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

StocksThe S&P 500 fell more than 5% over the first three weeks of April (it’s largest pullback since last October). Bonds also took it on the chin (as they have all year), with the 2-year Treasury yield briefly eclipsing 5%, which is my “line in the sand” for a healthy stock market. But the weakness proved short-lived, and both stocks and bonds have regained some footing to start May. During the drawdown, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), aka fear index, awakened from its slumber but never closed above the 20 “panic threshold.”

In a return to the “bad news is good news” market action of yore, stocks saw fit to gap up last Friday as the US dollar weakened and stocks, bonds, and crypto all caught a nice bid (with the 10-year yield falling 30 bps)—on the expectation of sooner rate cuts following the FOMC’s softer tone on monetary policy and a surprisingly weak jobs report. So, the cumulative “lag effects” of quantitative tightening (QT), falling money supply, and elevated interest rates finally may be coming to roost. In fact, Fed chairman Jay Powell suggested that any sign of weakening in inflation or employment could lead to the highly anticipated rate cuts—leaving the impression that the Fed truly wants to start cutting rates.

But I can’t help but wonder whether that 5% pullback was it for the Q2 market correction I have been predicting. It sure doesn’t seem like we got enough cleansing of the momentum algo traders and other profit-protecting “weak holders.” But no one wants to miss out on the rate-cut rally. Despite the sudden surge in optimism about rates, inflation continues to be the proverbial “fly in the ointment” for rate cuts, I believe we are likely to see more volatility before the Fed officially pivots dovish, although we may simply remain in a trading range with downside limited to 5,000 on the S&P 500. Next week’s CPI/PPI readings will be crucial given that recent inflation metrics have ticked up. But I don’t expect any unwelcome inflationary surprises, as I discuss in today’s post.

The Fed faces conflicting signals from inflation, unemployment, jobs growth, GDP, and the international impact of the strong dollar on the global economy. Its preferred metric of Core PCE released on 4/26 stayed elevated in March at 2.82% YoY and a disheartening 3-month (MoM) rolling average of 4.43%. But has been driven mostly by shelter costs and services. But fear not, as I see a light at the end of the tunnel and a resumption of the previous disinflationary trend. Following one-time, early-year repricing, services prices should stabilize as wage growth recedes while labor demand slows, labor supply rises, productivity improves, and real disposable household income falls below even the lowest pre-pandemic levels. (Yesterday, the San Francisco Fed reported that American households have officially exhausted all $2.1 trillion of their pandemic-era excess savings.) Also, rental home inflation is receding in real time (even though the 6-month-lagged CPI metrics don’t yet reflect it), and inflation expectations of consumers and businesses are falling. Moreover, Q1 saw a surge in oil prices that has since receded, the Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI) fell again in April. So, I think we will see Core PCE below 2.5% this summer. The Fed itself noted in its minutes that supply and demand are in better balance, which should allow for more disinflation. Indeed, when asked about the threat of a 1970’s-style “stagflation, the Fed chairman said, "I don't see the stag or the 'flation."

The Treasury's quarterly refunding announcement shows it plans to borrow $243 billion in Q2, which is $41 billion more than previously projected, to continue financing our huge and growing budget deficit. Jay Powell has said that the fiscal side of the equation needs to be addressed as it counters much of the monetary policy tightening. It seems evident to me that government deficit spending has been a key driver of GDP growth and employment—as well as inflation.

And as if that all isn’t enough, some commentators think the world is teetering on the brink of a currency crisis, starting with the collapse of the Japanese yen. Indeed, Japan is in quite the pickle with the yen and interest rates, which is a major concern for global financial stability given its importance in the global economy. Escalating geopolitical tensions and ongoing wars are also worrisome as they create death, destruction, instability, misuse of resources, and inflationary pressures on energy, food, and transportation prices.

