Spring break … or compound fracture

DJIA:  32,620

Spring break … or compound fracture.  Little question there has been a break in the uptrend, but not one compounded by a poor overall technical backdrop.  The Dow and S&P are only a few days from their highs, far more importantly, the Advance-Decline index is only a few days from its high. This is not how important weakness begins.  Different this time, however, is the divergence between markets, the S&P, Dow and the NASDAQ 100 – the divergence between stay-at-home and re-open.  That the Dow was down three points and the NAZ 200 Wednesday may say it all.  The problem there, and it was true Wednesday, the bad begin to drag down the good – the idea you had better sell before someone else does. Tech may be washed out, or close, and that’s needed.  Meanwhile, we’re still all in on re-open/reflation.

The dramatic weakness in bonds against the dramatic strength in equities was expected to cause some rebalancing at the end of the quarter.  While we don’t typically place much emphasis on such things, the disparity this time is such that it could well be responsible for some of the equity weakness.  If it is, we’ve noticed it hasn’t had an effect on McDonald’s (224), let alone a dramatic one.  Rather than stay at home, McDonald’s is stay in your car, a new category?  The point is it’s still about the right stocks, and a number of defensive names have been improving – the PG‘s (134) and Colgate’s (78).  Rather than knee-jerk reaction to the recent weakness, the charts really aren’t bad, for example, see the SPDR Consumer Staples ETF (XLP – 67).  We are as tired of it as anyone, but welcome to a little more rotation.  Still, it’s preferable to all in on the downside.

As re-opening has come to dominate as a theme, Growth and Tech has suffered.  That’s not true of all Tech, however, as might be seen in the musketeers of yore – Cisco (51), Intel (62) and Oracle (69). It’s enough to make you miss 2000.  These all have remarkably good charts, especially in light of those Tech charts generally.  Just what’s behind the renaissance is hard to say, at Intel it would seem the new management and at Oracle we suppose it’s just that Larry Ellison never goes away.  That they should be outperforming the rest of Tech also seems about the theme we have stressed for a while now – how much of any of these do you own?  Much like the re-open versus stay at home stocks, these retro – Techs are under owned.

Cathie, as we all have come to know her, has her themes.  Certainly one is genomics, biotech to most of us, as per her ARK Genomics Revolution ETF (ARKG – 85).  It’s hard not to like biotech in terms of its life enhancing potential and as an area immune, so to speak, to the vagaries of stay-at-home/re-open.  That said, over the years we have seen the stocks cycle, and for now the cycle seems down.  Her ETF, the NAZ Biotech ETF and the SPDR Bio ETF look surprisingly the same, even more surprising given the XBI is equal weight.  Great stock picker that she may be, this would seem to suggest the trend is a bit all encompassing.  As we said, we’ve seen these cycles, and would harken to add the long-term trend here is excellent.  To flip the medium term trend, however, will take a move above the respective 50 day moving averages, something like 100 for ARKG.

The 12 months just ended were the best in the history of the S&P.  Since the index hit bottom after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has gained more than 70%.  Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank puts the return in perspective, having back calculated the index to 1929.  Other than the rebounds following the great crashes there has never been a 12 month period like this.  Strategists at LPL Financial cited the S&P’s performance other years after falling more than 30%.  It was the first year ever the S&P was down 30+ percent and ended in the green.  They identified five other instances since World War II and found that the S&P rose every time in the second year.  Gains for that year averaged 17%, according to Bloomberg.  That said, no one said straight up.

Frank D. Gretz

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US Strategy Weekly: Does the Market Believe the Fed?

The financial media is asking whether the stock market believes the Fed in terms of its future plans for monetary policy, and we feel the only answer to this question is yes. In fact, the answer is obvious since the indices would not have made all-time highs earlier this week if investors did not believe Chairman Jerome Powell and the Fed. Based upon the unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus promised by the federal government and the Federal Reserve, we believe investors should maintain a bullish bias. But at the same time, we remain very alert to anything that could jeopardize the consensus view that the economy will remain strong, interest rates will remain low, and earnings growth will continue to be solid in 2021 and 2022. In our opinion, there are risks to this view and they include the 9.5 million people unemployed, rising crude oil prices and margin pressure threats. So, the better question would be should the market believe the Fed?  

The Fed will be meeting this week and reporting on Wednesday when it will release both economic and interest rate forecasts as well as its statement. These will be closely analyzed by economists. Most expect the Fed’s statement will imply that interest rates are not likely to be raised until 2023. However, the consensus view regarding the end of quantitative easing has shifted to this November from November 2022. We do not expect the Fed will upset the consensus this week, particularly with a new administration in office for barely two months. But recent data shows there could be a growing inflation scare materializing in coming months. In sum, be bullish, but stay on high alert.

