Inside The Stock Market ...trends, cross-currents, and outlook
Small Caps lagged during the bounce off the March lows before a late-April spurt briefly pulled them ahead of the S&P 500. Still, considering that Russell 2000 losses were so much steeper than the S&P 500’s (-43% versus -33%), we would have expected something better.
If many of the typical leaders of a new bull market aren’t leading, what is? Technology, obviously—and the bigger, the better.
One would think that one of the most explosive market rallies of all time would trip-off all the traditional “breadth thrust” signals, or maybe even invent a few of its own. Sorry, no luck.
How does one value a stock market in which 12-month forward EPS estimates show their widest dispersion in history? A good start might be with methods we use when forward estimates show practically no dispersion (like three months ago). In either case, we place little weight on such estimates; each revision usually has only marginal impact on our 5-Year Normalized EPS.
A composite measure of Mid Caps and Small Caps are at bottom-decile valuations relative to their 26-year histories. From a shorter-term viewpoint, though, we find it scary that valuations are so low just a single month into the recession.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the “sell-side” investment community get about as cautious as it ever gets, recommending investors to “trim risky holdings on ‘up’ days” and “stay diversified.” However, these cheerleaders’ idea of diversification is usually to hold more equities in different sizes and styles.
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.
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.
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%.