Rachel Bradley  by Rachel Annis
  Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

 “Only time can heal what reason cannot.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

In response to the pandemic-driven economic downturn, both Congress and the Federal Reserve have intervened with fiscal and monetary support in the form of direct subsidies, loans, bailouts, tax rebates, supplemental unemployment benefits, ultra-low interest rates, support of capital markets, reduced regulatory constraints, and quantitative easing (QE). The Fed expanded its purchase program beyond Treasury bonds to also include municipal bonds, corporate bonds of both investment and speculative grade, as well as ETFs for the first time. While these policies can raise aggregate demand, employment, and investment in the short run, excess liquidity also supports inefficient firms that otherwise might not survive. The increased prevalence of these firms, as well as the valuation metrics at which their stocks trade can muddy the waters for analysts and thus contribute to a misallocation of capital. These firms also weigh on productivity growth going forward.

Because the downturn was spurred by the pandemic rather than the typical overheated economy and inflation, it has yielded several surprises for investors. For instance, despite unemployment reaching record levels, consumers spent more than expected on home repairs and remodeling which boosted sales at stores like Home Depot (HD) and Lowe’s Companies (LOW). Likewise, residential home sales have surged despite escalating unemployment. An intuitive expectation of an inverse relationship between the two would be incorrect, at least thus far. Outperformance of online retailers, like Amazon.com (AMZN), over some traditional recessionary picks, like Procter & Gamble (PG), has also been unexpected. Moreover, this was the first recession that drove people to spend more time outdoors, giving a boost to firms like sports vehicle maker Polaris (PII). However, the question to ask is:  Is this burst of COVID-driven growth anomalous and short-lived, or is it sustainable?

Another aspect to highlight is the conjectural nature of forward estimates and current valuations. The wild swings in near-term consensus estimates between earnings cycles seem to be highly speculative and largely based on the latest news headlines rather than analysis of underlying firms’ fundamental metrics. Similarly, it appears that some previously struggling firms are getting an unsustainable boost by pivoting to create products that help customers deal with COVID-19 impacts. In this article, I explore examples of two firms for which analysts anticipate rising near-term growth rates specifically driven by COVID-19 related tailwinds that we do not believe are sustainable longer-term. Read on....

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

Well, the election is finally upon us, and most folks on either side of the aisle seem to think that the stakes couldn’t be higher. That might be true. But for the stock market, I think removing the uncertainty will send stocks higher in a “relief rally” no matter who wins, as additional COVID stimulus, an infrastructure spending bill, and better corporate planning visibility are just a few of the slam-dunk catalysts. Either way, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is here, as both sides seem to agree that the only way to prevent a COVID-induced depression in a highly indebted economy is to print even more money and become even more leveraged and indebted. Now investors can only anxiously pray for a clean, uncontested election, followed soon by a reopening of schools and businesses. Stocks surely would soar.

Of course, certain industries might be favored over others depending upon the party in power, but in general I expect greater market breadth and higher prices into year-end and into the New Year. However, last week, given the absence of a COVID vaccine and additional fiscal stimulus plus the resurgence of COVID-19 in the US and Europe, not to mention worries of a contested election that ends up in the courts, stocks fell as investors took chips off the table and raised cash to ride out the volatility and prepare for the next buying opportunity. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) even spiked above 41 last week and closed Friday at 38, which is in panic territory (although far below the all-time high of 85.47 in March).

Nevertheless, even as the market indices fell (primarily due to profit-taking among the bigger growth names that had run so high), many of the neglected value stocks have held up pretty well. And lest you forget, global liquidity is abundant and continuing to rise (no matter who wins the election) – and searching for higher returns than ultra-low (or even negative) government and sovereign debt obligations are yielding.

All in all, this year has been a bit deceiving. While the growth-oriented, cap-weighted indexes have been in a strong bull market thanks to a handful of mega-cap Tech names, the broader market essentially has been in a downtrend since mid-2018, making it very difficult for any valuation-oriented portfolio or equal-weight index to keep up. However, since mid-July (and especially since the September lows) we have seen signs of a nascent rotation into value/cyclicals/small caps, which is a bullish sign of a healthy market. Institutional buyers are back, and they are buying the higher-quality stocks, encouraged by solid Q3 earnings reports.

