Last week we stated that we thought the stock market was overly fixated on the Fed’s dot plot forecasts while waiting and hoping for a Fed pivot and lower interest rates (which we believe are unnecessary). Meanwhile, this is overlooking the fact that monetary policy already has been and remains very accommodative. The Fed’s current balance sheet of nearly $7.6 trillion, remains 90% above the $4 trillion seen in normal times before the pandemic. The real fed funds rates relative to the current PCE deflator is 290 basis points, high after being negative for nearly 2 ½ years, but still short of the 400 basis points, or more, seen at the end of most Fed tightening cycles. In other words, the Fed is accommodative.

It is this persistent combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus that has kept both the economy and the stock market afloat in recent years, defying a string of challenges and indications of a pending recession. The 2024 surge in Bitcoin (BTC= – $65,466.00), driven primarily by the initiation of multiple ETFs on the spot market, has also been supported by the consensus view that interest rates are headed lower. The market’s obsession with the Fed’s dot plot reveals that inflation and interest rates are the Achilles heel to both the economy, the stock market, and possibly Bitcoin.

This explains why the stock market reacted badly to a number of Fed governors, as well as Chair Powell, indicating that rate cuts may not come in June. A slew of good economic news also implied Fed cuts in June may be premature. We are not surprised.

Earnings Season Approaches

The stock market may adjust to the fact that rate cuts are not imminent, but to do so would require good corporate earnings in the first quarter. First quarter earnings reports will begin in a few weeks and LSEG IBES consensus estimates show S&P 500 earnings growing at a rather uninspiring 5% in the quarter; if the energy sector is excluded, this percentage rises to 8.1%. The communications services sector is currently forecasted to have the best earnings growth of 26.8% in the quarter, followed by technology with growth of 20.9%. Surprisingly, the utilities sector is expected to have the third best earnings performance in the first quarter with growth of 19.8% YOY.* The worst earnings expectations are for energy (-25.2%) and materials (-23.7%), but a recent rise in oil and commodity prices could offset the results of a poor earnings season. This certainly has been true for energy, which is currently the second-best performing S&P sector year-to-date. See page 15.

This has been a quiet week for earnings releases and the S&P Dow Jones consensus estimate for calendar 2024 is relatively unchanged at $240.30, up $0.07 and the estimate for 2025 is $273.79, down $0.21. The LSEG IBES earnings estimate for 2024 is $242.91, up $0.02 and for 2025 is $276.07, up $0.17. Based upon the LSEG IBES EPS estimate for calendar 2024, equities are overvalued with a PE of 21.4 times and inflation of 3.2%. This sum of 24.6 is above the 23.8 level that defines an overvalued equity market. Note: based upon the S&P estimate, the 2024 PE is 21.7 times. See page 9.

The 2024 Economy is Improving

Fourth quarter GDP rose 3.4% (SAAR) according to the “third” estimate, up from a previously reported 3.2%, which matched the long-term average for GDP. Increases in consumer spending, state and local government spending, exports, nonresidential fixed investment, federal government spending, and residential fixed investment drove growth, which was partly offset by a decrease in private inventory investment and an increase in imports. Money velocity (nominal GDP divided by M2) shows how quickly a dollar moves through the economy. Velocity has been on the rise since its 2020 low which is a positive sign of an economy gaining momentum. See page 3.

GDP corporate profits before and after taxes grew 4.1% and 3.9% respectively, which was the best growth seen since the second quarter of 2022 – a quarter boosted by fiscal stimulus. Residential investment only increased 1.7% YOY, but this follows four consecutive quarters of declines. In short, the economy appeared to be gaining momentum at the end of the year. Nominal GDP grew 5.9% YOY down slightly from the 6.2% YOY seen in the third quarter, however, it was led by a solid 5.6% YOY increase in personal consumption expenditures. See page 4.

The pending home sales index rose from 74.4 in January to 75.6 in February; but was below the 78.1 recorded in December. The ISM manufacturing index was surprisingly strong at 50.3 in March, hitting its first reading over 50 after 16 months of contracting. Five of its 10 components were higher, three were unchanged and two were lower. The University of Michigan sentiment index was 79.4 in March, its highest level since July 2021. The survey showed that both current and future expectations were improving. See page 5.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the PCE deflator, had something for everyone in February’s release. Headline PCE increased 0.3% for the month, down from the 0.4% seen in January – however, January’s figure was revised up from 0.3%. The core PCE deflator rose 0.3% as expected. On a year-over-year basis headline PCE increased slightly to 2.45% in February versus 2.43% in January and core rose slightly less at 2.78% versus 2.88% in January. In short, February’s changes were minimal and essentially trendless. Goods (Auto and nondurable) inflation rose while service inflation fell. See page 6.

Employment data for March will be reported at the end of the week and we will be watching for two worrisome trends. First, there was a sharp decline in household survey job growth in February to 0.4% YOY. The importance of this is that year-over-year declines in employment are a key characteristic of a recession. Second, the unemployment rate for men aged 16 to 64 was 4.3% in February, down from 4.6% in January, but still higher than the overall unemployment rate of 4% in February. The unemployment rate for women aged 16 to 64 was 3.8% and for all workers aged 65 and over was 3%. The high 4.6% for men in January may be due to seasonality or could be a precursor of a weaker job market. We will be analyzing March data to see if these trends improve or worsen. See page 7.

Technical Update

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is 2.82 and neutral after being overbought for three consecutive days at the end of March. This follows two consecutive overbought days on March 13 and 14 and again on March 20 and 21. The last significant overbought reading took place early in January 2024 when the oscillator recorded readings of 3.0 or higher for 22 of 25 consecutive trading days ending January 5. In sum, since early January this indicator has not confirmed new highs in the market. Conversely, the NYSE advance/decline line made a new high on March 28 and the 10-day average of daily new highs has expanded to 450. A level of 500 is typically seen in bull markets but this is close to confirming. See pages 11-12. The AAII sentiment poll showed 50% bullishness and 22.4% bearishness which is close to the negative combination of 50/20 that warns of a top. We remain cautious. *Proprietary Research from LSEG: This Week in Earnings (March 28, 2024)

Gail Dudack

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