US Strategy Weekly: Oil, the Dollar, Gold, and Treasury Bonds

Equities have demonstrated some impressive price momentum in recent weeks, and this inspired us to look at a range of markets to see what might either support or counter this advance. Unfortunately, what we found triggered more questions than answers.

Oil, the Dollar, Gold, and Treasury Bonds

We began by looking at the WTI crude oil future (CLc1 – $80.71) which peaked on June 8, 2022 at a price of $122.11. Much of the weakness in oil was attributed to the shutdowns being implemented in China due to a string of outbreaks of a Covid variant. This was logical since China’s actions implied factory shutdowns, less global economic activity, and less demand for oil. Plus, it was not only China that was a concern since there were growing fears of recessions in Europe and the US.

On September 27, 2022 the dollar (.DXY – $102.39) peaked at a price of $114.11. This was counter to the fact that the Fed was in tightening mode, but it was logical because most energy trades are done in dollars and a weakening global economy, and a lower price of oil would reduce global demand for dollars. However, we found it intriguing that the gold future (GCc1 – $1907.20) troughed on the very same day, September 27, 2022, at a price of $1626.70. This has different implications for the dollar. Gold, which had historically traded in line with inflation, was not an outperformer like most commodities and in fact, it continues to trade below its August 6, 2020 peak of $2051.50. The corresponding high in the dollar and the low in gold implies a possible switch by global investors from the dollar to gold as a safe-haven global currency. This suggests a lack of faith in the US dollar. But in fact, the underlying strength in gold and weakness in the dollar may be directly tied to China. Beijing rarely telegraphs its purchases of gold, yet it recently announced it had purchased 32 tons of gold in November and 30 tons in December. China’s stockpiling of gold resembles that of Russia before its invasion of Ukraine. Before invading Ukraine, Russia de-dollarized its economy and stockpiled gold and Chinese yuan. Some geopolitical analysts theorize that China may be building its gold coffers in preparation for an attack on Taiwan. Should this theory become reality, it would be a major negative for global stability and equities, in our view.

Lastly, and on October 21, 2022, the 10-year Treasury yield index (.TNX – $35.35) peaked at $42.13 or the equivalent of a 4.2% yield in the 10-year bond. It has been declining ever since. A decline in long-duration Treasury bonds yields can have many explanations, but when investors are fearful of an economic slowdown, demand for Treasuries typically increases and yields fall. Global investors will shift to US Treasuries as a safe-haven investment in times of economic weakness or geopolitical uncertainty. This could explain the decline in long-term interest rates.

In sum, the weakness in oil, the dollar and long-term interest rates could make sense in times of impending economic weakness. The rise in gold and fall in the dollar could have ominous implications for Taiwan and geopolitics. In general, this threat could trigger an even greater shift toward gold for stability. Nevertheless, none of this explains or supports the advance in US equities from the October 12, 2022 S&P 500 low of 3577.03.    

Still Jumping the Gun

Headline CPI fell from 7.1% YOY to 6.5% YOY in December, which led to a rally in the equity market. However, this decline in inflation was concentrated in energy, the energy-derivative category, transportation, and apparel. All items less food and energy had a smaller decline from 6% to 5.7% YOY as prices continued to rise at a faster pace in housing, owners’ equivalent rent and services. See page 3. There were items to celebrate in the inflation report. Areas of the economy like new and used cars, transportation (public and private), lodging away from home and household furnishings and operations are experiencing major decelerations in price gains. On the other hand, food at home and all areas of the service sector continue to show stubbornly strong price rises. See page 4.

We remain concerned. Whenever inflation has exceeded a standard deviation above the norm (3.4%), a recession, or string of recessions, has ensued. We do not believe this time will be different. Plus, the Fed has indicated that its goal is to beat inflation and return to a real fed funds rate. Today the real fed funds rate is negative 210 basis points to CPI and negative 170 basis points to November’s PCE index. In short, all signals point to more Fed hikes in 2023. See page 5.

Consumer sentiment improves

Consumer sentiment has improved in recent months as seen by the headline Conference Board Consumer Confidence index rising nearly 7 points to 108.3. The University of Michigan released preliminary results for January which showed an increase from 59.7 to 64.6 in the overall survey, a jump from 59.4 to 68.6 in the present situations and an increase from 59.9 to 62.0 in the expectations survey. Both surveys are clearly improving and rebounding from recent recession levels. See page 6.

But we remain concerned about the consumer. The savings rate was 2.4% in November and has been below 3% for five of the last six months. Readings below 3% were last seen in April 2008 (2.9%), November 2007 (2.8%), and seven of nine consecutive months between February 2005 and October 2005. The record low savings rate of 2.1% was recorded in July 2005. Another indication that consumers are stretched is the rise in credit. As of November, total consumer credit grew 8% YOY, but since August 2022 revolving credit has been steadily expanding at a pace of 15% YOY or more. This is worrisome; however, one consolation is that revolving credit remains below levels seen prior to the 2008 recession. Nevertheless, real consumer credit is just modestly below its 2020 peak and is a sign that consumers are financially strained. See page 7. 

Technicals are Looking UP

The current rally has broadened to include most of the popular indices which are now trading above their 200-day moving averages. The one exception is the Nasdaq Composite. However, January’s advance is reminiscent of the August 2022 rally which also resulted in tests or breaks of the 200-day moving averages but became a failed rally. Nonetheless, the current rally could have staying power and it is significant that this rally is materializing in January, a month that can be predictive of the year’s performance. See page 9.

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently neutral with a reading of 2.44 but is close to recording an overbought reading. An overbought reading that persists for at least five to ten consecutive trading sessions would be significant and a sign of a positive shift in the cycle. See page 10. Also interesting is that the 10-day average of daily new highs is 103 and new lows are 39. This combination is now positive since new highs are above the 100 benchmark and new lows are below 100. New highs have not consistently outnumbered new lows since April 2022. The advance/decline line is currently 33,545 net advancing issues from its 11/8/21 high – still negative yet a big improvement in the last two weeks. See page 11. We remain cautious but are carefully monitoring technical indicators, particularly the 25-day volume oscillator, for potential good news.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Get Ready, Go, Get Set

The price performance of the equity market during the first few days of the new year provided a nice respite for investors who weathered a very difficult 2022. But this year’s good start will face several hurdles in the upcoming days. Later this week the CPI report for December has the ability to reverse the current optimism on inflation. The consensus view is that inflation is steadily decelerating, but if that does not prove to be true, there will be disappointment. More importantly, fourth-quarter earnings reports begin at the end of the week, and these could set the tone – and the trend — for earnings over the next few quarters.

In our opinion, while some market commentators believe pessimism is currently too extreme and overdone, investors have not truly come to grips with the status of the current economy, the determination of the Fed to fight inflation and what that means, and the prospect for corporate earnings.  

The Economy

It is widely accepted that the real estate sector of the economy is in a slowdown or recession. But we see warnings in recent data releases that the downturn is broadening. For example, for the first time since April and May of 2020, both ISM indices ended below the 50-bench mark denoting a contraction in economic activity. Plus, in both surveys the “new orders” components slipped well below 50, signifying a weakness in future activity. In other words, both the manufacturing and the service segments of the economy appear to be declining. See page 3.

