The Russian war on Ukraine continues and the news from the battlefronts are disturbing. Global sanctions on Russia, Russian companies, and their corporate leaders and oligarchs escalated this week as well with the hope that the financial pain inflicted by sanctions may deter President Putin from his aggressive path. In a lengthy statement this week, US Treasury Department listed companies and individual corporate leaders known to be used to evade recent sanctions, and imposed measures to close loopholes and prevent them from operating or procuring western technology. All property, interests in property, and assets in the US, including all financial assets in US banks, of individuals listed by the Treasury, are now frozen and cannot be used to pay interest on loans or perform any business transactions. Injunctions were expanded to include aerospace, marine, and electronics sectors.
In addition, the US and Germany jointly sanctioned the world’s largest and most prominent darknet market, Hydra Market, in a coordinated effort to disrupt malicious cybercrime services, sales of dangerous drugs, or other illegal offerings available on the Russian-based site. German Federal Criminal Police shut down Hydra servers in Germany and seized $25 million worth of bitcoin. Garantex, a ransomware-enabling virtual currency exchange founded in late 2019, was also sanctioned. All of these measures, and the sanctions ordered before this week, are meant to cripple Russia’s economy and provoke sovereign and corporate debt defaults.
Meanwhile, Britain ordered a report into shale gas fracking on Tuesday, less than three years after banning the practice, saying all options should be available in light of a Ukraine crisis-fueled surge in gas prices. We applaud this shift, but it also reveals the misjudgment of the UN-sponsored Paris Agreement on climate change. Western countries made major steps to decrease fossil fuel production, but these steps only opened the door for oil-rich countries like Russia to take control of the world’s energy markets. In our view, the path to renewable fuel should have been done in conjunction with the US remaining energy independent, not before.
Yield Curve Fears
However, none of these issues reversed the March rally. Instead, it was Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, one of the Fed’s most dovish governors. She stated that a combination of interest rate hikes and balance sheet runoffs were needed to quickly move monetary policy to a more neutral position this year. The implication was that the Fed is clearly set on a hawkish path in 2022 to contain inflation. This week’s release of the March FOMC meeting minutes is expected to provide more details of the Fed’s plans.
However, as we just pointed out, today’s inflation is not simply a demand-driven cycle that the Fed can contain. It has materialized from a diminished supply of energy, particularly in fossil fuels. It came from a lack of investment. It is policy driven. It is man-made. In short, the Fed will have a difficult time trying to tame current price increases. Moreover, since Russia and Ukraine are the breadbasket of Europe food and meat prices will also rise this summer. This is a raw material inflation cycle, and the Fed does not have the tools to fix it, without perhaps triggering a recession.
In our opinion, the obsession with the yield curve and a possible inversion is really based upon these underlying facts. Yes, the Fed was too slow to change policy to control inflation, but the cycle is now exacerbated by geopolitical events that are not under their control. This is a cause for concern.
Plus, the sanctions imposed on Russia are meant to create defaults on loans, and this too, will have repercussions. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon made two important comments recently. First, he indicated that the Fed could lift interest rates by more than 2.5% this year, more than most expect. Second, he indicated that the bank may need to take as much as a $1 billion of reserves against Russian debt.
Sector Weighting Shifts
Our main concern is that a combination of inflation-induced margin erosion, a rising cost of capital, and write-offs related to Russia, either from corporations exiting businesses in Russia or defaults from Russian debt, will weigh heavily on earnings performance this year. For these reasons, we remain cautious and believe investors should seek safety in areas that are insulated from these risks. These areas include energy, staples, cybersecurity, and aerospace and defense. We are upgrading utilities from underweight to overweight this week because we believe high dividend-paying stocks will be in demand as bond prices fall. Utilities are also able to pass on energy costs to consumers. We are also lowering our weighting on the technology sector from overweight to neutral. This is more in line with our view that technology stocks will be one of the most volatile areas of the market in 2022 and while trading opportunities arise, they may not provide the best intermediate-term strategy – with the exception of cybersecurity. Lastly, we are lowering the REIT sector from neutral to underweight due to the pressures we anticipate from higher interest rates and rising costs. See page 13.
The final estimate for fourth quarter 2021 GDP growth was 6.9%, a nice improvement from the 2.3% pace seen in the third quarter. However, on page 3 we overlay the real 10-year Treasury note yield on real GDP growth. This shows that real yields are extremely negative, which historically has only been seen during a recession. Recent unnecessary stimulus explains the historic level of inflation we are currently experiencing and points out why interest rates must go much higher this year. The Fed’s task is now extremely difficult and the risk of too much tightening and an inverted yield curve is real.
The major contributor to growth in the fourth quarter was gross private investment, while personal consumption of goods was barely positive, and consumption of services rose modesty. Unfortunately, the largest contributor to private investment was a buildup of inventories, and this could dampen growth in the first quarter of this year.
Staying at home or traveling by car became the norm during the COVID pandemic and this contributed to strength in housing and autos. Auto sales have been a solid contributor to retail sales, but the pandemic boost appears to be over. Unit auto sales have been declining since mid-2021. In March, total unit sales of autos and light vehicles were 13.7 million, down 24% YOY. See page 5. The ISM manufacturing index slipped to 57.1 in March although employment, prices, and inventory rose. The main weakness in manufacturing was found in new orders and backlog of orders. The ISM non-manufacturing index rose slightly to 58.3 in March due primarily to strength in employment, new orders, and exports – all good signs. However, service business activity slipped a point to 55.5 in March. See page 6.
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