US Strategy Weekly: Debt and Ownership

The 2020 gains in the popular indices are remarkable, yet surprisingly disparate. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 5.8% year-to-date. The S&P 500 has done somewhat better with a 14.4% gain. A sharp end of the year advance in small capitalization stocks drove the Russell 2000 to a year-to-date gain of 17.5%; however, it is the technology-laden Nasdaq Composite that is this year’s hard-to-beat champion with a 40.4% year-to-date gain. The Nasdaq’s performance has been extraordinary in 2020 and we would note that some bull market cycles do not experience a 40%+ gain and over the last 90 years the average gain in the S&P 500, prior to a 10% correction, has been 58%. Perhaps more significant is the fact that this 40.4% gain is nearly seven times the advance in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the same time period. Since the March 2020 lows, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 have rebounded 62% and 65%, respectively. After recording fresh new highs this week, the Nasdaq Composite and the Russell 2000 have rallied 84% and 95.5%, respectively off those lows. It has been a spectacular year for investors, particularly since it also included the worst recession since the Great Depression and a bear market in earnings.

Investors have written off 2020 earnings and instead focused on the projected rebound in 2021 earnings. But even so, the stock market is not cheap. It is pretty clear that third quarter earnings estimates were better than expected but with third quarter earnings season practically complete, estimates are now stabilizing. In the week ended Friday, IBES consensus estimates rose $0.12 for 2020, $0.33 for 2021 and $0.43 for 2022. S&P Dow Jones consensus estimates were relatively unchanged and increased $0.05 for 2020 and $0.01 for 2021. Overall, the consensus estimates for 2021 are currently $169.18 for IBES and $166.20 for S&P Dow Jones. If one applies a 20 multiple to the IBES $169.18 forecast, it equates to an SPX target of 3384 for yearend 2021. The stock market is currently 8.5% above this target. While it is possible that earnings could outperform 2021 estimates, it seems the market has already factored positive earnings surprises in to current prices. More specifically, at SPX 3695, the 2021 year-end forecasted PE ratio for the S&P 500 is 22.2 X. The trailing operating PE ratio is 30.6 X which is higher than the June 1999 peak multiple of 29.3 X and the December 2001 peak multiple of 29.6 X.

Liquidity Wins
While we are worried about rich fundamentals, it is clear that the stock market is being driven by liquidity and as we have often noted it is not wise to “fight the Fed.” However, the market is priced for perfection, could be vulnerable to unexpected shocks and caution is warranted. As noted in previous weeks, some of our long-term indicators suggest that the market is apt to underperform over the next twelve-month period. However, this “underperformance” does not mean 2021 is destined to be a boring market. The new year could be an unusually volatile time including at least one big advance and a large decline. If so, investors should stay alert. It is wise to have stocks in one’s portfolio that can weather the volatility ahead and/or are good long-term holdings for good and bad times.

Assessing Debt and Ownership
Given our concerns about a liquidity driven market we are focused on factors that help define an equity bubble such as leverage, debt, and equity over-ownership. The Federal Reserve released financial data last week for the third quarter and it held few surprises.

Federal Debt Levels are Worrisome
Total outstanding US debt was a record $59 trillion in September, up from $53.9 trillion at the end of 2019. US debt represented 280% of nominal GDP in the third quarter, is up from 248% at the end of 2019 and is greater than the previous record of 273% of GDP recorded in 1933. See page 3.

Federal government debt grew at an annualized rate of 11.4% in the first quarter, 59% in the second quarter and 9.1% in the third quarter. It was a record $22.5 trillion in September and jumped from 87% of GDP in June to 106.3% in September. This compares to the record 110.3% of GDP recorded in 1944. Rising government debt is not a surprise given the fiscal stimulus provided during the shutdown; however, they are concerning when put into an historical perspective. See page 4.

Household debt is the second largest sector after the federal government, and it grew 5.6% in the third quarter due to an escalation in mortgages. The household’s total debt was nearly $16.2 trillion in September and represented 76.5% of GDP. However, this percentage is well below the 98.2% of GDP seen at the end of 2008 prior to the financial crisis in mortgages. In general, household debt has been fairly contained in 2020. The financial sector is also in good shape and its $17.3 trillion in debt represents 81.9% of GDP and is well below the 2008 peak of 123.7%. A healthy banking system is important for the overall economy and so is a financially stable household sector. Corporate debt actually declined in the third quarter after double digit growth in the first two quarters of the year. See pages 5 and 6. All in all, there were few surprises in this year’s debt accumulation, most of which has been due to fiscal spending. Our main concern for federal deficits would be sharply higher interest rates which would compound federal deficits going forward.

Stock Ownership Helps Net Worth but Needs Monitoring
The Federal Reserve also released household net worth and equity ownership data last week. After increasing a solid 12% in 2019, household net worth increased 4.4% in the first three quarters of 2020 to $123.5 trillion. In 2019, the increase in household net worth was due primarily to a 27.5% increase in equity holdings. In 2020 the increases in household net worth were a combination of a 16.6% increase in cash, due in large part to fiscal stimulus, and a 5.5% increase in tangible assets, primarily real estate. Equity holdings only increased 3.3% in the nine months ended September. This may be surprising to some, but remember, in the first nine months of the year the SPX gained 4.1% and the DJIA lost 2.7%. In short, it was a dull first three quarters. But we expect stock market gains will boost household net worth in the fourth quarter.

We are closely watching the relationship between equity and real estate ownership within the household sector. It is normal for residential real estate, or a home, to be a family’s main asset and thus represent the main pillar of net worth. But in the third quarter, the household sector showed equity holdings of $35.6 trillion, an amount that easily exceeded real estate holdings of $31.2 trillion. Since 1952, there have only been four other quarters in which equity ownership was greater than real estate ownership. These were the fourth quarter of 2019, the third quarter of 2018, the first quarter of 2000 and the fourth quarter of 1999. Each of these previous quarters were followed by sharp stock market corrections. More important, the two back-to-back quarters of high equity ownership in late 1999 and early 2000 represented the end of the 1997-2000 stock market bubble. See page 8. This is a worrisome precedent. We are also watching for extreme levels of equity ownership relative to total assets which could represent a saturation of demand. This can be measured as equities as a percentage of total assets and/or as a percentage of financial assets. In the third quarter, equities were 25.4% of total assets versus the 2000 peak of 26.4%. Equities were 22.6% of financial assets versus the March 2000 peak of 24.2%. Given the rally seen in equities in recent months, these percentages are apt to increase in the fourth quarter. In short, it is possible that equities are approaching an over-ownership situation. See page 9. In sum, the current advance has excellent momentum, but be alert to any and all pitfalls.

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US Strategy Weekly: Liquidity Wins

We focus on three issues this week. The first is that technical indicators have finally and whole-heartedly confirmed the current advance. The second is that even though third quarter earnings estimates are beating expectations, it has little relevance to a market that has been focused on 2021 forecasts since March. Based on 2021 earnings estimates, equities are priced for perfection and this is certainly a cause for concern. And third, recent data releases are defining a pattern of economic deceleration. This is also worrisome. This combination of deteriorating economics/fundamentals and strengthening price action can only be explained by the fact that liquidity is driving the equity market.