The one positive we found in the two ISM reports is that both the manufacturing and the non-manufacturing survey showed prices falling or decelerating. In the ISM manufacturing report, the price index fell from an already low of 43.0 to 39.4; while in the non-manufacturing report the price component fell from 70 to 67.6 – a sign of deceleration.

There were also encouraging inflation signs in the Small Business Optimism survey for December. The NFIB report indicated that fewer small businesses plan to raise prices in the coming months and the index fell from 34 to 24. However, fewer small businesses plan to increase employment and that component fell from 18 to 17. All in all, the NFIB Optimism index fell 2.1 points to 89.8, in December, recording its 12th consecutive month below the 49-year average of 98. See page 4.

In December, payrolls increased by 223,000 and the unemployment rate edged down to 3.5%. These are actually robust numbers that could have worried investors, but the report was well received since average hourly earnings rose 5.0% YOY, down from November’s 5.5% YOY pace. This deceleration in wage gains was viewed by many as a positive thing, but we disagree. First, we do not think the deceleration is significant. Second, we do not believe the current economy is at risk of demand-pull inflation due to rising wages. In fact, the opposite is true. Inflation has had a very negative impact on real weekly earnings and in December real weekly earnings were actually down 2.6% YOY and were 4% lower than their May 2020 peak. In short, households have been losing purchasing power for nearly three years and are not a source of potential inflation. See page 5.

More signs that households are struggling are found in retail sales. In the nine months ended in November, total retail and food services sales grew at an average monthly pace of 8.4% YOY. This sounds healthy, but after adjusting for inflation, total real retail sales grew only 0.5% YOY. This lack of substantial revenue growth is a hurdle for many retailers and for future earnings. And though auto production has normalized, vehicle sales also declined in November. Weakness in the auto sector is also seen in used car prices which have been on the decline. See page 6. In sum, we have been anticipating a recession this year and recent economic data is falling in line with our theory.

Fed Policy – Too Soon for a Pivot

Many market commentators have suggested that the Fed will end rate hikes, or pivot once the economy shows signs of weakness. In our view, this is naïve thinking for several reasons. First, inflation does not materialize or end quickly. Prices were rising for several years before the CPI peaked at 9% last year. It is apt to take at least several years to get it back to the Fed’s target of 2%. Second, Fed tightening cycles have historically ended when the real fed funds rate reaches 300 basis points, or more. See page 7. It may not have to reach a full 300 basis points in this cycle, but the Fed has clearly indicated that a real fed funds rate is its objective. If this is true, the fed funds rate may need to move well above the 5% to 5.25% most economists are forecasting. For example, if inflation falls to 4% this year (our target) the fed funds rate could rise as high as 7% to break the inflationary cycle. There are other scenarios as well. Inflation could fall to 3% and the fed funds rate could peak at 6%. Nevertheless, this suggests the fed funds rate could move higher than most expect this year. In our opinion, nothing above a 5.25% fed funds rate has been discounted by recent equity prices.

Earnings

The fourth quarter earnings season could become a disappointment for those looking for a rally, or at least a January rally. Some analysts believe investors will look past an anticipated trough in earnings and actually rally on bad earnings news. But in our view, it is nearly impossible to estimate how weak earnings might be in 2023. The combination of fed rate hikes and a weakened consumer is what led us to reduce our S&P 500 earnings estimate for this year to $180, reflecting a 10% decline from an estimated $200 in earnings in 2022. A 10% decline in corporate earnings is “average” during an economic recession.

It is important to point out that while S&P Dow Jones is currently estimating 2022 earnings to be $200.19, this is only a preliminary estimate. See page 8. Fourth quarter earnings have not yet been reported and this forecast is likely to move lower. This scenario may explain why the fourth quarter earnings season could become a market moving event. Weak fourth quarter earnings results would not only require analysts to bring their earnings estimates down for last year and this year; but corporate guidance may have a substantial negative impact on this year’s forecasts — which ironically continue to anticipate year-over-year gains, despite expectations of a recession.

Technical Update The DJIA is the only index that is currently trading above all its key moving averages and looking positive. Conversely, the Nasdaq Composite is trading below all its key averages and looking bearish. The SPX and Russell 2000 have somewhat mixed pictures in terms of their moving averages. This divergence in performance is a result of a market leadership shift from growth to value that took place in 2022 and which we believe will continue this year. To a large extent, it reflects our thoughts of “follow the earnings” which tend to be clustered in energy, staples, aerospace, utilities, and stocks that reflect other necessities.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Historic Guidelines

History may not repeat itself exactly, but there is always something to learn from past economic cycles. In 2022, inflation was the highest in 40 years and there is much to be learned from this. In fact, whenever inflation has been greater than one standard deviation above the norm, a recession has followed. In fact, very high inflation has usually been followed by a series of recessions over a period of years.

Looking for a Recession

We believe Chairman Jerome Powell knows this part of history very well and it explains why we believe he will keep interest rates higher for longer than most forecasters expect. In previous cycles the Fed lowered interest rates at the first sign of a recession, only to see inflation reappear 12 to 18 months later. Discussions today center on when investors believe the Fed will “pivot” and most expect weakness in the economy will be the catalyst for easier monetary policy. In our view, although the Fed may not speak of it publicly, it expects a recession and is unlikely to be frightened at the first signs of economic weakness. It will, however, keep its eye on its goal, which is to get inflation down to, or close to 2% YOY. Some believe a Fed pivot will begin with inflation at 4% YOY but we disagree. Inflation at that level is still above the long-term average of 3.4% and is debilitating to consumers and businesses.

Another reason we believe the economy will slip into a recession is the weakness we see in the consumer. The savings rate was 2.4% in November which ranks among the lowest rates in history. We are not surprised that savings are falling, because real purchasing power has been negative most of last year. Personal income rose 4.7% in November, but after taxes and inflation, real personal disposable income fell 2.5% YOY. And for many Americans, the numbers are even worse. Proprietors’ income rose 3.7% in November, well below the 4.7% headline level; and non-farm proprietors’ income rose a measly 1.3% YOY. This is just one example of how small businesses are struggling in the current inflationary environment. The CPI decreased to 7.1% YOY in November, but it continues to destroy purchasing power. This is just one example of why inflation of 4% is still too high.

Some parts of the economy are already in recession. The residential housing market is a prime example. Pending home sales decreased to 73.9 in November and have been falling steadily since the October 2021 peak of 122.4. November’s reading is just slightly above the historic low of 71.6 recorded in April 2020 during the pandemic shutdown. Most consumer and business confidence indices were lower in November, yet they remain above the cyclical lows reported in June. Confidence levels bear watching since they can be good lead indicators of recessions and recession lows.

History of Negative Performances

Several market commentators have noted that it is rare to get broad-based back-to-back price declines in the equity averages. This is true, but it is possible. Annual losses were seen in the periods inclusive of 1929-1932, 1939-1941, 1973-1974, and 2000-2002. What each of these bear market periods have in common is that they were either the aftermath and unwinding of a stock market bubble, or in the case of 1939-1941 it was the prelude to the US being drawn into a major world war. See page 4.

