Sunday, April 13, 2008
Two Stock Market Sector Ratios I'm Watching Closely
The above charts represent price ratios between pairs of sector ETFs within the S&P 500 universe. Each represents a theme that I consider to be a driver of the recent bear market. Accordingly, I am watching these ratios (and themes) for indications of a continuation vs. reversal of bear market dynamics.
The first theme (top chart) represents the price ratio between the Materials ETF (XLB) and the Financials ETF (XLF). It depicts the relative valuation of physical assets--raw materials--to financial assets. In a weak dollar environment, as well as an environment of low confidence in the banking sector, raw materials should be more attractive than financials. A reversal of this ratio would suggest that the dynamics underpinning the weak dollar (expectations of further interest rate cuts by the Fed; lack of G-7 action toward a stronger dollar; recessionary expectations; fear of bank failures) were shifting.
The second theme (bottom chart) represents the price ratio between the Consumer Staples ETF (XLP) and the Consumer Discretionary ETF (XLY). It depicts the relative valuation of defensive stocks--those traditionally deemed relatively recession-proof--vs. those that are more vulnerable to contractions in consumer spending. In a recessionary environment, Staples should outperform Discretionaries as investors flee to sectors representing relative safety. A reversal of this ratio would suggest that the dynamics underpinning the recession (weak housing market; weak consumer confidence; weak employment market) were shifting.
What we see clearly in both charts is that, since mid-2007 (the period recently highlighted as one of changing intermarket dynamics), these ratios accelerated significantly as the stock market sold off. The XLB:XLF ratio topped out in mid-March (when the stock market made its price lows), pulled back sharply, and has since been clawing its way back toward its highs as stocks have fallen back. The XLP:XLY ratio topped out in early January (when the number of stocks making new 52-week lows maxxed out), dropped back sharply, and has bounced back in a choppy manner since then.
Both of these ratios capture something of the psychology of the current stock market. A move to new highs would suggest that the psychological drivers of the recent bear market are intact. A failure to advance to new highs, even as the number of stocks registering fresh 52-week lows is dwindling, would have me questioning the bear's longevity.