random-ish musing (ii)

Alarming reports about the spread of the pandemic in the south and west have stopped the stock market in its tracks over the past few days. The bad news is coming primarily from states that decided to believe the wishful thinking of the administration rather than the country’s health experts. One consequence of this has been a new round of economy-damaging moves–proposed new tariffs, for example–by Trump as he tries to distract attention from the human tragedy he has created.

Taking off my hat as a citizen and putting on my investor cap, the main stock market issue is that the spread has reached prime vacation destinations, where local governments have made no preparations for its arrival. Therefore, summer travel is dead and, unlike many overseas areas, the US consumer economy is not going to reopen soon. Are we back to the buy NASDAQ/sell R2000 (or buy NASDAQ/sell the Dow) trade that has been the key to stock market success for most of the Trump administration?

A problem: NASDAQ is expensive and the degree of its outperformance over R2000 is very, very large by historic standards. So it’s a reasonable first guess that the spread won’t get much wider. In fact, the gap had started to close before news of the virus spread came out. On the other hand, the domestic economy is being handed another setback by bungling governors and typical summer vacation travel destinations have become virus hotspots. So it’s also reasonable to conclude that the NASDAQ/R2000 spread will get wider and that the R2000 rebound will just be more ferocious when it happens sometime down the road.

Where do I come out on this?

–One of the first things any successful portfolio manager learns is that you don’t need to have an opinion about everything. Just the opposite. You need to have strong (and correct) opinions about a few non-consensus things that you shape your portfolio around. For now, I’m choosing not to change what I hold to bet on what will happen to the NASDAQ/R2000 spread.

–Regular readers will know that a while ago I made a small shift to reduce the size of my very large pro-NASDAQ overweight. That hasn’t worked out well so far, but I don’t care. I want to do more–which I look at as locking in some of the outperformance I’ve achieved so far this year. But I’m guessing that I may have a better chance to do so over the summer. In other words, from a short-term-tactical point of view (sort of like betting on whether the next pitch will be a ball or a strike) I think the economically sensitives go down as NASDAQ more or less treads water.

A related topic (for tomorrow): how will the current situation ultimately play out? I think a lot hinges on the election in November.

listening to Wall Street strategy

I was driving to a nearby Home Depot to get curbside pickup of a new work table early this morning. On the way I started listening to Bloomberg Radio, something I almost always regret. Just shows everyone finds bad habits hard to break.

I heard an interview with an equity strategist from Credit Suisse, who had been very bearish all the way up from the March lows and who has just turned bullish. One tried-and-true Wall Street saying is that the bear market isn’t over until the last bull capitulates. This could be the analogue–the last bear turning bullish. The idea behind the last bull is that after him there’s no one left to create more selling. In today’s case, it’s that all of the possible fresh cash is finally coming out of hibernation.

At the same time, though “bullish,” this strategist thinks the stock market only has 3% upside. Overall, very weird. Despite that, the last bear throwing in the towel should give us pause.

Last night, I read an article that points out the very large performance differential between the NASDAQ and the Dow. Now, a hard-and-fast rule for me is that anyone who uses the Dow as a yardstick for evaluating equities shows, just from that fact, that he knows nothing about stocks. In that sense, then, the Dow has a strange sort of usefulness.

My observation is that even Dow worshipers have noticed the huge performance gap between innovative companies that serve the world and very mature firms that are closely tied to US GDP. Yet, a counter-trend rally seems unable to gather any steam. How is this possible? My answer is that the White House continues to surprise, in finding new ways to damage the domestic economy. Whether that’s the reason or not, the question is worth thinking through.

…and picking up steam

I’m on the sidelines and watching.

There is information in today’s trading, even if nothing more than my holdings are really getting beaten up.

For one thing, tech names continue to sell off even though the rally in business cycle-sensitives (maybe reopening-sensitives would be a better term) is fading, for the moment at least.

Another is the difference in performance between tech heavyweights like MSFT and AMZN, which are down by about 2% as I’m writing this, and smaller, more “concept” names like SHOP and BYND, which are off by 4x as much.  To my mind, this underlines the risk in the latter.  Imagine if the market were falling instead of being just flattish.

It’s also interesting to see the resilience of the airlines and cruise lines, despite what I regard as their bleak earnings prospects.

