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…

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 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…