All of this supports the case for why the Fed would want to start cutting rates (likely by mid-year), which I have touched on many times in the past. Reasons include averting a renewed banking crisis, fallout from the commercial real estate depression, distortion in the critical housing market, the mirage of strong jobs growth (which has been propped up by government spending and hiring), and of course the growing federal debt, debt service, and debt/GDP ratio (with 1/3 of the annual budget now earmarked to pay interest on the massive and rapidly growing $34 trillion of federal debt), which threatens to choke off economic growth. In addition, easing financial conditions would help highly indebted businesses, consumers, and our trading partners (particularly emerging markets). Indeed, yet another reason the Fed is prepared to cut is that other central banks are cutting, which would strengthen the dollar even further if the Fed stood pat. And then we have Japan, which needs to raise rates to support the yen but doesn’t really want to, given its huge debt load; it would be better for it if our Federal Reserve cuts instead.

So, the Fed is at a crossroads. I still believe a terminal fed funds rate of 3.0% would be appropriate so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield (i.e., above the inflation rate) so they don’t have to take on undue risk to achieve meaningful income. As it stands today, assuming inflation has already (in real time, not lagged) resumed its downtrend, I think the real yield is too high—i.e., great for savers but bad for borrowers.

Nevertheless, I still believe any significant pullback in stocks would be a buying opportunity. As several commentators have opined, the US is the “best house in a lousy (global) neighborhood.” In an investment landscape fraught with danger nearly everywhere you turn, I see US stocks and bonds as the place to be invested, particularly as the Fed and other central banks restore rising liquidity (Infrastructure Capital Advisors predicts a $2 trillion global injection to make rates across the yield curve go down). But I also believe they should be hedged with gold and crypto. According to Michael Howell of CrossBorder Capital, a strong dollar will still devalue relative to gold and bitcoin when liquidity rises, and gold price tends to rise faster than the rise in liquidity—and bitcoin has an even higher beta to liquidity. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on 2/24/2022 and was sanctioned with confiscation of $300 billion in reserves, central banks around the world have been stocking up, surging gold by roughly +21% and bitcoin +60%, compared to the S&P 500 +18% (price return). During Q1, institutions bought a record 290 tons, according to the World Gold Council (WGC).

With several trillions of dollars still sitting defensively in money market funds, we are nowhere near “irrational exuberance” despite somewhat elevated valuations and the ongoing buzz around Gen AI. At the core of an equity portfolio should be US large cap exposure (despite its significantly higher P/E versus small-mid-cap). But despite strong earnings momentum of the mega-cap Tech darlings (which are largely driven by robust share buyback programs), I believe there are better investment opportunities in many under-the-radar names (across large, mid, and small caps), including among cyclicals like homebuilders, energy, financials, and REITs.

So, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the latest Q2 2024 Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance) which launched on 4/19, Small Cap Growth 42 (an alpha-seeking alternative to the Russell 2000 index) which just launched last week on 5/1, and Dividend 47 (a growth plus income strategy) paying a 3.8% current yield. Notably, Dividend 47’s top performer so far is Southern Copper (SCCO), which is riding the copper price surge and, by the way, is headquartered in Phoenix—just 10 miles from my home in Scottsdale.

I talk more about inflation, federal debt, the yen, and oil markets in today’s post. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continue to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model, and several top-ranked ETF ideas. And in my Final Comments section, I have a few things to say about the latest lunacy on our college campuses (Can this current crop of graduates ever be allowed a proper ceremony?).

Click here to continue reading my full commentary. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients. You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies (Growth, Value, Dividend, and Small Cap). It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights for investors by unveiling his secrets to identifying high-potential stocks. I will send out an email once it becomes available on Amazon.

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

Stocks are pulling back a bit to start Q2 but have shown remarkable resilience throughout their nearly 6-month (and nearly straight-up) bull run, with the S&P 500 (SPY) finding consistent support at its 20-day simple moving average on several occasions, while the slightly more volatile Nasdaq 100 (QQQ, beta=1.18) has found solid support at the 40-day moving average. Moreover, the Relative Strength Index (RSI) on SPY has reliably bounced off the neutral line (50) on every test. And it all happened again early last week—at least until Thursday afternoon when Minnesota Fed president Neel Kashkari ventured off Fed chairman Jerome Powell’s carefully crafted script to say they may not cut interest rates at all this year if inflation’s decline continues to stall.

