 small cap index is still more than -12% below its all-time high from over a year ago – way back on 8/31/18. The biggest difference this year versus the 9/20/18 high for the S&P 500 is that Treasury yields have fallen (from 3.1% to about 1.8% on the 10-year), which has allowed for P/E multiple expansion (from 16.8x last year to 17.2x today) despite the earnings recession of the past three quarters.

I suppose one can hardly blame investors for their trepidation at this moment in time, given the overabundance of extremely negative news, which only expanded during Q3. We have an intractable trade war with the world’s second largest economy, intensifying protectionist rhetoric, North Korean missiles, rising tensions with Iran, a brewing war in northern Syria, drone attacks in Saudi Arabia, riots in Hong Kong, China’s feud with the NBA (and the animated TV show South Park!), a slowing global economy, a US corporate earnings recession, flattish yield curve, surging US dollar, low-yield/high-volatility Treasury bonds, falling consumer sentiment, Business Roundtable’s CEO Economic Outlook Index down six consecutive quarters (as hiring is strong but capital investment and sales expectations lag), the steepest contraction in the manufacturing sector since June 2009, UAW strike against General Motors (GM), looming Hard Brexit, top-polling Democratic candidates espousing MMT and business-unfriendly socialist policies, and yet another desperate attempt to impeach the President before the next election. Need I go on?

But somehow the US economy has maintained positive traction while stocks have held their ground given a persistent economic expansion, supported by dovish central banks around the world and a rock-solid US consumer. Indeed, the very fact that stocks have held up amid such a negative macro environment suggests to me that investors are just itching for a reason to rotate cash and pricey bonds into stocks – perhaps in a big way. And from a technical standpoint, such a long sideways consolidation over the past several months suggests that an upside breakout may be imminent – and likely led by those risk-on market segments. Notably, every such bullish rotation has helped Sabrient’s various growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP) portfolios gain ground against the SPY benchmark, so a sustained rotation would be quite welcome!

And some good news this week is offering some hope, with strong Q3 earnings reports from JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and UnitedHealth (UNH), a resumption in trade talks, progress in the GM strike, and a possible breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations. Moreover, the highly cyclical semiconductor and homebuilding industries are on fire, with iShares PHLX Semiconductor ETF (SOXX) setting a new high, and Treasury yields are creeping up.

By the way, our Sabrient Select SMA portfolio (separately managed account wrapper) is available to financial advisors as an alternative investment opportunity. The portfolio actively manages 25-35 stocks based on our “quantamental” GARP strategy. Let me know if you’d like more information.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings now look neutral to me, while the technical picture remains bullish, and our sector rotation model retains a solidly bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

In case you didn’t notice, the past several days have brought an exciting and promising change in character in the US stock market. Capital has been rotating out of the investor darlings – including the momentum, growth, and low-volatility factors, as well as Treasury bonds and “bond proxy” defensive sectors – and into the neglected market segments like value, small-mid caps, and cyclical sectors favored by Sabrient’s GARP (growth at a reasonable price) model, many of which have languished with low valuations despite solid forward growth expectations. And it came just in the nick of time.

In Q3 of last year, the S&P 500 was hitting new highs and the financial press was claiming that investors were ignoring the trade war, when in fact they weren’t ignoring it at all, as evidenced by narrow leadership coming primarily from the mega-cap secular Technology names and large cap defensive sectors (risk-off). In reality, such market behavior was unhealthy and doomed to failure without a broadening into higher-beta cyclical sectors and small-mid caps, which is what I was opining about at the time. Of course, you know what happened, as Q4 brought about an ugly selloff. And this year, Q3 was looking much the same – at least until this sudden shift in investor preferences.

Last month, as has become expected given its typically low-volume summer trading, August saw increased volatility – and also brought out apocalyptic commentaries similar to what we heard from the talking heads in December. In contrast to the severely overbought technical conditions in July when the S&P 500 managed to make a new high, August saw the opposite, with the major indices becoming severely oversold and either challenging or losing support at their 200-day moving averages or even testing their May lows, as investors grew increasingly concerned about a protracted trade war, intensifying protectionist rhetoric, geopolitical turmoil, Hard Brexit, slowing global economy, and US corporate earnings recession. Utilities and Real Estate led, while Energy trailed. Bonds surged and yields plunged. August was the worst month for value stocks in over 20 years.

