Data included in the accompanying tables are normally placed in the Green Book’s Appendix, but we added them here to make an important point: Deteriorating market breadth and Small-Cap underperformance are not necessarily the same thing.
We don’t know enough about banking-system mechanics to conclude if the Fed’s balance-sheet increase associated with March’s bank bailout constitutes a new round of QE. But if it is, we’re skeptical equity investors should celebrate it. In fact, those running Small-Cap portfolios should probably fear it!
The progression of bullish technical evidence since October’s S&P 500 low is compelling, though not overwhelming. With that low now almost four months behind us, the VLT Momentum oscillator for the S&P 500 probably “should” have already triggered a new BUY signal. Yet, both the S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite are still holding out.
We’ve reminded dejected readers throughout 2022 that this year was statistically “cursed” from the onset. It’s a year ending in “2” and a Shmita year on the Jewish calendar, both of which have been associated with far below average stock market returns. More importantly, it’s a midterm election year, traditionally the weakest of the four-year cycle.
Leuthold did not invent VLT. The credit goes to Sedge Coppock, a technical analyst who insisted on being called an “econometrician.” While the famed Coppock Curve was based on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Leuthold found the algorithm useful at the industry group level—it is a component within our Group Selection (GS) Scoring system.
Yesterday, the Russell 2000 closed down 20.9% from its November 8th high, and market bulls have conceded it was “due” for a pullback after a 146% gain off the March-2020 COVID lows.
The Russell’s decline is moderate by the historical high-beta standards of Small Caps. However, this drop—combined with other developments transpiring over the last few years—has produced a shocking result: The Russell 2000 is now unchanged on an inflation-adjusted basis since its “Quantitative-Tightening Top” of August 31, 2018. But what a three-year ride it’s been!
One measure of a bubbly bull market is the degree of speculative fervor embedded in the prices of companies with nebulous, indeterminate, or even nonexistent intrinsic values. Since the bear market low in March 2020, speculative manias have evolved in a menagerie of asset classes including Innovators & Disruptors, SPACs, meme stocks, crypto currencies, and NFTs. Based on the breadth of valuation extremes across numerous and diverse assets, this bull market may rank second to none.
Despite elevated uncertainty over pandemic developments and expected policy tightening, and in the face of aggressive valuations, the S&P 500 still managed to gain a delightful +28.7% in 2021. Even more noteworthy, in our opinion, is that this advance came with nary a single correction of more than 10%.
Small Cap median valuations are among the highest in our 40-year database, but they are bottom quintile versus the nose-bleed level of the median Large Cap. If this Small Cap leadership cycle only matches the shortest one on record, it will last another three years. Based on the valuation gap, that guess seems conservative.
Small cap stocks are often seen as a bullish, risk-on, pro-cyclical asset class. They benefit from economic growth, rising inflation, widening margins, and the willingness of investors to move out on the risk spectrum. The pandemic recovery has created these very conditions, and small caps responded right on cue by posting a blockbuster price gain of 130% since the COVID-19 bear market low of March 23, 2020. Because the pandemic was a global economic and health care catastrophe, we were curious to see if small caps behaved similarly in other regions.
Our ongoing research into the relative performance of active vs. passive styles reveals that market conditions play a significant role in the active/passive return cycle. We identified a set of metrics that describe the market conditions we believe influence which management style is more likely to outperform. This note updates our data through March 2021.
Technical analysts continue to be aghast at the relentlessly “overbought” readings generated by Small Cap stock indexes. However, last month we noted that such extremes had previously presented themselves only at the early or middle phases of a Small Cap leadership cycle—never at the end of such cycles.
The recent months’ surge in Small Caps has been historic, and the Russell 2000 continues to register ridiculously “overbought” readings on many technical oscillators. In the short-term, that might be a cause for caution on the overall market. However (and perhaps counter-intuitively), this extreme strength cements our view that a long-term leadership cycle in Small Caps is underway.
In the extreme case where one possesses no other information beyond last year’s total returns, the best single-asset strategy has been to buy the second-best performer (the “Bridesmaid”) and hold it for the next twelve months in hopes that the prior year’s momentum will carry it through. That approach has beaten the S&P 500 by 3.7% annualized over the past 48 years.
Cap-weighted valuations for the S&P 500 and S&P Industrials are homing in on the all-time records seen in the first quarter of 2000. We’ll confess that after those valuations collapsed in the years that followed, we thought we’d never see them again in our lifetime—let alone a mere generation later.
Driven by massive government stimulus, an imminent vaccine rollout, and the expectation of record earnings in 2021, investors seem to be on the verge of embracing a move away from Large Cap Growth stocks in earnest. The leading candidates offered as broad-based alternatives to Large Growth (LG) include Value, Small Caps, and Emerging Markets.
Our Very Long Term (VLT) Momentum algorithm has been a very good “confirmatory” market tool over the years, especially at the onset of a new cyclical bull market. But VLT has proven to be of little to no value in navigating this year’s gyrations. VLT’s latest flip-flops reinforce our view that the market leaderboard is set to be rearranged.
The big jump in Small Caps over the last two weeks has entirely reversed the segment’s summer underperformance and has technicians feverish about another “breath thrust.” Technically, it’s impressive, but we are more intrigued by the fundamental potential for continued Small Cap (and Mid Cap) outperformance.
Mid and Small Cap stocks underperformed in 2018 and 2019. However, after the collapse of February and March, these “SMID” Caps have largely kept pace with the torrid rebound in the blue chips. Today’s valuations are priming the SMIDs for a similar “decoupling” in the years ahead, like that following Y2K.