The U.S. economy grew at a surprisingly high 2.6% annual rate in the third quarter, reversing two consecutive quarters of declines. But beneath the strong headline number were signs that consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation and that the housing market has been hit by this year’s dramatic rise in interest rates.
Nevertheless, quarterly growth of this magnitude should reassure investors that the U.S. has not, at this point, been plunged into recession. Fears of an economic slowdown have been front of mind this year amid a dramatic tightening of financial conditions by the Federal Reserve. The central bank is attempting to get inflation, which is at its hottest in decades, under control by boosting interest rates.
But one quarter of growth doesn’t mean the risk of a slowdown has passed.
“The trajectory for growth looks weak,” said Jeffrey Roach, the chief economist at LPL Financial. “A deteriorating housing market and nagging inflation along with an aggressive Federal Reserve puts the economy on unsure footing for 2023.”
The market reaction was still upbeat. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was rising 375 points, or 1.2%, on Thursday.
After all, the result was a significant surprise to the upside. Economists surveyed by FactSet had estimated that the economy grew at a 2% annual rate in the three months to the end of September, following declines of 0.6% and 1.6% in the second and first quarter, respectively. The first half of the year marked a technical recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product growth.
The rise in third-quarter growth reflected net increases in exports, matching expectations that the trade deficit had narrowed as a result of a steep drop in imports, in part due to bloated inventories at some retailers. It was much fewer imports of consumer goods that led to the overall decline.
International trade dynamics may have been what ultimately delivered such strong growth in GDP, but investors would do well to examine some of the more telling components in the data.
Consumer spending increased overall, reflecting money flowing to healthcare and other services. But shoppers stopped digging as deep in their pockets to purchase goods, with data showing a deceleration of spending on cars, parts, and food and beverages. This was the third straight quarter in which goods spending fell, indicating a squeeze on consumers.
Amid signs that inflation remains persistently high—with two more interest-rate decisions due from the Federal Reserve this year—these trends are important.
As are indications that the U.S. is facing a slowdown in the housing market. GDP growth was primarily weighed down by a decrease in residential housing investment, and especially single-family home construction. The Fed’s hawkish shift on interest rates has had a knock-on effect on the mortgage market and created what some economists have called a housing recession.
The data out Thursday may be as good as it gets for a while.
“We expect 3Q22 to mark the peak in quarterly growth, as the cumulative effect of tighter monetary policy begins to push growth below potential,” said Ellen Zentner, the chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley. The bank expects to see GDP growth in the fourth quarter of just 0.8%.
“There’s a distinct possibility that Q3 could be the last hurrah for this post-pandemic economic expansion, as the U.S. faces material economic headwinds as a result of the Fed’s aggressive tightening cycle,” said Michael Reynolds, vice president of investment strategy at Glenmede.
The growth picture is likely to get gloomier as the full impact of the Fed’s monetary policy ripples across the economy—a process that can take many months or a year. The central bank is expected to hike rates by 75 basis points, or three quarters of a percentage point, for the fourth time since June next week. That, and another rate decision in December, will only show up in the data deep in 2023.
By that point, this year’s third quarter likely will look even better.
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Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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