Before that moment, Powell had been keeping his governors in line and saying all the right things about imminent rate cuts in the pipeline (albeit making sure not to provide a firm timetable). And the pervasive Goldilocks outlook has lifted stocks to uncomfortably elevated valuations (current forward P/E for SPY of 21.3x and for QQQ of 26.6x) that suggest a need for and expectation of both solid earnings growth in 2024-25 and falling interest rates (as the discount rate on future earnings streams).

Up until Kashkari’s unexpected remarks, it appeared that once again—and in fact every time since last November, when the indexes look extremely overbought and in need of a significant pullback (as typically happens periodically in any given year) a strong bid arrived like the Lone Ranger to save the day and push stocks higher. It has burned bears and kept swing traders who like to “fade” spikes hesitant. Not surprisingly, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has seen only a couple of brief excursions above the 15 line and has been nowhere near the 20 “fear threshold.”

But after his remarks, the market finished Thursday with a huge, high-volume, “bearish engulfing candle,” and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) surged 20% intraday (closing at 16.35), and all those previously reliable support levels gave way—until the very next day. On Friday, they quickly recovered those support levels following the apparently strong March jobs report, finishing with a “bullish harami” pattern (that typically leads to some further upside). As you recall from my March post, I have felt a correction is overdue—and the longer it holds off, the more severe the fall. The question now is whether SPY and QQQ are destined for an upside breakout to new highs and a continuation of the bull run…or for a downside breakdown to test lower levels of support. I believe we may get a bit of a bounce here, but more downside is likely before an eventual resumption in the bull run to new highs.

Regardless, the persistent strength in stocks has been impressive, particularly in the face of the Fed's quantitative tightening actions (balance sheet reduction and “higher for longer” rates)—along with the so-called “bond vigilantes” who protest excessive spending by not buying Treasuries and thus further driving up rates—that have created the highest risk-free real (net of inflation) interest rates since the Financial Crisis and reduced its balance sheet by $1.5 trillion from its April 2022 peak to its lowest level since February 2021.

But (surprise!) gold has been performing even better than either SPY or QQQ (as have cryptocurrencies, aka “digital gold”). Gold’s appeal to investors is likely in anticipation of continued buying by central banks around the world as a hedge against things like growing geopolitical turmoil, our government’s increasingly aggressive “weaponization” of the dollar to punish rogue nations, and rising global debt leading to a credit or currency crisis.

To be sure, solid GDP and employment data, a stall in inflation’s decline, rosy earnings growth forecasts for 2024-2025, tight investment-grade and high-yield credit spreads, low volatility in interest rates, a low VIX, and a sudden recovery in manufacturing activity, with the ISM Manufacturing Index having finally eclipsed the 50 threshold (indicating expansion) after 16 straight months below 50 (contraction), all beg the question of why the Fed would see a need to cut rates. As Powell himself said the other day, we have seen an unusual and unforeseen occurrence in which “productive capacity is going up even more than actual output. The economy actually isn't becoming tighter; it's actually becoming a little looser…” Indeed, the “higher for longer” mantra might seem more appropriate, at least on the surface.

Yet despite the rosy outlook and investor confidence/complacency (and Kashkari’s latest comments), the Fed continues to suggest there will be multiple rate cuts this year, as if it knows of something lurking in the shadows. And that something might be a credit crisis stemming from our hyper-financialized/ultra-leveraged economy—and the growing debt burden across government, small business, and consumers being refinanced at today’s high interest rates. We are all aware of the outright depression in commercial real estate today; perhaps there is a contagion lurking. Or perhaps it’s the scary projection for the federal debt/GDP ratio (rising from 97% of GDP last year to 166% by 2054). Or perhaps it is a brewing currency crisis with the Japanese yen, given its historic weakness that may lead the BOJ to hike rates to stem capital outflows. Or perhaps it’s because they follow the real-time “Truflation” estimate, which indicates a year-over-year inflation rate of 1.82% in contrast to the latest headline CPI print of 3.2% and headline PCE of 2.5%.