This may explain why we are seeing major declines in the FAANG components, meme stocks, cryptocurrencies and the “Covid-shutdown” beneficiaries, where speculation was most extreme in the previous advance. In short, the bubbles in these areas are unwinding.

The good news is that the declines in 2022, particularly in high PE stocks, appear to be a major step in terms of wringing out excess and moving toward value in the US equity market. Still, we are not convinced that investors have discounted an actual decline in earnings in 2023. Many analysts are talking about a recession but have not factored it into earnings forecasts. In fact, we have heard some strategists suggest it is time to look across the valley of earnings and focus on an earnings rebound. This would have been true if we had already seen earnings forecasts turn negative, but they have not. At this juncture we do not know how deep, or how long, the valley in earnings may be.

Last year the S&P 500 Composite index fell 19.4%, and according to S&P Dow Jones consensus, earnings are expected to have declined 3.8% for the year. See page 3. But there are two caveats to this earnings decline. First, the fourth quarter earnings season will begin in several weeks, and in the last three reporting seasons estimates have declined significantly as quarterly earnings reports were released. In short, the estimate for 2022 may still be too high. Second, the S&P Dow Jones consensus earnings forecast for 2022 may be negative, but 2023 shows a growth rate of 13%. It is very likely that earnings will decline again in 2023, so this implies earnings disappointments are ahead. And do not forget that the S&P’s earnings decline in 2022 was muted by the outsized earnings gains seen in the energy sector. Most corporations had difficult comparisons in 2022 due to stimulus-boosted gains in 2020 and corporate margin pressure from higher raw material prices, soaring transportation costs and wage increases. The challenge in 2023 in our view, will be a lack of revenue growth. For this reason, we would focus on necessities and companies with reliable earnings streams such as energy, utilities, staples, aerospace & defense, and health insurance companies.  

Santa Baby

There has been much discussion about a Santa Claus rally this year, including controversy about its timing and effectiveness. For the record, Yale Hirsch of the Stock Trader’s Almanac monitored this phenomenon over the years and the Santa Claus rally is composed of the last five trading sessions of the year and the first two trading days of the new year; however, some analysts have added an extra day at either end of this period. Either way, a Santa Claus rally has materialized in seven of the last nine years. See page 5.

But that is not the real significance of the Santa Claus rally. The adage is: If Santa Claus should fail to call, bears may come to Broad and Wall. In short, it is not simply that a year-end rally tends to materialize, but that a rally, or the lack thereof, has some predictive value. We believe the tendency for a year-end rally arises from the fact that the last few days of the year often have a positive tilt from waning tax-loss selling, free cash as a result of tax-loss selling, rebalancing of mutual funds, pension fund inflows at the end of the year, and employee bonuses and Christmas money. In short, liquidity should be better than average at the very end of each year and should produce positive results in stocks. If not, it could be that either investor pessimism is high, or liquidity is below average. Neither would be a positive sign. As noted, rallies have appeared in seven of the last nine years and in each of the last six years. Four of these six years ended with double-digit gains in the S&P (66% accuracy) and two years ended with losses, including 2022. We do not put a lot of credence into year-end performances, but to date, the 2022-2023 Santa Claus rally has a 0.07% gain. It will be interesting to see if the market can hold on to this gain. See page 5. What has more predictive value in our view, is the January Barometer. See page 6.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Preparing for a Recession

Stocks have seen a year-end rally in each of the last six years and this phenomenon can be explained by a number of seasonal factors such as the end of tax-loss selling, mutual fund window dressing, and stock purchases due to liquidity from year-end and Christmas bonuses, among other things. However, we believe a year-end rally may be less robust than usual since thoughts of 2023 and its various hurdles could weigh on investor sentiment.

Recent market action suggests that investors are very willing to look on the bright side of the street. We prefer to be optimistic ourselves, however, the financial media is persistently focused on news that would suggest peak interest rates are directly ahead. This is viewed as a reason to expect the worst to be over and that a market advance is at hand. In some situations, it might be profitable to look past the economic valley of 2023 and look to invest for the longer term; but this time we think the valley may be deeper and wider than expected. For this reason, we remain prudent and look to keep our portfolio concentrated in necessities, recession resistant companies and sectors and stocks with predictable earnings streams and above average dividend yields.

Lowering Earnings Forecasts

The probability of higher interest rates and the likelihood of a recession in 2023 is high, in our opinion. Though we have been expecting a recession, we have not fully addressed it in our earnings forecasts. Our economic forecast included a weak first half of 2023 followed by an economic rebound, but even that may be too hopeful. This week we are lowering this year’s S&P 500 earnings forecast from $202 to $200 to reflect the decline seen in the third quarter earnings results. And since the typical recession results in a 10% decline in corporate earnings, we are lowering our 2023 estimate from $204 to $180.

Looking for an Average Recession

Since WWII, the last twelve recessions have persisted for an average of 10 months, have generated a 2% decline in real GDP, resulted in a loss of an average of 4 million jobs and led to a 10% decline in corporate earnings. Few recessions “match” the average, however, we believe inflation is more embedded in the economy than even the Fed would like to admit. If so, it means interest rates will remain higher for longer than expected. Chairman Jerome Powell was late to address inflation; however, we expect he has studied the last inflationary cycle that began in 1968 and continued until 1982. The error that Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns made in the 1970 decade was to not keep interest rates high enough or long enough to get control over inflation. As a result, there were four recessions between 1970 and 1982, until inflation finally began to recede.

With this in mind, it follows that interest rates will remain higher for longer next year than many expect. If so, the 2023 recession may last for more than two quarters and have a more debilitating impact on corporate earnings. For all these reasons, we are lowering our earnings estimate once again.

The Inflation Problem

November’s CPI came in softer than expectations, and while the peak level of inflation may be behind us, the underlying details of November’s report are not as favorable as some market commentators seem to believe. Much of the decline in prices is the result of decelerating energy prices (which are still rising 13.1% YOY!); meanwhile, food and beverage prices are rising at a double-digit pace, and housing, transportation, and “other goods and services” inflation are increasing 7% YOY or more. See page 3.

It is very likely that headline inflation peaked at 9% YOY in April 2022, but the Fed’s lack of attention in 2021 to stimulus-driven inflation allowed price increases to become embedded in the economy. This is making inflation difficult to combat. As a result, core CPI has been hovering between 6.0% YOY and 6.5% YOY for several months — the highest in 40 years — and is far from the 2% target rate indicated by the Fed. See page 4. And inflation is no longer driven solely by the price of energy, nor is it a problem linked primarily to the rise in owners’ equivalent rent. The current drivers of the CPI include food and beverage pricing and a wide range of consumer services. See page 5.

It should be noted that prices for services have been on the rise since early 2021. The composite service component of the CPI rose 7.2% YOY in November, rose 7.2% YOY in October, and fell only slightly from the peak rate of 7.4% YOY recorded in September. With inflation now embedded in the largest segment of the economy, the Fed’s job has become more difficult than most expect. And as seen in the chart on page 6, the price of WTI crude oil has typically had a direct impact on inflation when it rises but has had less of an impact when prices fall. In our view, the consensus remains too sanguine about the path of inflation over the next 12 months. 

