More Credit Rating Risks

Last week Fitch stunned the financial sector with its downgrade of US Treasury debt. This week Moody’s surprised investors by cutting credit ratings on 10 small- to mid-sized US banks. In addition, Moody’s put six banking giants, including Bank of New York Mellon (BK – $45.72), U.S. Bancorp (USB – $40.23), State Street Corp. (STT – $72.73) and Truist Financial Corp. (TFC – $32.41), on review for potential downgrades. Moody’s indicated there is no immediate crisis, but “banks will find it harder to make money as interest rates remain high, funding costs climb, and a recession looms. Some lenders’ exposure to commercial real estate is a concern.”

Several financial analysts suggested these warnings were unwarranted, however, rating agencies are paid to point out risks and there is no doubt that an unbridled federal debt burden is a long-term hazard, particularly as interest rates rise. For most banks an inverted yield curve combined with the potential of commercial real estate defaults are real risks that should not be ignored.

Although stocks sold off on both credit rating warnings, the pushback from some analysts and even the Biden administration are more disturbing to us than the actual agency warnings. The gains in equity prices this year have been primarily multiple expansion, not earnings gains. According to IBES Refinitiv, earnings in the last two quarters of 2022 and first quarter of this year were 4.4%, negative 3.2%, and 0.1%, respectively, and estimates for calendar 2023 show an S&P 500 earnings growth rate of a measly 1.2%. According to S&P Dow Jones, the last three quarters of 2022 had year-over-year declines in earnings, and though a modest rebound in growth is forecasted for coming quarters, it is coming from a diminished earnings base. Perhaps this lack of earnings power is why investors are flocking into generative AI stocks and looking far into the future for earnings growth. But after massive price gains, these stocks now have extremely high PE multiples and even fans feel the stocks are richly valued.

Things to Ponder

There are three things that we often wonder about although they are not part of our official forecast. The first is a risk that the stock market is on the verge of a bona fide bubble. This thought emanates from the excitement surrounding generative AI, estimates that the AI market will grow to $126.5 billion by 2031, and the massive runup that these stocks have had. AI has created a two-tiered market with the Nasdaq Composite up 33% year-to-date while the DJIA is up only 6.5%. This divergent price action is very reminiscent of the Nifty Fifty era that led to the January 11, 1973 peak and the Dot-com bubble era that ended on January 14, 2000. We have also thought about the fact that there were 27 years between those two market bubble peaks, and we are now 23 years past the 2000 peak. Since bubbles tend to be generational, we are in the right time frame to be on the lookout for a bubble. And the pattern we see of analysts ignoring fundamentals only adds to this worry.

Second, is the fact that bullishness is now consensus and the bears on Wall Street have been converted. Many sentiment indicators, particularly the AAII sentiment indices, are showing extremes last seen between February and May of 2021. The stock market did not peak until January of 2022; however, this is how sentiment indicators work. Sentiment are not timing indicators, rather they tend to be early warnings systems and only point out that risks are rising. See page 13.

Our last consideration is COVID, and the global pandemic it sparked. COVID resulted in an unprecedented manmade global recession in 2020 produced by many government leaders who decided to shut down their economies. It was not a normal economic recession. The subsequent recovery was also unusual, manmade, and manufactured with monetary and fiscal stimulus. This fiscal stimulus continues to drive many segments of the US economy to this day. History is often an excellent guide for economists and equity strategists, but there is no rule book for what has transpired over the last three years. Therefore, perhaps the typical signals of a recession such as an inverted yield curve, the 15-month decline in the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (the longest streak of decreases since 2007-2008), and the 7 months of negative real retail sales, are not applicable today. This seems strange to us. Nonetheless, the years of monetary and fiscal stimulus have kept the US economy afloat and it also provides the liquidity that could set off a stock market bubble. Thus, we ponder and worry. However, we do believe the recent rally is fragile since it has been driven by the new consensus view that the economy will have a soft landing or no landing. This view is coupled with the belief that there is no interest rate hike in September. We think the Fed will hike in September, unless economic data becomes very weak in the interim. What is clear is that this week’s CPI and PPI reports will be center stage and could be market moving.

Household Debt: the Good and the Bad

Total household debt rose by $16 billion in the three months ended in June and increased $909 billion in the prior 12 months. In short, household debt rose 5.6% YOY in June versus the 7.6% YOY increase seen in March. Of the $909 billion increase, $627 billion (or 69%) was in mortgages and $144 billion (or 16%) was in credit card debt. Credit card debt grew 16.2% YOY in June exceeding $1 trillion for the first time. As a result, credit card debt now represents 6.0% of total debt versus 5.5% a year earlier. See page 4.

A broader look at household debt shows that debt grew fairly rapidly in 2021 and 2022 but grew at a slower pace in 2023. A large part of the increase in household debt occurred in the under-40 age group and was likely linked with a period of significant increases in new credit card accounts. Note that the 2021-2022 period overlaps with the moratorium on student loan payments and a healthy trend in personal consumption. While the number of credit card accounts grew, the number of outstanding auto loans, mortgages and HELOC loans remained fairly stable in the same period. See page 5.

The good news in household debt data is that delinquencies have not had much of an increase from the low recorded last year. However, there are two big changes on the horizon. First is the massive increase in financing rates seen for revolving credit lines over the last year. This will make credit card debt less viable for many households. Second, the end of the moratorium on student loan payments which begins in October will also reduce liquidity for some households, particularly for middle class borrowers. See page 6.

Fundamentals The current S&P 500 trailing PE multiple is 21.5 times and above all historical averages; in short, the market is priced for perfection. The forward PE is 19.3 times, and when added to inflation of 3%, sums to 22.3, which is just below the standard deviation line of 23.8 denoting an overvalued equity market. In sum, earnings growth is pivotal to the market’s intermediate and longer-term trends. See page 8.

Gail Dudack

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PLEASE NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, the firm and any affiliated person or entity 1) either does not own any, or owns less than 1%, of the outstanding shares of any public company mentioned, 2) does not receive, and has not within the past 12 months received, investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned, and 3) does not expect within the next three months to receive investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned. The firm does not currently make markets in any public securities.

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