Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President, Sabrient Systems LLC

In case you didn’t notice, the past several days have brought an exciting and promising change in character in the US stock market. Capital has been rotating out of the investor darlings – including the momentum, growth, and low-volatility factors, as well as Treasury bonds and “bond proxy” defensive sectors – and into the neglected market segments like value, small-mid caps, and cyclical sectors favored by Sabrient’s GARP (growth at a reasonable price) model, many of which have languished with low valuations despite solid forward growth expectations. And it came just in the nick of time.

In Q3 of last year, the S&P 500 was hitting new highs and the financial press was claiming that investors were ignoring the trade war, when in fact they weren’t ignoring it at all, as evidenced by narrow leadership coming primarily from the mega-cap secular Technology names and large cap defensive sectors (risk-off). In reality, such market behavior was unhealthy and doomed to failure without a broadening into higher-beta cyclical sectors and small-mid caps, which is what I was opining about at the time. Of course, you know what happened, as Q4 brought about an ugly selloff. And this year, Q3 was looking much the same – at least until this sudden shift in investor preferences.

Last month, as has become expected given its typically low-volume summer trading, August saw increased volatility – and also brought out apocalyptic commentaries similar to what we heard from the talking heads in December. In contrast to the severely overbought technical conditions in July when the S&P 500 managed to make a new high, August saw the opposite, with the major indices becoming severely oversold and either challenging or losing support at their 200-day moving averages or even testing their May lows, as investors grew increasingly concerned about a protracted trade war, intensifying protectionist rhetoric, geopolitical turmoil, Hard Brexit, slowing global economy, and US corporate earnings recession. Utilities and Real Estate led, while Energy trailed. Bonds surged and yields plunged. August was the worst month for value stocks in over 20 years.

But alas, it appears it we may have seen a blow-off top in bonds, and Treasury yields may have put in a bottom. All of a sudden, the major topic of conversation among the talking heads this week has been the dramatic rotation from risk-off market segments to risk-on, which has been a boon for Sabrient’s Baker’s Dozen portfolios, giving them the opportunity to gain a lot of ground versus the S&P 500 benchmark. The Energy sector had been a persistent laggard, but the shorts have been covering as oil prices have firmed up. Financials have caught a bid as US Treasury prices have fallen (and yields have risen). Small cap value has been greatly outperforming large cap growth. It seems investors are suddenly less worried about a 2020 recession, ostensibly due to renewed optimism about trade talks, or perhaps due to the apparent resilience of our economy to weather the storm.

The question, though, is whether this is just a temporary reversion to the mean – aka a “junk rally,” as some have postulated – or if it is the start of a healthy broadening in the market and a rotation from the larger, high-quality but high-priced stocks (which have been bid up by overly cautious sentiment, passive index investing, and algorithmic trading, in my view), into the promising earnings growers, cyclicals, and good-quality mid and small caps that would normally lead a rising market. After all, despite its strong year-to-date performance, the S&P 500 really hasn’t progressed much at all from last September’s high. But a real breakout finally may be in store if this risk-on rotation can continue.

I think the market is at a critical turning point. We may be seeing a tacit acknowledgment among investors that perhaps the economy is likely to hold up despite the trade war. And perhaps mega-caps with a lot of international exposure are no longer the best place to invest. And perhaps those mega-caps, along with the defensive sectors that have been leading the market for so long, are largely bid up and played out at this point such that the more attractive opportunities now lie in the unjustly neglected areas – many of which still trade at single-digit forward P/Es despite solid growth expectations.

September is historically a bad month for stocks. It is the only month in which the Dow Jones Industrials index has averaged negative performance over the past 100 years, showing positive returns about 40% of the time (according to Bespoke Investment Group). But this budding rotation may be setting up a more positive outcome. I was on the verge of publishing this month’s article early last week, but the market’s sudden (and important!) change in character led me to hold off for a few days to see how the action unfolded, and I have taken a new tack on my content.

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 defensive to me, while the technical picture is short-term overbought but longer-term bullish, and the sector rotation model takes to a solidly bullish posture. Read on…

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…