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...

  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 Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

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

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

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

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

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

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…