Going forward, our expectation is that the historic imbalances in Value/Growth and Small/Large performance ratios will continue to gradually revert and market leadership will broaden such that strategic beta ETFs, active selection, and equal weighting will thrive once again. This should be favorable for value, quality, and growth at a reasonable price (GARP) strategies like Sabrient’s, although not to the exclusion of the unstoppable secular growth industries. In other words, investors should be positioned for both cyclical and secular growth.

Notably, Sabrient has enhanced its GARP strategy by adding our new Growth Quality Rank (GQR), which rewards companies with more consistent and reliable earnings growth, putting secular-growth stocks on more competitive footing in the rankings with cyclical growth (even though their forward valuations are often higher than our GARP model previously rewarded). As a result, our newer Baker’s Dozen portfolios launched since December 2019 reflect better balance between secular growth and cyclical/value stocks and across large/mid/small market caps. And those portfolios have shown markedly improved performance relative to the benchmark, even with this year’s continued bifurcation. Names like Adobe (ADBE), Autodesk (ADSK), Digital Turbine (APPS), Amazon (AMZN), Charter Communications (CHTR), NVIDIA (NVDA), and SolarEdge Technologies (SEDG) became eligible with the addition of GQR, and they have been top performers. But at the same time, our portfolios are also well-positioned for a broadening or rotation to value, cyclicals, and small caps. In addition, our three Small Cap Growth portfolios that have launched during 2020 using the same enhanced selection process are all nicely outperforming their benchmark. So, IMHO, this provides solid justification for an investor to take a fresh look at Sabrient’s portfolios today.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, I expect stocks to move higher once the election results are finalized – but with plenty of volatility along the way until the economy is fully unleashed from its COVID shackles. In addition, our sector rankings reflect a moderately bullish bias (as the corporate outlook is starting to clear up), the technical picture looks ready for at least a modest bullish bounce from last week’s profit-taking, and our sector rotation model retains its neutral posture. As a reminder, you can go to http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials to find my latest Baker’s Dozen slide deck and commentary on terminating portfolios. Read on....

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

The April-August 5-month stretch was the best 5-month period for the S&P 500 (+35%) since 1938. The index was +6.3% higher than its pre-COVID high on 2/19/20 and +56.2% higher than its COVID selloff low on 3/23/20. But any market technician would tell you that the further the market rises without a pause, the more severe the inevitable pullback. And indeed, along came the traditionally challenging month of September and a nasty bout of profit-taking mixed with capital preservation – and exacerbated by the standoff on new fiscal stimulus, an uptick in COVID cases hindering global economic reopening, and the potential for a SCOTUS nomination firestorm. Many of the investor darlings from among the disruptive, secular-growth Technology companies that had been surging so strongly have suddenly fallen hard, with the S&P 500 (SPY) pulling back -10.3% from its 9/2/20 intraday high to its 9/21/20 intraday low and the tech-laden Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) falling -14.3%.

After giving back all of August’s strong gains, perhaps Monday was the capitulation day from which the market can recover anew. Q3 earnings reporting season starts in a couple of weeks, so it will be important to get a read on the trajectory of earnings recovery and forward guidance.

I have written often about the stark market bifurcation that has developed over the past few years, beginning with the unwinding of the “Trump Bump” reflation trade in light of the emerging trade wars. It led to historic extremes in Growth over Value and Large over Small caps, with the broad-market, cap-weighted indexes hitting new highs as investment capital has favored mega-cap, secular-growth Tech and passive, market-cap-weighted ETFs. But today, although I think it is unlikely that investors are giving up on Technology names, their high relative valuations as the economy enters what I see as an early-stage expansionary cycle appear to be opening the door for greater market breadth and some capital rotation into value, cyclicals, and smaller caps.

