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Nov 04 2021

Tis The Season For Factor Tilting

  • Nov 4, 2021

Factor investing has gained wide popularity in recent years, enabled by a proliferation of smart-beta ETFs coming to market, which opened new opportunities for tactical investors. In 2018, we launched our Factor Tilt ETF strategy, and here we discuss how we’re now enhancing it by adding Seasonal Cyclicality to our analytical toolbox for evaluating factor conditions.

Even though cyclical stocks’ excess return has been somewhat modest in 2021, they have done well overall since the start of this bull market. Moreover, while the economy is poised to slow next year, real-GDP growth should post another healthy gain near 4% to 4.5%—helping to keep cyclical stocks in a leadership position. Thus, owning a wide variety of cyclical stocks again during 2022 probably makes sense. Still, there are a couple of reasons investors should consider tilting those cyclical bets toward consumer cyclicals rather than industrial cyclicals.

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Last week we argued that U.S. money growth remains way too high to reasonably expect a peak in consumer price inflation during the next few months. At the peaks of the last five bouts of inflation of 5% or more, real growth in the M2 money supply had turned negative in four cases and had slipped to less than 1% in the other one. Today, real M2 is growing at nearly a 7% rate.

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Why do we own bonds? I understand the nostalgia. After all, bonds have been part of portfolios ever since, well, there have been portfolios. They have always represented the consummate balancing asset; bonds make those risky stocks tolerable and allow a restful night’s sleep. But, just like Linus and his blankie, it’s tough to let go of such a comforting friend.

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From the start of the inflation upswing this spring, pundits cited well-known disinflationary factors they believe will soon halt the current inflationary upswing—like free trade, the speed of technological advance, and aging populations globally. 

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The U.S. labor market holds the key to the duration of the economic expansion and its corollary bull market. In October, the U.S. unemployment rate declined to 4.6%—which is lower than 75% of the time since 1948. Although there’s still room for further improvement, historically, when the unemployment rate fell below 4%, economic conditions often became difficult.

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The CPI numbers were well above market estimates. The futures market quickly moved on to price in a Fed hike in June 2022. Inflation will persist for a while longer but we refrain from extrapolating the current trajectory too far into the future.

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Read this week's Major Trend.

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Just cleaning out the “thought box” today…

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After years of languishing in the rock bottom of Group Selection Scores and sector rankings, Energy exploded higher this month, jumping from 10th lowest (out of eleven broad sectors) to 3rd highest in our composite rankings.

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We believe concerns about central-bank policy error are mostly a foreign issue, because they have moved much more aggressively than the Fed. The market has shown no indication of a Fed-policy mistake and we are still on board with the reflation trade.

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October’s nearly +7% S&P 500 surge was impressive, but came a month early—according to the traditional seasonal cycle—which turned bullish on November 1st, and will remain intact for the next six months.

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The environment where massively above-trend federal outlays have generated massively above-trend readings in both current and projected S&P 500 EPS, the idea of normalizing EPS over a period as long as five years might seem hopelessly out of touch. But it’s during times of extraordinary conditions—both good and bad—that render this work especially valuable.

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It is much easier to predict inflation, itself, than to predict when investors will become traumatized by it. Some of the most helpful measures for the latter task come from the ISM Manufacturing Report. October’s readings saw three key measures above the statistical “speed limits” we calculated years ago.

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Regardless of one’s view on the maturity of today’s economic and market cycles, it’s hard to deny that the continuation of extraordinarily-loose economic policies is now causing those cycles to age prematurely. And no doubt it’s contributing to the premature “graying” of many market participants. 

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In this prolonged era of growth-stock dominance, cyclical stocks seem antiquated and passé. Why own something that is highly volatile, subject to the vagaries of an unpredictable economy, and offers no true sustainable long-term growth story? Particularly when there are FANGS available that are painting the future of society and the economy. FANG-style stocks are also much steadier, significantly less connected with economic cyclicality, and offer sexy future growth. When I put it that way, I too am having a hard time being convinced to buy a cyclical stock?

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Read this week's Major Trend

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Investors have two primary questions regarding the current inflation problem: 1) Is the recent inflation surge just temporary or will it prove sustainable, and 2) Why are bond yields ignoring higher inflation? Unfortunately, we do not have a definitive answer for either question, but a look at U.S. history is informative.

