With the 2021 tax filings behind us and the 2022 tax year drawing to a close, it’s already time for tax updates coming in 2023. The IRS released its 2023 tax year annual inflation adjustments covering updates to more than 60 tax provisions. The 2023 tax year adjustments will effect tax returns filed in 2024. For 2022 tax year filings due in 2023, certain tax due dates fall on a weekend. The actual due date is the following Monday. A list of 2023 federal tax due dates can be found in the attached PDF.

 

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Nov 15th

Winter Chill

The 2022 holiday spending forecast and why this year will be different than last

It’s that time of year when Americans are making their lists and checking them twice, but for the 2022 holiday season, many will be slimming down their spending. “I don't think there's any question that holiday spending will be slower this year,” says Whittier Trust Senior Vice President and Senior Portfolio Manager Teague Sanders, a phenomenon that will impact every socio economic segment. Here are some of the reasons why we’re likely to see a chilling effect on holiday spending for the 2022 season. 

Most consumers have already made their sizeable pandemic purchases 

Late 2020 and 2021 were big years for consumers making durable goods purchases such as new washers, dryers and other appliances, as well as automobiles. “These one-time, large expenses have all mostly been bought,” Sanders explains. “Once you’ve made such a purchase, you don’t have to buy it again anytime soon.” There was somewhat frenzied buying activity around these categories due to supply chain disruptions and the early part of the pandemic when many consumers were saving money thanks to stores being shut down. 

“That wealth effect has begun to diminish. We have also seen some slowdown in home prices, amid higher interest rates, higher borrowing costs and depletion of a lot of the excess savings that was sitting in people's bank accounts for the last 18 months,” Sanders says. “There’s simply less of an inclination, across all demographics, right now for people to go out and spend.” 

Luxury travel and goods might be somewhat exempt from the downturn

However, for the top echelon of income earners in the United States, some categories of holiday spending might be less impacted by lower spending. The pandemic era saw the introduction of a trend called “revenge travel”—essentially where consumers were taking their bucket list trips (often more than one) as a reaction to being cooped up at home for months on end. While this spending trend is slowing some, certain segments of the population are still booking high-end, luxury trips to faraway destinations. 

“Two areas that are proving to be more resilient are ultra-high-end luxury goods and airline prices,” Sanders says. “While portfolios of these consumers are down perhaps 18 to 20%, demand continues to remain robust owing to an increased wealth effect and supply demand imbalances respectively.” 

Plan to spend wisely 

No matter how much money you have, it pays to be wise with it. “Even when people have a larger pool of funds to pull from, they tend to still be rational in their purchasing decisions. They're just rational in slightly different ways,” Sanders says. When the vast majority of the country thinks about a large purchase, it might be a home appliance, but when ultra-high-net-worth individuals consider a sizable purchase, the scale is much larger. 

While most Whittier Trust clients have a strong understanding of how wealth works, advisors make it a point to keep an eye on every facet of their clients’ portfolios. “We’re not doing our job if we're not counseling people on the direction of borrowing costs and where expenses are likely to run,” says Sanders. With higher interest rates and increased costs of just about every good and service, everything is pricier in 2022. 

While those things may not immediately impact someone’s lifestyle, the Whittier team realizes that wealth is just one important facet of a person’s overall peace of mind, and it can be emotionally charged. “When we counsel people, we take their thoughts and emotions into account as we make our recommendations,” Sanders says. “That approach is really helpful because our clients see what's going on in the world around them. No matter how wealthy someone is, it’s important to be empathetic and realize that what’s going on in the world at large is impacting them too.” 

Practical implications for this holiday season and beyond

Some people might be thinking about whether the gifts they’ll receive this holiday season will change, but more broadly, decreased spending can have significant implications for markets overall. 

“Consumer spending is 60 to 70% of GDP growth in the United States, so consumer sentiment matters quite a bit,” says Sanders, who notes that recent Google Trends reports—a predictor of what’s on people’s minds—have seen a sharp increase in searches for the word “inflation.” Higher prices on everything from gas to groceries tends to dampen consumer spending. “It really impacts your emotional state because those sharp price hikes are disconcerting,” he explains. 

His advice? Take a deep breath and keep an eye on the long game you’ve agreed with your wealth management advisor. “Adjusting to the new normal is going to take a little bit of time, because there's been an entire generation of spenders who have really known nothing besides zero interest rates,” Sanders says. Markets are fluid by nature, and the right advisors and advocates can help you weather the storm.  

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Foreign Contagion Risks and the Policy Path 

The U.S. economy continues to show remarkable resilience in the face of stubbornly high inflation and tighter financial conditions. Core inflation, which is more influenced by the sticky components of rents and wages, remains elevated even as headline inflation recedes at a glacial pace. The Fed has already raised short rates from zero to 3% and remains steadfast in its commitment to more rate hikes.

The fallout from persistent inflation and a hawkish Fed has led to several adverse outcomes. The U.S. dollar and long-term bond yields continue to soar higher. And stock prices continue their downward trajectory as they discount rising risks of a global recession.

Despite the Fed’s efforts to cool the economy down, the jobs market remains surprisingly strong. The unemployment rate is still at its all-time low of 3.5% and weekly unemployment claims are close to historical lows. There are still 10 million job openings, which far exceed the available pool of 6 million unemployed workers.

Healthy job creation and steady wage gains have supported consumer incomes and spending. As a result, real GDP growth for the third quarter is projected to rebound from negative levels in the first two quarters to above +2%.

On the policy front, the Fed has repeatedly communicated that restoring price stability now is crucial for achieving sustainable growth and full employment in the long run. In this context, the Fed has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to accept “short-term pain for long-term gain”.

The current economic backdrop in the U.S. will likely encourage the Fed to continue tightening aggressively. After all, why worry about the possibility of breaking something in a big way or unleashing systemic risk from a financial crisis when we haven’t even slowed the economy materially?

With investor focus squarely on U.S. inflation and Fed policy, it may be worthwhile at this juncture to take a closer look at the broad global economic landscape. The U.S. has enjoyed strong growth fundamentals through both the Covid crisis and this latest inflation shock. The rest of the world has not been so fortunate. The inflation problem is significantly worse and growth is materially weaker outside the U.S.

In a still tightly integrated global economy, we examine the impact of U.S. policy actions on global growth. To what extent has the rapid pace of Fed tightening contributed to global economic stress?

At a more relevant level, we also assess the risks of contagion back to the U.S. from ailing foreign economies. We focus on two themes:

  • Can the U.S. remain an oasis in an increasingly barren global growth landscape and avoid cross-border contagion?
  • Can U.S. policy responses better mitigate global systemic risk and minimize contagion risks?

We look at recent developments in key foreign economies. We identify the strong dollar as a potential driver of future U.S. and global weakness. Finally, we offer some thoughts on the Fed’s optimal policy path forward within a broader global context.

Foreign Economic Risks

We begin our brief tour of foreign economies with a quick look at recent volatility in the U.K. bond market and its global fallout.

On September 23, the new administration in the U.K. announced a new fiscal plan to spur growth from supply-side reform and tax cuts. However, this focus on fiscal stimulus was at odds with restrictive monetary policy from the Bank of England and risked a further escalation of already-high inflation.

The lack of any funding details also raised concerns about an unsustainably higher debt burden and sent U.K. bond yields soaring. This upward spiral in bond yields was further exacerbated by forced liquidation of U.K. long-term bonds, also known as gilts, by local pension funds.

The unexpected rise in U.K. bond yields spread through the global bond and currency markets. This contagion is seen clearly in Figure 1.

Source: FactSet as of October 12, 2022

Immediately after the initial announcement, the 30-year U.K. gilt bond yield (shown in green) rose by more than 100 basis points to almost 5%. The spike in U.K bond yields reverberated across the globe. The 10-year U.S. bond yield (dark blue) moved higher by 50 basis points to almost 4% and the U.S. dollar strengthened against the British pound (light blue) by more than 5%. Higher bond yields and the strong dollar, in turn, sent U.S. stocks significantly lower at the end of September.

The rise in U.K. bond interest rates also highlighted another vulnerability for the global economy. As much as higher interest rates crowd out consumer spending in any economy, the problem is particularly severe in foreign economies.

The U.S. consumer is unique, and fortunate, in being able to access fixed rate long-term mortgages ranging in term from 15 to 30 years. For example, think about a U.S. household that refinanced its long-term mortgage during the period of low interest rates prior to 2022. With a low interest rate locked in for many years, that household is now immune to higher housing costs from rising mortgage rates.

Our readers may find it interesting to note that few mortgages overseas are at a fixed rate over long terms. Figure 2 provides a glimpse of how mortgages vary across countries by the term over which the interest rate is fixed.

Source: European Mortgage Federation

More than 90% of mortgages in the U.S. have a fixed rate over a long term in excess of 10 years. In Germany and Spain, that proportion drops to just around 50%. The impact of rising rates on housing costs is even worse in the U.K., where long-term fixed rate mortgages simply don’t exist.

More than 90% of mortgages in the U.K. offer a fixed rate for only 1-5 years. In a country already hit hard by high inflation, the greater proportion of mortgages resetting to a higher rate and higher payments significantly add to the odds of a U.K. recession.

The situation is also grim in Europe, but for a different set of reasons. Europe’s historical dependence on Russian energy is well known. Prior to the war with Ukraine, roughly 40% of Europe’s natural gas imports came from Russia. Since the invasion, Europe has looked for new sources of supply and Russia has retaliated by shutting off some of its existing supply of gas.

The resulting energy shortfall in Europe has led to sky-high energy prices, high inflation and significantly weaker growth. We show the outsized impact of energy costs on Eurozone inflation in Figure 3.

Source: European Central Bank

The nearly ten-fold increase in natural gas prices in Europe has led to a mega-spike in energy inflation and double-digit headline inflation in Europe. While energy inflation in the U.S. has started to decline, it shows no signs of abating in Europe. And things are likely to get worse during the dark winter months as Europe contemplates reduced energy consumption. Any cutbacks in production within energy-intensive sectors will likely lead to more layoffs and lower economic growth.

European policymakers are particularly hamstrung in balancing inflation and growth considerations at this point. The inflation problem in Europe emanates from a true supply shock, which cannot be remedied simply by raising interest rates. Any fiscal stimulus to counter lower industrial production and employment runs the risk of driving already-high inflation even higher.

Our baseline outcomes for Europe are listed below.

  • The European Central Bank is unlikely to hike rates as aggressively as the Fed.
  • A weak Euro will likely contribute to higher energy prices and more persistent headline inflation.
  • Europe may be forced to consider fiscal stimulus at some point to soften the recessionary hit.

Finally, we touch briefly on growth challenges in China. For a long time, China’s high growth trajectory was achieved by investment and trade. It has recently tried to shift growth more towards domestic consumption, but with limited success. China’s two key drivers of growth are now under significant pressure.

China’s investment share of GDP is almost twice the global average and has come at the expense of an unsustainable surge in debt. As an example, the heavily indebted real estate sector is now slowing dramatically. A zero-Covid policy has reduced mobility of people, goods and services, increased supply chain problems and decreased global trade. China’s trade and competitiveness have been further compromised by the new U.S. export controls on semiconductor chips and machinery.

We note in summary that foreign economies are far more fragile than the U.S. and remain quite vulnerable to policy missteps and exogenous shocks.

Pitfalls of a Strong Dollar

The U.S. economy is stronger than any foreign economy for a number of reasons. The recent monetary and fiscal stimulus in the U.S. was the largest in the world. As a result, the U.S. consumer is still resilient and its jobs market is still strong. U.S. inflation is, therefore, as much a demand issue as it is a supply-side shock.

As we have discussed above, this is not the case in the rest of the world. Foreign central banks are unable to raise rates aggressively because of weaker demand. Foreign inflation is also far less of a demand issue than it is a true supply-side shock.

This divergence between growth and policy dynamics in the U.S. and the rest of the world argues for continued dollar strength. We highlight two key risks from a persistently strong U.S. dollar.

First, a strong dollar reduces earnings for U.S. multinational companies from a simple currency translation effect. Revenues booked in foreign countries get translated back to lower dollar levels at a higher exchange rate. Figure 4 shows this intuitive strong-dollar / weak-earnings relationship.

Source: Bloomberg

The blue line in Figure 4 shows the year-over-year change in the U.S. dollar on an inverted scale on the right axis. A downward sloping line, therefore, denotes dollar strength. The green line shows the year-over-year growth in S&P 500 earnings estimates for the next twelve months (NTM) on the left axis.

We can clearly see here that S&P 500 earnings go down as the dollar goes up. A sustained rally in the U.S. dollar going forward could further reduce corporate profits and potentially trigger a dangerous self-reinforcing spiral of more layoffs, lower consumer spending, weaker economic growth, lower company revenues, back to lower profits … and so on.

And second, a strong dollar poses risks to foreign economies as well. A strong U.S. dollar raises the cost of their imports and drives up their inflation. Supply-side energy inflation is already high overseas; a strong dollar only makes this bad situation worse. Currency fluctuations affect trade balances and foreign exchange reserves. And emerging market economies find it increasingly difficult to service their dollar-denominated debt.

The strength of the U.S. dollar remains an important conduit for global contagion of economic weakness.

Possibilities for the Policy Path

The Fed has repeatedly reiterated its relentless pursuit of monetary tightening to quell inflation. It has so far been unmoved by the prospects of a U.S. or global recession.

We have recently suggested that the Fed may be well served from a shift in positioning where it becomes less rigid and more data-dependent. Our view is based on the observation that real-time U.S. inflation is likely coming down even as lagged measures of inflation such as shelter CPI continue to rise. We believe that the downward trajectory in upstream and coincident inflation will eventually bring overall inflation below policy rates.

Our focus on the fragility of foreign economies bolsters the argument for a more flexible approach to Fed policy. There is now an increasing chance that a central bank or government misstep is an accident waiting to happen. The calamitous fallout from the U.K. mini-budget crisis is just one small example.

We also believe that it is premature for the Fed to pause right now and a grave mistake for it to pivot towards rate cuts. We support the notion of continued rate hikes in 2022 to keep inflation expectations in check.

However, the Fed will likely have done enough and the U.S. and global economies will likely have weakened enough for the Fed to signal a pause in early 2023. A prescriptive upward march in U.S. policy rates in 2023 may very well lead to an unexpected and dire financial crisis somewhere in the world.

