Equity market themes have been boringly consistent of late; growth beating value, large beating small, and domestic beating international. In the factor world, Momentum and Low Volatility have been investor favorites for most of 2019 while Value resided in last place – the same old, same old. Then, something remarkable occurred on September 9th.
The Momentum style—in which investors buy what has been going up recently—represents an optimistic, hopeful, “I’ll take some of that” mentality. The Low Volatility factor entails a pessimistic, fearful outlook in which investors want (or need) to stay invested in stocks but desire downside protection in case the market performs badly.
Momentum is a smart beta factor that gives investors excellent upside participation in rising markets. Most other smart beta factors are defensive plays, so Momentum is the place to be in strong upward moves. Momentum filled that role admirably in recent years, rising 56% from 2016 to the September top, compared to an average of +26% for the other major factors.
Quality is one of the most popular and successful of the equity market’s quant factors. It is intuitively appealing and serves as a useful defensive strategy in falling markets. Low Volatility and Dividend Growth are also defensive factors, while Momentum and High Beta are viewed as aggressive or bullish factors. These offsetting behaviors would seem to make for excellent diversification opportunities in equity portfolios, and for the most part, that is true.
We wrote in the January Green Book that the S&P 500 Christmas Eve low did not have the “right look,” in that: (1) there had been no sign of “smart money” accumulation beforehand; and, (2) downside momentum was also at a new low for the entire correction. Smart money buying is measured by the Smart Money Flow Index, which evaluates trends in first half-hour market action (considered to be more emotional and news-driven), and the last hour of trading (viewed to be more informed and institutional in nature).
For at least the last year we have argued that late bull market conditions would tend to reward momentum strategies over mean-reverting ones. That’s played out not only during the market’s melt-up phase, but also (to our surprise) during the recent two-week air-pocket, at a time when we would have expected to see at least a temporary setback in the ratio above.
Last month we assessed the effectiveness of using valuation factors as a basis for country allocation. Using 20 years of data, our results showed that they work quite well specifically for Emerging Market (EM) country-rotation, however, the same valuation-based strategy does not appear to be value-added for Developed Market (DM) allocation/rotation.
Two years ago, we played the role of the bull market’s mortician, preparing it for burial after a six-year run that had taken it to valuations on par with those at the 2007 top.
After a two-month lull, stock market momentum reasserted itself in May bringing our summer S&P 500 target of 2,600 back into focus… Meanwhile, we’ve fielded several media calls about the “FANG” stocks’ large contribution to some YTD returns—but that doesn’t diminish the new highs being made elsewhere by disparate groups… NYSE Weekly A/D Line and New Highs/Lows figures also suggest the stock market isn’t yet top-heavy enough to tip over.