Moreover, 32% of small business owners indicated that inflation was their single biggest problem. The small business optimism index rose 0.6 points in November to 91.9, but this is the 11th month below the 49-year average of 98. Of the 10 components, 6 increased and 4 decreased in November. The percentage of owners that plan to raise prices was more than 50% earlier in the year but now sits at 35%. Owners who think it is a good time to expand improved one point to six in November, but this is well below the long-term average of 13. See page 7.

2023: The Year of Earnings Adjustment

In 2022, investors began to take inflation seriously and focused on tightening monetary policy. As a result, there has been a steady decline in price earnings multiples this year. But the adjustments are not over. In our view, the challenge in 2023 will be the reality of a recession and the negative impact it will have on earnings.

As noted, we are lowering our S&P 500 2022 earnings estimate slightly to $200 and taking our 2023 estimate down $180 to reflect a 10% decline. However, even without a recession in 2023, S&P 500 earnings have been extremely high relative to the trend in nominal GDP. Earnings growth and nominal GDP tend to be highly correlated and the relative outperformance of S&P earnings versus economic activity in 2021 and 2022 is an unsustainable trend. A period of earnings outperformance has usually been followed by a decline in earnings. See page 8.

The recent earnings outperformance in this cycle is easily explained by the historic level of stimulus pumped into the economy both during and after the Covid shutdown. In short, corporate earnings were artificially elevated. As stimulus fades, earnings are apt to underperform, even without a recession in 2023. However, we expect the Fed will remain on track to raise short-term rates to 5% or higher next year and this makes a recession a high probability in the next twelve months. As we have often noted, inflation in excess of 4% has characteristically resulted in a recession. Double-digit inflation has historically been followed by multi-year rolling recessions. In sum, 2022 was a year of multiple compression and 2023 is apt to be the year of earnings deterioration. We remain cautious.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: A Recession Ahead

When we look at the history of inflation, the history of Federal Reserve policy, and recent economic data, it is easy to conclude that a recession is either at hand, or at least on the horizon. But before we explain why we believe a recession is likely, it is also important to point out that the next recession should be different than those recently experienced, and hopefully more manageable. The main reason for this optimism is the healthy financial condition of the US banking sector. Just the opposite was true of the 2008 financial crisis and the severely weakened state of the US banking system was a major risk for the overall economy. Today, not only are the banks’ balance sheets in good condition, but we find that household balance sheets are also in fine shape. And even though corporate debt has been on the rise, corporate America is not overextended. This is important since it suggests that any recession should be relatively short and contained.  

The one area of concern is the federal government where stimulus packages have added trillions of dollars to the national debt in a short period of time. Congress approved the $2 trillion CARES Act in March 2020, which was followed by a $900 billion Covid-19 relief package in December 2020. Some of this was necessary. During the mandatory shut down of the economy very few Americans could go back to work and collect a paycheck. Businesses were forced to remain closed. Plus, the mandatory Covid vaccinations and tests were paid for by the US government to prevent the spread of the virus.

This was less true in 2021, yet in March 2021 President Biden’s Build Back Better plan became the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 which was an additional $1.9 trillion stimulus package. In total, the national debt increased by nearly $5 trillion, or nearly 25% of GDP, in a short 12-month period. As of October, the US debt stands at $31.12 trillion, which means the federal debt load is currently more than 120% of GDP — estimated to be $25.7 trillion at the end of the third quarter.

Unfortunately, interest rates are now on the rise and the cost of carrying this debt will become ever more costly. And the US is not the only country that increased its national debt during the pandemic. This was true of many countries impacted by Covid-19. In short, if there is a weakness, or a problem in the next recession it could be centered in the sovereign debt markets.

Inflation and Recession

We have written in previous weeklies that whenever inflation has been above average (3.5%), an economic recession has followed. More worrisome is the fact that the last time inflation was as high as it is in the current cycle, or a standard deviation above the norm (6.2%), the economy suffered a series of recessions. This is best represented by the 1968-1982 era. In the current cycle, the Federal Reserve has been very tardy in addressing inflation and as a result, a recession has been delayed. But this may only make inflation more difficult to tame today and keep interest rates higher for longer than expected. Historically, the fed funds rate rose ahead of, or in line with, inflation. See page 3. In our view, this is why it is imperative that the Federal Reserve Board be an independent, nonpolitical body. Raising interest rates during a presidential election year, for example, might be a difficult policy to follow; but failure to do so could be debilitating for many American households in the longer run.

Inflation is deceptive because it silently diminishes the purchasing power of households. Some economists worry that hourly earnings rose 0.6% in November; however, average weekly earnings rose 4.9% YOY in November while inflation rose 7.8% YOY in October. In short, inflation has exceeded the growth in wages for most of the last 18 months. Rising wages are not a source of inflation in our view. In fact, the fact that real hourly earnings are negative on a year-over-year basis is another indication a recession is ahead. See page 4.

Personal income has been in a steady uptrend for the last two years, but due to soaring inflation, just the opposite is true of disposable income or real disposable income. As a result, as of October, personal consumption expenditures have been exceeding income for 19 straight months. It is an unsustainable situation. See page 5. Not surprisingly, the savings rate declined to 2.3% in November, which is the lowest rate recorded by the BLS since the 2.1% reported in July 2005. However, in 2005, the savings rate quickly rebounded to 2.6% in August. We doubt that will happen in this cycle. Also noteworthy is the fact that the unemployment rate was unchanged in November at 3.7%, a historically low number. This gives the appearance of a strong economy, but we believe it is an economy of the haves and have-nots. Middle America is struggling. See page 6.

This combination of data suggests to us that the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates in order to battle the now-ingrained inflation seen in this cycle. As a result, the economy is apt to slip into a recession in 2023. In recent months the Treasury yield curve has become inverted which is a classic financial sign of a recession on the horizon. See page 8.

Inflation and Equity Performance

We often look at history to see how stocks have performed whenever inflation has remained above average for a lengthy period of time. The most instructive period of time would be the 1968-to-1982-time frame when headline CPI remained consistently above 4%. The chart on page 9 is a quarterly chart and only records the S&P 500 index at the end of each quarter. But what it shows is that the S&P 500 Composite closed at 103.86 in December 1968 and closed at 102.09 in March 1980. In other words, the index was in a broad trading range and made no upward progress for over eleven years — or until inflation was brought back under control.

The experience of this previous era of inflation is why we believe the Fed may need to keep interest rates higher for longer than the consensus expects. The failure to get inflation under control in the first tightening cycle could result in multiple Fed tightening cycles — and recessions – like what was seen in the 1968 to 1982 period.

There are some markets that are already warning of a recession. The weakness in crude oil prices implies that traders expect energy demand to weaken as global economies slide into a recession. The decline in the 10-year Treasury bond yield represents a flight to safety in long-duration US Treasury bonds. See page 10. For all of these reasons, we believe the best strategy is to focus on recession resistance companies or areas of the economy that represent “necessities” to households, corporations, and governments. Sectors that represent these characteristics include energy, utilities, food, staples, and aerospace. See page 16.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Ambiguity

Not a lot happened during the shortened holiday week. Economic releases were sparse, and earnings revisions were minor. Stock prices were erratic, but our indicators ended the week relatively unchanged. The months of November through January have historically been the strongest three-month period for stock prices and this favorable seasonality trait is dominating much of the discussion regarding equities. But in every cycle, ultimately the market’s trend will be determined by earnings growth, and unfortunately, earnings growth for the next twelve months remains questionable.

