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Weekly Market Preview, October 2, 2017

Last Week in Review

Economic data was mixed last week from a reflation standpoint, as growth data was a positive surprise while inflation data mildly disappointed. But, importantly, the inflation numbers weren’t enough to cause a reversal of the reflation trade or cause an unwind of the gains.

Inflation data remains the most important data point in the market, and Friday’s Core PCE Price Index was a mild disappointment. The August reading rose 0.1% vs. (E) 0.2%, while year-over-year Core PCE Price Index rose 1.2% vs. (E) 1.3%. That’s still well below the Fed’s 2.0% target, and it does somewhat undermine the strong CPI report—but it’s not the kind of number that would make the Fed think inflation is getting materially worse, and as such it didn’t cause a big move in markets.

Staying with inflation, the data was similarly underwhelming with the flash core EU HICP. It rose just 1.1% vs. (E) 1.2%, again sapping some of the positive momentum from the firm CPI data from earlier in December (Chinese, British, US). But like the soft Core PCE Price Index, it wasn’t a major market mover and it doesn’t undermine the fact that there are “green shoots” of inflation lurking out there, so it didn’t cause a pullback.

Looking at growth data, it was more positive. Durable Goods was the other important report from last week, and it handily beat estimates. New Orders for Non-Defense Capital Good ex-Aircraft rose 0.9% vs. (E) 0.3%, and the July number was revised higher to 1.1% from 0.4%. That number is important, because it implies that we’re seeing an acceleration of business spending and investment—and if that continues it will help create that economic “rising tide” that we need to help push stocks materially higher.

This Week’s Preview

For the remainder of the year, every week is an important one for markets as there will need to be constant reinforcement of virtuous reflation, but this week is more important than most given we get the global ISM PMIs and the US jobs report.

Starting with the latter, it’s jobs week, so we get ADP Wednesday, Claims Thursday, and the government report on Friday. We’ll do our normal Goldilocks preview later this week, but once again the wage number will be the key component of this release, and once again the risks are for a number being “Too Hot” and potentially recalibrating Fed rate hike expectations.

Beyond the jobs report, we get the global manufacturing PMIs (out later this morning for the US) and global composite PMIs (out Wednesday). Given the growing number of global central banks that are already removing accommodation (Fed, Bank of Canada) or are about to remove accommodation (ECB, Bank of England) economic growth data needs to stay firm to avoid a “stagflation” scare. So, Goldilocks numbers from both the manufacturing and composite PMIs this week will be welcomed by stocks.

Finally, turning to central banks, the minutes from the September ECB meeting will be released on Thursday, and investors will be searching for clues as to the severity and pace of the Fed’s taper. The
ECB usually plays things pretty close to the vest, so it’s unlikely we’ll see too much revealed in the minutes (they are going to do that at the October meeting), but the bottom line is any hints of extra hawkishness from the minutes could be a mild headwind on stocks this week. Bottom line, economic data in September helped spur a virtuous reflation rally, and that will need to continue this week if we’re going to see new highs in stocks.

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When Will Rate Hikes Kill The Rally?

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When Will the Fed Kill the Bull Market? (Or, What is the Neutral Fed Funds Rate?)

A lot of clichés on Wall Street aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but one saying I have found to be  quite accurate is: Bull Markets Don’t Die From Old Age. It’s the Fed that Kills Them.

At least over the last 20 years, that has largely proven true. The general script goes like this:

First, the Fed starts raising rates because financial conditions have become too easy (this should sound familiar). In this cycle, rate hikes began in December 2015 but importantly, they are starting to accelerate.

Second, those rate hikes cause the yield curve to invert. That happens as bond investors sell short-term Treasuries and send short-term yields higher (because the Fed is raising short-term rates), and buy longer-dated Treasuries, pushing those yields lower, because investors know the rate hikes will eventually cut off economic activity. In this cycle, the yield curve hasn’t inverted yet, but the 10s—2s Treasury yield spread has fallen from over 2% in late-2014 to fresh, multi-year lows at 0.77% (as of Sept. 5).