I discuss all these topics in today’s post, as well as the relative performance of various equity and asset-class ETFs that suggests a nascent market rotation and broadening may be underway, which is a great climate for active managers. Likewise, Michael Wilson of Morgan Stanley asserts that the stock rally since last fall has been driven more by loose financial conditions, extreme liquidity (leverage), and multiple expansion (rather than earnings growth), but now it's time to be a stock picker rather than a passive index investor.

So, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance), Small Cap Growth (an alpha-seeking alternative to the Russell 2000 index), and Dividend (a growth plus income strategy paying a 3.74% current yield). The latest Q1 2024 Baker’s Dozen launched on 1/19/24 and remains in primary market until 4/18/24 (and is already well ahead of SPY).

Click here to continue reading my full commentary in which I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continue to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so today), and several top-ranked ETF ideas. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies (Growth, Value, Dividend, and Small Cap). It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights for investors by unveiling his secrets to identifying high-potential stocks. Please let me know if you’d like to be an early book reviewer!

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

The US stock market has gone essentially straight up since late October. While the small-cap Russell 2000 (IWM) surged into year-end 2023, pulled back, and is just now retesting its December high, the mega-cap dominated S&P 500 (SPY) and Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) have both surged almost uninterruptedly to new high after new high. They have both briefly paused a few times to test support at the 20-day moving average but have not come close to testing the 50-day, while the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has closed below 16 the entire time. History says this can’t go on much longer.

I think this market rally is getting out over its skis and needs at least a breather if not a significant pullback to cleanse itself of the momentum “algo” traders and FOMO investors and wring out some of this AI-led bullish exuberance. That’s not say we are imminently due for a harsh correction back down to prior support for SPY around 465 (-9%) or to fill the gap on the daily chart from November 13 at 440 (-14%). But it will eventually retest its 200-day moving average, which sits around 450 today but is steadily rising, so perhaps the aforementioned 465 level is good target for a pullback and convergence with the 200-day MA.

Regardless, I believe that short of a Black Swan event (like a terrorist strike on US soil or another credit crisis) that puts us into recession, stocks would recover from any correction to achieve new highs by year-end. As famed economist Ed Yardeni says, “Over the years, we’ve learned that credit crunches, energy crises, and pandemic lockdowns cause recessions. We are looking out for such calamities. But for now, the outlook is for a continuation of the expansion.”

As for bonds, they have been weak so far this year (which pushes up interest rates), primarily because of the “bond vigilantes” who are not happy with the massive issuances of Treasuries and rapidly rising government debt and debt financing costs. So, stocks have been rising even as interest rates rise (and bonds fall), but bonds may soon catch a bid on any kind of talk about fiscal responsibility from our leaders (like Fed chair Powell has intimated).

So, I suspect both stocks and bonds will see more upside this year. In fact, the scene might follow a similar script to last year in which the market was strong overall but endured two significant pullbacks along the way—one in H1 and a lengthier one in H2, perhaps during the summer months or the runup to the election.

Moreover, I don’t believe stocks are in or near a “bubble.” You might be hearing in the media the adage, “If it’s a double, it’s a bubble.” Over the past 16 months since its October 2022 low, the market-leading Nasdaq 100 (QQQ) has returned 72% and the SPY is up 47%. Furthermore, DataTrek showed that, looking back from 1970, whenever the S&P has doubled in any 3-year rolling period (or less), or when the Nasdaq Composite has doubled in any 1-year rolling period, stock prices decline soon after. Well, the rolling 3-year return for the S&P 500 today is at about 30%. And the high-flying Nasdaq 100 is up about 50% over the past year. So, there appears to be no bubble by any of these metrics, and the odds of a harsh correction remain low, particularly in a presidential election year, with the added stimulus of at least a few rate cuts expected during the year.

