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…

by Scott Martindale
President, Sabrient Systems LLC

Many market commentators have been in a prolonged tizzy, warning of an inevitable selloff to come. And indeed we finally got one, with a huge spike in volatility. A climate of low inflation and structurally low interest rates has meant less discounting of future corporate earnings, which has allowed for higher enterprise values and stock prices. But when inflation fears suddenly popped up, investors feared an imminent repricing of equities at lower multiples. As I wrote at the start of the year, I expected some renewed volatility and compression in valuation multiples to occur during 2018, but I sure didn’t expect it to happen quite so soon. However, I also said that a correction would be healthy, and that it won’t necessarily be as deep of a selloff as so many investors have feared – and I stand by that prediction.

So, what is going on here? I think there were a few catalysts. First, the dollar has been plummeting on inflation worries, chasing away global fixed income investors and spiking yields, which put elevated equity valuations into question. Second, a healthy technical correction from January’s parabolic uptrend in stock prices spiked volatility to such a degree that the inverse VIX ETF/ETNs imploded, revealing structural problems with some of these products that not only spooked institutional investors but also triggered some abrupt changes to tactical equity exposures in their algorithmic trading models. And then we heard some FOMC members making statements implying that perhaps there is no longer a “Fed Put” supporting the market. It’s no wonder the long-expected correction finally (and quite suddenly) came about.

Given that the price chart had gone parabolic, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that volatility raised its ugly head, with the CBOE Market Volatility Index (VIX) briefly spiking above 50, much like an overstretched rubber band snaps back, and with sector correlations rising sharply. Nevertheless, I still expect solidly positive performance in the broad market indices by year end, although significantly lower than last year’s +22% performance on the S&P 500, and perhaps only in the high single digits. I also believe that heightened volatility and some compression in the broad market valuation multiples will lead to greater market breadth and lower sector correlations as investors pick their spots outside of the mega-caps (or passive index investing) and seek out higher returns in stocks that display strong growth prospects at a reasonable price (i.e., GARP) – with realistic potential for gains in the 15-25% range (or even higher).

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 still look bullish, while the sector rotation model moved to a neutral bias in response to the market turbulence. Read on....

After showing weakness last week and creating some bearish-looking technical formations, stocks took a turn for the better on Monday. Perhaps it was renowned value investor Warren Buffett breaking from his usual aversion to tech companies and investing $1 billion in Apple (AAPL) that gave bulls a much-needed shot of confidence. But then things went south again on Tuesday, and some commentators are surmising that the strength in some of the economic data makes investors think the Fed is more likely to raise rates, i.e., we may be back to a good-news-is-bad-news reactionary environment.

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.

In a year in which stock prices mostly have been driven by news rather than fundamentals, three things stood out last week. First, terrorism has taken on an unsettling new face -- the stay-at-home mom down the street or your long-time co-worker at the plant -- as the dark side of the exponential growth in social media rears its ugly head (with something much more sinister than porn sites or online bullying). Second, with the strong jobs report on Friday, the Federal Reserve seems to have all their ducks in a row to justify the first fed funds rate hike in nine years.

Some weeks when I write this article there is little new to talk about from the prior week. It’s always the Fed, global QE, China growth, election chatter, oil prices, etc. And then there are times like this in which there is so much happening that I don’t know where to start. Of course, the biggest market-moving news came the weekend before last when Paris was put face-to-face with the depths of human depravity and savagery. And yet the stock market responded with its best week of the year.

We all know the big news stories that have kept both corporate leaders and investors in a semi-state of paralysis. They involve the future of Greece in the Eurozone, China’s growth and stock market stability, and the Federal Reserve’s plan for gradually normalizing the fed funds rate. I noted in my article last week that the technical picture appeared to be firming up for the bulls as the 200-day moving average kicked in with solid support and traders seemed to be doing an orderly retreat-and-retrench rather than panic-selling.

Of course, all eyes have been on Greece in an ongoing saga that, although critical to the Greeks, is mostly just an annoying distraction for global investors -- partly because it has been going on for so many years, with the proverbial can of inevitability continually being kicked down the road, and partly because there can be no winners in this intractable situation.

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.