Summary

We are still in the midst of unprecedented economic and market uncertainty. U.S. core inflation remains sticky even as more timely measures of inflation appear to be declining in real time. Foreign inflation is less influenced by demand and largely remains a supply-side shock.

Against this backdrop, foreign economies are fragile and especially vulnerable to policy missteps. We believe that a pause in rate hikes by the Fed in 2023 will mitigate the risks of unexpected financial crises.

We continue to emphasize our strong regional preference for the U.S. over foreign markets. We also continue to target sufficient liquidity reserves to help our clients weather this storm. More so than ever, we remain vigilant and prudent in diversifying risk within client portfolios.

 

Foreign economies are fragile and remain vulnerable to policy missteps and exogenous shocks.

 

The strength of the U.S. dollar remains an important conduit for global contagion of economic weakness.

 

A pause in rate hikes by the Fed in 2023 will mitigate the risks of unexpected financial crises.

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

The End of Easy Money

Introduction

The market turmoil in 2022 so far is in sharp contrast to the heady mix of stimulative policy and low volatility in 2021. In 2022, persistently high inflation has led to tighter monetary policy and slower growth.

The Fed has raised rates from 0 to 2.25%. It is on track to reduce its balance sheet ... perhaps by as much as $500 billion by December. Long term interest rates have moved dramatically in response to inflation and proposed Fed policy. Along the way, the war in Ukraine and lockdowns in China have further pushed back the potential peak in inflation.

These events have conspired to create a hostile market environment for risky assets. At their low point, stocks were down by more than -20% and bonds had declined by over -10%.

As a long cycle of easy money draws to an end, we discuss several implications of a more normalized regime of inflation, interest rates and valuations.

In the short term ...

  • Have we just seen that elusive peak in inflation or will the data “flatter to deceive”?
  • How far behind is the Fed in its tightening cycle and how far does it need to go from here?
  • Are we in a recession now? If not, when will it arrive and how long will it last?
  • How severe and protracted will the bear market be for stocks and other risky assets?

There are even more intriguing questions on the other side of this economic slowdown.

In the longer run ...

  • Where will inflation and interest rates eventually settle?
  • What will stock and bond returns look like?

These are extraordinary times of change, challenge and chaos. We hope these insights help our readers navigate this unusually high market volatility.

Inflation and The Fed

We know inflation has been rising steadily. It is now remarkably high, pervasive and ubiquitous. However, there are clear signs in recent weeks that inflation may have peaked in June.

Headline and core CPI inflation (Consumer Price Index) for July came in below the June highs and also below consensus expectations. The downside surprise to July inflation has now raised hopes that inflation may have started its descent from June’s lofty 9.1% perch.

It is still feared that wage inflation, which tends to be more sticky and stubborn, will be a key impediment to a swift reversal in inflation. For example, average hourly earnings grew by 5.2% in July on a year-over-year basis.

But a closer look at monthly changes in average hourly earnings others some hints of deceleration. In the last 6 months, average hourly earnings have increased at a slower pace of just around 4%. In contrast, wage gains in the prior twelve months were in the range of 5-6%.

A potential diminution in wage pressures is corroborated with a decline of over a million job openings in recent months and an increase in corporate layoffs.

As inflation and stagflation fears have given way to recession concerns in recent weeks, we have seen other compelling signs of disinflation and demand destruction.

  • Longer-term inflation expectations have come down dramatically. As an example, 5-year inflation expectations have fallen from a high of about 3.7% to around 2.6%.
  • Gasoline futures are off their highs by over 20%. And the average price of gas at the pump has declined steadily by over $1/gallon since mid-June.
  • The price of most commodities including copper, nickel, lumber, wheat and corn has also declined by more than 20% in recent weeks.
  • Supply chain pressures continue to decline even as demand seems to be getting weaker.

And finally, at the risk of re-igniting a controversial debate, our last argument in favor of subsiding future inflation comes from monetary theory instead of empirical evidence.

We have previously observed that the relationship between money supply growth and inflation seemed to have broken down after the 1980s. This was borne out by the data between 1990 and 2020.

We believe that this relationship was meaningfully restored over the last couple of years. The recent surge in money supply had a bigger impact on inflation than in prior years because of its sheer size and origin. The colossal $10 trillion of monetary and fiscal stimulus was unprecedented in magnitude. And stimulus checks literally took the form of inflationary “helicopter” money.

As a result, we have seen a revival of Milton Friedman’s well-known thesis that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. As goes money supply, so goes inflation. We believe this played out in a material way in 2021 and 2022. We also acknowledge that the pandemic effects of supply chain disruptions and pent-up demand further exacerbated inflationary pressures.

We show year-over-year changes in money supply and inflation in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Money Supply Growth and Inflation

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Our measure of money supply is M2 which typically includes checking, savings and money market accounts. It is shown above in blue. The green line shows the year-over-year change in CPI inflation.

We see two effects playing out in this relationship. One, fiscal stimulus tends to have a bigger impact on inflation than monetary stimulus. And two, monetary stimulus generally works on a lagged basis ... typically after 6 to 12 months.

Money supply shot up and peaked at over 25% in early 2021. We believe it contributed to the spike in inflation a year later.

But from that peak, money supply growth has declined dramatically in the last year or so. There are no more stimulus checks and the Fed is now tightening.

We believe that the recent decline in money supply growth has not yet fully impacted inflation. On the same lagged basis, it will likely reduce inflation in the coming months.

We close with a final word of caution on the outlook for inflation. We do not expect inflation to abate nearly as quickly as the rate at which it shot up.

The ongoing war in Ukraine will continue to dislocate commodity prices and supply chains. And even as energy and goods inflation tails off, services inflation which includes rents and wages will likely be stickier and more persistent.

As a result, while inflation will likely recede, it will do so slowly and remain above target in 2022 and 2023. We expect core PCE inflation (Personal Consumption Expenditures) at around 4% by the end of 2022 and at about 3% by the end of 2023.

So, where does all this leave the Fed? And what do they need to do next?

The misguided belief on the Fed’s part last year that inflation would be transient leaves it in a difficult spot in 2022 – fight inflation and risk a recession or avoid a recession and risk a long inflationary spiral.

Its dilemma is further compounded at this point. The Fed finds itself at peak hawkishness with consecutive 75 basis point hikes even as inflation may be peaking.

We begin our discussion on the Fed with a quick recap of their policy responses so far. Yes, the Fed was hopelessly late in beginning its tightening cycle. But we believe they are not as far behind as the current gap between a Fed funds rate of 2.25% and July’s headline CPI print of 8.5% may suggest.

While the Fed was late to raise rates, they did use their policy tool of forward guidance to good effect in engineering a slowdown.

The Fed has clearly communicated in recent months what they expect to do in the future. As a result, financial conditions have already tightened in the form of higher interest rates, a stronger dollar and lower stock prices.

We also anticipate a lower cap to the Fed funds rate than many may fear. We believe that today’s high inflation is not simply a demand problem, it is also a supply issue. In so far as this may be true, the Fed will get some help in the fight against inflation ... and it will come from the private sector as supply chains continue to get restored.

So, should the Fed continue on its policy path or consider a pause or a pivot if inflation does peak?

The 2y-10y portion of the yield curve is already steeply inverted. At its current projected pace, the Fed will invert the short end of the yield curve as well by November.

Does the Fed have any options but to invert the entire yield curve before the end of the year?

Maybe.

The Fed’s hawkish stance has so far succeeded in preventing current inflation from becoming anchored in inflation expectations. To keep inflation expectations muted and avoid an inflationary spiral, the Fed needs to continue hiking in the foreseeable future.

But at some point in the next several months, the Fed may have some flexibility. By then, it may be able to look back at a clearly visible peak in inflation. If June proves to be that peak, the Fed may then have enough evidence of falling inflation to consider a shift in policy.

We believe a pivot to rate cuts anytime soon would be a mistake; it runs the risk of prolonging the inflationary cycle much like it did in the 1970s. We believe, however, that a “no-promises” pause in 4 to 6 months may not be as unlikely as many believe... especially if the incoming data shows a clear and convincing trend of disinflation.

We focus next on the depth and duration of a potential recession and the current bear market.

Recession and Bear Market

Investors have agonized about a long list of concerns for several months now. There is one common theme across all these sources of anxiety. Just how severe will this current bear market or a potential recession be?

We look at several factors to answer this question and conclude that the worst fears on this front may be unfounded.

We first assess the impact of higher interest rates on the broad economy. And we do so through two potential transmission mechanisms – its impact on the housing market and corporate profits.

We have addressed concerns about the housing market in our prior writings. It is true that higher mortgage rates have combined with high home prices to push mortgage costs to their highest level since 2008.

But we still refute concerns of a dire housing situation or parallels to the 2008 Financial Crisis for a number of fundamental reasons. These include a limited supply and inventory of homes, greater credit-worthiness of borrowers and a significantly lower household debt to income ratio.

We also uncover an interesting and less-understood observation related to interest expenses and corporate profits.

Corporate debt is typically laddered across a wide range of maturities. On this spectrum, variable rate and short-term debt resets almost immediately to higher interest rates; longer-term debt does not. As a result, short-lived exogenous shocks in corporate bond yields simply don’t transmit as quickly or materially to interest expenses.

We saw this phenomenon during the Global Financial Crisis and we are likely to see it this time around as well. With the abundance of easy money until last year, corporations were quick to refinance most of their debt to much longer maturities.

Less than 15% of corporate debt today is in short-term and variable rate debt. More than 30% of corporate debt has a maturity of 10 years or longer. Based on this distribution, overall interest expenses are unlikely to rise sharply any time soon.

We offer one final observation in support of our belief that any potential recession is less likely to be deep and protracted.

The strength of the U.S. economy at the beginning of the year was based on a strong U.S. consumer. The strength of the consumer in large part is derived from the health of the labor market.

Figure 2 shows that the labor market has held up surprisingly well through the turmoil this year. Cumulative job growth has handily outstripped GDP growth in 2022.

Figure 2: Employment and GDP

Untitled design (77)

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Figure 2 shows two consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth which suggests that we may be in a recession right now. However, it is hard to square that up with the health of the labor market. We see in Figure 2 that employment has been strong – more than 3 million new jobs have been created in 2022 through July and the unemployment rate is at 3.5%. In the same period, Gross Domestic Income (GDI) has also been positive and divergent from GDP.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) determines the beginning and end of recessions using several metrics. GDI and employment are two of the more important factors in their assessment. It will be curious to see if the NBER eventually labels the first half of 2022 as an official recession or not. We wouldn’t be surprised if the answer turns out be No.

We believe that the economy is strong enough where any potential recession, should it unfold, will be short and shallow.

And how about the current bear market in stocks? Could it become more severe and protracted? Is the recent uptick in stock prices the beginning of a new bull market or simply a bear market rally?

The outlook for stocks depends on how resilient corporate earnings turn out to be in the coming months. Earnings have held up remarkably well through the first half of 2022. In the first two quarters, earnings came in well above consensus expectations. 2022 earnings growth for the S&P 500 is still on track to match its 9% estimate from the beginning of the year.

While earnings estimates for 2023 have declined a bit in recent weeks, they also remain surprisingly robust. Earnings for the S&P 500 in 2023 were projected to be around 250 at their high point; they are now estimated to be 2% lower at 245.

It was widely expected that high inflation and a strong dollar in the second quarter would take a bigger toll on corporate profits. Those fears have not yet been realized. In fact, if inflation peaks in June, inflation and currency headwinds will only diminish from this point on.

In order for stocks to retrace their recent gains and create new lows, we estimate that 2023 earnings need to fall by another 10-15% to the 210-220 level. We deem this to be less likely than feared. If the devasting second quarter could dent 2023 earnings by only 2%, then subsequent quarters with weaker head-winds are unlikely to inflict greater damage.

We believe that the underlying strength of the U.S. economy and company fundamentals will allow earnings to withstand adverse inflation and currency effects.

There is still a dominant view in the investment community that the recent rebound in stock prices is simply a bear market rally that will eventually give way to new lows. We assign a greater probability to the counter view that this may be the start of a new bull market.

In summary, we do not expect the current growth scare to degenerate into a prolonged recession or a lengthy bear market.

We also look further out into the next decade and offer the following perspectives on the economy and the markets.

Longer Term Outlook

Here is a brief look at the longer term outlook for inflation, interest rates, and stock and bond returns.

The last five decades have seen 3 distinct inflation regimes. We show them in Figure 3.

Figure 3: CPI Inflation in the Last Five Decades

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, 2022 – year-over-year change as of July

Figure 3 shows that inflation was about 8% on average during the 1970s. It then declined to around 3% from the 1980s to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and fell even lower to around 2% after the GFC. Which of these 3 regimes are we likely to see over the next decade?

We have already argued against a prolonged 1970s type of recessionary spiral. We also believe that the 2% post-GFC inflation represents a cyclical low which may be difficult to reach in the next cycle.

The GFC was a severe financial crisis which then led to an even more pronounced deleveraging cycle in its aftermath. Absent such a strong disinflationary force and in the face of potential de-globalization, we believe inflation in the coming decade is more likely to be around 3% than around 2%.

In this setting, we expect the neutral long-term Fed funds rate to remain around 2.5-3.0%. At these levels, it will keep pace with realized inflation.

The post-GFC and post-Covid periods were characterized by low, and even negative, long term interest rates across the globe. Real interest rates, net of inflation, were significantly more negative.

We believe that this era of easy money is now over and expect interest rates to be higher in the next decade. U.S. Treasury bond yields will likely be in the 3-4% range and, as a result, real long term rates will also be positive.

We believe real GDP will settle in at a more normal level of around 1.5-2% in the next decade. This should still allow earnings to grow in the range of 6-8%.

We next assess what a fair Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple might be for stocks going forward.

We draw on historical precedent in Figure 4 to answer the question.

Figure 4: P/E Multiples by Inflation Regime.

Screen Shot 2022-08-25 at 6.50.30 PM

Source: Strategas

Figure 4 shows trailing 12-month P/Es across different inflation regimes. Stocks perform best when inflation is low and between 0 and 4%. At either extreme, both deflation and high inflation tend to destroy profit margins and compress P/E multiples.

Based on the data shown in Figure 4, our expectations of inflation around 3% and our view on interest rates, we believe that the fair P/E multiple for the S&P 500 index in the next cycle is likely to be 18-19 times trailing 12-month earnings.

