There is no doubt that the current equity market is displaying significant positive momentum. This is made clear by the fact that the Russell 2000 index has been core to price leadership in 2021. In fact, the iShares Russell 2000 Value ETF (IWN – $152.31), the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM – $225.83) and the iShares Russell Growth ETF (IWO – $329.01) are all beating other indices with gains of 17.2%, 16.7%, and 16.5%, respectively. This compares to the 6.3% year-to-date gain in the SPY. See page 14.
Similar but Different from 2000
Several technical indicators are confirming the advance. The NYSE cumulative advance decline line is corroborating the advance with a record high as of February 12. Our favorite 25-day up/down volume oscillator is neutral this week but recorded five consecutive trading days in overbought territory last week. In this indicator, five to ten consecutive days in overbought territory is a sign that persistent buying pressure is supporting the move. See page 10. Even more impressive has been the 10-day average of daily NYSE new highs which hit 514 this week, exceeding both the 10-day average of 492 made on January 20, 2021, and the previous record of 489 made January 22, 2000. See page 11. This last point should also come as a warning flag to investors since the strong market breadth seen in January 2000 preceded the bull market peak made in March 2000 by less than two months. However, the 2000 market was driven by both momentum and more importantly a mania for stocks. Today’s market appears to be a bit different. First, the equity advance is much broader today than the narrow bull market of 2000. Second, valuations were far more stretched in March 2000 than they are at present. Third, the mania for stocks seen in 1999 and early 2000 is not apparent, at least not yet.
Too Dangerous to Short
Normal sentiment indicators are surprisingly benign. The ISE Call/Put Volume ratio remains neutral. AAII bullish sentiment for February 11 jumped 8.1 points to 45.5% and bearish sentiment declined 9.3 points to 26.3% which puts it below its historical average of 30.5% for the first time this year; nevertheless, the 8-week bull/bear spread remains solidly neutral. On the other hand, February’s Bank of America survey of 225 global institutional, mutual and hedge fund managers did reveal a surprising level of bullishness. Cash levels in these investment portfolios dropped to 3.8%, the lowest level since May 2013. (This 2013 benchmark is significant since it coordinates with a Treasury bond sell-off triggered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke when he indicated his intention to taper bond purchases.) A net 91% of money managers indicated that they expect a stronger economy. This is the highest percentage reading in the history of the survey. One concerning fact is that only 13% of participants indicated they were worried about an equity market bubble. About 53% of all managers felt equity markets were in a late-stage bull market while 27% believe the bull market is still in its early stages. Equally notable, a net 25% of the investors surveyed said they were taking “higher-than-normal” risks at the present time. This was the highest percentage ever recorded. The most crowded trades were long technology and bitcoin and short the US dollar. Although this survey gives us concern, we believe it would be extremely dangerous to short this market at this time.
Consensus 2022 Hits $200
One reason it could be unwise to short the current market is that consensus S&P earnings for 2020 and 2021 continue to move upward. For this year and next, S&P Dow Jones consensus earnings estimates rose $0.08 and $0.22, respectively, and Refinitiv IBES consensus estimates rose $0.61 and $0.66, respectively. Full year 2021 earnings forecasts for S&P Dow Jones and IBES are now $170.77 and $173.70, respectively. But it is most important to note that the IBES consensus estimate for 2022 has exceeded $200 for the first time and is currently estimated at $200.41. Applying a 20 PE multiple to this estimate equates to a target for the SPX of 4000. In short, one could argue that the market is not wildly overvalued – just discounting future earnings.
What Could Upset the Apple Cart?
However, this last statement – just discounting future earnings — is dangerous since no investor can actually predict the economy, stock market or earnings two years in advance. With this in mind, it is prudent to think about what could go wrong with the two factors that underpin the bullishness of professional investors today — strong fiscal stimulus and easy monetary policy. In short, what could upset the apple cart?
The Democratic majority in Congress and the White House makes fiscal stimulus relatively predictable for 2021. But what about monetary policy? As we previously noted, low interest rates, high liquidity, and a benign Fed are the perfect recipe for speculators. Therefore, it is not surprising that a net 25% of the investors surveyed by Bank of America, the highest percentage ever recorded, said they were taking “higher-than-normal” risks today. However, keep in mind that as interest rates rise the risk/reward ratio for speculators will also change and at some point, potential risk will outweigh potential rewards. In a word, the risk for 2021 could be inflation.
The Biden administration has been quickly reversing the energy policies of the Trump administration and oil prices have been rising accordingly. This coupled with the freezing temperatures in Texas which are disrupting energy transportation while increasing demand for heating needs, have boosted the WTI future above $60 this week. This is a 35% YOY increase. It is likely to move higher and thereby be the driver of higher inflation in 2021. See page 3.
At the end of 2020, all inflation benchmarks were stable and hovering around 1.4%. This 1.4% level is good for both consumers and businesses as well as for Federal Reserve policy. However, history has shown that a sharp rise in crude oil pricing will not only negatively impact the CPI but will be the catalyst for higher long-term interest rates. This is already happening. The 10-year Treasury note yield is currently at 1.2% which is higher than any time since the pandemic struck in March 2020. See page 4.
On a not-seasonally-adjusted basis, January’s CPI rose 0.4% month-over-month and 1.4% year-over-year. Yet, January’s benign 1.4% inflation rate was contained by a seasonal 2.5% YOY decline in apparel and a 1.3% decline in transportation. The decline in transportation inflation is expected to be a temporary phenomenon. Fuel prices peaked in December 2019 at $61.06 and fell to $18.84 at the end of April 2020. In short, the easy year-over-year comparisons for fuel prices are behind us. See page 5. Charts of the crude oil future and the 10-year Treasury note yield index show the correlation between the two, but more importantly, the 10-year yield chart shows that there is resistance at the 1.4% yield level. If 1.4% is exceeded, it could indicate much higher levels for interest rates. Not only would inflation put pressure on interest rates and the Fed in terms of its easy monetary policy, but it could also force the FOMC to adjust its long-term outlook. A change in monetary policy is the opposite of what the consensus is expecting in 2021 and it could shock the equity market. In sum, do not fight the Fed, but beware of what could change the Fed’s outlook.
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