weekly sector review written by Scott Martindale

The S&P 500 large caps closed 2015 essentially flat on a total return basis, while the NASDAQ 100 showed a little better performance at +8.3% and the Russell 2000 small caps fell -5.9%. Overall, stocks disappointed even in the face of modest expectations, especially the small caps as market leadership was mostly limited to a handful of large and mega-cap darlings. Notably, the full year chart for the S&P 500 looks very much like 2011.

Is it just me or has 2015 been a particularly crazy year? From extreme weather patterns, to a circus of a Presidential election cycle, to divergent central bank strategies, to the first triple-crown winner since 1978, to terrorist plots emanating from our neighborhoods, to counterintuitive asset class behaviors, to some of the most incredible college football finishes -- just to name a few.

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In a year in which stock prices mostly have been driven by news rather than fundamentals, three things stood out last week. First, terrorism has taken on an unsettling new face -- the stay-at-home mom down the street or your long-time co-worker at the plant -- as the dark side of the exponential growth in social media rears its ugly head (with something much more sinister than porn sites or online bullying). Second, with the strong jobs report on Friday, the Federal Reserve seems to have all their ducks in a row to justify the first fed funds rate hike in nine years.

Some weeks when I write this article there is little new to talk about from the prior week. It’s always the Fed, global QE, China growth, election chatter, oil prices, etc. And then there are times like this in which there is so much happening that I don’t know where to start. Of course, the biggest market-moving news came the weekend before last when Paris was put face-to-face with the depths of human depravity and savagery. And yet the stock market responded with its best week of the year.

November got off to a strong start early last week, and the rally broadened to include financial and retail stocks. But after a torrid six weeks of bullish behavior while ignoring (or perhaps reveling in) concerns about the global economy during, U.S. stocks encountered some strong technical resistance in the middle of last week, and it has continued into Monday. The Dow Jones Transportation Index continues to a drag on the overall market, and this segment will need to gather some enthusiasm if the broader indexes are to resume their advance.

This year, the S&P 500 has greatly underperformed its average 18% return that it historically provides during the third year of a Presidential election cycle. But then, a lot seems to be different this year as correlations across most asset classes are high and prices are buffeted more by news events than fundamentals (which has made stock picking quite challenging).

Last week, the S&P 500 put up its best week of the year, closing above key psychological levels and breaking through bearish technical resistance, with bulls largely inspired by the dovish FOMC meeting minutes. But this year’s market has been news-driven and quite difficult for traders to read. Even our fundamentals-based and quality-oriented quant models have struggled to perform.

Uncertainty about the health of the global economy led investors to flee U.S. equities during Q3, primarily driven by worries about China's growth prospects and the Federal Reserve’s decision to not raise rates. Sure, there are plenty of real and perceived headwinds, but on balance it seems that a recession here at home is not in the cards. And when you consider sentiment and the technical picture, it appears that a continuation of Friday’s bounce is in store.

The Fed’s decision to not raise the fed funds rate at this time was ultimately taken by the market as a no-confidence vote on our economic health, which just added to the fear and uncertainty that was already present. Rather than cheering the decision, market participants took the initial euphoric rally as a selling opportunity, and the proverbial wall of worry grew a bit higher.

For those investors who thought there might be a quick V-bottom recovery in the markets like we saw last October, they have been sorely disappointed. Last week, the Dow Industrials fell -3.2%, the S&P 500 large caps fell -3.4%, the Nasdaq was down -3.0%, and the Russell 2000 small caps dropped -2.3%.From a technical standpoint, most chartists agree that much damage has been done to the charts and the market seems quite vulnerable and likely to retest lows. Market breadth is poor. And from a fundamental standpoint, the list of concerns is long.

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