We expect this economic backdrop will lead to more traditional returns for stocks, bonds and cash. It is likely that cash generates returns in the 2-3% range, bond returns are around 3-5% depending on credit exposure and stock returns are between 7-9%.

Within these ranges, investors can expect normal levels of risk premiums for bearing the risk of investing in stocks and bond over the next decade.

Summary

The sheer breadth and depth of economic uncertainty so far in 2022 has been truly unprecedented. We have rarely, if ever, seen such divergent economic and market forecasts in the past.

In an effort to filter some signals from all the noise, we summarize our key observations at this crucial juncture.

We believe:

  • Inflation will moderate from here and recede gradually
  • Short and long Treasury rates are less likely to exceed 4%
  • Any potential recession, should it unfold, is less likely to be deep and protracted
  • The bear market in stocks may well be shorter than most investors expect
  • Stocks offer more upside than downside over the intermediate term

We are mindful of the broad range of unknowns at this point and the even greater need to invest with care and prudence. We remain firmly committed to the basic principles of portfolio diversification, risk management and investing in high quality companies.

We do not expect to see a lengthy recession, should it even unfold, nor a prolonged bear market. 

 

We also expect to see a more normalized regime of inflation, interest rates and valuations in the next decade.

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Inflation And The Yield Curve

INTRODUCTION

The market turmoil of 2022 stands in sharp contrast to the Utopian backdrop of stimulative policy, low volatility and high returns seen in 2021. Persistently high inflation has caused an abrupt pivot in monetary policy. Fiscal stimulus is poised to disappear in 2022 and a couple of new global risks have recently emerged to spark fears of a recession.

The Fed announced its trifecta of hawkish policy actions in the form of tapering, rate hikes and quantitative tightening in early 2022. It has now completed tapering, implemented one 25 basis point rate hike in March and signaled the beginning of balance sheet reduction from May onwards.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th triggered another upward spiral in inflation through a rise in food and energy prices. More than two months later, the war shows no signs of abating.

And finally, China has responded to its most recent outbreak of Covid cases with sustained lockdowns in major cities and ports. The curtailment of manufacturing and shipping activity will likely prolong supply chain disruptions and sustain inflationary pressures.

U.S. interest rates have moved dramatically in response to proposed Fed policy actions. Shorter-term interest rates rose significantly towards the end of the first quarter and even inverted the yield curve in early April.

Inflation has now become even more conspicuous as the main economic and market risk. High inflation can act as a tax and slow growth by itself. It also increases the risk of a policy misstep, where overly aggressive tightening by the Fed may trigger a recession.

Both of these possibilities were potentially reflected in the recent inversion of the yield curve. Yield curve inversions have historically been useful recessionary indicators. We focus on the key topics of inflation and the yield curve to reassess the outlook for growth. Along the way, we pose and answer the following questions.

  • Can the Fed alone bring inflation down to target levels at this point?
  • Could inflation roll over on its own? If so, when and to what extent?
  • What is the typical lead time from the inversion of the yield curve to the onset of a recession?
  • Has extraordinary central bank policy distorted the information content of the yield curve?
  • What other factors may be driving the recent decline in the term premium?
  • Does a low term premium make yield curve inversions statistically more likely?

INFLATION TRENDS AND IMPLICATIONS

High inflation is now pervasive and ubiquitous. It has become a global phenomenon for several reasons. The coronavirus pandemic was a global crisis. The war in Ukraine has increased commodity prices worldwide. And rising Covid cases in China will affect global supply chains. Figure 1 shows how high inflation is in excess of levels targeted by domestic central banks.

Figure 1: Global Inflation in Excess of Target (%)

A chart of inflation in exchange of target (%).

Source: Whittier, FactSet, Federal Reserve Board, ECB, Bank of Canada, Reserve Bank of India, Bank of Korea, BoJ, PIMCO

Figure 1 shows that the 8.5% U.S. CPI inflation in March was 6.5% above the Fed’s target level of 2% inflation. The experience is similar across both developed and emerging economies with Japan and China being the notable exceptions.

A closer look at U.S. CPI inflation reveals some interesting trends. The post-pandemic spike in inflation has been bookended by abnormal increases in vehicle prices early on and then energy prices most recently. In a curious case of symmetry, energy prices declined last year when vehicle prices shot up in April 2021. A year later, vehicle prices declined as energy prices skyrocketed in March 2022.

In fact, energy and vehicle prices account for almost 45% of CPI inflation over the last 12 months.

One may reasonably expect their outsized impact on inflation to diminish once supply chains and energy markets are restored to some level of normalcy.

Investors have focused increasingly on the adverse impact of higher food and energy prices on overall consumer spending and economic growth.

We examine this thesis in Figure 2 which shows domestic spending on food and energy as a percent of total personal consumption expenditures.

Figure 2: Consumer Spending on Food and Energy (%)

A chart of a consumer spending on food and energy (%).

Source: J.P. Morgan Asset Management

It is encouraging to note that spending on Energy today is only 4% of the total and less than half of what it used to be in the 1980s. Combined spending on Food and Energy today is also less than half of what it used to be in the 1960s.

We offer the counter perspective that higher spending on Food and Energy may have a smaller impact on overall consumer spending than many may believe.

We finally turn to the important question of whether U.S. inflation may roll over by itself in the coming months. We pose the question not out of fond hope, but based instead on the cumulative rebalancing of global supply and demand that has taken place over the last several months.

We look for signs of a natural deceleration in core CPI in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Month-over-Month Change in Core CPI (%)

A chart of a month-over-month change in core CPI (%).

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Figure 3 shows an encouraging decline in the levels of monthly change in core CPI.

Core CPI has increased at a slower pace in each of the last two months compared to the prior four months. Monthly changes from April to June 2021 were also a lot higher than those registered in recent months.

Figure 3 shows that the first big increase in the post-pandemic bout of inflation came in April 2021. Starting next month in April 2022, it is likely that favorable “base effect” comparisons from a year ago may now mitigate annual inflation measurements.

We observe separately that a number of recent inflation drivers like gasoline futures, used car prices and freight rates have all rolled over in recent weeks.

We believe that inflation will likely plateau in the coming months. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine and China’s lockdowns to combat Covid will continue to dislocate commodity, manufacturing and shipping supply chains. As a result, inflation will recede slowly and remain above target in 2022 and 2023.

INFLATION AND THE FED

The misguided belief on the Fed’s part last year that inflation would be transitory leaves it in a difficult spot now.

The war in Ukraine and China’s recent lockdowns have exacerbated inflationary pressures in the near term even as global growth slows under the weight of higher inflation and rising interest rates.

The Fed is now left to pick between the lesser of two evils. Try to control inflation and risk a recession or try to avoid a recession and risk a long inflationary spiral.

We believe that the Fed cannot afford to back off from its tightening agenda. They are already late in the process and simply cannot fall any further behind.

Having said that, it is highly unlikely that Fed policy by itself can bring inflation all the way down to target levels.

Our view is based on the simple arithmetic of monetary policy. The latest core PCE inflation reading is 5.4%. Assume for a moment that inflation doesn’t naturally roll over or supply chains don’t heal any further. In this setting, the Fed funds rate would have to go to 6% or 7% for monetary policy alone to push inflation all the way down to the target 2% level.

We do not expect the Fed to engage in such Draconian tightening. It will, nonetheless, push forward aggressively to achieve another outcome which is more modest and realistic.

We know how actual inflation can spiral out of control when inflationary fears get embedded into inflation expectations. The Fed’s recent rhetoric is aimed squarely at preventing current inflation from becoming anchored into inflation expectations.

In a sign of some modest success, longer-term inflation expectations rate still remain fairly low at around 2.5% as of mid-April.

We conclude this section with two key takeaways. At this point, the Fed needs help from the real economy to bring inflation gradually down to target. In the meantime, it seeks to establish enough credibility to manage long-term inflation expectations.

YIELD CURVE INVERSIONS

The recent inversion along most of the U.S. yield curve has sparked fears of a recession in the near term. The spread between the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield and the 2, 3, 5 and 7-year bond yields became negative at the beginning of April.

The 2-10 inversion is generally considered a reliable recessionary indicator. Inversions are generally observed when tight monetary policy leads to fears of a subsequent economic slowdown. In this setting, long-term interest rates begin to decline and end up below short-term rates.

Each of the last seven recessions was preceded by a 2-10 inversion. It is important to note that while every recession has been preceded by a 2-10 inversion, not every inversion has led to a recession.

We note that the yield curve inversions of early April lasted just a few days and have since reversed out at the time of writing.

We, nonetheless, explore the topic in light of renewed recessionary fears and in the event they re-appear in the bond market.

Lead Times and Alternate Measures

The 2-10 inversion is a leading indicator of recessions. Historical data suggests that a negative 2-10 yield spread tends to be quite early and leads an eventual recession by about 20 months on average. This lead time has ranged between 10 and 35 months at either extreme.

It is interesting to note that stock market peaks are observed closer to the onset of recessions. In other words, the 2-10 inversion typically leads the peak in stock prices as well, e.g. stock prices can go higher after the 2-10 spread inverts.

The slope of the yield curve can also be measured by the spread between the 10-year and 3-month Treasury yields. We designate this as the 3m-10y spread from here on and contrast it to the 2-10 spread discussed above.

The 3m-10y is also a reliable recession indicator. Its historical track record suggests that a recession ensues about a year after the 3m-10y spread stays inverted for about two months.

Even as the 2-10 spread became inverted, the 3m-10y spread has remained steeply positive. Proponents of a continued expansion in the cycle point to the 3m-10y spread as a rebuttal of the recession thesis.

We look at one more variation of the 3-month Treasury yield before interpreting these divergent signals.

Near-Term Forward Spread

Fed researchers have pointed out that an even more useful recessionary indicator from the yield curve is derived from the 3-month Treasury yield. The near-term forward spread is defined as the difference between the implied forward rate on 3-month Treasury bills six quarters from now and the current yield on the 3-month Treasury bill.

When this spread becomes negative, the market expects monetary policy to ease in response to the likelihood of a recession. However, the near-term forward spread is also steeply positive at this point.

Both the positive 3m-10y spread and positive near-term forward spread simply reflect the reality of a new Fed tightening cycle, e.g. the Fed plans to hike aggressively in the coming months.

How should one reconcile a flat or slightly negative 2-10 spread with a steeply positive 3m-10y spread and a steeply positive near-term forward spread?

The two 3-month indicators tend to assess the odds of a recession in the next twelve months or so. The 2-10 spread tends to have a longer lead time, which is closer to two years.

We believe the market is suggesting that a recession is less likely in the next one year than it may be in later years.

Inversions and Low Term Premium

We close out our yield curve discussion by examining an unconventional link between inversions and the level of term premium.

Treasury yields are derived from two components – expectations of the future path of short-term Treasury bonds plus a Treasury term premium.

Simply stated, the term premium is the compensation that investors demand to bear interest rate risk in holding long-term bonds. While intuitive to grasp, the term premium is not easy to measure. It is unobservable and must be estimated from the yield curve.

Figure 4 shows a popular measure of the term premium compiled by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Figure 4: 10-Year Treasury Term Premium

A chart of a 10-Year Treasury Term Premium.

Source: Adrian, Crump and Moench, Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The secular decline in the term premium shown above has now become a topic of great interest and debate.

Figure 4 shows that the average term premium since 1985 has been around 150 basis points. In contrast, the average term premium over the last 10 years has been close to 0.

A number of reasons have been advanced to explain this decline in the U.S. term premium.

  • Central bank asset purchases
  • Glut of global savings
  • Interest in dollar-denominated assets from foreign investors
  • Demand for longer-dated assets to hedge long duration institutional liabilities
  • Disinflationary pre-pandemic pressures and forward guidance

It is easy to understand how asset purchases (quantitative easing) by the Fed for over a decade may well have distorted the bond market. It is possible that unrelenting demand from a large price-insensitive buyer can dislocate prices from fundamental values.

U.S. Treasuries are also a preferred destination for a glut of global savings, foreign investors and institutions such as pension funds who need to hedge long duration liabilities. And finally, from a sheer risk premium perspective, the long trend of disinflation prior to the pandemic along with enhanced Fed signaling and forward guidance have reduced interest rate volatility.

The topic of term premiums becomes relevant in the following context.

Fed researchers have also studied the impact of this decline in term premium on the likelihood of yield curve inversions.* They conclude that inversions are 4 to 5 times more likely statistically at today’s low level of the term premium than they are at their historically higher levels.

Yield curve inversions in a regime of low term premium may, therefore, carry less fundamental information about growth and may prove to be less reliable as a recessionary indicator.

TAILWINDS TO GROWTH

We have so far addressed several recent concerns related to a potentially higher risk of recession. We comment briefly on some of the continued tailwinds to the U.S. economy to balance out our growth outlook.

We begin with some brief comments on the housing sector. There are growing concerns that rising mortgage rates and falling affordability will soon make housing a headwind for the U.S. economy.

We allay those concerns at least partially by drawing the following comparisons to the Financial Crisis.

  • Adjustable rate mortgages are a smaller percent of mortgage applications now (< 10% vs. > 30%)
  • Home inventory in terms of months of supply is lower now (< 2 vs. > 10)
  • Household debt to income ratios are lower now (~ 100% vs. > 130%)

In addition, the labor market is strong and close to full employment. Consumer balance sheets are healthy. Consumer net worth is more than $30 trillion higher than it was prior to the pandemic. Consumer incomes are high. The U.S. consumer is still strong.

Credit spreads have also remained fairly narrow so far. And S&P 500 earnings estimates for calendar years 2022 and 2023 have continued to rise through April.

In light of these strong fundamentals in the U.S. economy, we believe a soft landing is more likely than a recession in 2022.

SUMMARY

We examine the latest developments on inflation, Fed policy and interest rates to reassess our economic outlook. Our views are summarized below.

We believe:

Inflation and the Fed

  • Inflation remains the biggest economic and market risk
  • Inflation may peak soon, but will remain above target in 2022 and 2023
  • War in Ukraine and Covid cases in China will impede the recovery of supply chains
  • Fed policy alone cannot lower inflation to target
  • Fed signaling is key to managing longer-term inflation expectations

Yield Curve

  • Term premium in the last decade has been unusually low and close to zero
  • Yield curve inversions are statistically more likely when the term premium is low
  • Yield curve indicators may now be a less reliable recessionary signal

Growth

  • A strong labor market and U.S. consumer bode well for the U.S. economy
  • Low credit spreads and rising earnings estimates do not signal any major concerns
  • Recession risks may not be as elevated as many fear

We, nonetheless, live in complicated times. We acknowledge that there are a number of complex forces at play in the current macroeconomic backdrop. We are constantly monitoring new information for any signs that may refute our constructive view on the economy.

