Does the Coronavirus Change the Outlook?

During a very eventful start to 2020, the world’s attention has been set on the serious and significant spread of the Coronavirus. A contagious, life-threatening respiratory disease, it has infected nearly 50,000 people worldwide and has killed over 1,000 people, the majority in mainland China. While our focus here is the potential economic and financial market impact of the Coronavirus, we do not want to leave unacknowledged the reality that humans are suffering. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones who have been affected by this tragedy.

Even disease experts acknowledge that it is irresponsible to make a forecast on how long the outbreak will last, how far it will spread, and what the ultimate economic impact will be. What we do know is the Coronavirus is serious enough that a few large Chinese cities are on lockdown, some companies with factories in Wuhan are suspending operations, and several countries are enforcing travel bans to and from China. When the world’s second largest economy undergoes a disruption of this magnitude, global growth will slow. The degree to which this will impact US growth will depend on unknown future developments.

The response of financial markets has been mixed. Taking into account this problematic outlook, commodity prices have fallen. Year to date, WTI crude oil has plummeted -17.5%, copper -8.4%, and iron ore -10.8%. Likewise, the economy-sensitive S&P 500 energy and materials sectors have dropped -10.1% and -2.2% respectively, and emerging market stock markets, measured by the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF, the EEM, have dropped -3.4%. On the other hand, the S&P 500 Index as a whole has continued its upward march, rising 3.2%, with technology, communication services, and utilities outperforming.

Marietta’s most recent Economic and Financial Market Outlook (January 10) was modestly optimistic based on cooling trade tensions, easy monetary policy, a strong US consumer, a return to corporate profit gains, and a global growth rebound that would reduce recession fears. Thus far, these core fundamentals remain unchanged: trade tensions continue to diminish, monetary policy remains supportive of growth, corporate earnings are still expected to rise, and US consumer spending has been relatively unimpeded by the Coronavirus. We no longer project a global growth rebound, but we continue to think that recession fears will stay low, provided a significant outbreak does not reach US shores. Thus, our outlook is relatively intact and supports the case for higher global stock markets.

We expect there will be winning and losing sectors and companies, which could provide an opportunity for active portfolio management to help mitigate portfolio risk and increase returns. The longer the pandemic takes to resolve, the greater the negative impact will be to industries such as travel, autos, oil, some luxury goods, and commodities. Companies with supply chain disruptions should be monitored closely for downward earnings revisions. We recommend caution in “buying the dip” in these industries until the magnitude of the global economic impact is better understood. Even if the virus is contained quickly, companies should be reevaluated in the context of a slower than expected global economy. We will be tracking developments closely, especially regarding a potential disruption to US consumer spending. We all wish for a swift end to this serious threat.

Economic and Financial Market Outlook 2020 Q1

We begin the new decade riding a historic economic expansion that enters its 11th year. 2019 saw global stocks post significant gains and bond markets rally for most of the year as the dominant obstacles retreated or moved closer to resolution. At this point, our economic and financial outlook for the coming year remains modestly optimistic:

Our optimism is tempered by the likelihood that a reversal of any of these factors would lead to market declines. We also expect the coming year to bring greater volatility, although absent any fundamental deterioration of these factors, we would view any pullbacks as buying opportunities. With the potential for pitfalls, it is especially important for investors to monitor economic reports for any signs of weakening and be prepared to make quick adjustments or maintain more balanced portfolios.

In the US, the economy demonstrated its resilience with the previous quarter projected to grow 1.8%. Despite predictions from pundits that the trade war would lead to recession, the economy withstood the negative impact on the manufacturing sector from the tariffs. Indeed, the ISM Report on Business showed US manufacturing contracting in 5 consecutive months to end the year. However, service activity remained robust with PMI readings solidly expanding. The scorching labor market has shown no sign of slowdown and headlines the positive case for the US economy. The US added on average 177,000 jobs per month in 2019 and job growth accelerated into the end of the year. Unemployment is the lowest it has been in 50 years and wages are growing about 3%. The Federal Reserve restored accommodative monetary policy with three quarter-point rate cuts in 2019 and Chair Powell has signaled that it would take a significant increase in inflation or economic activity to force rate hikes. We expect the newly-dovish Fed and the strong consumer will prevent the US from slipping into recession, but we are hesitant to anticipate a new upward cycle of growth. We forecast that the US economy will maintain its 2019 pace of about 2% in 2020, with inflation hovering around 1.9% – 2.0% and unemployment holding steady.

