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….

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

In 2003, the SEC first officially adopted rules (following Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002) related to the reporting of non-GAAP financial metrics. The new regulations called for a reconciliation of GAAP versus non-GAAP results to be included in various investor resources and to refrain from excluding non-recurring items from non-GAAP metrics if they are reasonably likely to reoccur, which is subject to wide interpretation. Since then, it seems the perceived importance among investors of non-GAAP financial performance has been elevated above traditional GAAP measures. Between 2015 and 2017, less than 10.0% of companies in the S&P 500 did not report a non-GAAP income calculation. However, the ability for management to subjectively decide what is or is not relevant to a company’s core business leaves plenty of room for earnings manipulation.

On the one hand, companies tend to justify their exclusion of various transactions as necessary for “comparability” to historical results, given that GAAP rules have changed over time. Fair enough. However, when an investor chooses to rely upon non-GAAP results when comparing a given company’s results to another’s, the comparisons can be deeply misleading as management has great leeway for subjective (and sometimes ad-hoc) adjustments in their exclusions – i.e., what one company concludes should be excluded in a non-GAAP calculation may not be consistent with what another company may exclude.

In fact, in 2010 former SEC chief accountant Howard Scheck identified non-GAAP performance metrics as a “fraud risk factor.” The SEC even created a taskforce to analyze non-GAAP earnings metrics that could be misleading. Then, in an effort to provide more clarity, the commission provided Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations (C&DIs) which detailed ways in which the SEC may find non-GAAP disclosures to be misleading, but more on that later.

Here at Gradient Analytics, our focus on earnings quality analysis (for both short idea generation and vetting of long candidates) regularly includes an examination of non-GAAP adjustments to determine whether they are appropriate in helping represent the true performance of the firm, or whether they are misleading. There is a plethora of unique adjustments a company could make to a non-GAAP income calculation; however, some are more common than others. One of the more frequent adjustments to GAAP income is the exclusion of restructuring costs. 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 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…

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The first two months of 2019 have treated Sabrient’s portfolios quite well. After a disconcerting 3Q2018, in which small-cap and cyclicals-heavy portfolios badly trailed the broad market amid a fear-driven defensive rotation, followed by a dismal Q4 for all stocks, the dramatic V-bottom recovery has been led by those same forsaken small-mid caps and cyclical sectors. All of our 12 monthly all-cap Baker’s Dozen portfolios from 2018 have handily outperformed the S&P 500 benchmark since then, as fundamentals seem to matter once again to investors. Indeed, although valuations can become disconnected from fundamentals for a given stretch of time (whether too exuberant or too pessimistic), share prices eventually do reflect fundamentals. Indeed, it appears that institutional fund managers and corporate insiders alike have been scooping up shares of attractive-but-neglected companies from cyclical sectors and small-mid caps in what they evidently saw as a buying opportunity.

And why wouldn’t they? It seems clear that Q4 was unnecessarily weak, with the ugliest December since the Great Depression, selling off to valuations that seem more reflective of an imminent global recession and Treasury yields of 5%. But when you combine earnings beats and stable forward guidance with price declines – and supported by a de-escalation in the trade war with China and a more “patient and flexible” Federal Reserve – it appears that the worst might be behind us, as investors recognize the opportunity before them and pay less attention to the provocative news headlines and fearmongering commentators. Moreover, I expect to see a renewed appreciation for the art of active selection (rather than passive pure-beta vehicles). However, we must remain cognizant of 2018’s lesson that volatility is not dead, so let’s not be alarmed if and when we encounter bouts of it over the course of the year.

Looking ahead, economic conditions appear favorable for stocks, with low unemployment, rising wages, strong consumer sentiment, and solid GDP growth. Moreover, Q4 corporate earnings are still strong overall, with rising dividends, share buybacks at record levels, and rejuvenated capital investment. So, with the Fed on the sidelines and China desperately needing an end to the trade war, I would expect that any positive announcement in the trade negotiations will recharge the economy in supply-side fashion, as US companies further ramp up capital spending and restate guidance higher, enticing risk capital back into stocks (but again, not without bouts of volatility). This should then encourage investors to redouble their current risk-on rotation into high-quality stocks from cyclical sectors and small-mid caps that typically flourish in a growing economy – which bodes well for Sabrient’s growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP) portfolios.