We continue to invest client portfolios with caution, vigilance and a focus on high quality securities.

 *Haltom, Wissuchek and Wolman, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

Inflation may peak soon, but will likely remain above target in 2022 and 2023.

In a regime of low term premium, yield curve inversions may prove to be a less reliable recessionary signal.

In light of strong fundamentals in the U.S. economy, we believe a soft landing is more likely than a recession in 2022.

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Above-trend Growth in 2022 

Introduction

The remarkably short Covid recession of 2020 was followed by a rapid and powerful recovery in 2021. Bolstered by massive policy stimulus, global economies and markets were resilient enough to overcome uncertainty from virus variants and inflation spikes.

The U.S. economy grew by almost 6% in 2021 in real terms even as CPI inflation reached 7% by the end of the year. The S&P 500 index led global equity markets with a stunning total return of 28.7%. In an even more astonishing outcome, stock market volatility remained unusually low. The maximum drawdown from peak to trough in the S&P 500 index was only -5% in 2021.

The strength in the economy and the markets was based on solid fundamentals. Heading into 2022, the Purchasing Managers Index, which serves as a useful leading indicator of economic activity, still remains firmly at expansionary levels.

However, an increasingly hawkish stance from the Fed roiled the stock and bond markets early in the New Year. It wasn’t too long ago that the Fed had appeared overly sanguine about inflation. As recently as September, the Fed was projecting zero rate hikes in 2022. It has since changed its position in a number of ways.

The Fed has stepped up its pace of tapering which is now expected to end in March. It is also projecting 3 rate hikes in 2022 with more to follow in the next two years. These actions were initially met with enthusiasm in the markets as they dispelled fears that the Fed was falling behind the curve in fighting inflation.

However, what came as a shock to the markets on January 5, 2022 was the Fed’s consideration of a reduction in its balance sheet soon after the first rate hike. This trifecta of tapering, rate hikes and now quantitative tightening (QT) was deemed to be an insurmountable “triple threat” for both stocks and bonds.

>We have highlighted for a while now that we have reached an inflection point in policy stimulus and that growth will slow down from its 2021 peak. Our outlook for 2022 focuses on one key question.

Will the decline in growth be exacerbated by a policy mistake around inflation or will growth still come in above trend to sustain the economic cycle and bull market? We assess risks to the economy from the virus, inflation and the Fed. We balance these risks out against the continued tailwinds for growth from prior stimulus, easy financial conditions and a healthy U.S. consumer. Along the way, we also look more closely at earnings growth in light of historically elevated stock valuations.

Omicron, Inflation, and The Fed

Omicron

We believe that Omicron will have limited economic impact despite its high rate of transmission. The current vaccines have been reasonably effective at preventing severe disease. They have also been successfully rolled out; the older, more vulnerable age groups have vaccination rates in excess of 90%.

The Omicron variant of the virus has also mutated significantly. While this makes it more transmissible, it may also make it less potent. The current data shows that a smaller percentage of all infected people have been hospitalized than before. And an even smaller percentage of hospitalized patients have been admitted to the ICU.

Inflation

We do not expect inflation to spiral out of control like it did in the 1970s. That bout of inflation was triggered by a supply side shock in the oil market. We do not see a similar parallel in 2022. We agree with the Fed and the consensus forecast that inflation will peak in the first half of 2022.

Our reason for this view is simple. Prices became so elevated in 2021 from the immediate shock of the pandemic that future price increases are likely to be more muted as the intensity of that shock abates.

Our third observation on inflation is a departure from the consensus view. We expect that inflation will subside at a slower pace than most expectations.

We, therefore, expect inflation to remain higher than consensus or Fed forecasts in 2022 and 2023. Having said this, we do not expect inflation to adversely impact the economy or the markets. When inflation and interest rates go up from extremely low levels towards 3 to 4 percent, stocks generally do well in a robust economic recovery.

The Fed

We do not believe the Fed will commit a major policy mistake any time soon. The hallmark of its policy for over a decade has been an overly accommodative stance.

The Fed has constantly erred on the side of risking inflation from being dovish than on risking another recession from being hawkish. Its recent decision to allow inflation to run well above 2% before raising rates is another example of its desire to go slow instead of going fast.

The Fed can always be data-dependent and we expect it to alter course as necessary.

We move to the more promising drivers of growth in the next couple of sections.

Legacy Tailwind of Prior Stimulus

Investors have worried about the inflection of both monetary and fiscal stimulus for quite a while now. More central banks have raised rates globally than cut them. Fiscal stimulus going forward will be a tiny fraction of what was seen in 2020 and 2021.

We believe, however, that investors are underestimating the powerful legacy of prior stimulus as a tailwind for future growth. We discuss a few examples of how financial conditions are still accommodative on the heels of the Covid policy responses.

We begin with a look at just how massive global monetary stimulus was during the Covid crisis.

Figure 1 shows quantitative easing (QE) from the four major central banks of the world over the last 15 years.

Figure 1: G4 Central Bank Balance Sheets, $ Trillion and % of GDP

A chart showing the G4-Central Bank Balance Sheet.
Source: KKR Global Macro and Asset Allocation, as of 10/31/21

The G4 central banks expanded their balance sheets by more than $9 trillion in the Covid crisis. This injection of liquidity was a staggering 21% of GDP. It was also 3 times bigger than their policy response after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

The Fed alone grew its balance sheet by more than $4.5 trillion and is now ready to start reducing it. At what pace might that happen? We turn to the last tightening cycle for a precedent. In 2017, it took the Fed almost 2 years to reduce its balance sheet by about $700 billion. We believe that any quantitative tightening in 2022 will only be a small fraction of the existing stock of liquidity that the Fed created previously through QE.

We believe that the Fed’s balance sheet will still remain sizeable and provide sufficient support and stimulus to aid above-trend growth in 2022.

Global monetary stimulus during Covid also resulted in extremely low interest rates.

We show global real interest rates in Figure 2. Real rates are defined as nominal rates minus long-term inflation expectations.

Figure 2: Real 10-Year Government Bond Yields

A chart showing the Real 10-Year Government Bond Yields.
Source: Bloomberg, as of 11/30/21

As we can see in Figure 2, real rates are negative in most countries. They are also well below their trailing 10-year averages.

We fully expect real rates to rise as growth remains strong, the Fed starts to tighten and inflation begins to subside. But because real rates will rise from such historically low levels, we expect financial conditions to still remain easy and accommodative.

We can also see legacy tailwinds from fiscal stimulus. Savings rates shot up on the heels of the initial rounds of fiscal stimulus as consumers were unable to spend all of their stimulus checks. These excess savings were banked and have since grown into a sizeable pool of reserves for consumers.

By most calculations, cumulative excess savings are estimated to be over $2 trillion. At around 17% of Personal Consumption Expenditures and almost 10% of GDP, this cash on the sidelines bodes well for future consumer spending.

And the consumer is strong in many other ways. Household net worth has grown exponentially from the rapid Covid recovery, a booming stock market and a red-hot housing market. Debt payments as a percent of household income are at an all-time low. The jobs market has almost fully recovered now with the unemployment rate below 4%.

Strong economic fundamentals have sparked reflation and high nominal GDP growth. We expect nominal GDP growth to be around 8% in 2022. At these levels, economic growth will far exceed nominal GDP growth seen in the last 20 years.

The above-trend growth in nominal GDP also bodes well for corporate profits. We look at the outlook for earnings growth and its impact on stock prices in the next section.

Earnings Growth and Stock Returns

We first highlight an important inflection point in stock market leadership.

The initial phase of a new bull market is typically driven by abundant liquidity. Stock prices move higher in anticipation of an eventual recovery. However, this early move in prices can happen even as actual earnings decline or throughout. As a result, P/E multiples expand dramatically in this liquidity induced phase of the bull market. We saw this play out in 2020.

We transitioned to the next phase of the equity bull market in 2021. In this growth-driven phase, earnings growth becomes the main driver of stock prices and P/E multiples begin to decline.

Figure 3 shows this effect with visual intuition.

Figure 3: S&P 500 Return Contributions in 2021

A chart showing the S&P 500 Return Contributions in 2021.
Source: FactSet, as of 12/31/21

Earnings growth reflects change in forward earnings estimates

The green line in the chart shows the S&P 500 price return of 26.9% in 2021. The light blue line at the top shows earnings growth of 34.6%.

The only way to reconcile a lower return than the growth in earnings is through a decline in the P/E multiple. This multiple compression of -7.7% is shown in the dark blue line at the bottom of Figure 3.

We expect this pattern to repeat itself in 2022. The magnitude of the numbers, of course, will be different but we believe the pattern will be similar. We expect earnings growth will be strong enough to more than offset a continued decline in the P/E multiple.

Our optimism for earnings growth stems from a couple of fundamental factors e.g. revenue growth and margin growth.

Revenue growth tends to be highly correlated with nominal GDP growth and is also expected to be around 8% in 2022. At these levels, it will be significantly higher than revenue growth seen in the last two decades. We expect revenue growth to remain above trend in the foreseeable future.

We are even more intrigued by the continued contributions to earnings growth from high profitability. Profit margins for the S&P 500 index continue to rise. Net margins reached an important milestone in 2021 as they crossed the 12% threshold for the first time ever.

In fact, profit margins have grown steadily for the last 20 years from the mid-single digits to the low-double digits. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the trend suggests a structural shift upwards in profitability.

We take a closer look at profitability.

Figure 4 shows trends in profitability over time and across sectors.

Figure 4: Change in Profit Margins over Time by Sector

A chart showing the Change in Profit Margins over Time by Sector.
Source: FactSet, Whittier, as of 12/31/21

We show current profit margins in green and profit margins from 2011 in blue.

The breakdown of profitability by sector reveals several insights.

  • Profitability varies significantly across sectors. The most profitable sector is Technology and the least profitable sector is Consumer Staples.
  • Growth in profit margins over time also varies significantly by sectors.
    •  The most profitable sector, Technology, has also seen a big increase in profitability.
    • So has the Communications sector.
    • The Energy sector is the only sector to see a decline in profit margins.
  • These results are intuitive. Communications has become a more profitable sector after Google and Facebook were added to the sector. Technology includes high margin companies like Apple and Microsoft.
    • Growth in profit margins also helps explain sector and market valuations.
    • The Technology and Communications sectors are more valuable with a bigger market cap because they are more profitable.

Figure 5 highlights the base effects of margin growth over time and the mix effect of margin growth across sectors.

Figure 5: Mix Shift for High Margin Growth Sectors

A chart showing the Mix Shift for High Margin Growth Sectors.
Source: FactSet, Whittier, as of 12/31/21

Figure 5 shows base and mix effects for two sectors with high margin growth. The purple bars show Communications and the grey bars show Technology.

The first pair of bars shows how profit margins have increased for these two sectors in the last 10 years – by 12% for Communications and 9% for Technology. The next pair of bars shows that at the same time, their weight in the index has also increased – by 5% for Communications and 12% for Technology.

On the other hand, sectors with low margin growth, such as Energy and Consumer Staples, show the opposite outcome – no growth in profit margins and a decline in their index weight.

These observations help us understand the recent rise in profit margins.

We believe strong revenue and margin growth will drive above-trend earnings growth and create potential for upside surprises.

We use these insights to inform our economic and market outlook.

Outlook For 2022

We expect the post-Covid economic cycle and bull market to continue in 2022 but with several important distinctions.

This cycle is more likely to resemble the post-Internet Bubble recovery than the post-GFC one. A key characteristic of this cycle will likely be steady reflation instead of the sustained disinflation we saw in the previous cycle. And finally, we expect stock returns in 2022 will likely be lower and more volatile than they were in 2021.

We summarize the key tenets of our 2022 outlook below. We believe:

Economy

  • Virus variants will continue to have limited economic impact
  • Inflation will remain above consensus expectations in 2022 and 2023 but will not meaningfully impede growth or profit margins
  • Fed will avoid a major misstep in 2022
  • Above-trend nominal GDP growth in 2022 may exceed current expectations

Earnings, Revenues, Profits and Valuations

  • Earnings growth will remain significantly above trend in 2022
  • Revenue growth and profit margins will remain well above trend
  • P/E multiples will compress modestly as interest rates rise gradually
  • However, stock valuations will not revert to their long-term mean in the near future

Asset Classes

  • Stocks will handily outperform bonds and cash in 2022
    • Above-trend earnings growth will offset modest P/E compression
    • Equity returns will be in the mid to high single digits with upside potential
  • Select Real Estate is especially attractive at this stage of the cycle
    • Cash yields could exceed bond yields
    • Correlation with nominal GDP creates useful inflation hedge
  • Private market investments should outperform their public market counterparts

Sectors and Themes

  • Value and cyclical stocks will perform well in 2022 e.g. Energy, Financials, Industrials
  • Credit will outperform duration
    •  Credit spreads will remain lower for longer
    • Nominal rates will rise by 50 to 75 basis points
  • The following themes will attract investor interest
    • Pricing power
    • Real assets
    • Energy transition and ESG investing
    • Innovation and disruption

We recognize that inflation is now the main investment risk in 2022. We are mindful that the seismic dislocation of global supply chains may create some unexpected outcomes and pose risks to our views on inflation and the Fed.

Nonetheless, we remain optimistic on the economy and the market. We expect growth to remain above trend and stocks to perform well. At the same time, we exercise restraint and discipline in managing portfolio risk.

Inflation has now emerged as the biggest investment risk in 2022. Will inflation or a related Fed policy mistake exacerbate the deceleration of growth from its 2021 peak?

 

We believe growth will still come in above trend to sustain the economic cycle and bull market.

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Introduction

September is a notoriously volatile month and it certainly held true to form in 2021. Stocks sold off during a seasonally weak period of the calendar as market uncertainty grew. The S&P 500 declined by more than -5% from its previous high while the Nasdaq index fell by more -7% from its prior peak.

