weekly sector review written by Scott Martindale

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

Stocks continued their bullish charge from the pandemic selloff low on 3/23/20 into early-June, finally stumbling over the past several days due to a combination of overbought technicals, a jump in COVID cases as the economy tries to reopen, and the Fed giving grim commentary on the pace of recovery. But then of course Fed chair Jerome Powell (aka Superman) swooped in this week to save the day, this time to shore up credit markets with additional liquidity by expanding bond purchases into individual corporate bonds rather than just through bond ETFs. But despite unprecedented monetary and fiscal policies, there are many prominent commentators who consider this record-setting recovery rally to be an unwarranted and unsustainable “blow-off top” to a liquidity-driven speculative bubble that is destined for another harsh selloff. They think stocks are pricing in a better economy in the near-term than we enjoyed before the pandemic hit, when instead normalization is likely years away.

Certainly, the daily news and current fundamentals suggest that investors should stay defensive. But stocks always price a future vision 6-12 months in advance, and investors are betting on better times ahead. Momentum, technicals, fear of missing out (FOMO), and timely actions from our Federal Reserve have engendered a broad-based bullish foundation to this market that appears much healthier than anything displayed over the past five years, which was marked by cautious sentiment due to populist upheaval, political polarization, Brexit, trade wars, an attempt to “normalize” interest rates following several years of zero interest-rate policy (ZIRP), and the narrow leadership of the five famed mega-cap “FAAAM” Tech stocks – namely Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOG), and Facebook (FB).

Equal-weight indexes solidly outperformed the cap-weighted versions during the recovery rally from the selloff low on 3/23/20 through the peak on 6/8/20. For example, while the S&P 500 cap-weighted index returned an impressive +45%, the equal weight version returned +58%. Likewise, expanded market breadth is good for Sabrient, as our Baker’s Dozen portfolios ranged from +62% to +83% (and an average of +74%) during that same timeframe, led by the neglected small-mid caps and cyclical sectors. Our Forward Looking Value, Small Cap Growth, and Dividend portfolios also substantially outperformed – and all of them employ versions of our growth at a reasonable price (GARP) selection approach.

Although the past week since 6/8/20 has seen a pullback and technical consolidation, there remains a strong bid under this market, which some attribute to a surge in speculative fervor among retail investors. There is also persistently elevated volatility, as the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has remained solidly above the 20 fear threshold since 2/24/20, and in fact has spent most of its time in the 30s and 40s (or higher) even during the exuberant recovery rally. And until earnings normalize, the market is likely to remain both speculative and volatile.

Regardless, so long as there is strong market breadth and not sole dependence on the FAAAM stocks (as we witnessed for much of the past five years), the rally can continue. There are just too many forces supporting capital flow into equities for the bears to overcome. I have been predicting that the elevated forward P/E on the S&P 500 might be in store for further expansion (to perhaps 23-25x) before earnings begin to catch up, as investors position for a post-lockdown recovery. Indeed, the forward P/E hit 22.5x on 6/8/20. But I’d like to offer an addendum to this to say that the forward P/E may stay above 20x even when earnings normalize, so long as the economy stays in growth mode – as I expect it will for the next few years or longer as we embark upon a new post-recession expansionary phase. In fact, I believe that rising valuation multiples today, and the notion that the market actually has become undervalued, are a direct result of: 1) massive global liquidity, 2) ultra-low interest rates, and 3) the ever-growing dominance of secular-growth Technology on both our work processes and the broad-market indexes – all conspiring to create a TINA (“There is No Alternative”) climate for US equities.

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 moved to a bullish posture in late May.

As a reminder, Sabrient has enhanced its 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 firms (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-materialsRead on....

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

As interest rates remain at historic lows, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) have soared in recent years. With the rise in M&A activity comes a rise in accounting complexity, introducing a plethora of ways that management can cosmetically improve their as-presented results – and mislead investors. Gradient Analytics specializes in forensic accounting analysis that helps to uncover these types of financial shenanigans, including overstated assets and revenues, understated liabilities and expenses, and weakening earnings quality. This type of analysis is useful for both vetting long positions and generating short ideas.

In this article, I describe four acquisitions that we believe were used to obscure underlying financial weakness at the parent company by temporarily shoring up growth and earnings. Key takeaways are how management can utilize acquisitions, purchase price accounting, and non-GAAP adjustments to optically improve their as-presented results. In each case, the theme will remain consistent: the acquiring company was under fundamental business stress.

The subject transactions include:

  • SodaStream (SODA) acquisition of its distributors in 2012 and 2013
  • SNC-Lavalin (SNC) acquisition of WS Atkins in 2017
  • Belden Inc. (BDC) acquisitions in 2017 and 2018
  • The Walt Disney Corporation (DIS) acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019

Read on....