Meanwhile, while bitcoin and Ethereum prices have surged over the past few weeks to much fanfare, oil has been quietly creeping higher, and gold and silver have suddenly caught a strong bid. As you might recall, I said in my December and January blog posts, “I like the prospects for longer-duration bonds, commodities, oil, gold, and uranium miner stocks this year, as well as physical gold, silver, and cryptocurrency as stores of value.”  I still believe all of these are good holds for 2024. The approval of 11 “spot” ETFs for bitcoin—rather than futures-based or ETNs—was a big win for all cryptocurrencies, and in fact, I hear that major institutions like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Charles Schwab (not to mention all the discount brokers) now offer the Bitcoin ETFs—like Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) and iShares Bitcoin Trust (IBIT), for example—to their wealth management clients. And they have just begun the process of allocating to those portfolios (perhaps up to the range of 2-5%).

As for inflation, I opined last month that inflation already might be below the 2% target such that the Fed can begin normalizing fed funds rate toward a “neutral rate” of around 3.0% nominal (i.e., 2% target inflation plus 1.0% r-star) versus 5.25–5.50% today. But then the January inflation data showed an uptick. Nonetheless, I think it will prove temporary, and the disinflationary trends will continue to manifest. I discuss this in greater length in today’s post. Also, I still believe a terminal fed funds rate of 3.0% would be appropriate so that borrowers can handle the debt burden while fixed income investors can receive a reasonable real yield (i.e., above the inflation rate) so they don’t have to take on undue risk to achieve meaningful income. As it stands today, I think the real yield is too high—i.e., great for savers but bad for borrowers.

Finally, if you are looking outside of the cap-weighted passive indexes (and their elevated valuation multiples) for investment opportunities, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance), Small Cap Growth (an alpha-seeking alternative to a passive index like the Russell 2000), and Dividend (a growth plus income strategy paying a 3.8% current yield). The new Q1 2024 Baker’s Dozen just launched on 1/19/24.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary in which I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which continues to be led by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so today), and several top-ranked ETF ideas. Or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). Please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com.

By the way, Sabrient founder David Brown has a new book coming out soon through Amazon.com in which he describes his approach to quantitative modeling and stock selection for four distinct investing strategies. It is concise, informative, and a quick read. David has written a number of books through the years, and in this new one he provides valuable insights geared mostly to individual investors, although financial advisors may find it valuable as well. I will provide more information as we get closer to launch. In the meantime, as a loyal subscriber, please let me know if you’d like to be an early book reviewer!

  Scott Martindaleby Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

To be sure, 2023 was another eventful year (they just keep coming at us, don’t they?), ranging from escalating hot wars to a regional banking crisis, rising interest rates, falling inflation, a dire migration crisis, and an AI-driven frenzy in the so-called “Magnificent Seven” (MAG7) corporate titans— Meta Platforms (META, ne: FB), Apple (AAPL), Nvidia (NVDA), Alphabet (GOOGL), Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon (AMZN), and Tesla (TSLA), aka “FANGMAT,” as I used to call them—which as a group contributed roughly 60% to the S&P 500’s +26.2% gain in 2023. Their hyper-growth means that they now make up roughly 30% of the index. Nvidia (NVDA), whose semiconductors have become essential for AI applications, was the best performer for the full year at +239%.

Small caps finally found some life late in the year, with the Russell 2000 small cap index essentially keeping up with the S&P 500 starting in May and significantly outperforming in December. Bonds also made a big comeback late in the year on Fed-pivot optimism, which allowed the traditional 60/40 stock/bond allocation portfolio to enjoy a healthy return, which I’m sure made a lot of investors and their advisors happy given that 60/40 had been almost left for dead. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has been below 20 for virtually the entirety of 2023 and as low as 11.81 in December, closing the year at 12.45. Also, as a breadth indicator, the percentage of stocks that finished the year above their 200-day moving average hit 75%, which is bullish.

