Inside The Stock Market ...trends, cross-currents, and outlook
Twenty-one years ago, the bullish bets were on publicly-traded businesses (especially ones with dot-coms after their names). In contrast, today’s bulls seem more beguiled by bureaucrats—the central bankers who, having saved markets and the economy from catastrophe in the last year, are assumed to have mastered the business cycle.
Equity investors have had a multi-year love affair with TINA—the belief that “There Is No Alternative” to stocks in a world of ridiculously-low interest rates. This TINA romance has carried on so long that the S&P 500 is nearing valuations last seen in the Tech bubble’s final inning. If the fling with TINA has become prohibitively expensive, we’d like to introduce “SAMARA.”
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 “lower for longer” interest-rate thesis propped up the S&P 500 Low Volatility Index for more than a decade. Rising bond yields have since helped drive this former darling to an 18-year relative-strength low. Yet, assets in the S&P Low Volatility ETF are still five-times larger than its High-Beta counterpart.
Someday, we’ll have a chuckle with our (yet unborn) basketball-playing grandson about the time Shaquille O’Neal was able to raise several-hundred-million dollars in his second SPAC. But while these anecdotes get sillier and sillier, we have a personal bias toward speculative activity we can measure over time. That activity isn’t quite as alarming as the anecdotes, but it’s getting there.
We’ve noticed a small segment of equity ETFs, designated as “thematic,” that is increasingly gaining popularity. Thematic ETFs invest in baskets of stocks that share narrowly-defined business enterprises outside of the standardized GICS methodology.
Equities continue to benefit from an odd combination of faith and doubt in the Federal Reserve: Faith that the “Fed put” under financial markets is struck closer to the price of the “underlying” than ever before, and doubt that limitless liquidity will trigger a dangerous rise in consumer prices. In all fairness, this glass half full assessment is hardly a theoretical one, but one based on years of empirical evidence.
Stock market valuations may be considered the ultimate in fundamental measures, but they can just as easily be considered long-wave sentiment indicators. What causes equity investors to pay as little as 10x for S&P 500 Normalized Earnings at one point (March 2009), but pay more than 30x a dozen years later? The Fed printing press was in overdrive at both points; only emotions can account for the difference.
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.
The January moves in heavily shorted Micro Caps were more bizarre than anything we saw during the wildest days of the Tech bubble. Despite these signs of rampant stock speculation by the retail crowd, we still wouldn’t characterize today’s sentiment backdrop as frenzied as the peak levels of 1999-2000.
Early evidence suggests the Biden administration and the newly “purple” Senate will resist the pull of the far-left, at least from an economic perspective. Stock investors are cheering... though in light of their current euphoria, they might as well have celebrated a write-in victory for Ralph Nader alongside Green Party control of the Senate.