A Bit of History
The media is filled with headlines stating that the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq Composite Index have booked nine consecutive weekly gains — the longest weekly winning streak for the S&P 500 since January 2004, and the longest stretch for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq Composite Index since early 2019. Many in the media have then suggested that this strong run means more gains are ahead. Indeed, double-digit gains in the equity indices don’t suggest a bear market … unless there are three years in a row of double-digit gains. But as you can see from page 7, the full year 2004 had a fairly mediocre performance after its early advance. In 2019 an early advance in the first quarter stalled, then rallied, and in November, COVID-19 became a global pandemic, making comparisons difficult.
However, the parallel between 2004 and 2024 is not only due to the nine weekly gains, but that both are presidential election years. And they are years ending in “4.” Depending upon which market index one uses, the presidential election year has the third or fourth best performance of the four-year cycle. In short, election years tend to be mediocre. The pre-election year is the year with the biggest stock gains in the four-year cycle. This is probably due to fiscal stimulus done early in the year to help the economy and to help the incumbent president win votes due to a strong economy. This pattern seems to fit the current cycle, even though it is a most unusual economic cycle.
However, one of the most interesting things about an election year is that it has some ability to predict the outcome of the presidential election. When the incumbent is about to win, equities tend to be weakest in May in July. The May decline sets up a classic summer rally which is followed by a weak July. Typically, July is the fourth best performing month of the year, so this works against seasonality. In years when the incumbent loses, the weakest months of the year tend to appear in January, February, September, and October. January has a history of being the sixth best performing month, on the heels of good gains in November and December. So, this too, goes against seasonality and weakness early in the year is a bad omen for an incumbent president. In both cases, or most election years, the strongest months tend to be November and December. See page 8.
This is also a year ending in 4, and the decennial pattern suggests it will be a year with an average gain of 7.1%, leaving it tied for fifth place in the 10-year cycle. Still, “4” years have produced gains in nine of the last 14 cycles, so there is a bullish bias to years ending in 4. See page 6. All in all, history points to an up year, but more in line with a single-digit gain than a double-digit gain.
The dramatic gains seen at the end of 2023 were driven by the widely held belief that interest rates are coming down in 2024. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell attempted to dampen these expectations in subsequent days, however, his comments after the last FOMC meeting did indicate that rate cuts were likely in 2024. This suggestion triggered a swift decline in long-term interest rates and a rush out of cash and into equities. The momentum of the equity market is strong, and this is seen in our technical indicators. However, behind good momentum tends to be good liquidity. For this, we looked at Federal Reserve data on commercial banks. What we found was that banks hold nearly $19 trillion in customers’ liquid short-term assets. This number is the sum of $4.99 trillion in demand deposits, $1.7 trillion in retail money market funds, $1.0 trillion in small-denomination time deposits, and nearly $11 trillion in other liquid deposits. See page 4. In recent years, money flowed into short-term assets as interest rates rose and the threat of recession was looming. Powell’s “pivot” on interest rates created a “pivot” in investor sentiment and their opinion of cash. In a Cinderella world of falling interest rates, declining inflation, and no recession, $19 trillion is a substantial amount of potential demand for equities. Moreover, we know that the cash held at commercial banks is a majority, but not all inclusive, of household cash coffers.
Nevertheless, we have experienced liquidity-driven markets in the past and have learned that it is important to put any “liquidity cache” in perspective to the size of the overall market. If we compare current cash assets to total US market capitalization, we find that it represents 38% of total US market capitalization. This is a substantial, but not historic ratio, of cash. See page 4. Most secular bull cycles began when cash equals 50% or more of market capitalization. In short, cash levels support a strong momentum-driven market for a while, but do not suggest this is the start of a major secular bull market.
If the equity market is on the verge of a bubble market, we will know fairly quickly since bubbles are driven by sentiment, liquidity, and leverage, not by earnings or fundamentals. At present, the fundamentals are not supportive of the bulls. There are many ways to measure valuation, but most show the market to be richly valued today. On page 9, we show the Rule of 23, which implies that when the sum of the trailing PE and inflation exceeds 23.8, the stock market is extended and overvalued. The current trailing PE is 22.3 times and the S&P PE based on 2024 earnings estimates is 19.6 times. With inflation at 3.2% and potentially easing, when coupled with the trailing PE of 22.3, the sum of 25.5 is well above the dangerous 23.8 level. Perhaps more importantly, if we add the estimated 2024 forward PE ratio of 19.6 times to inflation of 3.2%, the sum of 22.8 is only two points below the 23.8 danger level. In short, the stock market’s valuation has already discounted a substantial decline in inflation and all of this year’s potential earnings growth. This implies that every CPI report and every earnings reporting season has the potential to be a market-moving event.
What keeps us from getting too negative about valuation too soon is the significant change in our technical indicators. The breakouts in all four charts of the popular indices are both perpendicular and dramatic, but to date, only the DJIA has managed to make a new all-time high. The SPX is most interesting at this juncture since it has been fractionally away from a new record high for several sessions but is yet to better its January 3, 2022 peak of 4796.56. The Russell 2000, after beating key resistance at the 2000 level, is now testing this level as support. If the Russell begins to trade below 2000 once again, it could neutralize what is now a very bullish technical pattern. See page 11. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at 3.45 this week and has been in overbought territory of 3.0 or higher for 19 of the last 22 consecutive trading days. To confirm the recent advance this indicator needed to remain in overbought territory for a minimum of five consecutive trading sessions, which means the oscillator has definitely confirmed the recent uptrend as “significant.” The current 19-day overbought reading is far better than the 11-day reading seen between January 25, 2022 and February 8, 2022. The only missing ingredient to the current strength of this indicator is an overbought reading in excess of 5.0. Extreme overbought readings of 5.0 or more are often seen at the start of a new bull market cycle. However, this is not a requirement for a significant advance. What will be important is that any pullback in the equity market ends once this indicator approaches an oversold reading. In a bull market oversold readings tend to be brief or nonexistent.
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