Nevertheless, the Russell 2000 (+16.8%) and the equal-weight version of the S&P 500 (+13.7%) were up much less for the full year than the cap-weighted S&P 500 (+26.2%) and Nasdaq 100 (+54.9%). In fact, 72% of the stocks in the S&P 500 underperformed the overall index for the full year, illustrating that despite the improvement in breadth during the second half of the year, it could not overcome the huge outperformance of a small cohort of dominant companies. This suggests that either the market is set up for a fall in 2024 (as those dominant companies sell off) …or we’ll get a continued broadening into other high-quality companies, including mid- and small caps. I think it will be the latter—but not without some volatility and a significant pullback. Indeed, despite signaling investor confidence and complacency by remaining low for a long stretch, the VIX appears to be ripe for a spike in volatility. I think we could see a significant market correction during H1 (perhaps to as low as 4,500 on the S&P 500) even if, as I expect, real GDP growth slows but remains positive and disinflationary trends continue, supporting real wage growth and real yields—before seeing an H2 rally into (and hopefully following) the November election. And don’t forget there’s a potential tsunami of cash from the $6 trillion held in money market funds, as interest rates fall, much of it may well find its way into stocks.

Not surprisingly, last year ended with some tax-loss harvesting (selling of big losers), and then the new year began last week with some tax-gain harvesting—i.e., selling of big winners to defer tax liability on capital gains into 2024. There also has been some notable rotation of capital last week into 2023’s worst performers that still display strong earnings growth potential and solid prospects for a rebound this year, such as those in the Healthcare, Utilities, and Consumer Staples sectors. Homebuilders remain near all-time highs and should continue to find a tailwind as a more dovish Fed means lower mortgage rates and a possible housing boom. Energy might be interesting as well, particularly LPG shipping (a big winner last year) due to its growing demand in Europe and Asia.

As I discussed in my December commentary, I also like the prospects for longer-duration bonds, commodities, oil, gold, and uranium miner stocks this year, as well as physical gold, silver, and cryptocurrency as stores of value in an uncertain macro climate. Also, while Chinese stocks are near 4-year lows, many other international markets are near multi-year highs (including Europe and Japan), particularly as central banks take a more accommodative stance. Indeed, Sabrient’s SectorCast ETF rankings show high scores for some international-focused ETFs (as discussed later in this post).

While stocks rallied in 2023 (and bonds made a late-year comeback) mainly due to speculation on a Fed pivot toward lower interest rates (which supports valuations), for 2024 investors will want to see more in the way of actual earnings growth and other positive developments for the economy. I expect something of a “normalization” away from extreme valuation differentials and continued improvement in market breadth, whether it’s outperformance by last year’s laggards or a stagnation/pullback among last year’s biggest winners (especially if there are fewer rate cuts than anticipated)—or perhaps a bit of both. Notably, the S&P 500 historically has risen 20 of the last 24 election years (83%); however, a recent Investopedia poll shows that the November election is the biggest worry among investors right now, so it’s possible all the chaos, wailing and gnashing of teeth about Trump’s candidacy will make this election year unique with respect to stocks.

Regardless, I continue to believe that investors will be better served this year by active strategies that can identify and exploit performance dispersion among stocks across the capitalization spectrum—particularly smaller caps and the underappreciated, high-quality/low-valuation growers. Small caps tend to carry debt and be more sensitive to interest rates, so they have the potential to outperform when interest rates fall, but you should focus on stocks with an all-weather product line, a robust growth forecast, a solid balance sheet, and customer loyalty, which makes them more likely to withstand market volatility—which may well include those must-have, AI-oriented Tech stocks. Much like the impact of the Internet in the 1990s, AI/ML, blockchain/distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), and quantum computing appear to be the “it” technologies of the 2020’s that make productivity and efficiency soar. However, as I discuss in today’s post, the power requirements will be immense and rise exponentially. So, perhaps this will add urgency to what might become the technology of the 2030’s—i.e., nuclear fusion.

