We recently wrote that we thought the equity market was richly valued and equities would either see a pullback to lower levels or the equity market could be on the verge of a bubble. Recent market activity leads us to believe that a bubble is indeed in the making. And the mania appears to be evolving and spreading.

This week, according to the Wall Street Journal, Eli Lilly and Company (LLY – $705.03) is a possible replacement for Tesla, Inc. (TSLA – $185.10) in the Magnificent Seven stocks. Some analysts believe there might be parallels between obesity drugs and the early days of electric vehicles and this made Lilly a beneficiary of the ‘mass-culture hype” that is dominating the equity environment. This hype has driven a few stocks to valuations that are well beyond that of their peers. For example, Tesla trades at 57 times forward earnings, according to FactSet, and Lilly trades at 55 times forward earnings. For comparison, in the auto industry Ford Motor Company (F – $12.07) trades at a 6.6 multiple and in the drug industry Johnson & Johnson (JNJ – $158.06) carries a PE multiple of 15 times. In an environment where earnings growth is slowing, investors seem to be flocking to a small group of companies believed to have little competition and massive growth potential. These stocks, including the Magnificent Seven, were huge outperformers for most of 2023, and it appears they may outperform again in 2024, but with some additions and deletions along the way.

Assuming this is true, we are making a number of sector weighting shifts this week.

Sector Shifts

If the stock market is in the midst of a bubble, the strategy for most portfolio managers will have to change. Unfortunately, to keep up with the popular indices money managers will be forced to shift their focus from value to momentum. This shift is risky and not permanent; however, it is necessary if one’s equity performance is measured against benchmarks like the S&P 500. The stocks that are likely to outperform in the months ahead will be those driven by the theme of the bubble, and in the current environment this would be artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence can take many forms in terms of companies providing AI, using AI, or being components of AI, but right now these stocks are concentrated in the technology and communication services sectors of the S&P indices. Since we believe the equity market is displaying signs of being in a bubble, we are changing sector weightings and shifting technology from neutral to overweight and communication services from underweight to overweight.

Healthcare has been performing better in recent weeks and also benefits from and uses many aspects of artificial intelligence. Moreover, the public appears to view the growth potential of obesity drugs as a significant earnings growth driver. In sum, we are upgrading the healthcare sector from neutral to overweight. The financial sector has already been among our overweight recommendations, and it currently remains there. However, within the financial sector we would focus on large money center banks and try to avoid growing problems seen in commercial real estate, credit card delinquencies, and auto loan delinquencies.

To balance out our sector recommendations we are downgrading industrials and consumer discretionary from overweight to neutral. Staples and energy are also rated neutral. Utilities, REITS, and materials are currently our recommended underweights. See page 14.

We are not comfortable being momentum followers, and would rather use fundamentals for our sector weightings, but history shows that at the core of a bubble is a disregard for fundamental value and a belief that a new era of growth is emerging. Keep in mind that in a bubble, only a small universe of stocks will take the averages higher, and a majority of stocks (in all industries) will underperform the S&P 500. More importantly, when a bubble bursts, the top-performing stocks that drove the market higher will also fall the hardest. Once a bubble bursts value stocks will also decline, but less than the overall market, and thereby outperform.

All in all, the decision to invest in and follow a bubble is an individual choice. One strategy in a bubble could be to own a collection of ETFs that mirror the indices rather than trying to outperform the portfolio benchmark. Or, for some investors, the wisest path could be to remember the story of the tortoise and the hare and stick to a slow and steady policy of value investing. This would mean weathering some subpar short-to-intermediate term performance and focusing on the longer term.

The history of bubble markets like those seen before the 1972 and 2000 peaks indicates that such markets can persist far longer than most people expect. Equities became overvalued in 1997 and did not peak until early 2000. Notice that there were 28 years between those two peaks, and we are 24 years past the last peak. In short, this is a new generation of investors. American humorist and writer Mark Twain is credited with the aphorism: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” This seems to be an appropriate warning in the current environment.

If valuation does not apply in a bubble, there are only a few tools one can use to gauge when a bubble may be about to come to its end. Bubbles are fueled by both liquidity and leverage and monitoring these can help define the age of a bubble. In terms of liquidity, there is $6 trillion in money market funds ($2.35 trillion in retail money market funds and $3.65 trillion in institutional) suggesting there is plenty of fuel to keep prices moving higher. Leverage changes in every cycle and the current cycle may be fueled more by investors leveraging equity ownership through ETFs than by using margin debt. But only time will tell.

Technicals Look Bubbly Too

The charts of the popular indices have not changed much in the past week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 recorded new all-time highs and the Nasdaq Composite is less than 3% from its record high. The Russell 2000 index, however, is more than 20% below its record peak. Moreover, after breaking out of the 1650 to 2000 range that contained price action in this index for two years, the Russell 2000 dropped back below the 2000 resistance level. See page 10. This underperformance is in line with the NYSE cumulative advance/decline line and reflects a two-tiered market.

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at negative 1.15 this week and is closer to an oversold reading than an overbought reading. To confirm the recent highs in the SPX and DJIA, this indicator should reach and stay overbought for a minimum of five consecutive trading sessions. If not, it suggests that investors are selling into the recent highs. This week we also have comments on economic releases including January’s employment report, weekly and hourly earnings, the ISM indices, and consumer confidence surveys. See pages 3 through 7.

Gail Dudack

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PLEASE NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, the firm and any affiliated person or entity 1) either does not own any, or owns less than 1%, of the outstanding shares of any public company mentioned, 2) does not receive, and has not within the past 12 months received, investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned, and 3) does not expect within the next three months to receive investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned. The firm does not currently make markets in any public securities.

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