Energized Earnings

Energy has been a major contributor to S&P 500 earnings growth all year and yet the sector continues to have the lowest PE multiple of all eleven sectors at 8.4 times. Recent S&P Dow Jones data shows that energy is the only sector with a PE to growth multiple (PEG ratio) of less than one, which reflects value. This low PEG ratio arises from S&P’s estimate for energy’s 5-year growth rate of 10.3% and the sector’s current price-earnings multiple of 8.4 times.

According to Refinitiv IBES, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 for the fourth quarter is negative 0.4%, but if the energy sector is excluded, the S&P 500 growth rate declines to negative 5.4%. Energy has the highest estimated earnings growth rate for the quarter at 72.8% and is expected to earn $50.1 billion in the last three months of the year versus earnings of $29.0 billion a year earlier. The second highest percentage is found in the industrials sector with an estimated 42.3% earnings growth rate, where earnings are anticipated to be $37.4 billion in the current quarter versus $26.3 billion a year earlier. The only other S&P sectors expected to have positive earnings growth in the fourth quarter are real estate (6.9%) and utilities (5.0%). In comparison, IBES estimates that technology earnings will decline 7.8% in the quarter. The materials sector comes in last with the lowest estimated earnings growth rate of negative 21.3%. When we look at these estimates for fourth quarter earnings, we do not see any positive catalyst for stocks in the near term; but keep in mind that fourth quarter earnings season does not begin until mid-January 2023.

Economic Backdrop

November’s employment report will be released on Friday, and this could be a market moving event. Expectations are for 190,000-200,000 new jobs and a relatively unchanged unemployment rate. Anything showing stronger job growth could trigger angst about monetary policy being tighter than expected. Anything showing extremely weak job growth will incite fears of a recession. However, it does appear that the economy is either in a recession or a recession is likely in 2023. The only questions are how deep and how long the recession will be.

It is very conceivable that the housing sector is already in a recession, and we believe this weakness will spread to other parts of the economy in coming quarters. We tend to look at sentiment indicators for guidance in uncertain times and unfortunately, this data is not reassuring. The bigger picture shows that there are 3-year downtrends in all sentiment benchmarks, and this resembles the pattern seen prior to or during all previous recessions since 1965. The Conference Board consumer confidence for November fell from 102.2 to 100.2 in November, the lowest since July, and the index for present conditions recorded an 18-month low. The University of Michigan sentiment indices were all down in November but remained above the cyclical lows recorded in the months of June and July 2022. See page 3.

Consumer credit has been expanding rapidly and attracting the attention of many economists. Total consumer credit hit $4.7 trillion in September, up $270 billion, or 6%, year-to-date and it expanded 8% YOY. Most of the growth in the last twelve months has come from revolving credit (lines of credit and credit cards) which grew nearly 16% YOY. This expansion in credit could be a sign of households using credit cards to spend ahead of the holidays, or to simply pay bills. This possibility is confirmed by the recent decline in the personal savings rate for September which fell from 3.4% to 3.1%. Data for personal income, consumption, and savings for October will be released later this week. But note, if consumers are digging into savings and extending credit lines for consumption, it is an unsustainable trend, particularly as interest rates rise. See page 5.

The correlation between an inverted Treasury yield curve and recessions has been historically strong. And the current yield curve already implies we should be anticipating a recession in 2023. Recent Fed funds rate hikes have had a dramatic influence on the Treasury yield curve; but more importantly, whether December’s rate hike is 50 or 75 basis points, the entire yield curve will soon be fully inverted and looking ominous. In short, consumption and corporate earnings will remain under pressure in 2023 and this is not a good foundation for an equity rally. See page 4.

Technical Ambiguity

The charts of the major equity indices are not uniform and produce a mixed message in terms of the outlook for stocks for the final weeks of the year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is the only index to have bettered its long-term 200-day moving average and as a result, it appears to be in a relatively stable advance. The Russell 2000 and the S&P 500 are the next best-looking charts; however, they have been testing their 200-day moving averages without success for several weeks. This is an ambiguous pattern. Meanwhile, the Nasdaq Composite index remains in a bearish trend. This index has only exceeded its 50-day moving average and is trading well below its 200-day moving average. This results in a very mixed picture for the overall market. However, it is an interesting display of leadership shifting from growth to value. See page 8.

Our favorite 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently neutral with a reading of 2.31. It had been in overbought territory for seven of 10 trading days in November, but it was unable to remain in overbought territory for five consecutive trading days. This is significant since bear markets rarely reach overbought territory and if they do the reading is brief. A true overbought reading should persist for at least five to ten consecutive trading days to be significant, therefore, the recent reading in this indicator is another sign of ambiguity in the equity market. Nevertheless, it remains one of our key indicators to monitor in the coming weeks to assess the strength of any advance in prices. See page 9. Similarly, the 10-day average of daily new highs is currently 73 and the 10-day average of daily new lows is 72. This combination is neutral since neither series is averaging more than 100 per day which is the minimum benchmark for defining a trend. Remember: the 10-day moving average of new lows was 1038 on September 26 and exceeded the previous peak of 604 made in early May, which means the October low was a confirmed new low and the bear trend continues. All in all, we remain cautious and suggest emphasizing stocks that have the most reliable earnings streams.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Follow the Earnings

The Dudack Research Group wishes you and your loved ones a happy and healthy 2022 holiday season and a delicious and restful Thanksgiving weekend. We at DRG are grateful for many things and most especially for your continuous support and patronage.

Bear Markets and Transitions

Bear markets have a multitude of catalysts, but history shows that the most significant bear markets are triggered by one of two factors. A bear cycle often begins after an immense accumulation of debt and leverage that leads to massive defaults, a sharp decline in demand, a period of deflation, and falling profits. Or conversely, a bear cycle is triggered by a huge supply/demand imbalance that leads to an inflationary cycle, a loss of purchasing power, profit margin pressure, declining earnings, and lower PE multiples. The inflationary cycles of 1970-1974 and the current bear market were clearly linked to inflation driven by a lack of supply of oil. However, inflation preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and most of today’s price cycle is due to the historic monetary and fiscal stimulus undertaken around the world to combat the worldwide economic shutdowns. In short, political decisions played a large part in today’s inflationary cycle.

But perhaps the most important characteristic of any bear market is that it almost always results in a major shift, or transition, in market leadership. It is this transition in leadership that is the key to outperforming, not only during the bear market, but in the bull market that follows.

