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....

The market has provided a nerve-wracking amusement park ride for those with the stomach to hang in there. Of course, the Brexit vote caused a nasty selloff due to the uncertainty of what comes next and the long-term ramifications, but the ensuing recovery was just as swift. At the end of it all, stocks are right back where they have been, mired in the same long-standing trading range but apparently (in my opinion) more inclined to find some sort of upside catalyst.

After a nice little rally from mid-February until early June, investors started taking chips off the table, ostensibly in anticipation of Thursday’s Brexit vote. But Monday brought a fresh hint of optimism that Britain will vote to remain in the union, and the market responded with a healthy, broad-based rally. On balance, there appear to be good tailwinds for U.S. equities over the near term.

The stock market rally off the February lows initially was led by the usual combination of short-covering, oversold bottom-feeding, and speculation (on “junk"). But then market action started showing signs of improving market breadth and a rotation back into higher quality companies -- the types of companies with characteristics Sabrient typically seeks in our GARP (growth at a reasonable price) selection process. It is notable that price action for the S&P 500 was very similar during 2015 to what occurred in 2011.

March Madness is in its full glory with some of the most epic displays of competition, controversy, surprises, and visuals we have ever seen. Oh, and the NCAA basketball tournament is pretty incredible, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the U.S. presidential election. And it has produced some crazy headlines, news clips, and sound bites.

Stocks got a vote of confidence last week, plus some short-covering support (and perhaps some panic buying (for fear of missing out), and now the S&P 500 as of Friday is down only -2.2% YTD, and up +8% since its close on February 12. The Russell 2000 small caps are up +12% over the same timeframe. At the same time, when priced in constant US dollar, we see that Chinese stocks are down -19% YTD, Italy -14%, Germany -8%, Japan -5% (and -10% in yen), while Brazil is up +20%, Colombia +13%, Russia +9%, and Canada +5%.

The Wall of Worry just keeps adding more bricks. Although there has been much talk about the impact of low oil prices on the U.S. high yield debt market and by extension the U.S. banks that did the lending, the bigger worry now is the stability of the European banking system. It is like 2011 all over again. Also, there continue to be signs of an insidious corporate “earnings recession.” Such headlines add to the steady stream of “worry bricks” that have so confounded disciplined fundamental investors for at least the past seven months or so.

Headlines continue to dominate the trading landscape, perpetuating a news-driven trader’s market rather than allowing a healthier valuation-driven investor’s market to return to favor. After all, that’s what stock market investing is supposed to be about. Narrow market breadth and daily stock price gyrations have been driven primarily by three headline generators -- oil price, the Fed’s monetary policy, and China growth. Sure, there were many other important news items, notably the sinister course of Islamic terrorism.

Investors find themselves paralyzed by uncertainty given mixed messages from prominent market experts and talking heads, some professing the sorry and deteriorating state of the global economy, and others cheerleading the continued improvement in the fundamentals, particularly here in the U.S. Indeed, the nearly identical chart of the S&P 500 in 2015 compared to 2011 gave hope to a similarly solid start to 2016 as we saw in 2012, but instead we have seen the worst start to a New Year in history.

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

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