The clear delineation between winners and losers suggests this rally has a lot further to run.

 

most of an email from Wednesday night

 I think we won’t really begin to know how bad things are going to be before we see companies report earnings for 1Q20 over the next few weeks.  And it may not be until we get well into 2Q20 that we’ll have a solid grip on what the situation is.  That’s when we’ll be able to assess whether the market has already discounted all the possible bad news.
We can already figure out stuff that should be avoided–cruise ships, department stores, airlines, the Detroit auto companies…
If a professional manager has to remain close to fully invested, meaning no more than 10% in cash (for a pension manager, the maximum cash percent will typically be stipulated in a contract), just avoiding the losers will probably be enough to do better than the market.
For me, I think the investment focus should be narrower.  I find techy businesses with worldwide appeal and little investment in physical plant and equipment are especially attractive.   This is partly because technological change is very rapid, partly because I think the Trump back-to-the-Fifties economic strategy is already doing huge long-term harm to the US economy.  If he or someone like him continues in office, I think the ability of a company to pick up roots quickly and move to, say, Canada will be a distinct plus.  I also think this flight capital idea is already being factored into stock prices (look at NASDAQ  +50.8% vs Russell 2000 -13.6% since Trump has been in office).  I wouldn’t just distribute money across the board in the -non-losers.  I’d emphasize what I think are the long-term winners.
I’m sure that there are some people buying NVDA, NFLX and ATVI not because they believe in them or even know much about them but purely to defend themselves from the possibility that conventional consumer names will have hugely bad earnings performance over the next couple of quarters.  They may not be table to quantify how bad but they’re convinced that there won’t be any positive surprises, only potential negative ones.
Assuming I’m right in what I’ve written so far, the key question for me is when/how does this market situation reverse itself.
Reversal typically comes in one of two forms: the price difference between the good stocks and the bad stocks will get so extreme that, purely on valuation, the bad stocks will start to catch up with the good ones–this is a “counter-trend rally” and tends to be short; or the economy will begin to improve and there will be a genuine reversal of relative economic momentum toward business cycle recovery stocks.  I agree we’re a long way off from that.  At some point, though, it will be right to shift holdings to more traditional cyclical names in anticipation.
To some degree, the first thing has happened already.   MAR, for example was $150 in mid-December, then $46 a few weeks ago, and is now $80.  So it’s up by almost 75% from the low.  I don’t know what will happen from here but I might be tempted at $60 to buy a little bit.  Generally speaking, though, I think this kind of stock will be lucky to go sideways between now and the time, late this year?, that we get signs that business is recovering.  I’m really not accustomed to thinking about ETFs but a hotel ETF might be the better way to go.

what Monday’s market action is saying

Over the weekend Governor Cuomo of New York said that new coronavirus hospitalizations (that is new patients admitted minus patients discharged) may be plateauing.  Similar news came from Italy and Spain this morning.

While this doesn’t imply that more negative consequences of the pandemic won’t continue to build up, it suggests that the doomsday scenario of the creaky national health care apparatus imploding won’t occur.

 

Wall Street took this news as the occasion for a rally, which continues to strengthen as I write this.  (Is the worst in stock market terms over?   ,,,I have no idea.)

A day like this is chock full of information, most of it general concept stuff rather than specific buy/sell signals.

Stocks are up by 5% plus.  One should expect that the most heavily beaten down stocks should be rebounding the most and that the relative outperformers should be lagging.  No news there.  But where are the outliers?  For example:

–hotels and resorts seem to be up close to 15%, cruise lines, too, but airlines aren’t moving

–the Russell 2000 is leading the major indices up, but even though the NASDAQ has significantly outperformed on the way down, it’s even with the S&P 500 so far today

–Zoom (ZM) continues to play its contrary role–the worse the virus news, the better ZM has been performing.  But the stock is down today, and way off its high of $160+ a short while ago.  I haven’t paid much attention to ZM but it seems to me a holder (I was one but no longer) should be figuring out how much valuation support there is for it

–oils are flat to down, despite Mr. Trump’s (dubious, in my mind) claim to have brokered a production reduction deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia (more on this tomorrow)

 

What to do?  I look for two things:  individual holdings that aren’t acting the way I think they should, and changes in market leadership, which often come when the market begins to heal itself after a sharp decline.