The return of high-flying growth stocks has stolen the show this year.
The NASDAQ Composite, which lagged throughout all of 2022 and ended the year 35% from its all-time highs, has risen more than 11% in 2023. That far outpaces gains in the value-oriented Dow Jones Industrial Average (+0.7%) and the benchmark S&P 500 Index (+5.4).
Slipping under the radar, though, have been small cap stocks. They’ve quietly gained 9.8% to start the year, and that run of outperformance could continue. Compared to the S&P 500, the Russell 2000 bottomed last May.
It’s been all higher highs and higher lows since then.
Last year’s back half outperformance was largely attributable to differences in sector weights. The Russell 2000 has more exposure to Financials, Health Care, Industrials, and Energy, (all areas that outperformed) and is underweight Communication Services and Tech (sectors that lagged).
But that isn’t the story this year. On a like-for-like basis, small caps have simply been better.
February lived up to its reputation as one of the worst months of the year. Since the inception of the S&P 500 Index in 1950, stocks have averaged a negative return during the month. Only September has a worse track record. This year, stocks followed their seasonal pattern, as the S&P 500 dropped 2.6%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 4.2%, and the NASDAQ Composite fell just more than 1%. Let’s take a look at how things are shaping up for March.
Each month, we start our journey from the top, looking at the market from 30,000 feet up and focusing only on the biggest indexes. In just a handful of charts, we can see exactly the type of investment environment we’re in. Are stock prices rising or are they falling? Should we be erring on the side of buying or selling stocks?
Last month, our view was that stocks had made significant progress toward ending the bear market that began in 2022. Here’s how we put it:
We aren’t out of the woods yet, but we think we see the light at the edge of the forest.
The beauty of technical analysis is that prices offer us clear risk levels – we know exactly where we’re right and where we’re wrong. We entered the month with a clear view of what we needed to keep an eye on:
Small Caps are the ones to watch. With the last few days of gains, the Russell 2000 is above its own key area of resistance. That’s a good sign – small caps were the first to find a bottom last year and could very well lead us higher in 2023. But if IWM is back below 190, expect the rest of the major US indexes to be failing, too.
Well, the IWM fell back below 190. And the rest of the major indexes fell, too.
(Editor’s note: If you’re having trouble seeing any chart in this report, click on it to view a larger version)
We still aren’t out of the woods.
For months, we’ve been talking about resistance near 4100 for the S&P 500. That was our line in the sand – if prices were above that, we wanted to be buying stocks. If they weren’t, we believed a cautious approach was more appropriate.
Nothing changed during February. Stocks failed once again at 4100, and the bears still have the upper hand.
It’s the exact same situation for the NASDAQ. The level here is 12000.
These aren’t just numbers we’re pulling out of a hat. 12000 is the 161.8% Fibonacci retracement from the entire COVID selloff. The market respects these Fib levels, so we do, too.
But it’s not just weird rabbit math that has us watching that level. It’s also where growth stocks peaked relative to value. In September 2020, growth stocks ended a near 15-year run of outperformance. The NASDAQ, which is dominated by those same growth names, is paying attention.
There’s no reason to be aggressively buying stocks as long as we’re below those key levels. We know exactly where we want to be more bullish. So what would it take for us to shift from neutral to outright bearish on US stocks?
We’d need to see more indexes acting like the Dow.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average did more than just fail at overhead supply during February: it ended the month by breaking its December lows. This chart is the biggest threat to the bull case for stocks. If the index that’s been the leader for more than a year is now setting new lows, how can we be buying stocks?
The Dow needs to get back above 33000 in a hurry. If it does, that failed breakdown could be the catalyst that sends prices through that tough overhead resistance near 34500. The longer we’re below 33000, though, the more likely it is that stock prices overall will retest their October lows.
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By the middle of January, the US Dollar Index was down than 10% from its September peak. The move pushed the index below its 2016 and 2020 peaks for the first time in nearly a year – a heartening development for equity market bulls, who watched Dollar strength wreak havoc on returns in 2022. The downtrend continued as we moved into the second month of the year, and the first trading day of February brought with it new lows for the index. All seemed well.
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