Third, the inversion of the yield curve is a loud-and-clear “last call” on the bull market. The rally doesn’t end when the curve inverts, but it’s a clear sign that the end is much closer to the beginning. In this cycle: We are not at that inversion step yet, although we are getting uncomfortably close.

Fourth, after the curve inverts, the Fed keeps hiking rates until economic momentum is halted. During the last two economic downturns (2001/2002 and 2008/2009) the Fed was able to hike rates to 6.5% and 5.25%, respectively, before effectively killing the bull market.

But just as the Fed continues to cut rates after the economy has bottomed, it also hikes rates after economic growth has stalled (because of the lag time between rate hikes and the effect on the economy).

So, it’s reasonable to assume the actual Fed Funds rate level which caused the slowdown/bear market is at least 25 to 50 basis points below those high yields, so 6% or 6.25% in ’01/’02 and 4.75% or 5% in ’08/’09.

In this cycle, the most important question we can ask is: At what level of rates does the Fed kill the expansion and the rally? That number, which the Fed calls the “neutral” Fed Funds rate is thought to be somewhere between 2.5% and 3% this time around (at least according to Fed projections).

However, we’ve never come out of a cycle where we’ve had:
1. Four separate rounds of QE

2. The maintaining of a multi-trillion dollar balance sheet

3. Eight-plus years of basically 0% interest rates

4. Eight-plus years of sub-3% GDP growth

So, common sense would tell us that this “neutral” Fed funds rate is going to be much, much lower than it’s been in the past.

How much lower remains the critical question (2.5%? 2.0%? 1.5?)

This is really important, because if the answer is 1.5%, we’re going to hit that early next year (it likely isn’t 1.5%, but it may not be much higher).

And, what impact will balance sheet reduction have on this neutral rate?

Again, common sense would tell us that balance sheet reduction makes the neutral rate lower than in the past, because balance sheet reduction is a form of policy tightening that will go on while rates are rising (so it’s a double tightening whammy).

There are two important takeaways from this analysis.

First, while clearly the tone of this analysis is cautious, it’s important to realize that the yield curve has not inverted yet, so we haven’t heard that definitive “last call” on the rally. And, just like at an actual last call, there’s still some time and momentum left afterwards, so an inverted curve is a signal to get ready to reduce exposure, not a signal to do so that minute.

Second, on a longer-term basis, if the Fed really is serious about hiking rates, then this bull market is coming to an end, and the risk is for it happening sooner rather than later. Because the level at which rate hikes cause a slowdown and kill the bull market is likely to be much, much lower than anything we’ve seen before (unless there is a big uptick in economic activity).

That is why I said yesterday that if the Fed is serious about consistently hiking rates going forward, that the “hourglass” may have finally been flipped on the bull run. So, while hitting that “Neutral” Fed funds rate Is hopefully at least a few quarters away (unless things are way worse than we think) it’s my job to watch for these types of tectonic shifts in the market so that we’re all prepared to act when the time is right. We will be watching this closely.

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Import and Export Price Analysis, September 20, 2017

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Import and Export Prices
• Import Prices rose 0.6% vs. (E) 0.4% in August
• Export Prices rose 0.6% vs. (E) 0.2% in August

Takeaway
A normally overlooked price report, Import and Export Prices came out yesterday and the release is worth mentioning. The headlines showed a decent upside beat in both import and export prices, which underscored the uptick in inflation we saw last week in several overseas CPI reports including China, Britain and India.

The reason this is worth pointing out is the bond market. Over the last several weeks, firming inflation overseas has become a recurring theme that has started to influence global fixed income markets, including Treasuries, pushing yields higher despite the fact that US inflation still remains very low.

Bottom line, yesterday’s Import and Export Prices report is showing the effects of both a weaker dollar, but also the fact that global inflation is beginning to edge higher.