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

Optimism reigns for the pandemic slowing and the economy reopening. And because stocks tend to be several months forward looking (and remarkably predictive, at that), April saw the best single-month performance for the S&P 500 in 33 years (+12.7%), while the Nasdaq saw its best month in 20 years (+15.4%). The S&P 500 Growth Index recorded its highest ever monthly return (+14.3%). In addition, gold and bitcoin have been rising as a hedge against all sorts of outcomes, including geopolitical instability, trade wars, de-globalization, unfettered monetary & fiscal liquidity (i.e., MMT), inflation, a weakening dollar, a “toppy” bond market, etc. (plus the periodic bitcoin “halving” event that occurs this week).

This impressive rally off the lows seems justified for several reasons:

  1. the coronavirus, as bad as it is, falling well short of the dire lethality predictions of the early models and our ability to “flatten the curve”
  2. massive monetary and fiscal policy support and the associated reduction in credit risk
  3. low interest rates driving retirees and other income seekers into the higher yields and returns of stocks
  4. household income holding up relatively well, as the main impact has been on lower wage workers who can’t work remotely (and government support should cover much of their losses)
  5. escalation of tensions with China seems to be “all hat and no cattle” for now, with a focus on economic recovery
  6. massive short covering and a bullish reversal among algorithmic traders
  7. the growing dominance and consistent performance of the secular-growth Technology sector plus other “near-Tech” names (like Facebook and Amazon.com)
  8. the steepening yield curve, as capital has gradually rotated out of the “bond bubble”

What the rally doesn’t have at the moment, however, is a strong near-term fundamental or valuation-based foundation. But although the current forward P/E of the S&P 500 of 20x might be overvalued based on historical valuations, I think in today’s unprecedented climate there actually is room for further multiple expansion before earnings begin to catch up, as investors position for a post-lockdown recovery.

In any case, it has been clear to us at Sabrient that the market has developed a “new normal,” which actually began in mid-2015 when the populist movement gained steam and the Fed announced a desire to begin tightening monetary policy. Investors suddenly become wary of traditional “risk-on” market segments like small-mid caps, value stocks, cyclical sectors, and emerging markets, even though the economic outlook was still strong, instead preferring to focus on mega-cap Technology, long-term secular growth industries, and “bond proxy” dividend-paying defensive sectors. And more recently, investor sentiment coming out of the COVID-19 selloff seems to be more about speculative optimism of a better future rather than near-term earnings reports and attractive valuation multiples.

In response, Sabrient has enhanced our forward-looking and valuation-oriented Baker’s Dozen strategy to improve all-weather performance and reduce relative volatility versus the benchmark S&P 500, as well as put secular-growth companies (which often display higher valuations) on more equal footing with cyclical-growth firms (which tend to display lower valuations). Those secular growth trends include 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), e-commerce, cloud computing, AI/ML, robotics, clean energy, blockchain, quantum computing, nanotechnology, genomics, and precision medicine. So, we felt it was necessary that our stock selection strategy give due consideration to players in these market segments, as well.

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.

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, discuss Sabrient’s new process enhancements, 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, our sector rankings now look defensive, and our sector rotation model maintains a neutral posture as it climbs from the depths of the selloff. Meanwhile, the technical picture remains bullish as it continues to gather speculative conviction on a better future, although with elevated volatility amid progress/setbacks as the economy tries to gradually reopen in the face of an ongoing coronavirus threat.  Read on....

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

As COVID-19 quickly moved from outbreak to epidemic to full-fledged pandemic in a matter of weeks, hospitalizations and deaths gained momentum, as did the panic selling of risk assets. It demonstrates how interconnected the world has become. The pandemic has become a generational crisis – and the very definition of the proverbial Black Swan event – bringing the global economy to its knees, at least temporarily. As a result, Q1 closed with a rare and dreaded trifecta of three down months, which historically does not lead to a quick recovery (albeit with a small sample size). It was the worst Q1 performance since 1987 and the fastest fall from record highs in history.

From its intraday all-time high on 2/19/20 to the intraday low on 3/23/20 (i.e., a little over one month), the S&P 500 fell an incredible -35.3%, wiping out the entire “Trump Bump” and about $10 trillion in US market cap in almost the blink of an eye. Moreover, asset classes were highly correlated in a mass liquidation, leaving no place to hide other than US Treasuries or cash (thus strengthening the US dollar). Even gold and cryptocurrencies largely failed to serve as the safe havens from financial distress they are intended to be, at least initially, as traders liquidated everything into cold hard cash. Indeed, money market funds surged above $4 trillion for the first time ever. Never truer was the old saying, “Stocks take the stairs up and the elevator down” – or perhaps more fittingly in this case, stocks had rock-climbed up the cliff and swan-dived back down.

