An already-low unemployment rate has dropped another 0.3% YTD (to 3.6%) and stocks’ rebound in the second half of March took the S&P 500 to within 3.5% of its all-time high. Yet Consumer Sentiment has sunk to 59.7—a reading that’s 15 points below the average seen at the last six NBER business-cycle troughs. Why the long faces?
They are simple measures, but our “NOPE” Indexes capture (as well as anything) the escalating inflation squeeze on businesses and consumers. To recap, the NOPE is the spread between the ISM New Orders Index and the Price Index, which can be calculated for both the Manufacturing and Services sectors.
For months, we’ve argued there are two ways of thinking about the current economic cycle. Economist types are likely to side with their brethren at the NBER, who say the recovery has entered its 23rd month. But those observing the broad range of economic and financial gauges might view this cycle as a single economic expansion dating back to mid-2009.
PPI and CPI inflation reached levels that were “too hot to handle” last April and July, respectively, yet the blue chips kept going up through year-end. Large Cap investors who trimmed stocks in response to the violation of these long-time inflation speed limits, however, haven’t missed out on much, and Small Cap investors who did so are happy.
We don’t profess to be professional inflation forecasters, but are struck by a sort of “temporal” mismatch in the arguments used by those who believed the inflation pick up would be temporary. Specifically, the most commonly-cited bullish inflation arguments have been secular in nature, based on long-term trends in technological innovation, demographics, and free trade.
With consumer price inflation raging at 6.2% and few indications of an imminent rollover, Jay Powell has waved the white flag and retired the ill-begotten “transitory” descriptor. The timing of Powell’s concession is intriguing—perhaps he’s a fellow follower of a simple inflation model: the Output Gap.
Last week we argued that U.S. money growth remains way too high to reasonably expect a peak in consumer price inflation during the next few months. At the peaks of the last five bouts of inflation of 5% or more, real growth in the M2 money supply had turned negative in four cases and had slipped to less than 1% in the other one. Today, real M2 is growing at nearly a 7% rate.
It is much easier to predict inflation, itself, than to predict when investors will become traumatized by it. Some of the most helpful measures for the latter task come from the ISM Manufacturing Report. October’s readings saw three key measures above the statistical “speed limits” we calculated years ago.
Notwithstanding the hit to consumers’ pocketbooks, it’s been amusing to follow the Fed’s recent evolution with its mindset regarding inflation. A year ago, the hope was for “symmetry”—Fed-speak for allowing inflation to run above its long-time 2% target, since it had previously undercut that level for awhile. Then, early in 2021, the word “transitory” entered the lexicon; yet months of debate and tens of thousands of utterances on financial television have clarified nothing about the Fed’s characterization of that term.
Those in their peak earning years (40s and 50s) who’ve also enjoyed the stock market’s windfall gains are very likely to have seen their annual expenses climb much higher than the Consumer Price Index over the last several years.
Inflation and its potential impact on the stock market is the topic du jour, resurrecting ideas that were in vogue 30- to 40-years ago.
Steve Leuthold’s 1980 book, The Myths of Inflation and Investing, provided an exhaustive review of the evidence. But for lighter reading, more appropriate for a summer Friday, we revisit the “Rule of Twenty” developed by strategist Jim Moltz in the early 1980s.
It’s certain that today’s cyclical bout of inflation will prove “transitory,” if only because the word itself is practically meaningless. Our time on earth will also prove transitory, and so too will the current stock market mania—to the shock of most of the nearly 20 million “investors” on the Robinhood platform.
At some point during the June/July streak of seven-consecutive S&P 500 daily-closing highs, an album from 1980 popped into our heads: Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did—released when John Mellencamp was still known as John Cougar. It brought to mind some “nothin’s” that seem not to matter.
The refusal of the bond market to acknowledge the worsening inflation readings seems to have strengthened the consensus view that any inflation trouble will be “transitory.” Do bonds still know best when there’s a systematic, price-insensitive buyer hoovering up $120 billion of them per month?
Technicians are collectively bullish because of the absence of any serious internal divergences. But, severe corrections can erupt with little, or no advance warning from a deterioration in breadth and leadership. In fact, the first few years of the last bull market provided two such examples (mid-2010 and mid-2011).
The speculative peak for this market rally may have occurred in either January (when GameStop and other “left for dead” short candidates soared), or February (when indexes tracking the “newborns”—IPOs and SPACs—both peaked). But even if we knew that for certain, a major peak in stock prices could still be months away.
In the latest Green Book, we noted that Producer Price Inflation does not usually become a challenge for the stock market until its annual rate breaks above 4.0%. The day that comment was published, the year-over-year gain in the March PPI for Finished Goods spiked to 6.0%, thanks mostly to the well-celebrated COVID-19 anniversary-effect.
The big jump in Small Caps over the last two weeks has entirely reversed the segment’s summer underperformance and has technicians feverish about another “breath thrust.” Technically, it’s impressive, but we are more intrigued by the fundamental potential for continued Small Cap (and Mid Cap) outperformance.
The Fed is hell-bent on generating inflation of 2% or higher in an over-supplied world that we think should probably be experiencing mild deflation. Their success or failure at this mission will be critical for asset allocators. For equity managers who must remain fully invested, however, the more important question might be not whether the Fed can generate higher inflation, but where.