A survey asking equity investors whether the stock market does best with a strong or weak U.S. dollar would likely yield a variety of contradicting opinions—and they would all be correct! Like many couples, the stock/dollar relationship is complicated. Sometimes they get along blissfully, other times they separate because they find they rarely agree and, often, they simply seem indifferent to each other. They are an odd couple!
Despite the current trade war with China, the U.S. economy has taken on an air of ‘Goldilocks’ since the December stock market swoon. Real economic growth has slowed, and both inflation and interest rates have moderated. The pace of growth is no longer too hot—as it was last year—nor has it yet become too cold—as most feared earlier this year.
After the December stock market swoon, amidst escalating recession fears, the Federal Reserve hit the pause button on interest rate hikes. Investors, though, had a déjà vu moment, sensing the 2018 experience as reminiscent of a few years earlier and, considering the aftermath of the prior occurrence turned out to be profitable, investors in 2019 opted to hit the replay button!
An aging economic expansion can be hazardous for investors. It tends to develop vulnerabilities (e.g., indebtedness, a lack of savings, over-indulgences, etc.) which threaten a premature ending. Often, old recoveries develop a capacity shortage leading to worsening inflation, interest rate pressures, and restrictive economic policies.
Investors have struggled this year with the relationship between stocks and bonds. The stock market seems very optimistic about the future, whereas bonds appear much more reserved, if not frightened, by the outlook. Should investors be concerned by the seeming contentiousness between stocks and bonds?
This morning’s U.S. GDP report should help calm fears about a pending recession and perhaps set the stage for a surprising acceleration in economic growth? Fears of recession have caused the Federal Reserve to pause its tightening campaign, slightly boost the pace of money supply growth, and significantly lower long-term yields. Improved monetary accommodation definitely raises future economic growth prospects.
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.