Insights & Advice

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Cross currents confuse investors

You would think that with a $1.9 trillion spending package, an increasing rate of coronavirus vaccinations, and a potential $3 trillion infrastructure package waiting in the wings, the market would be at record highs. The fact it is not should tell you something about the indecision plaguing investors.

When good news fails to impress, it usually means stocks (or at least some stocks) are headed lower. That should come as little surprise to readers. I advised investors to raise cash last month in preparation for what I see as a buying opportunity this month. The challenge: when do you put that cash back to work?

No one can call a bottom in stocks, so last week, I did advise readers to begin investing that cash “on down days.” We have had a number of those this week. We have also seen stocks spike higher with little warning, so timing demands attention and patience. It is why I advise a simply buy-and-hold strategy for most readers, most of the time.

If you simply look at the S&P 500 Index, there appears to be little damage thus far to the averages. We are simply in a 100-point trading range. However, Nasdaq and the small-cap Russell 2000 Indexes are a different story.

Right now, we are in the worst technology selloff in six months. The NASDAQ 100 fell over 10% this month while small caps just fell to their 200-day moving average (before bouncing yesterday and today). That makes sense, since what goes up must come down, or so the saying goes.

Both of those averages have outperformed considerably in the past. The Russell 2000 Index, for example, gained more than 40% over the last half year. NASDAQ, as you probably know, has been outperforming everything for years now.

Things changed the moment interest rates began to rise in February. It is one reason I advised caution back then, especially in those high-flying stocks that the Robin Hood traders and others had bid up to insane prices. Many of those companies were what investors considered “new age” stocks (think electric vehicles, solar, or 5G), or “stay-at-home” stocks like the FANG names and other companies in the same space.

Rising interest rates, as I have explained, have a tendency to hurt earnings in these companies, which were already priced to perfection. At first, investors simply sold those winners and rolled the money into what is now called the reopening trades – airlines, hotels, restaurants, cruise lines, industrials, materials, etc. At the beginning of this quarter, valuations were reasonable, since the timetable for a resumption in economic activity was uncertain at best.

However, since then, here in the U.S., the accelerated pace of vaccinations, plus $1.9 trillion in government spending (thanks to the Biden Administration), gave investors the confidence to pile into these “value” areas. After all, it is thought that they would benefit the most from the imminent explosion of economic growth, something which was suddenly thought to be just around the corner.

Inflation worries, and a potential third wave of virus cases, however, has recently put a damper on these expectations. Inflation is rising and no one knows just how high it will go. Higher inflation could damage earnings across the board, but cause more harm in some sectors than others. If you then throw in the possibility of a third wave of virus cases, the market suddenly has doubts of how sustainable the reopening trade might be.  But the problem is that investors have already bid up many of these value stocks to prices that are higher than they were before the pandemic began.

Europe, which has proven to be a 2-3 week leading indicator for virus cases in our own country, is now shutting down again. The difference this time, in my opinion, could be that our efforts to provide vaccinations for our population are in full swing, while Europe struggles to establish an effective program. Just yesterday, President Biden has doubled his forecast (to 200 from 100 million) for vaccinations available by the end of May.

All of the above uncertainty is what I believe is behind the radical behavior we are witnessing this month in the stock market. This too shall pass. I am hoping by the second week in April we will have put all this indecision behind us. In the meantime, take advantage of any pullbacks to move into areas I have already recommended in the beginning of the year such as industrials, materials, financials, and energy among other commodities as well as small caps.