Technical Indicators in the Spotlight
The easy part of the 2023 rally may now be behind us. We are concerned that daily volume on the NYSE has been consistently lower than the 10-day average for seven consecutive trading sessions. It is a sign of fading demand. More importantly, the Russell 2000 index, which was an excellent leading indicator at the 2021 peak and has been a decent leader at the October low, is now facing stiff resistance at the 2,000 level. The Russell index has the most attractive technical pattern of all the major indices and if it can better the 2000 level, the Russell could rally another 10%. However, in our view, it is more likely that the equity market is extended, a consolidation process has begun, and part of this process could include a retest of the lows. See page 10.
Another warning sign is found in the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) survey which had some surprising shifts last week. The AAII readings showed a 7.6% increase in bullishness to 37.5%, its highest bullish reading in over a year. It is also the first time in 58 weeks that bullish sentiment is at or above its historical average of 37.5%.
Investors who indicated they were neutral, neither bullish nor bearish, rose 2% to 37.5%, and were also at the highest level in over a year. Conversely, a huge 9.6% decrease in bearishness took the bullish ratio to 25.0%, its lowest reading since November 11, 2021, or 15 months ago. Bearishness is now below its long-term average of 31.0%. The Bull/Bear Spread remains positive but it is moving toward neutral for the first time since January 2022. Sentiment readings were most extreme on September 21, 2022, and equity prices tend to be higher in the next six and/or twelve months following such extreme readings. Nevertheless, last week’s readings are a display of too much optimism appearing too quickly and it is a negative omen for the near term. See page 13.
Some technical indicators continue to be positive. The 10-day average of daily new highs is 130 and new lows are 26. This combination remains positive since new highs are above the 100 benchmark that defines the trend, and new lows are well below 100. The NYSE advance/decline line is currently 28,517 net advancing issues from its November 8, 2021 high, which is further away than it was a week ago. In general, the AD line is negative, but it has been improving since the end of the year. See page 12.
Inflation, the Fed, and PE multiples
January’s CPI data, on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, showed prices rising 6.4% YOY versus the 6.5% YOY reported for December. Core CPI rose 5.6% versus 5.7% a month earlier. This was slightly worse than the consensus expected, but not bad enough to change the outlook for Fed policy. Inflation is slowing, but at a slower pace than some had expected. The energy component of CPI rose 8.7% YOY in January versus 7.3% YOY in December, which was a surprise because the price of the WTI future fell 10.5% YOY in January versus a 6.7% YOY gain in December. The good news is that the energy component of the CPI remains well below the peak of 41.6% YOY seen in June 2022. See page 3.
Many inflation watchers like to exclude the owner’s equivalent rent component from the CPI to moderate inflation, however, the OER has been a part of the CPI for decades and without controversy prior to this cycle. What is interesting to us is that when we compare the OER and the fed funds rate, it is clear that the Fed had been far more aggressive in terms of fighting inflation in the past. The Fed typically increased rates ahead of any significant rise in the OER, or at the first sign of inflation. Today, the Fed remains well behind the curve and behind the rise in the OER. More importantly, housing is not the problem for the Fed since interest rates have had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on mortgage rates, housing demand and housing inflation. The problem has switched to the service sector where inflation is rising broadly. In January, service sector inflation rose from 7.5% to 7.6%. See page 4. All told, inflation may be more entrenched than previously thought and the Fed will need to keep interest rates higher for longer than many expect.
Lowering inflation is critical for many reasons, but in terms of equity valuation, high inflation usually translates into lower PE multiples. The current trailing PE for the S&P 500 of 20.9 times and the forward PE is 22.3 times based upon our 2023 estimate of $180, or 18.8 times based upon the current S&P Dow Jones estimate of $220.31. All of these PE multiples are extremely high with inflation over 6% YOY. The risk in the market is that equity valuations can only be supported if inflation is 2%. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to materialize this year. In other words, breadth has improved on this rally, but valuation has not.
There was a small increase in the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey for February and it was due entirely to the present conditions component, which rose 4.2 points to 72.6. Ironically, the present conditions index is now more than 10 points above the expectations index. More confusing is the fact that this is in complete contrast to December’s detailed survey on personal finances, where personal finances were falling throughout 2022, but expectations rose in the final months of the year. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment is a timelier survey, so hopefully, this improvement in present conditions will be sustained. See page 5.
The NFIB small business optimism index rose 0.5 points to 90.3 in January but remained below the long-term average of 98 for the 13th consecutive month. Eight subcategories improved this month and five deteriorated. However, even though the outlook for business conditions rose from -51 to -45, it lingers well below the zero line, although 16 points above its June 2022 low of -61. See page 6. Plans to increase capital expenditures or inventories declined in January while plans to increase employment and expand rose modestly. Small businesses were gloomier about the prospect of real sales increasing even though plans to raise prices also rose in January. See page 7. There were small increases in actual sales and earnings in January which may have contributed to the rise in the uncertainty index to 76, up 5 points for the month and up from the June 2022 low of 55. See page 8.
Summary We expect the equity market will remain in a broad trading range until inflation is clearly under control, a process that is apt to take another 12 to 18 months. In the interim, we expect the broad indices will be contained between the January 3, 2022 SPX high of 4796.56 and the October 12, 2022 low of SPX 3577.03. The improvement in our 25-day up/down volume oscillator is in line with this forecast. To date, the rally has been led by large-cap technology stocks which we do not believe will be the leadership of the next bull market cycle. Technology stocks had been at the center of heavy short selling, and it is likely that short covering contributed to the current advance. If we are correct about a trading range market, leadership may rotate throughout the year. Keep in mind that historically, the popular stock indices have spent 50% of the time in flat trends. Flat trends can include several bull and bear market moves of 20% or more, but we define them as “flat” since rallies are unable to sustain an advance above the previous market peak. In short, the days of “buy and hold” may have ended for a while.
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