Did the Dow Jones Industrial Average actually plunge 1,920 points in the last four trading days without a catalyst? In our opinion, the decline was a long time in coming, but the most obvious answer to this question is that there were many catalysts, but the final straw was first quarter earnings results.
First Quarter Earnings Season
It has been our long-held view that first quarter earnings season could be a market-moving event. Earnings are always the underpinning of a stock market advance or decline, and as the first quarter of 2022 ended, it seemed like first quarter earnings results were the only hope investors had for good news. There was plenty of bad news. It has been clear for months that interest rates would be moving higher, and this would challenge equities and likely lower PE multiples. The Russia-Ukraine conflict which began in late February does not appear to be coming to a quick resolution. The longer the war persists, the more likely the world will see shortages of energy, grains, and metals, and as a result, more inflation. China is experiencing another COVID variant outbreak and by shutting down Shanghai and Beijing, fears of supply chain shortages are reappearing. The only real positive on the horizon for equities was that corporate America could overcome all these challenges and produce solid earnings results.
Unfortunately, to date, the results are mixed. Global banks reported profit challenges such as a decline in the investment banking business and loan-loss reserves against possible Russian debt defaults. A variety of companies like GE (GE – $80.59), Texas Instruments (TXN – $168.44), Mondelez International (MDLZ – $64.04), United Parcel (UPS – $183.05), and Raytheon Technologies (RTX -$99.19) reported profit challenges from rising inflation, supply chain snarls, and an increasingly cautious consumer. But adding to the market’s fears has been the sudden awakening that the Federal Reserve plans to raise rates significantly and quickly. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has indicated that rates could increase 50 by basis points at each of the next two FOMC meetings. In real terms, this means short-term rates will jump 100 basis points in the next seven weeks! This would be one of the steepest increases in history. And it will take a toll on the economy, particularly on the housing and auto sectors.
Housing and Interest Rates
Home prices accelerated during the pandemic and newly released data for March showed that they reached all-time highs. The S&P/Shiller Case 10-city composite indicated a 19% YOY gain, and the 20-city composite index climbed over 20% YOY. One of the key underlying supports for home prices has been an extremely low level of supply. Inventory for existing single-family homes rose from 740,000 to 830,000 in March, and months of supply rose from 1.7 to 1.9; however, even with March’s increases, these levels remain among the lowest levels in history. See page 3.
And though both new home and existing home prices have been soaring for the last 18 months, the current cyclical peak in sales occurred months ago. In March, existing home sales were 14% below their October 2020 cyclical peak. New home sales in March were 23% below their January 2021 peak. These are significant declines however it is important to note that they appeared prior to the recent rise in mortgage rates. Lower sales imply a decrease in demand, something that could escalate as interest rates rise. See page 4.
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) housing affordability index fell from 143.1 in January to 135.4 in February. Although median family income rose in February, the falloff was due to rising home prices and higher mortgage rates. Note that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 3.83% in February during the NAR survey, and it is currently 5.11%. Moreover, since the Fed plans to raise short-term rates 100 basis points in the next six to eight weeks, rates are apt to climb surprisingly quickly. In sum, due to tightening Fed policy, the housing sector is apt to suffer a meaningful slowdown in 2022. Although this should be expected after such a strong cycle, it will be a substantial hit on the US economy. According to the NAHB, housing contributes 15% to 19% to GDP. See page 5. The preliminary release of first quarter GDP is scheduled for April 28, and it will be an important benchmark for investors. Yet, regardless of how well or poorly the economy performed in the first quarter, economic momentum is apt to slow considerably in the next three quarters.
The angst in the housing sector is not new and has been evident in the NAHB home builder confidence survey all year. In fact, confidence peaked with the cyclical high in new home sales in late 2020 and has been falling somewhat erratically, ever since. See page 6.
Over the last twelve months, we have noted several technical patterns in the charts of the popular indices we thought had predictive significance. In the fourth quarter of 2021, we remarked on the severe underperformance of the Russell 2000 index and the warning that posed for the overall marketplace. Two weeks ago, we pointed to the convergence of the 50-day, 100-day, and 200-day moving averages in the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 35,000, and how this could be a pivotal level for the index and the broader market. Last week, the DJIA was unable to better the resistance at 35,000 and this foreshadowed the sell-off seen in recent days.
This week we are disturbed by the breaks of support seen in both the Nasdaq Composite Index and the Russell 2000. Both indices broke the lower end of trading ranges that have contained market sell-offs this year. These technical breaks imply a new downdraft in the popular indices should be expected. See page 9.
In addition, on April 22, 2022, when the DJIA fell 809 points, the NYSE volume data revealed the first extreme 90% down day since June 24, 2020. However, the June 2020 reading was actually the last in a series of 90% down days. The first one appeared in February 2020. In short, the April 22nd 90% down day was the first sign of panic selling, but it is unlikely to be the last. History shows that 90% down days usually come in a series. Typically, after a series of 90% down days, a 90% up day will appear. This would be the first sign that the market may be stabilizing. We will keep you posted. On the positive side of the ledger, AAII bullish sentiment rose 3.0 points to 18.9% this week, but bullishness remained below 20% for the second consecutive week. These were the first two consecutively low bullish readings since May 2016. It is also only the 33rd time in history that bullishness fell below 20%. Extremely low bullishness is positive. Bearish sentiment decreased 4.5 points to 43.9% and has been above 40% for 12 of the last 14 weeks. It would be favorable if bearishness rose above 50% at the same time that bullishness is below 20%. We will see what next week brings. Overall, sentiment readings are favorable. Nonetheless, we would remain very cautious in the near term since the breaks in the Nasdaq and Russell suggest lower prices ahead.
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