How will U.S. stocks follow up its tremendous performance in 2019? The S&P 500 finished the year up 31.5%. However, earnings growth will probably come in negative in 2019 after the final tally. That means that the stock gains further stretched P/E multiples to the limits of what could be called fairly valued. It is difficult to imagine further advances without a pickup in corporate earnings. While the resilient economy will bring a return to earnings growth, profit estimates for this year have fallen from double digits to about 9%-10% improvement over last year’s numbers. However, higher labor costs, continued effects of remaining tariffs, and uncertainty from the upcoming election will skew the risks to this forecast to the downside. With already high multiples on stocks, our conclusion is that broad indexes will track or slightly lag earnings growth and finish the year about 6%-9% higher. In this middling environment, investors should focus on sectors and companies that benefit from secular trends that are sheltered from economic headwinds.

The global economy, which experienced a synchronized slowdown in 2019, is forecast to recover modestly this year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) attributes the subdued growth last year primarily to increased tariff barriers and elevated uncertainties surrounding trade and geopolitics. Especially hard hit was capital spending and manufacturing. On the other hand, broad-based monetary stimulus implemented by the world’s leading central banks partially offset these negatives. Heading into 2020, the Phase 1 tariff agreement between the U.S. and China, the USMCA treaty, and greater clarity towards a Brexit solution should improve prospects for capital spending, manufacturing, and trade. Meanwhile, we expect global central bank accommodative policies to continue well into 2020. We echo the IMF global GDP projections of 3.0% in 2019 and 3.4% in 2020, which is still below the 3.8% gain in 2017. Fueled by monetary stimulus, this economic recovery will support higher global equity markets as the fears of recession that rattled financial markets earlier in 2019 diminish.

Our confidence in international stock markets is based primarily on the improved outlook for corporate earnings, subdued inflation, low bond yields, and very attractive valuations. We do not expect developed country economies (notably the Euro Area, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia) to rebound strongly: improved global conditions will likely result in modest GDP growth of only 1-2%. However, even such a mild rebound in output will support earnings growth and a corresponding stock market advance. Companies in developed country economies with strong bottom-up fundamentals will outperform, especially in consumer and technology sectors. The brightest spots in the global economic outlook are the emerging economies. The latest forecast of the IMF foresees a growth pickup from 3.9% in 2019 to 4.6% in 2020, including 5.8% in China and 7.0% in India in 2020. We are also projecting a rebound in Brazil from about 0.7% to 1.5-2.0%. This combined economic advance will come as a boost to emerging markets: over the past 5 years the iShares MSCI Emerging Market ETF (EEM) was up a meager 16.3% in comparison to the 57.4% jump in the S&P 500 Index. Additionally, a stabilization or decline in the dollar, which we consider likely, would be another positive for international markets.

The bond rally of 2019 peaked in September with the 10-year US Treasury rate nearly reaching its all-time low. Bonds yields have come up ever so slightly from their lows as global growth appears to have stabilized. We forecast a slight progression higher for interest rates that will track the pickup in growth. The synchronized efforts of global central banks to ease monetary policy will limit the potential for a significant advance in rates absent an unexpected spike in inflation. High-quality, short duration bonds continue to provide a haven for capital preservation but we caution against reaching too far with lower rated or longer dated bonds as those carry risks that would be better allocated in the equity markets.

 

Economic and Financial Market Outlook 2019 Q4

The economic and financial market outlook continues to be mixed. It is evident that while global GDP is still expanding, its growth rate is dropping. The US-China Trade War has exacerbated this slowdown, contributing to a global manufacturing contraction. The resulting rise in uncertainty has limited business spending and mired corporate profits, which are expected to decline for a third consecutive quarter. A turnaround could be near, however, with 2020 S&P 500 earnings projected to rise 10.5%. Another positive development is that the world’s major central banks, including the Federal Reserve, have increased monetary stimulus in response to slower growth. Historically, this has been a powerful support for stock markets. We recommend a balanced and flexible approach. Investors should be prepared for developments that alter the market climate quickly, both positively and negatively.