But alas, it appears it we may have seen a blow-off top in bonds, and Treasury yields may have put in a bottom. All of a sudden, the major topic of conversation among the talking heads this week has been the dramatic rotation from risk-off market segments to risk-on, which has been a boon for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen portfolios, giving them the opportunity to gain a lot of ground versus the S&P 500 benchmark. The Energy sector had been a persistent laggard, but the shorts have been covering as oil prices have firmed up. Financials have caught a bid as US Treasury prices have fallen (and yields have risen). Small cap value has been greatly outperforming large cap growth. It seems investors are suddenly less worried about a 2020 recession, ostensibly due to renewed optimism about trade talks, or perhaps due to the apparent resilience of our economy to weather the storm.

The question, though, is whether this is just a temporary reversion to the mean – aka a “junk rally,” as some have postulated – or if it is the start of a healthy broadening in the market and a rotation from the larger, high-quality but high-priced stocks (which have been bid up by overly cautious sentiment, passive index investing, and algorithmic trading, in my view), into the promising earnings growers, cyclicals, and good-quality mid and small caps that would normally lead a rising market. After all, despite its strong year-to-date performance, the S&P 500 really hasn’t progressed much at all from last September’s high. But a real breakout finally may be in store if this risk-on rotation can continue.

I think the market is at a critical turning point. We may be seeing a tacit acknowledgment among investors that perhaps the economy is likely to hold up despite the trade war. And perhaps mega-caps with a lot of international exposure are no longer the best place to invest. And perhaps those mega-caps, along with the defensive sectors that have been leading the market for so long, are largely bid up and played out at this point such that the more attractive opportunities now lie in the unjustly neglected areas – many of which still trade at single-digit forward P/Es despite solid growth expectations.

September is historically a bad month for stocks. It is the only month in which the Dow Jones Industrials index has averaged negative performance over the past 100 years, showing positive returns about 40% of the time (according to Bespoke Investment Group). But this budding rotation may be setting up a more positive outcome. I was on the verge of publishing this month’s article early last week, but the market’s sudden (and important!) change in character led me to hold off for a few days to see how the action unfolded, and I have taken a new tack on my content.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings look defensive to me, while the technical picture is short-term overbought but longer-term bullish, and the sector rotation model takes to a solidly bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

July was yet another solid month for stocks, as the major market indexes eclipsed and held above psychological barriers, like the S&P 500 at 3,000, and the technical consolidation at these levels continued with hardly any give back at all. But of course, the last day of July brought a hint of volatility to come, and indeed August has followed through on that with a vengeance. As the old adage goes, “Stocks take the stairs up but ride the elevator down,” and we just saw a perfect example of it. The technical conditions were severely overbought, with price stretched way above its 20-day simple moving average, and now suddenly the broad indexes (S&P 500, Dow, Nasdaq) are challenging support at the 200-day moving average, while the small cap Russell 2000 index has plummeted well below its 200-day and is now testing its May low.

For the past 18 months (essentially starting with the February 2018 correction), investor caution has been driven by escalating trade wars and tariffs, rising global protectionism, a “race to the bottom” in currency wars, and our highly dysfunctional political climate. However, this cautious sentiment has been coupled with an apparent fear of missing out (aka FOMO) on a major market melt-up that together have kept global capital in US stocks but pushed up valuations in low-volatility and defensive market segments to historically high valuations relative to GARP (growth at a reasonable price), value, and cyclical market segments. Until the past few days, rather than selling their stocks, investor have preferred to simply rotate into defensive names when the news was distressing (which has been most of the time) and then going a little more risk-on when the news was more encouraging (which has been less of the time). I share some new insights on this phenomenon in today’s article.