My expectation is that, as the historic imbalances in Value/Growth and Small/Large performance ratios gradually revert and market leadership broadens, strategic beta ETFs, active selection, and equal weighting should thrive once again. This should be favorable for value, growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP), and quality-oriented strategies like Sabrient’s, although not to the exclusion of secular growth industries. In other words, an investor should be positioned for both cyclical and secular growth.

This is why, rather than continuing to wait around for the value/growth performance gap to converge, we chose to introduce new enhancements to our GARP stock selection process to better balance value-oriented cyclical growers with consistent secular growers while also reducing relative volatility versus the benchmark. Moreover, we have leveraged our full suite of 7 core quantitative models to create 11 new strategic-beta, passive indexes. You will be hearing more about these in the near future.

In this periodic update, I provide a comprehensive market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500 chart, 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 I still have a favorable long-term view on stocks, there will be plenty of volatility ahead. In addition, our sector rankings have a moderately defensive bias (given that the near-term outlook in our fundamentals-based model is muddled and the Outlook scores are tightly bunched), the technical picture looks might be setting up for a bullish reversal, and our sector rotation model sits in a neutral posture. 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.

Read on....

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

Quick assessment:  We have an historic pandemic wreaking havoc upon the global economy, with many US states reversing their reopenings. We just got the worst ever quarterly GDP growth number, and jobless claims are resurging. The Federal Reserve is frantically printing money at breakneck pace to keep our government solvent, with M3 money supply growth having gone parabolic. We have a highly contentious presidential election that many consider to be the most consequential of our lifetimes. There is unyielding and unappeasable social unrest, with nightly rioting in the streets in many of our major cities. Tensions with China are again on the rise, with a new Cold War seemingly at hand. Hurricanes are threatening severe damage in states that are already reeling from a surge in COVID hospitalizations. And yet the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) has burst out to new highs while the S&P 500 (SPY) is within 3% of its all-time high (although, quite notably, both of these cap-weighted indexes are dominated by a handful of mega-cap, disruptive juggernauts).

Of course, stocks have been bolstered by unprecedented congressional fiscal programs and Fed monetary support, including zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), open-ended quantitative easing (QE), de facto yield curve control (YCC), and the buying of corporate bonds (including junk bonds and fixed-income ETFs – and perhaps will include equity ETFs at some point). This de facto “Fed put” has induced a speculative fervor, FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and a TINA (“There is No Alternative!”) mindset for risk assets – particularly given infinitesimal bond yields and a falling dollar. Furthermore, while COVID cases have risen with the economy’s attempt at reopening, the death rate is down 75% since its peak in April, as the people being infected this time around are generally younger and less vulnerable and hospitals are better prepared.

However, we have witnessed extreme bifurcation in this market, with certain secular growth segments performing extremely well and hitting new all-time highs, while other segments are quite literally in a depression. And although the pandemic has exacerbated this situation, it has been developing for a while. As I have often discussed, when the trade war with China escalated in mid-2018, the market became highly bifurcated to seek the perceived safety of the dominant mega caps over smaller caps, growth over value, and secular growth Technology over the neglected cyclical growth sectors like Financials, Industrials, Materials, and Energy. It rotated defensive and risk-off even given the positive economic outlook. This is also when the price of gold began to ascend. Yes, gold has become much more than just a hedge; it now has its own secular growth story (as discussed below), which is why Sabrient’s new Baker’s Dozen for Q3 2020 includes a gold miner.

So, while Sabrient’s flagship Baker’s Dozen portfolios over the past two years have been dominated by smaller caps, the value factor, and cyclical sectors – to their detriment in this highly bifurcated market – you can see that our newer portfolios since the enhancements were implemented have been much more balanced among large, mid, and small caps, with a slight growth bias over value, and a balance between secular growth and cyclical growth companies.

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 remains bullish.

As a reminder, Sabrient has introduced process enhancements to our 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 companies (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-materials. To read on, click here....

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....

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

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....

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…

Pages