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Narrow Market Leadership in the US Makes International Stocks Attractive

  • The S&P 500 Index is up double digits this year, but only 26% of underlying stocks are beating the benchmark and roughly half don’t have any gains. 
  • Just three sectors are beating the benchmark, not the usual six. 
  • With 49% of non-US stocks beating the market, almost twice the US level, the foundation for future gains seems more stable overseas.
Head of SPDR Americas Research

The S&P 500 Index is up double digits this year. But the rally has been marked by narrow leadership. And, interestingly, current buying behavior mirrors this trend.

It seems like nobody cares that only a few stocks are driving the gains. But everyone should — because narrow leadership doesn’t bode well for the sustainability of the current rally. A foundation built on just a few pillars can easily give way if one pillar weakens.

So how can investors strengthen their portfolios? Digging into current market leadership can provide some direction.

Not All S&P 500 Stocks Are Rising with the Tide

The S&P 500 Index is up 12% so far this year.1 But only a quarter of the underlying stocks are up more than that and actually beating the market.2 And roughly half of S&P 500 firms don’t have any gains at all.3

For comparison, over the past decade, 52% of S&P 500 stocks, on average, have outperformed the index4 and 70% of stocks, on average, registered gains.5

With the market cap weighted S&P 500 Index outperforming its equal-weighted counterpart by 9.2% — outperformance that on a trailing three-month basis sits in the 99th percentile — it’s clear that large mega-cap stocks are driving the gains.

In fact so far this year, the S&P 500’s top five largest stocks are contributing more to returns than in any other year in the past two decades.6

Just Three Sectors Are Beating the Market

Sector leadership is also limited. Only Communication Services, Information Technology, and Consumer Discretionary are outperforming the S&P 500 year to date and over the past three months.

Typically, at least six sectors outperform the market, on average, on a rolling three-month basis. This current low level of sector leadership has persisted for the past three months, as shown in the following chart.

Beneath the surface, less than 50% of the stocks are beating their sector’s average return in those market leading sectors. Additionally, the average stock return in those three sectors is far greater than the median sector stock return, as shown below. Of course, the average being greater than the median indicates a large number of positive outliers. So, even in the top-performing sectors, just a small number of firms are driving returns.

S&P 500’s Technical Momentum Is Also Weak

Right now, the S&P 500 Index is trading above its 50-day and 200-day-moving average. But only 54% and 58% of underlying stocks are trading above those averages.7

Looking at the magnitude in which stocks are trading above their technical averages, the S&P 500 is trading 3.9% above its 50-day moving average, while only 30% of underlying stocks are trading more than 3.9% above their own 50-day moving averages.

The same is true for the 200-day moving average. The S&P 500 is up 8.5%, but only 27% of the underlying stocks are up more than 8.5% to their own 200-day moving average, as shown below. And while the S&P 500’s 50-day moving average is 4% above its 200-day moving average (a technical crossover momentum comparison), just 33% of stocks have the same or greater upward momentum.

Broader Leadership, Stronger Foundation with International Stocks

Narrow leadership suggests the rally in US equities is unsustainable. Not only have these narrow gains pushed up broad-based valuations, as the S&P 500 Index’s Price-to-Next-12-Month Earnings Ratio (NTM P/E) is firmly above its historical median (19.1 versus 17.9), they also run counter to earnings trends.8 S&P 500 firms reported negative earnings growth in the first quarter and are expected to do so again in Q2, for what would be the third consecutive quarter.9

So how should investors position for the market’s narrow leadership? Rotate overseas where the +10% gains by non-US stocks are likely more sustainable.10 Unlike the US where only 56% of stocks have positive returns in 2023, 76% of developed ex-US firms have gains.11 Further illustrating stronger underlying support, 49% of non-US stocks are beating the broader benchmark, almost double the rate of US stocks.12

Developed ex-US stocks also aren’t plagued with rich valuations or weak earnings sentiment. In fact, the NTM P/E for non- US equities is 12% below its historical average.13 And led by European equities, positive earnings growth is expected next quarter — just as it was this past quarter.14

For more insight into current market trends, check out our full Chart Pack.

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