April has a good track record in terms of equity performance. Since 1931, April ranks second with an average gain of 1.6% in the S&P 500 index, bettered only by November with an average gain of 1.7%. In the Dow Jones Industrial Average, April ranks at the top of the performance list with an average gain of 1.9%, followed by November with an average gain of 1.7%. In both indices, December ranks third in terms of positive price performance. September ranks last for both indices, registering an average loss of 0.7% in the S&P 500 and a loss of 0.8% in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In short, April has positive seasonality.
Supporting the prospect of gains this April is the current expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet. However, this expansion was not due to normal quantitative easing but by the emergency measures put in place to calm the banking system after the bank run at Silicon Valley Bank. This liquidity spurt by the Fed was done through primary loans and the new Bank Term Funding Program and is expected to be short-lived. The good news in terms of the overall stability of the banking system is that these loans and credit lines have declined from the $390 billion dollar increase seen in the four weeks of March $287 billion as of April 5. So, while the recent increase in the Fed’s balance sheet could continue to boost stock prices in the very near term, it is already dissipating and should soon cease to be a positive factor for equities. See page 3.
In the longer term, we fear the banking system will continue to face problems in several areas due to the Federal Reserve’s tightening policies. Over the past year, deposits have been and will continue to drift away from the banking system and into higher-yielding securities like those found in Treasury bills, money market funds and mutual funds. This will decrease the banking system’s ability to make loans. And when one looks out into the future, it is likely that banks will encounter a second problem. A rise in corporate failures is a fairly normal event a year or two after a sharp rise in interest rates and this means banks may face a rise in defaults over the next twelve months. This phenomenon will decrease the desire of banks to make loans. In short, the banking system is getting squeezed in several directions which means a credit crunch is on the horizon. See page 4.
This credit crunch is the underpinning of an emerging consensus view that the Fed is apt to raise rates at the May 2, 2023 FOMC meeting by 25 basis points, but this rate hike will mark the end of the Fed’s tightening cycle. We are not convinced this will be accurate. There are a number of economic releases prior to the Fed’s May meeting, such as this week’s March inflation data as well as last month’s retail sales. A preview of auto sales for the month of March showed a steady deceleration from February’s pace. See page 6. Unless all these data releases show a notable decline in inflation coupled with a steady decline in household spending, we believe the Fed will continue to focus on getting to its 2% inflation target. The employment statistics for March, which showed a gain of 236,000 new jobs and a small decline in the unemployment rate to 3.5%, were clearly not going to convince the Fed to stop raising interest rates.
First Quarter Earnings Season
Although April has a good record of producing gains in the equity market, this year could be different. The first quarter’s earnings season will set the tone for earnings for the full year and to date, the quarter has been challenging.
The S&P Dow Jones and Refinitiv IBES earnings estimates for 2022 have stabilized at $196.95 and $218.09, respectively. (One reason for this 11% discrepancy is that S&P adjusts all estimates for GAAP accounting. IBES simply aggregates individual analyst estimates.)
Earnings estimates for 2023 are $217.78 and $219.83, and fell $0.60 and $0.62, respectively, this week. EPS growth rates for 2023 are now 10.6% and 0.8%, respectively, due to the discrepancy in 2022 estimates. However, we expect both of these consensus estimates will decline in the coming months. Our 2022 estimate is adjusted to match the S&P but our 2023 estimate of $180 is currently well below consensus since we have been anticipating an economic slowdown, a decline in top line revenues for many companies and a continuation of the margin pressure seen in 2022. Our estimate implies an 8.6% decline in earnings this year. Note that for the first quarter, now being reported, IBES is estimating a 5.2% decline in earnings for the S&P 500. This falls to a 6.7% decline if the energy sector is excluded. But keep in mind that most economists are now forecasting a credit crunch later in the year which means many businesses will face rising financing costs. In short, the first quarter’s earnings season could prove to be the best of the year. See pages 7 and 15.
Signs of a Slowdown
Last week we wrote that the ISM manufacturing index fell from 47.7 in February to 46.3 in March and that this was the fifth consecutive month below 50 for the manufacturing sector. All 9 components of the ISM manufacturing index were below 50 and order backlogs had a substantial decline from 45.1 to 43.9.
This week the March ISM non-manufacturing main survey was reported, and it showed a decline from 55.1 to 51.2. This is just slightly above the benchmark of 50 that divides expansion from contraction. All components of the survey fell with the exception of inventories and three components (order backlog, exports, and imports) fell below the 50 benchmark. In the service survey, exports experienced the biggest decline, dropping from a healthy 61.7 to a contractionary level of 43.7. See page 5. To sum up, an economic slowdown appears to be expanding to the service sector.
The long-standing inversion of the yield curve, the weakness seen in both ISM surveys, the sluggishness seen in recent auto sales, and the potential of corporate defaults after a year of rapidly rising interest rates, all point to the likelihood of a recession in coming months. Nevertheless, the technical condition of the market has improved! Still, the charts getting too little attention are on page 8. The rally in WTI crude futures has implications for inflation later in the year and at present, a downtrend line at $80 is being broken. Gasoline prices have already broken a 9-month downtrend line, which is positive for prices. Gold is close to breaking out of a major consolidation if and when it moves decisively above $2000. And lastly, the dollar is falling. The positive changes in these four charts all point to higher inflation this year, and therefore, more rate hikes ahead. Meanwhile, our 25-day up/down volume oscillator remains in neutral, but the four popular equity indices have broken through downtrend lines that began at the 2021 highs. As a result, these chart patterns are currently favorable. Nonetheless, the Russell 2000 remains the best index to represent our view on the market. We are not chasing the current rally because we expect the market will remain in a relatively-flat and wide trading range. This range is best represented by the Russell 2000 which is trading between support at 1650 and resistance at 2000. See pages 9 and 10.
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