Nearly a year ago the US economy was recovering well from the pandemic shutdown. The Fed continued to stimulate an expanding economy and Congress worked on passing more pandemic stimulus. Crude oil prices began to escalate in response to the post-pandemic recovery and the amplified regulations on fossil fuels following the US reentering The Paris Agreement in February 2021. Rising inflation was inevitable, and unlikely to be transitory due to global standards put in place for the reduction of fossil fuels. Earnings were booming in 2021 but estimates for 2022 showed single-digit growth versus difficult comparisons. All in all, it was clear one year ago that inflation would rise but earnings growth would slow in 2022. This combination is a hostile environment for equities and one we expected would translate into both margin compression and lower PE multiples.
In addition, in November 2021, newspapers and new casts displayed satellite photos of Russia mustering troops on the Ukraine border, but NATO said and did nothing. Therefore, the current crisis on the Ukrainian border is also not a revelation. In short, the sell-off that shaved 1392 points off the DJIA in the last four trading sessions should not have come as a surprise to investors.
Black Swan or Inevitable
Investopedia defines a black swan as “an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight.”
Given this definition, we do not believe one could call the Russia/Ukraine border crisis a Black Swan. It was predictable and, in our opinion, the Russia/Ukraine crisis has merely been a catalyst for investors to reassess the inevitable — that the equity landscape has become increasingly risky, and areas of the market had become quite overvalued. Nevertheless, it does have a negative impact on the global economy. For the US it will mean higher energy costs which will make the job of the Federal Reserve more difficult than ever.
Assessing Downside Risk
To date, the declines in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, the Nasdaq Composite, the Russell 2000, and the Wilshire 5000 have been 8.7%, 10.25%, 16.7%, 18.9%, and 11.4%, respectively. The SPX is therefore in correction territory with a 10.25% decline, while the RUT with its 18.9% sell-off is close to bear market territory. Many individual stocks have already had declines of 20% or more. Given the extent of recent price declines we believe we should now start looking for signs of a bottom.
A classic sign of a major low is a high-volume sell-off day, where 90% or more of the volume is in declining stocks and volume may rise to twice the normal daily pace. A major low may have a string of such days, followed by a rebound, and a retest. Typically, this high volume sell-off is due to a sharp rise in margin debt that then triggers margin calls once stock prices begin to decline. However, it is not likely that a margin call washout will occur in the current cycle. We have been monitoring monthly margin debt numbers and they have been declining, not rising as prices peaked in recent months. Combined margin debt in January was $798.6 billion, down 12.2% from December’s $910.0 billion and unchanged from a year earlier. The 2-month rate of change in margin debt was negative 13.1% in January and as a percentage of total market cap it was 1.4%, down from 1.53% in December and down from 1.7% from a year earlier. In short, the leverage that is usually unwound at the end of bear cycle is simply not as substantial as that seen in previous cycles. See page 7. This being true, the end of the correction may not be as dramatic.
We are monitoring a number of technical charts to assess overall market risk. One of these is the SPX which may be in the process of forming a substantial head and shoulders top pattern. Some technical analysts have already noted this pattern. The important level to watch is the neckline support that is found at the SPX 4300 level on a closing basis and at SPX 4222 on an intra-day basis. The SPX 4300 level is currently being tested. From a technical perspective, a break of the SPX 4300 area creates downside targets of SPX 4000 and SPX 3800. See page 9. Since algo traders use support and resistance levels for intra-day trading, we would expect a drop in the SPX below 4300 would likely trigger more selling.
It intrigues us that a small-capitalization stock index and one of the largest capitalization companies in the S&P 500 have similar chart patterns. And we have already written about the parallels in the charts of Amazon (AMZN – $3003.95) and the Russell 2000 index. In both charts, the breakdowns from lengthy trading ranges, materialized within days of each other and preceded the decline in the overall market. Since both were leaders in terms of market weakness, we are now monitoring them for signs of stabilization in hope that this would imply a low has been found. To date, there is no confirmation from these charts. See page 10.
The economy and the equity market face uncertainty as long as inflation continues to trend higher. Therefore, the chart of WTI futures is another risk factor. Unfortunately, once the crude oil future bettered the $77 level, the technical chart indicated potential targets of $90, $100, and $110. With crude futures now at $91.91 the risk of inflation continues and will make the Federal Reserve’s job more difficult. This implies multiple interest rate hikes in the months ahead. Stabilization in the WTI futures chart would relieve the current certainty of higher inflation, reduce the burden on the Fed, and lower the risk that the yield curve may invert later this year. These are the risks that the Russia/Ukraine border crisis poses to the world – more inflation and its consequences. See page 8.
Technical indicators are often the best tools for defining a market top, but valuation tools can best determine where downside risk is minimized. Our model is forecasting an average PE of 15.8 for year-end 2022 and a PE range of 13.2 times to 18.3 times. These low, mid, and high PEs coupled with our earnings forecast of $220 (a 7% YOY growth rate) equates to SPX valuation targets of 2904, 3469, and 4026. These are fairly frightening downside SPX targets. We prefer to use the long-term average PE of 16.5 X as the appropriate multiple given the current level of inflation which creates a worst-case scenario of SPX 3630. Another approach would be the 2000-2022 average PE of 19.5 times to define fair value and probably downside risk. This equates to an SPX target of 4290. In our view, this combination implies that “value” is found directly below the SPX 4000 level. In the interim, energy, financial and staples remain our favorite sectors for the current environment, along with individual stocks that can weather the inflationary environment and have dividends in excess of 2%. Nonetheless, the 2022 sell-off is apt to provide an excellent long-term buying opportunity in the technology stocks so this is a time to have a list of favorite buys on hand if the SPX should fall below the 4000 level. Be cautious but be alert for opportunities.
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