Follow the money” is a phrase that solves many financial and political mysteries, but “follow the earnings” is the simplest way to understand the leadership emerging in the current cycle. In 2020 our favorite sectors were those we described as “inflation-resistant” segments of the economy. In 2021 and 2022 we emphasized “recession-resistant” sectors and stocks for outperformance. Not surprisingly, inflation-resistant also tended to be recession-resistant and included sectors such as energy, utilities, staples, defense, and aerospace. These sectors can also be called defensive, household necessities, value, and total return, but they are most importantly the areas that have pricing power and profits in an era of rising costs and shrinking margins. Segments of healthcare can also be defensive and weather both inflation and recession. Technology has defensive segments such as security technologies. But in every case, it is a stock or sector with a predictable earnings stream in what is a difficult and unpredictable economic time.

Earnings Insecurity

The third quarter earnings season seems to have sounded the alarm that earnings are at risk for this year and next. In the last five weeks, the S&P Dow Jones consensus earnings estimate for 2022 has declined 3% — an unusually large decline in a short period of time. However, the erosion in forecasts actually began in April when estimates were 12% higher than they are today. We lowered our 2022 and 2023 earnings estimates two weeks ago to adjust for the weakness seen in the third quarter results. Unfortunately, the S&P Dow Jones estimate has dropped so quickly (it is now $201.58) that it is already below our $202 estimate for the S&P for this year. Although seasonality for the next three and six-month periods tends to be positive, the underlying erosion in earnings could prove to be quicksand for the overall market. Again, safety is equal to finding companies with solid earnings streams. See page 6. Unfortunately, the increase in interest rates and decrease in earnings estimates seen this year has lowered the midpoints of our valuation model to SPX 2625 for 2022 and to SPX 3020 for 2023. See page 7. In short, risk continues in the first half of 2023.

Real Estate Recession

There is little doubt that residential real estate and the homebuilding sector is in a recession. In September, new home sales fell 18%, the median new single-family home price fell 14% YOY, and the average home price fell 10% YOY. Existing home sales fell 28.4% YOY in October and the median existing single-family home price rose 6% YOY. See page 4.

A lack of inventory has been supporting existing home prices this year, however, that too is beginning to change. According to the National Association of Realtors, the months of supply of inventory have increased from the cyclical low of 1.5 in January of this year to 3.3 months in October. Housing starts were down 8.8% YOY in October and new home permits were off 10% from a year earlier. See page 5. And the outlook for the housing sector in 2023 continues to be dim, particularly since the Federal Reserve is expected to continue to raise rates in coming months. Affordability is already at its worst level in 37 years and the NAHB builder confidence survey has been declining for 11 consecutive months. November’s survey fell 5 points to 33, which is well below the neutral benchmark of 50. Both current traffic and the outlook for sales in the next six months are at recessionary levels. See page 6. Keep in mind that these dismal numbers are likely to get worse due to the Fed’s tightening policy in coming months. But, to a large extent this is the Fed’s goal – an economic slowdown.

October’s retail sales were stronger than expected, with total retail and foods service sales increasing 8.3% YOY and total sales excluding autos and gas stations rising 8% YOY. However, retail sales priced in 1982 dollars (adjusted for inflation) rose a mere 0.5%. Still, this small increase was better than the real retail sales data for April and June which were negative on a year-over-year basis. These declines were worrisome since negative YOY retail sales have been characteristic of all previous recessions. See page 3. However, investors should focus on where retail sales have actually been growing. In the post-COVID era. Sales have increased for six segments: gas stations, food service, building materials, sporting goods, miscellaneous and non-store retailers. This is in line with what we are seeing in terms of stock performance. See page 14.

Technical Watch

What we are seeing in terms of earnings performance is playing out in the popular indices. On page 9 we have ordered the indices in terms of their technical strength. The DJIA is by far the best-performing index, seen by the fact that it is now trading above its long-term 200-day moving average and has broken above a downtrend line off the January 4, 2022 peak of 36,799.65. The Russell 2000 index is the second-best performing index and is threatening to break above its 200-day moving average but is yet to do so. The S&P 500 is third best, and while trading above both its 50 and 100-day moving averages, it is trading 60 points below its 200-day moving average. The Nasdaq Composite index is by far the worst-performing index. It has barely exceeded its 50-day moving average and trades well below its 100 and 200-day moving averages. These differences are a display of the shifting leadership we noted earlier. Value has widely outperformed growth year-to-date and during the recent rally. See page 9. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is neutral at 2.28 but was overbought for five of the last eight trading days. This is significant since bear markets rarely reach overbought territory and if they do the reading is brief. A true overbought reading should persist for at least five to ten consecutive trading days to be significant, therefore, the recent reading is ambiguous. Nevertheless, this will be a key indicator to monitor in the coming weeks to assess the strength of any advance in prices.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Transition of Leadership

Breaking News

As we go to print there are a number of news headlines of significance. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a Russian-produced missile hit a Polish village near the border of Ukraine, killing two Polish citizens. This incident sparked a flurry of NATO leaders declaring that all NATO territories must be defended and as a result, fanned fears of an escalation and/or expansion in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. News of this explosion in Poland aborted an early-day rally that had been kindled by better-than-expected third quarter earnings from Walmart Inc. (WMT – $147.44).

Later this evening former President Trump is expected to announce his intention of running for re-election in 2024. This could split the Republican Party which is already showing signs of post-election fatigue and upheaval. The midterm elections did not produce a red or blue wave, but it is expected to create a shift in leadership in Congress. Rick Scott (R – FL) announced he will run against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R – KY) for the role of minority leader in the Senate. And if the Republicans edge out the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is expected to take the role of Speaker of the House from the indefatigable Democrat Nancy Pelosi. New leadership in Congress is unlikely to generate a meaningful difference in policy, but it is reassuring that a divided Congress is usually seen as a positive for the equity market.

These news events took the attention away from the collapsed crypto exchange FTX which has dominated financial news in recent days. The exchange, among the world’s largest, filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday after traders pulled $6 billion in three days from the platform and rival exchange Binance abandoned a possible rescue deal. FTX is the highest-profile crypto blowup to date and bankruptcy filings indicate the exchange faces a “severe liquidity crisis” and could have more than 1 million creditors. This is a warning of possible liquidity issues in unsuspected places in the upcoming weeks. Meanwhile, it is possible that FTX founder and former chief executive Sam Bankman-Fried will face felony charges due to what might be “unauthorized transactions” on its platform.     

The Rally

News of the wayward Russian missile threw a curve ball in what appeared to be an improving outlook for the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The retreat of Russian troops from Kherson left Russia with no forces on the right, or western, bank of Europe’s third largest river that bisects Ukraine and flows into the Black Sea. This is a vital conduit for Ukrainian grain exports. In fact, there were unsubstantiated reports that an agreement might be possible between Russia’s Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. We believe this possibility contributed to the massive rally in the euro and the decline in the dollar last week. This prospect, coupled with short covering, were catalysts for the rally in equities last week.

Yet stocks rose for a number of reasons including financial headlines like “US Fed could soon start easing rate policy.” We found this headline to be very misleading. Using the word “easing” in terms of monetary policy translates directly into the prospect of the Fed lowering interest rates. However, in this case, the media is actually referring to the possibility that interest rate increases could get smaller. However, these are two very distinct and different concepts. We question whether this headline was intentional and thereby playing with investor psychology or was it simply a symptom of naïve and inexperienced journalism. We do not know, but we do know that the market responded as if interest rates were about to decline. This makes us nervous about the rally.

