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Cash-Rich Consumers Could Mean Higher Interest Rates for Longer

Buoyed by pandemic-fueled savings, consumers and businesses are proving less sensitive to tighter credit—complicating the Fed’s job

By NICK TIMIRAOS
Mon, Oct 31, 2022 8:24amGrey Clock 4 min

Washington’s response to the pandemic left household and business finances in unusually strong shape, with higher savings buffers and lower interest expenses. It could also make the Federal Reserve’s job of taming high inflation more difficult.

The U.S. central bank is trying to slow down economic growth to prevent inflation from becoming entrenched. To that end, it has increased rates aggressively this year and is likely to raise them another 0.75 percentage point at a two-day policy meeting that concludes Wednesday. That would bring the benchmark federal-funds rate to a range of 3.75% to 4%.

Some officials have argued for slowing the pace of rate rises after this week’s meeting. But the debate over the speed of increases could obscure a more important one around how high rates ultimately rise. In economic projections released at the Fed’s last meeting in mid-September, most officials anticipated their policy rate would reach at least 4.6% by early next year.

But some economists think it will have to go higher than 4.6%, citing in particular reduced sensitivity of spending to higher interest rates.

“The big question will be, given the resilience the economy has had to interest-rate increases so far, whether that will actually be sufficient,” said former Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren. “The risks are they’re going to have to do a bit more than they’re suggesting.”

The Fed combats inflation by slowing the economy through tighter financial conditions—such as higher borrowing costs and lower stock prices—which curb spending, further reducing employment, income and spending. This normally has its greatest effect on sectors of the economy most sensitive to the cost and availability of credit.

In 2020, however, the government’s wartime-like response to the pandemic—generous fiscal stimulus that showered cash on households and reduced borrowing costs—interrupted the usual recessionary dynamics of rising joblessness that amplifies declines in income and spending. It means private-sector balance sheets are in a historically strong position.

Household, non financial corporate and small-business sectors ran a surplus of total income over total spending equal to 1.1% of gross domestic product in the quarter of April to June, according to economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Using a three-year average, the measure is healthier than on the eve of any U.S. recession since the 1950s.

U.S. households still have around $1.7 trillion in savings they accumulated through mid-2021 above and beyond what they would have saved if income and spending had grown in line with the pre pandemic economy, according to estimates by Fed economists. Around $350 billion in excess savings as of June were held by the lower half of the income distribution, or around $5,500 per household on average.

Businesses were also able to lock in lower borrowing costs as interest rates plumbed new lows in 2020 and 2021. Just 3% of junk bonds, or those issued by companies without investment-grade ratings, mature over the next year, and only 8% come due before 2025, according to Goldman Sachs.

State and local governments are also flush with cash, leaving them in a far better position than after the recession of 2007 to 2009.

While the housing market—among the most interest-rate sensitive parts of the economy—is entering a deep downturn, the rest of the economy is so far holding together. Consumer credit-card balances are rising. Earnings reports from companies including United Airlines Holdings Inc., Bank of America Corp., Nestlé SA, Coca-Cola Co. and Netflix Inc. also point to strong consumer demand and pricing increases.

“This is not the earnings season the [Fed] wanted to see,” said Samuel Rines, managing director at Corbu LLC, a market intelligence firm in Houston. “For now, the consumer is too strong for comfort.”

The Commerce Department reported Friday that consumer spending adjusted for inflation rose 0.3% in September from August, a pickup from prior months.

The upshot is that cooling the U.S. economy might require even higher interest rates. The household savings buffer “suggests to me we may have to keep at this for a while,” said Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Esther George in a webinar earlier this month.

Ms. George is among a handful of Fed officials who have argued in favour of slowing down the pace of interest-rate increases. But she also said the central bank’s ultimate rate destination might be higher than anticipated and that the Fed might have to stay at that higher rate longer.

The tight labour market also figures into this calculus. It not only leads to higher wages that might bump up prices, but also could continue to power consumer spending even as households run down savings.

Worker pay and benefits continued to rise at a rapid clip in the third quarter, according to a Labor Department measure released Friday that is closely monitored by the Fed. The employment-cost index, a measure of what employers pay for wages and benefits, showed that wages and benefits for private-sector workers excluding incentive-paid occupations rose 5.6% from a year earlier.

Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as a top adviser to former President Obama, thinks it will be harder for the Fed to slow down the economy. He said he sees the fed-funds rate ultimately reaching 5.25% next year, with a significant risk for topping out at an even higher level.

Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist at research firm TS Lombard, thinks the central bank’s policy rate will rise to 5.5%. “A recession is coming in 2023, but there is more work for the Fed to do to create one,” he said.

The silver lining might be that stronger private-sector balance sheets cushion the extent of any slump in the U.S. The danger is that higher interest rates or a stronger dollar make trouble in corners of a global financial system that had come to expect low interest rates to persist.

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Where Are Stocks, Bonds and Crypto Headed Next? Five Investors Look Into Crystal Ball

Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 30, 2023 7 min

A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe

 

Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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