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Jan 15 2020

Small Cap Quality Check

  • Jan 15, 2020

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.

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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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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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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Economic reports have improved in recent months. In the U.S., job creation has remained healthy, consumer and business confidence measures have improved, housing activity has surged, and the Markit Manufacturing PMI survey has risen in three of the last four months. 

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An occasional critique of our valuation work is that we consider “too much” market history to form a judgment as to what constitutes “high” or “low.” This type of feedback declined during and after the financial crisis (when historic valuation thresholds were temporarily revisited), but it has become more pointed as the U.S. market has soared to new highs.

 

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The S&P 500 did not suffer a bear market last year. At least not by the conventional definition of a 20% decline. However, it was razor close—dropping 19.8% from its highest- to lowest-daily close. Given that, in every way except for -0.2%, the U.S. stock market did suffer a Bear last year, how does its 2019 rally compare thus far to the average “Bull Market Rally?” 

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Leuthold’s research team has recently flagged a number of items that suggest it may be time to consider small cap stocks. This asset class has been showing signs of life and the decision to overweight small caps is starting to seem relevant – and perhaps nicely profitable - again.

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Since the early 1990s, with only a brief exception at the worst of the 2008-09 bear market, the U.S. stock market valuation has been considered “high” to “ridiculously high.” This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows the Shiller CAPE Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple since 1900. 

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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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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?”   

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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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