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Stock managers who played defense in 2019 are left scrambling to make up ground

New York Stock Exchange halts trading
The shift in sentiment means previously unloved areas of the stock market, including small caps and cyclical companies, are back in vogue. And defensive plays, such as long-duration income funds, are getting slammed.
(Justin Lane / European Pressphoto Agency)

It’s been the same trade all year. A recession is coming, so get defensive. Now the strategy is unwinding and stock managers who toed the line all the way into November have furious catching up to do.

That’s bad if you’re in charge of an equity portfolio that’s straggling. But for anyone hoping to ride along with more upward momentum in the market, the effect has been the opposite. Stocks just rallied for a fifth week, tying the longest streak in two years, spurred by a rotation into high-volatility shares.

“There’s so many people that were so bearish going into this rally that maybe they haven’t even turned bullish,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Leuthold Weeden Capital Management. “And if you get all these portfolios reducing their bearish bets, that’s a lot of bullish fuel. That’s going down. It’s happening.”

As of the end of October, less than a third of large-cap actively managed mutual funds were ahead of benchmarks, compared with 41% in the first half of the year, data compiled by Bank of America show. With less than eight weeks to go until 2020, this sets the stage for a year-end chase, says the bank, and managers will have to pile into highly volatile names — including deep value and cyclical stocks.

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Overcrowding among all manner of professionally managed funds in defensive industries such as utilities and real estate trusts has become extreme, according to the bank. The spread in performance of the 10 most-crowded stocks and the 10 most-neglected ones has hit a record this year, it said.

But the recent thawing in trade tensions between the U.S. and China and the anticipation of improving global economic growth have boosted prospects for riskier sectors. As the S&P 500 breaches record after record, anyone lagging even a percentage point behind its 23% gain has catching up to do.

The S&P 500 gained 0.9% over the last week, posting multiple record closes along the way. The march to all-time highs has been relentless — so fast that the S&P 500 has stayed above its 10-day moving average in 21 sessions, the longest streak since November 2014.

“As we get more certain about global trade and that the economy is not going to be heading into a recession, you start to see more risk-on trades and the crowded positions get sold,” Chris Gaffney, president of world markets at TIAA, said by phone. “You may have some people say, ‘In order to make it look good for the year, we’re going to have to get a little more aggressive here.’”

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The shift in sentiment means previously unloved areas of the market, including small caps and cyclical companies, are back in vogue. European stocks, energy companies — all are rallying. In a reversal from the first nine months, financials and industrials have been among the top-performing sectors during the latest leg, with banks up almost 10% so far this quarter. Value stocks are also back from the dead.

Defensive plays, on the other hand, are getting smoked. A long-duration fixed income ETF that saw money come in throughout the year is losing ground, as are low-volatility funds.

“This rally caught everyone by surprise,” John Mathews, who oversees UBS Group’s private wealth and ultra-high-net-worth business in the Americas, said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “Our clients have been defensive, they got back into the markets, but many of our wealthy clients today, they’re waiting for some sort of a pullback or opportunity to deploy cash at a better time.”

But “people can’t keep money in cash indefinitely,” said Tim Courtney, chief investment officer of Exencial Wealth Advisors. “Cash is going to start to be put to work in certain areas.”

There’s historical precedent for a year-end ramp, according to Bank of America. In the typical year, when a majority of active funds are lagging as of October, high-beta stocks have led low-beta ones by 2.6 percentage points in the last two months. And in 14 instances since 1928 when the S&P 500 was up more than 20% through October, it gained an average of 5.47% in the final months, according to Bespoke Investment Group.

That’s starting to play out. Data compiled by the National Assn. of Active Investment Managers showed money managers are rushing to buy stocks at a rate not seen this year.

Strategists are rushing to ratchet up their estimates for where the S&P 500 will end the year. Fundstrat Global Advisors’ Tom Lee, for one, raised his year-end S&P 500 target just this week to 3,185, implying a 3% gain from Friday’s close. One of the Street’s most pessimistic strategists, Cantor Fitzgerald’s Peter Cecchini, boosted his forecast after the benchmark broke out to new records.

For Miller Tabak & Co.’s Matt Maley, a market melt-up is possible going into year’s end. If stocks are rallying, institutional investors will be buying even if they think a recession is in the offing as soon as next year, the firm’s equity strategist said by phone.

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“Fundamentals don’t cause melt-ups — fear of missing out does,” Maley said. “The market feeds on itself once it starts going.”

Hajric and Wang write for Bloomberg.


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