The US economy has enjoyed steady, albeit slowing, growth so far in 2019. Backed by a strong consumer and an outstanding labor market, economic activity has climbed despite a slowdown in trade, agriculture, and manufacturing. Goods-producing industries are in decline and the situation is deteriorating. The September Manufacturing ISM Report on Business composite PMI Index declined for the sixth consecutive month and showed that deliveries, backlogs, new orders, employment, exports, and imports all contracted. While concerning, manufacturing only makes up roughly 11% of GDP while consumption is about 70%. Thus far, the US consumer has remained one of the last strongholds of growth. If household spending can endure the current soft-patch, the global economy may rebound without further damage. If individuals tighten their wallets, however, the situation could spiral into a more serious downturn.

The impressive US stock market advance hit its peak in late July but has been range-bound since. The volatility has had a clear pattern: shaky economic data and negative trade headlines have weighed on the indices, while hopes for a Trade War ceasefire and Federal Reserve rate cuts have pushed equities higher. While much attention is currently preoccupied with these macro considerations, we think that the key to reaching new highs is corporate profits. If investors gain confidence in businesses achieving the expected double-digit earnings growth in 2020, the S&P 500 Index will likely respond with solid gains to end the year. This will not be an easy task, as profits have been slightly negative over the past two quarters and the third quarter numbers are expected to show another consecutive decline. Provided that earnings break out of their slump, the fundamental backdrop is generally supportive of higher stock markets: valuations are reasonable, inflation is low and stable, the Fed is providing monetary stimulus, and bonds and money markets do not provide competitive returns compared with equities.

The international outlook is clouded by the slowing global economy and ongoing trade tensions. China is suffering from the onslaught of US tariffs and will need significant stimulus to maintain its target GDP growth rate of above 6%. We expect the Chinese government will continue to take proactive steps to boost the economy. There is some evidence that monetary and fiscal stimulus may already be working: consumer spending and the service sector remain strong and the slowdown in manufacturing is showing early signs of a potential bottom. In comparison, the euro area is expected to confront a sharp slowdown in 2020, with Germany and Italy flirting with recession. Already, demand for goods and services is falling at the fastest pace in six years. The European Central Bank continues to do “whatever it takes” to get growth and inflation back on track, announcing in September an interest rate cut and agreement to restart its quantitative easing program. Curiously, policymakers so far have been reluctant to address aggressively the downturn with fiscal stimulus despite negative borrowing rates. The ongoing Brexit stalemate adds additional uncertainty to the region.

The positive case for international stock markets seemingly depends on a breakthrough in trade negotiations as well as a continuation of accommodative central bank policies. Global central banks will continue to ease, providing a positive backdrop for global equities. However, the near-term prospects for the US-China trade negotiations are not encouraging and the timing of an eventual agreement will be difficult to predict. We recommend exercising patience, diligently reviewing any ongoing developments. For long-term investors, international stocks present an opportunity for diversification and potential growth at substantially lower valuations than US equities. Our approach takes a bottom-up view to evaluate companies on a fundamental basis, emphasizing strong relative earnings momentum and/or recession resistant characteristics.

Bond yields fell further in the third quarter, with US 30-year and 10-year treasuries dropping to record low yields in September. Reflecting our mixed outlook, we think bond yields are likely to remain low and range-bound until a clear narrative takes shape. Money market funds have become relatively attractive and offer similar yields and additional liquidity. Higher cash-equivalent positions are currently warranted with potential future volatility on the horizon. With greater flexibility and lower interest rate exposure, investors with elevated cash positions will have the ability to return to equity and fixed-income norms while maintaining downside protection in the event of an improving outlook.

Inversion Confusion

On Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell a numbing 800 points and the S&P 500 Index dropped 3%. The financial media attributed the declines to an “inverted yield curve” in the US Treasury bond market. Historians quickly pointed out that such an inversion preceded each of the last six US recessions, alarming investors across the globe.

