History may not repeat itself exactly, but there is always something to learn from past economic cycles. In 2022, inflation was the highest in 40 years and there is much to be learned from this. In fact, whenever inflation has been greater than one standard deviation above the norm, a recession has followed. In fact, very high inflation has usually been followed by a series of recessions over a period of years.
Looking for a Recession
We believe Chairman Jerome Powell knows this part of history very well and it explains why we believe he will keep interest rates higher for longer than most forecasters expect. In previous cycles the Fed lowered interest rates at the first sign of a recession, only to see inflation reappear 12 to 18 months later. Discussions today center on when investors believe the Fed will “pivot” and most expect weakness in the economy will be the catalyst for easier monetary policy. In our view, although the Fed may not speak of it publicly, it expects a recession and is unlikely to be frightened at the first signs of economic weakness. It will, however, keep its eye on its goal, which is to get inflation down to, or close to 2% YOY. Some believe a Fed pivot will begin with inflation at 4% YOY but we disagree. Inflation at that level is still above the long-term average of 3.4% and is debilitating to consumers and businesses.
Another reason we believe the economy will slip into a recession is the weakness we see in the consumer. The savings rate was 2.4% in November which ranks among the lowest rates in history. We are not surprised that savings are falling, because real purchasing power has been negative most of last year. Personal income rose 4.7% in November, but after taxes and inflation, real personal disposable income fell 2.5% YOY. And for many Americans, the numbers are even worse. Proprietors’ income rose 3.7% in November, well below the 4.7% headline level; and non-farm proprietors’ income rose a measly 1.3% YOY. This is just one example of how small businesses are struggling in the current inflationary environment. The CPI decreased to 7.1% YOY in November, but it continues to destroy purchasing power. This is just one example of why inflation of 4% is still too high.
Some parts of the economy are already in recession. The residential housing market is a prime example. Pending home sales decreased to 73.9 in November and have been falling steadily since the October 2021 peak of 122.4. November’s reading is just slightly above the historic low of 71.6 recorded in April 2020 during the pandemic shutdown. Most consumer and business confidence indices were lower in November, yet they remain above the cyclical lows reported in June. Confidence levels bear watching since they can be good lead indicators of recessions and recession lows.
History of Negative Performances
Several market commentators have noted that it is rare to get broad-based back-to-back price declines in the equity averages. This is true, but it is possible. Annual losses were seen in the periods inclusive of 1929-1932, 1939-1941, 1973-1974, and 2000-2002. What each of these bear market periods have in common is that they were either the aftermath and unwinding of a stock market bubble, or in the case of 1939-1941 it was the prelude to the US being drawn into a major world war. See page 4.
This may explain why we are seeing major declines in the FAANG components, meme stocks, cryptocurrencies and the “Covid-shutdown” beneficiaries, where speculation was most extreme in the previous advance. In short, the bubbles in these areas are unwinding.
The good news is that the declines in 2022, particularly in high PE stocks, appear to be a major step in terms of wringing out excess and moving toward value in the US equity market. Still, we are not convinced that investors have discounted an actual decline in earnings in 2023. Many analysts are talking about a recession but have not factored it into earnings forecasts. In fact, we have heard some strategists suggest it is time to look across the valley of earnings and focus on an earnings rebound. This would have been true if we had already seen earnings forecasts turn negative, but they have not. At this juncture we do not know how deep, or how long, the valley in earnings may be.
Last year the S&P 500 Composite index fell 19.4%, and according to S&P Dow Jones consensus, earnings are expected to have declined 3.8% for the year. See page 3. But there are two caveats to this earnings decline. First, the fourth quarter earnings season will begin in several weeks, and in the last three reporting seasons estimates have declined significantly as quarterly earnings reports were released. In short, the estimate for 2022 may still be too high. Second, the S&P Dow Jones consensus earnings forecast for 2022 may be negative, but 2023 shows a growth rate of 13%. It is very likely that earnings will decline again in 2023, so this implies earnings disappointments are ahead. And do not forget that the S&P’s earnings decline in 2022 was muted by the outsized earnings gains seen in the energy sector. Most corporations had difficult comparisons in 2022 due to stimulus-boosted gains in 2020 and corporate margin pressure from higher raw material prices, soaring transportation costs and wage increases. The challenge in 2023 in our view, will be a lack of revenue growth. For this reason, we would focus on necessities and companies with reliable earnings streams such as energy, utilities, staples, aerospace & defense, and health insurance companies.
There has been much discussion about a Santa Claus rally this year, including controversy about its timing and effectiveness. For the record, Yale Hirsch of the Stock Trader’s Almanac monitored this phenomenon over the years and the Santa Claus rally is composed of the last five trading sessions of the year and the first two trading days of the new year; however, some analysts have added an extra day at either end of this period. Either way, a Santa Claus rally has materialized in seven of the last nine years. See page 5.
But that is not the real significance of the Santa Claus rally. The adage is: If Santa Claus should fail to call, bears may come to Broad and Wall. In short, it is not simply that a year-end rally tends to materialize, but that a rally, or the lack thereof, has some predictive value. We believe the tendency for a year-end rally arises from the fact that the last few days of the year often have a positive tilt from waning tax-loss selling, free cash as a result of tax-loss selling, rebalancing of mutual funds, pension fund inflows at the end of the year, and employee bonuses and Christmas money. In short, liquidity should be better than average at the very end of each year and should produce positive results in stocks. If not, it could be that either investor pessimism is high, or liquidity is below average. Neither would be a positive sign. As noted, rallies have appeared in seven of the last nine years and in each of the last six years. Four of these six years ended with double-digit gains in the S&P (66% accuracy) and two years ended with losses, including 2022. We do not put a lot of credence into year-end performances, but to date, the 2022-2023 Santa Claus rally has a 0.07% gain. It will be interesting to see if the market can hold on to this gain. See page 5. What has more predictive value in our view, is the January Barometer. See page 6.
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