Several indicators that we monitor suggest the market is likely to underperform over the next twelve to eighteen months. But bear in mind that this does not mean 2021 is destined to be a boring market. It is more likely that 2021 could contain several bull and bear market cycles that result in little gain in the end. Investors should prepare for an unusual environment and adjust portfolios so that they can weather extreme volatility.

Economic data for November was generally disappointing. The unemployment rate declined in November to 6.7% from 6.9%, but this was due in large part to the decline in the civilian labor force. The addition of 245,000 new jobs was less than expectations and perhaps the biggest letdown was the decline in the employment population ratio from 57.4 to 57.3. The participation rate also fell from 61.7 to 61.5. In short, the percentage of the population that is employed and working is declining. See page 3.

Jobs are key to the economy. They are the most critical component of household income, personal consumption, corporate revenues, and earnings. Therefore, the steady shift of workers from temporary layoff to being permanently unemployed is disturbing. See page 4. In our opinion, the absence of CDC guidelines that would allow businesses to safely open coupled with the lack of urgency seen in Congress to pass fiscal stimulus that would support small businesses is unconscionable.

In our view, the best way to assess the job market is to monitor the growth rate of “employment” over a 12-month period. A decelerating rate that approaches zero will predict a pending recession and a recession begins when this growth rate turns negative. But a pivot in the growth rate often defines a recovery. From this perspective, the job market was arbitrarily shut down so there was little warning for this unusual recession. However, the employment low was made in April with a negative 13.5% growth rate and has been improving ever since. But November’s growth rate was still poor at negative 6%. Meanwhile, the pace of those unemployed 27 weeks or longer continues to rise and currently resembles the pattern seen in early 2009! See page 5. These statistics suggest household consumption is apt to decline in the first quarter. If so, earnings could also disappoint.

The ISM indices are good benchmarks for assessing the strength of both the manufacturing and service sectors of the US economy. However, both ISM indices declined in November and both surveys pointed to weakness in new orders and general business activity. See page 6. The NFIB Small Business Optimism Index fell from 104.0 in October to 101.4 in November which was worse than expectations. The most revealing part of the survey was that the net share of respondents expecting the economy to improve dropped from 27% to 8%. This was a perfect example of how the current number of COVID-19 cases and the accompanying restrictions are hurting small businesses and dampening sentiment.

Autos and housing have been the core of the 2020 rebound, yet both weakened in November. Total vehicle unit sales fell from 16.74 million to 15.97 million units in November and all segments of the industry showed a decline. For the second month in a row the pending home sales index fell. October’s index fell to 128.9, down from the August peak of 132.9. See page 7.

Under normal circumstances, third quarter earnings results for the S&P 500 would make us bullish, but these are far from normal times. As of December 4, 496 companies in the S&P 500 Index had reported third quarter 2020 earnings. And of these, 84.5% reported earnings that were above analysts’ expectations and 12.3% reported earnings below expectations. In a typical quarter, 65% of companies beat and 20% miss estimates. Even more impressively, companies have reported earnings that are 19.7% above estimates. This is dramatically better than the 26-year average surprise factor of 3.5% and the last four quarter average of 8.7%. In addition, more than 78% of reporting companies exceeded revenue expectations and beat forecasts by 3.6%. This compares to the long-term average surprise factor of 1.5%. Not surprisingly, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 in the third quarter is now negative 6.1% and much improved from the July 1 consensus forecast of a 25% decline. If the energy sector is excluded, the third quarter growth rate improves to negative 1.9%. Earnings growth forecasts improved for all sectors in the third quarter, but the greatest improvement was in consumer discretionary which flipped from an expectation of a 50% decline in year-over-year earnings growth to positive 0.8% currently. However, despite all this good news for the quarter, IBES consensus estimates for 2021 are relatively unchanged at $168.85. A PE multiple of 20 times next year’s earnings equates to an SPX target of 3377, or 9% below recent closing prices. See page 10.

At SPX 3702, the trailing operating PE is 30.6 X and remains higher than the June 1999 (29.3 X) and December 2001 (29.6 X) peaks. The 12-month forward PE ratio for the SPX is 22.3 X. Both benchmarks are well above their standard deviation lines and the SPX is now trading more than 13% above the top of our valuation model’s year end 2021 fair value range. See page 11. High valuation suggests the market is vulnerable to unexpected shocks and this suggests caution is warranted.

But in direct contrast to this the popular indices continue to set a series of record highs and our technical indicators are finally confirming the advance. In particular, the 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently 5.02 (preliminary), above 3.0 and has been in overbought territory for six consecutive trading days and for nine of the last eleven trading days. The oscillator reached a reading of 5.52 late last week which was the strongest reading since February 2019. It is our contention that new price highs in the indices should be accompanied by long and often extreme overbought readings which represent solid buying pressure. After a lengthy delay, this oscillator has finally confirmed the new highs. See page 13. And most other breadth indicators followed suit. The 10-day average daily new high indicator is robust at 380 per day and the NYSE cumulative advance decline line made a simultaneous record on December 8 with the indices. See page 14. The AAII bullish sentiment index rose to 49.1% and the last 4 weekly readings are the highest since January 2020. But while the AAII bull/bear 8-week spread is quickly rising it still remains in neutral territory. See page 15.

There is one simple way to explain the discrepancy between the underlying fundamental and technical factors of the market and it is liquidity. Historically, there has been a strong correlation between easy monetary policy and stock market gains. M2 growth peaked at 19.6% in July but in late November it was still growing at a 6.6% pace. Demand deposits at commercial banks jumped in late November from $2.5 billion to $2.97 billion. In sum, remember the wise Wall Street adage “Don’t fight the Fed.”

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US Strategy Weekly: Counting Positives and Negatives

With a little more than two months left to the year, few would deny that 2020 has been an unusual year. The turning point was the historic, unpredictable, and relentless spread of the COVID-19 virus from China to most other countries around the world. It is not the virus, but its aftermath that will have major repercussions for people, companies, and economic trends for years to come. Yet in the face of this challenge, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite Index reached new highs in September and the DJIA, SPX and Nasdaq Composite are currently 4.2%, 3.9% and 4.5%, respectively, from all-time highs.

Some believe the rally in equities reflects a disconnect between the stock market and reality. But as usual, investors face a mix of positive and negative factors. Today is no different, even when putting the political backdrop aside.

The current negatives are obvious. The spread of COVID-19 resulted in mandatory shutdowns of businesses around the world. In the US, some businesses learned to adapt, and this created a division between winners and losers. But the bottom line is that the shutdown put 22.2 million people out of work between February and April, and 10.7 million of those remained unemployed at the end of September. Another negative is a resurgence of the virus in Europe which is generating a new round of restrictions such as curfews and limits on gatherings. This resurgence places a European recovery in the second half of the year on hold. Together, these two events create a third negative which is an enormous pressure on corporate earnings and an increasing risk of small business bankruptcies. As a result, the S&P 500 index is close to peak valuations on a trailing earnings basis and even when based upon forecasted 2021 earnings valuation remains at nosebleed levels. Added to these problems is the fact that the government is challenging the power and influence of the biggest technology companies with concerted anti-trust action. This week the Justice Department sued Google (GOOG.O – $1555.93) for illegally using its market strength to fend off rivals with distribution agreements that gave its search engine prominent placement on phones and internet browsers. Anti-trust action may prove beneficial to consumers in the long run, but in the shorter run it could pressure the big cap technology stocks that represent a large percentage of the SPX’s market capitalization. In short, it could hurt market performance.