Inflation Can Bite

February’s inflation data was comfortably benign on the surface with headline CPI rising 1.7% YOY and core CPI rising a subdued 1.3% YOY. However, as seen in the table on page 3, February’s inflation was restrained by the 3.6% decline in apparel. Meanwhile most components of the CPI rose faster than the headline level. Fuel and utility prices rose 3.4% YOY while food and beverage prices rose 3.5% YOY. This means that prices of household necessities were increasing at a 3.5% YOY pace, well above the headline rate. In February, the PPI for finished goods rose 2.4% YOY and PPI for final demand rose 2.8% YOY. However, all inflation measures are impacted by the price of oil, which at the end of February was up 27% year-to-date and 37% YOY. In fact, at the current crude oil price of $64.97, oil prices are up 34% year-to-date and possibly up 220% YOY at the end of March. This will have a significant impact on March inflation data. In fact, even if the PPI for finished goods remains unchanged in March it will still be up 4.1% YOY. In our view, inflation comparisons will become very unfriendly as we approach the anniversary of the lows of March and April 2020.

Economists focus on core CPI due to the fact that food and energy prices can be erratic. Food prices are often impacted by droughts, storms, and other natural disasters but prices usually recover in a new planting season. Fuel prices can be influenced by politics and other temporary factors that change the short-term supply/demand balance. And as seen in the charts on page 4, energy prices have been extremely volatile since OPEC’s oil embargo of October 1973.

Energy prices dropped dramatically in response to the shutdown of the global economy last year, and this has kept Inflation subdued. However, that benefit is fading and could clearly reverse with vaccines becoming more plentiful and with an administration that is unfriendly to the energy sector. See page 5. Rising fuel costs will have many repercussions; and in 2021, the trend in crude oil may be a key driver of interest rates. We previously pointed out the strong connection oil and interest rates have had since 2015. At present both appear to be moving higher in tandem. See page 6. The consensus view is that a 10-year Treasury yield above 2.4% could negatively impact Fed policy and rates of 2.8% or more will hurt the economy. Rising inflation will also decrease the buying power of consumers and thereby lower corporate profits. Note that for most of the last eight years, average weekly earnings have grown well above the rate of inflation. But as inflation rises, this could shift and thereby restrain consumption. All in all, rising crude oil prices threaten monetary policy, interest rates, household consumption, the economy, and earnings. We see rising crude oil prices as the number one threat of the year.

The chart of the 10-year Treasury yield shows it has broken above resistance at 1.45% and technically this points to a new higher trend for interest rates. The first range of resistance is seen at the 1.75% to 1.85% level and secondarily at 2.1%. However, the more substantial resistance is noted at 2.4% which is the level that most economists believe would threaten the Fed’s current easy monetary policy. The chart suggests this is possible. See page 7.

Retail sales fell a disappointing 3.0% in February, but still rose 6.3% YOY. As seen on page 8, February’s 6.3% increase was down from a 9.5% gain in January. Declines were substantial and broadly based with only gas stations rising 3.6% and grocery store sales rising 0.1% for the month. Year-over-year changes were diverse, ranging from negative 17% at restaurants to positive 25.9% at nonstore retailers. These sales declines were the result of fading federal stimulus, but February should be a one-off statistic since another round of stimulus checks will begin to reach consumers in March.

The NFIB small business optimism index ticked up from 95.0 in January to 95.8 in February, but the report was fairly glum with sales expectations, the outlook for expansion, and inventory plans all falling two points apiece. Capital expenditure plans and hiring plans each rose one point. The outlook for business conditions rose from -23 to -19 and credit expectations fell from -3 to -6. In general, the NFIB survey report was uninspiring. See page 10.

New 2022 S&P Earnings Estimates

This week S&P Dow Jones initiated a 2022 S&P 500 earnings estimate of $199.50 which joins the Refinitiv IBES estimate of $201.64. We are also initiating a 2022 earnings estimate this week at of $200. This represents an 18.6% gain over our 2021 estimate of $168.60. Note that a 20 PE multiple to earnings of $200 equate to an SPX target of 4000. See page 12 and 19.

Technical Update

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently 1.55 (preliminary) and neutral this week despite the March 15 highs in all the indices. However, if the indices continue to move into new high ground, we should see this indicator attain another overbought reading to demonstrate that volume is confirming price moves. This oscillator was last in overbought territory for five consecutive trading days between February 4 and February 10 when several momentum indicators peaked. Five days overbought is a minimum confirmation for any bull market advance. See page 14.

