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Mar 06 2020

“Oversold” Doesn’t Mean “BUY”

  • Mar 6, 2020

In difficult market periods, Steve Leuthold liked to distinguish between conventionally oversold markets and those that had become “Jesus Christ oversold.” Recent action clearly qualifies as the latter. There are many ways to define a “dangerously” oversold condition, but the one that always raises our antenna is now flashing extreme selling pressure that might take longer than usual to mitigate.

The U.S. economy is in free-fall, perhaps headed for its deepest recession of the post-war era. Typically, recessions are necessary to correct overindulgences that build up during an expansion—for example, restoring liquidity, improving savings, purging bad debt, and realigning exorbitant risks. In the economic recovery that just ended, however, there were very few excesses or problems that needed to be addressed. 

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While the bull didn’t live to see his 11th birthday, this month did mark the anniversary of another historic event: Twenty years ago this week saw the peak bubble-era close in the S&P 500 of 1,527.46. 

 

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At its recent low on March 23rd, the S&P 500 had fallen much faster and by much more than any bear market in post-war history during its first 23 trading days. Indeed, it was off by about -34%, more than six times greater than any bear market post-1945. 
 

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U.S. recessions are normally caused by private sector vulnerabilities. During an expansion, private players eventually get out over their skis, overdo risky behaviors, and expose themselves.

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As deep as the losses in the DJIA and S&P 500 have been, most professional investors recognize that those averages have masked the extent of the damage suffered by most stocks.

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While it’s possible that Monday’s S&P 500 low of 2,386 will represent an important trading low, we believe it is too early to expect the market to form a major bear market low.

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Overnight Tuesday, stock market futures hit their 5%-limit down trigger—this has become commonplace in the current crisis. Seemingly, in addition to the coronavirus, the stock market is also worried about rising bond yields, which many believe is occurring because governments around the globe are implementing massive fiscal-stimulus packages and, consequently, are poised to sell huge amounts of sovereign debt securities. 

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The recent market turmoil has only served to exacerbate equity style trends that have been in place for years, with Value, Small Caps, and High Beta all underperforming relative to Growth / Momentum, Large Cap, and Low Volatility, respectively. 

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Read this week's Major Trend. 

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With the markets in freefall, we’ve seen a dramatic spike in interest in our monthly “Estimating the Downside” vignette. We think a mid-month snapshot is in order to give some idea as to how much meat has been taken off the valuation bone.

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A pandemic sweeping across the globe leaving unprecedented human turmoil in its wake, while also abruptly freezing economic activities, has brought the longest bull market in U.S. history to a crashing and swift end. Wow! Unfortunately, investment textbooks offer little advice on the situation and this rapid change of events seems far from over. 

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The collapse of U.S. Treasury yields and the simultaneous end of the bull market has produced a new all-time record for the S&P 500, albeit under less-than-desirable circumstances.

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There are of course many differences between today’s stock market and the 1987 panic. However, in both cases, the economy was at or near full employment and generally healthy going into the crash.

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February’s “Coronavirus Free” CPI data came in a tick hotter than expected. The massive downdraft in risk assets will be extraordinarily deflationary and we question whether the Fed can ride to the rescue once again.

 

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Read this week's Major Trend.

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Fear fills the financial markets! Although the frightening and unpredictable coronavirus is the headliner, investors are nearly as freaked out by the recent speedy collapse in the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond to a record low yield below 1%! Is the unthinkable, possible? 

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Momentum made up for a lackluster 2019 by providing protection during the volatile market correction, while Value continued to be punished. Momentum remains expensive relative to its long-term history, while Value remains cheap, but neither is outside levels seen in recent years.

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As the coronavirus materially increases the odds of a recession, some important parts of the U.S. yield curve (10Y-3M; 5Y-2Y) double-dipped into inversion. The two prior episodes occurred in late 1989 and mid-2006 and, in both cases, a recession followed within 18 months.

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The economic outlook has turned increasingly cautionary, investors are on edge, and the search for yield persists. Because the typical defensive/high-yielding plays are generally both expensive and unappealing in our group work, we highlight several less conventional groups that may be poised to outperform.

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A dramatic shift of country weights within EM indexes has become an inadvertent challenge for a country rotation strategy. Due to this, we tested the integration of a momentum-based sector rotation model to attain exposure to the top-rated sectors to represent the markets of the largest country components instead of seeking to obtain “whole market” exposure.

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There have been long-time divergences between blue chips and other market segments signaling that all is not “in gear” beneath the surface—but this cautionary activity never foretells the “timing.” Recently, Small Caps, the Value Line Arithmetic Composite, and Dow Transports staged pathetic bounces off the January 31st “Coronavirus 1.0” low, while the blue chips had strong momentum into mid-February. Normally, such divergences typically last for at least 3-4 months before they become meaningful.

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Read this week's Major Trend.

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The coronavirus epidemic/pandemic is getting the bulk of the blame for the sudden collapse in U.S. equities, and certainly qualifies as one of the few “black swans” seen in modern market history. We do not think the ultimate path of the coronavirus contagion can be analyzed at this point, and medical experts foresee possible outcomes ranging from a serious epidemic to a short burst of illness that fades with the summer weather. 

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The stock market collapse has been shockingly quick and severe, causing considerable panic. However, as the charts illustrate, it has also significantly “re-valued” the overall stock market in record time!
 

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In the immortal words of Lloyd Bridges, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.” Let’s put aside this week’s market turmoil and concentrate for a moment on... “concentration.” Market concentration, that is. Close your eyes and think back to those carefree days of mid-February.

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The collapse in the stock market in recent days has been swift, significant, dramatic and unnerving! And with the VIX volatility index still hovering near 27, who knows how much longer and how much deeper it may go?

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Fears surrounding the spread of the coronavirus spiked over the weekend bringing panic selling to the stock market. While the possibility of a global pandemic is frightening, anxieties have also been augmented because the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield is again nearing its all-time record low. 

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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.

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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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