The artificial shutdown of most economies was quickly followed by a series of policy measures to keep economies afloat. In short, the positives must begin with the extraordinary stimulative fiscal and monetary policies put into place around the world. As we have noted in the past, the combination of fiscal and monetary ease announced by the US totaled $5.5 trillion ($2.55 trillion in three fiscal packages and a $2.99 trillion expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet). This $5.5 trillion represents 28% of nominal GDP ($19.53 trillion at the end of the second quarter), or 3.4 months of economic activity. This stimulus went directly to consumers and businesses and it provided a safety net for the broader economy. In addition, another fiscal stimulus package is on the horizon, it is simply a matter of time and politics.

Yet, the biggest positive for investors is how well the economy is doing, particularly the tremendous strength in housing and autos. As of September, the NAHB single-family housing environment survey has recorded three consecutive months of record readings. Homeownership rates are surging in all regions of the US and reached 67.9% in the third quarter. This represents the highest homeownership rate since the 69.2% seen in 2004. See page 3. Residential building permits recorded a 10-year high in September and existing home prices have been moving steadily upward all year. See page 4. September’s retail sales rose 5.2% YOY overall and 3.9% YOY excluding motor vehicles and parts. Autos have been the brightest part of retail sales rising 10.5% YOY in September. Plus, September’s retail sales data included many bright spots in the economy with the exception of clothing, electronics and food and beverage establishments. The best part of all these statistics is that it all bodes well for third quarter GDP. See page 5.

Benign inflation is another positive for the equity market since low inflation is favorable for monetary policy, PE multiples and consumers. In September, the CPI rose 1.4% YOY, PPI finished goods fell 1.2% YOY, final demand PPI rose 0.5% YOY, crude oil fell 26% YOY and the PCE deflator gained 1.4% YOY. The decline in energy prices and positive spread between CPI prices and PPI prices is a favorable one for corporate margins. See page 6.

And despite negative US headlines, there is good news regarding virus trends. On October 20th, The NEW YORK TIMES ran a story including charts that showed “new COVID cases” are trending higher in October, but due to the substantial increase in the number of tests taken and diagnosed since early September. Most importantly, US deaths per day have held steady since early September at around 700. See page 7. In general, this implies the spread of the virus and its deadliness is slowly fading. Moreover, therapies for the virus have advanced dramatically in the last six months and a vaccine is expected early in 2021. Overall, we believe all this good news outweighs the bad.

We have noticed that both consensus earnings estimates for 2020 have had unusually large increases in recent weeks. See page 10. IBES indicated that of the 66 companies that reported third quarter earnings to date, 86% beat expectations. Therefore, 2020 consensus forecasts are apt to move even higher. However, stock prices have ignored 2020 and for the last six months have been trading on 2021 earnings. Unfortunately, the 2021 outlook remains uncertain and this brings us to the biggest unknown of 2020 — the election.

With less than two weeks to go and with early voting taking place at a record pace, election results remain highly uncertain. The polls give former Vice President Biden a sizeable lead, but the race continues to narrow. Statista reports that 55% of Americans feel they are better off than they were four years ago and most Americans, particularly Democratic voters, feel this election matters more than previous years. This is an interesting, but inconclusive mix. See page 8. In terms of the election, the market’s 3-month performance is showing a gain in the SPX of 5.3% and a gain in the DJIA of 7.1% to date. In past election years gains have foretold of an incumbent victory. On the other hand, one cannot be sure that 2020 is a “typical” year. See page 9.

Last but far from least, the charts of the broad indices and technical indicators have turned increasingly bullish in the last two weeks. All the popular indices rallied from important support levels that equated to their 100-day or 200-day moving averages and in particular, the Russell 2000 index began to outperform large cap indices. The advance/decline line reached a record high on October 12 and the new high list continues to expand. Our 25-day up/down volume oscillator is yet to reach a fully overbought reading, but it did record its highest reading earlier this week since August 2020. These are all supporting the bullish case.

We continue to have a long-term bullish bias but would expect the market to be choppy and trendless prior to the election. If there is no clear winner on election night, the uncertainty is likely to create even more volatility. This implies investors should be somewhat cautious near term and focus on companies that will perform well despite the virus and despite an uncertain political backdrop.

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US Strategy Weekly: Trump Biden Tax Proposals

A new week brought new worries for the stock market. Moods were already downcast after the passing of Supreme Court icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Throughout her illustrious career Judge Ginsburg was a leader, a role model for working women and a staunch fighter for women’s rights. On Tuesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British people to work from home if possible and ordered restaurants and bars to close early to counter a second wave of COVID-19. Johnson stopped short of imposing another full lockdown, as in March, but warned that more measures might be imposed if the virus were not contained. Newswire headlines announced US deaths from coronavirus surpassed 200,000 but failed to mention that the trend in new cases and deaths has decelerated dramatically. President Trump spoke (on video) to the 75th annual UN General Assembly and fueled fears of a geopolitical tiff by chiding China for unleashing COVID-19 on the world and stating that China needs to be held accountable for the destruction the plague has wrought by all members of the UN. The US Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce higher standards for an emergency authorization of any coronavirus vaccine, lowering the chances that a vaccine might be cleared before the November 3 election. And last but far from least, the first presidential debate scheduled for September 29th at 8:30 pm EST is merely one week away. This debate could become a pivotal factor for the stock market.

We believe last Friday’s Wall Street Journal’s article comparing Joe Biden’s and President Trump’s tax proposals may have been a contributing factor to the stock market’s recent decline. With Biden leading in the polls it is important for all investors to assess the impact a Democratic victory could have on the US economy. There are many factors to look at, but this week we will simplify it to tax policy.

President Donald J. Trump’s Tax Plan
President Trump’s tax policies are well known. He enacted tax breaks for individuals and corporations in 2017 and wants to extend these tax breaks past their current 2025 end date. Trump made it easier for corporations to bring home foreign profits and to deduct capital investment costs. Trump is currently proposing to cut the capital gain tax rate from the current 23.8% to 15% or 18.8%. And he wants to expand Opportunity Zones which offer capital gains tax breaks for investments in low income areas.

Vice President Joseph Biden’s Tax Plan
The Wall Street Journal article noted that Vice President Biden’s spending plans exceed his proposed tax revenue, but Biden explains this as stimulus for the economy. The Biden plan would raise taxes on individuals and entrepreneurs making more than $400,000 a year and would raise the corporate tax rate to 28%, impose a new minimum tax on companies and raise taxes on the foreign income of US based multinationals. His plan also includes reinstating the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, which is the proposal included in Obama care that the Supreme Court ruled was a tax on citizens. Mr. Biden proposes to raise the top individual tax rate of 37% to 39.6%, expand the 12.4% Social Security payroll tax which currently exempts wages above $137,700, but would restart the tax again on wages above $400,000. The plan also repeals a 20% deduction for income from pass-through businesses and impose new limits on itemized deductions. Most importantly, Biden would raise the capital gains tax rate from 23.8% to 39.6%, but reportedly only on households with income greater than $1 million. Nevertheless, this is likely to weaken the stock market prior to the election since many investors are apt to take profits on long-held stocks to avoid the possibility of this tax hike in 2021.