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 has returned to a bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

After an “investor’s paradise” year in 2017 – buoyed by ultra-low levels of volatility, inflation, and interest rates, and fueled even more by the promise of fiscal stimulus (which came to fruition by year end) – 2018 was quite different. First, it endured a long overdue correction in February that reminded investors that volatility is not dead, and the market wasn’t quite the same thereafter, as investors’ attention focused on escalating trade wars and central bank monetary tightening, leading to a defensive risk-off rotation mid-year and ultimately to new lows, a “technical bear market” (in the Nasdaq and Russell 2000), and the worst year for stocks since the 2008 financial crisis. Then, it was confronted with the Brexit negotiations falling apart, Italy on the verge of public debt default, violent “yellow vest” protests in France, key economies like China and Germany reporting contractionary economic data, and bellwether companies like FedEx (FDX) and Apple (AAPL) giving gloomy sales forecasts that reflect poorly on the state of the global economy. The list of obstacles seems endless.

Moreover, US stocks weren’t the only asset class to take a beating last year. International equities fared even worse. Bonds, oil and commodities, most systematic strategies, and even cryptocurrencies all took a hit. A perfect scenario for gold to flourish, right? Wrong, gold did poorly, too. There was simply nowhere to hide. Deutsche Bank noted that 93% of global financial markets had negative returns in 2018, the worst such performance in the 117-year history of its data set. It was a bad year for market beta, as diversification didn’t offer any help.

Not surprisingly, all of this has weighed heavily upon investor sentiment, even though the US economy, corporate earnings, and consumer sentiment have remained quite strong, with no recession in sight and given low inflation and interest rates. So, despite the generally positive fundamental outlook, investors in aggregate chose to take a defensive risk-off posture, ultimately leading to a massive selloff – accentuated by the rise of passive investing and the dominance of algorithmic trading – that did huge technical damage to the chart and crushed investor sentiment.

But fear not. There may be a silver lining to all of this, as it has created a superb buying opportunity, and it may finally spell a return to a more selective stock-picker’s market, with lower correlations and higher performance dispersion. Moreover, my expectation for 2019 is for a de-escalation in the trade war with China, a more accommodative Fed, and for higher stock prices ahead. Forward valuations overall have become exceedingly attractive, especially in the cyclical sectors that typically flourish in a growing economy.

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 remains in a defensive posture. Read on…

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

Last week was the market’s worst since March. After Q3 had zero trading days with more than 1% move (up or down), our cup runeth over in Q4 with the stock rollercoaster so far offering up 22 days that saw a 1% move. Volatility seems rampant, but the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has not even eclipsed the 30 level during Q4 (whereas it hit 50 back in February). Even after Friday’s miserable day, the VIX closed at 23.23. Of course, the turbulence has been driven primarily by two big uncertainties: the trade dispute with China and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policy, both of which have the potential to create substantial impacts on the global economy. As a result, investor psychology and the technical picture have negatively diverged from a still solid fundamental outlook.

For about a minute there, it seemed that both situations had been somewhat diffused, with Presidents Trump and Xi agreeing at the G20 summit to a temporary truce on further escalation in tariffs, while Fed chairman Powell made some comments about the fed funds rate being “just below” the elusive neutral rate. But investors’ cheers soon switched back to fears (soon to be tears?) with the latest round of news headlines (e.g., Huawei CFO arrest, Trump’s “Tariff Man” comment, Mueller indictments, and the imminent federal debt ceiling showdown). The uncertainty and fear-mongering led to a buyers’ strike that emboldened the short sellers, which in turn triggered forced selling in passive ETFs and automated liquidation in quant hedge funds, high-frequency trading (HFT) accounts, and leveraged institutional portfolios, which removed liquidity from the system (i.e., no bids), culminating in a retail investor panic. As it stands today, the charts look woefully weak and investor psychology has turned bearish, with selling into rallies rather than buying of dips.

