Economic data has been a tale of two cities in recent months. And after reviewing the latest survey releases, it is clear one could build a case for or against an economic recession in the coming months. However, those arguing that current data is much too strong for a recession should remember that recessions are rarely visible at their onset and are notoriously acknowledged only in hindsight by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

In terms of data, February’s ISM non-manufacturing index fell 0.1 to 55.1 but remained well above the 49.2 reading in December when it was signaling a decline in economic activity. Five of the nine components deteriorated in February, but business activity declined from 60.4 to 56.3 and accounted for most of the decline. The manufacturing survey was below the 50 benchmark for the fourth consecutive month, yet the components of the index were mixed. The main manufacturing index rose to 47.7, up a notch from January’s 47.4 reading, which was the lowest reading since May 2020. Manufacturing production fell from 48.0 to 47.3 and prices paid rose 6.8 points to 51.3. See page 3.

In the non-manufacturing survey, new orders rebounded from January’s 60.4 to 62.6. In the manufacturing survey, new orders also rose strongly from 42.5 to 47.9, however, the index remained below the 50 benchmark which is a sign of declining economic activity. Employment indices were also mixed. In the non-manufacturing survey, employment rose from 50.0 to 54.0 representing an expansion, while in the manufacturing survey employment fell from 50.6 to 49.1, representing a contraction. In general, both surveys displayed an erratic slowdown in employment during the October to December period. See page 4.

Inflation

Given the dramatic response of the equity and fixed income markets to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony to Congress this week, it seems appropriate to repeat some of our historic charts on inflation and interest rates to see what history can disclose. In our view, a good deal of today’s statistics suggests a recession is ahead and possibly as soon as the second half of this year.

Over the last 80 years, whenever inflation has reached a standard deviation above the norm or greater — for the CPI this equates to a level of 6.5% or more – not one, but a series of recessions has followed. One could say it will be different this time, but we think that would be a high-risk judgment. From our perspective, the two negative quarters which appeared in early 2020 were the first, in what may become a series, of recessions. See page 5.

More importantly, monetary tightening cycles have rarely ended before the fed funds rate was at least 400 basis points above inflation, i.e., reaching a real fed funds yield of 4%. In other words, if inflation falls to 4% this year, a history of fed funds rate cycles suggests the fed funds rate should reach 8%. Clearly, this possibility has not been discounted by the market. But even if the current cycle is different and the economy is more interest rate sensitive than in prior cycles, we should still expect interest rates to move higher than 6% and stay high longer than expected. Unfortunately, this scenario is apt to end in a recession. See page 5.

On a happier note, debt levels in the financial, corporate, and household sectors are not as extreme as those seen in 2007 or at other economic peaks. From this standpoint, any future recession should be relatively mild.

Yield Curves

As already noted, Federal Reserve Chairman Powell’s hawkish testimony to Congress was a wake-up call for those believing interest rates were at or near a peak. And by the end of the trading session, as shorter-term yields soared, the closely watched inversion between yields in the two-year and 10-year Treasuries reached negative 103.1 basis points. It was the largest gap between short- and longer-term yields since September 1981. As a reminder, in September 1981 the economy was in the early months of a recession that would last until November 1982, becoming what was at that time the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. What history shows, and what is obvious in the charts on page 6, is that an inverted yield curve has always been followed by a recession. However, the lag time can be long. Equally important, recessions are always accompanied by an equity decline.

Valuation

Despite the fact that inflation has declined from the June 2022 peak of 9.1% YOY to January’s 6.4% YOY pace, inflation remains historically high. February data will be released on March 14, and it will be closely followed. In our opinion, investors are underestimating the impact inflation has on equity valuation. A simple way of defining the negative relationship between inflation and PE multiples is expressed by what we call the rule of 23, formerly known as the rule of 21. Historically, if the sum of the S&P’s PE multiple and inflation exceeds 23, the market is extremely overvalued. This typically results in lower stock prices and lower PE multiples. After this week’s sell-off, we estimate the trailing PE of the S&P 500 to be 20.2 and the forward PE to be 21.8. A more optimistic earnings estimate of $220 for this year could bring the 12-month forward PE to 18X, nevertheless, this combination of PE multiples and an optimistic assumption of 4% for the CPI, still places equities at the very top of the fair value range. See page 7. 

On page 8 we show the inputs to the Rule of 23 to demonstrate that PE multiples are well above average despite the fact that inflation is also above average. Historically, double-digit inflation has resulted in single-digit PE multiples. And though the June inflation high of 9% did not reach double digits, it was high enough to put pressure on high PE stocks and in time this should result in PE multiples closer to the long-term average of 15.8 times. See page 8.

The relationship between the S&P price index and earnings is not perfect, but earnings cycles typically lead price cycles. This has been particularly true since 1990 and since 2008 the 5-year rate of change in earnings and the S&P price have been strongly correlated. At present both trends are decelerating, which explains why the next few quarterly earnings reports could be market-moving events. We do not see anything on the horizon that could trigger an acceleration in earnings growth, on the other hand, the persistent rise in interest rates could certainly be a headwind to earnings growth. Last, but far from least, higher inflation means higher interest rates, and at present, the yields on both Treasury bills and notes are close to or higher than the earnings yield on the S&P 500. This makes fixed income an attractive alternative to stocks for the first time since 2000. See page 9. In sum, we remain defensive and would emphasize stocks that are both inflation and recession resistant and/or have attractive dividend yields.

Gail Dudack

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