Inside The Stock Market ...trends, cross-currents, and outlook
In difficult market periods, Steve Leuthold liked to distinguish between conventionally oversold markets and those that had become “Jesus Christ oversold.” Recent action clearly qualifies as the latter. There are many ways to define a “dangerously” oversold condition, but the one that always raises our antenna is now flashing extreme selling pressure that might take longer than usual to mitigate.
There have been long-time divergences between blue chips and other market segments signaling that all is not “in gear” beneath the surface—but this cautionary activity never foretells the “timing.” Recently, Small Caps, the Value Line Arithmetic Composite, and Dow Transports staged pathetic bounces off the January 31st “Coronavirus 1.0” low, while the blue chips had strong momentum into mid-February. Normally, such divergences typically last for at least 3-4 months before they become meaningful.
The massive performance dispersion of the past two years makes it difficult (if not hazardous) to draw a simple conclusion about U.S. stock market valuations. But it’s safe to say that cap-weighted indexes like the S&P 500 and S&P Industrial Index remained significantly overvalued at the low point of the February correction.
We can’t count the number of times in the last week we’ve heard analysts worry about “what the Fed might know that we don’t.” In the words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”
There’s no question that it’s been a rough couple of years for stock market technicians. We noted earlier that if February 19th stands as the final high of the bull market, it would be only the third time in the last 100 years that the NYSE Daily Advance/Decline Line failed to provide at least a few months’ advance notice of the oncoming bear.
The past 26 months have been wild ones for equity investors, but one could have essentially matched the S&P 500’s healthy return of +18.1% with a portfolio that was evenly split between the “fear” assets of Treasury bonds and gold. REITs have been solid, too, but EAFE and the Russell 2000 are now both total return losers since the beginning of 2018.
A dramatic shift of country weights within EM indexes has become an inadvertent challenge for a country rotation strategy. Due to this, we tested the integration of a momentum-based sector rotation model to attain exposure to the top-rated sectors to represent the markets of the largest country components instead of seeking to obtain “whole market” exposure.
After last year’s spectacularly successful pivot following the December 2018 plunge, the thinking is that future rate hikes are the bull market’s only threat. Perhaps that will be the case; the belief is certainly well-supported by postwar U.S. economic history, but it also reveals a shocking lapse in short-term memory.
Based largely on the bearish trends in our monetary and liquidity measures, we were correctly negative on stocks throughout most of 2018. It’s therefore especially painful for us that 2019’s market rebound has been credited almost entirely to the “pivot” in most of those measures.
Market bulls rightly note that in the late 1990s, dozens of stocks exhibited Tesla-like action before the fun eventually came to an end. But we’d remind investors that the last few years have featured other “busted parabolics,” and all of them were followed in short order by broader market troubles.
We’ve discussed market analogies with the year 1999 at length, and will give it a rest for awhile—in part because parallels to the year 2000 have cropped up! In the first five weeks of 2020, the NASDAQ 100 has already outperformed the NYSE Composite by about 7%, while in the first five weeks of 2000 the spread was 8%.
Bulls who fashion themselves as contrarians argue that the public is nowhere near as infatuated with the stock market as they were in the late 1990s. It may come as a shock to our readers, but we agree with them.
With 2020 representing The Leuthold Group’s 40th year of publishing Perception For The Professional, we perused the first few Green Books for relevant nuggets from 1981, but the backdrop could not have been more different. Therefore, we instead turned the clock back 20 years, thinking it might yield insights more resonant with today’s environment.
After last year’s 30% S&P 500 gain, many strategists are now suggesting that the real melt-up still lies ahead. We think a melt-up has already occurred, and the bulk of it has been booked.
It’s no surprise that U.S. Large Caps were the #1 asset class performer in 2019. We were surprised that last year was the only one of the decade in which the S&P 500 won the annual performance derby. Here we review the annual performance of “Bridesmaid” asset class and sector, “Perfect Foresight,” and Lowest P/E sector.
Here are the historical annual performance results for the hypothetical Bridesmaid strategy.
Our work on the Bridesmaid momentum effect dates back to 2006, and was originally based on equity sectors rather than asset classes. Again, the hypothetical approach is to ignore macroeconomic trends, sector fundamentals, valuations, and the like, and to base sector selection solely on the prior year’s sector total return rankings.
2019 was the fourth consecutive year of underperformance by the annual Bridesmaid sector pick. Those poor results have trimmed the annualized “alpha” of the strategy to just +2.2% since 1991.
The “robustness” of the “Cheapest Sector Strategy” concept is illustrated by strong results across all rebalancing frequencies.
A way to gain perspective on the present is by trying to view it from the future. Ask yourself, “What are the signs of impending decline, now ignored by investors, that will one day be memorialized by the same investors as the most obvious in retrospect?”