While our breadth measures do not consider this rally to be thrust-worthy, when based on nothing more than performance, it’s difficult to distinguish between the “first up-leg” in a new bull market and a bear-market rally. The vital signs at present appear to be more in-line with the latter (although making that conclusion based on price action, alone, is hardly better than a coin toss).
Bulls have been quick to assure us that this market “bears” no resemblance to the dot-com bust. We agree—but probably for very different reasons. Among them are the conventional breadth measures, which provided little warning of this year’s January peak. And, the initial decline off January’s top has been much broader than during the first phase of the dot-com bust.
We wrote in the latest Green Book that a breadth indicator that should be more well-known than it is—the High/Low Logic Index (or HLLI)—had moved to “maximum negative” right at the cycle high in the NASDAQ Composite on November 19th. Specifically, the 10-week moving average of this indicator showed a perilous internal condition in which too many NASDAQ stocks were reaching 52-week New Highs and New Lows simultaneously. That’s the very definition of a “fractured” market, and has preceded some important NASDAQ declines. There have also been a couple of premature warnings, as in the summers of 1996 and 2019.
In the week ended July 23rd, the NASDAQ accomplished a rare feat by closing at a 52-week high at the same time that more of its members were pegging 52-week New Lows than New Highs. That last occurred at the exact NASDAQ high preceding the GFC collapse; there was also a timely warning ahead of the crash of 1987.
Technicians are collectively bullish because of the absence of any serious internal divergences. But, severe corrections can erupt with little, or no advance warning from a deterioration in breadth and leadership. In fact, the first few years of the last bull market provided two such examples (mid-2010 and mid-2011).
One would think that one of the most explosive market rallies of all time would trip-off all the traditional “breadth thrust” signals, or maybe even invent a few of its own. Sorry, no luck.
The granddaddy of all technical indicators—the NYSE Daily Advance/Decline Line—continues to make new highs alongside the S&P 500, suggesting the market should move to even higher (but perhaps narrower) highs well into the fall. As noted a month ago, we increasingly suspect that granddaddy may be telling a lie.
It’s difficult to knock a stock market in which Small Caps and major breadth measures are making frequent new highs, however, there are performance anomalies that suggest liquidity is no longer sufficient to “float all boats.” Recent underperformance of the Equal Weighted S&P 500 is a case in point, at the same time, the current dichotomy in market breadth pales in comparison to the 1999-2000 episode.
Yes, bulls and bears now hold their respective positions for the same reason—i.e., the U.S. economy is exceptionally strong. The stock market is accommodating this rare bipartisanship with sufficient reason to support either position.
Last week’s piece challenged the now popular view that new highs for the Russell 2000 are a decisively bullish factor for the stock market in the near term. To our surprise, we found that market returns during periods of well-defined Small Cap leadership are significantly lower than when Smalls are laggards.
So, what happened to the January Barometer—the old analyst’s maxim that a market gain in January portends a gain for the full year?
We revisit our “Red Flag Indicator” of prior bull market tops versus today. Usually most of these internal market measures will deteriorate in advance of the final bull market peak. At the latest S&P high, three of the seven leading measures had raised Red Flags, by not confirming, but two of them (DJ Transports and the NYSE A/D Line), are within just ticks of new bull market highs.
The stock market rally has carried far enough to flip some of our trend-following work bullish, lifting the Major Trend Index to a low-neutral reading. The improvement prompted an increase in asset allocation portfolios’ net equity exposure to 42% (up from 36% previously).