Equity investors turned cautious ahead of this week’s FOMC meeting and we are not surprised. For one thing, regional banks continue to be under pressure despite the fact that over the weekend, in a relatively smooth transition, the FDIC stepped in, seized control of First Republic Bank, and sold its assets to JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM – $138.92). Yet, this buyout is no guarantee that the banking industry has stabilized. In fact, the stocks of many regional banks continue to suffer from intense selling pressure. There are multiple reasons for this.
Even though the 2023 banking crisis has been managed relatively well so far, it is not a “small event.” The three US banks that collapsed this year (First Republic, Silicon Valley Bank, and Signature Bank of New York) had more combined assets under management than all 25 federally insured lenders that failed in 2008. According to the New York Times, this year’s three failed banks held a massive $532 billion in total assets versus the $526 billion in combined assets of the 25 banks with FDIC insurance that failed in 2008.
Meanwhile, deposits continue to leave the banking industry. In the twelve months ending in late April, commercial bank deposits fell by $960 billion, with $464.0 billion exiting the banking system since the early March banking crisis. And unfortunately, it is questionable if the banking system has stabilized since loans in the Fed’s new Bank Term Funding Program rose to a new high of $81.3 billion on April 26, 2023. This is a sign of illiquidity in the system. At the same time, the Fed’s balance sheet contracted $171 billion in the 5 weeks ended April 26, 2023. See page 3.
In short, the Fed has resumed its monetary tightening at the same time that money is leaving the banking system for higher yielding assets. Confirming this trend is data from Refinitiv Lipper which indicates that investors purchased a net $42.68 billion worth of money market funds in the week ending April 26, which makes the cumulative money market fund inflows for the year $427.4 billion.
And the commercial banking industry faces the risk of rising bad debts later in the year. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a 22-story glass and stone tower at 350 California Street in San Francisco, worth about $300 billion in 2019, is now for sale and expected to see bids come in around $60 billion! More surprisingly, life-sciences buildings, typically less vulnerable to the remote-work movement since lab work requires specialized equipment and mechanical systems that can’t be replicated at home, are also coming under pressure. A deluge of new supply in industry hubs such as San Diego, South San Francisco, and the Boston-Cambridge region, is generating a rise in life-sciences vacancies, according to commercial real estate services firm CBRE Group. In short, we expect banking will continue to be under duress from a combination of dwindling deposits, an inverted yield curve, and potential defaults. And note, short-term interest rates have not yet reached their peak.
This week’s FOMC is expected to result in an additional 25-basis point increase in the fed funds rate to a range of 5.00% to 5.25%. However, important information will be found in whether the vote was unanimous for this rate hike or not, and whether or not the Fed’s comments suggest a pause in rates will follow the May increase. Equity investors expect the Fed to be more accommodating in the second half of the year, which means anything slightly hawkish in Chairman Jerome Powell’s comments would be a negative surprise for the market. We expect Chairman Powell will try to be as vague as possible about future monetary policy and will resort to being “data dependent.” And economic data is quite a mix at the moment. Keep in mind that the Fed’s meeting will be followed by expected rate increases by the European Central Bank on Thursday and the Bank of England next week, which means credit conditions are contracting globally. This means equity markets no longer have the wind at their back.
Economic Data Jumble
The March JOLTS report showed 9.6 million job openings, down 2.5 million over the last year and now at the lowest level since April 2021. In another sign that the labor market is cooling, the quits rate edged lower to 2.5%, the lowest point since February 2021.
GDP grew at 1.1% in the first quarter of the year, disappointing consensus expectations, but it is worth noting that personal consumption rose a fairly healthy 3.4%. It was the drag from inventories which contracted 2.3% that lowered GDP. See page 4.
However, the drag from inventories may not be over as seen in recent ISM data. The ISM manufacturing index rose from 46.3 to 47.1 in April but for the sixth consecutive month it remained below the 50 level that shows a contraction in activity. Nine of the 11 components rose in April, and surprisingly two of these, employment and prices paid rose above 50. This is not a good sign for the Fed since it is looking for weakness in both inflation and employment. The major drag on the April ISM index was inventories, which means second quarter GDP is starting on a weak note. See page 5. The ISM services index will be reported later this week.
Personal income rose 6% YOY in March and wages rose a more robust 7% YOY – a sign that wage inflation continues. But after being negative for 19 of the 21 months between April 2021 and December 2022, real personal disposable income increased 4% YOY in March for the third consecutive month this year. This shift is an indication of a gain in purchasing power and it is good news for the consumer. As a side note, March disposable income benefited from a 7.3% YOY decline in tax payments. The savings rate rose from 4.8% to 5.1% in the month and now exceeds $1 trillion. See page 6.
Personal consumption expenditures continue to increase on a year-over-year basis, but the trend is decelerating. Spending on services is highest with an 8% YOY increase, while nondurable spending is growing at a modest 2.6% pace. What surprised us in the data was that personal outlays rose 6.9% YOY in March whereas personal consumption expenditures rose only 6% YOY. Digging through the data we found that interest payments rose a stunning 52% YOY in March, which helps explain the differential. In other words, wages are rising, inflation is moderating, and real personal disposable income is improving. But at the same time, a steady increase in interest rates and interest expenses are eating up a good portion of these gains. In sum, higher interest rates are clearly hurting household consumption. See page 7.
The combination of falling crude oil and gasoline prices, coupled with the relatively positive performance of gold this week, implies that investors have become increasingly worried about a recession. The dollar has been stable in recent sessions despite its weakness since early March, but this is not surprising given that interest rates are expected to rise this week. See page 9.
This year’s equity gains have been concentrated in the most depressed stocks of 2022, the high PE growth stocks. And with interest rates headed higher this week it is not surprising that the April rally hit a roadblock. The Russell 2000 remains the best guide for what we believe is a trading range market as it trades between support at 1650 and resistance at 2000. See page 10. We would point out that the 10-day average of daily new highs is 87 and new lows are 87. This combination is neutral since neither new highs nor new lows are above 100; but the combination is also turning negative as the number of daily new highs declines. See page 12. Although we focused on the risk in the banking industry this week, the looming debt ceiling debate may be the biggest problem for investors in coming weeks. Friday’s employment report is another potential market-moving event. Plus, this is the biggest week for first quarter earnings reports. In the long run, it is valuation that will strengthen or weaken equity prices. We remain cautious.
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