During normal economic expansions, yields for longer-dated bonds are higher than shorter-dated bonds because longer time periods carry more interest rate risk. An inverted yield curve occurs when the yields of shorter-maturity US Treasuries, such as 90-day or 2-year notes, are higher than longer-maturity 10- or 30-year bonds. Historically an inversion has occurred for several reasons, but four of the last six inversions included a booming economy, rising inflation, and the Federal Reserve raising short rates in order to curb future inflation. This is not the case with the current inversion. Since October 1 last year, 10-year Treasury yields have plummeted from 3.22% to 1.53%, and 30-year Treasury yields have reached all-time lows, whereas short-term rates are little changed from 10 months ago. A variety of reasons have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, but it is worth noting that it is a global as well as US situation. Currently, an unprecedented $15 trillion of sovereign bonds are trading with negative yields.

Should investors be alarmed and implement strong defensive strategies? The yield curve inversion historically has been a long-leading indicator of recessions. Past recessions, however, have arrived on average 21 months later and never earlier than 8 months following 2-year/10-year inversions. Further, the stock market during the last three inversions (1988, 1998, 2005) has risen 36.7%, 43.2%, and 28.8% respectively during the interval between the inversion and the subsequent market peak. Nor is it the case that a recession is unavoidable. There are opportunities for governments here and abroad to take corrective actions to restore confidence. This includes a meaningful thawing of US/China trade tensions as well as the adoption of stimulative fiscal and monetary policies around the world. For example, we are confident that the Fed will respond in September with another rate cut, and possibly a third in October or December, which may well reverse the inversion.

The inverted yield curve complicates an already cloudy economic outlook. Clearly the global economy is slowing, but there continues to be impressive strength in consumer spending, rising wages, and lofty small business sentiment. On the other hand, as we have pointed out in our most recent Outlook, conflicting data regarding the US economy is concerning, especially the sharp drop in bond yields. Consequently, we continue to recommend that investors placing importance on preservation of capital remain cautious and flexible.

Quote of the day: “If you’re not confused by the outlook, you just aren’t paying attention.” -Steve Liesman, CNBC

 

Economic and Financial Market Outlook 2019 Q3

The US and Global stock markets are enjoying a banner year. The S&P 500 Index rocketed +18.5% in the first six months of 2019 (the best first half since 1997), which included +7.1% in June (the strongest June since 1938). International equities have also enjoyed substantial gains: the MSCI All-Country World ex-US Index (ACWX) has climbed +13.4% this year. What lies ahead after such lofty returns? Despite the remarkable first half, we consider the outlook to be mixed, reflecting widely divergent views on three critical issues:

Since the Trump administration levied tariffs on Chinese goods over one year ago, sharp stock market swings have occurred regularly. When tensions rose, most indices sold off in response, such as in the fourth quarter of 2018 and May 2019 when the MSCI All-Country World Index (ACWI) retreated -12.7% and -7.3% respectively. In contrast, reports of negotiation progress and easing tensions led to meaningful relief rallies in January and June. The clock is running out on accomplishing a productive agreement; the negative effects of tariffs are already biting into profits and eroding business confidence and capital expenditures. Both sides have stated a desire to reach a deal but have found it difficult to compromise on major issues. At this point, it is difficult to predict any specific outcome with a high degree of confidence. Consequently, our recommendation to investors is to avoid strategies based upon a very positive or very negative scenario.

With respect to central banks, their policies wield powerful influence on a country’s economy, currency, and financial markets. Over the past year, many of the key banks have increasingly indicated concerns for slow growth and below-target inflation and have stated that they are prepared, if needed, to provide stimulus. This is now the case in the European Union, Japan, India, Australia, most of South America, and, significantly, the US and China. The Federal Reserve is widely expected to reduce its target interest rate in July for the first time since 2007, and many investors anticipate multiple rate cuts later this year. Historically, central bank rate cuts have provided powerful economic stimulus that has boosted flagging equity markets. If the Fed balks, global stock prices almost assuredly will respond negatively. Further complicating matters, monetary policy will be influenced by trade considerations. For example, the economic gains achieved through a US-China resolution will reduce pressure to cut rates. As we see it, future Fed action is as enigmatic as future trade conditions and prudent investors should maintain a position of flexibility and data-dependency.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations, Global Monetary Policy Tracker, June 2019 (-6.68, Easing), accessed July 10, 2019. Data Sources: Bloomberg, IMF, Council on Foreign Relations