The 10-day average of daily new highs is 496, well above the bullish 100 which defines a bull market. The 10-day average of daily new lows (68) is below the 100 that defines a bear market, yet it is well above the 10 or less that signals an extreme in a bull market advance. The 10-day new high average reached 521 on February 17, exceeding the 489 recorded January 22, 2000. We view this as a potential yellow flag since the 2000 advance peaked in March. The A/D line made its last confirming record high on March 15, 2021, which is positive. AAII bullish sentiment for March 11 rose 9.1 points to 49.4%, a 16-week high, and has been above average for 15 of the last 17 weeks. Bearishness fell 1.8 points to 23.5% and is below its historical average of 30.5% for the fifth consecutive week. The 8-week spread remains neutral. In sum, the lack of extremes in all the technical indicators is positive for the bulls.

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Woodstock is a fond memory …

DJIA:  30,924

Woodstock is a fond memory … will the same be true of Wood’s stocks?  Cathie Wood has garnered quite a bit of fame, and deservedly so.  Those ARK Funds which she founded were up a gazillion percent last year, but who’s counting.  Nonetheless, we always find it a bit risky when everyone knows your name, so to speak.  It certainly proved so for Gerry Tsai when, after his success at Fidelity, he founded the Manhattan Fund in 1965.  By 1969 the funds collapsed, losing 90% of their value.  While his was an aggressive style of growth stock investing, that of Bill Miller’s was a value style of investing.  His fame resided in his record of beating the S&P for 15 years in a row.  When the market turned against value in 2006, a run of underperformance left him lagging the S&P by 50%.  Changing fortunes in both cases were not a matter of intelligence, it was a matter of changing investment styles.  For now it’s about reopen/reflate, if that can be called a style.  Cathie Wood isn’t exactly covered in that look.

They say rising rates don’t matter if they’re rising because the economy is improving.  For Tech investors, that turned out to be a big fat lie, as last Thursday and most days since then have made clear.  You pay-up for Tech when Tech is the only growth in town, but in an improving economy there’s plenty of growth to be found – commodities, industrials and so on.  And, of course, most if not all Tech has had a good run.  Unless it’s their mandate, Tech investors likely are waking up to the idea they’re in the wrong stocks.  It’s always a bit of a mystery as to what triggers market moves.  After all, the bond hit last Thursday, 2/25, was an attention getter, but the real break began back on 2/12.  In any event, as often happens, it’s not whether you’re in the market it’s where you’re in.  The Tech bashing has left only around 10% of the NAZ stocks above their 10 day average, obviously pretty extreme and likely time for some reprieve.

The 50 day moving average isn’t exactly the riddle of existence, that would be those other numbers, the 1+1 = 2, 2 +1 = 3, and so on – those numbers.  While many Italians were about the serious work of discovering pizza, a guy named Fibonacci really was about discovering the riddle of existence, at least as it applies to nature’s code.  Each number of his sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it, and it is said to govern the dimensions of everything from the great pyramid of Giza to the iconic seashell.  The ratio of the numbers in the sequence, as the sequence goes to infinity, approaches the golden ratio, the most pleasing angle in nature.  Naturally technical analysis has glommed onto this to explain movements in the stock market, the so-called “Fib Retracements” of roughly one-third and two-thirds.  Far less esoteric is the everyman’s 50 day moving average, yet it has managed to hold in check the recent declines in both the Dow and the S&P.  Again under threat, it would be best to see it continue to hold.

It’s not surprising that consumer staples are lagging.  First it was a market all about tech, and now it seems all about the reflation trades of commodities and industrials.  There hasn’t been much need for, or room for staples.  And to look at a stock like Clorox (178), you can believe every closet runneth over.  Still, lagging is one thing, of late they’ve turned outright weak.  Typically the stocks offer a bit of a counter market trade – down in good markets but up in weakness.  Last week that changed, with notable breaks in stocks like Procter & Gamble (122) and the SPDR Staples ETF (XLP – 63).  The explanation, we suppose, is there is still money out there but it’s not infinite.  The money going into the reflation trades has come from Tech, but likely from these dormant staple stocks as well.  By the look of the charts, this doesn’t seem about to change.  Despite their numbers, the good news is the poor action here hasn’t had a dramatic effect on market breadth.

It’s a good time to be a technical analyst rather than one of those funny mental types.  Looking at price-to- sales, the S&P is the most expensive ever and information technology is almost as expensive as 2000.  How in good conscience can those guys be bullish?  We technicians can be bullish because we understand it’s liquidity that drives markets, and there is still plenty around.  We always refer to the Advance-Decline Index as a guide to whether the average stock is keeping pace with the stock averages, an important measure of the market’s health.  These simple numbers, stocks up and stocks down, tell you something about liquidity as well.  There were more than 3000 NYSE stocks up on Monday – that takes money.  What seems important now is where the money is going, and that would be to the reflation/re-opening stocks.  Tech isn’t going away, but it likely will underperform.  The stay-at- home stocks, like Zoom Video (343) and Peloton (105), they could go away.

Frank D. Gretz

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