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

So far this year, the Federal Reserve has been removing liquidity from the markets via rate hikes and quantitative tightening, hence the 1H22 crash. But stocks have rallied strongly since the mid-June lows on the growing belief that the Fed will make one more rate hike in September and then pause ahead of the midterm elections – and perhaps even start cutting rates in the New Year. However, many others remain adamant that the Fed is committed to keep raising rates until it is clear that inflation is under control.

I remain of the belief that the hyper-financialization of the US and global economies means that rising rates could cripple debt-addicted businesses and governments (including our own federal government!), and the housing market (which is critical for a healthy consumer) depends upon mortgage rates stabilizing soon. And as the dollar further strengthens (it just went above parity with the Euro!) given the relatively higher interest rates paid by the US, some emerging market economies with dollar-denominated debt may be forced to default. In other words, today’s financial system simply can’t handle much higher rates – which suggests the Fed may already be at or near the elusive “neutral rate” and will ultimately choose to live with elevated inflation.

Earnings season has turned out better than expected, even though profit margins have been challenged by inflationary pressures. Still, at an estimate of about 12.4% (down from a record 12.8% in Q1), profit margins remain well above the 5-year average of 10.8%, according to FactSet. After a long period of low and falling inflation, massive monetary and fiscal stimulus combined with extreme supply chain disruptions (including lockdowns in manufacturing centers, labor shortages, logistics bottlenecks, and elevated energy and labor costs) sent inflation soaring. This cut into profit margins (albeit less than many predicted), as did falling US labor force productivity, which has seen its worst drop so far this year since 1948, according to DataTrek.

But now, inflation is showing signs of retreating due to both demand destruction and mending supply chains (including lower energy, commodity, and shipping costs), as well as a strong dollar. U.S. business inventories are up such that the important inventory/sales ratio is back to near pre-pandemic levels, which is disinflationary. Moreover, productivity-enhancing technologies continue to proliferate along with other disinflationary structural trends, which I believe will reverse the troublesome recent trend in labor productivity and help to contain costs and boost profitability – leading to rising corporate earnings and real wages, which together reflect a healthy and sustainable economy and stock market. All of this is of critical importance because the direction of interest rates and stock prices largely depend upon the direction of inflation and the Fed’s reaction to it.

In addition, positive catalysts like an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine or China’s COVID lockdowns, and/or a Republican sweep in November that brings greater support for domestic oil & gas production, all would be expected to hasten improvement in supply chains and have an immediate impact on inflation. In other words, compared to prior inflationary periods in history, it seems to me that there is a lot more potential on the supply side of the equation to alleviate inflation rather relying primarily on Fed policy to depress the demand side.

So, what comes next? I suggested in my late-June post that there were numerous signs of a market capitulation, and indeed the market has roared back. The big questions are whether we have seen the lows for the year and whether we will see new highs; whether this has been simply a strong bear-market rally or the start of a new bull market. I believe the current pullback is simply a normal reaction to the extremely overbought technical conditions after such a strong (nearly monotonic) rally. It simply ran into a brick wall at the convergence of the May highs and the 200-day moving average, mostly due to buyer exhaustion. In fact, some traders have observed that the S&P 500 historically has never fallen to new lows after retracing more than 50% of its bear-market losses, as it has done. I talk more about this in my full post.

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 quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 5 of the top 6 scorers being cyclical sectors. In addition, the technical picture looks short-term bearish but longer term bullish, and our sector rotation model has taken on a neutral posture (at least until the S&P 500 retakes its 200-day moving average). I also offer up a political comment that you might want to ponder. Read on…

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

Needless to say, investors have been piling out of stocks and bonds and into cash. So much for the 60/40 portfolio approach that expects bonds to hold up when stocks sell off. In fact, few assets have escaped unscathed, leaving the US dollar as the undisputed safe haven in uncertain times like these, along with hard assets like real estate, oil, and commodities. Gold was looking great in early-March but has returned to the flatline YTD. Even cryptocurrencies have tumbled, showing that they are still too early in adoption to serve as an effective “store of value”; instead, they are still leveraged, speculative risk assets that have become highly correlated with aggressive growth stocks.

From its record high in early January to Thursday’s intraday low, the S&P 500 (SPY) was down -19.9% (representing more than $7.5 trillion in value). At its lows on Thursday, the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) was down as much as -29.2% from its November high. Both SPY and QQQ are now struggling to regain critical “round-number” support at 400 and 300, respectively. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) further illustrates the bearishness. After hitting 36.6 on May 2, which is two standard deviations above the low-run average of 20 (i.e., Z-score of 2.0), VIX stayed in the 30’s all last week, which reflects a level of panic. This broad retreat from all asset classes has been driven by fear of loss, capital preservation, deleveraging/margin calls among institutional traders, and the appeal of a strong dollar (which hit a 20-year high last week). The move to cash caused bond yields to soar and P/E ratios to crater. Also, there has been a striking preference for dividend-paying stocks over bonds.

