Stocks plunged, then surged. Oil surged, then slipped. It was all a reaction to Russia assembling more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, threatening to invade and then as a token of appeasement, pulling back some soldiers on Tuesday. However, Western leaders remained skeptical of Putin’s de-escalation move since Russian military equipment was left behind. After the pullback, Ukraine was hit by a cyber-attack and blamed it on Russia. From a global perspective, airlines, and the leasing companies, controlling billions of dollars worth of passenger jets, are by necessity, drawing up contingency plans for a freeze in business with Russia if the standoff on Ukraine’s border boils over into a military conflict. Flight paths will also have to be changed if war breaks out. It all is reminiscent of the Cold War we thought was left behind.

Closer to home, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau employed emergency powers in an attempt to control the trucker-led Freedom Convoy movement that is now in its third week. The convoy, protesting vaccine mandates and other Covid measures, has blocked downtown Ottawa and major bridges and crossings into the US. On day 19 of the protest, the Chief of Police of Ottawa resigned. The convoy has paralyzed Canada’s capital city and is having an economic impact on both Canada and the US.

On US soil, Senate action on President Joe Biden’s five nominees to the Federal Reserve became stalled after Republicans boycotted a key vote over objections to Sarah Bloom Raskin, the White House’s pick to be the central bank’s Wall Street regulator. Raskin has been criticized over her past statements expressing support for using financial rules to support and police climate change. Failure to advance these nominations will further delay regulatory changes that have been in limbo since October.

All of this is background noise as the US economy struggles with inflation and the likelihood of higher interest rates. And it is taking a toll on consumers. The preview for February’s University of Michigan consumer sentiment readings revealed a series of cyclical lows. The headline index fell 5.5 points to 61.7. The survey on present conditions fell 3.5 to 68.5. The expectations index fell 6.7 points to 57.4, the lowest level since 2011.

Inflation Woes

Inflation data showed that price increases accelerated in January and the CPI jumped from December’s 7.0% YOY to 7.5% YOY. This headline rate was the highest inflation pace in 40 years. And inflation was broadly based, with most CPI sub-indices showing gains well above the Fed’s 2% target rate. The only exception was education and communication which rose 1.6% YOY. The greatest price gains were the transportation sector, up 20.8% YOY. Fuels and utilities rose 12%. Prices for food at home rose 7.4% and apparel rose 5.3%. See page 3.

All the heavyweight components of the CPI are trending sharply higher although the transportation segment has been hovering around the 20% YOY level for several months. Housing – which is a significant 42.4% of the CPI weighting — saw prices rising 5.7% YOY in January. Household furnishings rose 9% and operations increased 4%. See page 4.

At $91.99 a barrel, WTI futures are up over 50% YOY which denotes future inflation numbers will remain high and worrisome. January’s PPI numbers were also higher than predicted with headline rising 12.2% YOY and PPI final demand prices rising 8.5%. December’s import prices excluding oil fell but were still up 6.8% YOY. See page 5. Clearly, inflation has become widespread and embedded in the economy.

Monitoring Yield Curves

With inflation trends escalating, there is great anticipation for the Federal Reserve’s March meeting. We have been expecting a 50-basis point rate hike at this meeting and this is becoming a consensus view. However, it could be that the March meeting will be a lose/lose situation for Chairman Jerome Powell. A 25-basis point hike might be regarded as too little too late, but a 50-basis point rate hike may make the FOMC appear desperate. Already, economists are indicating that they fear the Fed is about to make a mistake that will trigger a recession. For this reason, we have been monitoring the Treasury yield curve to measure financial sentiment. An inverted yield curve has been an accurate precursor of a recession. Although it is worth pointing out that while yield curve inversions have preceded each recession in the last 50 years, the timing is inconsistent and not every inversion has been followed by a recession. Nonetheless, the yield curve is currently normal and that is a godsend.  See page 6.

Technical Indicators

At the top of our inflation concerns is the technical chart of WTI futures. After a major breakout at $77, WTI hit its first upside target of $90. However, this bullish chart pattern also suggests targets of $100 and $110. In our view the Fed’s job of controlling inflation is difficult since domestic and global politics are driving fuel prices. This may contribute to the view that the Fed is at risk of triggering a recession. To date, Treasury note yields have lagged the trend in WTI. But the 10-year Treasury note yield recently exceeded the psychological 2.0% level and is apt to move higher. See page 9. In sum, both inflation and higher interest rates are formidable hurdles for equities this year; but investors can insulate portfolios with stocks that have dividend yields of 2% or more and good earnings prospects.

Despite the recent rally, all the popular indices are trading below all important moving averages. The sole exception is the SPX which is trading above its 200-day moving average this week. The Nasdaq Composite, which has had the deepest correction, is the most oversold; but this is not an unusual pattern in a correction. Large cap stocks are often the last to fall. Therefore, the DJIA and SPX are potentially the most vulnerable indices in coming weeks or months. See page 10.

Amazon (AMZN – $3130.21) which has a chart pattern that resembles the Russell 2000 index, rebounded nicely after in recent swoon, however, it is still trading below all its key moving averages. The first level of resistance is found at $3223 which is a key level to watch. The rebound in AMZN has created a difference between its pattern and the RUT, nevertheless, these chart patterns remain amazingly similar. We will continue to monitor these charts, watching for a bottoming formation that may show that the worst of the correction is behind us. To date, it appears the market’s lows may not have been found. We remain cautious in the near term given the unstable situation with Russia/Ukraine and with the upcoming FOMC meeting. But we continue to favor the energy, financial, and staples sectors and stocks with reliable earnings and dividends.

Gail Dudack

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