It was another down week in the stock markets, which, under the surface, was worse than the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 indexes being down only about 0.25% might have suggested. Volatility continues to rule the markets daily as investors and traders try to discount the effects of inflation, interest rate hikes, a raging war, and the possibility of a recession in the coming months.
Speaking of interest rate hikes, the Federal Reserve (The Fed) met last week and raised short-term interest rates by 0.5% (bringing them to 0.75%-1.00%). The Fed signaled that more 0.5% interest hikes were likely coming and also mentioned that single day 0.75% hikes were not being considered. Although the markets breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday and rallied about 3% from the day’s lows, that rally was short-lived as the markets gave it all back and more on Thursday and Friday.
As of Friday’s close, the S&P 500 index is down about 13.5%, while the harder-hit tech-heavy NASDAQ is down about 22.3% year-to-date. Those figures, however, don’t reflect the level of carnage under the surface, where some growth stocks are down as much as 80% from their prior peaks. Strength in the markets is found in energy stocks (where oil prices continue to float above $100 a barrel) and defensive stocks (consumer staples, some healthcare, and utilities).
Even bonds, long known to provide ballast to stocks, are down about 11% year-to-date and have not held up their end of the bargain. Bonds are having one of their worst starts to the year since the 1970s. Even if you’re hiding out in 1–3 year short-term treasury bonds, you’re still down about 3.1% since the beginning of the year. The typical 60/40 (stock/bond) portfolio has provided no shelter from the recent market storm.
When you see both stocks and bonds down in tandem, the usual culprit is an inflationary environment. Last month’s government report on inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), showed inflation rose 1.2% in March, translating to an annualized rate of 8.5%. This coming Wednesday, we get the read on April inflation, which should see inflation easing from March levels (based on reports of declining used car prices, lower demand for homes, and supply chain improvements).
The Fed has two core mandates as its mission: 1) keep unemployment low and 2) maintain price stability.
At this point, The Fed has no choice but to raise interest rates to try and tame the inflation beast. Unfortunately, raising short-term interest rates has the side effect of slowing economic activity because capital becomes more expensive for both consumers and companies, thereby forcing a slowdown of discretionary purchases and capital improvements (and stock buybacks, which buoy the markets). We are already seeing a slight easing in housing market pressures as 30-year mortgage rates tick above 5%.
Inflation at the current rates is simply not tenable, and therefore The Fed must do what it can to keep the prices of goods and services at prices that consumers can afford.
Further taming of the inflation beast with short-term interest rate hikes can sometimes cause such a slowdown in the economy that we see negative growth in the gross domestic product (GDP), as was reported in the 1st quarter of 2022 when GDP unexpectedly contracted by 0.4% (which is an annualized rate of 1.4%).
As of the end of the 1st quarter, we had only experienced a single 0.25% short-term interest rate hike by The Fed, so that was not the proximate cause of the decline in GDP. More likely, the side effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a complete lockdown in parts of China because of COVID resurgence, and inflation worries all weighed on the economy in an otherwise environment of robust consumer demand.
The definition of an economic recession is two consecutive quarters of contracting GDP, so 2nd quarter 2022 GDP is pivotal in determining whether we’re already in an economic recession. Perhaps that’s what has the markets worried.
Also on the economic front, both the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Manufacturing Index and the ISM Services Index remained at high levels last month; however, there is some weakness developing under the surface. The ISM Manufacturing Index has fallen in five of the last six months, while new orders for the services sector fell to a 14-month low. At the same time, prices have remained stubbornly high in both indexes, which raises the possibility of economic stagflation (inflation + slowing economy) in the coming months.
What About Now?
While the markets continue their correction (pullback), we have continued to get more defensive in our client portfolios by selling more (underperforming) positions, adding to our hedges, and tightening up our option selling. Unfortunately, in a rising volatility environment, the fruits of our option selling labor don’t begin to show up in client portfolio results until after the volatility subsides, or those sold options expire. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to allocate to those strategies to reduce portfolio risk, but in the short term, they may not display the intended positive portfolio effects.
While I don’t have a working crystal ball, I’ve seen little evidence that the volatility is about to subside anytime soon. Though the markets are oversold (stretched to the downside) on a short-term basis, we have not seen any bounces that have lasted longer than a day or two, at least not since late March. We are certainly overdue for a robust bounce that lasts at least a few weeks or months, but I don’t see any evidence to believe that we’re at a durable long-term bottom yet.
Therefore, this back-and-forth choppy action may continue until after the mid-term elections, as is typical for this part of the presidential cycle. We may also need to shake out more weak hands in the short term and get to some level of capitulation or panic in order to get a sustainable rally.
One contrary indicator, investor sentiment about the markets, is at some of the lowest levels–some levels on par with sentiment during the great financial crisis in 2007-2009 and the COVID crisis, hinting that investors are not very exuberant about investing in the markets. Another contrary indicator, mutual fund flows, shows that investors of late are cashing out of stocks in recent weeks, which means at some point, many will be forced to buy back their stocks in the near future.
If you’re not a client of ours, I hope you have taken some action with your portfolio during the prior market rallies, to reduce your overall risk and exposure to the stock market. Whether selling some underperforming positions, buying some bear market funds, or just hedging your portfolio in one way or another, figure out a way to reduce your overall portfolio risk. Don’t wait until the market is down a lot before taking some action. You want to have some cash on hand to pick up some “bargains” once the market resumes its uptrend.
If you have not, or if you still feel overexposed, you should consider doing so during the next market rally to bring your portfolio more in line with your own personal risk tolerance. This is especially true if you find yourself worried about your investments more than usual these days. Remember, no one can control what the market does, but you and only you can control the risk you’re taking and the amount of the loss you wish to sustain. If you’re picking up anything on this downturn, keep it small and expect that you’ll have to wait some time to become profitable on these positions. Disclaimer: None of the foregoing should be construed as investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. Please consult with your own financial advisor or talk to us if you need help.
In a rising interest rate environment where inflation is not yet under control, and where The Fed is now a net seller of bond assets (instead of a buyer), stocks will have a hard time making it back to old highs, not to mention making new ones. While the 13-year-old bull market may not be finally dead, I don’t see this environment as friendly to investing as it has been in the recent past. Don’t assume that the “beach-ball” market that absorbed all manner of “meme stocks”, special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), Ponzi stocks, a flood of IPOs, and additional stock offerings is going to come roaring back, because I don’t believe that it will anytime soon. Remember, if your favorite stock is down 50%, you need it to double just to get back to even. I don’t think you can count on that anytime soon either.
There’s a saying in the investing world that most have heard: “Don’t Fight The Fed.” That means when The Fed is accommodative with low-interest rates and is actively providing liquidity to the markets (as they mostly have for the past 13 years), you’re essentially investing with the wind at your back. In that environment, you want to be a net buyer, not a net seller of securities.
If you believe that saying is true during the accommodative periods, then trying to fight the Fed when they are withdrawing liquidity and raising interest rates and insisting that the market should go up in the face of those headwinds would not make much sense during the non-accommodative period we’re experiencing right now. A time of Fed accommodation will return at some point but be patient and cautious with new investments until then.
If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.