Millennials should take heed of structural changes to capital gains rules that Biden is proposing that could significantly impact their inheritances. At present, heirs only pay income taxes on gains in equity value that materializes after the original owner’s death and only when they sell the stock. Biden’s proposal would tax all unrealized gains as capital gains at the time of death. This is unsettling. Unless an heir has considerable liquidity at the time of inheritance this structural change would require an heir to sell much of the portfolio in order to pay taxes, incurring more capital gains taxes and potentially losing a significant amount of the inheritance. The very wealthy may have lawyers and accountants that can find a way around this tax, but Middle America will bear the brunt of this change.

All in all, we find the Biden proposals to be dicey for equities. Raising the capital gains tax rate has historically lowered stock prices in the short run as investors rush to avoid the tax hike and it lowers demand for equities over the longer-term since it raises the bar for speculators. All in all, a Republican sweep suggests more tax cuts while a Democratic sweep would bring increases.

Keep Some Powder Dry
Nonetheless, economic data has been strong. Housing data shows existing home sales rose to 6.0 million units in August, a 10.5% YOY increase. The median existing single-family home price rose 12% from a year earlier, while the average existing single-family home price gained 9% from a year ago. See page 3. August’s new home sales will be reported soon, but July’s data showed a 36.3% gain in units sold from a year earlier with median and average prices rising in the high single digits. See page 4. Homeownership also jumped from 65.3% in March to 67.9% in June, with the largest regional gain seen in the South where ownership rose from 67.6% to 71.1%. Black homeownership rose 3% to 47% and Hispanic ownership rose 2.5% to a record 51.4% in the second quarter of the year. See page 5. As a result, homebuilder confidence reached record heights in August. See page 6. In August, retail sales also reached a record level on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis and this tends to be a good forecaster of overall GDP. See page 7.

However, fundamental valuations remain stretched even as the Refinitiv/IBES consensus earnings estimate for the S&P 500 index continues to rise. This week’s estimate of $166.62 combined with a 20 PE multiple suggests a fair value level of SPX 3332, but as we show on pages 8-10 this still puts the equity market at the high end of fair value. It is possible that earnings estimates will continue to surprise on the upside, but the political climate is too uncertain to know. It is equally possible that higher corporate taxes would make current forecasts too high for 2021. In short, we remain cautious in the near term.

Technically, we see several important support levels that are worth monitoring. In the Dow Jones Industrial Average and in the Russell 2000 the 100-day and 200-day moving averages are converging. This makes the DJ 26,290 and the RUT 1457 levels crucial to the longer-term outlook. By holding at or near these levels the chart patterns improve. But breaks below these levels are highly likely to generate more selling. Breadth data is also showing some strain. The 10-day average of daily new lows fell to 76 this week and is below the 100 benchmark that characterizes a bull market cycle. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at minus 1.29 this week and at its lowest point since April 8, 2020. Corrections within a longer bull market cycle rarely reach a fully oversold reading on minus 3.0 or less; rather, corrections tend to reverse as this level nears. Overall, the risks in the market may only be political, but they are taking a toll on stock prices. We await the presidential debate next week.

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US Strategy Weekly: Breakout or Bubble?

Worldwide coronavirus cases reach 7.21 million and the death total moves above 400,000. The National Bureau of Economic Analysis (NBER) defines the US economy as being in a recession as of February 2020. Coronavirus wrecks demand and Germany’s exports and imports plunge in April, posting their biggest declines since data began in 1990. Canada and the US are about to extend their border closure and ban on non-essential travel through the end of July. Boeing (BA – $216.74) delivers four planes in May, down from six in April. And the NASDAQ Composite rises to an all-time high.

Even though bull markets are known to climb a wall of worry, these facts simply do not seem to fit together. Yet as we noted last week, history has taught us that equity prices are often better economic forecasters than economists. Recent market performance suggests investors are expecting a V-shaped recovery. This week the Federal Reserve will publish its first economic projections since the pandemic began and we doubt it will be optimistic. Economists are expecting the Fed to forecast a collapse in output this year and no change in interest rates for the foreseeable future. Still, investors are comforted by the fact that the Fed stands ready to support the economy; and in fact, the Fed eased the terms of its “Main Street” lending program this week by cutting loan size in half to $250,000 and lengthening the term by a year. These changes, along with zero required reserves, are in place to encourage businesses and banks to participate in making loans.

Perhaps investors are focused on what the 2020 fiscal and monetary stimulus packages can mean for future economic growth and earnings. First, we know that fiscal stimulus came in three packages (Phase 1 – $8.3 billion; Phase 2 – $171 billion; Phase Three – $2.3 trillion) totaling $2.5 trillion. The Fed’s balance sheet has expanded by nearly $3 trillion since the end of February. Together, this $5.3 trillion package of stimulus represents more than 25% of nominal GDP (March 2020 nominal GDP $21.5 trillion). In other words, the federal government has supported, or supplanted, the economy for an entire three months. And while businesses and consumption has slowed dramatically during the mandatory shutdown, this stimulus is still working its way into the broader economy. Or, in the case of taxpayers $1200 checks, it is sitting in checking or savings accounts. This may be why investors responded so joyously to the fact that there were only two months of job losses before a reversal in May. Jobs losses were 22 million in March and April and it will take time for all these people to get back to work. But as Americans move slowly back into the workforce and confidence builds, this liquidity should fairly quickly turn into consumption. There will be disruptions in the workforce; but we have faith in American ingenuity and the ability to rebuild.

Breakout or Bubble?
Despite our optimism about the economy, we still question whether the current surge in equity prices represents a significant bullish breakout or whether it is the beginning of a bubble. First, it is important to note that bubbles represent not only a complete disconnection from valuation but also a high degree of over ownership of equities, usually by the public. It is possible that this process is beginning today, but if so, the bubble will get very much bigger and prices will move much higher before the bubble bursts.

Our valuation model shows that the SPX is trading well above the fair value range today and is trading at a level forecasted for late 2021 based upon our 2021 SPX earnings estimate of $160.65 and the model’s predicted PE multiple of 19.6 times. However, we believe our earnings estimate could prove to be too conservative and this would support higher prices. Also note that while the SPX is trading above fair value range, it is still less extreme than what was seen late in 2009 when analysts caught up with the damage done by the financial crisis and cut earnings estimates dramatically. See page 13. Analysts proved too pessimistic in 2009 and the equity market rallied as earnings surprises turned positive later in the year. It is possible that a similar scenario will play out in 2020 as well.