We have long held the view that a couple of unusual factors would allow economic and earnings growth to surprise on the upside. Coming out of the Covid recession, we had an unusually strong U.S. consumer and we had unusually massive policy stimulus. In the first half of the year, they did propel growth higher than consensus expectations.

But the tide seems to have turned as the list of investor concerns has grown steadily in recent weeks.

There is a growing fear that supply chain constraints may keep inflation high and raise the specter of stagflation. The proposed reconciliation bill comes bundled with higher taxes that are generally restrictive for growth. Fiscal and monetary policy is approaching an inflection point and investors are now focusing on an anticipated deceleration of growth. Investors also worry that historically high stock valuations may be at risk if growth slows down dramatically.

We focus on the following discussion points to answer one key question.

  • Inflation
  • Spending and taxes
  • Inflection in stimulus
  • Deceleration and valuations

Are these potential headwinds likely to become major disruptors of growth in the coming months? Or will they merely be distractions on a bumpy road to recovery?

We begin our discussion with some brief remarks on a couple of other investor concerns that appear to be fading at the time of this writing. The Delta variant triggered a third wave of the coronavirus and stalled economic activity in the third quarter. However, we appear to have peaked in daily new cases, hospitalization rates and the incidence of deaths and a third round of re-opening may well lie ahead of us in the fourth quarter.

The perennial debate on the debt ceiling surfaced again in September and created angst and uncertainty among investors. At this moment of time, it appears that the Senate has reached an agreement to raise the debt ceiling through early December. We believe that a more permanent deal to resolve this manufactured crisis will also be negotiated in the coming weeks.

Inflation

Inflationary pressures started to build up after vaccination rates gathered momentum in early 2021. The initial spike in inflation was attributed to two pandemic-related effects – pent-up demand and supply chain disruptions.

The U.S. consumer has remained strong through the Covid recession. Disposable incomes are higher as a result of fiscal stimulus. Consumer net worth has soared from higher savings, rising stock prices, a red-hot housing market and low interest rates. The inability to travel or even move freely inhibited spending during the pandemic. The ability to do so after reopening, along with higher savings and incomes, has unleashed significant pent-up demand for goods and services.

At the same time, global supply chains have been in disarray after being brutally disrupted during the pandemic. Lengthy factory shutdowns in Asia and snarled shipping traffic have created a constant shortage of key components for manufacturing. Labor has also remained in short supply and contributed to wage increases.

Many had expected these pandemic effects to be shortlived and, therefore, for inflation to remain transitory. It is now increasingly clear that “transitory” needs to be recalibrated as inflation is proving to be more persistent than initially expected.

As growth begins to decelerate at the same time that inflation remains stubbornly high, investors have now started to worry about stagflation. We will discuss the deceleration of growth in later sections. We set out here to assess the outlook for inflation in the short term and over the long run.

We first rule out the possibility of runaway inflation similar to the levels seen in the 1970s. We do not see any parallels to the types of supply side shocks that were experienced in the oil and food markets back then.

We narrow down our choices of likely inflation regimes to either stubborn or transient and conclude that the answer is both over a 3-year horizon. We explain the rationale and implications of our view.

We show the Fed’s revised outlook on inflation in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Fed Projections of Core PCE Inflation

Source: September Federal Open Markets Committee Minutes
Source: September Federal Open Markets Committee Minutes

The Fed uses the Personal Consumption Expenditures metric as its preferred inflation gauge. The left chart in Figure 1 shows how their forecast for core inflation in 2021 has risen in the last 3 months. It now stands at 3.7% in September … up from 3.0% in June.

On the other hand, their forecasts for the next 3 years in the right chart above show a significant decline. Core inflation is projected to be just above 2% in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

We believe that the Fed’s outlook for core inflation at 2.3% in 2022 is overly benign. We think instead that inflation will remain sticky and stubborn for more than just a few more months. We expect core inflation to be 3% or higher for the next 12 months or so.

Month-over-month inflation has come down in pandemic-affected sectors like cars, airfares and hotels in recent weeks. But that decrease has been offset by an uptick in wage and rent inflation. And any easing of supply-side constraints in the near term will likely be offset by greater demand as the Delta variant continues to recede.

We, therefore, believe that the decline in inflation will be more gradual than the rate at which it spiked up. We are also not troubled by core inflation levels of around 3% in the near term. We know empirically that Price to Earnings (PE) ratios for stocks do well when inflation rises to around 3% from disinflationary levels against a backdrop of higher growth.

Over a longer 3-year horizon, we believe that inflation will end up being transient and recede towards 2.5%. There are powerful secular forces related to technology, demographics and global competition that will inevitably contain inflation in the long run. We are aligned with the Fed over the longer term and the markets which are pricing in lower inflation expectations in the future.

Spending and Taxes

The proposed reconciliation bill for social welfare has generated both support and opposition. Proponents of the bill view it as a significant investment in human and environmental infrastructure with the longterm benefits of greater social equality and a more sustainable planet.

Critics, however, worry about the implications of both higher spending and higher taxes. Some fear that more spending will exacerbate an already significant debt burden and others fret that higher taxes will be restrictive to growth.

We address the topic with a very narrow focus.

We comment simply on the economic impact of higher taxes and higher spending without any adherence to a political or philosophical ideology. We also steer clear of any tax advice.

The $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill has funding for education, housing, child and elder care, healthcare and climate change. The green bars in Figure 2 below show proposed outlays for spending and tax cuts over each of the next ten years.

Figure 2: $3.5T Reconciliation Bill: Spending vs. Pay-Fors

Source: Moody’s Analytics
Source: Moody’s Analytics

These programs offer direct and indirect social, environmental and economic benefits. For example, there is research support for the notion that lower childcare costs can have positive employment effects especially among single and younger mothers. However, we focus more on the concern that the costs of these programs will raise interest rates as debt levels reach a tipping point.

We allay debt fears by pointing out that this spending won’t add materially to the debt burden. It is instead intended to be paid for in almost equal amount by higher taxes and other provisions.

The blue bars in Figure 2 show these pay-fors by each of the next ten years. Total pay-fors aggregate roughly $3 trillion and provide a neat offset to the $3.5 trillion cost of the reconciliation bill.

How onerous will higher taxes be and what impact will they have on growth? Higher taxes account for 70% of total pay-fors or roughly $2.2 trillion. Most of the tax increases are projected to come from higher rates for domestic and international corporate taxes and high-income individual taxes.

We also don’t expect this higher tax burden to weigh significantly on economic growth … for one simple reason.

The restrictive effect of $2.2 trillion in higher taxes is likely to get neutralized by the expansionary effect of $3.5 trillion in higher spending.

We believe that the similar magnitude and inverse impact of higher taxes and higher spending could well offset each other and, therefore, be neutral to growth.

Inflection in Stimulus

The rapid recovery from the Covid recession was driven in large part by unprecedented levels of monetary and fiscal stimulus. The Fed has kept short-term interest rates at zero and expanded its balance sheet by more than $4 trillion. Government spending has also been monumental at $5.8 trillion in the last year and a half.

We are now on the cusp of an inflection point in stimulus. The Fed has clearly signaled its intentions to gradually embark on a tapering and then tightening cycle. The Fed is ready to scale back on its bond purchases and then raise interest rates.

And even though there is future spending proposed in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, its magnitude pales in comparison to the post-Covid fiscal stimulus. The withdrawal of fiscal stimulus in this magnitude will create a so-called fiscal cliff and reduce future growth.

We assess the likely impact and implications of this shift in monetary and fiscal policy.

We believe that this expected shift in policy comes as no surprise to most market participants. The economic landscape in 2021 is far different than what it was in 2020. Ultra-stimulative policies were appropriate as emergency measures in the throes of a pandemic. But they are likely misdirected today in the midst of a healthy economic recovery and persistent inflationary pressures.

The minutes of the September Fed meeting suggest that it will likely begin to reduce its monthly asset purchases before year-end. This tapering process could see an initial reduction of $15 billion per month in bond purchases from the current monthly pace of $120 billion. It is expected that the target date to end bond purchases altogether will be mid-2022.

We concur that tapering should begin in November or December and last 6 to 9 months. We disagree, however, with the Fed’s latest forecasts for its pace and timing of rate hikes. Based on September data, the Fed projects no rate hikes in 2022 and 4 rate hikes in 2023.

We believe that interest rates need to rise sooner than in 2023. We believe that the strength of the economy, the recovery in the labor market and the persistence of inflation all argue for a liftoff in interest rates in the third quarter of 2022. In this regard, we are more aligned with the market than with the Fed. We remain vigilant for a policy misstep by the Fed in terms of falling behind the curve.

The absence of any “taper tantrums” in the markets so far suggest that these changes in monetary policy have been anticipated and priced in. Long-term interest rates have started to rise ahead of the Fed’s tightening plans.

The impact of fiscal stimulus is generally less understood and is, therefore, worthy of more careful analysis. We measure the impact of fiscal policy on growth with a metric called Fiscal Impact Measure (FIM) developed by the Hutchins Center at Brookings Institution.

FIM is a more comprehensive metric than the federal deficit because it combines the impact of federal, state and local fiscal policy. It specifically measures the differential impact of fiscal policy beyond its normal level in an economy operating at potential GDP and full employment.

FIM is easy to interpret. By definition, it is zero and neutral to growth when government spending and taxes rise in line with potential GDP. When FIM is greater than 0, fiscal policy is expansionary … it pushes growth above potential GDP. Fiscal policy is contractionary when FIM is below 0.

We show the evolution of FIM in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Fiscal Impact Measure

Source: Hutchins Center at Brookings Institution
Source: Hutchins Center at Brookings Institution

Positive FIM levels are typically seen after recessions and they are particularly prominent on the right side of the chart in Figure 3. During the pandemic, fiscal policy was hugely expansionary and added between 4 to 6% to GDP growth.

By the same token, the end of that massive spending spree will create a negative impact on GDP growth in the next year or two. The red negative bars at the far right of Figure 3 show that growth will likely get reduced by a little more than -2%.

We expect that GDP growth will decelerate by -2 to -3% from the upcoming inflection in stimulus. However, we do not despair this drop-off in growth. At well above 3% in 2022, GDP growth will be considerably ahead of pre-Covid levels. In fact, we see these policy shifts as a reason to cheer and celebrate and not as a cause for concern. They simply mean that the U.S. economy is now self-sustaining and can be weaned off life-support measures.

We have already suggested that this upcoming deceleration of growth has been widely expected and is likely priced in. We lend credence to that notion by looking at the impact of decelerating growth on stock valuations.

Deceleration and Valuations

Many investors still worry that stock valuations are too high especially in the context of historical norms. A slowdown in growth is particularly troublesome to them because that would make valuations even less sustainable.

We allay those concerns by pointing out that this feared compression of PE multiples has already started to take place. Future earnings estimates have recently started to decelerate. But the markets had efficiently anticipated this deceleration well in advance of when it took place.

We show this vividly in Figure 4.

Figure 4: S&P 500 Earnings and PE

Source: FactSet
Source: FactSet

The green line in Figure 4 shows S&P 500 forward earnings and the blue line shows the S&P 500 forward PE multiple.

Forward earnings grew rapidly from the second quarter of 2020 and have recently started to grow at a slower pace. PE ratios have correctly anticipated both the initial burst of growth and then the subsequent deceleration … and well in advance by several months.

The current deceleration in earnings growth began to take shape in September 2021. It is remarkable that PE ratios began to price in this eventual deceleration one full year earlier in September 2020! The forward PE ratio peaked at that time at around 24 times. It has continued to compress even as earnings continued to rise but at a progressively slower pace. The forward PE ratio now stands at around 20 times.

We reiterate our belief that the impending slowdown in growth is not a new development and certainly not a surprise for the markets. We also believe that even though PE multiples have come down, they will continue to modestly compress further in the next year or two.

We believe that current stock valuations are reasonable in light of still-low interest rates and above-average growth. We believe that future earnings growth and dividend yields will offset this continued compression of PE multiples and generate positive equity returns.

Summary

We examined a number of concerns that are currently weighing on investors – Delta variant, debt ceiling, inflation, spending and taxes, inflection in stimulus, deceleration of growth and stock valuations.

We do not believe that these factors, individually or collectively, will conspire to significantly disrupt growth. We don’t dismiss them as trivial distractions either. Between the bookends of major disruptors and mere distractions, we position them as modest detractors of growth.

We summarize several beliefs, views and thoughts on this broad array of topics as follows.

  • The Delta variant and future virus strains will have limited economic impact
  • Inflation will remain stubbornly persistent over the next 12 months or so; it will eventually become transient as it drops below 3% by 2024
  • Higher taxes and spending will offset each other … and be neutral to growth
  • The Fed has signaled that tapering will begin by year-end and end in mid-2022
  • We expect the first rate hike to happen earlier than current Fed projections … we may see a liftoff in interest rates in Q3 2022
  • Fiscal and monetary inflections will cause growth to decelerate by -2 to -3%; however, growth will still be robust in 2022 and 2023
  • Inflection in stimulus is not new information and is likely priced in
  • Stock valuations have already compressed … and will do so in 2022 as well

We believe that this new economic cycle and bull market have longer to run. Our constructive outlook lends itself to a pro-growth, pro-cyclical tilt in our asset allocation and portfolio positioning.

We are also mindful that we have just come through some truly unprecedented times and uncertainty still abounds. We, therefore, remain respectfully vigilant and cautious in our optimism.

Investors are worried that stubborn inflation, higher taxes and the end of monetary and fiscal stimulus may become major disruptors of growth.

We believe that is unlikely to happen.

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Introduction

The U.S. economy maintained its strong momentum in the second quarter. Earnings estimates for the next 12 months also continued to rise on the heels of a robust economic recovery. As a result, the U.S. stock market generated solid returns in the second quarter. The S&P 500 index rose by 8.5% while the Russell 2000 index gained 4.3%. Bond yields remained surprisingly subdued despite a pronounced rise in inflation.

The most notable economic development in the second quarter was a surge in inflation at all levels. A closer examination of the data revealed that more than 1/3rd of the annual rise in prices was attributable to the pandemic – a “base effect” related to lockdown lows from a year ago and unusually high inflation in select categories because of component shortages.

Bond yields initially moved higher on the news but then declined as investors began to align their views on inflation with those of the Federal Reserve Bank.

