This Week’s Message: Staying the Course, But With a Watchful Eye

Despite a moderate pickup in the Financial Markets subindex, our PWA [Macro] Index declined 2.38 points to 42.36 (this year’s lowest score) this week — as the Economic subindex gave up a notable 6 points, with commercial and industrial loans seeing a large decline and rail
traffic threatening to roll over. 

While macro conditions
have deteriorated notably from where they began the year (81.33 on Jan 15),
they still score at a level that supports a continued economic expansion and
corporate profits going forward (below zero is the danger zone). 
As for the sector charts; while the setup, in the aggregate, remains relatively bullish for U.S.
cyclicals, technical conditions aren’t what they were coming into the year
Here’s our technical
snapshot on 12/31/17:    click to enlarge…

Here’s now:

Coming into the year
conditions strongly favored higher long-bond rates, a U.S. economy leading
developed foreign economies (supporting my stronger dollar thesis at the time),
and gains in financials (higher rates, tax cuts, deregulation), materials and
industrials — over the tech sector.
As things have turned
out thus far, tech has been a huge
gainer on the year (+17.2%), while financials are essentially flat (+1.2%),
industrials are up moderately (+4.5%) and materials are down 1.9%. This
defiance of general conditions speaks to the
unprecedentedly aggressive posture on trade coming from the
U.S. Administration.
Prior to the U.S.’s explicit move toward protectionism,
financials and tech were in a dead heat (both up 8.1%) with Industrials and
materials gaining 6.6% and 5.9% respectively from the beginning of the year to
the 1/26 peak. Since then, again, tech has continued its impressive march
higher, while, as stated above, our three top picks have not: This speaks to
the fact that the U.S. and China have thus far 
largely excluded the tech sector from
their tit-for-tat game of tariffs. The next round, if Washington makes good on
its threats, will draw tech into the battle and
I suspect things will get ugly for the sector. The deterioration we
saw in tech week before last (-2.7%, while financials, industrials and
materials delivered 0.0%, +0.6% and -0.5% respectively) was clearly in
anticipation of the escalation promised (but not yet delivered) by the White
As for non-US
equities, they as well have reacted negatively (more so) to the current trade
environment. From the beginning of the year to the 1/26 market peak, developed foreign aggregate, the Eurozone, Asia Pac and Emerging Markets were up 7.0%,
8.6%, 5.9% and 11.0% respectively, while the U.S. S&P 500 was up 7.5%.
Since then foreign markets have turned notably negative across the board. Last
week, however, upon no announcement of new tariffs, and on news Wednesday that
the U.S. has asked China to reengage on trade talks, non-US equities rallied strongly.
For the week, developed aggregate, the Eurozone and Asia Pac were up 2.0%, 2.3%
and also 2.3% respectively, while the S&P 500 rose only 1.2%. While that’s a
very short-term snapshot, last week bolstered our view that non-US equities (as
well as U.S. financials, industrials and materials) are poised for a stretch of
outperformance (catch up) if/when the trade war comes to a close – as long as
general conditions hold up until then. Emerging markets, while higher by a
respectable 0.7%, didn’t see as strong a rebound as did other non-US markets
last week.
Last week
unfortunately finished on a sour note, as it was reported that the President instructed
his team to move forward with tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports,
despite the pending restart of negotiations. 
In a nutshell, general
conditions dictate that we stay the course (an overall cyclical bent to our allocation) for now, while diligently
monitoring the macro environment. At some point the cycle will run its course
and we’ll be shifting to a defensive posture within client portfolios. The
character of that shift will depend on the nature of the slowdown and where
interest rates stand at the time.
Should international
trade relationships normalize soon, we see very low near-term recession risk,
and we think our current sector and regional allocation mix will perform quite
well. Should, on the other hand, the trade war not come to a near-term close,
or, worse yet, worsen further, we believe general conditions will begin to deteriorate
at an accelerated pace, having us adjust sooner than we otherwise would have.
In that event, our move to TD Ameritrade’s far nimbler platform couldn’t have
been better timed!
In the meantime, the
looming mid-term elections stand to be another potential source of equity market volatility…


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