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Apr 07 2021

Research Preview: The Experiential-Reopening Trade

  • Apr 7, 2021

A strong argument can be made that experiential consumer services was the economic sector hardest hit by the pandemic lockdown. Cruise ships were forbidden to sail, restaurants and theme parks were closed, and air travel and hotel occupancy dwindled—all in an attempt to minimize personal/public interaction. The stocks of experiential companies took a beating in March 2020.

Not surprisingly, confidence among the highest earners is generally more positive than that of low earners. However, the extent of this “confidence-differential” will vary over an economic cycle. The confidence-differential compares the results of the highest 33% of earners to that of the lowest 33% of earners, based on the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index.

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The price action in the DXY Index over the last year shows an uncanny resemblance to the 2017-18 period, both in duration and magnitude. Overall, we believe the dollar could strengthen in the near term, but the longer-term bearish trend remains intact.

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Historically, companies that have grown their equity share base over the previous year are apt to underperform the broad market in the ensuing months; those that had reduced shares outstanding tend to outperform. However, the opposite happened over the course of the last year. Here we explore the underlying details to see what contributed to this result.

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This month we focus on the valuations of the MSCI USA Index—which is nearly identical to the S&P 500. This is worth following mainly because the folks at MSCI are kind enough to provide us with much longer-term histories of Cash Flow and Book Value Per Share.

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We launched a revamped version of our Major Trend Index. The objective of the new methodology is to increase the flexibility, and even the subjectivity of the MTI. This approach recognizes the “subjective reality,” without forcing us into the tedium of re-weighting sub-factors if they become more or less critical as market dynamics evolve.

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The stock market’s technical backdrop remains pretty hard to assail, as evidenced by the current +4 reading on the revamped MTI’s Technical category. But there are a few short-term cracks that bear watching. 

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Massive net-cash outflow from equity mutual funds (MFs) shows no sign of slowing, even as equity markets notch new record highs. Combined MF net outflow that focuses on domestic and foreign equities tallied a remarkable $646 billion in 2020—practically doubling the previous outflow record set in 2019.

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Read this week's Major Trend

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The seventh-longest persistent period of leadership by a single U.S. stock-market sector since 1928 came to an end in March. What does this imply, if anything, about the future of the contemporary bull market?

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The U.S. dollar declined last year, but, so far, in 2021, the dollar has been rising. U.S. bond yields have surged far more than foreign yields lately, making dollar investments more attractive. However, U.S. inflation is definitely accelerating, which is never good for the U.S. currency.

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Contrarian investing is difficult from both an emotional and implementation standpoint. Often the consensus is right, and industry groups are out-of-favor for a reason. As the saying goes, “Don’t be contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian.”

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Because of extraordinarily accommodative monetary and fiscal policies, a complete synchronization of the global-economic expansion, unprecedented savings, substantial pent-up demand, a post-pandemic reopening, and a record-low inventory/GDP ratio, the U.S. economy is poised to run HOT!

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March 23rd marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 bear-market bottom. We are all eager to turn the page on the pandemic ordeal and move forward to brighter days ahead. Looks like some big help is coming our way.

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The stock market and bond market usually get along, but sometimes they simply see things differently. Although disagreements can be difficult, their currently divergent views may prove profitable for equity investors.

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Read this week's Major Trend.

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Investors lose a lot of sleep worrying about the Federal Reserve. Should they?

“Fed Legends” are plentiful and as heeded as ever. Several popular adages highlighting their importance have survived the test of time, including: “Don’t fight the Fed,” “Three steps and stumble,” and “The stock market is just one big sugar high.”

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In our mid-month Of Special Interest, “Valuation Extremes: Here Be Dragons,” we examined valuation outliers as a measure of market sentiment. The hypothesis was that exuberance is reflected in investors’ willingness to hold stocks priced on an aggressive “vision” of the future; companies that are either habitually unprofitable or trade at a Price/Sales ratio above 15x.

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Yields are climbing, and who knows how high they will go? Will Inflation eventually get out of control? The Federal Reserve says they won’t tighten for a long time, but is that believable? Are Tech stocks headed for a bigger correction? As always, there is so much that’s “unknowable?”

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Top decile valuations are often the result of unduly positive investor sentiment that leads to inflated multiples. Bullishness comes in varying strengths: optimism, enthusiasm, exuberance, and, at the extreme, the mania of crowds. Because bullishness manifests itself in aggressive valuations for speculative companies, we believe the prices being applied to such companies - for which intrinsic value is dependent on a future that looks significantly different than today - are an excellent measure of investor sentiment. In that spirit, we examined past cycles of extreme valuations with the goal of understanding how they relate to investor sentiment and what they might tell us about market conditions and relative returns.

