This week could be pivotal for equity investors since the December Federal Reserve Board meeting is expected to result in a well-telegraphed reversal in monetary policy. The details and timing of quantitative easing and interest rate changes will be most important. Quantitative easing is expected to slow, perhaps more quickly than previously thought, but reversing QE has rarely had a negative impact on equity trends. The crucial part of monetary policy is the raising or lowering of interest rates. History shows that three or more fed funds rate hikes within a 12-month period has been followed by equity declines. The faster the rate hikes are made, the bigger the negative affect on the stock market. Therefore, the real focus this week will be on Chairman Jerome Powell’s comments and the possible timing of interest rates increases.
Unfortunately, we believe the Federal Reserve is already behind the curve. More importantly, one could opine that the current wave of inflation is man-made. A combination of historically large fiscal and monetary stimulus during an economic recovery is a perfect recipe for inflation — as any basic economic textbook would attest. Ironically, this was ignored by most economists, politicians and surprisingly by the Federal Reserve. And though equity investors have ignored soaring inflation numbers for months, recent data has made it more difficult to ignore. In our view, by ignoring inflation, the Fed has allowed it to become more embedded in the system. As a result, it could take more rate hikes to reverse than if it had been addressed earlier this year.
November’s inflation numbers were disconcerting. Headline CPI rose 6.8% YOY, the highest pace since the 7.1% YOY recorded in June 1982. Core CPI rose 4.9% YOY, the highest since the 5.0% pace in June 1991. See page 6. Headline PPI rose 13.3% YOY, the highest since October 1980. Core PPI, excluding food & energy, PPI jumped 5.9% YOY, the highest since March 1982 and final demand PPI rose 9.7% YOY, the highest on record. In other words, November’s inflation was the highest in thirty years which means many of today’s young investors have never dealt with inflation or understand its many repercussions.
Rising prices have spread throughout the economy and although fuel prices are no longer the main driver of US inflation, energy remains one of the most important triggers for future inflation. The good news is that WTI crude oil prices are down 16% from their October 26 peak of $84.65. The bad news is that WTI is still up 46% year-over-year. Gasoline prices are down a similar 16% from their high of $2.52 also made on October 26. See page 10.
As we have discussed in previous reports, inflation of 4% or more tends to have a deleterious impact on price earnings multiples. For this reason, it is not surprising to see that many large capitalization technology stocks have encountered selling pressure this week. Technology stocks tend to have high multiples which become a high-risk asset as inflation rises. Also note that the following ten stocks in the Nasdaq 100 composite index represent 63% of the total market capitalization of the index and a significant percent of the S&P 500. During market weakness, or whenever selling pressure creates a liquidity crisis, large cap stocks become the most liquid and therefore bear the brunt of selling pressure.
We believe the best strategy for the next several months is avoid high PE stocks and tilt toward stocks with predictable earnings streams, modest PE multiples and dividend yields greater than the current 10-year Treasury bond yield of 1.4%. The recent gains in the consumer staples sector are an example of this transition. We expect a better buying opportunity for large cap technology stocks will appear in the first half of 2022.
Households Balance Sheet and Sentiment
US household net worth rose 1.7% in the third quarter to a record $144.7 trillion, which was an impressive 10.5% increase year-to-date. During the quarter, nonfinancial assets rose 3.7% and corporate equities fell slightly. Year-to-date, nonfinancial assets rose a sturdy 11.7% versus 15.7% for equities. Equity assets directly held by households, versus indirectly through pension funds for example, rose 18.6% in the first nine months of the year. However, household real estate gained 11.4% this year to date, and owners’ equity in real estate rose an impressive 14.7% in the first three quarters reaching 68.8%, the highest level since 1988! This suggests many households benefited from a rise in residential real estate values in 2021. See page 3. It may also explain why Christmas shopping appears to be setting a record this year.
However, Fed data on household balance sheets has also shown that when equity ownership exceeds real estate values, the equity market is at risk. This is true currently. Moreover, in June, equities represented 41.5% of total household financial assets and 29.4% of total assets. Both were new record levels that exceeded the previous peaks recorded in early 2000. In short, equity ownership may be reaching an over-owned condition, and this implies caution. See page 5.
Good news in net worth did not translate into an improvement in consumer sentiment. December’s preliminary consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan showed small gains in the index, yet the survey lingers only modestly above the 2021 lows. The NFIB small business index edged up 0.2 points to 98.4 in November, but most parts of the survey were little changed. On the other hand, the outlook for general business conditions worsened to negative 38, matching its worst level seen November 2012. All in all, soaring inflation appears to be taking a toll on businesses and consumers. There has been little change in technical indicators this week. The 10-day average of daily new highs fell to 82 this week and daily new lows are at 186. This combination — with new lows over 100 per day — was downgraded from neutral to negative last week. The NYSE advance/decline line’s last record high was on November 8, 2021, and it is trading well below this level currently. Volume has been rising on down days and slipping on rally days, which is a worrisome combination. See page 13. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at negative 2.5 and approaching an oversold reading which would be a negative omen. And finally, the Russell 2000 index continues to trade below all its moving averages which could be a sign of a trend reversal. All this points to the need to be cautious as 2022 approaches.
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