by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

  As the New Year gets underway, stocks have continued their impressive march higher. Comparing the start of this year to the start of 2019 reveals some big contrasts. Last January, the market had just started to recover from a nasty 4Q18 selloff of about 20% (a 3-month bear market?), but this time stocks have essentially gone straight up since early October. Last January, we were still in the midst of nasty trade wars with rising tariffs, but now we have a “Phase 1” deal signed with China and the USMCA deal with Mexico and Canada has passed both houses of Congress. At the beginning of last year, the Fed had just softened its hawkish rhetoric on raising rates to being "patient and flexible" and nixing the “autopilot” unwinding of its balance sheet (and in fact we saw three rate cuts), while today the Fed has settled into a neutral stance on rates for the foreseeable future and is expanding its balance sheet once again (to shore up the repo market and finance federal deficit spending (but don’t call it QE, they say!). Last year began in the midst of the longest government shutdown in US history (35 days, 12/22/18–1/25/19), but this year’s budget easily breezed through Congress. And finally, last year began with clear signs of a global slowdown (particularly in manufacturing), ultimately leading to three straight quarters of YOY US earnings contraction (and likely Q4, as well), but today the expectation is that the slowdown has bottomed and there is no recession in sight.

As a result, 2019 started with the S&P 500 displaying a forward P/E ratio of 14.5x, while this year began with a forward P/E of 18.5x – which also happens to be what it was at the start of 2018, when optimism reigned following passage of the tax cuts but before the China trade war got nasty. So, while 2018 endured largely unwarranted P/E contraction that was more reflective of rising interest rates and an impending recession, 2019 enjoyed P/E expansion that essentially accounted for the index’s entire performance (+31% total return). Today, the forward P/E for the S&P 500 is about one full standard deviation above its long-term average, but the price/free cash flow ratio actually is right at its long-term average. Moreover, I think the elevated forward P/E is largely justified in the context of even pricier bond valuations, low interest rates, favorable fiscal policies, the appeal of the US over foreign markets, and supply/demand (given the abundance of global liquidity and the shrinking float of public companies due to buybacks and M&A).

However, I don’t think stocks will be driven much higher by multiple expansion, as investors will want to see rising earnings once again, which will depend upon a revival in corporate capital spending. The analyst consensus according to FactSet is for just under 10% EPS growth this year for the S&P 500, so that might be about all we get in index return without widespread earnings beats and increased guidance, although of course well-selected individual stocks could do much better. Last year was thought to be a great setup for small caps, but alas the trade wars held them back from much of the year, so perhaps this will be the year for small caps. While the S&P 500 forward P/E has already risen to 19.0x as of 1/17, the Russell 2000 small cap index is 17.2x and the S&P 600 is only 16.8x.

Of course, there are still plenty of potential risks out there – such as a China debt meltdown, a US dollar meltdown (due to massive liquidity infusions for the dysfunctional repo market and government deficit spending), a US vote for democratic-socialism and MMT, a military confrontation with Iran, or a reescalation in trade wars – but all seem to be at bay for now.

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, while the technical picture also is quite bullish (although grossly overbought and desperately in need of a pullback or consolidation period), and our sector rotation model retains its bullish posture. Notably, the rally has been quite broad-based and there is a lot of idle cash ready to buy any significant dip.

As a reminder, Sabrient now publishes a new Baker’s Dozen on a quarterly basis, and the Q1 2020 portfolio just launched on January 17. You can find my latest slide deck and Baker’s Dozen commentary at http://bakersdozen.sabrient.com/bakers-dozen-marketing-materials, which provide discussion and graphics on process, performance, and market conditions, as well as the introduction of two new process enhancements to our long-standing GARP (growth at a reasonable price) strategy, including: 1) our new Growth Quality Rank (GQR) as an alpha factor, which our testing suggests will reduce volatility and provide better all-weather performance, and 2) “guardrails” against extreme sector tilts away from the benchmark’s allocations to reduce relative volatility. Read on....