Growth and Tech have been the flagrant winners YTD, yet the SVB crisis triggered further bifurcation: Since SVB failed, it’s been important to own only “big” Growth and “big” Technology, amplifying the multiples of monster stocks, like MSFT and AAPL. Can a major market low occur when investors are herded in a handful of the most richly-priced public companies in history?
In the middle of the last decade, we marveled at the Tech sector’s ability to flog the rest of the market quarter after quarter, with no meaningful breakout in valuations. Specifically, the median Price/Cash Flow ratio for S&P 500 Technology managed to “hug” the 15x level for about four years beginning in late 2013. Tech’s post-COVID boom is nothing of the sort.
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.
In the 24 months leading up to its early-September peak, the S&P 500 Technology sector gained 68%. By comparison, the two-year S&P 500 Technology gain going into its March-2000 peak was 203%. The S&P SmallCap 600 Technology Index doubled in the 23 months leading into the early-2000 top versus the two-year gain of just 6% at its 2020-summer peak.
Look, quick! Before it reverses! The Top-5 firms in the S&P 500 have underperformed in September! I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive my sense of urgency, but the astounding speed and consistency in which these firms have outperformed may have burned the notion into my brain that they can only “go up” (or at the very least beat the index).
The S&P 500 record median profit margin of 10.3% is now almost a full percentage point above the last cycle’s peak of 9.4% (second quarter of 2007). Trends across S&P sectors are not as uniform as one might expect, though, with only half of the ten sectors last quarter at profitability levels that exceeded their 2001-2007 expansion highs.
- Our quantitative work on technology remains poor, and only a single tech subgroup—Technology Distributors—makes our current Attractive list. Per the Group Selection disciplines, there are currently no technology stocks in our Select Industries portfolio.
- Tech’s underperformance has helped restore better relative value to the sector, but valuations aren’t yet cheap enough for a big “reversion-to-the mean” bet.