The International Monetary Fund and other forecasters currently expect global growth to deteriorate for the remainder of this year. The world’s two largest economies, the US and China, have the greatest potential to turn around the projected weakness. The US is slowing and risks continuing down this path, with negative consequences for corporate earnings, without some stabilizing monetary and/or fiscal stimulus. However, we do not anticipate a recession and the most probable scenario includes a pickup in corporate profits by year-end. China’s GDP has been decelerating for 15 years from the double-digit rates of the mid-2000’s to 6.5% in 2018, and the government is determined to hold the line at 6.0%. Government officials have already adopted numerous policies to reverse a slumping economy, which was apparent even before tariffs were enacted, with uncertain result. Since these two countries account for about 40% of global GDP growth, their success will determine whether the world’s economic situation will flourish or languish.

The US stock market will continue to benefit from a variety of supports. Stock buybacks and merger and acquisition activity show few signs of letting up. The bond market does not offer attractive returns to draw investors out of equities. Many common stocks provide dividend yields in excess of bonds and money market funds and some investors, especially retirees, depend on stocks to provide essential growth of principal to fund withdrawals. This is not to denigrate bonds, which remain useful to investors desiring to dampen portfolio volatility and reduce their allocation to equities.

In summary, we see many positive economic factors that run concurrent with rising risks and negative data. Moreover, key determinants cannot be easily predicted at this time. In a market expected to remain highly volatile with the distinct possibility, if not probability, of a correction sometime this year, we suggest that investors give careful consideration to their equity ratios.

As Trade Tensions Heat Up, Market Outlook Cools Down

Earlier this year, our Global Economic and Financial Market Outlook was favorable based on expectations of a trade agreement with China, a more accommodative Federal Reserve policy, a stronger than anticipated global economy, and surprisingly upbeat corporate earnings. Since the end of April, the positive case for global and US economies has weakened resulting in a 6.0% pullback in both the S&P 500 and the MSCI All-Country World ex-US Index (ACWX). The outlook has become increasingly uncertain and a higher level of caution is warranted for stock investors.

The key negative development in May was a breakdown in trade negotiations and increased tariffs between the US and China. At this point it seems to us that the two sides are becoming further entrenched and we think an imminent resolution is unlikely. The impact of the escalating trade war will be negative for global and US growth and individual company earnings. Since there is no modern-day precedent of a major trade war between the world’s two leading economies, it is impossible to estimate the magnitude of the negative impact with any confidence. [Update: new tariffs on Mexico were announced Thursday night, which underscores this administration’s commitment to tariffs as a policy tool. This also reinforces the level of uncertainty and the fact that circumstances can change at any moment.]

We emphasize that many of the positives that drove the market higher earlier this year remain in effect. The Federal Reserve and other key central banks have turned more supportive. Business and consumer confidence remain high, with unemployment, inflation, and interest rates surprisingly low. Corporate profits have continued to surprise Wall Street analysts to the upside; 2019 full-year S&P 500 earnings and revenues are expected to rise around 5.0%. Stock buybacks are on a record pace and valuations are relatively low, further supporting equity markets. At this point, we continue to expect the US to avoid an economic and/or profits recession.

On balance, it is prudent for investors to be cautious and stay vigilant and flexible.

Economic and Financial Market Outlook 2019 Q2

Despite the current deceleration in global and US economic growth, we think the outlook for the world’s key stock markets is modestly positive.

The US economy has decelerated from last year’s robust growth. GDP growth peaked at 4.2% in the second quarter of 2018 and sequentially dropped to 3.4% and 2.2% in the third and fourth quarters. Current estimates for the first quarter indicate a third consecutive slowdown. A major fear of some investors is that this trend will continue until the US economy enters recession. We reject this view and confirm our position that a growth rebound will occur, potentially as soon as this quarter. Though we are unlikely to see GDP growth greater than last year’s 3.0%, we project that steady growth this year of 2.0%-2.5% will be enough to maintain a strong labor market, healthy consumer spending, and improved manufacturing demand. Indeed, the April 4 weekly jobless claims hit a 49-year low.

