The S&P 500 Index has gained more than 20% so far this year, making more than 50 record highs along the way. Certainly nobody should be upset with that return if that was all 2021 brought us. However, we see signs that there could be more gains to come in the final two months of the year. Seasonal tailwinds, improving market internals, and clear signs of a peak in the Delta variant all provide potential fuel for equities heading into year-end, and we maintain our overweight equities recommendation as a result.
One of the most important points we believe investors should recognize is that there has been a sort of stealth correction going on throughout most of the summer, consistent with the historically weak period commonly referred to as “Sell in May and Go Away.” While the S&P 500 has returned more than 8% since the end of April, the average individual stock in the index suffered more than a 10% correction. Meanwhile, the average stock in the Russell 2000 Index (covering small cap equities), which is almost unchanged over that period, suffered a more than 25% bear market.
However, as shown in [Figure 1], late October has historically marked the seasonal low before stocks typically rally into year-end. In fact, the fourth quarter as a whole is by far the strongest quarter historically, on average, with the S&P 500 rising 4% and finishing higher nearly 80% of the time. November, meanwhile, is the strongest month of the year—both since 1950 and over the past decade. So, whether you believe that stocks have thus far followed the historical pattern of summer weakness that should be ending, or that the current price trend is so strong that it was able to buck the summer doldrums, we see ample reason to believe that seasonality has now turned from a headwind for equities to a tailwind.
Seasonality is something that we want to be aware of, but perhaps more important to our thesis is what technicals and market internals are showing us right now. As we just discussed, much of the market has corrected over recent months, but are key groups showing signs of improvement? The answer is clearly yes. Economically sensitive groups of stocks, commodities, and even bond yields had largely stagnated since early May—but have recently reaccelerated. For example:
There are certainly more examples, but let’s not forget perhaps the most important indicator: price. After finally suffering its first 5% pullback of 2021 in early October, the S&P 500 has come roaring back and closed at a record high on October 21. We firmly believe that new highs are something to be embraced, not feared, and history shows that new highs tend to come in bunches—something that has certainly been true so far this year.
Though the above points may be construed as a technical argument for strength into year-end, make no mistake: The fundamentals are improving in real time as well. The rolling seven-day rate of new COVID-19 cases has fallen over 60% from its peak in early September. No doubt connected to the decrease in cases, jobless claims have fallen steadily in recent weeks, with continuing claims sliding below 2.5 million for the first time since the pandemic began.
Recent economic data shows that Americans have taken notice of the improved outlook. Economists expected retail sales to fall slightly in September, but the report showed that overall retail sales grew 0.7%. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 Delta variant wave, retail sales have grown three of the past four months, providing further evidence of the strength of the U.S. consumer. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report showed that the number of American workers who are voluntarily quitting their jobs is at its highest rate since the BLS started publishing data in 2001. Typically, quits are viewed as a sign of a strong economy and healthy labor market, as the most common reason for people voluntarily leaving their job is to start a new one—something workers are more hesitant to do in times of economic uncertainty.
LPL Research continues to believe that tactical investors should tilt portfolios in favor of stocks over bonds relative to their respective targets. Modestly rising interest rates and tight credit spreads reflect a healthy and improving economy, but should add pressure to fixed income returns in the near-term. Meanwhile, a bullish part of the calendar, improving equity market internals, and falling COVID-19 cases may clear the way for a potentially bullish environment for equities through year-end.
Ryan Detrick, CMT, Chief Market Strategist, LPL Financial
Scott Brown, CMT, Senior Analyst, LPL Financial
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