From a macroeconomic standpoint that is encouraging for the reflation trade argument.

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FOMC Preview, September 19, 2017

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On the surface, tomorrow’s FOMC meeting is expected to be relatively anti-climactic. The Fed is expected to go forward with balance sheet reduction while keeping interest rates unchanged. But, this is a meeting where the Fed will produce updated “dots,” and combined with the fact that the market is very complacent with regards to a December rate hike (i.e. the market doesn’t expect it) there is the chance for a hawkish surprise.

From a practical standpoint, the key here is how the 10- year yield reacts. If the Fed is marginally (or outright)  hawkish and the 10-year yield pushes through short-term resistance at 2.27% and longer-term resistance at 2.40%, that could be a tactical game changer and warrant profit taking in defensive sectors, and rotation to more cyclical sectors.

Hawkish If: The Fed provides a (very) mildly hawkish surprise if the “dots” show one more rate hike in 2017 (so unchanged from June). Specifically, in June four Fed votes expected just two rate hikes in 2017. If that number decreases to three or two, it will be a mild hawkish surprise. The Fed will provide a more serious hawkish surprise if the dots show another rate hike in ’17 and an additional rate hike in 2018 (so the median dots staying at 1.375% for ’17 and rising to 2.375% from the current 2.125% in ’18).

Likely Market Reaction. Stocks: If it’s a mildly hawkish surprise, then it should…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

Meets Expectations If: There are no changes. The median dots still signal a December rate hike is expected, but one or two Fed officials change their dot to reflect just two rate hikes in 2017. That would imply a December rate hike is far from certain (matching the market’s current expectation) and it would be taken as mildly dovish.

Likely Market Reaction. Stocks: Cyclicals and bank stocks would likely see some…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

Dovish If: The dots show that more than four Fed voters switch their dot to reflect no rate hike in December. That would effectively put a December rate hike off the table.

Likely Market Reaction. Stocks: A decidedly week (on a sector level). Stocks would likely rally in an
algo-driven…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

Wildcard to Watch: Balance sheet reduction. Everyone expects the Fed to commence balance sheet reduction tomorrow, but they haven’t ever explicitly said they will reduce the balance sheet in September. So, there is a slim chance they might not, and that they might opt to wait for the next meeting (in November). This is a remote chance, as the Fed has clearly telegraphed the balance sheet will be reduced in September, but it’s possible for a last-minute change.

Likely Market Reaction: Very dovish…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

In all likelihood, this Fed meeting should meet expectations, but that will leave the market at risk to a potential hawkish surprise later as investors are not pricing in a December rate hike despite the Fed signaling it all year.

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Weekly Market Preview, September 18, 2017

Last Week in Review

Up until Friday, last week’s data looked like it was going to show “green shoots” of an economic reflation. But disappointing economic growth numbers on Friday off-set better inflation readings from earlier in the week, and while Hurricane Harvey likely impacted the growth data, the bottom line is the data just isn’t good enough to spur a rising tide for stocks.

From a Fed standpoint, the higher inflation data did increase the likelihood that we will get a December rate hike, although the market expectation of that remains below 50%. As such, increased expectations of a rate hike in the coming weeks could be a headwind on stocks, especially if economic data doesn’t improve.

Looking at last week’s data, the most important takeaway was that inflation appears to be bottoming. Chinese, (1.8% yoy vs. (E) 1.7% yoy), British (2.7% vs. (E) 2.5%), and US CPI (0.4% m/m vs. (E) 0.3%) all firmed up and beat expectations, and while it’s just one month’s data, it’s still a break of a pretty consistent downtrend.

That turn in inflation potentially matters, a lot, because it’s making central banks become more hawkish. The ECB is going to taper QE, the Bank of England is going to raise rates sooner rather than later (more on that in Currencies), the Fed may hike again in December and the Bank of Canada was the first major central bank to give us a surprise rate hike in nearly a decade. I’m going to be covering the implications of this a lot more this week, but the times, so it seems, they are a changin’.