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One Main Street sentiment indicator implies that, contrary to FOMO, today’s stock-market strength is more likely driven by “FOBI”—the Fear Of Being In.

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The problems associated with Supply relative to Demand have been well documented. Burgeoning demand has simply overwhelmed supply chains, causing the prices of nearly everything to soar.

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Read this week's Major Trend

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The earnings season kicked off last week and, so far, it appears that corporate America had another solid performance in the third quarter. Since inflation is proving to be more persistent than expected, anxieties surrounding profit-margin pressures are escalating.

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If there is one thing sure to make equity investors swoon, it is the prospect of buying into a credible, long-lived secular growth story at a relatively modest valuation. Over the past three decades, Emerging Markets (EM) have proffered just such an opportunity. EM’s economic growth rates have far surpassed those of developed nations, and the valuations attached to EM stocks have often been at a discount to other markets.

However, this combination of secular growth and attractive valuations has not always paid off for investors. The MSCI Index has underperformed the U.S., Europe, and even Japan over the last ten years in local currencies. Furthermore, EPS growth for the EM Index has come in far below its economic growth rate, creating an exasperating drag on Index performance as it tries to keep up with other regions.

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Read this week's Major Trend

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The stock market’s past performance has long been recognized as a good indicator of future performance. A notable performance attribute that shows excellent prowess in predicting future stock-market returns is the degree of total-return divergence among the market’s underlying constituents. 

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In a possible sign we’re not getting enough oxygen at current valuation altitudes, we decided to replace the usual mean-reversion technique with a much friendlier approach that we’ve dubbed “maximum attraction.”

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Coming of age in the 1970s, I understand the current, widespread fears of runaway inflation. Although it’s unlikely, could the last couple of years’ abuse and overuse of monetary and fiscal policies bring back a 1970s’ Inflationary Disco-era?

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The CPI numbers are slightly above market estimates. 
These numbers gave the Fed the “all clear” to taper.
Scorecard still points to higher inflation.

 

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One of the more interesting (if not unique) aspects of the current economic expansion is its outsized need to “grow into itself.” In its infancy, every recovery displays this attribute.

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Read this week's Major Trend

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For at least the last decade, small-cap cyclical stocks have had a very close, and positive connection with rising bond yields. From 2012 forward, the correlation between daily movements in small-cap cyclicals’ relative price performance and bond yields is a strong +0.65!
 

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A stronger U.S. dollar is “supposed” to be bearish for commodities, but it’s been a banner year for most commodities with gold among the few that are down on the year. However, keep in mind that gold tends to be a harbinger of major moves in industrial commodities, with a lead time of about six months—and its year-over-year change is now negative.

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The COVID rescue plan has generated a multi-trillion-dollar deluge of federal spending that has trickled down to government transfer payments, personal incomes, retail sales, and surging EPS. When considering all of these data series in relation to their long-term trends, it’s truly remarkable that the only item analysts consider to be “transitory” is inflation.

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Industries propelling performance have been diverse; the top-five groups are from five different sectors. Commodity-oriented, retail, and financial groups have been the primary drivers. The Leuthold Select Industries equity strategy, which chooses its thematic investments from the GS Score’s Attractive range, is up 20.2% YTD through September.

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The Citi Economic Surprise Index fell to a negative extreme, while the Citi Inflation Surprise Index made all-time highs—a “stagflation” gap. Overall, if history repeats itself, the extreme ESI-ISI gap is apt to resolve itself, and the effect on asset markets will likely be limited. The global tightening trend will be a far more persuasive driver.

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What if the S&P 500’s September 2nd closing high were to miraculously stand as the cycle’s high-water mark? If it did, the peak was presaged—in retrospect—by two Federal Reserve Bank presidents who rode the liquidity wave all the way to its crest after assuring the floodgates would be left wide open. Both resigned in September. 

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Investors view Emerging Markets (EM) as the best source of economic growth across global equity markets, and rightly so. Annualized EM GDP growth of 8.6% since 2001 is more than double that of the U.S. and Europe. However, investors have not captured this extraordinary advance because earnings per share for the MSCI EM Index have lagged far behind EM economic growth rates.

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Read this week's Major Trend

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Although supply-chain problems dominate the headlines, what is most unnerving is the seeming indifference of economic policy officials.

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