The US stock market has recovered as focus has shifted beyond recent weakness, with the S&P 500 Index soaring 13.7% in the first quarter. Despite this considerable surge, investor sentiment is still largely negative, which we consider encouraging. A recent Merrill Lynch Flow Show report tallied nearly $80 billion of outflows from global equities in the first quarter. This indicates that the improving situation is not fully reflected in stock prices. The persistent pessimism could be due to the widely expected earnings decline in the first and possibly second quarters. We anticipate this will be transitory, brought about by unique circumstances including the longest government shutdown in history, a hangover from the fourth quarter market correction, and unusually bad weather. A second half economic acceleration should boost full-year S&P 500 profits, but we are reducing our prior forecast of 7.0-9.0% to around 5.0%. Historically when earnings are muted, the stocks of companies exhibiting above-average growth have outperformed.

Though the economic and profit backdrop has been more challenging, other fundamental positives remain. The Federal Reserve has indicated that they will not raise interest rates again this year. We expect the Fed to be data dependent, including the possibility of lowering interest rates should the economy demand monetary stimulus. Inflation is low and stable and has little prospect of surging upward. Valuations are reasonable and stock buybacks have totaled more than $270 billion already this year, signaling optimism for the rest of 2019.

International stock markets have rebounded from an oversold condition in 2018, though many economic indicators have deteriorated. This upsurge has been fueled by better-than-feared data out of Europe, improved growth prospects in southeast Asia, and optimism for a US-China trade resolution. Already Chinese policy makers have introduced stimulus measures which are making a positive impact, laying the groundwork for a second-half pickup. We are encouraged by recent Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) data (see chart) that showed expansion in manufacturing, which motivated J.P. Morgan economists to revise upwards their full-year China GDP estimates to 6.4% from 6.2%. Though this turnaround will also help the situation in Europe, the investment case is weaker there due to uncertainty regarding Brexit, Italy, and the ECB. Growth in the emerging economies is expected to exceed developed economies, with India and Brazil the most attractive for investors.

Bond yields fell further in the first quarter, reflecting weakening economic growth. At this point, we think that yields are unlikely to fall much more, considering our outlook for a second-half pickup. Our view is that now is not the time to lock in current rates on long maturities. Medium to short term bonds can provide flexibility and portfolio stability. On a related note, we would be remiss if we did not include a comment on the yield curve. A yield curve inversion, meaning that it costs more to borrow in the short-term than it does in the longer-term, is considered by many investors to be a recession indicator. This occurred in the first quarter, with the yield on 3-month T-Bills surpassing the 10-year Treasury rate. This may sound concerning, and while it has strong predictive power for coming recessions, its occurrence normally precedes recession by 12-18 months. What’s more, this interim period usually coincides with rising stock markets. This is, however, more evidence that we are in a slowing period and investors should remain attentive to new developments.

Now What? The Road Ahead

Fears of an imminent recession sank the US stock market in the fourth quarter. The prevailing view was that the China tariff situation would deteriorate, the Federal Reserve would aggressively increase interest rates, and an economic moderation would steepen into a more serious decline. We disagreed. In our January Outlook, we forecasted that the probability of a recession was less than 10% and advised investors to be disciplined and patient. Moreover, we expected the threat of recession to recede, thereby paving the way for a market recovery. Since the start of the year, talks between US and China have progressed significantly and members of the Fed have been outspoken in assuring investors of a dovish path. By February 15, the S&P 500 Index soared over 18% from the depressed December 24 low.

At this point, the market’s valuation has recovered to its long-term norm. Looking ahead, what is the most probable market and economic scenario and what are the major threats? We think future gains are likely, but the ascent will become more difficult.

The focus is shifting away from China-US trade negotiations and Fed policy to the health of the global economy. The consensus view, which we share, is that major global economies and US corporate profit growth are slowing. Nevertheless, we consider these adjustments to be noteworthy but not alarming.

We reject the view that an economic and profits slowdown will necessarily result in a major market decline in the near-term. Rather, we think that modest gains would be consistent with historical market advances coinciding with periods of economic deceleration. During these periods, companies that exhibit sustainable earnings above market estimates have offered the best prospects.