Overall, we believe it is wise to remain vigilant to the risk that a bubble is forming; but investors who exit a bubble too early are often the same investors drawn into the market at the peak. Yes, bubbles are extremely dangerous but also enticing late in the cycle. In our view, we would rate the equity market as a strong hold. We are definitely concerned about the upside gaps we see in many of the popular indices which suggests market volatility will remain high in coming weeks. See page 14. But it is also likely that this rally could continue until economic news turns positive, in short, we would “sell on the news.” That day still lies ahead. In the near term we are watching for several of our technical indicators to make a clear confirmation of the breakout. To date, the cumulative advance decline line has done so, but we are waiting for further confirmation from our 25-day volume oscillator and the average of daily new highs. See pages 15 and 16.

A Look at May’s Job Report
As dramatic and unexpected as May’s monthly increase of 2.5 million jobs was, this gain put barely a dent in the 22 million job losses seen in March and April. In May, the household survey’s employment level was 137,242, the lowest since October 2002. The establishment survey suggests May’s payrolls were 132,912, the lowest since December 2011. In short, while job gains should increase in the months ahead, it will take time to reach the peak levels seen earlier this year. However, the shorter the shutdown the easier the rebound, so we are encouraged to see many parts of the US getting back to normal. See page 3. The good news is that according to the BLS, 78.3% of those unemployed in April classified themselves as being on temporary layoff. Those classified as being on temporary layoff fell to 73% in May which likely accounted for the large job increase in May. However, the 73% level indicates that the vast majority of unemployed expect to return to their jobs in the near future. See page 5. It was also encouraging to see that the ten areas of the economy with the largest job losses in April were also the areas of largest job gains in May. These ten sectors were leisure and hospitality, accommodation and food services, food service and drinking places, trade, transportation and utilities, education and health services, goods producing, professional and business services, retail trade, healthcare and social assistance, and administrative and waste services. See page 6. When we look at 2020’s job creation year-to-date, we were surprised to find a gain in net jobs in most sectors. In fact, the only categories with year-to-date net job losses were leisure and hospitality, mining and logging and other services. Note that retail stores are included in BLS data for the trade, transportation, and utilities category. See page 7. The biggest loser during the shutdown was the leisure and hospitality sector which lost 7.5 million jobs in April; however, it recovered 16% of this, or 1.2 million jobs in May. This is a trend we hope will continue in coming months. See page 8.

Consumer confidence will only recover once the uncertainty of job losses ends and people can return to work. If there are no substantial spikes in coronavirus cases in the next two weeks following the massive and extensive protest marches seen in the last week, we believe businesses and consumers will become more confident about returning to a more normal lifestyle. This will help small business confidence as well. In May, the NFIB small business optimism index did recover from 90.9 to 94.4; but it remains well off its high of 105.0 in May 2019. Still, business confidence will be a key indicator in coming months since it will be the major source of jobs for the rest of 2020. See page 9. As dramatic and unexpected as May’s monthly increase of 2.5 million jobs was, this gain is barely visible in the chart below. In May, the household survey’s employment level was 137,242, the lowest since October 2002. The establishment survey suggests May payrolls were 132,912, the lowest since December 2011. In short, job gains should increase in the months ahead, but it is a long road to reach the peak levels seen earlier this year.

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US Strategy Weekly: May is a Transition Month

May should be an important transition month in the fight against COVID-19 and all its repercussions. On this week’s earnings call, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek (DIS – $101.06) announced that Shanghai Disneyland will open its doors on May 11 based on limited reservation-only attendance and Disney will employ temperature screenings and provide clear safety guidelines for guests. We expect this reopening will be watched carefully by many government and business leaders around the world since Shanghai could eventually become a blueprint for other theme parks, resorts, and businesses. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has also announced plans to hold three Fight Night events in Florida between May 9 and May 16. All three lineups will take place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville without a live audience and with protections to safeguard athletes and staff. Most importantly, 32 states have announced individual plans to restart their economies based upon their own unique scientific data and circumstances. All of these announcements have received both praise and criticism by people and the media.

This is our take on the situation. COVID-19 is now part of the world’s long list of communicable diseases. It is far more contagious than normal flu and far more dangerous for those with underlying medical conditions. It will be impossible to ever totally eliminate the risk of contracting this virus and a vaccine is many months away, at best. But at this juncture, everyone has had the opportunity to learn how to reduce one’s risk of contracting the virus by washing their hands, keeping their hands away from their face, wearing a mask, social distancing and being sensible about activities outside the home. The underlying purpose of the nationwide shelter-in-place guidelines was not just to prevent deaths, but it was vital to slow the number of cases of COVID-19 so as not to overwhelm the capacity of hospitals and healthcare workers to care for patients. It was important in order to give the healthcare industry the time to gather necessary materials, drugs, and space to treat COVID-19 victims. It seems that this latter goal has been accomplished.

The Path to Resiliency
In the last two months the capacity for most hospitals and healthcare workers to address a possible second wave of COVID-19 has been markedly increased. New therapies for COVID-19 are being tested and multiple vaccines are moving closer to the testing phase. And therefore, we believe it is time to holistically take care of all Americans in terms of not only their physical, but also their mental and financial health. To do this, life needs to be restarted. And with the exception of a few COVID-19 hotspots, it seems appropriate for most Americans to start carefully down the path toward normalcy.

Still, the war against COVID-19 revealed disturbing weaknesses in our nursing home system, our drug and medical equipment manufacturing pipeline and other industrial areas that will require addressing in coming months. In short, two decades of globalism has not made American stronger nor more resilient against a variety of ominous threats. Perhaps this was the most important lesson learned from this plague.

Discounting Bad News
Meanwhile, the stock market has absorbed an amazing amount of bad news. From an economic perspective, first quarter GDP is estimated to have dropped 4.8% quarter-over-quarter and some economists are forecasting the second quarter to decline as much as 40%! See page 3. Real personal disposable income only grew 0.1% in March and is apt to see an actual decline in April. Personal consumption expenditures fell 3.8% in the first quarter led by a decline of 12.9% in durable goods. See page 4. All segments of personal income fell in the first quarter while unemployment insurance payments rose from an annualized rate of $26.2 billion in February to a $65.3 billion pace in March. We expect this to increase again in April. See page 5. The savings rate jumped from 8% to 13% in March, which was predictable since we noted that demand deposits at commercial banks jumped 26% YOY in the week ended April 13. They rose to 32% YOY in the week ended April 20. Likewise, money supply, as measured by M1, rose 24.1% YOY as of April 20, setting a new record. See page 6. Sentiment indicators for April were abysmal tumbling to levels last seen during the 2009 recession. These include the National Association of Home Builders housing market index, the University of Michigan consumer sentiment, Conference Board consumer and NFIB Small Business confidence indices. See page 7. Total retail sales for March fell 7% YOY and were down 2.3% YOY excluding vehicles. Auto and auto parts sales fell 24.3% in March, which was the worst since the recession. ISM indices for April were bleak with the manufacturing index falling to 41.5 and the nonmanufacturing index dropping to 41.8. Both indices were clearly below the base line of 50 which denotes recession. See page 8. The Refinitiv/IBES S&P 2020 earnings growth estimate fell from minus 17.2% to minus 20.9% this week and the S&P/Dow Jones consensus estimate fell from minus 13.4% to minus 20.1%. Both are now at the negative 20% level we expected. See page 12. Nevertheless, the good news is that the bad news is out, and it is being discounted in equity prices. Investors appear to be noticing and the market is demonstrating impressive resiliency.

