Inside The Stock Market ...trends, cross-currents, and outlook
The weekly covers of The Economist do a pretty good job of capturing the zeitgeist of global financial affairs, but there’s so much packed into every issue (and enough to do around our shop) that sometimes all we see are the covers. But we have to admit we’re disappointed in The Economist for the week ended July 31st. The “Free Money” theme is at least four months too late!
We get irked when TV pundits misrepresent the mood of equity investors as unduly pessimistic based one or two (or zero) data points. Among the dozens of “Attitudinal” indicators we track, an overwhelming majority show professional and retail investors have jumped back into the fray.
As we go to press (said no one in the digital age, ever!), the S&P 500 was moving to within a couple percentage points of its February 19th all-time high. Given still-high valuations for the blue chips and increasingly frothy sentiment, we think any break above that high will be underwhelming, if not a potentially historic “trap.”
July’s surge drove the yellow metal to the brink of its overvaluation threshold, where only 150 ounces of gold are required to buy the median-priced existing home (currently about $299,000). Impressively, gold made all but the last month of this move without attracting mainstream attention.
The bullish consensus seems to be that unlimited Fed liquidity will lift all stock market and economic boats. However, past liquidity floods have tended to lift boats that were already the most buoyant. The “Y2K Liquidity Facility” and last fall’s emergency Fed intervention in the overnight repo market are two cases in which liquidity seemed to flow to where it was needed the least.
We’ve written periodically about the likely distortion of market breadth figures resulting from High Frequency Trading, the domination of ETFs, and (we believe, most importantly) the decimalization of stock quotations. Our concerns led us to expand our technical arsenal, and one of the gems we uncovered in that process was the High/Low Logic Index (HLLI).
While investors cheer the stock market on to challenge its all-time high, new COVID-19 cases are also making daily records in the U.S. The first wave of the pandemic helped to tank the S&P 500 by nearly 30% in the course of three weeks, while the second wave, now in development, has yet to deter the raging bulls.
The bull and bear labels can be dangerous to stock market operators, so much so that famed speculator Jesse Livermore is said to have abandoned them in favor of softer terminology: “Lines of least resistance.” We aren’t about to ditch the old labels, or even our collection of bull and bear bookends.
Stocks (and more specifically, U.S. blue chips) did not fully (nor even approximately) discount the economic calamity. The result is that, in just over two months, the “baby bull”—if that’s what it is—has achieved what took his legendary predecessor more than eight years to accomplish: Top 25x on our Normalized P/E.
Our VLT Momentum algorithm was driven into oversold territory for at least a few months in all prior postwar bears. It didn’t happen yet this spring, which implies that the “grieving process” was neither deep enough nor long-lasting enough to set the stage for anything like a repeat of last decade’s bull. Most of our valuation work says exactly the same thing.
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.