Current Reuters headlines include: “Russian strikes turn Mariupol into ashes of a dead land,” “Russia trades barbs at the UN with the US and UK about chemical weapons in Ukraine,” “Traders warn of Russia-related diesel and gas shortages in Europe,” “Fed policymakers lean into bigger rate hikes to fight inflation,” “Biden’s Supreme Court pick Ketanji Jackson defends representing Guantanamo detainees,” “Hackers hit authentication firm Okta (customers include FedEx and Moody’s Corp.),” and “Biden approval rating drops to a new low of 40% – Reuters/Ipsos poll. ” These headlines include a wide range of topics, yet each is individually disturbing. Nevertheless, this is the backdrop for what has been a healthy rally from the March lows.

The rebound has been greatest in technology stocks as seen by the 12% gain in the Nasdaq Composite index, as compared to the gains of 6.7% or 8.1% seen in the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P Composite index, respectively. However, the “outperformance” of technology should be expected since it has been the high PE stocks within the technology sector that have declined the most from all-time peaks made over the last five months.

The question, therefore, arises whether the current rally indicates the lows have been found, or if it is simply a short-term rotation of leadership from value to growth, i.e., a bounce within a larger bear market decline. In our opinion, the bear market has not ended even though it is possible that many stocks may have found their lows. Nonetheless, the landscape ahead remains treacherous, and we remain wary. Not only does the future include a hawkish Fed, but the risk of war in Europe, defaults of Russian sovereign debt, a consumer burdened by rampant inflation leaving little discretionary spending after transportation and food expenses, and therefore, a downside risk for earnings.

We have long been of the opinion that equities needed a valuation adjustment due to high inflation spurred on by too much monetary ease. And while equity prices were peaking before Russia invaded Ukraine, the war only exacerbates the existing problems. It translates into tremendous geopolitical uncertainty in the months ahead, and also means that diminished supplies of energy and grain will make the inflationary problem more severe. In short, if equities were facing a bear market in 2022; it is now worsened by the Russian invasion. This is a complex situation for a Federal Reserve, particularly since they were already slow to curb inflation. Strategists are now forecasting several 50 basis point rate hikes by the Fed and the Fed’s own dot-plot implies the fed funds rate will reach 2.8% by 2023. The sum of all this points to the risk of stagflation, the possibility of an inverted yield curve, and/or recession by the end of the year.

Valuation

In our view, the earnings results for the first quarter and the comments made by companies about earnings prospects for the full year could become a market-moving event. If companies are optimistic about earnings, it will provide fundamental support for equities. If not, pessimism could generate another selling wave. Keep in mind that our valuation model for 2022 indicates that the appropriate PE multiple is 15.8 times earnings, which also happens to be the average trailing PE over the last 75 years. In our view, this is where value is found in the broad equity market. A 15.8 multiple with our $220 earnings estimate for this year equates to a downside risk to SPX 3475. The S&P 500 may not have to fall this far, but to date, we do not believe the lows have been made.

Technically Speaking

From a technical perspective, all the indices have rebounded above their 50-day moving averages, which is well within the characteristics of a bear market rally. More importantly, the 100- and 200-day moving averages are trending on a path that suggests they may soon converge in the indices. If so, this converging will define important resistance points in the near term. In the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the 100-day moving average is 35,145 and the 200-day moving average is at 34,975, implying that the DJIA 35,000 area will be a critical level for the intermediate-term. See page 9. One hopeful sign is found in the S&P 500 index where the move above the 200-day moving average has the potential to negate the major head-and-shoulders top formation we have discussed in recent weeks. If the index betters the 100-day moving average, which is now at SPX 4550, this will help to neutralize this bearish pattern. See page 8.  

Economic Trends

Recent economic releases should be analyzed with the knowledge that the numbers preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Fed’s first rate hike, and statements by board governors that the FOMC may become more hawkish in coming months.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, retail sales for February rose 0.3% month-over-month and 17.6% YOY. It should be noted that gas station sales rose 5.3% for the month and 34.6% YOY, which is the impact of higher gasoline prices. When auto and gasoline sales are excluded, retail sales fell 0.4% in the month, but still rose 15.8% YOY. The more interesting tidbit in retail sales data showed that February’s unadjusted retail sales fell 1.55% YOY; however, February or March tend to be the seasonal low point for retail sales. This means that March and April releases should be more revealing about the current status of household spending. See page 3.

The National Association of Home Builder confidence index fell from 81 in February to 79 in March, which marked the third consecutive month of declines. The sharpest decline in sentiment was seen in “sales expectations for the next six months” which fell from 80 to 70, the lowest reading since June 2020 during the pandemic. The pending home sales index is reported with a lag, but the January index fell to 109.5, its third consecutive decline and the lowest level seen since April 2021. Given the NAHB readings, we expect pending home sales will continue to fall. See page 4. Existing home sales for February were an annualized rate of 6.02 million, which was a 7.2% decline for the month and decline of 2.4% YOY. The weakest segment of the market was the northeast where sales were down 11.5% for the month and down 12.7% YOY. Nevertheless, the median sales price of a single-family existing home was $363,800, a gain of 15.5% from a year earlier. See page 5. The housing market will be one of the most important areas of the economy to monitor in the months ahead. Interest rates are clearly headed higher, but inventories remain low, and prices are steady. Wages are increasing, and this could offset some of the increase in housing costs. Still, there have been anecdotal stories of millennials who recently purchased homes but underestimated the cost of maintenance, taxes, and heating. In our opinion, all signals point to a slower housing market in the second half of 2022. And if rates rise quickly, the housing market could come to a quick halt. This will be a drag on GDP and will again, make the Fed’s job of taming inflation without throwing the economy into a recession all the more difficult. We remain cautious.   

Gail Dudack

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