That makes an acceleration in economic growth now even more important. Unfortunately, the growth data from last week was disappointing. July retail sales missed on the headline (-0.2% vs. (E) 0.1%) as did the
more important “Control” group (retail sales minus autos, gas and building materials). The “control” group fell to -0.2% vs. (E) 0.3%.

Additionally, Industrial Production also was a miss. Headline IP fell to -0.9% vs. (E) 0.1% while the manufacturing subcomponent declined to -0.3% vs. (E) 0.1%. Now, to be fair, Hurricane Harvey, which hit Southeast Texas, likely skewed the numbers negatively. But, the impact of that is unclear, and we can’t just dismiss these numbers because of the hurricane.

Bottom line, the unknown impact of Hurricane Harvey keeps this week’s data from eliciting a “stagflation” scare, given firm inflation and soft growth. But if this is the start of a trend, and it can’t be blamed on Harvey or Irma, then that’s a problem for stocks down the road. We need both inflation and growth to accelerate (and at the same time) to lift stocks to material new highs.

This Week’s Preview

The two key events for markets this week will be the Fed meeting on Wednesday, and the global flash PMIs on Friday.

Starting with the Fed, normally I’d assume this meeting will be anti-climactic, but it’s one of the meetings with the “dots” and economic projections, so there is the chance we get either a hawkish or dovish surprise. I’ll do my full FOMC Preview in tomorrow’s report, but the point here is don’t be fooled into a false sense of security if people you read say this meeting is going to be a non-event. It very well could be, but there’s a betterthan-expected chance for a surprise, too (and if I had to guess which way, I’d say it’d be a hawkish surprise… and that could hit stocks).

Turning then to the upcoming data, given the new-found incremental hawkishness of global central banks, strong growth data is more important than ever to avoid stagflation. We’ll want to see firm global manufacturing PMIs to keep stagflation concerns at bay. Looking more specifically at the US, Philly Fed comes Thursday and that will give us anecdotal insight into manufacturing activity, although the national flash PMI out the next day will effectively steal the thunder from the Philly report.

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CPI Preview, September 14, 2017

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I normally don’t do CPI previews (sometimes if it’s a non-event number, I won’t even bother you with a CPI review), but this number is different for two reasons.

First, the fledgling hopes of an economic reflation have pushed stocks to new highs. Second, if this CPI report does meet or beat estimates, then it might continue the sector rotation that has seen cyclical sectors (banks in particular) outperform this week at the expense of YTD outperformers such as utilities, healthcare and super-cap internet. So, it will raise the question of whether a tactical rotation is necessary.

Hawkish If: Core CPI beats the 0.2% m/m expectation.
Likely Market Reaction (assuming it’s a small beat): Stocks should continue to rally. Look for Treasury yields and the dollar to continue to rally, and for..(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

Neutral If: Headline CPI meets the 0.3% m/m expectation while core CPI meets the 0.2% m/m expectation. Likely Market Reaction: A mild continuance of the…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

Dovish If: CPI misses the headline or core expectations of 0.3% m/m or 0.2% m/m. Likely Market Reaction: An unwind of the…(withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

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Yellen and Draghi Speech Preview, August 25, 2017

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Both Fed Chair Yellen and ECB President Draghi will speak at the conference today, and while neither is expected to say anything market moving, there are always surprises, so we want to preview their remarks briefly.

Yellen’s Speech: 10:00 A.M. EST

Key question: Will Yellen give us any color on whether we get a rate hike in December?

Likely Answer: (withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

What’s Expected: I’d give it about an 80% probability that Yellen does not even mention monetary policy
and instead just speaks broadly about the Fed’s role in helping ensure financial stability.

Wild Card to Watch: If there’s a risk of a surprise here, it’s for a “hawkish” surprise. Yellen could tie in the idea that in order to ensure future financial stability, the Fed needs to continue to remove accommodation and get interest rates back to normal levels.

