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Nov 07 2019

U.K. Stocks: Bottom Fishing… & Chips

  • Nov 7, 2019

A preview of the upcoming Of Special Interest that will examine if the tortured process of Brexit is creating an opportunity to bottom fish washed-out and unloved U.K. stocks. Time to buy?

This year’s upswing in money-supply growth has been one of many factors that’s prevented our economic work from triggering a recession warning. Following a two-year decline, year-over-year growth in M2 bottomed near 3% late in 2018 and has trended upward all year, reaching 6.7% in the latest week (Chart 1).

 

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After a tumultuous year trying to ignore the president of the United States’ constant public criticism, Federal Reserve Chairman Powell reported during his testimony yesterday, “Monetary Policy is in a good place!”
 

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 The CPI numbers are largely in line with consensus. Where inflation goes next will be primarily determined by the probability of a recession. A near-neutral inflation scorecard is consistent with our slowdown but no recession view.

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President Trump is focused on improving “fair” trade. He has renegotiated several U.S. trade agreements aimed at making U.S. producers more competitive, reducing significant U.S. trade deficits, and ensuring the U.S. dollar is priced appropriately. 

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Chemicals and Oil & Gas Drilling are this week's best groups. Internet Retail and Precious Minerals are this week's worst groups. 

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Going forward, high Momentum will depend on an unlikely combination of Information Technology and low Volatility, while low Momentum continues to have outsized exposure to Energy and Materials. Recent weakness only moderately tempered valuations, which could be a headwind.

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We put together an Inflation Scorecard that monitors two critical sets of inflation drivers: demand pull and cost push. The qualitatively-adjusted score is much closer to a neutral reading than the mechanical composite (which suggested quite a bit more disinflationary headwind).

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The bull market took out another old record last month when the S&P 500 topped the cumulative total return of the 1949-56 upswing. The total return since March 9, 2009, is now 468%. Since the highs of March 2000, the S&P 500 cumulative total return is actually a few basis points behind U.S. 10-year Treasury bonds.

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Three months ago, Large Cap Growth and Momentum were the winning ways to play the market; the long-time resiliency of these entrenched leaders was a cornerstone of the bullish case. Suddenly it’s Value and Deep Cyclicals leading, anything possessing Momentum, of late, has turned toxic. Ironically, this “new” leadership is now the foundation for the bullish reasoning.

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Even though the S&P 500 roared ahead by nearly 50% over the last three years, the traditionally low beta slow-growth Utilities sector outperformed during that powerful upswing. Nevertheless, today Utilities seldom look attractive by active managers and calls to overweight the sector are scarce.

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We take a look at different data sets reflecting labor costs. The main finding is that using Unit Labor Cost as the measurement for the true cost suggests that the labor market is very tight in terms of affordability for businesses.

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Although it has been essentially flat since early 2015, dollar strength in 2019, in combination with a slowdown in the global recovery, has been particularly hurtful for the U.S. economy.

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At last night’s close, the Russell 2000 generated a “low-risk” BUY signal on our Very Long Term (VLT) Momentum algorithm, a possibility we’d alluded to in the September and October Green Books.

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Tomorrow is the monthly jobs report. It’s always widely anticipated since it frequently moves the financial markets. Moreover, it concludes a week that has been filled with potential blockbuster events, including significant earnings reports, ongoing official trade-war commentary, a Fed decision, the elimination of an ISIS leader, and a formal Congressional presidential impeachment inquiry. 
 

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Scarcity is a good attribute for an investment. A limited supply tends to curb downside risk and fuel upside price potential once the asset is in vogue. In the stock market, scarcity is often associated with a temporary restriction (e.g., an oil crisis) or with a company possessing a monopoly of an innovative must-have product. For an investor, a scarce asset that becomes popular when most don’t own it is a beautiful thing! 

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The fear (or hope) that U.S. bond yields would fall to zero or below subsided over the last month. However, the belief that low yields merit significantly above-average P/E ratios remains stronger than ever.