Economic And Financial Market Outlook 2019 Q1

Despite heightened year-end volatility, we confirm our cautiously optimistic outlook summarized in our December 7 blog:

The US economy, unlike the stock market, enters the year with considerable strength. The unemployment rate is at a 49-year low, consumer confidence is near 20-year highs, wage growth is rising at the fastest pace since 2009, manufacturing and confidence surveys are robust, and inflation is anchored near 2%. Some of the recent boost can be attributed to one-time benefits from tax reform, so we expect 2019 growth to ease toward longer-term trends. However, it would take a meaningful shock to overthrow this considerable momentum and create a recession. Such disruptions potentially could arise from all-out trade wars or major policy errors from the Fed. We are encouraged by recent developments on both fronts, but we are not yet out of the woods. The Fed has indicated that it will make decisions based on incoming economic data and has decreased its projected 2019 rate hikes from four to a maximum of two. As for the US and China’s trade confrontation, significant progress has already been made; additional tariffs have been put on hold and negotiations have resumed. Pressure has increased on both sides to resolve the conflict as the trade war has begun to negatively impact economic growth. We think each side understands that both countries will lose if an escalation occurs.

In stark contrast to the booming US economy, the US stock market had its worst year since 2008 and suffered three falls of 10% or more throughout the year, two of which were in the fourth quarter alone. The stock market weakness occurred despite corporate profits rising over 20% in 2018. The impact of this earnings divergence on today’s market is that the S&P 500 Index price earnings ratio (P/E) of 14.1x is below both the five and ten-year average of 16.4x and 14.6x. With a cheaper than average market valuation and expectations for solid 7-9% corporate profit growth this year, stocks look attractive. A significant advance, however, will require investor sentiment to shift.

It is also useful to place the current market downturn in perspective. From its peak last September 20, the S&P 500 Index fell just under 20%, the traditional definition of a bear market, by Dec. 24. Since 1980, there have been 12 occurrences when the S&P 500 Index declined between 10% and 20% and on average it has taken less than four months to recover the previous highs. If the market were to drop further and enter a bear market, long-term investors should take note that from 1900-2018 there have been 32 bear markets, or about one every 3.5 years, and they have lasted an average of 367 days. Additionally, multi-year bull markets typically follow bear markets, with the strongest gains in the first year of recovery. In the year following the last three 20% declines, the S&P 500 Index gained an average of 32.5%.

We expect global GDP to slow in 2019 from 3.7% to 3.4%. A significant portion of this decline may be attributed to a deceleration in the US, which accounted for approximately 24% of global GDP in 2017, and to China, which accounted for 15% (source: IMF). Their combined importance to global economic stability is manifest, and our growth estimate assumes that both the US and China avoid recession in 2019. We also expect growth to slow but avoid recession in the leading advanced economies, including the euro area and Japan. These slowdowns will be offset by a pickup in several key emerging economies.

There is currently as much controversy regarding the future strength of the Chinese economy as there is the US economy. We predict a modest GDP growth decline from 6.5%-7.0% to 6.0%-6.5%. Our view is that the ability and the determination of the Chinese government to maintain at least this level of growth is underestimated by many economists who consider a plunge to be inevitable. To respond to their slowing economy Chinese policy makers are reducing taxes, easing banking restrictions, accelerating infrastructure spending, and lowering the reserve requirement ratio. We also think that they will respond to acute pressures and reach a favorable agreement with the US on trade policy and intellectual property concerns. If a trade peace occurs in congruence with the monetary and fiscal stimulus measures, investment in many of the stocks of Chinese companies and companies that do business in China, which have been severely damaged, could be rewarding.

A case can be made for emerging market stocks based on valuation and sentiment. 2018 marked another year of disappointing market returns for emerging market companies, and over the past five years, as measured by the iShares MSCI Emerging Market ETF (EEM), they have returned a paltry 7.7% versus a gain of over 50% in the S&P 500 Index. Their 11.7x P/E has declined to a level that is extremely attractive compared to other global markets. Emerging market corporate profits are expected to be high-single digits in 2019 amidst steady economic growth in major economies. We think many patient long-term investors will conclude that the multi-year trend of emerging market underperformance has ended, and investments in these companies may prove to be very timely. Worth noting here is that the EEM fell only about half the S&P 500 Index in the 4thquarter 2018, even though emerging market stocks are often considered to be higher risk. A trend reversal may already be underway.  Stability in China is paramount to the case for emerging market stocks, as China consumes about 50% of global commodities. Another key consideration are the pro-growth policies of governments and central banks, and we think Brazil and India offer prime candidates for investors.

