In our January 5, 2022, weekly “On the Verge of a Bubble?” we stated that we thought 2022 would be a decisive year for the equity market. In our view, stocks would either see a significant correction this year, or if a rally continued, it meant an equity bubble, driven purely by liquidity and momentum, was in place. Fortunately, the first few weeks of the year have been decisive. We say fortunately because we believe a correction is a much healthier option for investors. But this means our focus shifts from technical divergences and the risk of an impending top to measuring the potential downside based upon a variety of fundamental benchmarks. We do not believe equities have made their final lows and fundamentals can provide guidance on measuring downside risk.

Valuation Model: The inputs

Most valuation models rely on similar inputs. The inputs to our model are our earnings estimates, the rate of inflation and forecasts for short- and long-term rates. For 2022, we estimate SPX earnings will be $220, inflation will fall to 4.4%, short-term interest rates rise to 0.8% and the 10-year Treasury note yield increases to 2.2%. These inputs give us a projected range as well as a midpoint of the range for the SPX.

In 2015 the SPX shot to the top of our model’s projected fair value range and continued to trade there until 2020. However, trading at the top of the fair value range is acceptable with inflation at, or below, 2% YOY, which it was at that time. Low inflation supports a higher PE multiple. However, in early 2020 the index began to trade well above the fair value range and by the end of the year the disparity between the actual SPX price and the top of the projected range grew to a level last seen during the 2000 bubble. See page 5. Still, with inflation relatively low one might see this as the equity market discounting the economic rebound that was widely expected to materialize in 2021.

Indeed, earnings rebounded strongly after the earnings trough of December 2020, but inflation also began to rise. Earnings growth is worth less in an inflationary environment and as a result, PE multiples slowly began to fall in 2021. However, inflation did not just increase in 2021, it soared to 40- year highs and this is the crux of the market’s problem this year. Inflation of 7% YOY implies much lower multiples and at the same time, monetary policy is apt to be aggressively tight in 2022 to control inflation. This combination makes it a hostile environment for equities.

Valuation Model: Inflation

Our model demonstrates the pressure inflation places on equities. For example, in 2020 when inflation was 1.4%, our model indicated that the average PE should be 17.7 times. However, at the end of 2021, with inflation at 7%, the model forecasted an average multiple of 14.5 times. In 2022, we estimate inflation will fall to 4.4% — which is still above the long-term average inflation rate of 3.6% — and our valuation model suggests the average PE multiple should rise to 15.8 times. The high end of the PE range lifts to 18.4 times by December. Nonetheless, the current trailing SPX PE multiple is 21.4 times.

The impact of inflation on PE multiples can be seen in the chart on page 8. Although the trailing PE multiple has been declining toward 20 times in recent months, the rise in inflation has lowered the forecast for the high-end PE from roughly 20 times to 18 times. In short, more multiple compression lies ahead.

Calculating Downside Risk

One way of measuring downside market risk is to see what the trailing PE has been at previous market troughs. Although the PE at the end of a major decline is also impacted by inflation, we noticed that the last two market troughs occurred with a trailing PE multiple of 16.5 times. Applying this to our $220 earnings estimate for this year yields a downside market risk to SPX 3630. Similarly, if we applied an 18 multiple to our earnings estimate, the downside risk for the SPX is 3960. These two scenarios imply that the market begins to find “value” below SPX 4000. Note that a drop to SPX 3960 is the equivalent of a 17% decline from the record high of 4796.56 made on January 3, 2022. See page 4. This does not appear unreasonable, particularly since the Russell 2000 index has already declined 18.6% from its record high.

In our view, the worst-case scenario would be a decline to the midpoint of our model’s projected range. This means a PE of 15.8 with our $220 earnings estimate or the equivalent of SPX 3475. This midpoint would be a bear market decline of 28%. We cannot rule this out, but we would also point out that the pandemic decline in 2020 produced an even greater 34% decline in the SPX. Yet earnings and stocks rebounded smartly after the pandemic-driven recession of 2020. To insulate portfolios from risk, we continue to focus on stocks and sectors that can weather the inflationary environment of 2022. This includes energy, staples, and financials. Nevertheless, as we have been indicating, technology stocks are expected to bear the brunt of the correction, but this decline will also create an excellent opportunity for growth stocks. A break below SPX 4000 may create such an opportunity.

Oh, my Russell

The popular indices exhibit surprisingly different chart characteristics this week. The SPX looks best since it is trading modestly below its 200-day moving average, but all of its moving averages are rising. The DJIA appears second best. It is trading below its 200-day moving average and the moving averages have not crossed below each other. The Nasdaq Composite index is the weakest of this grouping, trading below all its moving averages and the 50-day moving average is at risk of falling below the 100-day moving average. See page 11.

The Russell 2000 index has been our bellwether index for the market since early 2021 and as we noted last week, this chart is very bearish. The 50-day moving average has broken below all other moving averages and this “death cross” configuration is attracting attention. More importantly, the Russell 2000 broke below the 8-month trading range last week that contained most of 2021’s trading action. This consolidation range has become a large top and there is no support in the chart prior to 1700. What is also surprising is how much the chart of Amazon (AMZN – $2799.72) looks like the Russell 2000 index. Note, AMZN is not in the Russell 2000 index yet ironically the chart patterns are very similar, and worrisome. Despite all the media buzz about the market being oversold, we find our 25-day up/down volume oscillator at a modest negative 0.21 reading this week. Typically, major market troughs are characterized by panic, and this is measured by extreme levels of breadth, for example, days with 90% or more of the daily volume in declining stocks. The huge intra-day swings this week and the rebounds from early session lows have kept breadth data fairly moderate at the end of each session. We do not see this as a good thing. It implies that the panic may still lie ahead; therefore, we would be cautious in the coming weeks. But danger equates to opportunity, so we are also looking to acquire technology stocks at lower levels.

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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