Do not Fight the Fed or Fiscal Stimulus
This brings us to the important Wall Street adage “Don’t fight the Fed.” The Fed’s balance sheet grew by $2.5 trillion between the end of February and April 29 which is a record surge in liquidity in eight weeks. See page 9. We are monitoring excess reserves, which are liquid assets held on the balance sheets of banks beyond the level of required reserves. This represents monetary stimulus that is not entering the economy. Excess reserves are reported on a delayed basis, but in the month of March, excess reserves increased by $409 billion. In sum, Fed-driven liquidity still sits on the balance sheets of banks which means there is more potential stimulus from the monetary side. And we expect there is more stimulus coming from the fiscal side as well in terms of business loans, unemployment checks and $1200 payments. See page 10. To date, the total amount of monetary and fiscal stimulus put into effect by the government equates to more than 22% of nominal GDP. This liquidity not only supports stock prices, but we believe it points to great economic potential in the second half of the year. However, it requires businesses to open and people to get back to work. There is a counter side to the stimulus which is the growing deficit. The federal deficit grew by $387 billion in the first quarter and on a 12-month moving average basis this means the deficit as a percentage of GDP grew from 4.7% to 5.7% in the first three months of 2020. See page 11. However, the deficit is a problem for another day.

Watching Those Technicals
We have been impressed by the charts of all the popular indices. All indices were able to better the first level of upside resistance represented by their respective 50-day moving averages. They continue to trade above these levels and the longer this continues, the more the 50-day moving averages will become support and the more convincing the current rally becomes. The Russell 2000 index has been the laggard index for the last twelve months, but it too remains above its 50-day moving average. See page 13. Our 25-day up/down volume oscillator was in overbought territory for two consecutive trading sessions, before the 90% down day recorded on May 1 carried it back to neutral. This was not the long sustained overbought reading that would have implied a V-shaped bottom was materializing. Nonetheless, this indicator, along with all sentiment indicators, suggests that the March 23 was a major low. We remain long term bullish.

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US Strategy Weekly: What We Are Watching

Stats and Treasuries
There will be a lot of news impacting the equity market in the coming months including economic data that could become quite ugly. But if we had to choose only two bits of data to watch in order to measure the risk/reward of the equity market, it would be the daily statistics on the virus in the US (looking for a peak in both new cases as well as deaths) and the 10-year Treasury bond yield. To a large extent we believe the debt market will be the best guide for equity investors in coming months. The 10-year US Treasury bond is valuable because it is a global market instrument, and as such, it incorporates information regarding global economies, politics, sentiment and liquidity. Since many investors view the US Treasury bond as a safe haven investment, it may be the best sentiment indicator to monitor in 2020. If this is true, it is possible that the March 9 record low of $4.99 in the 10-year Treasury yield index (TNX – $9.97) represented a peak in global panic; and if so, it is also possible that this panic low marked the beginning of a bottoming process for many financial markets.

Fundamentals are Fuzzy
Still, there are many things we are monitoring and perhaps the most challenging is assessing fundamentals. It will be months before we have data on first and second quarter GDP. But in mid-April first quarter earnings season will begin and the corporate guidance that accompanies these reports will give us our first clues as to how corporate America will be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

We can expect that it will generally be bad news and earnings estimates will come down. But keep in mind that many segments of the economy are doing well. Healthcare, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, communication services, utilities, e-commerce, delivery services, and videoconferencing will be among the industries that will be beneficiaries of the current situation. Yet many companies will be hurt, and one can expect shakeouts in some sectors such as energy and retail. In the interim, we can try to measure the risk in the overall market by assuming there will be an earnings recession in 2020. Therefore, it is reasonable and prudent to look at the risk in the equity market if earnings decline 10%.

Based upon the current level of inflation and the benign interest rate backdrop our valuation model suggests an average PE of 17.2 X is appropriate for both this year and 2021. S&P Dow Jones estimates earnings were $157.10 in 2019 which means a decline of 10% would suggest earnings of $141.39 in 2020. Applying a PE of 17.2 to $141.39 translates into a fair value target of SPX 2430 for 2020. As seen in our valuation model on page 3 and the charts on page 6, the SPX has already traded below that level. Yet, if we take this one step further and project a second 10% earnings decline in 2021, SPX earnings fall to $127.25 and the mid-point of our forecasted trading range drops to SPX 2340 in 2021. We believe this is very unlikely, but it is a valuable exercise and it shows that the March 16 close of SPX 2381 came close to discounting a two-year earnings recession, or a 20% decline in earnings.

Another way of looking at a worst-case scenario for the market would be to use $141.39 earnings in 2020 and a long-term average PE ratio of 15.5 times. This lower PE multiple could apply if there were uncertainty regarding the longer-term prospects for earnings growth. Earnings of $141.39 and a PE of 15.5 X translates into downside risk to SPX 2191. All in all, these exercises indicate that fundamental factors point to a wide range of possibilities, but the SPX 2400 and SPX 2200 levels tend to be areas of fundamental support.

Technicals Worth Noting
In the last 17 trading sessions, there have been seven trading sessions where volume in declining stocks represented 90% or more of the day’s total volume. These days are classic examples of panic selling and three of these seven down days were Mondays, representing classic Panic Monday selling sprees.

History suggests that the worst of the selling pressure tends to be over once buyers come back to the market in earnest and this shift is represented by a 90% up day. Indeed, after the March 12 close of SPX 2480.64, a 93% up day materialized on March 13 (Friday). Nevertheless, this 93% up day was followed by another disastrous Monday decline in which 93% of the volume was in declining stocks, the advance/decline ratio was 1 to 15 and the daily new high/low ratio was 1 to 65 and the market fell to a new low of SPX 2386.13. Volume was only slightly above the 10-day average since circuit breakers interrupted trading twice during this session. These circuit breakers are one of the ways the current market structure differs from historical precedent. They make it more difficult to find that high-volume big-decline capitulation day that washes out the market and often defines a significant low. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that volatility is at record levels and as we showed last week, to date, March 2020 has been more volatile than any month during the Crash of 1929. This is amazing since that crash preceded the Great Depression, a global trade war, a broken banking system, and the Dust Bowl that joined forces in 1930. Things are far less dire today.

But when we look at current breadth data, we do find similarities to the 2011 low. The 2011 decline was precipitated by a well-anticipated downgrade of US sovereign debt on August 8, 2011 and it was linked to a belief that a recession was at hand. The choppy August to October 2011 period was characterized by a confusing pattern of alternating 90% down and up days; yet when we look closely at that period we find that the first 90% up day occurred on August 9, 2011 (see arrow on page 7). This up day followed the August 8 low of SPX 1119.46. Although the ultimate low for 2011 did not materialize until October 3, 2011 at SPX 1099.23, this lower low in October was merely 1.8% below the August 9 close. In sum, the first 90% up day did indeed indicate that the worst of the selling was over, and the bottoming process had begun. We believe this may also be true of today’s environment. While we expect much volatility in the weeks ahead, the March 12 low of SPX 2480.64 and the March 16 low of SPX 2386.13 (4% lower), is hopefully the beginning of a bottoming phase for equities. Note that the December 2018 low of 2351.10 — a significant support level — was also tested on March 16. When we look at the chart of the SPX, it is clear that the uptrends from the 2009 and 2016 lows have been broken. But the SPX chart also shows important support levels are found around SPX 2400 and SPX 2200. See page 6. Both of these levels coordinate well with the valuation benchmarks discussed earlier.

