Collide-A-Scope

Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope – a slight change, and all patterns alter. – Sharon Salzberg

 

The headlines of the various stories in the July 30th Wall Street Journal seemed to leave little doubt as to which direction this current version of the economic train was heading. “Recession or Not, the Recovery Has Ended.” “Are We in a Recession Now?” “Jobless Claims Hold Near Highest Level of the Year.” “Inflation Hits Fresh Four-Decade High.” “Heard on the Street: Recession Isn’t Necessary for Investors to Feel Bad.” With that by way of counsel another headline “S&P 500 Posts Best Month Since 2020 as Stocks Rally” seemed as out of place as a rose in a briar patch.

Certainly investors who, for much of the year, were long on suffering even as they were wishing they had been short on stocks, were grateful for the respite in their experience of a sea of red as the S&P 500 put in an 8% rise for July and 12.8% since the, don’t we hope, lows for the year on June 16th which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the day after a meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee where they voted to raise interest rates .75%. Curiously though, while with the one hand the Fed was raising the Fed Funds Rate, the interest rates set by the other hand, that of the financial markets, are declining. The high for the 2 Year Treasury Rate was 3.45% on June 14th. It currently rests at 2.85%. The 10 Year Treasury Rate peaked that same date at 3.49% and has since fallen to 2.68%. The financial markets, which, on June 14th, were predicting 90- day interest rates to reach 4.25% by year end now expect that rate to rise to just 3.50% at the beginning of December and then to begin to decline. In other words, the financial markets are predicting the Fed will be lowering interest rates before the end of the year. So, pray tell, what is going on here?

Could it be that the explanation is to be found in the news story headlines in the first paragraph of this commentary? The Fed is raising interest rates and those higher rates are threatening to, if not yet actually having already done so, push the economy into the purgatory of recession. Possibly, but not likely, as evidenced by a number of counterfactuals. Why is the stock market rallying? And not just that it is but how it is. The two best performing industries of the S&P 500 are, since June 16th through July 27th, Automobile Manufacturers +26.8% and Homebuilders +25.2%. And of the four sectors of the S&P 500 up the most in the month of July three of the four, Real Estate, Consumer Discretionary and Industrials (the fourth is, not surprisingly, Technology) are those sectors that tend to rally at the BEGINNING of an economic recovery. So truly we do have a collision of narratives here with headlines trumpeting recession and the stock market rally saying recovery.

Dare we say that it may be Goldilocks? The economy may be slowing enough to allow the Fed to hit the pause button on further interest rate increases after another likely .50% on September 21st that may allow an avoidance of notable damage to corporate earnings. Possibly there is another factor at work here as well. Inflation comes in two “flavors,” demand-pull and supply-push. The former is the classic “too much money chasing too few goods.” The latter, one less frequently commented upon, is a lack of supply leading to higher prices. The Fed can certainly reduce economic demand by raising rates sufficiently to push the economy into recession, but interest rate increases don’t do a thing to increase the output of gasoline or beef. Help though may be on the way. Producer Prices measure the cost of economic inputs, for instance the price of lumber as a cost of constructing a new house. The prices of Core Crude Goods, a rate excluding food and energy prices, is up 7.1% year over year and has been declining. The Headline rate, which does include those items, is up an eye watering 58% year over year but since June 1st energy and agriculture prices have fallen 7.45% and 10.24% respectively. So maybe it’s getting close to the time for the Fed to declare victory over inflation and to redirect its focus upon supporting economic growth rates.

If indeed Goldilocks is about to be served her meal just the way she likes it the good times for investors may be much closer to their beginning than their end. The S&P 500 is still negative 12.6% for the year, certainly a much better number than the low in mid- June of -22.5%, but corporate earnings are actually up for the year so the decline is solely attributable to a falling valuation level which is down to 17.2 times earnings, close to its historical average of 16. The story for Mid Cap and Small Cap stocks is a distinctly different one with their trading at 12.7 and 12.4 times their respective earnings. Also worth noting is that the US economy may, for the near future, be experiencing a rate of growth exceeding that of most of the rest of the world so, with their earnings being almost solely dependent upon domestic demand, which may be yet another characteristic in their favor.

So, some good news at last. For 60/40 portfolios the equity portion returned a cool 8% with Foreign’s 5% pulling that figure down below that of the S&P 500 but with small cap’s +9.60% partially offsetting it. Fixed Income contributed a modest +.50% aided by the month’s interest rate declines to overall portfolio returns of 4.5% reducing the negative year to date figure to -10.7%. Here is hoping for a hot August!

 

Mark H. Tekamp, August 1, 2022

You-Pain?

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

 

The war in Europe feels like footsteps not quite reaching the pavement. The March 1st Financial Times headlined “Nike Suspends Online Purchases in Russia” and “Carmaker Ford Suspends Operations in Russia”. The same day’s Wall Street Journal joined in with “The West’s Sanctions Barrage Severs Russia’s Economy from Much of the West”. Interestingly though, the sanctions – at least those imposed to date – appear to be focused primarily upon the financial rather than economic part of Russia’s relationship with those seeking to punish it. The United States now imports more oil from Russia than any other country and that country, with its adversary Ukraine, accounts for 29% of global wheat exports. The loss of life and destruction in Ukraine is both real and tragic but with Russia’s relatively unimpeded access to the global marketplace and the United States and its European allies disclaiming the possibility of intervening directly, the conflict seems likely to remain localized and so its impact upon the US economy may be significantly less than markets are currently discounting, creating the possibility of a positive surprise.

Yahoo Finance was left to wonder in a story on March 2nd that “All in all, the stock market is hanging tough in what has been a turbulent two weeks for humanity.” There certainly is volatility aplenty in virtually all financial markets with gold’s 6% rise for the month acting as a sort of thermometer for the emotional state of global markets. CNN’s Fear & Greed Index has fallen to 17, a measure representing Extreme Fear and a level not seen since March and April of 2020, the onset of the global pandemic. The 10 Year US Treasury rate, which started out the year at 1.52% and reached a peak yield of 2.05% on February 15th, ended the month at 1.83%. Confounding most investors focusing upon news headlines, US mid cap and small cap stocks actually rose in February and the S&P 500 ended the month higher than its closing level on January 27th.

While much of the world has been focused upon war in Europe and the likelihood of the Fed’s raising interest rates, there is something much larger at work impacting our economy and that may be what will most influence financial markets this year. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 central banks have targeted an inflation rate of 2% which would have allowed them to seek to manage the inflation adjusted rate of interest to below zero, but stubbornly persistent low levels of inflation confounded their attempt to achieve that objective. Now, with inflation levels likely to remain at 4% to 5% levels through the remainder of the year and with 10 Year Treasury Rates at less than 2%, money has rarely been less expensive. With economic demand outstripping supply creating the ability to achieve attractive rates of return through investments in the real economy, it may be time to toss out the old play book because this sure looks like a new world!

Equity markets in February contributed negatively to returns on investor’s portfolios of approximately -2.25% with technology’s -5% return a source of negativity offset by the aforementioned positive returns of small cap and mid cap stocks and Energy’s +6% and +26 ½ % returns year to date. Foreign stocks, which had avoided most of the negative returns of those US markets in January, matched the S&P’s -3% return for the month. Interest rates rose modestly in February resulting in -1% returns for the fixed income portion of portfolios leaving 60/40 portfolios -1.7% for the month and – 5% year to date.

 

Mark H. Tekamp; March 6, 2022