The 2022 bear market will be remembered as a year when collapsing growth stock valuations and rising interest rates doomed almost every asset class to return purgatory. Hopes for avoiding a second down year rest with a potential top in interest rates and solid earnings underpinning the stock market. Wall Street strategists have a year-end 2023 price target of just over 4,000 for the S&P 500, a few percentage points of upside from today but hardly reason to toast a prosperous new year.
A new study looking at the relationship between inflation and profit margins is introduced. The goal is to understand how the latest margin peak was reached in mid-2021 and what impact inflation might have on margin forecasts underlying next year’s earnings estimates. Full report will be sent mid-month.
Our studies of economic and stock market history are meant to provide perspective, not an investment roadmap. But occasionally a current trend will resemble the past so closely it’s eerie.
Take the current inflation cycle. If (as we believe) June’s CPI inflation rate of 9.1% represents the peak for this business cycle, then many of its characteristics have lined up almost perfectly with the “average” of past inflationary episodes.
Boy, were the pundits ever right about the Roaring Twenties. Less than three years into the decade, the animal they fear most has already roared two times. Actually, the first one, in the first quarter of 2020, was more like a piercing “yap,” taking the S&P 500 down almost 34% in just 23 trading days. The second roar has been a deeper, more guttural one that’s lasted nine months and is probably not done.
If there’s a polar opposite to “Goldilocks,” this must be it. Not too hot and not too cold? What about both? Job growth and inflation are hot enough to force the Fed to follow through on its hawkish promises. But the leading indicators continue to warn us of oncoming cold. The odds that the porridge settles at the right temperature, without an intervening recession, look longer by the day.
As suggested in our June 24th, Chart of the Week, the peak in consumer inflation (+8.6% in May) has likely either occurred or is imminent. Consumers should thank the stock market, which in 2022 has taken up its occasional role as inflation-fighter after the Fed abdicated throughout 2021.
We apologize for that terribly misleading teaser of a title, but the bills for the stock-market mania of 2020-2021 are piling up. Inflation is one of them, lately increasing each month as relentlessly as cable TV used to. And for the 10% of households who own 90% of the stocks, market air-pockets such as June’s are like “surprise” medical bills: There’s rarely just one
The market impact from money printing has been underwhelming when adjusted for the inflation it’s unleashed. Measured from the peaks associated with the first attempt at Quantitative Tightening, in inflation-adjusted terms, Small Caps, EAFE, and Emerging Markets all have losses.
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.