 

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Despite a significant stock market rally, this year has been beset by escalating recession fears. The list of worries include broad-based slowing in the global economic recovery (centered in the manufacturing sector), a never-ending trade war, persistent political and geo-political drama, a chronic decline in global bond yields, a surge in negative yielding bonds, an inversion in the U.S. yield curve, and an expansion that recently celebrated a birthday which makes it the oldest ever in U.S. history!

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The approach of Halloween brings thoughts of jack-o-lanterns, scary movies, and buckets full of candy. The season also marks the time when investors finally give up the ghost on the optimistic, even wishful, earnings forecasts made early in the year.

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Read this week's Major Trend. 

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The underlying character of the financial markets is often a good indication of investor sentiment. It takes courage (or stupidity in retrospect?) to buy certain assets, while the purchase of other investments is driven mostly by fear. In this fashion, a good read on whether the stock market is being propelled by excessive hope or angst can be obtained by monitoring the character of its leadership. 

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With promised breakthroughs on Brexit and the trade war miraculously occurring on the same day, few pundits now believe the market is anywhere close to an important peak. (A peak in the S&P 500, that is, since peaks occurred long ago in the ACWI, MSCI Emerging Markets, NYSE Composite, Value Line Arithmetic, S&P MidCap 400, and the Russell 2000.)

 

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The Core CPI is in line with consensus. The recent string of weak economic numbers has increased the odds of an imminent recession. A currency pact with China would serve to cap the upside in the dollar and may even help weaken it, providing support to inflation.

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Equity market themes have been boringly consistent of late; growth beating value, large beating small, and domestic beating international. In the factor world, Momentum and Low Volatility have been investor favorites for most of 2019 while Value resided in last place – the same old, same old. Then, something remarkable occurred on September 9th.

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Despite a slowdown in old-era business investment (manufacturing) during the last year, new-era business spending (information processing equipment and intellectual products) remains healthy. This argues for continued leadership among technology stocks. 

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The yield curve’s ten-month moving average inverted in September, hence the yield curve inversion can no longer be dismissed as transitory; the Boom/Bust Indicator remains below its descending 10-month moving average, confirming economic weakness predicted by the yield curve; and, the “Present Situation” component of September’s Consumer Confidence survey slipped below its 10-month moving average for the third time in 2019.

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Small Caps came tantalizingly close to activating a major VLT BUY signal in September, with the Russell 2000 closing less than a half percent below the trigger level. A new bull signal from this indicator wouldn’t “fit” into our market and economic narrative, but we won’t sweep it under the rug if it occurs.

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Value, High Beta, and Small Cap stocks all captured a few rays of sunlight for the first time in a long while. It’s too early to tell if last month’s leadership U-turns can be sustained, but major market trends are the most susceptible to reverse during cyclical bear markets.

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Despite higher volatility, market performance is still up in the high double-digits YTD. Interestingly, as our index of High Quality Stocks versus Low Quality Stocks shows, High Quality is prevailing in terms of relative performance.

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Bond and money-market fund subsets are seeing strong net cash inflows year-to-date, having captured $581 billion thus far (versus $176 billion at this time last year).

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September was an emotionally exhausting month for investors as reversals in major themes produced wide-ranging repercussions. Movements in various markets have been increasingly tied to bonds—the market that is most sensitive to recession outlook.

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The groups we examine here are particularly interesting because they are a diversified mix across sectors with varying macro-factor relationships and risk profiles. They have scored well for a long period of time and have been long-term positions in our SI portfolio.

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The ISM manufacturing and services reports have significantly increased recession anxieties and have been wreaking havoc with the stock market over the last couple days. And, who knows, the real pain for equity investors may come tomorrow morning when the monthly payroll employment numbers are released?

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One of the features arguing for an extension of this economic recovery and its corollary bull market is aggressive and “preemptive” economic policies! Hesitancy has frequently spelled trouble during past economic expansions. 

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The Momentum style—in which investors buy what has been going up recently—represents an optimistic, hopeful, “I’ll take some of that” mentality. The Low Volatility factor entails a pessimistic, fearful outlook in which investors want (or need) to stay invested in stocks but desire downside protection in case the market performs badly.

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