March’s mad dash for cash didn’t stop with rates/credit/FX markets. Among equities, there was also a strong preference for cash liquidity. The market rewarded companies that had strong cash positions and punished those without—which explains why traditionally defensive styles actually underperformed.
We can’t count the number of times in the last week we’ve heard analysts worry about “what the Fed might know that we don’t.” In the words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”
The consensus among market pundits is that a U.S. recession will be averted and, as a consequence, domestic stocks remain the best game in town.
A way to gain perspective on the present is by trying to view it from the future. Ask yourself, “What are the signs of impending decline, now ignored by investors, that will one day be memorialized by the same investors as the most obvious in retrospect?”
It’s now been more than 19 months since global stocks peaked on January 26th, 2018. Those lucky enough to have been invested solely in the S&P 500 and to have held on for the volatile ride have a 3.7% gain to show for it. Nice going.
Over a 12-month horizon, we now believe a U.S. recession is very likely, but aren’t confident enough to make the call when the forecast window is cut in half. Second-half stock returns could be decent if the business-cycle peak is still a year away. Then again, there’s peril in waiting for “too much” confirmation of recession.
The U.S. economy and blue chips have shrugged off the risk of the worst trade war since 1930’s Smoot-Hawley Act, while comparatively few stocks on either the NASDAQ or the NYSE have broken out to 52-week highs. There’s also the troubling talk of the Fed having tamed “the cycle.” Should investors bet on a potentially wild (but narrower) final melt-up over the next 6-12 months? We don’t like the odds.
We thought Jerome Powell’s “Christmas Capitulation” would be tough to beat, but he accomplished that two days ago with what could be called his “Spring Surrender.” That, in turn, has rekindled hopes of a stock market melt-up along the lines of 1998-99, which, as old-timers will remember, followed a late-cycle correction that was nearly identical to the one seen last year.
While the celebration over Jerome Powell’s “Christmas Capitulation” lingered throughout February, we’re still awaiting signs the capitulation consisted of anything more than words.
Throughout the spring and summer, the market could alternatively be characterized as “divergent” or “disjointed”—but until very recently it could not be considered “distributive.” Now, Mid and Small Caps have hit a short-term air pocket and breadth figures were exceptionally poor at September’s scattered highs in the DJIA and S&P 500.
Yes, bulls and bears now hold their respective positions for the same reason—i.e., the U.S. economy is exceptionally strong. The stock market is accommodating this rare bipartisanship with sufficient reason to support either position.
Evidently, being a bull in a bull market is no longer good enough.
The S&P 500 has gained about 5% on the year, respectable but hardly consistent with the “melt up” scenario we thought might occur.
We have mentioned a number of times that China had experienced a very unpleasant “second-hand” tightening due to its peg to the dollar. Its trade competitiveness has suffered tremendously. With a weaker dollar the Chinese Yuan can re-gain some of its competitiveness while maintaining its peg to the dollar. A rare win-win in today’s convoluted world of finance.
We’ve written before about retail investors’ tendency to “conflate” stock market action with movements in the underlying economy. Misunderstanding this interrelationship generally causes the public to liquidate stocks when the economy is weak, only to ultimately buy them back when the economic recovery is obvious to all.