Reality bites: Are equity markets too upbeat?

Nanette Abuhoff Jacobson, Global Investment and Multi-Asset Strategist
2023-12-31
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The views expressed are those of the author at the time of writing. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. The value of your investment may become worth more or less than at the time of original investment. While any third-party data used is considered reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed. For professional, institutional, or accredited investors only.

2022 has been a roller-coaster ride in more ways than one. Case in point: In recent months, US equity market participants have pounced on any signs that the US Federal Reserve (Fed) might be becoming less hawkish, sending the market soaring for brief intervals, only to be disappointed when the Fed pushes back on the notion that its words or actions signal a policy “pivot.” US stocks just completed a very strong November, but there are two big reasons why I think this latest market rally will disappoint yet again (and indeed, already has as of the middle of the first week of December): 

1) The Fed funds futures market is still pricing in Fed interest-rate cuts (not hikes) in the latter half of 2023. 

2) Corporate earnings estimates have not yet come down far enough for me to wave the “all-clear” sign on US equities.

Wishful thinking on rates?

Following Fed Chair Powell’s much-ballyhooed November 30 speech, many investors gleefully focused on the Fed’s planned shift to a 50-basis point (bp) rate hike from the outsized 75 bp hikes enacted at the past four Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings. However, Powell also emphasized that even though there has been some better news recently on core goods inflation, non-housing services inflation — which represents more than 50% of core inflation — has remained high and “sticky.” Importantly, this is also the area where wages have risen the most. 

From where I sit, here’s the part the equity market seems to have missed: Fed policy likely needs to be held at restrictive levels for “some time” before demand and wages slow enough to warrant looser policy. As of December 7, the futures market was pricing in a peak Fed funds rate of 5.0% and then around 50 bps of rate cuts by the end of next year. Given persistent structural issues around labor supply (e.g., a lower workforce participation rate), I think it is optimistic to believe inflation will have cooled sufficiently for the Fed to be able to pivot to policy easing by next year.

Too rosy on corporate earnings?

On the earnings front, the equity market also seems to have a pretty rosy outlook. Earnings expectations for 2023 have fallen quite a bit this year, to 3.8% for S&P 500 companies as of early December, from 9% roughly six months ago (according to FactSet). However, Figure 1 shows that analysts’ earnings expectations probably have to be pared back even further before hitting the recessionary levels seen over the past three decades. (Earnings “breadth” better captures the condition of the overall market, in my view.) Even in a mild recession, one would expect earnings to contract and their breadth to deteriorate, suggesting that the market may be too optimistic regarding the fundamental earnings picture.

Figure 1
Earnings revisions may have further downside

Investment implications

Given my assessment that the above factors are apt to weigh on equity markets (particularly the US market) for the foreseeable future, nipping any near-term rallies in the bud, I recommend that investors consider:

  • Remaining cautious on global equities: With the equity markets appearing to be overly sanguine on both Fed policy and corporate earnings, I favor maintaining a moderate portfolio underweight to global equity risk for the time being. 
  • Sticking with higher-quality stocks: Focus on companies with pricing power, long-term margin stability, and healthy balance sheets that can withstand ongoing inflationary pressures. I currently favor value-oriented sectors like energy and materials.
  • Dipping back into high-quality fixed income: There are already tentative signs that tighter financial conditions induced by Fed rate hikes are slowing longer-term growth. With bonds now more competitive versus equities from a yield perspective, I think this is a good time to selectively rebuild defensive fixed income exposure. 

Neither MSCI nor any other party involved in or related to compiling, computing, or creating MSCI data makes any express or implied warranties or representations with respect to such data (or the results to be obtained by the use thereof), and all such parties hereby expressly disclaim all warranties of originality, accuracy, completeness, merchantability, or fitness for a particular purpose with respect to any such data. Without limiting any of the foregoing, in no event shall MSCI, any of its affiliates, or any third party involved in or related to compiling, computing, or creating the data have any liability for any direct, indirect, special, punitive, consequential, or other damages (including lost profits) even if notified of the possibility of such damages. No further distribution or dissemination of this MSCI data is permitted without MSCI’s express written consent.

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