Again, I think it’s unlikely she’d use this opportunity to discuss policy (unlike Bernanke, she’s never used Jackson Hole as a forum to discuss policy). Still, there is a chance  (20% if my other probability is 80%).

If she does surprise markets, though, look for a textbook (and potentially intense) “hawkish” market response: Dollar and bond yields up (maybe big), stocks down, commodities and gold down.

Draghi Speech: 3:00 P.M. EST

Key Question: Will Draghi forcefully hint at a tapering announcement in September?

Likely Answer: (withheld for subscribers only—unlock specifics and ETFs by signing up for a free two-week trial).

What’s Expected: Nothing specific. Draghi is not expected to speak or reference policy, mainly because the ECB meeting is less than three weeks away.

Wildcard to Watch: Commentary on the euro. While Draghi likely won’t say anything about expected policy, he might comment on the strength in the euro. It’s widely thought that the surging euro (up 10% vs. the dollar this year) would cause the ECB to be “dovish” and potentially delay tapering.

But, Draghi has pushed back on this notion recently, saying that the euro appreciation is the result of a better economy and rising inflation (hence virtuous).

If he reiterates those comments, or downplays the impact of a rising euro, that will be “hawkish” and the euro and German bond yields (and likely US Treasury yields) will rise, while the dollar will fall. This outcome would likely be positive for US stocks (on dollar weakness).

Bottom Line
In all likelihood, Jackson Hole should be a non-event, as it’s simply too close to the September ECB Meeting (Sept. 7) or the September Fed meeting (Sept. 20).

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Why Yesterday’s Decline Wasn’t Just About North Korea, August 11, 2017

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Why yesterday's decline wasn't just about North Korea

Thursday was another risk-off day in the currency and bond markets thanks to North Korea, but there were some underwhelming economic reports that shouldn’t be missed, either. The Dollar Index fell 0.09% and never strayed too far from unchanged, in part due to the looming CPI report out this morning.

Starting with the obvious, North Korean angst again kept a lid on most currencies and pushed the yen higher, in classic risk-off trade (although importantly, the moves were mild and currencies and bonds did not confirm the angst in stocks).

However, beyond North Korea there was important economic data that did also impact currencies, and again I maintain that unless we get a big deterioration in the North Korea situation the data remains more important for the remainder than the geopolitical landscape.

First, US PPI was soft, declining for the first time in months and again reinforcing the idea of slowing inflation. Now, PPI isn’t as important to the Fed or markets as CPI, but the bottom line is that if we are in (or approaching) an economic reflation, we shouldn’t see these types of underwhelming inflation reports.

That soft PPI weighed slightly on the dollar and bond yields, although again it was largely overshadowed from a market standpoint by North Korea and today’s CPI.

Looking internationally, the euro was flat all day vs. the dollar amidst little news, while the pound dipped 0.26%. The reason for the pound weakness wasn’t just risk off in the markets. It also was due to an underwhelming Industrial Production report. While the headline number beat estimates (0.5% vs. (E) 0.2%), the manufacturing sub-component was flat vs. (E) 0.2%. That was why the pound dipped back below 1.30 vs. the dollar.

The big gainer vs. the dollar yesterday was, again, the yen, which rallied 0.55% on a standard risk-off move. Economic data in Japan yesterday was, at best, mixed, but the yen isn’t trading off data right now… it’s trading off sentiment. And, the North Korea news is causing a flight to safety, and that means higher yen, higher Treasuries and, for now, higher gold.

Turning to bonds, Treasuries rallied as the 10 year rose 0.11% and the 10-year yield fell below support at 2.22%, although that drop happened into the close.

Bottom line, this flare up in North Korea has put the 10-year yield at a critical technical crossroads. If CPI is light this morning, the 10-year yield will likely drop below 2.20%. At that point, a test of the 2017 lows certainly isn’t out of the question. And, we’d find that disconcerting for multiple reasons, chief of which because it would imply too low inflation and largely destroy the chances for a reflationary rally in stocks in 2017.