On that note, let me remind you that Sabrient’s actively selected portfolios include the Baker’s Dozen (a concentrated 13-stock portfolio offering the potential for significant outperformance), Small Cap Growth (an alpha-seeking alternative to a passive index like the Russell 2000), and Dividend (a growth plus income strategy paying a 4.5% current yield).

By the way, several revealing economic reports were released last week, which I discuss in today’s post. One was the December reading on the underappreciated New York Federal Reserve Global Supply Chain Pressure Index (GSCPI), which has fallen precipitously from it pandemic-era high and now is fluctuating around the zero line. This historically suggests falling inflation readings ahead. As for the persistently inverted yield curve, I continue to believe it has more to do with the unprecedented supply chain shocks coupled with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus to maintain demand and the resulting surge in inflation, which as observed by Alpine Macro, “makes the inversion more reflective of different inflation expectations than a signal for an impending recession.”

Also, although M2 money supply fell -4.6% from its all-time high in July 2022 until its low in April 2023, it has essentially flatlined since then and in fact has been largely offset to a great extent by an increase in the velocity of money supply. Also, we have a robust jobs market that has slowed but is far from faltering. And then there is the yield curve inversion that has been gradually flattening from a low of about -108 bps last July to -35 bps today.

I discuss all of this in greater detail in today’s post, including several illustrative tables and charts. I also discuss Sabrient’s latest fundamentals based SectorCast quantitative rankings of the ten U.S. business sectors (which is topped by Technology), current positioning of our sector rotation model (which turned bullish in early November and remains so), and some actionable ETF trading ideas.

Overall, I expect inflation will resume its decline, even with positive GDP growth, particularly given stagnant money supply growth, mending and diversifying supply chains (encompassing manufacturing, transportation, logistics, energy, and labor), falling or stabilizing home sale prices and new leases, slowing wage inflation, slower consumer spending on both goods and services, and a strong deflationary impulse from China due to its economic malaise and “dumping” of consumer goods to shore up its manufacturing (US imports from China were down 25% in 2023 vs. 2022). This eventually will give the Fed (and indeed, other central banks) license to begin cutting rates—likely by mid-year, both to head off renewed crises in banking and housing and to mitigate growing strains on highly leveraged businesses, consumers, government, and trading partners. Current CBOE fed funds futures suggest a 98% chance of at least 100 bps in rate cuts by year end (target rate of 4.25-4.50%), and 54% chance of at least 150 bps.

Click here to continue reading my full commentary … or if you prefer, here is a link to this post in printable PDF format (as some of my readers have requested). And please feel free to share my full post with your friends, colleagues, and clients! You also can sign up for email delivery of this periodic newsletter at Sabrient.com

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

I have been warning that the longer the market goes up without a significant pullback, the worse the ultimate correction is likely to be. So, with that in mind, we might not have seen the lows for the year quite yet, as I discuss in the chart analysis later in this post. January saw a maximum intraday peak-to-trough drawdown on the S&P 500 of -12.3% and the worst monthly performance (-5.3%) for the S&P 500 since March 2020 (-12.4%). It was the worst performance for the month of January since 2009 (during the final capitulation phase of the financial crisis) and one of the five worst performances for any January since 1980. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), aka “fear gauge,” briefly spiked to nearly 39 before settling back down to the low-20s.

It primarily was driven by persistently high inflation readings – and a suddenly hawkish-sounding Federal Reserve – as the CPI for the 12 months ending in December came in at 7.0% YoY, which was the largest increase for any calendar year since 1981. Then on Feb 10, the BLS released a 7.5% CPI for January, the highest YoY monthly reading since 1982. Of course, stocks fell hard, and the 10-year T-note briefly spiked above 2% for the first time since August 2019.

