Stocks have seen a year-end rally in each of the last six years and this phenomenon can be explained by a number of seasonal factors such as the end of tax-loss selling, mutual fund window dressing, and stock purchases due to liquidity from year-end and Christmas bonuses, among other things. However, we believe a year-end rally may be less robust than usual since thoughts of 2023 and its various hurdles could weigh on investor sentiment.

Recent market action suggests that investors are very willing to look on the bright side of the street. We prefer to be optimistic ourselves, however, the financial media is persistently focused on news that would suggest peak interest rates are directly ahead. This is viewed as a reason to expect the worst to be over and that a market advance is at hand. In some situations, it might be profitable to look past the economic valley of 2023 and look to invest for the longer term; but this time we think the valley may be deeper and wider than expected. For this reason, we remain prudent and look to keep our portfolio concentrated in necessities, recession resistant companies and sectors and stocks with predictable earnings streams and above average dividend yields.

Lowering Earnings Forecasts

The probability of higher interest rates and the likelihood of a recession in 2023 is high, in our opinion. Though we have been expecting a recession, we have not fully addressed it in our earnings forecasts. Our economic forecast included a weak first half of 2023 followed by an economic rebound, but even that may be too hopeful. This week we are lowering this year’s S&P 500 earnings forecast from $202 to $200 to reflect the decline seen in the third quarter earnings results. And since the typical recession results in a 10% decline in corporate earnings, we are lowering our 2023 estimate from $204 to $180.

Looking for an Average Recession

Since WWII, the last twelve recessions have persisted for an average of 10 months, have generated a 2% decline in real GDP, resulted in a loss of an average of 4 million jobs and led to a 10% decline in corporate earnings. Few recessions “match” the average, however, we believe inflation is more embedded in the economy than even the Fed would like to admit. If so, it means interest rates will remain higher for longer than expected. Chairman Jerome Powell was late to address inflation; however, we expect he has studied the last inflationary cycle that began in 1968 and continued until 1982. The error that Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns made in the 1970 decade was to not keep interest rates high enough or long enough to get control over inflation. As a result, there were four recessions between 1970 and 1982, until inflation finally began to recede.

With this in mind, it follows that interest rates will remain higher for longer next year than many expect. If so, the 2023 recession may last for more than two quarters and have a more debilitating impact on corporate earnings. For all these reasons, we are lowering our earnings estimate once again.

The Inflation Problem

November’s CPI came in softer than expectations, and while the peak level of inflation may be behind us, the underlying details of November’s report are not as favorable as some market commentators seem to believe. Much of the decline in prices is the result of decelerating energy prices (which are still rising 13.1% YOY!); meanwhile, food and beverage prices are rising at a double-digit pace, and housing, transportation, and “other goods and services” inflation are increasing 7% YOY or more. See page 3.

It is very likely that headline inflation peaked at 9% YOY in April 2022, but the Fed’s lack of attention in 2021 to stimulus-driven inflation allowed price increases to become embedded in the economy. This is making inflation difficult to combat. As a result, core CPI has been hovering between 6.0% YOY and 6.5% YOY for several months — the highest in 40 years — and is far from the 2% target rate indicated by the Fed. See page 4. And inflation is no longer driven solely by the price of energy, nor is it a problem linked primarily to the rise in owners’ equivalent rent. The current drivers of the CPI include food and beverage pricing and a wide range of consumer services. See page 5.

It should be noted that prices for services have been on the rise since early 2021. The composite service component of the CPI rose 7.2% YOY in November, rose 7.2% YOY in October, and fell only slightly from the peak rate of 7.4% YOY recorded in September. With inflation now embedded in the largest segment of the economy, the Fed’s job has become more difficult than most expect. And as seen in the chart on page 6, the price of WTI crude oil has typically had a direct impact on inflation when it rises but has had less of an impact when prices fall. In our view, the consensus remains too sanguine about the path of inflation over the next 12 months. 

Moreover, 32% of small business owners indicated that inflation was their single biggest problem. The small business optimism index rose 0.6 points in November to 91.9, but this is the 11th month below the 49-year average of 98. Of the 10 components, 6 increased and 4 decreased in November. The percentage of owners that plan to raise prices was more than 50% earlier in the year but now sits at 35%. Owners who think it is a good time to expand improved one point to six in November, but this is well below the long-term average of 13. See page 7.

2023: The Year of Earnings Adjustment

In 2022, investors began to take inflation seriously and focused on tightening monetary policy. As a result, there has been a steady decline in price earnings multiples this year. But the adjustments are not over. In our view, the challenge in 2023 will be the reality of a recession and the negative impact it will have on earnings.

As noted, we are lowering our S&P 500 2022 earnings estimate slightly to $200 and taking our 2023 estimate down $180 to reflect a 10% decline. However, even without a recession in 2023, S&P 500 earnings have been extremely high relative to the trend in nominal GDP. Earnings growth and nominal GDP tend to be highly correlated and the relative outperformance of S&P earnings versus economic activity in 2021 and 2022 is an unsustainable trend. A period of earnings outperformance has usually been followed by a decline in earnings. See page 8.

The recent earnings outperformance in this cycle is easily explained by the historic level of stimulus pumped into the economy both during and after the Covid shutdown. In short, corporate earnings were artificially elevated. As stimulus fades, earnings are apt to underperform, even without a recession in 2023. However, we expect the Fed will remain on track to raise short-term rates to 5% or higher next year and this makes a recession a high probability in the next twelve months. As we have often noted, inflation in excess of 4% has characteristically resulted in a recession. Double-digit inflation has historically been followed by multi-year rolling recessions. In sum, 2022 was a year of multiple compression and 2023 is apt to be the year of earnings deterioration. We remain cautious.

Gail Dudack

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