We agree with the IMF that none of the major advanced countries in Europe and Asia present significant growth prospects. Further, the euro area lacks cohesive leadership and there will be ongoing “Brexit” headaches, Italian debt issues, and the threat of political instability in France and Germany. We think this will depress economic output and investor sentiment. Without additional stimulus measures, the equity markets of non-US developed countries are unexciting but individual company fundamentals should still be considered. Our bottom up approach in this area tends to focus on consumer discretion, health care, and technology companies.

Medium and long-term bond yields fell from recent highs in the fourth quarter as investors sought safety amid a volatile stock market. We expect bond yields to remain range-bound in 2019, with 10-year Treasury yields fluctuating between 2.5%-3.0%. Bonds that are investment-grade, high-quality, and relatively short in duration should continue to provide portfolios with capital preservation and a modest income stream. However, not all bonds are created equal. We do not recommend increasing risk to get higher yields by investing in low-quality junk or longer duration bonds. Investors wanting to take on more risk should do so in the stock market.

The Three Paths Ahead

Global stock markets in recent days have exhibited unusual levels of volatility in response to headline news. Daily developments impacting the future of US-China trade relations, Federal Reserve policy, the price of oil, inflation, and a possible inverted yield curve in US treasuries have rocked the markets.

We strongly recommend that the best policy for US investors coping with tumultuous conditions is to avoid reacting to these news developments and focus rather on the next 12 months. In our estimate, there are three most likely outcomes to emerge in 2019:

Scenario One (65% probability): Soft Landing

We forecast 2019 US GDP growth to be 2-2.5%, down from our 3% estimate in 2018, with corporate profit growth to rise 7-9%, down from this year’s 20% surge. Our view is consistent with the consensus of economists and investment professionals. Such a successful soft landing in combination with the improved valuation of the stock market will likely result in a S&P 500 Index advance in the 7-10% range.

There are two major threats to this modestly optimistic view. The first is a possible outbreak of a major trade war which would have a stagflation consequence and in the process leave the Fed in a “no-win” policy dilemma. We think that political leadership in both China and the US have come to the conclusion that both sides lose with higher tariffs. In the case of China, where the economy is already slowing and the government is adopting increasingly potent stimulus measures to maintain growth, a significant slowdown resulting from a trade decline could trigger social and possibly political unrest. The Trump Administration recognizes the necessity of a strong economy and healthy stock market going into the 2020 national elections and a trade war on top of an expected 2019 slowdown would probably make that impossible.

A misguided policy implemented by the Fed is also unlikely. Chair Powell and other FOMC members have recently emphasized their awareness of the necessity of basing policy on data rather than what could prove to be an incorrect forecast of economic strength and inflation. As the economy slows in 2019, we expect employment gains and inflation to moderate and cease to be a major concern for Fed policy.

Scenario Two (20% probability): Exuberant Economy

There are two equally likely, yet divergent, market responses if the US economy continues to produce GDP gains at or above 3%. In the first case, strong labor gains would lift inflation and force the Fed to raise interest rates. The stock market in this scenario would be concerned that the rise in short-term interest rates would eventually result in an inverted yield curve, a recession, and a bear market as has happened so often in the last 50 years. In the second case, expressed most recently by the Trump Administration, strong GDP growth will not be accompanied by above-target inflation and there will be no need for further monetary tightening. This might be the best of all possible worlds leading to a significant rally in global stock markets.

Scenario Three (15% probability): Recession from Policy Blunders

This highly negative scenario anticipates that the coming slowdown in the US economy and profit picture would be exacerbated by misguided aggressive tightening policies from the Fed and/or an escalation of trade wars. Here the US economy would be threatened by a recession of indefinite severity and duration and most likely foment a bear market.

Conclusion

We recommend investors exercise discipline and patience and base their strategies on a longer-term perspective. This includes consideration of their unique preferences regarding growth and preservation of capital. Growth investors can view the recent market correction as a long-term buying opportunity. In contrast, investors whose top priority is to preserve assets should be more cautious. In any case, the recent volatility should be used as an opportunity to review investment objectives and guidelines.