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Jeff Saut: 'Tis the Season for Superior Market Performance


Mix some holiday cheer with sectors like energy, consumer non-cyclicals, basic materials, and REITs.

Editor's Note: The following article was written by Raymond James Chief Investment Strategist Jeff Saut. It has been reproduced with permission for the benefit of the Minyanville community.

'Tis the season... except in this case we haven't quite yet entered the Christmas season. However, we have entered the best six months of the year for the equity markets. Clearly, history demonstrates that the November through April periods have on average shown superior stock market performance to that of the May through October half of the year.

As our South African friend Dr. Prieur du Plessis notes, "(Since 1950) the 'good' six-month period of the year shows an average return of 7.9%, while the 'bad' six-month period only shows a return of 2.5%." Also see his article from this morning, Bernanke Built It, But They Did Not Come.

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In addition to the aforementioned seasonality, there are some equally compelling shorter-term metrics. To wit, over the past 12 years the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has always shown a profit between November 11 and December 5. Additionally, since 1976, the DJIA has posted a positive return between October 26 and January 1 every year except 2007. As for those that suggest the markets have rallied too far too fast, we offer these comments from the always insightful folks at The Chart of the Day.

To provide some perspective to the current Dow rally that began back in March, all major market rallies of the last 109 years are plotted on today's chart. Each dot represents a major stock market rally as measured by the Dow. As today's chart illustrates, the Dow has begun a major rally 27 times over the past 109 years which equates to an average of one rally every four years. Also, most major rallies (73%) resulted in a gain of between 30% and 150% and lasted between 200 and 800 trading days (9.5 months to 3.2 years) -- highlighted in today's chart with a light blue shaded box. As it stands right now, the current Dow rally would be classified as both short in duration and below average in magnitude.

To us the real question isn't whether this is a counter-trend rally in an ongoing bear market, but rather is this the beginning of a new secular bull market, or a bull market within the confines of the trading range we have been in for the last nine years?

In past missives my firm and I have often reminded participants that since 1900 there have been only three secular bull markets. They were from 1921 to 1929, 1949 to 1966, and 1982 to 2000. Following each of those secular bull market peaks, the DJIA has been "range-bound" for a period of years.

Using the 1966 bull market peak as an example, the Dow was mired in a trading range for 16 years before embarking on the next secular bull market.

Of course, those of us that lived through the 1966 to 1982 debacle know that there were a series of bull and bear markets within the confines of that trading range. In fact, there were at least 10 20%+ rallies and/or declines in that ongoing range-bound market. Accordingly, investors had to have a more proactive strategy for their portfolios, much like we have had to use for the past number of years.

While nobody can answer our proposed question, what we can attempt to do is position portfolios in a manner that deals with the current environment as we see it. To that point, since last April we've been using the stock market's chart pattern from 2003 as a template for this rally.

Recall that the S&P 500 bottomed in March 2003 and rallied sharply into June. From there it flopped/chopped around for a few months, but never gave back much ground, and then it took off on the second leg of the rally, rising into the first quarter of 2004. The first leg of the 2003 rally was driven by liquidity, much like 2009's first leg (March to June). The second leg of the 2003 rally was driven by improving fundamentals and earnings, just like 2009's "July through now" rally.

To be sure, we've turned cautious a couple of times since the March "lows," but we've never turned bearish.

Most recently, we wrongfully turned cautious at the beginning of October, worried that the July through September upside vacuum created by the melt-up might get filled to the downside once the quarter's end window dressing was over.

Obviously, that was wrong-footed because all the markets have done is work off their pretty overbought condition at the end of September into a very oversold condition a few weeks ago.

We chronicled that oversold condition in our report of November 2, 2009, but regrettably didn't act on it. Accordingly, we corrected that cautious call last week by adding some "long" index positions to the trading account. While we would have felt better adding those positions if the markets had pulled back, or if the S&P 500 had rallied above its potential double-top of 1100, in this business you have to take what the markets give you.

Whatever the resolution in the short term, we continue to believe the major market indices will trade higher into the first quarter of 2010.

Plainly, we agree with the astute GaveKal organization in that the normal economic cycle is for corporate profits to increase, which drives an inventory rebuild and subsequently capital expenditure cycle, and then comes employment expansion that revives consumption. Currently, corporate profits are surging at their largest ramp rate since mid-1975.

According to ISI, "profits have increased sequentially for the past three quarters at an estimated +34.8% annual rate -- a record for a recessionary environment." As of yet, however, the inventory rebuild has been muted. But with inventories plumbing record lows, we think the inventory cycle is about to begin.

If correct, the aforementioned sequence should play. Importantly, consumption comes at the back-end of the cycle, not the front-end. Consequently, those arguing we can't have a normal recovery until unemployment declines are like skiers skiing downhill looking at the tails of their skis.

We think the normal economic cycle will play once again. If so, economic reports, fundamentals, and earnings should continue to improve, putting even more pressure on underinvested participants (according to the latest surveys, hedge funds are only about 52% net long). And, that pressure should buoy stocks into the first part of 2010.

It's the back half of 2010 that begins to worry us due to harder earnings comparisons, loss of the "sugar high" stimulus funds, higher taxes, an election year, increased government regulation, etc. In fact, it's the probability of further government regulation of corporate America that worries us the most, and we are not alone. As our energy analysts wrote last week:

ENSCO International (ESV) to pick up shop and head to UK after watching rivals Transocean (RIG) and Noble Corp (NE) move to Switzerland, ENSCO has announced its intentions to re-domesticate from Delaware to the UK.

ENSCO joins a growing list of companies, like Tyco (TYC), that are moving offshore driven by worries of increased regulation and taxes. I'm old enough to remember the exodus of UK companies, and talented people, to America in the 1960s to 1970s for similar reasons.

Another example of governmental incursion came full circle last week when Pfizer (PFE) announced the closing of six Research and Development facilities. One such site is located in New London, Connecticut.

It was four years ago when the government used eminent domain to seize homeowners' homes. The government (state/local) then spent $78 million to bulldoze those properties to build condos, and offices, to enhance Pfizer's nearby research facility. The "spin" was that the project would create jobs and bring in more taxes. Now that land stands vacant, without any of those promised benefits. With Pfizer's closing of its New London facility, that land will likely remain fallow.

As the Wall Street Journal writes, "Economic development that relies on the strong arm of government will never be the kind to create sustainable growth."

The call for this week: In bull markets, be they secular or not, it's rare to get anything more than a 7% to 10% correction; while we have been looking for such a correction for more than a month, time is running out.

The trick then becomes to commit some capital to areas that have good risk/reward metrics. By our pencil, the sectors displaying the best relative strength are energy, consumer non-cyclicals, basic materials, and real-estate investment trusts (REITs).

Our REIT analysts just returned from the NAREIT national conference and reiterated their Outperform rating on 3.5%-yielding Apartment Investment and Management Company (AIV). Another way to get at the REIT theme would be via the ETF iShares REIT (IYR).

On the energy theme, our analyst upgraded American Superconductor (AMSC) this morning. As for consumer non-cyclicals, the ETF that makes sense to us is the Consumer Staples SPDR (XLP), as does Walmart (WMT). And, we still like our previous recommendations of Pfizer and Altria (MO), which are both followed by our research correspondents.

Read what Ron Coby & Denny Lamson have to say about REITs & IYR with a FREE trial to the Grail ETF Investor newsletter

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