We maintain that an economic reflation (higher growth, higher inflation, higher rates) is the only path to a sustainable medium- and long-term rally. While it may cause more of a decline short term, the medium- and longer-term investor in us is hoping for a strong CPI report later today. Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion I will be disappointed. I hope I’m wrong.

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Is the Earnings Rally Losing Steam?

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Earnings have been an unsung hero of the 2017 rally, but there are some anecdotal signs that strong earnings may already be fully priced into stocks, leaving a lack of potential positive catalysts given the macro environment.

Now, to be clear, earnings season has been (on the surface) good. From a broad standpoint, the results have pushed expected 2018 S&P 500 EPS slightly higher (to $139) and that’s enough to justify current valuations, taken in the context of a calm macro horizon and still-low bond yields.

However, the market’s reaction to strong earnings is sending some caution signals throughout the investor
community. Specifically, according to a BAML report I read earlier this week, the vast majority of companies who reported a beat on the top line (revenues) and bottom line (earnings) saw virtually no post-earnings rally this quarter. Getting specific, by the published date of the report (earlier this week) 174 S&P 500 companies had beat on the top and bottom line, yet the average gain for those stocks 24 hours after the announcement was… 0%. They were flat. To boot, five days after the results, on average these 174 companies had underperformed the market!

That’s in stark contrast to the 1.6%, 24-hour gain that companies who beat on the revenues and earnings have enjoyed, on average, since 2000.

In fact, the last time we saw this type of post earnings/sales beat non-reaction was Q2 of 2000. It could be random, but that’s not exactly the best reference point.

So, if we’re facing a market that’s fully priced in strong earnings, the important question then becomes, what will spur even more earnings growth?

Potential answers are: 1) A rising tide of economic activity, although that’s not currently happening. Another is 2) A surge in productivity that increases the bottom line. But, productivity growth has been elusive for nearly a decade, and it’s unclear what would suddenly spark a revival. Finally, another candidate is 3) Rising inflation that would allow for price and margin increases. Yet as we know, that’s not exactly threatening right now, either.

Bottom line, earnings have been the unsung hero of this market throughout 2017, but this is a, “What Have You Don’t For Me Lately” market, especially at nearly 18X next year’s earnings. If earnings growth begins to slow and we don’t get any uptick in economic growth or pro-growth policies from Washington, then it’s hard to see what will push this market higher beyond just general momentum (and general momentum may be fading, at least according to the price action in tech). To be clear, the trend in stocks is still higher, but the environment isn’t as benign as sentiment, the VIX or the financial media would have you believe.

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Are Banks About to Break Out?

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Banks were again the highlight, as BKX rose 0.83%, and that pulled the Financials SPDR (XLF) up 0.72%. The bank stock strength came despite the decline in yields, which we think is notable. In fact, over the past several trading days, bank stock performance has decoupled from the daily gyrations of Treasury yields, and we think that potentially signals two important events.

Regardless, this price action in banks is potentially important, because this market must be led higher by either tech or banks/financials. If the former is faltering (and I’m not saying it is), then the latter must assume a leadership role in order for this really to continue.First, it implies bank investors are starting to focus on the value in the sector and on the capital return plans from banks, which could boost total return. Second, it potentially implies that investors aren’t fearing a renewed plunge in Treasury yields (if right, that could be a positive for the markets).

Bottom Line

This remains a market broadly in search of a catalyst, but absent any news, the path of least resistance remains higher, buoyed by an incrementally dovish Fed, solid earnings growth, and ok (if unimpressive) economic data.

Nonetheless, complacency, represented via a low VIX, remains on the rise, and markets are still stretched by any valuation metric. Barring an uptick in economic growth or inflation, it remains unclear what will power stocks materially higher from here. For now, the trend remains higher.

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