Speculation regarding the path of inflation and central bank policies will dominate global economic and investment forecasts for the foreseeable future. In the US, the Federal Reserve has unmistakably articulated its full determination to drive inflation down to 2.0%, accepting that there will be collateral economic pain. Consequently, we anticipate the US economy will weaken through the remainder of the year and into 2023, hindered by increased borrowing costs, further declines in key commodity prices, and sustained strength in the US dollar. Early indications suggest that the Fed’s aggressive policy has been somewhat successful so far in softening the spikes in prices and wages. While there remains a long path ahead to reach comfortable financial conditions, we think that a sufficient improvement will occur in the first half of 2023, warranting the Fed to pause and possibly end the interest rate hiking cycle. However, the path of inflation has so far defied most forecasts, so we caution against overconfidence in any prediction. The health and resilience of the global economy will be the key in the coming months. We think a soft landing is certainly possible, but not necessarily probable.
The increasing bite of rising interest rates on the US economy is becoming ubiquitous. Prices across various sectors are down from highs (energy, agricultural commodities, automobiles, housing), and, most important from the Fed’s perspective, the wage-price spiral has yet to develop. Spending on goods is waning, though services demand remains high as consumers shift toward pre-pandemic behaviors. Also normalizing are supply chains, with bottlenecks easing. In combination, these developments are encouraging signs of easing inflation. More worrisome is that historically, the impact of monetary policy is delayed before it is fully realized. To date, the labor market is holding up well and unemployment remains historically low. But with the Fed increasing benchmark rates faster than any time since the 1970s, there is a heightened threat of an overreaction, and similar policy errors have triggered steep recessions. We lean to the view that short-term rates will rise to about 4.5% by early 2023 and that the Fed will pause at this point to better gauge progress in reducing inflation to their 2.0% target. This would be the best hope for a soft landing. Our greatest concern is that inflation does not fall as expected, forcing the Fed to act more aggressively, thereby increasing the risk of a sharp downturn.
Stock markets continue to experience large swings as investors weigh the likelihood and severity of an imminent recession. The most widely held negative outlook is that the Fed will not be able to tame inflation with 4.5% benchmark interest rates and that additional larger hikes will be necessary. As we said above, we think the most likely outcome is a Fed pause in 2023. There will be near term pain but, in our opinion, that is already mostly reflected in this year’s lower equity prices. We think it is too late for investors to reduce risk by lowering equity ratios, but too early to be aggressively positioned for a sharp upturn. In other words, our recommendation is that patience will be rewarded at this time of heightened uncertainty. Our advice is to:
- Maintain discipline in adhering to long-term investment objectives and asset allocation targets. The eventual sustained rally from lows will be seen by many as a head fake, and those that sit on the sidelines run the risk of missing the upturn all together.
- Structure broadly diversified portfolios across industry sectors. Timing the eventual market bottom will be supremely difficult, so portfolios should contain equities positioned to outperform both from positive and negative outcomes.
- Concentrate holdings in companies exhibiting ability to meet or exceed sales and earnings expectations in a difficult environment. There will be companies that do not fare well in the weakening economic conditions, and investors should seek to avoid disappointments.
- Overweight holdings in the US, which provides more strength and stability than can be found in international equity markets. While equity valuations in international markets could be seen as compelling, the challenges for companies abroad are significant, as described below.
- Remain flexible and open-minded. A major characteristic of the current bear market is that surprising macro shifts can meaningfully alter the probabilities of various scenarios.
Stock market bottoms usually occur following capitulation at a time when risk is paramount and fear is rampant. Worth noting is the current bear market’s length (9+ months) is already equal to the historical average. Stock valuations will recover at some point. Those that are invested in the earliest days of the inevitable rally will benefit the most.
The major international economies and financial markets are also struggling. On October 4, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued its Annual Report titled “Crisis Upon Crisis.” Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva introduced the report with the alarmist statement, “the global economy is facing its biggest threat since World War II.” A sobering roster of multinational crises have combined with country-specific problems, such as the property sector turmoil in China, to reduce prospects for future global growth:
- Rising inflation, especially in food and energy
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the formation of geopolitical blocs
- The international energy supply crisis, especially in Europe
- Currency upheaval, marked by the surging US dollar
- The lingering COVID-19 pandemic, especially in China
- Excessive commodity price volatility
- The massive destruction of wealth from stock and bond market plunges
With so many obstacles, it is not surprising that GDP forecasts have retreated steadily throughout the year. On October 6, the IMF lowered its global growth prediction to 3.2% in 2022 and 2.7% in 2023, much lower than the robust 6.0% reached in 2021. This would be the weakest growth since 2001. Of the key economies, only China is expected to expand next year: the US is to slow from 1.6% in 2022 to 1.0% in 2023, the Euro Area from 3.1% to 0.5%, Japan from 1.7% to 1.6%, and China from 3.2% to 4.4%. The IMF inflation outlook calls for more short-term pain: 8.8% in 2022, a decline to 6.5% in 2023, finally returning to a more normal 4.1% in 2024.
The outlook may not be as ominous for international stock markets as it first seems. All the crises, listed above, are well known. Governments, business leaders, and central banks are increasingly adopting stronger and more effective measures to ameliorate the negative conditions. Further, investors have been dealing with these problems for the past year, and arguably their concerns are already apparent in stock market valuations. Our recommendation for international investors is similar to our advice for US investors: emphasize a diversified portfolio of high-quality companies able to maintain sales and earnings growth in highly volatile markets. We think this approach will be more successful and less stressful than trying to pick the winning country or industry sector ETFs, or to bottom fish stocks with cheap prices but troubled fundamentals.
Bond yields have soared (with bond prices falling precipitously) in response to Fed policy. US 2-year Treasuries ended the quarter at 4.2%, climbing from 2.9% reached on June 30, and far above the 0.7% at the beginning of 2022. For the first time in over a decade, investment grade bonds are offering something in the ballpark of a reasonable yield. However, we emphasize that interest rates are still lagging inflation. Further, we expect the value of longer-term bonds to continue to slump as the Fed Funds rate is projected to hike another 1.0% – 1.5% in the next three months. For investors who desire fixed-income exposure, we continue to focus on short-maturity bonds and to avoid increasing duration or lower quality to pick up yield.