Compared to post-war norms, the contemporary economic expansion has been odd in many ways. Persistent sub-par economic growth, a lack of normal lending and borrowing activities, declining labor-force participation rates, a stubbornly high underemployment rate, an inflation no-show, negative yields, and bizarre economic policies (e.g., TARP, cash for clunkers, stress tests, and quantitative easing).
U.S. profit margins have widened significantly in the last couple decades. Total U.S. corporate profits as a percent of GDP averaged only about 8% in the 20 years leading up to 2000, but has since risen by almost 30%, averaging 10.5%. Similarly, the overall profit margin among S&P 500 companies has increased steadily in this recovery to record highs!
The U.S. yield curve has inverted (at least the 10-year Treasury yield to either the 3-month T-bill or the Fed funds rate) and captured the full attention of investors. Rightly so, since a yield curve inversion has historically been an excellent indicator of a pending recession. However, a condition that has always existed in the post-war era when the yield curve has inverted is absent today.
Stocks do best in times of general price stability. In the post-war era, the stock market has provided investors with significantly higher returns and lower risk whenever the annual rate of consumer price inflation has been between 1% and 3%. However, when outside this “Sweet Spot”—when the porridge is either too hot or too cold—investment results are far less hospitable.
The stock and commodity markets have been messaging confidence in the future of this economic recovery since the December stock swoon. The S&P 500 has surged by about 10% so far this year on strong breadth led by economically-sensitive small cap stocks and cyclical sectors, while traditional defensive equities have lagged.
Arguably, the biggest risk facing the stock market is a recession. Currently, traditional recession gauges are mostly comforting and a key indicator—balance sheet health—is remarkably strong. Often, recessions occur when financial health deteriorates, limiting household or business capabilities and lowering confidence.
Economic growth in the contemporary expansion has been perpetually weaker than any in the post-war era. Many explanations have been offered for why the U.S. is stuck in low gear, including aging demographics, overextended balance sheets, overused and increasingly ineffective economic policies, and a tech-boom-induced world awash with excess capacity.
Just some noodling over an array of issues including:
- What private sector confidence currently suggests about the stock-bond allocation tilt?
- Is the fuel for Populism fading?
- Will winning the trade war cause U.S. stocks to lose?
- How have stocks performed once the unemployment rate bottoms?
- What does a 2019 U.S. economic slowdown imply for the 2020 election?
- A nice revaluation refresh for stocks!
Emerging Markets (EM) are not generally considered defensive investments and, therefore, investors do not often turn toward these economically-sensitive stocks near the end of a bull market cycle. However, as Chart 1 highlights, if the current economic expansion/bull market is in its late innings, perhaps you should consider “Emerging for the Finish.”
During the December carnage many Bulls were killed on the battlefield and others badly wounded. This year, although the skirmish has quieted, most remain on edge. However, investors may just now be jumping out of their foxholes because the Cavalry has recently been sighted coming over the hill with bugles blaring!
The next recession, whenever it is, could face an unusual headwind. Normally, recessions are about liquidating fundamental excesses. Restoring health to balance sheets which were abused in the last expansion, purging bad business decisions, restoring liquidity, replenishing savings, and restarting the profit, job, and income creation cycles.
In 2018, the U.S. recovery was on a path toward recession. It couldn’t last much longer growing above 3% in real terms and 5.5% in nominal terms, with an unemployment rate below 4%. Wages, consumer, producer, and commodity prices were rising and the Federal Reserve (Fed) and bond vigilantes were tightening.
Amongst the carnage and ongoing financial market volatility are a few encouraging signs the stock market may eventually regain its footing. As the pictures below illustrate, a proprietary U.S. economic momentum indicator suggests that recession fears may lessen by the spring, valuations have now fallen well below levels justified by bond yields, investor mindsets are quickly shifting away from overheat fears, and the U.S. dollar may finally be breaking down.
Welcome to 2019! As we begin the New Year, volatility (the stock market’s VIX volatility index spiked above 30 last week) and uncertainty (Bear Market, Recession?) reign. Amongst all the chaos, and with much personal trepidation over what may actually happen this year, here are some observations and a few guesses for 2019.