The market’s gains this year have not been based on excesses (aka “irrational exuberance”) but instead stocks have climbed a proverbial Wall of Worry – largely on the backs of defensive sectors and mega-caps and fueled by persistently low interest rates, and mostly through multiple expansion rather than earnings growth. In addition, the recent BAML Global Fund Manager Survey indicated the largest jump in cash balances since the debt ceiling crisis in 2011 and the lowest allocation ratio of equities to bonds since May 2009, which tells me that deployment of this idle cash and some rotation out of bonds could really juice this market. It just needs that elusive catalyst to ignite a resurgence in business capital spending and manufacturing activity, raised guidance, and upward revisions to estimates from the analyst community, leading to a sustained risk-on rotation.

As a reminder, I am always happy to take time for conversations with financial advisors about market conditions, outlook, and Sabrient’s portfolios.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings look neutral to me (i.e., neither bullish nor defensive), while the sector rotation model retains a bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The major cap-weighted market indexes continue to achieve new highs on a combination of expectations of interest rate cuts and optimism about an imminent trade deal with China. Bulls have been reluctant to take profits off the table in an apparent fear of missing out (aka FOMO) on a sudden market melt-up (perhaps due to coordinated global central bank intervention, including the US Federal Reserve). But investors can be forgiven for feeling some déjà vu given that leadership during most of the past 13 months did not come from the risk-on sectors that typically lead bull markets, but rather from defensive sectors like Utilities, Staples, and REITs, which was very much like last summer’s rally – and we all know how that ended (hint: with a harsh Q4 selloff). In fact, while the formerly high-flying “FAANG” group of Tech stocks has underperformed the S&P 500 since June 2018, Barron’s recently observed that a conservative group of Consumer sector stalwarts has been on fire (“WPPCK”) – Walmart (WMT), Procter & Gamble (PG), PepsiCo (PEP), Costco (COST), and Coca-Cola (KO).

This is not what I would call long-term sustainable leadership for a continuation of the bull market. Rather, it is what you might expect in a recessionary environment. When I observed similar behavior last summer, with a risk-off rotation even as the market hit new highs, I cautioned that defensive stocks would not be able to continue to carry the market to new highs (with their low earnings growth and sky-high P/E ratios), but rather a risk-on rotation into cyclical sectors and small-mid caps would be necessary to sustain the uptrend. Instead, the mega-cap Tech names faltered and the market went into a downward spiral. Many analysts and pundits have been forecasting the same for this year.

But when I hear such widespread pessimism, the contrarian voice in my head speaks up. And indeed, the FAANG names – along with powerhouse Microsoft (MSFT) and cyclicals like Semiconductors, Homebuilders, and Industrials – have been showing leadership again so far this year, especially after that historic market upswing in June. Rather than an impending recession, it seems to me that the US economy is on solid footing and “de-coupling” from other developed markets, as First Trust’s Brian Wesbury has opined.

The US economic expansion just became the longest in history, the latest jobs report was outstanding, unemployment remains historically low, business and consumer confidence are strong, institutional accumulation is solid, and the Federal Reserve is a lock to lower interest rates at least once, and more if necessary (the proverbial “Fed Put”). Indeed, the old adages “Don’t fight the Fed!” (as lower rates support both economic growth and higher equity valuations) and “The trend is your friend!” (as the market hits new highs) are stoking optimism and a critical risk-on rotation, leading the S&P 500 this week to touch the magic 3,000 mark and the Dow to eclipse 27,000. If this risk-on rotation continues, it bodes well for Sabrient’s cyclicals-oriented portfolios.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings look neutral to me (i.e., neither bullish nor defensive), while the sector rotation model retains a bullish posture. Read on…

Ryan Frederickby Ryan Frederick
Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

Stock buybacks (or share repurchases – we will use the terms interchangeably) have garnered significant attention as publicly-traded companies have repurchased shares at record levels (in terms of dollars spent). In 2018, companies in the S&P 500 spent $806 billion on buybacks (about 3.8% of public float), shattering the previous record of $590 billion spent in 2007 (about 5.3% of public float) by 36.6%. Few topics provoke as intense of a response from those in the world of finance as to what role buybacks should play – whether in a given company’s cash management strategy or for the broader market as a whole. There are various viewpoints on the subject, but there’s a good chance you’ve primarily heard buybacks described in pejorative terms. The negative framing ranges from management using buybacks to manipulate EPS growth and share prices (with no underlying change in the company’s financial condition), to shortchanging long-term investments and employees, to cannibalization, to mis-spending tax cuts, to outright calls for the practice to be outlawed.

