Hang on to your stock-market exposure and add more if you can.
The twin fears spooking investors – the omicron COVID strain and inflation – are overdone. Stocks should proceed higher as more people figure this out, leading to a Santa Claus rally later this month.
Corporate insiders confirm this view. They’ve stepped up buying considerably in the market weakness. What’s more they’re buying all the right groups – travel, retail, energy and materials, among others. These are the cyclical areas that’ll do the best as worries about growth recede, and insiders know it. I don’t see any hunkering down in defensive names like consumer staples.
There are lots of stock bargains because there’s been so much damage, even if narrower indexes like the S&P 500
and the Dow Jones Industrial Average
have hung tough, propped up by a few large names. The Russell 2000 small-cap index
is down more than 10%, and most stocks in the more widely followed indexes like the S&P 500 have also fallen more than 10% at some point recently.
I’ll single out 10 names favored by insiders, including several I’ve recently suggested in my stock advisory letter Brush Up on Stocks (the link is in my bio, below). But first, a quick look at why insiders, like me, don’t seem to be too worried about the twin fears.
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The concern here is that this new variant is far more contagious and deadly than the delta variant.
The first fear may be true. Case counts are rising sharply in South Africa, which suggests it is more contagious. As for lethality, though, omicron seems to be mild so far. There is still a lot to learn, but this is the message we consistently get from doctors and health authorities with lots of experience with COVID.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa, and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing, is extremely mild for us,” says Angelique Coetzee, a doctor in South Africa who has three decades of experience. “These are mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone. I’ve spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture.”
Hospitalizations in South Africa “are ticking up but not incredibly fast,” agrees William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard and co-director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. U.S. health authorities confirm omicron may not be especially lethal. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health describe the first cases found in the U.S. so far as mild.
if the omicron variant is mild, this wouldn’t be a surprise. Respiratory viruses naturally evolve to be more contagious and less lethal, notes Professor Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist in Germany. This makes sense from the point of view of a virus. A virus has a better chance if it spreads quickly and does not kill its host.
On vaccine “escape” or evasion, former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb thinks the current vaccines will work against omicron by suppressing symptoms enough to lower hospitalizations. “There’s a high degree of confidence that efficacy is going to be preserved,” he says. “Will it be the same 95%? Perhaps not, but you will still have a meaningful amount of efficacy.”
He notes the mRNA vaccine companies can tweak their vaccines to make them even better, in a matter of months. Vaccine companies like Pfizer
confirm boosters will work, and that they’ll be able to customize them for the omicron variant. “In our view and reiterated by Pfizer, the current booster will likely be effective,” says Jefferies biotech analyst Michael Yee. “A new version for 2022 can be even better.”
There’s are lots of reasons to think inflation fears are overblown. The worry here is that the Federal Reserve is “behind the curve” so it will have to hike rates aggressively, which might kill growth and the bull market. This isn’t going to happen. One sign is that commodity prices and shipping costs have been falling sharply. These are often the leading edge of inflation.
Next, take a moment to drill down on the current inflation spike. To do so, consider the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s breakdown of the parts of the Core CPI Index into “flexible” categories (quick to change) and “sticky” categories (slow to change). Right now, the flexible components account for most of the headline inflation.
These prices are up around 15% in the past year, compared to 3% gains for the “sticky” prices, points out economist Jim Paulsen, the market strategist at Leuthold Group. “While troublesome, the Core CPI Index’s overall rise is due almost entirely to prices that traditionally move around a lot, both up and down,” he says. This suggests the headline inflation rate can reverse and move down quickly from here.
That’s what a lot of analysts and bond market investors think. Analysts expect inflation of less than 2% over the next two to 10 years, according to projections tracked by the Atlanta Fed. Meanwhile, the 10-year inflation rate projected by investors in the bond market stands at around 2.6%, notes Paulsen. Not terribly alarming.
These projections make sense to me, because companies say their supply chain issues will be fixed by around the middle of next year. Shortages linked to supply chain issues have been a main contributor to price spikes.
Finally, mobility tracking data from Alphabet
OpenTable and the Transportation Security Administration show that people in the U.S. have significantly curtailed how much they go out in public. On Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, TSA check-ins were 79%-81% of 2019 levels, compared to 85% to 90% in the prior 10 days, by my calculations. If this reduced mobility slows the economy a little, it will ease fears about inflation and the need for the Fed taking away the punch bowl too quickly.
In a mini-replay of March-October of 2020 when the COVID crisis first raged, insiders have once again stepped up to buy market weakness caused by fresh COVID fears. True, insiders are not epidemiologists. But they are not dummies either. They have good networks of contacts and they see the tone of their businesses every day. Their buying is focused on all the right areas like cyclicals, retail, energy and industrials, not defensive names.
Companies where insiders have been buying meaningful amounts over the past several days include outdoor and retail names Six Flags Entertainment
American Eagle Outfitters
and American Woodmark
; travel names like Delta Air Lines
and Playa Hotels & Resorts
; energy names like Exxon Mobil
and EOG Resources
; and materials names like Cleveland-Cliffs
and Orion Engineered Carbons
Ho, ho, ho!
Their buying confirms work by seasonality and trading expert Larry Williams who tells me his work concludes we can expect a “Santa Claus” rally once again, later this month. We’ll see, but since the two main fears are false fears that will till take a little time to more fully recede, this makes sense to me.
Michael Brush is a columnist for MarketWatch. At the time of publication, Brush owned GOOGL. Brush has suggested GOOGL, SIX, AMWD, DAL XOM, EOG and CLF in his stock newsletter, Brush Up on Stocks. Follow him on Twitter @mbrushstocks.