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 S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes both hit new all-time highs this week on strong breadth, and all the major indexes appear to be consolidating recent gains before attempting an upside breakout. P/E multiples are expanding, particularly among large caps, as stocks rise despite a temporary slowdown in earnings growth. Why are investors bidding up stocks so aggressively? They have stopped looking over their shoulders with fear and anxiety and are instead focused on the opportunities ahead. And on that horizon, recession fears are falling, optimism regarding a US-China trade resolution is rising, US and Chinese economic data are improving, corporate profits are better than expected, and the Fed has agreed to step out of the way. All of this reduces uncertainty that typically holds back business investment. Stocks valuations are forward looking and a leading economic indicator, so they already seem to be pricing in expectations for stronger economic growth in the Q3, Q4, and 2020.

I said in my commentary last month that I thought we may see upside surprises in Q1 and Q2 earnings announcements, given the low bar that had been reset, and indeed we are seeing higher-than-average earnings beats – including big names like Apple (AAPL) and Facebook (FB), among many others – as half of the S&P 500 companies have reported. Moreover, the recent legal settlement between Apple and Qualcomm (QCOM) was a big positive news story that should now free up both companies to focus on 5G products, including step-function upgrades to smartphones, tablets, and computers, as the critical race with China for 5G dominance kicks into high gear.

Looking ahead, there are plenty of mixed signals for the economy and stocks – and no doubt the pessimists could fill a dossier with plenty of doom and gloom. But I think the pessimism has been a positive in keeping stocks from surging too exuberantly, given all the positive data that the optimists can cite. And on balance, the path of least resistance for both the economy and stocks appears to be upward. I think bond yields will continue to gradually firm up as capital rotates from bonds to equities in an improving growth and inflation environment, stabilizing the dollar (from advancing much further), while reducing the odds of a Fed rate cut in 2019. A healthy economy helps corporate earnings, while a dovish Fed keeps rates low and supports equity valuations. And as the trade war with China comes to resolution, I expect corporations will ramp up capital spending and guidance, enticing idle cash into the market and further fueling bullish conviction. Rather than an impending recession, we may be returning to the type of growth and inflation we enjoyed just prior to the tax reform bill, which would provide a predictable environment for corporate planning and steady (but not exuberant or inflationary) corporate earnings growth.

This should bode well not only for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen portfolios, but also for our other growth and dividend-oriented portfolios, like Sabrient Dividend and Dividend Opportunity, each of which comprises 50 growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) stocks paying an aggregate yield in excess of 4% in what is essentially a growth-and-income strategy, and perhaps our 50-stock Small Cap Growth portfolios. As a reminder, I am always happy to make time for conversations with advisors about market conditions and our portfolios. We are known for our model-driven growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP) approach, and our model is directing us to smaller caps, as many of the high-quality large caps that are expected to generate solid earnings growth already have been “bid up” relative to small caps.

In this periodic update, I provide a market commentary, offer my technical analysis of the S&P 500, review Sabrient’s latest fundamentals-based SectorCast rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. In summary, our sector rankings remain bullish, while the sector rotation model also maintains a bullish posture. Read on…

Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

You might not have realized it given the technical consolidation in March, but Q1 2019 ended up giving the S&P 500 its best Q1 performance of the new millennium, and the best quarterly performance (of any quarter) since Q3 2009. Investors could be forgiven for thinking the powerful rally from Christmas Eve through February was nothing more than a proverbial “dead cat bounce,” given all the negative news about a global economic slowdown, the still-unresolved trade skirmish with China, a worsening Brexit, reductions to US corporate earnings estimates, and the Fed’s sudden about-face on rate hikes. But instead, stocks finished Q1 with a flourish and now appear to be poised to take another run at all-time highs. The S&P 500, for example, entered Q2 less than 4% below its all-time high.

Overall, we still enjoy low unemployment, rising wages, and strong consumer sentiment, as well as a supportive Fed (“Don’t fight the Fed!”) keeping rates “lower for longer” (and by extension, debt servicing expenses and discount rates for equity valuation) and maintaining $1.5 trillion in excess reserves in the financial system. Likewise, the ECB extended its pledge to keep rates at record lows, and China has returned to fiscal and monetary stimulus to revive its flagging growth stemming from the trade war. Meanwhile, Corporate America has been quietly posting record levels of dividends and share buybacks, as well as boosting its capital expenditures – which is likely to accelerate once a trade deal with China is signed (which just became more likely with the apparently-benign findings of the Mueller investigation). In addition, the bellwether semiconductor industry is presenting a more upbeat tone and an upturn from a cyclical bottom (due to temporary oversupply), while crude oil has broken out above overhead resistance at $60.

On the other hand, there is some understandable concern that US corporate earnings forecasts have been revised downward to flat or negative for the first couple of quarters of 2019. Of course, it would be preferable to see a continuation of the solid earnings growth and profitability of last year, but the good news is that revenue growth is projected to remain solid (at least 4.5% for all quarters), and then earnings is expected to return to a growth track in 2H2019. Moreover, the concurrent reduction in the discount rate (due to lower interest rates) is an offsetting factor for stock valuations.

All of this leads me to believe that economic conditions remain generally favorable for stocks. In addition, I think we may see upside surprises in Q1 and Q2 earnings announcements, especially given the low bar that has been reset. But it also may mean that investors will become more selective, with some stocks doing quite well even if the broad market indexes show only modest growth this year.

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 and the technical picture suggests an imminent upside breakout, while the sector rotation model maintains its a bullish posture. Read on…

Q1 turned out to be one for the ages, and after some extreme moves and bouts of volatility, stocks settled down and closed out the quarter with a flourish. After falling more than -10% from the start of the year until February 11, the S&P 500 was up +6.6% in March, up +13% since February 11, and finished Q1 slightly positive at +0.8% -- and it is up +206% since the depths of March 9, 2009.

Two weeks ago, bulls seemed ready to push stocks higher as long-standing support reliably kicked in. But with just one full week to go before the Independence Day holiday week arrives, we will see if bulls can muster some reinforcements and make another run at the May highs. Small caps and NASDAQ are already there, but it is questionable whether those segments can drag along the broader market. To be sure, there is plenty of potential fuel floating around in the form of a friendly Fed and abundant global liquidity seeking the safety and strength of US stocks and bonds.

Last week, stocks cycled bullish yet again. In fact, the S&P 500, NYSE Composite, and NASDAQ each closed at record highs as investors positioned for the heart of earnings season in the wake of strong reports from some of the Tech giants. Notably, Utilities stocks got some renewed traction as yield-starved investors returned to the sector.

Volatility reigned in January on elevated volume as stock investors shifted their focus from global events to U.S. earnings reports, which have ranged from amazing (e.g., Apple) to crushing (e.g., Microsoft). Although the earnings reports have brought plenty of surprises, the volatility is no surprise, as I and many other market commentators predicted for the New Year.

Last week, the S&P 500 put an end to its streak of weekly losses, despite giving back some gains on Friday. Thursday provided the big catalyst, with the ECB’s announcement of its bold new monetary stimulus plan. Investors were cheered and soothed for the moment. And U.S. fundamentals still look strong.

U.S. stocks found support once again last week and rallied on strong volume. Of course, the main catalyst was the FOMC policy statement on Wednesday that maintained its dovish language with a pledge of considerable time before raising the fed funds rate and adding that it would be patient as it begins the process of normalizing monetary policy. The result was yet another classic V-bottom. Ho, ho, ho. Say hello to Santa Claus.

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