Indeed, it is easy to frame buyback programs in a negative light, and some of the connotations may be deserved. To be sure, corporate executives often focus so much on EPS performance that they might choose to engage in short-sighted and/or self-centered activities. (Whether they can get away with it is another matter.) However, the truth about buybacks is much more complicated than typically presented as there is a confluence of many factors and questions that must be considered, such as: What timeframe was used to analyze the effects? Was it the right timeframe? What are a company’s alternative investment opportunities before, during, and after a buyback program? Can an outsider refute with certainty what is/isn’t a good use of cash? What is the cost of capital and opportunity cost? What are the macroeconomic conditions, e.g., interest rates, fiscal policy, trade wars?

Moreover, do buybacks actually lift a given company’s share price and the value of an index that holds it? Is this practice such an epidemic and scourge on society that the federal government should step in to regulate what a private company (or by extension, its shareholders) can or cannot do with its cash? Should a buyback intended to reduce public float be made illegal once again (as it was until 1982)? We believe the answers to these questions are more nuanced than the media presents, so we will attempt to offer some additional insight. Read on….

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

In my prior commentary in early May, I wrote that investors were aggressively bidding up stocks and appeared to have “stopped looking over their shoulders with fear and anxiety and are instead focused on the opportunities ahead.” The S&P 500 was retrenching after a breakout to new highs in preparation for a major upside move driven by a risk-on rotation – which I expected would bode quite well for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen portfolios that have been predominantly composed of stocks from growth-oriented cyclical sectors and small-mid caps. After all, recession fears had subsided, US and Chinese economic data were improving, Q1 corporate profits were coming in better than expected, the Fed had professed that it had our backs, and of course, a resolution to the US/China trade impasse was imminent. Or so it seemed. Instead, the month of May gave stocks a wild ride.

It was exactly one year ago that President Trump escalated the trade war with China from simple threats of tariffs to actual numbers and dates, which ignited a risk-off rotation and a starkly bifurcated market, as the S&P 500 large-cap index continued to rise on the backs of defensive sectors and mega-caps while risk-on cyclical sectors and small-mid caps sold off. The big oversold risk-on recovery following Christmas Eve began to peter out in late-April as the S&P 500 challenged its all-time high, but then the breakdown in negotiations in last month created another risk-off market reaction reminiscent of last summer. In other words, stocks and investor sentiment have been jerked around by Trump’s tweetstorms.

I talk a lot more about China and the trade war in today’s commentary, but the upshot is that this problem has been festering for a long time, and to his credit, President Trump decided he wasn’t going to continue the practice of kicking the can down the road to a future administration. China clearly (and dangerously) is intent on challenging the US for global dominance – economically, technologically, and militarily – with its powerful brand of state-sponsored capitalism. I support the cause against China’s unfair practices, given the enormous importance for our nation’s future – even though the resulting lengthy period of risk-off sentiment (essentially 9 of the past 12 months) has been challenging for Sabrient’s growth-and-valuation-driven portfolios (which are dominated by the neglected cyclical sectors and smaller caps), as the negative news stream creates a disconnect between analyst consensus earnings estimates and investor preferences. Fund flows instead suggest strong demand for low-volatility and momentum strategies as well as fixed income (tilted to shorter maturities and higher credit quality), and the 10-year TIPS breakeven inflation rate has fallen to 1.73% (as worries of deflation have set in).

In response to the recession fears and rampant defensive sentiment, the FOMC felt compelled last week to issue a highly accommodative statement that essentially said, we got your back, which turned around the fading stock market. Fed chairman Jay Powell asserted that the trade war is on the list of the committee’s concerns and that the central bank would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion,” i.e., cut interest rates if necessary. This explicitly reestablished the proverbial “Fed put” as a market backstop, and investors liked it. We already are seeing a somewhat weaker dollar, which could be a further boost to US equities (especially those that sell internationally).