Higher Interest Rates Ahead

As noted, investors celebrated better-than-expected CPI data for October with a massive rally, but as seen on page 5, the improvement was minor. Headline CPI was 7.8% YOY in October versus 8.2% YOY in September. Core CPI rose 6.3% YOY versus the 40-year high of 6.6% recorded in September. PPI data was somewhat better since it is coming down from cyclical highs recorded in June. In October, finished goods PPI rose 11.2%, core finished goods rose 8.1% and final demand PPI rose 8.0% YOY. Yet clearly, these rates remain well above the long-term average of 3% and remain at the highest pace in 40 years.

What is important to emphasize is that core CPI (6.3% YOY) and core PPI (8.1% YOY) remain well above the pace of wage growth (4.8% YOY) and this means household purchasing power continues to erode. This has been and will be a factor that will weigh on economic growth in the coming months. See page 6.

Another consideration that will slow economic activity is steady monetary tightening. Recent inflation data indicates that the fed funds rate continues to be negative and as a result, the Fed is not expected to stop raising rates in the foreseeable future. See page 7. All in all, we question the validity of the discussion around a Fed pivot. Even though the pace of interest rate increases may slow, this has very different implications from a reversal in interest rates. Sentiment on monetary policy is too optimistic, in our view. The Fed will continue to raise interest rates and depress economic activity in coming months making a recession likely in 2023.

Meanwhile, consumer and business confidence continue to erode. NFIB’s Small Business Optimism Index declined 0.8 points in October to 91.3, the 10th consecutive month below the 49-year average of 98. Of the 10 Index components, two increased, seven declined, and one was unchanged. Small business earnings and sales are at levels last seen during the 2020 recession and employment plans are declining. See page 3. Headline University of Michigan consumer sentiment hit a record low of 50.0 in June before rebounding. Nevertheless, it fell from October’s 59.9 to 54.7 in November. Economic expectations in the University of Michigan and Conference Board consumer sentiment indices, as well as the small business survey, have been falling nearly every month in the last two years. See page 4.

Technically Good News

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently overbought for the third consecutive trading day with a preliminary reading of 3.83. This is significant because bear markets rarely reach overbought territory and if they do the reading tends to be modest and brief. In sum, this will be a key indicator to monitor in the coming days to assess the strength of any advance in prices. A long and extreme overbought reading would change our view of this rally merely being a strong bear market rebound. We will keep you posted.

In the interim, it is clear that this bear market has defined a transition of leadership. The FANG phenomenon is over. This new cycle is shifting from classic growth to value, from large capitalization to mid-to-small capitalization, and from global to domestic. We continue to favor recession-resistant areas such as energy, utilities, staples, aerospace and defense and recession-proof healthcare. 

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: Lowering EPS Estimates Again

Politics and inflation are the features of this week; however, third-quarter earnings results continue to provide plenty of drama in the background.

Politics and Equities

In terms of this week’s elections, a number of strategists are noting that since WWII, the S&P 500 has had a perfect record of gains following the midterm elections. In addition, the S&P 500 has posted an increase in each of the 12-month periods after the midterm vote and these gains have averaged an impressive 15%. As we show on page 3, the fourth quarter of the midterm election year tends to be the best fourth quarter of any of the four years in the election year cycle. And more importantly, the first quarter of the pre-election year tends to be the best quarter in the entire election cycle for most of the popular indices. In short, the last quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 are periods that have a solid history of being strong periods for stock prices.  

To date, 2022 has been very volatile and has underperformed historical averages. This severe underperformance is best displayed by the chart on page 4. However, it is this underperformance that may have led to the strong rebound seen in October. Yet even apart from politics, November marks the start of the best 3-month and 6-month periods for equity prices. In short, the stock market should have the wind at its back in the coming months.

And we do not see anything in terms of election results that could hamper stock prices. History shows that equity investors tend to like a split Congress. According to Reuters, when a Democrat is president, the market performs best when Republicans hold either the House, Senate, or both. The average annual S&P 500 returns have been 14% with a split Congress, 13% with a Republican-held Congress, and a 10% gain when Democrats control both the White House and Congress. All in all, the midterm elections should have a positive effect on investor sentiment.

Earnings Revisions

While we do expect the election to be a positive for equities, we are less optimistic about the next six to twelve months due to the deterioration we see in corporate earnings. The steady decline in S&P 500 earnings for this year and next year has continued as the third-quarter earnings season passes its midpoint. This week the S&P Dow Jones consensus earnings estimates for 2022 and 2023 fell $0.57 and $2.76, respectively. Refinitiv IBES consensus earnings forecasts fell $0.36 and $3.28, respectively. What is notable about the last two weeks’ revisions is not just that they continue to fall but that estimates for 2023 are beginning to plummet. As a result, the 2022/2023 forecasts from S&P Dow Jones and IBES Refinitiv are now $204.17 and $230.11 for 2022 and $220.91 and $232.64 for 2023. Earnings growth rates for 2022 are (1.9%) according to S&P and 6.1% according to IBES.

We have been stating that our S&P 500 earnings estimates would be reviewed after third quarter results, however, results have been so poor that we believe our earnings estimates need addressing this week. Our 2022 and 2023 estimates are slashed this week from $209 to $202 and from $229 to $204, respectively. The decline in this year’s estimate reflects the weakness seen in 2022 earnings results to date. More importantly, and more dramatically, our revision for 2023 earnings is due to the negative impact we expect to see from current and future Fed rate hikes on economic activity. Although some economists are now placing odds on the ability of the Fed to maneuver a soft landing in 2023, we believe many parts of the economy are already in or will inevitably face a recession. As a result, this will continue to put pressure on consumers and therefore on top-line revenue growth. Plus, inflation will continue to pressure corporate profit margins. For these reasons, we continue to favor the more recession-resistant areas of the stock market such as energy, utilities, staples, and defense stocks. Healthcare is a DRG-neutral weighting (see page 13) but many health-related stocks are necessities and are therefore recession resistant. Note that this means one should emphasize value versus growth and growth at a reasonable price.

In terms of the economy, the ISM nonmanufacturing survey’s composite index fell from 56.7 to 54.4 in October and the details of the report were unfavorable. New orders and business activity declined, and employment slipped below the neutral 50 mark. Note that the service sector, which has been the relative outperforming sector of the US economy, now appears to be joining the manufacturing sector which has been in decline since early 2021. See page 5.

Valuation

The jump in short-term interest rates from nearly zero to 4.2% is currently having and will continue to have a dramatic impact on equity valuation. The current earnings yield of 5.4% and dividend yield of 1.8% still hold a slight edge over bonds, but this will continue to evaporate as interest rates rise and earnings forecasts fall. When we put our revised earnings forecasts of $202 and $204 into our valuation model, coupled with our estimates for headline CPI of 7.1% this year and 4.0% next year, and short-term interest rates of 4.75% this year and 5.0% for next year, equity valuations fall. The midpoints of our valuation model drop to SPX 2666 for 2022 and to SPX 3020 for 2023. In sum, equity risk due to inflation, rising interest rates, and falling earnings continues. See page 7.  