The Fed conducts monetary policy to fulfill its dual mandate of promoting maximum employment and stable prices. In balancing these objectives, the Fed has clearly articulated that the uneven post-pandemic jobs recovery remains a bigger concern than the risk of higher inflation.

Even as inflation picks up, the Fed is willing to tolerate it for two reasons. One, the Fed expects the rise in inflation to be transitory. And two, it believes that letting inflation run above 2% for as long as it was below 2% will lead to a more sustainable economic recovery.

The trajectory of job growth from here on, therefore, plays a big role in the Fed’s monetary policy. As investor attention shifts from inflation to the labor market, we focus on the road to full employment in the U.S. economy.

We examine the U.S. labor market in detail to better understand the following issues.

  • Notion of full employment
  • Impact of demographics on the labor force
  • True extent of slack in the labor market today
  • Appropriateness of current monetary policy

The Diffuse Notion of Full Employment

The concept of full employment is intuitive to grasp and yet elusive to quantify. The natural rate of unemployment which brings the economy to full employment, and the labor market to equilibrium, is not easily observable and is, therefore, hard to measure or predict.

In its most simple definition, the natural rate of unemployment is compatible with a steady inflation rate and an economy operating at its full potential GDP. In other words, the natural rate is the rate of unemployment that would prevail in the absence of any cyclical fluctuations induced by changes in the economic cycle.

As intractable as the notion of the natural rate is, it is important for policy makers to understand its determinants, its changes over time and its relation to the actual rate of unemployment. An actual rate of unemployment which is below the natural rate is likely to trigger persistent inflation.

Let’s understand the basic components of the unemployment rate.

The unemployment rate at any point is derived from three different types of unemployment – frictional, structural and cyclical. The first two components, frictional and structural unemployment, define the natural rate of unemployment. Cyclical unemployment causes the actual unemployment rate to deviate from its natural rate during different phases of the business cycle.

Frictional unemployment is always present in an economy and arises from the natural impediments to the movement of labor. Structural unemployment arises from a mismatch of skills between what employers need and what workers can offer. Both frictional and structural unemployment exist even in a healthy economy. As a result, the natural rate of unemployment is always above zero. Both can change over time which causes the natural rate to vary over time as well. As an example, changes in public policy for unemployment benefits can change structural unemployment.

While the discussion so far helps us understand full employment conceptually, it falls well short of any practical insights and takeaways. We, therefore, turn to empirical evidence to gauge how close we are to full employment today.

We will look at the labor market in considerable detail in later sections. At this point, we address the topic of full employment by looking at two simple measures – one based on employment levels and the other based on unemployment rates.

We first look at all employed people in the U.S. as a percentage of the civilian population in Figure 1. The Civilian Noninstitutional Population (referred to as “CNP” from here on) is comprised of all people above 16 years of age who are not part of institutions such as the U.S. Armed Forces, nursing homes or prisons.

Figure 1: Employment as Percentage of CNP

A chart showing the employment as percentage of CNP.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 6/30/2021

The high point in this data is not necessarily the true limit of full employment. But it is certainly a useful marker for what maximum employment has been so far in the U.S. economy.

Over the last 70 years, the highest level of employment as a percentage of the CNP was about 65% in early 2000. After declining through the Global Financial Crisis, employment had inched back up to around 61% of CNP just before Covid hit. Today, it stands at 58%.

The proportion of active workers within CNP has declined in recent years and employment is, therefore, unlikely to reclaim its previous high of 65%. Nonetheless, at 58%, it remains well below what is the likely true level of full employment at this time.

Let’s revisit the notion of full employment by looking at unemployment rates instead of employment levels. We reach a similar conclusion by looking at historical unemployment rates in Figure 2.

The U3 rate of unemployment is the most widely reported metric based on the proportion of unemployed workers within the labor force. We also show the U6 rate, a broader gauge of unemployment, which includes discouraged workers and under-employed part-timers.

Figure 2: U3 and U6 Unemployment Rates

A chart showing the U3 and U6 unemployment rates.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 6/30/2021

We can see in Figure 2 that the all-time lows in U3 and U6 were achieved just prior to Covid. These historical lows of 3.5% and 6.8% for U3 and U6 respectively in early 2020 serve as a useful, albeit imprecise, proxy for levels of full employment today. The current U3 and U6 unemployment rates of 5.9% and 9.8% are still well above their historical lows.

Our early assessment so far suggests that we are well removed from full employment at this point.

We next address the shrinking share of the labor force within the CNP and its likely impact on slack and wage inflation.

Labor Market Composition

We break down the Civilian Noninstitutional Population into its different components in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Labor Market Composition

A chart showing the labor market composition.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

There are three key lines of segmentation in Figure 3.

  1. The CNP is composed of people who are in the labor force (LF) and those who are not in the labor force (NLF); CNP = LF + NLF.
  2. The labor force is made up of workers who are either employed (E) or unemployed (U); LF = E + U. Employed workers also include those working part time for economic reasons (PTER).
  3. People who are not in the labor force include those who are marginally attached to the labor force (MA) and others who are not in the labor force (ONLF) on a permanent basis; NLF = MA + ONLF.

This framework now allows us to define one other important and related concept. While we looked at employment levels and unemployment rates earlier, we now analyze them jointly by studying the entire labor force within the civilian population.

The labor force participation rate (LFPR) is simply the proportion of the labor force within the CNP; LFPR = LF / CNP. We frame our first key question for analysis.

  1. Has the decline in the labor force participation rate been driven mainly by recent recessions … and will a recovery, therefore, cause it to snap back and ease inflationary pressures? We believe the answer to this question is more secular in nature and less cyclical.

Participation Rates and Demographics

Economic downturns clearly play a role in the size of the labor force and the level of under-employment. This happens in a couple of different ways. Using Figure 3 for reference, a subset of unemployed workers (U) become marginally attached (MA) and drop out of the labor force during a recession. Some employed workers (E) also shift to working part time for economic reasons (PTER).

Both of these effects were at play during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 when labor force participation declined. If this decline was cyclical in nature, one would have expected it to rebound in the ensuing economic expansion.

But it did not! The labor force participation rate continued to decline through the post-GFC recovery. We look for other explanations of declining participation rates and find the answer in underlying demographic shifts.

The age distribution within a population can have a major impact on labor force participation. The population cohort of 25-54 years tends to have a higher level of labor force participation than younger or older people. Most of the variation in the labor force participation rate can be explained by changes in the composition of the U.S. population.

The baby-boom generation is generally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. For many decades now, the aging of this generation has significantly affected the size and composition of the labor force.

The sharp increase in labor force participation during the 1970s and 1980s coincided with baby boomers entering the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups. By the same token, the decline in the labor force participation rate also coincided with the aging of baby-boomers. We show this inverse relationship in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Participation Rates and Demographics

A chart showing the participation rates and demographics.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 6/30/2021

Figure 4 shows the remarkable rise in the labor force participation rate during the 1970s and 1980s. The sharp increase in labor force participation in that period was driven by two factors. Women entered the labor force in large numbers. And baby-boomers entered prime working age.

Labor force participation peaked in early 2000 at around 67% and has steadily declined since then. While the participation rate of women has been relatively steady in recent decades, we see an important shift in the age distribution of the CNP.

The oldest baby-boomers were born in 1946 and turned 55 in 2001. The decline in the labor force participation rate coincides remarkably with this inflection point in the aging of the U.S. population.

In the last 20 years, Figure 4 shows clearly that the number of people 55 years and older has risen sharply. We believe that the aging of the CNP has played a big role in the decline of labor force participation rates.

Because demographic forces are secular in nature, we expect the inexorable downward pressure on labor force participation to continue.

We, therefore, do not expect a big uptick in the labor force participation rate to provide a ready source of workers to ease potential wage inflation.

Let’s focus then on just how tight the labor market really is. We think of labor market slack in the context of both the demand for labor and the supply of labor.

We have read a lot about labor shortages of late as more jobs become available during the reopening. One of the more telling statistics on that front is that the number of job openings (9.2 million) is now almost the same as the number of unemployed people (9.5 million).

This allows us to frame our second important question for investigation.

    2. If labor force participation is likely to remain well below its prior highs, how much slack is there in the labor market to ease wage inflation pressures?

Still Significant Slack

The short answer to this question is that there is still considerable slack left in the labor market. The answer initially seems counter-intuitive – in light of how tight the labor market appears to be in terms of job openings (JO) and unemployed workers (U).

The key to deciphering this apparent anomaly is to account for the current level of under-employment in addition to a likely partial rebound in labor force participation.

As the economic recovery continues, a number of marginally attached people (MA) may get drawn back into the labor force. At the same time, under-employed workers who are part-time for economic reasons (PTER) could return to full-time employment.

We re-designate the available pool of workers as U + MA + PTER. Figure 5 shows how this leads to significant excess slack in the labor market.

Figure 5: Still Significant Slack

A chart showing the still significant slack.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 5/31/2021

Here are the key observations from Figure 5.

  1. There are 9.2 million job openings in the latest available data for the month of May. The available pool of workers to absorb these jobs is 16.0 million … which includes 9.5 unemployed workers, 1.9 marginally attached workers and 4.6 part-time workers.
  2. While U + MA + PTER has always exceeded JO, the gap between the two is bigger today than it has been historically.
  3. We estimate that it could well take 2-3 years for the spread between U + MA + PTER and JO to approach its pre-Covid level.

Labor Market and Fed Policy

The Fed recently revised its interest rate projections at the June FOMC meeting. The median forecast from the Fed is now 2 rate hikes by 2023. 11 out of 18 voting members now expect the Fed funds rate to be at 0.5% or higher in 2023.

The Fed has linked the future path of monetary policy to developments in the labor market. It is, therefore, useful to look at the Fed’s projected unemployment rate in 2023. The Fed expects the U3 unemployment rate to decline to 3.5% in 2023 – curiously the same level as its pre-Covid all-time historical low.

The Fed forecasts 2 rate hikes by the time the unemployment rate goes to 3.5% in 2023. It also forecasts no rate hikes and a 3.8% unemployment rate in 2022. We can, therefore, infer that the first rate hike will likely be at unemployment levels of 3.6-3.7%.

So here is the third key question confronting investors. 3. Is this timeline of Fed policy actions appropriate or not? Will it be too late to hike because the labor market is already too tight?

At this point in the commentary, our views are probably apparent to the reader. In our discussion of Figure 5, we suggest that it could well take another 2-3 years for the labor market to reach its pre-Covid equilibrium. We do not believe that the labor market is overly tight at the moment or that wage inflation is imminent.

We are sympathetic to the Fed’s stance of erring on the side of being too dovish and risking some inflation instead of being too hawkish and risking another downturn.

SUMMARY

The Fed is willing to trade off higher inflation to ensure that the labor market heals fully and evenly. We examine the labor market in detail to address investor concerns that the labor market may already be too tight and that accommodative Fed policy is, therefore, misguided. Here are our key insights.
  • Even though the notion of full employment is nebulous, empirical evidence suggests that we are far from it at this point.
  • An aging population has pushed the labor force participation rate lower in the last two decades. While it may recover somewhat, it is unlikely to rebound anywhere close to its previous highs.
  • There is still significant slack in the labor market – based on both potential re-entrants into the labor force and under-employed workers.
  • The slack in the labor market is likely to persist for a couple of years. We, therefore, do not believe that the Fed is on the cusp of a major policy misstep in terms of its tightening agenda.
We acknowledge the unusual times in which we live. The pandemic is not fully behind us, especially outside the U.S., and unprecedented stimulus may well trigger some unexpected adverse outcomes.
Through this uncertainty, we remain constructive on the economy and markets and advocate a pro-cyclical tilt in client portfolios.

“Investors worry that the labor market may already be too tight and that accommodative Fed policy may, therefore, be misguided.”

 

“We believe there is enough slack in the labor market to allay those concerns.”

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Introduction

We highlighted the advent of a new economic cycle in our commentary at the beginning of the year. We observed that there were a number of aspects of this new cycle that were both unusual and underappreciated.  An unusually strong consumer and unusually massive stimulus were two of the more powerful tailwinds for our constructive outlook. We also suggested that these factors had the potential to deliver upside surprises to growth in the next year or two. The first quarter of 2021 did get off to a good start on the growth front. GDP growth estimates have been revised higher from 3.5% in December to 6.5% for 2021 and from 0.5% to 4.0% for 2022. Similarly, S&P 500 earnings estimates for 2021 and 2022 are also higher than they were at the end of last year.  While the upward revisions to economic and earnings growth have come as a welcome surprise so far, they have also unleashed a new fear for investors. They now worry that growth may be too strong and that inflation may be a bigger and more imminent risk than previously anticipated.  A record surge in money supply growth, an accommodative Fed, an even more dovish Secretary of Treasury and the strength of the consumer have now squarely centered attention on inflation as a key market risk.  We make the topic of inflation our singular focus in this article.

  1. Will the stronger-than-expected economy in 2021 trigger a rise in inflation over the short term?
  2. If so, how high could it go?  What is the risk of runaway inflation like we saw in the 1970s?  Will it moderate over the intermediate term?
  3. What is the secular outlook for inflation?  Will we see a permanent upward shift in inflation over the next decade?

Inflation in The Short Term

Let’s answer the first question right away.  We believe inflation will head higher in the short term because of two pandemic-related effects – pent-up demand and supply chain disruptions.  The U.S. consumer is benefitting from strong fundamentals in incomes and savings, a healthy balance sheet and a stellar housing market.  Wages and salaries rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in 10 months; retail sales did so in 5 months.  While disposable income typically goes down during a recession, it increased by almost 5% in 2020 because of fiscal stimulus. The savings rate shot up dramatically upon the onset of the pandemic and still remains high at about 14%.  High savings balances are likely to support future consumer spending.  The red-hot housing market is supported by fundamentals of high demand and low supply.  Higher home prices increase consumer confidence and also allow monetization of higher equity values. In the throes of the pandemic, supply chains were badly disrupted because of travel bans and stay-at-home restrictions.  As demand has started to snap back, production has been unable to keep pace.  It is quite common to see inventory shortages in many industries.  These supply chain effects, along with pent-up demand, have started to show up in higher prices for purchased goods.  Both the Consumer and Producer Price Indexes have now increased by more than 2% from their levels a year ago.   It is worth noting that an initial increase in prices paid is a common and desired outcome in the early stages of a new cycle.   But this initial rise in inflation brings us to a crucial juncture in developing our longer term outlook.  Will the early trend extrapolate into runaway inflation like we saw in the 1970s?  Or will inflation moderate over time and become more muted and contained? Let’s look beyond the short term to see how these early price pressures are likely to evolve.