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After prolonged and noteworthy outperformance, Technology stocks lagged the market last summer and have again underperformed over the past month. Because this sector comprises the largest share of market capitalization, portfolio managers are forced to decide “What to do with Tech?”

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The S&P 500 and 10-Year Treasury bond yield could accomplish something fairly rare today by closing at “joint” 52-week highs. The relevant levels to meet or exceed are 3934.83 on the S&P 500 and 1.49% on the bond yield.

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It might seem like a silly question. After all, recently, New-Era stocks have clearly rolled over and fallen out of favor. Stronger economic growth (fueled by policy stimulus and reopenings) certainly benefits investments that are more sensitive to improved economic-recovery speed. This includes small caps, cyclical sectors, value stocks, and international equities.

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The Core CPI numbers were slightly below estimates easing inflation fears. Inflation in the Energy complex has driven headline inflation to a one year high. Readings over the next few months will be distorted as we reach the anniversary of last spring’s collapse.

 

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Read this week's Major Trend. 

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The financial markets have become obsessed with “Yield PRESSURE!” The 10-year Treasury yield has tripled from its low a year ago and has surged from below 1.0% to 1.6% since year-end. This pressure has killed bonds and is increasingly causing turbulence in the high-flying stock market.

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Considering how well the stock market has done this past year, it is not surprising that most indicators show optimism reigns on Wall Street. Individual and institutional investors, Wall Street strategists, and newsletter writers all currently have rosy outlooks.

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Equity investors have had a multi-year love affair with TINA—the belief that “There Is No Alternative” to stocks in a world of ridiculously-low interest rates. This TINA romance has carried on so long that the S&P 500 is nearing valuations last seen in the Tech bubble’s final inning. If the fling with TINA has become prohibitively expensive, we’d like to introduce “SAMARA.”

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Young readers sometimes give us a not-so-subtle roll of the eyes when we discuss any sort of stock market history that occurred before their date of birth, but it takes experience to appreciate that “there’s nothing new under the sun—least of all in the stock market.”

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The Reddit-driven January performance of heavily-shorted stocks reversed in February, but not nearly enough to reverse all the previous gains.

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The market focus has started to shift from a reflation trade to a real-yield tantrum. We compare the latest real-yield tantrum with four prior episodes where rate increases were driven by higher real yields, while breakeven rates were flat to lower: 2005, 2013, 2015, and 2018.

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We revisit the great divide that has emerged between companies and entire industries over the course of the past year. The fragmentation is, of course, the result of companies/industries that benefited from the pandemic environment, and those that were adversely affected.

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We’ve noticed a small segment of equity ETFs, designated as “thematic,” that is increasingly gaining popularity. Thematic ETFs invest in baskets of stocks that share narrowly-defined business enterprises outside of the standardized GICS methodology.

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Top decile valuations, such as those in place today, are usually the result of excessively positive investor sentiment that leads to inflated multiples. Bullishness comes in varying strengths: optimism, enthusiasm, exuberance, and, at the extreme, the mania of crowds. Leuthold research typically tracks valuation sentiment by examining median P/E ratios, but in this study, we are taking the opposite tack. Rather than looking at medians, we are focusing on the outliers in each tail of the valuation distribution.

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Inflation fears have justifiably ratcheted higher in recent weeks. The expected inflation rate embedded in the bond market (i.e., the 10-year breakeven rate) surged off a low last March to more than 1% above the 10-year Treasury yield. Industrial commodity prices have reached their highest levels since 2011, and the price of crude oil—tripling from year-ago levels—is now higher than before the pandemic.

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High growth rates, innovation, and disruption are defining traits of the companies that have powered the market to recent highs, and the ARK Innovators Fund (ARKK) is an example of today’s enthusiasm for visionary growth stocks. Recent returns and growth in AUM have been nothing short of spectacular, and ARKK has become symbolic of today’s style of new-era growth investing.

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Just a few quick thoughts on the pending minimum-wage hike, surging bond yields, and fund flows.

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Investors have developed many short-term sentiment gauges; for example, the various surveys of individual (AAII) and professional investors (Investor Intelligence), along with newsletter writers’ recommendations. There are also measures for bullishness/bearishness based on media stories, recent market performance (e.g., Advance/Decline, New Highs/New Lows, Up/Down Volume, the total return of different stock subsets), and assorted behavioral indicators—including margin buying, short-interest, put/call ratio, CFTC futures-position changes, MF/ETF fund flows, and future stock market volatility.

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