Looking under the hood is even worse. Twelve months ago, new 52-week highs were vastly outpacing new 52-week lows. But this year, even though new highs on the broad indexes were achieved during January, we see that 2/3 of the 3,650 stocks in the Nasdaq Composite have fallen at least 20% at some point over the past 12 months – and over half the stocks in the index continue to trade at prices 40% or more below their peaks, including prominent names like DocuSign (DOCU), Peloton Interactive (PTON), and of course, Meta Platforms, nee Facebook (FB). Likewise, speculative funds have fallen, including the popular ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), which has been down as much as -60% from its high exactly one year ago (and which continues to score near the bottom of Sabrient’s fundamentals based SectorCast ETF rankings).

Pundits are saying that the “Buy the Dip” mentality has suddenly turned into “Sell the Rip” (i.e., rallies) in the belief that the fuel for rising asset prices (i.e., unlimited money supply and zero interest rates) soon will be taken away. To be sure, the inflation numbers are scary and unfamiliar. In fact, only a minority of the population likely can even remember what those days of high inflation were like; most of the population only has experienced decades of falling CPI. But comparing the latest CPI prints to those from 40 years ago has little relevance, in my view, as I discuss in the commentary below. I continue to believe inflation has been driven by the snapback in demand coupled with slow recovery in hobbled supply chains – largely due to “Nanny State” restrictions – and that inflationary pressures are peaking and likely to fall as the year progresses.

In response, the Federal Reserve has been talking down animal spirits and talking up interest rates without actually doing much of anything yet other than tapering its bond buying and releasing some thoughts and guidance. The Fed’s challenge will be to raise rates enough to dampen inflation without overshooting and causing a recession, i.e., the classic policy mistake. My prediction is there will be three rate hikes over the course of the year, plus some modest unwinding of its $9 trillion balance sheet by letting some maturing bonds roll off. Note that Monday’s emergency FOMC meeting did not result in a rate hike due to broad global uncertainties.

Longer term, I do not believe the Fed will be able to “normalize” interest rates over the next decade, much less the next couple of years, without causing severe pain in the economy and in the stock and bond markets. Our economy is simply too levered and “financialized” to absorb a “normalized” level of interest rates. But if governments around the world (starting with the US and Canada!) can stand aside and let the economy work without heavy-handed societal restrictions and fearmongering, we might see the high supply-driven excess-demand gap close much more quickly.

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 the top three scorers being deep-cyclical sectors, Energy, Basic Materials, and Financials. In addition, the near-term technical picture remains weak, and our sector rotation model moved from a neutral to a defensive posture this week as the market has pulled back.

Overall, I expect a continuation of the nascent rotation from aggressive growth and many “malinvestments” that were popular during the speculative recovery phase into the value and quality factors as the Fed tries to rein in the speculation-inducing liquidity bubble. And although I don’t foresee a major selloff in the high-valuation-multiple mega-cap Tech names, I think investors can find better opportunities this year among high-quality stocks outside of the Big Tech favorites – particularly among small and mid-caps – due to lower valuations and/or higher growth rates, plus some of the high-quality secular growth names that were essentially the proverbial “baby thrown out with the bathwater.” But that’s not say we aren’t in for further downside in this market over the near term. In fact, I think we will see continued volatility and technical weakness over the next few months – until the Fed’s policy moves become clearer – before the market turns sustainably higher later in the year.

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 new Q1 2022 Baker’s Dozen launched on 1/20/2022 and is already off to a good start versus the benchmark. In addition, our Dividend and Small Cap Growth portfolios have been performing well versus their benchmarks. In fact, all 7 of the Small Cap Growth portfolios launched since the March 2020 COVID selloff have outperformed the S&P 600 SmallCap Growth ETF (SLYG), and 7 of the 8 Dividend portfolios have outperformed the S&P 500 (SPY). In particular, the Energy sector still seems like a good bet, as indicated by its low valuation and high score in our SectorCast ETF rankings.

Furthermore, we have created the Sabrient Quality Index Series comprising 5 broad-market and 5 sector-specific, rules-based, strategic beta and thematic indexes for ETF licensing, which we are pitching to various ETF issuers. Please ask your favorite ETF wholesaler to mention it to their product team!
Read on....