It appears I underestimated the potential for market carnage, having expected that the March lows would hold as support and the “taper tantrum” surge in bond yields would soon top out once the 10-year yield rose much above 2%, due to a combination of US dollar strength as the global safe haven, lower comparable rates in most developed markets, moderating inflation, leverage and “financialization” of the global economy, and regulatory or investor mandates for holding “cash or cash equivalents.” There are some signs that surging yields and the stock/bond correlation may be petering out, as last week was characterized by stock/bond divergence. After spiking as high as 3.16% last Monday, the 10-year yield fell back to close Thursday at 2.82% (i.e., bonds attracted capital) while stocks continued to sell off, and then Friday was the opposite, as capital rolled out of bonds into stocks.

Although nominal yields may be finally ready to recede a bit, real yields (net of inflation) are still solidly negative. Although inflation may be peaking, the moderation I have expected has not commenced – at least not yet – as supply chains have been slow to mend given new challenges from escalation in Russian’s war on Ukraine, China’s growth slowdown and prolonged zero-tolerance COVID lockdowns in important manufacturing cities, and various other hindrances. Indeed, the risks to my expectations that I outlined in earlier blog posts and in my Baker’s Dozen slide deck have largely come to pass, as I discuss in this post.

Nevertheless, I still expect a sequence of events over the coming months as follows: more hawkish Fed rhetoric and some tightening actions, modest demand destruction, a temporary economic slowdown, and more stock market volatility … followed by mending supply chains, some catch-up of supply to slowing demand, moderating inflationary pressures, bonds continuing to find buyers (and yields falling), and a dovish turn from the Fed – plus (if necessary) a return of the “Fed put” to support markets. Time will tell. Too bad the Fed can’t turn its printing press into a 3D printer and start printing supply chain parts, semiconductors, oil, commodities, fertilizers, and all the other goods in short supply – that would be far more helpful than the limited tools they have at hand.

Although both consumer and investor sentiment are quite weak (as I discuss below), and there has been no sustained dip-buying since March, history tells us bear markets do not start when everyone is already bearish, so perhaps Friday’s strong rally is the start of something better. Perhaps the near -20% decline in the S&P 500 is all it took to wring out the excesses, with Thursday closing at a forward P/E of 16.8x ahead of Friday’s rally, which is the lowest since April 2020. So, the S&P 500 is trading at a steep 22% discount compared to 21.7x at the start of the year, a 5-year average of 18.6x, and a 20-year post-Internet-bubble average of 15.5x (according to FactSet), Moreover, the Invesco S&P 500 Equal Weight (RSP) is at 15.0x compared to 17.7x at the beginning of the year, and the S&P 600 small cap forward P/E fell to just 11.6x (versus 15.2x at start of the year).

But from an equity risk premium standpoint, which measures the spread between equity earnings yields and long-term bond yields, stock valuations have actually worsened relative to bonds. So, although this may well be a great buying opportunity, especially given the solid earnings growth outlook, the big wildcards for stocks are whether current estimates are too optimistic and whether bond yields continue to recede (or at least hold steady).

Recall Christmas Eve of 2018, when the market capitulated to peak-to-trough selloff of -19.7% – again, just shy of the 20% bear market threshold – before recovering in dazzling fashion. The drivers today are not the same, so it’s not necessarily and indicator of what comes next. Regardless, you should be prepared for continued volatility ahead.

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 quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a bullish bias, with 5 of the top 6 scorers being cyclical sectors, Energy, Basic Materials, Financials, Industrials, and Technology. In addition, the near-term technical picture looks bullish for at least a solid bounce, if not more (although the mid-to-long-term is still murky, subject to news developments), but our sector rotation model switched to a defensive posture last month when technical conditions weakened.

Regardless, Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen, Dividend, and Small Cap Growth portfolios leverage our enhanced Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP) selection approach (which combines Quality, Value, and Growth factors) to provide exposure to both the longer-term secular growth trends and the shorter-term cyclical growth and value-based opportunities – without sacrificing strong performance potential. Sabrient’s latest Q2 2022 Baker’s Dozen launched on 4/20/2022 and is off to a good start versus the benchmark, led by three Energy firms, with a diverse mix across market caps and industries. In addition, the live Dividend and Small Cap Growth portfolios have performed quite well relative to their benchmarks. Read on....