Ever since June 11, when the trade war with China escalated from rhetoric to reality, stocks have seen a dramatic risk-off defensive rotation, with Healthcare, Utilities, Consumer Staples, and Telecom the only sectors in positive territory and the only ones outperforming the broad S&P 500 Index. It’s as if investors see the strong GDP prints, the +20% corporate earnings growth (of which about half is organic and half attributable to the tax cut), record profitability, and record levels of consumer confidence and small business optimism as being “as good as it gets,” i.e., just a fleeting final gasp in a late-stage economy, rather than the start of a long-awaited boom cycle fueled by unprecedented fiscal stimulus and a still-supportive (albeit not dovish) Federal Reserve. As a result, forward P/E on the S&P 500 is down a whopping -19% this year, which is huge – especially considering this year’s stellar earnings reports and solid forward guidance.

But has anything really changed substantially with regard to expectations for corporate earnings and interest rates (the two most important factors) to so severely impact valuations? Not that I can see. And Sabrient’s quantitative rankings imply that the economy and forward guidance remain quite strong, such that the market is simply responding to the proverbial Wall of Worry by offering up a nice buying opportunity, particularly in beaten down cyclical sectors and in solid dividend payers – although there might be some more pain first. Over the past 10 years of rising stock prices since the Financial Crisis, there have been eight corrections of roughly -10% (including nearly -20% in 2011), and this year’s correction has led to the fourth major drawdown for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen annual top picks list (1Q2009, mid-2011, 2H2015, and now). But selling at each of those previous times would have been the wrong thing to do, and this time seems no different.

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 remains in a defensive posture due to the persistent market weakness. Read on...

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The escalating trade standoff with China, an increasingly hawkish Federal Reserve, and the impending mid-term elections finally took a toll on investor psyche, creating a rush to the exits in October as concern rises about the sustainability of the ultra-strong corporate earnings given China’s key role in global supply chains. Even some sell-side analysts have seen fit to slightly trim Q4’s strong earnings estimates. Nonetheless, the month ended with an encouraging rally from deeply oversold technical conditions. Overall, Sabrient’s model continues to suggest that little has changed with the positive fundamental outlook characterized by solid global economic growth, strong US corporate earnings, modest inflation, low real interest rates (despite incremental rate hikes), a stable global banking system, and historic fiscal stimulus in the US (especially corporate tax cuts and deregulation) that is only starting to have an impact on all-important capital spending. Also worth mentioning are the Consumer Confidence Index, which rose to its highest level in 18 years, and the Small Business Optimism Index, which continues with the longest streak of sustained optimism in its 45-year history.

Although the S&P 500 managed to plod its way upward during the summer and hit new highs well into September, a dramatic risk-off defensive rotation commenced in mid-June reflecting cautious investor sentiment, which disproportionately impacted Sabrient’s cyclicals-heavy portfolios. But this was not a healthy rotation. In fact, I wrote during the summer that the market wouldn’t be able to move much higher without renewed breadth and leadership from cyclicals. But instead of a risk-on rotation to recharge bullish conviction, we got a big market sell-off in October. Notably, such a pullback is normal in mid-term election years, but what is also normal is a strongly positive market move over the course of the 12 months following the mid-terms.

Last week’s fledgling recovery rally from severely oversold technical conditions showed promising risk-on action – and some relative performance catch-up in Sabrient’s portfolios. Thus, while the aggregate earnings outlooks for companies in the cyclical sectors and smaller caps have held steady or in many cases improved, shares prices have fallen dramatically, making the forward P/Es in these market segments much more attractive, while forward P/Es in the defensive sectors have become quite pricey.

Getting the uncertainty of the mid-term elections behind us should be good for investor sentiment. So, I think the correction lows are in – barring a massive “blue wave” in which Democrats take over both houses of Congress or a total breakdown in the China trade talks. Also, companies are coming out of their reporting-season blackout windows so that they can resume their massive share buybacks, further goosing stock prices. All told, I anticipate a risk-on rotation spurring a year-end rally that should treat our portfolios well.

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 has been forced into a defensive posture due to the recent correction. Read on...

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