No Comparison to 2008
To date, the 29.5% drop seen in the SPX is greater than the long-term average decline of 24% and is the largest decline since 2008. See page 5. Although there may be reasons to compare the current marketplace to the 2008-2009 period, keep in mind that this is a medical crisis and not a liquidity crisis. Therefore, the recovery from this crisis should be much easier to accomplish once the virus subsides and/or a therapy and vaccine are in place. In 2009 earnings for the S&P 500 index went negative for the first time in history. To have the S&P 500 report a deficit for the year is far different from earnings declining by 10% or more. The SPX’s deficit in 2009 was due to massive profit losses in the banking sector. Today, after the virus peaks, the prospect for a rebound in earnings is substantial due in large part to a low unemployment rate and a strong banking system. It will not be simple, but the federal government has made it clear it plans to support small and medium sized companies and their employees during this unusual period. In short, the 2020 equity market is apt to provide investors with an excellent buying opportunity, but we expect prices will remain unpredictable and volatile for a long while.

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US Strategy Weekly: Wash Your Hands

Yesterday the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic. At 9 pm last night President Trump announced a 30-day travel ban with Europe. This combination suggests a recession might already be in place in Europe and this could easily hurt the US economy.

Last night I spoke to a doctor from the Mayo Clinic. She indicated that the hospital is expecting the spread of the virus to rise dramatically over the next two weeks. The reason for this is that coronavirus is a new virus, and no one has immunity. Statistically a normal person with the flu might infect 1.7 new people, but a coronavirus victim appears to infect 2.5 people. A coronavirus-infected person is symptom free for 3 to 5 days and is contagious during this time. While the normal flu virus can live on tabletops and other surfaces for two hours, the coronavirus can survive for two days or more. The reason some experts are suggesting staying six feet away from others (social distancing) is that the virus appears to infect an area three feet around someone with coronavirus. And finally, the fever that accompanies the coronavirus could reach 104 degrees and have symptoms of pneumonia in some cases. These are the factors that make it more deadly for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

She added that there is no need to panic and to a large extent this is much like a very bad flu; but in coming weeks and months it is important that everyone protect themselves by regularly washing their hands with plain soap and water for 20 seconds. The elderly and those with compromised immune systems should consider social distancing or perhaps self-quarantining.

Given what we know today, it is likely that the coronavirus epidemic will become much worse in the next two weeks. In the interim, we should expect the financial markets to remain under pressure.

The positive in the current situation is that this is a medical crisis and not a financial crisis. The 2008 crisis triggered systemic risk in the global banking systems. Had a liquidity crisis ensued it could have spiraled out of control. This is not true today; our financial system is well capitalized. In addition, President Trump has indicated that he will recommend to Congress that small and medium sized companies affected by the epidemic be offered credit during this period and employees suspended due to the crisis should continue to be paid. The US economy demonstrated good momentum up until the end of February and once this medical crisis is over it should spring back quickly. However, in the near term there are many unknowns. Financial markets handle bad news well, but they handle unknowns poorly.

In times of great uncertainty, we measure the worst-case scenario with trailing SPX operating earnings. Earlier this week we wrote: “If we measure downside risk using the average PE of 15.6 and SPX’s 2019 earnings of $158, we find a low-risk valuation target of SPX 2465. Note: this is 9.8% below this week’s intraday low of SPX 2734. Also supporting the equity market is the fact that the SPX dividend yield is now 152 basis points above the 10-year Treasury yield. This is the highest spread since March 1955.”

The bottom line is everyone should protect themselves and their families by being wise in terms of socializing and washing their hands frequently throughout the day with simple soap and water.

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I, Gail Dudack, hereby certify that all of the views expressed in this report accurately reflect my personal views about the subject company or companies and its or their securities. I also certify that no part of my compensation was, is, or will be directly or indirectly related to the specific views contained in this report.

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IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES

RATINGS DEFINITIONS:

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US Strategy Weekly: Monitoring the Sell Off

The DJIA’s 1,031.61-point decline on Monday was followed by an 879.44-point decline on Tuesday, leaving the DJIA 8.4% below its recent all-time high of 29,551.42 made on February 12th. The SPX is currently 7.6% below its record high; while the Nasdaq Composite and Russell 2000 indices are 8.7% and 9.7%, respectively, below their recent peaks. In short, the sell-off has been sharp and severe, but it does not yet qualify as a “correction” which we define as a drop of 10% or more in the indices. And we remind readers that the intensity of this week’s decline is actually positive for the longer-term outlook since moves that are counter to the major trend tend to be the more dramatic.

Earlier this week we noted that Monday’s sell-off was a 91% down day and that these extreme readings are rare but tend to appear in a series. In Tuesday’s market, 89% of the day’s volume was in declining shares, which was not quite a 90% down day, but still extreme. In the next few days and weeks, we will be monitoring the market closely to see if a 90% up day appears. A 90% up day would be favorable since these readings have historically marked the reversal of selling pressure and suggest the worst of the decline is over.

It may surprise investors that our 25-day up/down volume oscillator closed at negative 2.81 on Tuesday, which is still above the negative 3.0 level that defines an oversold reading. This oscillator is apt to become oversold in coming sessions; and if it does it would be the first oversold reading since December 2018. We will be monitoring this indicator as well since oversold readings should be short in duration in a bull market cycle. For comparison, the December 2018 oversold reading lasted for nearly 13 consecutive trading sessions.

As a reminder, December 24, 2018 was a cyclical low that ended an 18.8% decline in the DJIA and a 19.8% decline in the SPX. The intense December 2018 selloff was the result of unknowns tied to fears of Fed tightening and rising US/China trade tensions. Economists were forecasting a US recession as a result of rising interest rates and a global trade war. The current environment is different. Although the sell-off is also due to unknowns, the coronavirus is not expected to trigger a US recession.

And finally, this week’s decline has carried the DJIA and the Russell 2000 index slightly below their respective 200-day moving averages. The SPX and Nasdaq Composite indices remain slightly above their 200-day MA’s. Most analysts view 200-day moving averages as good substitutes for long-term trendlines and we would point out that 200-day MA’s are normally tested and retested during a bull market cycle. Technicians often use a 2% rule for the 200-day moving average and consider a “successful” test one that does not fall more than 2% below this benchmark. In short, these moving averages are being tested this week. See page 2.

All in all, we believe the market should begin to stabilize at, or slightly below, current levels as it awaits more news about the spread of the epidemic and the possibility of a vaccine. If we are correct, this should be an opportune time to refine and upgrade portfolios and look for longer-term buying opportunities. We would still avoid travel-related sectors.

