is there really a counter-trend rally underway?

A short while ago, I began to think that what I considered extreme performance and valuation differences between the NASDAQ index vs. the Russell 2000 (large multinational techy companies vs. medium-sized domestic firms) had become so wide that there had to be a period of catch up, when the R2000 would significantly outperform NASDAQ.

I thought it was possible that the R2000 might outperform by, say, 15-20 percentage points over a two-month period. The trigger could well be evidence emerging that the worst of the pandemic in the US was behind us. I was also noticing that I was checking my stock accounts closely almost every day–something that my experience has taught me to be a reliable sign that my holdings are getting near-term toppy.

The turn toward domestic, business cycle-sensitive names started shortly after I wrote about the possibility. BUT the move has stopped dead in its tracks this week. My reading of prices says that the market no longer wants to make this turn.

Of course, I could be wrong, as portfolio managers often are. And I’m not removing the small pro-domestic economy bet I made based on my sense that a market rotation was imminent.

What has changed?

Keeping in mind that the “what” is less important than the “that,” it seems to me that the show-stopper has been the White House. It’s the fact that new coronavirus cases in states like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, which have relaxed social distancing precautions at Trump’s urging–and against the advice of medical authorities, are spiking sharply upward.

Trump is also launching a series of his signature political rallies, even though such events appear to be prime breeding grounds for infection. The Trump campaign has booked a 20,000 seat arena for the event, but claims to have requests for over a million tickets–which would be about half the adult population of the state, and well ahead of the number of votes Trump garnered in OK in 2016. None of this makes a lot of sense to me, nor apparently to Wall Street.

My guess is that at least until this situation sorts itself out the pro-business cycle rally is on hold.

last Friday’s US stock movement

Last Friday the S&P 500 opened at 2436, rose to 2446, fell to 2416 and rallied at the end of the day to close little changed at 2432.  Volume was maybe 10% higher than normal.  Sounds ho-hum.

Look at Financials, Energy or Technology and the story isn’t one of a sleepy summer-like Friday.  It’s violent sector rotation instead.

According to Google Finance, the Energy sector was up by +1.4% for the day and Financials by +0.8%.  Technology fell by -2.7%.

But that understates what happened beneath the calm surface.

Oil exploration and production stocks, which have been in free fall recently, rallied by 4% or more.  Large internet-related names fell by an equal amount.  Market darling Invidia (NVDA) rose by 4% in early Friday trading, then reversed course to fall by 15%, and rallied late in the day to close “only” down by 7%+.  That came on 5x recent daily volume.

What’s going on?

Well, to state the obvious, Friday’s stock market action in the US runs counter to recent trends.  To my mind, the aggressive buying and selling are both based on relative valuation rather than any sudden change in the fundamental prospects for any of the companies whose stocks are gyrating around.  It’s an assertion by the market that no matter how grim the outlook for oil, the stocks are too cheap–and no matter how rosy the future for tech, the stocks are too expensive.

This is part and parcel of equity investing.  There’s always someone, usually with a long investment horizon, who is willing to bet against the current trend, on grounds that current price movements are being driven by too much emotion and not enough by dollars and cents.

what’s unusual

What’s unusual about last Friday, to my mind, is how sharp the division between winning and losing sub-sectors has been and how aggressively stocks have been both sold and bought.

For what it’s worth, I also think it’s odd that this should happen on a Friday. Human buyers/sellers of this size tend, in my experience, to worry about whether they can execute their plans in one day, preferring not to let the competition mull the situation over on the weekend.  But that’s a minor point.  (One could equally argue that if the buyers/sells were looking for maximum surprise, Friday would be the ideal day to act.)

If this is indeed a counter-trend rally, meaning that after a period of valuation adjustment the prior trend will reassert itself (which is what I think), the most important investment question is how long–and how severe–the pro-energy, anti-tech rotation will be.

My experience is that it’s never just one day and that a counter-trend movement can run for a month.  On the other hand, this doesn’t look like the typical work of traditional human portfolio managers.  It looks to me more like trading done by computers.  If that’s correct, I’d imagine the buying/selling will cut deep and be over relatively quickly.  But that’s just a guess.  And I know my tendency in situations like this is to act too soon.

For myself, I’ve been thinking for some time that US oil exploration companies have been battered down too much.  As for tech, I still think it will be the most important sector for this year.  So I’m happy to use this weakness to rearrange my overall holdings, nibbling at the fallen tech names and offloading a couple of REITS I own that I think are fully valued.