Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The market this year has been oscillating between fear and optimism, risk-off and risk-on. Until 8/27/19, risk-off defensive sentiment was winning, but since that date a risk-on sentiment has taken hold, and the historic divergence favoring secular growth, low-volatility and momentum factors, defensive sectors, and large caps (i.e., late-stage economic cycle behavior) over cyclical growth, value and high-beta factors, cyclical sectors, and small-mid caps (i.e., expansionary cycle behavior) continues to reverse, as fickle investors have become optimistic about at least a partial resolution to the trade war (including the lifting of tariffs), an improving outlook for 2020-21 corporate earnings, and resurgent capital investment. Investors have moved from displaying tepid and fleeting signs of risk-on rotation to full-blown bullish enthusiasm and reluctance to sell in a fear of missing out (FOMO), even though the short-term technical picture has become overbought.

The late-August risk-on rotation came in the nick of time. Last year at that same time of the year, the S&P 500 was marching higher until peaking on 9/20/18, but it was doing so on the backs of defensive sectors along with secular-growth Tech mega-caps, and I was opining at the time that the rally would fizzle if there wasn’t some rotation into the risk-on cyclicals and small-mid caps – which as you know didn’t happen, leading to the Q4 selloff. But, happily, this year has played out quite differently.

Nevertheless, a lot of successful fundamentals-based strategies (including powerhouse quant firm AQR Capital, discussed below) really took it on the chin for the roughly 14-18 months preceding 8/27, ostensibly due to fear that a “late-cycle” economy was on the verge of recession. And indeed it was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the dominos seemed to be falling one by one:  escalating trade wars creating uncertainty leading to a global manufacturing slowdown, a hold-off in corporate capital spending, and negative interest rates overseas, which pushed global capital into US debt, which temporarily inverted the yield curve, which brought out the doomsaying pundits – all of which was beginning to negatively impact the previously-bulletproof consumer sentiment that had been carrying US GDP growth.

But it was all based on false pretenses, in my view, and investors now seem to be convinced that the bottom is in for the industrial cycle and the corporate earnings recession, and particularly for prices of value/cyclical stocks with solid fundamentals. Results haven’t been as bad as feared, and some of the macro clouds are parting. Ultimately, stock prices are driven by earnings expectations and interest rates (for discounted cash flow valuation), and as the external obstacles hindering the free market are lessened or removed, the outlook brightens. And when investors focus on the fundamentals rather than the latest tweet, CNN headline, or single economic number taken out of context, it bodes well for Sabrient’s value-tilted GARP (growth at a reasonable price) portfolios, which of course includes our flagship Baker’s Dozen.

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 neutral to me, while the longer-term technical picture remains bullish, and our sector rotation model retains a solidly bullish posture. Read on….

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

The early weeks of September were looking so promising as a brief but impressive surge gave hope of a revival in the long-neglected market segments. This sustained risk-on rotation seemed to be marking a bullish change of market character from the risk-off defensive sentiment that I have been writing about extensively for the past 18 months (ever since the China trade war escalated in June of last year), specifically the massive divergence favoring the low-volatility, growth, and momentum factors, defensive sectors, and large caps over the value and high-beta factors, cyclical sectors, and small-mid caps. But then, for the next few weeks, those risk-on market segments were once again lagging, as fickle investors keep returning to stocks displaying stronger balance sheets, high dividend yields, and/or secular growth stories – in spite of high valuations – rather than the more speculative cyclical growth stocks selling at attractive valuations that typically lead an upside breakout. It appeared that the fledging bullish rotation was caput – or perhaps not. Suddenly, there have been positive developments in the trade negotiations and in the Brexit saga, and the past several days have brought back renewed signs of a pent-up desire to take stocks higher. Signs of a better than expected Q3 earnings season may be the final catalyst.

Of course, although YTD returns in US stocks are impressive, if you look back over the past year to when the major indexes peaked in 3Q2018, stocks really have made very little headway. As of the close on Tuesday, the S&P 500 is +21.3% YTD but only +1.7% since its 2018 high on 9/20/18, while the more speculative Russell 2000 small cap index is still more than -12% below its all-time high from over a year ago – way back on 8/31/18. The biggest difference this year versus the 9/20/18 high for the S&P 500 is that Treasury yields have fallen (from 3.1% to about 1.8% on the 10-year), which has allowed for P/E multiple expansion (from 16.8x last year to 17.2x today) despite the earnings recession of the past three quarters.

I suppose one can hardly blame investors for their trepidation at this moment in time, given the overabundance of extremely negative news, which only expanded during Q3. We have an intractable trade war with the world’s second largest economy, intensifying protectionist rhetoric, North Korean missiles, rising tensions with Iran, a brewing war in northern Syria, drone attacks in Saudi Arabia, riots in Hong Kong, China’s feud with the NBA (and the animated TV show South Park!), a slowing global economy, a US corporate earnings recession, flattish yield curve, surging US dollar, low-yield/high-volatility Treasury bonds, falling consumer sentiment, Business Roundtable’s CEO Economic Outlook Index down six consecutive quarters (as hiring is strong but capital investment and sales expectations lag), the steepest contraction in the manufacturing sector since June 2009, UAW strike against General Motors (GM), looming Hard Brexit, top-polling Democratic candidates espousing MMT and business-unfriendly socialist policies, and yet another desperate attempt to impeach the President before the next election. Need I go on?

But somehow the US economy has maintained positive traction while stocks have held their ground given a persistent economic expansion, supported by dovish central banks around the world and a rock-solid US consumer. Indeed, the very fact that stocks have held up amid such a negative macro environment suggests to me that investors are just itching for a reason to rotate cash and pricey bonds into stocks – perhaps in a big way. And from a technical standpoint, such a long sideways consolidation over the past several months suggests that an upside breakout may be imminent – and likely led by those risk-on market segments. Notably, every such bullish rotation has helped Sabrient’s various growth-at-a-reasonable-price (GARP) portfolios gain ground against the SPY benchmark, so a sustained rotation would be quite welcome!

And some good news this week is offering some hope, with strong Q3 earnings reports from JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and UnitedHealth (UNH), a resumption in trade talks, progress in the GM strike, and a possible breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations. Moreover, the highly cyclical semiconductor and homebuilding industries are on fire, with iShares PHLX Semiconductor ETF (SOXX) setting a new high, and Treasury yields are creeping up.

By the way, our Sabrient Select SMA portfolio (separately managed account wrapper) is available to financial advisors as an alternative investment opportunity. The portfolio actively manages 25-35 stocks based on our “quantamental” GARP strategy. Let me know if you’d like more information.

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 now look neutral to me, while the technical picture remains bullish, and our sector rotation model retains a solidly bullish posture. Read on…