But the news has gotten better, as social distancing seems to be doing its job to “flatten the curve” of new hospitalizations, while the Federal Reserve and Congress have flooded the economy with unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary support, stimulus, and liquidity. As a result, the S&P 500 has retraced over half of the selloff, and just posted its best week in 46 years (+12.1% in a shortened holiday week, at that). Now, the big question on everyone’s mind is, “What’s next?” Some see this as the end to a very brief bear market and the start of a brand new bull market, while others see it as just a bear market bounce and an opportunity to sell into strength before the next downswing. Some prominent names even think we are the verge of the next Great Depression. But from my standpoint, as we enter Passover and Easter weekend, I am optimistic that mass liquidation of financial assets is likely behind us, the economy will reopen sooner than previously expected, and that we have seen the market lows (although there may be some backfilling of technical gaps and retesting of support levels).

Perhaps a resumption of last fall’s fledgling broad-based rally (8/27/19 – 12/20/19) will persist much longer this time and favor the cyclical market segments (as many prominent names on Wall Street expect) and valuation-oriented strategies like Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen – particularly given our newly-enhanced approach designed to improve all-weather performance and reduce relative volatility versus the benchmark S&P 500 (which has been tough to beat over the past couple of years given the narrow leadership of secular-growth mega-cap Tech and persistently defensive investor sentiment).

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, discuss Sabrient’s new process enhancements, 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. Notably, Healthcare is suddenly the hero during this COVID-19 scare instead of the avoided sector from all the “Medicare for All” talk. (Perhaps that is behind us now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign.) In summary, our sector rankings remain neutral, and our sector rotation model moved to a defensive posture last month. The technical picture shows a market that has likely bottomed and begun to recover, although with elevated volatility likely to persist and strong directional signals that are suddenly invalidated and reversed by the latest news report on COVID-19 or government stimulus.

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. Click to read on...

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

What a week. From its intraday all-time high on 2/19/20 to the intraday low on Friday 2/28/20, the S&P 500 fell -15.8%. It was a rare and proverbial “waterfall decline,” typically associated with a Black Swan event – this time apparently driven primarily by fears that the COVID-19 virus would bring the global economy to its knees. Once cases started popping up across the globe and businesses shuttered their doors, it was clear that no amount of central bank liquidity could help.

But in my view, it wasn’t just the scare of a deadly global pandemic that caused last week’s selloff. Also at play were the increasing dominance of algorithmic trading to exaggerate market moves, as well as the surprising surge in popularity of dustbin Bolshevik Bernie Sanders. I think both lent a hand in sending investors into a tizzy last week.

Even before fears of a pandemic began to proliferate, market internals were showing signs of worry. After a sustained and long-overdue risk-on rotation into the value factor, small-mid caps, and cyclical sectors starting on 8/27/19, which boosted the relative performance of Sabrient’s portfolios, investor sentiment again turned cautious in the New Year, even as the market continued to hit new highs before last week’s historic selloff. It was much the same as the defensive sentiment that dominated for most of the March 2018 — August 2019 timeframe, driven mostly by the escalating China trade war. (It seems like all market swoons these days are related to China!)

Alas, I think we may have seen on Friday a selling climax (or “capitulation”) that should now allow the market to recover going forward. In fact, the market gained back a good chunk of ground in the last 15 minutes of trading on Friday – plus a lot more in the afterhours session – as the extremely oversold technical conditions from panic selling triggered a major reversal, led by institutional and algorithmic traders. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more volatility before prices move higher, but I think we have seen the lows for this episode.

The selloff wasn’t pretty, to be sure, but for those who were too timid to buy back in October, you have been given a second chance at those similar prices, as the forward P/E on the S&P 500 fell from nearly 19.0x to 16.3x in just 7 trading days. Perhaps this time the broad-based rally will persist much longer and favor the risk-on market segments and valuation-oriented strategies like Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen – particularly given our newly-enhanced approach designed to improve all-weather performance and reduce relative volatility versus the benchmark S&P 500.

In this periodic update, I provide a detailed market commentary (including other factors at play in the market selloff), discuss Sabrient’s new process enhancements, 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, our sector rankings look neutral, and our sector rotation model moved to a defensive posture when the S&P 500 lost support from its 200-day moving average. The technical picture has moved dramatically from grossly overbought to grossly oversold in a matter of a few days, such that the S&P 500 has developed an extreme gap below its 20-day moving average and the VIX is at an extreme high. Thus, I believe a significant bounce is likely.

As a reminder, you can find my latest Baker’s Dozen presentation slide deck and commentary at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials. Click to Read on....

  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 and increased guidance, 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 look neutral, 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 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…

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