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

I mentioned early last month that it had been quite a long stretch since the market had seen even a -5% correction, but we finally got it, with the S&P 500 falling -6% (intraday). Although many commentators (including myself) felt we needed even more of a correction in the major market indexes to really wring out some excesses and the “weak” holders, the underlying internals tell a different story of a much harsher “stealth” correction. Alpine Macro reported that 90% of the stocks in the S&P 500 have fallen at least -10% from their recent highs, with an average decline of -17% … and -38% in the Nasdaq Composite! A casual observer might not have noticed this since these individual stock corrections didn’t occur all at once, but rather in more of a rolling fashion as various industries fell in and out of favor at different times. The masking by the major indexes of these underlying corrections is the magic of passive index investing, as the diversification limits downside (albeit upside as well, of course).

Moreover, while the cap-weighted indexes have surged to new highs as recently as early September, the equal-weight and small-cap indexes have been trading sideways since March. Regardless, investors took the September correction as a buyable dip. Last Thursday-Friday provided two bullish breakout gaps, and in fact Thursday was the strongest day for the S&P 500 since March. Looking ahead, the question is whether the rapid 2-day surge is sustainable, or if there is some technical consolidation (aka “backing & filling”) to be done – or perhaps something much worse, as several prominent Wall Street veterans have predicted.

No doubt, economic challenges abound. Energy prices are surging. COVID persists in much of the world, especially emerging markets, which is at least partly responsible for the persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages in the manufacturing and transportation segments that are proving slow to resolve. Retail and restaurant industries continue to have difficulty filling jobs (and they are seeing a high rate of “quits”). And now we are seeing fiscal and monetary tightening in China – likely leading to lower GDP growth (if not a “hard landing”) – due to long-festering financial leverage and “shadow banking” finally coming to roost (witness the Evergrande property development debacle, and now it appears developer Modern Land is next). Indeed, we see many similarities with Q4 2018 (including the S&P 500 price chart), when the market endured a nasty selloff. Investors should be mindful of these risks. So, although TINA-minded (“there is no alternative”) equity investors continue to pour money into stocks, and an exuberant FOMO (“fear of missing out”) melt-up is possible going into year-end, there likely will be elevated volatility.

I write in greater depth about oil prices and China’s troubles in this article.

Q3 earnings reporting season is now underway, and I expect the number and magnitude of upside surprises and forward guidance will determine the next directional trend. In any case, we continue to like the Energy sector, even after its recent run (in fact, you will find a couple of oil exploration & production firms in the new Baker’s Dozen coming out this week). Wall Street estimates in the sector still appear to be too low based on projected prices, and the dividend yields are attractive. Sabrient’s SectorCast ETF rankings continue to show Energy at or near the top. Actually, from a broader perspective, the “deep cyclical” sectors (especially Energy, Materials, and Industrials), with their more volatile revenue streams but relatively fixed (albeit high) cost structure (and high earnings leverage), remain well positioned to show strong sales growth and, by extension, upside earnings surprises.

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 quant rankings of the ten US business sectors, and serve up some actionable ETF trading ideas. To summarize, our SectorCast rankings reflect a solidly bullish bias; the technical picture is somewhat mixed; and our sector rotation model has regained its bullish posture (pending technical confirmation early this week).

By the way, Sabrient’s new Q4 2021 Baker’s Dozen launches on Wednesday, 10/20/21. As a reminder, our newer portfolios – including Baker’s Dozen, Small Cap Growth, Dividend, and Forward Looking Value – all reflect the process enhancements we implemented in December 2019 in response to the unprecedented market distortions that created historic Value/Growth and Small/Large performance divergences. Our enhanced growth-at-a-reasonable-price (aka GARP) approach combines value, growth, and quality factors while seeking a balance between secular growth and cyclical/value stocks and across market caps.  Read on....

By Byron MacLeod, CFA
Associate Director of Research, Gradient Analytics, LLC

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” – Abraham Lincoln

We at Gradient Analytics are accounting experts. We evaluate companies for earnings sustainability, financial engineering, and accounting mismanagement. Unfortunately, many investors and portfolio managers may be unaware of the variety of levers enabling managers to aggressively recognize revenue, temporarily boost earnings, overstate assets, hide liabilities, or grow through acquisitions. Unaware investors can suddenly find that their supposedly “safe” investments have turned sour on them.

By monitoring the true quality of earnings, it becomes easier to judge a company’s true financial health.

The “Trump Bump” & Rising Correlations

Though the market appears to be recently dominated by Trump’s potential impact on the American economy, earnings quality trends continue to be relevant to stock prices.    Read more

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