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).
The bullish consensus seems to be that unlimited Fed liquidity will lift all stock market and economic boats. However, past liquidity floods have tended to lift boats that were already the most buoyant. The “Y2K Liquidity Facility” and last fall’s emergency Fed intervention in the overnight repo market are two cases in which liquidity seemed to flow to where it was needed the least.
For valuation work, we’ve traditionally favored the 1,200 company Leuthold Small Cap universe over the S&P SmallCap 600 because we get almost a full additional decade of perspective. But figures for the latter shed extra light on just how significant the revaluation in Small Caps has been.
This week’s massive stock market leadership flip has certainly remedied some of the breadth weakness we discussed in this month’s Green Book. But we can’t help wonder whether the move is analogous to performing a transplant on a 95-year-old. The patient might survive the surgery, then die while under anesthetic.
Similarities between 2019’s YTD up-move and the late-2018 recovery are so striking they must make even the most vociferous bear queasy. The trends are identical, but the magnitude of both the absolute and relative performance movements was greater in the earlier experience.
We thought Jerome Powell’s “Christmas Capitulation” would be tough to beat, but he accomplished that two days ago with what could be called his “Spring Surrender.” That, in turn, has rekindled hopes of a stock market melt-up along the lines of 1998-99, which, as old-timers will remember, followed a late-cycle correction that was nearly identical to the one seen last year.
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.
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?
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).
This bull market has appeared to be on shaky technical ground before, only for concerns to be swept aside. This time, we think it’s different.
The safest highs to sell in the stock market are “lonely” new highs. Fortunately, the April 24th bull market high in the S&P 500 was anything but, as that index enjoyed a varied swath of Large Cap, Small Cap, and foreign company (although the DJIA was a mysterious no-show).
Small Caps lagged the S&P 500 by almost ten percentage points in 2014, but their underperformance streak technically dates back to April 2011. Nonetheless, their cumulative, 45-month underperformance in relation to the S&P 500 (now about –18%) is still modest enough that any mention of the current “Large Cap Leadership Cycle” is bound to draw a few head scratches.
Market gains have been less broad than in 2012 and 2013; market direction and leadership have been mismatched; and quantitative factors have been choppy.
Market valuations and investor sentiment are a bit too inflated for our comfort, but the catalyst of the MTI’s drop to Neutral status two weeks ago was simply the action of the stock market itself. Specifically, we haven’t liked the disjointed nature of U.S. market action since about mid-March, where high-yielding and economically-defensive stocks have done the heavy lifting in the Dow and S&P 500 moves to all-time highs. This isn’t so much a change in leadership as an acceleration of an existing trend, and it’s now pronounced enough to weigh down a few of our technical measures.