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US Strategy Weekly: Emotional Roller Coaster

A week ago, the world was on edge after the US took out Iranian Major General Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. Luckily Iran’s retaliation was minor and the political uproar that followed this bold and unforeseen event seems to have dissipated. Nevertheless, the first few weeks of 2020 have been an emotional roller coaster for investors, and we believe the year will continue to be marked by more unexpected political incidents. The predictable narratives are the Democratic primary election, the presidential election and Brexit; but these are only the obvious ones. Investors should stay on their toes while keeping a solid focus on fundamentals. 

Currently the financial press is dominated by more mundane economic stories such as the content of this week’s Chinese-US phase one trade deal and the positive earnings results reported by several large US banks. JPMorgan Chase (JPM – $138.80) reported a 9% increase in revenues in its fourth quarter. Citigroup (C – $81.91) reported a 7% increase. Chase reported their credit card, merchant services and auto revenue surged $6.3 billion or 9% at year end, with credit card loans up 8%. Citi beat profit estimates due to a jump in trading revenue and strong credit card sales. These revenue and earnings increases paint a favorable picture for fourth quarter GDP which will be released at the end of this month. Economists will get another clue to fourth quarter activity when December’s retail sales are released later this week. The consensus is looking for a 0.4% month-over-month gain in total sales versus the 0.2% recorded in November. Anything stronger would be an excellent sign that the consumer is doing better than expected. Wall Street is forecasting GDP growth of 1.6% in the fourth quarter, but it is worth noting that the consensus has been too pessimistic all year. The combination of a stronger-than-consensus fourth quarter and a signed phase one US-China trade deal could set the stage for a big positive surprise in the first quarter of 2020. 

TARGET TWEAKING 

In our OUTLOOK FOR 2020 (December 18, 2019) we noted that our SPX earnings forecast of $184 and our price target of SPX 3300 could prove too conservative. We are not surprised that equities are closing in on our SPX 3300 target this week. Yet since it is, we should remind readers that the top of our valuation model’s predicted range allows for a much higher target of SPX 3500 by December 2020. But SPX 3500 would require a perfect combination of strong earnings, low inflation, an accommodating Fed, and no upsetting political or geopolitical events. And while this is not impossible, we believe it is likely that the SPX 3300 level becomes upside resistance in the near term. Even so a signed trade deal, better than expected fourth quarter SPX earnings and a GDP report of 2% or more for 4Q19, could lead us to raise our target in coming weeks. 

A FEDERAL RESERVE ON HOLD 

Recent data releases suggest the Federal Reserve should be on hold for the foreseeable future. Employment in December was healthy, but not particularly strong. The 145,000 increase in payrolls was well below the 6-month average of 188,500 new jobs per month. And while the unemployment rate fell fractionally, it still rounded to 3.5%, or unchanged from November. Average weekly earnings for total private employees rose 2.3% YOY, down from 2.8% YOY in November. Average weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees rose 2.4% YOY, down from 2.8% YOY in November. 2222 

Our favorite employment statistics are the annual growth rates in the number of people employed. In December, employment increased 1.4% YOY in the establishment survey and 1.3% YOY in the household survey. Both of these gains were slightly below their respective long-term average growth rates. Still, it is difficult to criticize these growth rates since the current expansion is now 10 ½ years old. Slow and steady is usually a better long-term trend than fast and extreme. Over 2.1 million jobs were created in 2019 and the number of unemployed workers receiving unemployment insurance fell by 533,000. These are all favorable numbers; but in our view, the most impressive statistics in December’s job report were not the headline data points. The percentage of those currently not in the labor force but wanting a job fell from 5.3% in December 2018 to 4.8% in December, after hitting a record low of 4.6% in October 2019. Discouraged workers, or those out of work who feel they will not be able to find work, fell to 277,000 in December, the lowest level since September 2007. These latter data points suggest the job market has definitely become healthier in 2019. See pages 3 and 4. 

The NFIB Small Business Optimism Index fell from 104.7 in November to 102.7 in December. This decline reversed some of the gains seen in the prior two months, yet the index remains generally strong. There were small declines in plans for capital expenditures, employment expansion, job openings, compensation increases, general expansion, and price increases. But there were small increases in the percentage of respondents that expect the economy and real sales to improve in the next twelve months. See page 5. 

December’s inflation data also supports the Federal Reserve’s neutral standing. December’s not-seasonally-adjusted CPI index showed a 2.3% YOY rise, which was just slightly higher than the 2.1% YOY gain seen in November. Meanwhile, core CPI was unchanged from November’s 2.3% YOY pace. Energy prices fell 0.8% for the month but rose 3.4% YOY. Food was up 0.1% for the month and up 1.8% YOY. See page 6. Of the largest components of the CPI, transportation, with a 16.4% weighting, tends to be the most volatile due to the erratic price of oil. For example, transportation prices rose 1.9% YOY in December after falling for three consecutive months. But medical care, with an 8.8% weighting, is the most concerning. Medical care had the largest year-over-year increase, up 4.6% YOY in December. The major driver of recent medical care inflation is health insurance, where prices have been increasing 20% YOY or more for three consecutive months. See page 7. 

Conversely, housing, which carries a 42.3% weight in the index, has been decelerating from a 3.0% pace to 2.6%. This has helped to dampen inflation trends. Prices for rent of primary residence, owners’ equivalent rent and household furnishings and operations are all slowing. This is favorable for consumers and should help keep headline and core inflation indices rising modestly between 2.0% and 2.3% for 2020. See page 8. 

TECHNICAL INDICATORS HOLD STRONG AND STEADY 

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is 2.87 (preliminarily) and neutral after being in overbought territory for 11 of the last 15 consecutive trading sessions. This overbought reading, which began in December, represented the sixth consecutive overbought reading of 2019. Strong and repetitive overbought readings reveal solid and persistent buying pressure and are a classic characteristic of a bull market cycle. In short, this is a positive sequence for this indicator. See page 11. Breadth data continues to be strong and favorable. The 10-day average of new highs rose to an average of 343 this week, while the average number of daily new lows fell to 35. The NYSE cumulative advance decline line recorded a new high on January 14, which confirms the new highs recorded by most of the popular averages last week. See page 12. Equally important are the lack of extremes in sentiment. As of January 8, AAII bullish sentiment fell 4.1% to 33.1% and bearish sentiment rose 8.0% to 29.9%. The 8-week bull/bear spread remains neutral. The ISE Sentiment index which measures option sentiment is also neutral. In sum, sentiment indicators are not giving early warning signals of a peak in the market.

December’s payrolls increased by 145,000 workers, previous months were revised lower by 13,000 and the unemployment rate fell fractionally, but still rounded to 3.5%. See below. Employment grew 1.4% YOY in the establishment survey and 1.3% YOY in the household. Both of these paces were slightly below the long-term average employment growth rate; however, the job market remains robust considering the expansion is currently 10 ½ years old. 

Regulation AC Analyst Certification 

I, Gail Dudack, hereby certify that all the views expressed in this report accurately reflect my personal views about the subject company or companies and its or their securities. I also certify that no part of my compensation was, is, or will be, directly or indirectly related to the specific views contained in this report. 

IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES 

RATINGS DEFINITIONS: 

Sectors/Industries: 

“Overweight”: Overweight relative to S&P Index weighting 

“Neutral”: Neutral relative to S&P Index weighting 

“Underweight”: Underweight relative to S&P Index weighting 

Other Disclosures 

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