A Comparison to The 1970’s

Here is a quick comparison of today’s conditions with those in the 1970s when inflation spiraled out of control. The concepts of demand-pull and cost-push inflation came into sharp focus during the inflation crises of the early and late 1970s.  Inflation can surge in one of two instances – a demand shock may pull prices higher when demand exceeds supply or a supply shock may push prices higher from a rise in input costs. The two major episodes of inflation in the 1970s were more influenced by supply side shocks than they were by unusually high demand.  Supply shocks in food and energy are generally regarded as the biggest contributors to the rise in inflation in 1973-75 and 1978-80.   In October of 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. following its intentions to provide emergency aid to Israel.  The ensuing production cuts nearly quadrupled the price of oil from around $3 per barrel to almost $12 per barrel.  The second oil shock was also associated with events in the Middle East.  The Iran revolution caused its oil production to drop by an amount equivalent to 7% of the world’s output by early 1979.  Fears of similar disruptions in the region caused oil price to nearly triple in less than a year. The oil shocks became even more pronounced in the aftermath of President Nixon’s actions in 1971 to end dollar convertibility to gold.  Prior to the decision, U.S. dollars were convertible into gold at a fixed exchange rate of $35 an ounce.  The price of gold subsequently rose ten-fold over the rest of the decade.  Since oil is priced in dollar terms, the resulting devaluation of the dollar forced oil prices even higher. In addition to these oil shocks, food shortages were experienced in both 1973-74 and 1978-79.  And finally, the unwinding of wage and price controls also played a role in the inflation episode of the early 1970s.  We believe that conditions for commodity supplies and currency stability are quite different today than they were in the 1970s.

  1. A big decline in global oil demand forced OPEC to cut production during the Covid recession.  Unlike in the 1970s, there is significant excess capacity within OPEC as a result.
  2. The U.S. is now a bigger oil producer than before which creates additional supply capacity.
  3. The U.S. economy is far less energy-intensive than before.  Energy consumption per $ of GDP has declined almost 10-fold in the last five decades.
  4. Technological advances have significantly increased agricultural productivity.  Crop yields per acre have tripled since the 1970s.
  5. The U.S. dollar is likely to remain relatively stable in the foreseeable future based on its status as the world’s reserve currency and the strength of its domestic economy.

We assign a low probability to the possibility of runaway inflation that we witnessed in the 1970s. Let’s see if similar excess capacity or “slack” exists within the U.S. economy to mitigate inflationary pressures.

Slack in The Economy

A useful way to think about excess capacity in an economy is to compare actual economic output to its inherent output capacity.   The inherent capacity of an economy is the value of its output if labor and capital are employed at their maximum sustainable levels.  This level of output is called the potential GDP of an economy.   Let’s define slack a little more formally in terms of an output gap.  For economic growth, the output gap is the difference between actual and potential GDP.   Output Gap = Actual GDP – Potential GDP When the output gap is negative, the economy is operating below its full capacity.  When it is positive, the economy is above its capacity and likely to overheat. A negative output gap is disinflationary; a positive output gap is inflationary. Potential GDP of an economy is a theoretical construct and hard to measure.  It is widely believed that the potential GDP of the U.S. economy is an annual growth rate of 2–3%. So how much slack do we have in the U.S. economy and what does it tell us about inflation? GDP growth estimates for 2021 and 2022 are 6.5% and 4% respectively.  Since these growth rates are higher than the 2-3% range of potential GDP in the U.S., inflation is likely to rise in the next year or two. GDP growth is projected to normalize back down to the 2-2.5% range beyond 2022.  At these levels, it will then be at or below the potential GDP of the U.S economy; this should allow inflationary pressures to abate over time. The concept of an output gap can be applied to other economic metrics like employment.  It turns out there is even more slack in the U.S. labor market.  The output gap for employment is negative today since actual employment is below full employment.  As we discussed earlier, this reduces the risk of wage inflation in the foreseeable future. We illustrate the excess capacity in the labor market in Figures 1 and 2. Figure 1: Negative Output Gap – Unemployment Rate, %

A chart showing the negative output gap – unemployment rate.

Source: BLS; data as of March 2021 We show two measures of the unemployment rate in Figure 1.  U3 is the most common measure of the unemployment rate and represents the number of people actively seeking a job.  The U6 measure is broader and also includes discouraged and underemployed workers. While both unemployment rates have come down, they are still above pre-pandemic levels.  Higher unemployment rates suggests there is excess capacity and additional slack in the labor market. We reach the same conclusion by looking at net jobs lost from pre-pandemic levels in Figure 2. Figure 2: Negative Output Gap – Total U.S. Payrolls in Thousands

A chart showing the negative output gap – total U.S. payrolls in thousands.

Source: BLS  Despite the recovery in the labor market, there are still 8 million fewer jobs than 2019. Since actual employment is below full employment, we expect wage inflation to remain muted in the near term. But, what happens when we do reach full employment?  During the last expansion, the unemployment rate fell as low as 3.5% and yet failed to trigger a rise in inflation. We examine the historical relationship between unemployment and inflation more closely in our next section.  We also explore another key macroeconomic relationship in more detail … between money supply and inflation. Market participants have noted the unprecedented growth in money supply.  This has also been a historical precursor to higher inflation.  And yet its recent track record has been mixed.  Money supply increased sharply after the Global Financial Crisis, but we still did not see any meaningful inflation in the last expansion. Will these traditional macroeconomic relationships hold true in the future?  If so, what can we infer from the current trends in unemployment and money supply?  Or have they simply broken down as recent experience would suggest?

Traditional Macroeconomic Relationships

Conventional macroeconomic theory has long postulated that unemployment is negatively correlated with inflation and money supply is positively correlated with inflation.  When unemployment drops, inflation generally rises and vice versa.  And a rise in money supply is generally coincident with high inflation and vice versa. Let’s look at unemployment and inflation first.  The inverse relationship between the two is often referred to as the Phillips curve in honor of the economist who first documented the connection. Figure 3 shows the Phillips curve as it was observed in the 1960s.   Figure 3: Unemployment and PCE Inflation, Q1 1960 – Q4 1969

A chart showing the unemployment and PCE inflation, Q1 1960 – Q4 1969.

Source:  Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis We find a traditional inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation during the 1960s. But the relationship looks quite different since then.  We discussed earlier that the 1970s inflation was more from cost-push effects than demand-pull dynamics.  As a result, the 1970s saw an uncomfortable period of stagflation e.g. high unemployment and high inflation. The Phillips curve looks dramatically different over the last 5 decades as seen in Figure 4. Figure 4: Unemployment and PCE Inflation, Q1 1970 – Q3 2020

A chart showing the unemployment and PCE inflation, Q1 1970 – Q3 2020.

Source:  Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis We do not postulate a new causal or coincident relationship between unemployment and inflation based on the evidence above.  We do point out, however, that the inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation has certainly broken down over the last 50 years. We provide some brief context for why the Phillips curve may not hold true today.  The Phillips curve was never meant to define a long-term equilibrium relationship between unemployment and inflation; it was rather intended to capture short-term tradeoffs between the two.   Over the years, workers have also lost their bargaining power to convert any increased demand for their labor into higher wages.  Technology has further undermined human labor as automation has eliminated a number of low-skill jobs.  The demise of unions and the evolution of more dominant employers has further reduced the bargaining power of workers. We believe that low levels of unemployment will not necessarily lead to higher wages and higher inflation. How about the growth in money supply?  Rapid money growth has traditionally led to stronger economic growth and rising inflation.  Money supply has grown by over 25% in just the last one year.  Surely that sets the stage for significant inflationary pressures? Let’s also see how the relationship between money supply and inflation has changed over time.   First, a quick definition of money supply.  We use M2, a common measure of money supply, in our discussion here.  It includes currency, checking and savings deposits, time deposits and retail money funds.   Figure 5 illustrates the relationship between money supply growth and inflation from 1960 to 1989. Figure 5: Money Supply Growth and Inflation,1960-1989

A chart showing the money supply growth and inflation, 1960-1989.

Source: BLS, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis We use core CPI as our measure of inflation.  The Y-axis shows the annual rate of inflation for the next 3 years for each data point of annual M2 growth. The expected direct relationship between money supply growth and inflation holds true over these three decades.  But much like the Phillips curve in recent years, this relationship has also broken down in the last three decades.  We see that in Figure 6. Figure 6: Money Supply Growth and Inflation, 1990-Present

A chart showing the money supply growth and inflation, 1990-present.

Source:  BLS, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Figure 6 may come as a surprise to many of our readers.  We do not see a positive direct relationship between money supply growth and inflation over the last 30 years!   We have observed for a long time now that monetary stimulus has been largely ineffective in spurring real economic growth.  Multiple rounds of quantitative easing by central banks have neither sent the economy surging nor inflation soaring. Monetary stimulus has contributed more to inflation in asset prices than it has inflation in the real economy.  Fiscal stimulus may yet have a more direct impact on growth and inflation as it ripples through the economy.   We believe that the growth in money supply will be less inflationary than many fear. We close out our discussion by looking at a couple of secular trends that bode well for lower inflation over time.

Secular Disinflationary Forces

We highlight two secular forces that are likely to exert downward pressure on inflation over time – technology and international competition. Technology has been a powerful deflationary force globally for a long time now.  We expect that its impact on inflation will be even more pronounced in the aftermath of the Covid recession.  The pandemic gave rise to virtual workplaces with digital connectivity and accelerated the deployment of technology at an even more rapid pace than before.   Technology has increased productivity, lowered production costs and provided price transparency.  It has replaced human labor with automation and disrupted business models across a broad range of industries.  Technology is no longer an independent vertical; it is instead a horizontal that cuts across virtually all sectors of the economy. The new wave of digital disinflation will benefit both companies and consumers.  Companies will be able scale more rapidly by reaching global markets, create more efficient processes from automation, manage inventories in real time and reach consumers directly.  Consumers will enjoy the benefits of choice, convenience and comparison shopping. Globalization of trade was one of the earliest catalysts for disinflation.  Globalization allowed for worldwide integration of goods, services, people and capital.  Companies came to rely on open borders to pursue the lowest cost of production. The pandemic highlighted risks to global supply chains from closed borders, travel bans and export restrictions.  While this experience will inevitably lead to some degree of reshoring, companies will still continue to operate and compete globally. Global economic integration and international competition will continue to influence inflation dynamics.  We know import prices have a direct effect on domestic consumer prices.  A reduction in prices of foreign competitors can have an equally material impact on domestic prices. A number of academic studies have estimated that foreign competition has reduced U.S. goods inflation by about 0.5% to 1.0%.  We believe that international competition and globalization will continue to remain disinflationary. We conclude with a summary of key takeaways.

SUMMARY

We believe that we are in the midst of a new economic cycle and a new bull market in stocks.  We expect that growth will surprise to the upside in the next few years.  This constructive backdrop for growth has renewed fears of higher and more imminent inflation. We address these inflation concerns over both the near term and in the long run.

  1. We believe that two effects related to the pandemic, pent-up demand and supply chain disruptions, will exert inexorable upward pressure on inflation in the near term.
  2. However, we expect inflationary forces will abate over time.
    • Growth is projected to normalize from 6% in 2021 to between 2% and 3% by 2024.
    • Unemployment and money supply have become less reliable predictors of inflation.
    • Technology and international competition will likely moderate inflation in the long run.

We recognize we are in uncharted territory on a number of macroeconomic metrics.  We have no historical precedent to assess the risks of unintended consequences.   As a result, we approach investment decision-making with a heightened sense of humility and vigilance.  We continue to maintain a pro-growth, pro-cyclical tilt and invest in high quality companies.

“Investors worry that inflation may be a bigger and more imminent risk than previously anticipated .”

 

“We assess the likely path of inflation in the short term and over the long run.”

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.

Introduction

We begin the New Year on an optimistic note. We project that the coronavirus recession ended in the third quarter and a new economic cycle is underway. At this point, we assign a low probability to the odds of a double-dip recession. We discuss the rationale for our thesis in the following sections.

2020 will take its place in history as a year to forget, but it will yet be unforgettable. A global pandemic devastated the world’s economic order and, more importantly, inflicted indescribable human pain and suffering. Many lost their lives, even more lost their livelihoods and those who survived were left with permanent scars from a heightened awareness of human fragility and mortality.

Global economies and markets have so far created the unlikely outcome of a sharp V-shaped recovery … a scenario considered scarcely plausible at the depths of the downturn.

The S&P 500 index finished the year with a return of 18% after a 70% rebound from its March lows. The Russell 2000 index bounced back by more than 100% from its low to notch a gain of 20%. The Technology-laden Nasdaq Composite index posted a strong gain of 45% for the year.

The damage caused by the coronavirus was unprecedented at many levels. The subsequent recovery was also historic because of equally unprecedented activity on two different fronts — economic policy and medical innovation.

  1. Central banks and governments all over the world came together
    to inject massive monetary and fiscal stimulus into global economies. Policy interest rates went to zero and even into negative territory in many countries. Central banks expanded their balance sheets through aggressive bond purchases. Quantitative easing in the U.S., Europe, U.K. and China has reached almost $7 trillion!
  2. Human ingenuity came to the fore in the efforts to develop a successful vaccine. No vaccine had ever been developed in less than a year; today we have several that are effective enough for emergency use. We also have several drugs and therapies which mitigate the likelihood of death.

In hindsight, the most remarkable aspect of these policy responses was the synergistic timing of progress on both fronts. Economic policy responses were swift and aggressive at the outset when medical research was just beginning. As medical innovation gathered speed, economic policy eased up … but never to the point of toppling economies off a fiscal cliff into the second leg of a potential W-shaped downturn.

Even as economies and markets began to recover, there was no shortage of worries for investors to fret about. Many of these concerns, such as election uncertainty and Brexit, have resolved themselves, but yet others persist even today.

  • Pandemic – virus resurgence, vaccination logistics and mutant variants
  • Debt – inimical impact on interest rates and inflation
  • Perennial – climate change, income inequality and political polarization/li>

We believe these potential headwinds pose limited risk. The big breakthrough to end the pandemic has already been achieved in the form of successful vaccines. Interest rates and inflation are likely to remain low for a few more years and the perennial forces listed above are secular in nature whose effect will be spread out over several years.

