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Feb 24 2020

The King Is Dead: A Global Chartbook

  • Feb 24, 2020

Last year we published a report titled Price to Book: The King is Dead (available on the Leuthold Research website) with the objective to better understand the decade-long struggle of the value style. Our findings showed that indexes based on the Price to Book ratio have indeed lagged since 2007 but that other measures of value performed significantly better until just recently.

Our recent commentary “1” For The Record Books noted that just one of seven S&P smart beta factors was able to outperform the S&P 500 last year, even though each style basket limits its holdings to constituents of the parent index.

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Since the 2008 Great Recession, economic and investment uncertainties have been persistent and pronounced. The shocking depth of the last recession during the post-war era (the annual decline in real GDP growth had never been lower than -3%—until 2009—when it fell nearly 4%), its subsequent subpar recovery (real GDP growth has averaged only slightly more than 2% annually, a level which was traditionally considered the “stall speed” during past expansions), the wild actions of policy officials (Cash for Clunkers, TARP, a zero Fed funds rate, Quantitative Easing, and Modern Monetary Theory)..

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Where inflation goes next will be primarily determined by the probability of a recession.

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Super-easy monetary policy has been blamed for the rise in income and wealth inequality in recent years, and more recently we’d fault the Fed for performance inequality within the stock market.

 

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A lot of moving parts of late. Record high stock markets with near record-low bond yields? A re-inversion of the yield curve. A pop in the U.S. manufacturing industry. Blow-out job numbers at full employment. Impeachment—Not. A botched Caucus. Brexit—Done. And, a Pandemic! Eh, just another day at the office…
 

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Market bulls rightly note that in the late 1990s, dozens of stocks exhibited Tesla-like action before the fun eventually came to an end. But we’d remind investors that the last few years have featured other “busted parabolics,” and all of them were followed in short order by broader market troubles.

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After last year’s spectacularly successful pivot following the December 2018 plunge, the thinking is that future rate hikes are the bull market’s only threat. Perhaps that will be the case; the belief is certainly well-supported by postwar U.S. economic history, but it also reveals a shocking lapse in short-term memory.

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The common, and easy reason given for the recent Tesla move is a short squeeze. We don’t deny that existing shorts are getting “squeezed,” but that’s a result, not a cause, of the recent move. The more likely instigator is speculator FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

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Chinese and Hong Kong markets are currently following the same script as seen during the SARS outbreak, but we caution against using S&P 500 performance as a guide for what is likely to happen this time around.

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In the past we’ve made the observation that adding/deleting stocks to/from a popular index can have a profound impact on the target stocks’ short-term trading volume and performance.

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Our equity research typically focuses at the sector and industry group levels, thus, in this analysis, we drill down and explore the presidential effect on a more granular level to see what interesting equity trends may have transpired in the past cycles.

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Please read this week's Major Trend. 

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Volatility has always been important when investing. It is one of the most widely accepted qualifiers of risk. All investors prefer a steady-return stream rather than the anxiety which comes with irregular and less predictable returns. But often, volatility provides financial signals.

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Dark energy makes up 68% of the universe, yet astrophysicists are having a devil of a time explaining what it is, why it is, or how it works. Quant investors are facing their own dark-energy mystery in understanding style returns of 2019.

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Today, it was reported that fourth-quarter U.S. real GDP growth was 2.1%, nearly in line with expectations. However, business investment spending declined for the third consecutive quarter, continuing to raise fears that companies are pulling back and it is only a matter of time before they also reduce employment, sending the economy into a recession.

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Investing overseas has mostly been a black hole through this bull market. Price momentum remains terribly weak for international stock markets and this has given investors pause every time they consider reallocating some assets offshore. 

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Market momentum now seems to outweigh simple math in the minds of most investors, and we are not entirely immune. Today our tactical funds are positioned with net equity exposure of 50%, the midpoint of the normal 30-70% range. That’s a higher allocation than if we considered only business cycle dynamics and equity valuations.

 

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Extraordinarily low bond yields—often negative bond yields outside the U.S.—have significantly elevated investor anxieties, leaving the impression of facing a high-risk, low-return world. Consequently, during much of the contemporary expansion, the existence of very low yields has pushed several investors toward a more conservative portfolio allocation. 
 

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Investors are wondering what will ultimately crack this stock market. Its rising trend of late has improved investor sentiment, which is not surprising given the abject fears evident last summer about an imminent recession. While sentiment has recently turned positive, it hardly seems broadly optimistic or ridiculously bullish.

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We’d like to remind readers that forwarding our research to unauthorized recipients is a serious offense. That’s especially the case when the recipient happens to be a U.S. economic policymaker.

 

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December’s Of Special Interest provided a recap of our Asset Allocation team’s view of small cap equities, suggesting that small caps had underperformed and reached a valuation discount that made them an interesting contrarian value proposition. Several clients responded with follow-up questions, wondering if the discount valuation of small caps was offset by their typically weaker business models.

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Headline and Core CPIs both post slower than expected gains in their month-over-month figures. The Fed’s laissez-faire attitude for 2020 seems appropriate for now. Interesting movements in commodity indexes may signal future upward price pressure.

 

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Geo-political conflicts, an oil crisis, impeachment drama, and an upcoming presidential election are all currently rattling the stock market. Yet, what really matters for stocks this year is profits. For the stock market to make sustained progress in 2020, companies’ bottom-line performance needs to show renewed life.

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Around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, we observed that prevailing valuations argued against him witnessing big stock market gains during his first term.

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We are troubled that the bullish optimism has spilled over into the 2020 estimates for S&P 500 earnings. Zero growth in 2020 is probably not a bad guess for NIPA figures, but S&P numbers don’t always follow suit.

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After last year’s 30% S&P 500 gain, many strategists are now suggesting that the real melt-up still lies ahead. We think a melt-up has already occurred, and the bulk of it has been booked.

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With 2020 representing The Leuthold Group’s 40th year of publishing Perception For The Professional, we perused the first few Green Books for relevant nuggets from 1981, but the backdrop could not have been more different. Therefore, we instead turned the clock back 20 years, thinking it might yield insights more resonant with today’s environment.

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In response to client queries, we extended our research of small cap equities from last month. One angle we pursued was the relationship between small caps, quality, and business risk. The full report will be released mid-month.

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During a decade characterized by surging equity markets and the proliferation of smart beta products, the best performing quantitative factor was Sales Stability, which isn’t usually associated with either of those trends.

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Two words sum up the past decade pretty nicely: U.S. Exceptionalism. The superiority of U.S. assets really comes down to the unique combination of growth (U.S. stocks), yield (U.S. bonds), and relative safety (both U.S. stocks and bonds).

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This “decade in review” edition examines the performance of sectors and industries, looking at the best and worst groups to reveal the stories they have to tell.

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Including those who are bullish for this year, few expect stocks to continue delivering superior returns during the next decade. The economic expansion and bull market are simply too long in the tooth, and valuations too extended, to produce another decade of solid results.

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It’s been a while since we looked at 2019’s stock market parallels to 1999. Sorry about that… we’ve been too busy reliving 1999 on almost a daily basis, and often not in a good way. 

 

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Uncharted Waters! That is the overwhelming impression entering a new year in the midst of the longest economic expansion and bull market in U.S. history! After all, every day is now another record performance as investors are forced to travel where no man or women has gone before. 

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