Along with many other stock markets around the world, the Nasdaq Composite index and the S&P 500 index recorded all-time highs this week. These highs came just a day before Nvidia Corp. (NVDA – $953.86), Wall Street’s third largest firm by market capitalization, reports first quarter earnings after Wednesday’s closing bell. Expectations are for another blowout quarter for the chip maker. The global focus on Nvidia’s earnings suggests it could be a significant market catalyst and more importantly, a test of whether the outsized rally in AI-related stocks can be sustained. Nvidia’s earnings report also comes as the stock is about to test the psychological $1,000 level, which could become a challenge, at least in the short run, considering the stock is already up over 8-fold from its October 2022 low. In our view, the obsession surrounding Nvidia’s earnings release is worrisome and revealing. It reflects a certain underlying weakness in the market if one stock is vital to the current advance and to investor confidence.

But it is also interesting to see how many different ways artificial intelligence can drive the stock market. Utilities became the latest AI-related darling. The interim CEO for American Electric Power Company Inc. (AEP – $92.62), Benjamin Fowke, noted in a hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week, that a single data center requires three to fifteen times the amount of power as a large manufacturing facility. According to Fowke, “One small example of this demand surge – OpenAI’s ChatGPT requires 2.9 watt-hours per request, and that’s nearly 10 times more power than a typical Google (Alphabet Inc. C – GOOG – $179.54) search.” And voila! Utilities are now an AI play. As a result, in one month the utility sector jumped from being the next-to-worst performing S&P 500 sector to the third best performing sector. See page 15.

Wednesday will also include the release of the minutes of the May FOMC meeting. The document will be scrutinized for any sign of a possible rate cut in September, since the consensus and the CME FedWatch Tool are currently suggesting a 90% probability of at least one rate cut before the end of the year. We do not expect a rate cut this year. The one exception would be if the economy stumbled into a recession and that does not appear likely either.

The recent rally has had several catalysts, but the key one seems to have been the April CPI report. Headline CPI ratcheted down from 3.5% in March to 3.4% YOY in April while core CPI eased from 3.8% to 3.6%. The general trend of these two indices appears to be stable to lower; however, if one looks at the heavy-weighted components of the CPI index it shows that while prices in food & beverage and housing are decelerating (i.e., rising at a slower pace), transportation and medical prices are now accelerating. See page 3.

Many economists have been theorizing that inflation would already be at 2% if owners’ equivalent rent were excluded, and that rents were not reflecting the slowdown in home prices. There are a number of problems with this theory. First, there has always been a lag between the prices of homes and the level of rents, and this is logical. Rents usually reset every year or two which means that rising or falling housing prices work through the economy slowly with a big lag. Second, the argument that the CPI would be lower excluding OER is losing viability because the housing prices are rising again. Third, the driver of inflation made a significant shift many months ago from housing and energy to services (most notably insurance and medical). See page 4.

Inflation less shelter represents nearly 64% of the CPI and since this index hit a low of 0.6% YOY in June 2023, it has been steadily rising and rose 2.2% in April. All core CPI indices were above 2% in April, up from last year’s lows. More importantly, in April, services less rent rose 4.9% YOY, medical care services, which had been declining in 2023, rose 2.7% YOY and services less medical care services rose 5.6% YOY. See page 5. We fear the stock market may be too complacent about inflation.

Last week we noted that consumer confidence fell in May, this week we see that retail sales for April were disappointing. Seasonally adjusted total retail and food services sales were essentially unchanged from March, although up 3.0% from a year earlier. Note that the March 2024 report was revised down from up 0.7% to 0.6%. From a retailer’s perspective, after adjusting for inflation of 3.4%, real retail sales declined 0.4% YOY. The main high points of the April report were the same familiar areas: miscellaneous stores (up 6.8%), nonstore retailers (up 7.5%), and food services and drinking places (up 5.5%).See page 6.

The area of the economy that could be a concern this year is housing. Housing affordability fell in March from 103.2 to 101.1. The decline came from a combination of a slightly higher mortgage rate of 6.9% and a higher median existing single-family home price of $397,200. The $9,200 increase in home prices was much larger than the $680 increase in the median family income, which increased from $100,876 to $101,556. Similarly, the NAHB confidence index fell from 51 to 45 in May and is now below the 50-point threshold which marks a poor building outlook. Current single-family sales fell from 57 to 51 and the 6-month outlook for sales fell from 60 to 51. See page 7.  

Nevertheless, the good news is found in the technical condition of the stock market, which is much improved this week. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite index made record highs on May 21, 2024 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average made a record high on May 17, 2024. The Russell 2000 index remains 14% below its high of 2442.74 made on November 8, 2021, however, the technical pattern is positive, and it is trading above all its moving averages. See page 10.

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at 4.02 and in overbought territory for the third consecutive trading session. This is positive; however, a minimum of five consecutive trading days in overbought territory is required to confirm a new high which means, to date, this indicator is yet to confirm this week’s all-time highs. The last confirmation from this oscillator appeared at the turn of the year when it was overbought for 22 of 25 consecutive trading days ending January 5, 2024. See page 11.

The 10-day average of daily new highs is 400 and new lows are 44. This combination of new highs above 100 and new lows below 100 is positive. The NYSE advance/decline line made a new record high on May 21, 2024, is positive, and confirms the new high in the popular indices this week. The one caveat is that daily volume has been weak and running consistently below the 10-day average for most of the recent advance. See page 12. The current rally has been a liquidity-driven event and not a valuation-driven advance. Despite the fact that earnings have exceeded consensus expectations, those expectations were significantly lowered just ahead of earnings season. The S&P 500 trailing four quarter operating PE multiple is now 24.3 times and is well above all long-term averages. See page 8. The 12-month forward PE multiple is 20.8 times and well above its long-term average of 15 times and its 1985 to present average of 17.8 times.  

Gail Dudack

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