By Madison Faller and Chris Seter, JPMorgan
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Stocks soared high, and then they sank. This week saw both the S&P 500’s best day and (almost) its worst day since 2020.
The Federal Reserve’s latest policy meeting was at the center of the consternation.
On Wednesday, the Fed hiked its policy rate by 50 basis points (bps) — the largest increase since 2000 — and laid out plans to start reducing its massive balance sheet. But those moves were widely expected heading into the meeting, and the real “new” news came when Chair Powell took the mic at the press conference and delivered a double-edged sword.
While Powell seemed to rule out a mega 75 bps hike, suggesting that the Fed might not be as aggressive as markets were chalking it up to be (fueling stocks higher on Wednesday), investors were quick to refocus on the fact that a handful of more hikes (“a couple” of them likely 50 bps) are still on the table to get inflation and labor tensions under control (stoking already elevated recession fears and catalyzing the selloff).
Some analysts also lamented poor positioning and technicals, and it likewise didn’t help sentiment that the Bank of England followed with its own hike yesterday, accompanied by a growth outlook that all but called for a recession in the country.
Rates swung wildly in response. Bonds continued their worst selloff in decades, with 10-year Treasury yields popping almost 20 bps before settling at their highest level since 2018 (just below 3.10%).
Likewise, 75% of S&P 500 stocks headed into Friday in correction territory (down 10% or more from their 52-week highs). Tech, in particular, bled lower, with the NASDAQ 100 cratering 5% on Thursday alone. Crude popped back above $110/barrel, and the dollar rallied against its major peers.
If anything is clear from this week’s price action, it’s just how difficult of a job central bankers have before them. Hiking rates comes at a cost — mortgage rates are the highest they’ve been since 2009, and housing affordability is under pressure — yet is necessary to cool things down. But do too little, and inflation could spiral to the point of recession.
Do too much, and borrowing costs could move too high and growth could become too scarce — and again, instigate recession.
Critically, we still see a path for a bull case to come to fruition from here (predicated on still fundamentally sound growth, moderating inflation and confident corporates), but the Fed’s runway to get it right is narrow.
The path forward
The Fed knows it’s in a jam. Powell himself acknowledged inflation is “much too high” and the labor market is “extremely tight.” It is clear the Fed is acting swiftly and aggressively now precisely because those pressures are a clear risk to growth.
That begs the question: How does the Fed land the plane? We are monitoring three dynamics:
1. How well higher interest rates do their job
Much of the Fed’s rate hiking cycle has already been baked into markets. As a result, rates have risen a lot — so much so that some sectors are already feeling the pinch. A recent Gallup survey showed that only 30% of Americans think now is a good time to buy a house — over 20% lower from just a year ago, and below 50% for the first time since at least 1980.
Slower housing growth and eventually lower home values have clear knock-on effects when you consider that close to 65% of Americans own a home. Retail sales reports are already showing consumers are starting to spend selectively.
Put simply, interest rates today are tightening financial conditions even though the Fed is just a few hikes in.
2. How inflation might decelerate
Rampant price pressures have been driven by a combination of super strong demand and lacking supply. As financial conditions tighten (see point above), we think goods demand should moderate.
At the same time, supply has been improving. Companies have been adding back inventories across the board over the last two quarters, building back a decent cushion even as lockdowns in China disrupt supply chains. We are in a fundamentally better starting place than during the peak of the pandemic, when consumers weren’t able to also spend on services.
To be sure, spiking energy prices also remain a risk, but it’s worth noting households broadly still have ample cash on hand from pandemic-era stimulus to help navigate costs.
While we may need to muddle through several more hot reports in the meantime, slower growth on the back of tighter financial conditions, continued normalization of COVID-19-driven inflation, and tougher year-over-year comparisons should, in our view, allow price pressures to begin decelerating into year-end.
3. How labor market strains can cool
The Fed isn’t just considering inflation in its pledge to remove policy support. The unemployment rate is nearing a five-decade low, employers are having a hard time filling job openings, and wages are rising swiftly.
These dynamics are key to watch — so long as tightness persists in the jobs market, it’ll be hard for the Fed to take its foot off the gas (even if inflation alone moderates).
But, there is already some evidence that wage growth may be starting to peak and, so far this year, workers have been coming back into the labor force. We think this trend can continue, particularly as households spend down their savings and the pandemic continues to wane (over 580,000 workers are still sitting on the sidelines due to COVID).
All that said
We believe that Fed policy is already having its intended effect in removing the pressure and slowing things down, giving the central bank some leeway to undertake less hikes than the market is currently pricing.
Focus on quality, both in stocks and bonds.
As the cycle matures, we are focused on protecting gains while adding ballasts to portfolios that could protect against higher volatility. The selloff may present a compelling entry point to embrace both stocks and bonds — but importantly, quality is essential. There are several actions we think investors should consider.
Now looks like the time to add to core fixed income
As we said before, rates have already risen a lot, and the negative economic feedback loop from higher rates limits their room to move higher from here. Sure, rates could still float upward — but even if 10-year Treasury yields climb to the realm of 3.5%, our analysis (based on historical moves in credit spreads) suggests that core fixed income would be just roughly flat to down 1%. (Remember: As bond yields move higher, prices move lower.)
On the other hand, we think it is more likely that slowing growth and inflation bias rates move lower. Our outlook for 10-year Treasury yields to finish the year around 2.5% implies core fixed income could return more than 5% from here, and in the event of a downturn (which, again, is not our base case), returns could be as high as 15%. That all said, we think whatever an investor could lose from any move higher in rates seems worth the protection that duration could provide.
Get more defensive and monetize volatility in stocks
For the first time in years, we don’t think we’re paying a premium for equities. Equity valuations have compressed meaningfully and are back in line with longer-term averages.
Given expectations of slowing growth ahead, we are particularly constructive on quality companies with strong balance sheets and high-quality earnings (healthcare, in particular, fits this bill). And with volatility as high as it is, some investors might also find it beneficial to use strategies that can take advantage of these swings as well as add protection.
Above all, stay invested
As this week has shown, the best days and the worst days tend to cluster together. Over the last 20 years, seven of the 10 best days occurred within just over two weeks of the 10 worst days.
That said, it may feel tempting to hit “sell” after days like yesterday, but missing out on the potential best days that may follow and the opportunity to recoup losses can dramatically impact longer-term returns.
About LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute
Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.
Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to employer retirement plan sponsors. The firm specializes in sustainable investment strategies for retirement plans that incorporate Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) factors and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) elements. LRPC currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than a half billion dollars in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or email@example.com or visit the firm’s website at https://www.lawtonrpc.com. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.
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