Equities are clearly in the throes of a bear market, and we do not believe the lows have yet been found. However, we do believe we are in a late stage of this bear cycle.
In recent weeks there have been four 90% down days — April 22: 90%; May 5: 93%; May 9: 92%; May 18: 93% — and history suggests that these extreme volume days tend to come in a series and reflect investor panic. More importantly, a series of 90% down days is a common characteristic of a later-stage bear market cycle. From a strategic perspective, the first sign of selling exhaustion appears when a 90% up day materializes. A 92% up day did appear on May 13, and while we believe this marked the beginning of the final phase of the current bear market, it does not necessarily define the final low.
Nevertheless, it did not surprise us that a 90% up day appeared immediately after the SPX slipped below the 4000 level. We have been using an average PE multiple of 17.5 coupled with our $220 earnings estimate for the S&P 500 in 2022 to define downside market risk. This combination equates to SPX 3850 and in our view, this is where “value” in the broader marketplace is found. However, a 17.5 PE multiple assumes that inflation will moderate by the end of this year, and it assumes that our $220 earnings forecast proves accurate. This PE estimate is at risk of revision due to inflation and our earnings forecast could be too high if the US economy weakens more than expected. Later this week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release an update on first quarter GDP. The initial estimate was a decline of 1.4% and if this number is revised lower it could weigh heavily on investor sentiment given the implications it would have on economic strength and earnings growth.
In the current environment, we believe the best strategy is to overweight sectors and stocks that benefit from, or are immune to, inflation. Areas such as energy, staples, defense stocks, and utilities. Most of these sectors also have excellent dividend yields which provide both income and downside support. Price declines have been intense in the technology sector due to the high PE multiples characteristic of this sector, but we believe good long-term buying opportunities will appear in this area later this year. However, we would not focus on the social media stocks that were the drivers of the past bull market, instead look for opportunities in technology with future growth such as defense, cybersecurity, robotics, and medical technology.
The Long Cycle
In our work, we like to put the current cycle into an historical perspective. This helps us clarify whether equities are in a secular bull, secular bear, or a massive trading range market, and it can define the appropriate investment strategy. For example, secular bull markets often end as a result of an economic crisis. Over the past 150 years, the source of a major economic crisis has alternated between a debt/default/deflation cycle or an inflationary cycle. Either way, the crisis has typically created a multi-year ceiling for stock prices until the crisis is resolved. For example, in the last cycle, the S&P 500 peaked in March 2000 (1527.46) and again in October 2007 (1565.15). The 2000 peak was triggered by a surge in margin debt and margin calls and in 2008 sovereign debt defaults triggered a global banking crisis. It took years to resolve the global banking crisis and the S&P 500 did not better the 1565 level until 2014. See page 3.
The January 3, 2022 high of SPX 4796.56 materialized during a post-pandemic inflation cycle driven by an historic amount of monetary and fiscal stimulus. In the US, this generated the worst inflationary trend in 40 years. Unfortunately, we do not expect the equity market will be able to better its January 2022 peak until inflation is back under control. In short, both debt and inflation are debilitating to an economy, which is why the Fed’s job of fighting inflation and monitoring debt levels is critical to the economic health of the US. See page 4.
Earnings and Economic Concerns
There are many ways to define value in the equity market. As previously stated, we are using an average PE multiple of 17.5 times to define value in the marketplace, but we also have a valuation model that assigns a PE based upon current and forecasted inflation and interest rates. Unfortunately, even at the May 19 close of SPX 3900.79, the market remained 1.0% above the top of the forecasted year-end fair value range of SPX 2730-3860 and 18% above the mid-range of our valuation model. This is because even if inflation falls to 5% YOY, our model suggests a PE range this year of 14.5 times to 15.0 times. Again, this is an example of the debilitating impact of inflation. Again, investors can assume that value is found below the SPX 4000 level. See page 5.
Although there are no signs that the US is in a recession, there are signs of an economic slowdown. April’s retail sales rose 4.7% YOY on a seasonally adjusted basis, and excluding autos, sales rose 6.1%. However, unadjusted retail sales fell 6.8% YOY and excluding autos, sales fell 4.5%. Moreover, seasonally adjusted sales of 4.7%, rose far less than April’s inflation rate of 8.2% YOY. This means real sales were negative in April, and it explains the negative EPS surprises reported by many retailers in the first quarter. See page 6.
New home sales were 591,000 (SAAR) in April, the slowest pace since April 2020, at the height of the shutdown. Existing homes sales were 5.61 million in April, the lowest since June 2020. See page 7. Note that April was the first time the Federal Reserve raised rates and mortgage rates are expected to move much higher in 2022. More importantly, even after two fed rate hikes, short-term interest rates remain at an historically negative (and easy) level of negative 7.2% given headline CPI of 8.2% YOY in April. The Fed has indicated that it wants to get to a neutral fed funds rate. But assuming inflation moderates to 5% by year end, the fed funds rate would need to increase 400 basis points in the coming months. See page 4. This could have a deleterious impact on the housing market.
The significance of a housing slowdown should not be overlooked since housing typically contributes 15% to 18.5% to GDP. Housing affordability declined sharply in April as a result of rising mortgage rates and soaring prices. This trend is expected to worsen, and we are concerned about the effect it will have on GDP and the broad economy. Not surprisingly, homebuilder confidence has been steadily slipping this year. Rising interest rates have not had a noticeable impact on the auto and truck sector, to date, but we believe it is only a matter of time before it does. For all these reasons, we believe portfolios should be insulated against the impact of inflation and rising interest rates to the best of one’s ability. We remain cautious.
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