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Dec 06 2019

How Will It Be Remembered?

  • Dec 6, 2019

A way to gain perspective on the present is by trying to view it from the future. Ask yourself, “What are the signs of impending decline, now ignored by investors, that will one day be memorialized by the same investors as the most obvious in retrospect?”   

The ultimate question is whether the Fed’s recent “insurance cuts” are enough to overcome uncertainties about trade talk—and the upcoming election—to avert a recession. We updated our “Slowdown vs. Recession” study to see where we stand now. The bottom line is: It’s too early to rule out a recession.

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Construction Materials moved to an Attractive rating, fueled by growth and price momentum. Surprisingly, digging into the numbers revealed it to have lower beta dynamics. Based on this, we examined the cyclical nature of the group to better understand the impact it may have on overall portfolio cyclicality.

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The relative domination of Mega Caps might leave the impression that valuation of the “typical” (or median) Large Cap stock is reasonable. It’s not. The fall rally leaves all major valuation ratios for the median S&P 500 stock in the top decile of the 30-year history, and above the levels prevailing at the September 2018 market high.

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With optimistic views on capex in late 2017, we built a thematic group of companies that appeared to be potential beneficiaries of higher spending going forward. This group has outperformed the market; but, the capex trend is disappointing and quite concerning.

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Tomorrow is another “Payroll Friday” and, after a disappointing ADP employment report yesterday, Wall Street will be watching for any indication that businesses are pulling back on job creation. 

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Based on the calendar, both the economic recovery and bull market are the oldest in U.S. history. Other measures also support this view: 1) the unemployment rate is below 4%, suggesting the job market is at full employment; 2) compared to long-term benchmarks, both the U.S. stock market and bond market are richly priced; 3) several global bond yields are negative; 4) central bank balance sheets have been abnormally expanded; and, 5) the current U.S. federal deficit (as a percent of GDP) is one of the largest non-recessionary deficits of the post-war era.

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OK, OK–maybe Apple isn’t so “Itsy Bitsy.” However, when viewed through the lens of our “4% Club” vignette, the stock has certainly followed the Sisyphean pattern of that popular nursery rhyme (and accompanying fingerplay, of course) over the last seven-plus years.

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True to their name, cyclical stocks are volatile. They are not to be used in big doses, they are not for the faint of heart, and they are not to be “bought and held!” The overall stock market and therefore most portfolios are exposed to some cyclicality. The question is always, “how much?” While it is admittedly challenging, well-timed tilts away or toward some cyclical sectors can add handsomely to total portfolio performance. 
 

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The June 2016 Brexit referendum kicked off a tortured process for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. However, the wheels of international politics turn slowly, and the original date of formal withdrawal was set as March 29, 2019. As the calendar rolled into 2019 it became obvious that the March closing date was not going to be met, and concerns mounted over delays, procedures, deal-or-no-deal, a new prime minister, and even calls for another vote.

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The dividend discount model is a popular, conventional method of valuing a stock using the present value of its future dividend payments. The two major components comprising this valuation approach are earnings (from which dividends are paid) and the bond yield (or discount rate used to determine the present value of the future dividend stream).  
 

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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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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?

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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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