Technical Indicators Remain Interesting

The charts of the popular indices are as revealing as many of our technical indicators this week, and each tells a slightly different story about the equity market. On page 8 we have ordered the charts of the indices in terms of technical strength. The DJIA is the strongest index and has just exceeded its long-term 200-day moving average this week. It is less than 3% above the moving average that confirms a breakout, nevertheless, it is trading above all its moving averages. The Russell 2000 is approaching its 200-day moving average but remains below it. The S&P 500 continues to find resistance in the narrow range between its 50-and-100-day moving averages. And lastly, the Nasdaq Composite is the weakest of all the indices and is trading well below all its moving averages. This divergence in the indices is a demonstration of shifting leadership from growth to value. 

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is currently neutral with a reading of 1.11. Last week we noted that the indicator was rising toward an overbought reading of 3.0 or greater, which could signal a turning point for the market. The significance of an overbought reading is that bear markets rarely reach overbought territory and if they do the reading is brief. However, in recent days this indicator retreated before reaching overbought territory – a sign of decelerating buying pressure on the rally. Nevertheless, this indicator will be important to monitor in the coming weeks since it could be a bellwether of the strength of future advances in prices. See page 9. With many indices at, or near resistance levels, it will be important to see if this week’s inflation data has a significant impact on investor sentiment.

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: A Week of Important Tests

This week is significant since it marks the heaviest five days of the third quarter earnings reporting season. It also includes the November FOMC meeting and October’s employment report and precedes the midterm election on November 8. Each of these issues has ramifications for the equity market, but in our view, earnings reports should have the biggest short- and long-term impact on stocks.

The Importance of Earnings

To date, third quarter earnings results are coming in lower than much-reduced expectations. Last week the Refinitiv IBES estimates for this year and next fell $0.87 and $2.86, respectively. The S&P Dow Jones consensus estimates, which are important since S&P follows GAAP methodology, fell $2.00 and $2.52, respectively. As a result, the respective consensus estimates for this year are currently $221.27 and $204.70, which represent growth rates of 6.3% YOY for IBES and negative 1.7% YOY for S&P. See page 8. The steady decline in earnings estimates is a concern because we believe bear markets bottom out when the outlook for valuation is improving, or at least hopeful. Unfortunately, assuming the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this week and again in December, and since rising interest rates suggest a weaker economy in 2023, the outlook for earnings is not optimistic. As a result, estimates for 2023 earnings are probably still too high and one can expect more negative surprises in the quarters ahead. Earnings disappointments erode investor confidence over time. In the short run, this week’s battery of earnings reports could set the tone for whether there is hope for 2023 earnings, or if estimates are still too high.

Nonetheless, our skepticism on S&P 500 earnings is not broadly based. In fact, we have been in favor of recession-resistant sectors and seek stocks where earnings growth is most predictable. In general, the current economic environment favors value stocks versus growth stocks, and we have been emphasizing necessities such as energy, staples, defense/aerospace, and utilities. The utility sector has shifted from being an outperformer to an underperformer in the last month, but keep in mind that “performance” in utilities should not be measured just by price, but by total return. We have a neutral weighting on healthcare, however, since healthcare is another household necessity with pricing power, it should not be overlooked in our view. See page 13. From a historical perspective, bear markets tend to be a transition period for a significant shift in leadership. We believe this is true of the current market. Notably, S&P sectors labeled as “growth” have varied over the decades, but they have had one thing in common and that is that they have represented the highest earnings growth rates of all 11 S&P sectors. In the next few years, or at least until inflation has come under control, we believe recession/inflation-resistant companies will provide the best earnings and price performance and will outperform the S&P 500 index. In truth, energy has been the growth sector of 2021 and 2022.

A Fed Pivot

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise the fed funds rate from its current range of 3% to 3.25% to 3.75% to 4.0% this week. This would be the fifth interest rate hike in a twelve-month period and the fourth consecutive 75 basis point increase this year. It would also constitute an increase of 375 basis points in the last 20 months. This will certainly have a major dampening effect on economic activity in the first half of next year and it has already put the residential real estate market in a recession. We would challenge market pundits who are focused on whether a 50-basis point increase at the December FOMC meeting would constitute a “Fed pivot” and a key buying opportunity, because we believe this misses a very important point — a 375-basis-point increase in the fed funds rate in a mere twelve months is likely to trigger a recession in 2023. Again, there are many reasons to focus on recession and/or inflation resistant companies at this juncture, even though we would note that the best three-month period for stocks (November, December and January) has just begun.

A Critical Technical Juncture

Technical indicators are at an interesting and, in some cases, critical juncture just as important information from earnings, the Fed, economic data, and political elections loom on the horizon. The most important indicator this week is the 25-day up/down volume oscillator which is currently neutral with a reading of 2.61. However, this is surprisingly close to an overbought reading of 3.0 or greater. Since bear markets rarely reach overbought territory and if they do the reading is brief, there is the possibility of a turning point in this indicator. In sum, we will be watching the 25-day up/down volume oscillator very carefully in coming weeks.

And as the oscillator faces a potential turning point so does the S&P 500 index. A convergence of the  50- and 100-day moving averages at roughly SPX 3900 represents a key resistance level. If bettered, it would be a positive for the intermediate-term outlook and fall in line with the favorable seasonality that is typical of year end. If it proves to be resistance, it will confirm that the bear market cycle remains intact. See page 9. Nevertheless, the indices are not moving in unison, and it is worth noting that the DJIA is trading above its shorter-term moving averages and currently testing its 200-day moving average. The Russell 2000 is similarly close to its 200-day moving average. This divergence and relative outperformance of small capitalization stocks is favorable since the large capitalization stocks tend to be the last to fall in a bear market.

Economic Data

After contracting in the first two quarters of the year, GDP grew 2.6% (seasonally adjusted annualized rate – SAAR) in the third quarter. However, trade contributed 2.8% to the quarter as exports of oil & gas to Europe increased and a strong dollar translated into fewer dollars spent on imports. In short, these may be short-term influences and the domestic economy continued to struggle. See page 3.

Household consumption contributed less to third quarter activity than it did in the second quarter and consumer spending was disproportionately in services. Businesses slashed spending on structures and residential investment fell at a 26.4% annual rate. Residential fixed investment was the largest drag on third quarter GDP falling 1.4% (SAAR), followed by inventories which fell 0.7% (SAAR). Third quarter typically sees an inventory build ahead of the holiday season; however, real retail sales have been weak in recent months and retailers appear to be cautious. The one bright spot in the GDP report was a small decline in the GDP deflator from 7.6% to 7.0%. See pages 4 and 5.

In September, personal income grew 5.2% YOY and personal disposable income grew 3.2% YOY. But the true measure of household consumption is demonstrated by real personal income which declined 1.0% YOY and real disposable income which fell 2.9% YOY. See page 6. Yet despite a lack of purchasing power, personal consumption expenditures rose 8.2% YOY in September and grew 8.4% over the last three months. Not surprisingly, the savings rate fell from 3.4% to 3.1% in the same month. Overall, consumption may not be sustainable at this level.

Gail Dudack

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