We instead focus our attention in this discussion on the new economic cycle. We believe there are a number of aspects about this new cycle that are both unusual and underappreciated. We highlight three such themes and discuss them in greater detail.

  • Unusual Consumer Strength
  • Unusual Massive Stimulus
  • Unusual Initial Valuations

We conclude with the portfolio implications of our economic and market outlook.

Unusual Consumer Strength

As is generally the case in financial crises, the U.S. consumer was significantly leveraged during the last recession in 2008. A lot of the leverage on consumer balance sheets came from home mortgages. Easy money and loose underwriting standards allowed consumers liberal access to subprime loans and eventually created a housing market bubble.

The same home mortgages were transformed and packaged into even riskier investments at financial institutions. Consumers eventually defaulted on these loans, home prices crashed, banks and investors suffered heavy losses, jobs were lost, incomes fell and savings declined as the Great Recession lasted 18 months. The U.S. consumer then had to endure a painful deleveraging cycle that lasted several more years and curbed consumer spending along the way.

Despite all the dire headlines of unprecedented unemployment, none of these conditions hold true today. It may come as a surprise to some that all the relevant factors from 2008 are now a strong tailwind for the U.S. consumer.

  • Strong income, spending and savings fundamentals
  • Strong balance sheets
  • Strong housing market

Let’s take a look at how and why these consumer dynamics are different this time around.

Consumer Income and Spending

The impact of the coronavirus recession has been felt unevenly across the economy. The subsequent recovery has been equally uneven. The Travel and Entertainment sectors have been most heavily affected and Technology the least. In fact, the Technology sector has been a big beneficiary of the resulting stay-at-home protocols.

In this setting of both big losers and big winners, the overall impact of the pandemic on the overall economy has been more muted. For jobs lost at a local restaurant, there were offsetting ones created at an Amazon warehouse. The net result of this underlying economic dichotomy is that both consumer incomes and consumer spending made remarkably rapid recoveries.

Figure 1 shows the unusual V-shaped recovery in consumer wages.

Figure 1: Change in Wages and Salaries vs. Prior Peak

A chart showing the change in wages and salaries vs. prior peak.
Source: FactSet

It is even more remarkable that this rebound in consumer income is based only on wages and salaries and does not include stimulus checks or unemployment benefits. The trajectory reflects the impact of business re-openings and the shift in the mix of jobs discussed above.

Here is a look at retail sales as a proxy for consumer spending. The V-shaped recovery in retail sales is even more stunning.

Figure 2: Change in Retail Sales vs. Prior Peak

A chart showing the change in retail sales vs. prior peak.
Source: FactSet

U.S. retail sales bounced back to pre-Covid levels in just 5 months during this recession. In sharp contrast, it took 40 months for retail sales to recover to their prior peak in the 2008 recession!

Clearly, the rebound in wages seen earlier helped the recovery in retail sales. But there is also an important shift in the mix of spending at play here. In a sharp reversal of the prior trend, consumers are now spending more on “goods” than they are on “experiences”. In many ways, this was a forced shift because the experiences of travel and entertainment were simply not available during the pandemic.

Consumer Balance Sheets

The consumer balance sheet reveals an even bigger surprise than the consumer income statement. It is customary to see the level of savings decline during a recession even though savings rates may go up on a precautionary basis. One of the most unusual elements of this cycle is the big increase in both the savings rate and the level of savings.

On the heels of the fiscal stimulus from the CARES Act, the personal saving rate shot up from 7% to a staggering 33%! While the savings rate has since come down, it still remains high at almost 13%.

One manifestation of a high savings rate is a higher level of cash on consumer balance sheets. The higher-than-normal savings rate and higher cash balances are bullish indicators; they form the basis for future potential spending.

The coronavirus recession has been unfairly, and asymmetrically, more punitive on lower income households. Have they been able to accrue the high savings rates discussed above? Has cash accumulated on their balance sheets? These insights are particularly relevant because they have useful economic implications. Lower income households are more likely to spend incremental savings than higher income households.

Here is our first look at consumer balance sheets. Figure 3 shows cash balances for the bottom 50% of households by wealth.

Figure 3: Cash Balances for Bottom 50% of Households by Wealth, billions

A chart showing the cash balances for bottom 50% of households by wealth, billions.
Source: Federal Reserve

Cash balances for the same cohort declined in the two prior recessions of 2001 and 2008. During the Covid recession, cash balances for this group have gone up by more than 25%!

The big difference between prior recessions and this one is the huge fiscal stimulus that was put in place to replace lost income. With enhanced unemployment benefits, many households within this group reached incomes which exceeded their pre-crisis levels.

By this metric, balance sheets for consumers who were most affected by the pandemic are stronger than many may realize.

We turn next to the level of debt for consumers and the cost of servicing that debt. It is common to see variable debt, such as credit card debt, go up during a recession. Debt servicing costs tend to stay relatively flat as lower interest rates typically offset higher debt levels.

We look at the financial obligations ratio in Figure 4 as our metric for the impact of debt on consumer balance sheets. The measure is calculated as the ratio of required contractual payments to after-tax income.

Figure 4: Financial Obligations as Percent of Disposable Income

A chart showing the Financial Obligations as percent of disposable income.
Source: FactSet

Figure 4 highlights yet another unusual aspect of this economic cycle. Financial obligations as a percentage of disposable income rose slightly in the 2001 and 2008 recessions. In the Covid recession of 2020, they fell to historic lows!

It is worth noting that a portion of the decline may be attributable to forbearance relief for mortgage and rent payments. But nonetheless, there were notable differences between the last recession and prior ones.

During the Covid recession, credit card debt actually went down, not up! Stay-at-home restrictions meant that there were fewer opportunities to spend. Interest rates went to historic lows which significantly lowered the cost of servicing existing debt. Mortgage refinancing surged to historic highs as we will see in the next section.

Consumer balance sheets are unusually healthier in this new cycle than they have been historically.

Consumer Home Equity

The highly contagious coronavirus has been more prevalent in densely populated metropolitan areas. High transmission rates and the trend towards work-from-home have driven an exodus from congested urban cities to sparse suburban towns. People have been willing to trade in their urban lifestyle of dining and entertainment for the space and safety of suburban living.

The housing market has been a big beneficiary of this pandemic-induced trend. Upscale, high-rent apartments in big cities remain vacant while suburban homes within driving distance are in high demand.

Home prices have been buoyed both by this surging demand and also record low mortgage rates. In 2008, the housing market crash saw home prices plummet. As a result, homeowners’ equity fell from a prior peak of above $14 trillion to below $10 trillion. In 2020, however, homeowners’ equity has maintained its upward trend and now stands at over $20 trillion.

The rise in home prices has helped the consumer in a couple of different ways. Coupled with the rise in stock prices, it has increased consumer net worth to all-time highs. This wealth effect traditionally bolsters consumer confidence and indirectly helps sustain consumer spending.

But there is a more tangible benefit to the consumer from today’s rising home prices and historically low mortgage rates. Consumers have been able to “cash out” the equity in their home with home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), mortgage refinancings (refis) and second mortgages (seconds).

We show this effect in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Home Equity Cashed Out (HELOCs, refis, seconds), billions

A chart showing the Home Equity Cashed Out (HELOCs, refis, seconds), billions.
Source: Freddie Mac, 3rd Quarter 2020

If our reader is worried at this point about the possibility of yet another imminent housing bubble, we quickly allay those concerns. Unlike 2008, the housing market is severely under-supplied at the moment. The rise in home prices in 2020 is based on fundamental supply-demand factors, not excess speculation. Demand is surging while the supply of homes is limited.

Here is a depiction of the contrast in housing fundamentals between 2008 and 2020.

Figure 6: Housing Market Remains Undersupplied

A chart showing the housing market remains undersupplied.
Source: FactSet

Home prices were rising from 2005 to 2008 even as the supply of single family homes was going up. In 2020, the inventory of single family homes is at an all-time low of 3 months of supply!

We suggest that the strong housing market today is an important and rational driver of consumer strength. It is also unusual in that it was derived from a rare confluence of events related to the pandemic. Rising home prices have increased consumer confidence through the wealth effect. They have also allowed consumers to unlock incremental cash flow to support spending.

We expect the housing boom to continue on the heels of secular trends in population growth, household formation and work-from-anywhere.

Unusual Massive Stimulus

The coronavirus pandemic brought an unprecedented level of economic devastation. U.S. GDP growth declined by a staggering -31.4% in the second quarter. Without a medical remedy in sight, the Federal Reserve Board (“Fed”) and Congress had no option then but to embark on stimulus to resolve the crisis.

The resulting flood of liquidity has made it easier to transition back toward business as usual. It has allowed enough time for vaccines to be developed, businesses to re-open and consumers to continue spending.

The sheer magnitude of the stimulus is unusual in a historical context. Here’s a look at how truly monumental it is.

  • The U.S. government has announced a total of $3.9 trillion in deficit spending so far. That is a staggering 17% of the 2019 U.S. Gross Domestic Product of $21.4 trillion! And unprecedented in a historical context!!
  • The Fed has increased its balance sheet by $3.3 trillion to above $7 trillion. It is projected to grow it to around $10 trillion by the end of 2021! Again, unprecedented!!
  • To put the speed and magnitude of this quantitative easing into historical perspective, the Fed had increased its balance sheet during the Global Financial Crisis by a total of $4 trillion in 6 years!
  • The Fed’s monetary stimulus has increased U.S. money supply by by more than 25% in 2020!
  • U.S. short rates are at zero and projected to remain there until 2023. Global short rates have fallen from already record lows by another 100 basis points … to 65 basis points at the end of 2020!

We leave you with two key insights on the topic.

  • Previous recessions have been fought with either monetary stimulus or fiscal stimulus, but rarely with both and never in this magnitude. It is highly unusual to see bipartisan support for such sizeable deficit spending to stimulate the economy.This dual catalyst to re-ignite economic growth is also a global phenomenon. The massive two-sided global stimulus should be further bolstered by the global “medical stimulus” of vaccinations.
  • Monetary stimulus typically works on a lagged basis. Low interest rates and large bond purchases should continue to boost growth for several more quarters. Fiscal stimulus, on the other hand, ripples through the economy more rapidly. It also creates a bigger multiplier effect which in turn produces larger economic gains.

We believe that the unusual massive stimulus has the potential to create upside surprises to consensus growth expectations.

Unusual Initial Valuations

One of the most unusual aspects of this boom–bust–boom cycle is the current elevated level of P/E multiples for stocks. We assess if stocks are as hopelessly overvalued as many fear. If that is indeed the case, a new bull market in stocks is not viable. A crash in equity valuations could, in turn, derail any new economic engine of growth.

Earnings declined significantly in 2020 and are expected to revert in subsequent years. Specifically, earnings are projected to decline by about -16% in 2020 and then rebound by almost 22% and 17% in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

This volatile earnings trajectory is likely to also cause big swings in P/E multiples from year to year.

Figure 7: S&P 500 Price to Earnings Ratios

A chart showing the S&P 500 price to earnings ratios.
Source: FactSet, December 31, 2020

At this point, the stock market is already focused on 2021 earnings and beyond. Using those earnings estimates, the 2021 forward P/E ratio is above 22 times and the 2022 forward P/E ratio is almost 19 times.

These valuations appear high by historical standards. But we believe a comparison of P/E ratios to past averages only tells half the story. Historical fair P/E ratios were achieved in a very different interest rate regime. Today, short-term and long-term interest rates are historically low which has caused P/E ratios to re-rate higher.

A simultaneous look at stock and bond valuations is revealing. We compare the earnings yield for stocks, E/P which is the inverse of the P/E ratio, to the 10-year bond yield.

Figure 8: Yield Comparison – Stocks vs. Bonds, %

A chart showing the Yield Comparison – Stocks vs. Bonds.
Source: FactSet

The wider the spread between earnings yield and bond yields, the more attractive stocks are to bonds. The steady decline in bond yields from above 5% to below 1% has allowed P/E ratios to expand in the face of modest growth.

For those who fear that stock valuations are currently in bubble territory, it is instructive to compare the spread in yields today to their levels during the Internet Bubble. Unlike in 2000-2002, the earnings yield on stocks in 2021 is significantly higher than bond yields. In this setting, stocks actually appear fairly valued or perhaps even modestly undervalued to bonds.

As long as the 10-year bond yield remains below 1.5%, we believe that stocks should be able to sustain forward P/E ratios of around 20 times in a stable growth environment.

But current valuations are already at those levels. We, therefore, assert that future stock market gains will accrue mainly from future earnings growth … and not from any further multiple expansion.

We believe that economic and earnings growth has the potential to surprise on the upside. We remain bullish on the economy and stocks.

Summary

The Covid recession will go down in history as the sharpest and shortest recession ever. As we embark on a new economic cycle, we leave you with the following takeaways for our economic outlook and portfolio positioning.

The new expansion is unusual in many ways, but most notably around the following themes.

  • Unusually strong consumer will likely anchor strong GDP growth
  • Unusually powerful policy stimulus may create upside growth surprises
  • Unusually high initial stock valuations will require earnings growth to power a new bull market

In this pro-growth setting, we believe the following portfolio positions will likely be rewarded.

  • Stocks will likely outperform bonds.
  • Economically-sensitive sectors and asset classes will likely outperform in the short term e.g. Small Cap, Emerging Markets and Consumer Discretionary.
  • High quality growth stocks should remain a good long-term choice for tax-efficient compounding of wealth e.g. U.S. Stocks, Technology and Communication Services.
  • Credit will likely outperform duration in bond portfolios.
  • Alternative investments like real estate, private equity and absolute return strategies will continue to play a key diversification role in portfolios.

We conclude on an abundant note of caution and vigilance.

We recognize that the current economic backdrop is unusual in many ways. We are especially mindful that these unprecedented conditions come with the inevitable risk of “unknown unknowns”.

We continue to carefully monitor markets, economies and client portfolios with cautious optimism.

“We project that the coronavirus recession ended in the third quarter of 2020 and a new economic cycle is underway.”

 

“The new economic expansion is unusual in many ways, but most notably around the themes of consumer strength, massive stimulus and initial valuations.”

From Investments to Family Office to Trustee Services and more, we are your single-source solution.

An image of a silver and gold ring intertwined together.
empty image