My view is that the May pullback was another buy-the-dip opportunity, particularly in risk-on market segments, as the pervasive worries about imminent global recession and a bear market caused by escalating trade wars have little basis in reality. The latest defensive rotation, including shunning of cyclical sectors, relative weakness in small caps, and global capital flight into Treasuries causing plunging yields (and a 3-mo/10-yr yield curve inversion), has been driven by uncertainty rather than hard data. Every piece of worsening economic data can be offset with encouraging data, in my view. Yes, the economic expansion (consecutive positive GDP prints) has been going on for a longer-than-average period of time, but there is no time limit on expansions, i.e., they don’t die of old age but rather from excesses and inflation that must be reined in (but there is nary of whiff of inflation anywhere in the developed world). I still expect that a resolution to the trade war will send stocks in general, and risk-on market segments in particular, into orbit … but until then, it is hard to predict when investor sentiment will again align with the still-solid fundamentals.

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings have turned neutral, while the sector rotation model retains its bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes both hit new all-time highs this week on strong breadth, and all the major indexes appear to be consolidating recent gains before attempting an upside breakout. P/E multiples are expanding, particularly among large caps, as stocks rise despite a temporary slowdown in earnings growth. Why are investors bidding up stocks so aggressively? They have stopped looking over their shoulders with fear and anxiety and are instead focused on the opportunities ahead. And on that horizon, recession fears are falling, optimism regarding a US-China trade resolution is rising, US and Chinese economic data are improving, corporate profits are better than expected, and the Fed has agreed to step out of the way. All of this reduces uncertainty that typically holds back business investment. Stocks valuations are forward looking and a leading economic indicator, so they already seem to be pricing in expectations for stronger economic growth in the Q3, Q4, and 2020.

I said in my commentary last month that I thought we may see upside surprises in Q1 and Q2 earnings announcements, given the low bar that had been reset, and indeed we are seeing higher-than-average earnings beats – including big names like Apple (AAPL) and Facebook (FB), among many others – as half of the S&P 500 companies have reported. Moreover, the recent legal settlement between Apple and Qualcomm (QCOM) was a big positive news story that should now free up both companies to focus on 5G products, including step-function upgrades to smartphones, tablets, and computers, as the critical race with China for 5G dominance kicks into high gear.

Looking ahead, there are plenty of mixed signals for the economy and stocks – and no doubt the pessimists could fill a dossier with plenty of doom and gloom. But I think the pessimism has been a positive in keeping stocks from surging too exuberantly, given all the positive data that the optimists can cite. And on balance, the path of least resistance for both the economy and stocks appears to be upward. I think bond yields will continue to gradually firm up as capital rotates from bonds to equities in an improving growth and inflation environment, stabilizing the dollar (from advancing much further), while reducing the odds of a Fed rate cut in 2019. A healthy economy helps corporate earnings, while a dovish Fed keeps rates low and supports equity valuations. And as the trade war with China comes to resolution, I expect corporations will ramp up capital spending and guidance, enticing idle cash into the market and further fueling bullish conviction. Rather than an impending recession, we may be returning to the type of growth and inflation we enjoyed just prior to the tax reform bill, which would provide a predictable environment for corporate planning and steady (but not exuberant or inflationary) corporate earnings growth.

This should bode well not only for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen portfolios, but also for our other growth and dividend-oriented portfolios, like Sabrient Dividend and Dividend Opportunity, each of which comprises 50 growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) stocks paying an aggregate yield in excess of 4% in what is essentially a growth-and-income strategy, and perhaps our 50-stock Small Cap Growth portfolios. As a reminder, I am always happy to make time for conversations with advisors about market conditions and our portfolios. We are known for our model-driven growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP) approach, and our model is directing us to smaller caps, as many of the high-quality large caps that are expected to generate solid earnings growth already have been “bid up” relative to small caps.

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings remain bullish, while the sector rotation model also maintains a bullish posture. Read on…

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