This article is brought to you in collaboration with our colleagues at Laird Norton Wealth Management from their post, Economic Flash: New Year New Cheer.
U.S. Economy: Recession?
Fears of economic turbulence have yet to be realized, as U.S. GDP grew 2.9% in the fourth quarter, unemployment has remained historically low, and consumer spending is resilient (though softening), pointing to the possibility of a mild recession or a downturn that rolls through various sectors of the economy. Real estate, a key driver of economic growth, continues to decelerate dramatically and could dim the more optimistic outlook.
U.S. Stocks: The January Effect
U.S. large-cap stocks were soundly positive, but small-cap stocks, typically more sensitive to inflation and economic growth, were the front runners at +9.7%, with investors optimistic about valuations and inflation appearing on a downward trajectory. With that said, while most sectors were higher, defensives, which were strong throughout 2022, underperformed, with utilities, health care and consumer staples all down for the month.
Foreign Stocks: Surge Continues
Over the last three months, both developed (+20.4%) and emerging markets (+22.2%) have outpaced the U.S., a testament to the importance of rebalancing to maintain diversified allocations through market turbulence. The tailwinds for foreign equities: an 11% drop in the U.S. dollar since last September, cheaper relative valuations, and indexes with lower allocations to the tech and consumer discretionary sectors.
Fixed Income: Fed Delivers Slower Pace
Bond market investors started to price in the likelihood that the Fed would begin to slow its pace of interest rate increases, driving up both taxable and tax-exempt by 2-3% in January. The Fed did raise rates only 0.25% at its February 1st meeting — after six straight hikes of at least 0.50% — but indicated more rate increases are likely.
Real Assets: Bracing for Stress
Despite a potentially rosier economic outlook that lifted public REITs, the private real estate market has been beset by redemption requests and real estate overall is bracing for additional stress. Infrastructure has been a standout performer, led by pipelines (+6.5%), boosted by the rollout of federal infrastructure spending.
Alternatives: Leaders to Laggards
Alternatives held up relatively well during 2022, posting middling returns, while other asset classes lost ground. But in January, middling performance put hedge funds and other alts at the rear relative to other asset classes. Hedge funds were generally flat, while the marks for private equity and private real estate finally started to reflect the downturn traditional assets suffered during most of 2022.
Source of data: Bloomberg
Equities Total Returns
Fixed Income Total Returns
Historically, January has marked a renewal for financial markets. Whether that is related to new investment after the clearing of financial ledgers at year-end, bonuses being put to work, the unwinding of tax trades, or several other factors, the month has been positive with some regularity, even if the “January Effect” has been muted or non-existent in recent years.
Does a good start to the year bode well for the rest of 2023? Not necessarily, although market sentiment seems to have improved recently. Historical precedent indicates the Fed may not be able to bring down inflation without seriously damaging the economy. But a month into 2023, dire predictions for the economy are yet to materialize.
U.S. consumers are not as flush as they were when wallets were stuffed with stimulus cash, but they continue to spend, drawing on savings and credit card borrowing. The economy can continue to push forward as long as we don’t see meaningful deterioration in the labor market, where job openings are currently plentiful and the unemployment rate is down to 3.5%.
With that said, we are not out of the woods yet. Fed rate increases, which started in March 2022, typically take 12 months or longer to have full impact. Historically, the U.S. economy tends to slip into recession around the time the Fed pauses interest rate increases, and the market lows have been hit. There is still plenty of opportunity for the Fed to continue pushing rates up, potentially past the economic breaking point, especially given the lag in impact.
What’s more, a corporate earnings recession may be materializing. Profit estimates for 2023 are coming down: no growth in corporate earnings is expected for 2023, and a nearly 5% drop for Q4 2022 (vs. Q4 2021) results. While we are still early in the reporting season, fewer companies are beating estimates (70% vs. the 77% norm), and 88% of the executive teams providing outlooks have been negative vs. a five-year average of 59%.
As we have pointed out in our most recent Market and Economic Commentary, the geopolitical landscape has likely changed, with global cooperation on the decline at best (and open conflict at worst), and this can be expected to affect economies and markets. As a result, investors should not expect the low volatility of the last few decades, driven in part by the “peace dividend” and globalization, but should instead be prepared to exploit the opportunities presented by higher volatility amid a change in market regime.
Many asset classes now offer valuations and/or yields that are more attractive than we have seen in many years. Below are some of the areas of interest:
International equities — lower valuations relative to U.S. stocks, cheaper relative to their own history, and could be facing less pressure from a strong U.S. dollar.
U.S. small-cap stocks — modestly more attractive than their larger counterparts, and we envision adding to this asset class on a marginal basis as part of rebalancing.
Strategies around new opportunities — these have emerged due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, including energy sourcing, supply chain restructuring, and food production.
Credit markets — the spike in interest rates has created stress in some segments, and therefore opportunities. The “income” has been put back into “fixed income.”
Private markets — new opportunities in the private markets as distressed investors seek to sell stakes in illiquid partnership interests at a discount.
Glossary of Indices
U.S. Large Capitalization = S&P 500 Index
Tracks the performance of a representative sample of 500 leading companies in the major industries of the U.S. economy.
U.S. Small Capitalization = Russell 2000 Index
Tracks performance of the 2,000 smallest companies in the Russell 3000 Index, representative of the U.S. small capitalization equity market.
U.S. Growth Equities = Russell 3000 Growth Index
Tracks the performance of those Russell 3000 companies that have higher price-to-book ratios and higher forecasted growth values.
U.S. Value Equities = Russell 3000 Value Index
Tracks performance of those Russell 3000 companies that have lower price-to-book ratios and lower forecasted growth values.
International Equities (Developed Countries) = MSCI EAFE Index
A float-adjusted market capitalization index designed to measure developed market equity performance, excluding the U.S. and Canada. Consists of the stock market indices of these 20 developed countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Emerging Market Equities = MSCI Emerging Markets Index
A float-adjusted market capitalization index designed to measure equity performance in the major emerging markets. Consists of the following 25 emerging-market -country indices: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.
U.S. FIXED INCOME, TAXABLE
U.S. Aggregate Bond = Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index
Covers U.S. dollar-denominated, investment-grade, fixed-rate, taxable bond market consisting of SEC-registered securities. Includes U.S. Treasuries, U.S. agency bonds, U.S. corporates, mortgage-based securities (MBS, CMBS) and asset-backed securities (ABS).
TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) = Barclays U.S. Treasury Tips Index
Measures the performance of TIPS of various maturities issued by U.S. Treasury.
INTERNATIONAL FIXED INCOME
International Developed Bonds = BofA Merrill Lynch Global Government Bond II ex U.S.
Measures the performance of non-U.S. developed-market government bonds on an unhedged currency basis.
Emerging Market Bonds = BofA Merrill Lynch Emerging Markets Sovereign
Bond Index Measures the performance of emerging markets government bonds on an unhedged currency basis.
U.S. FIXED INCOME, TAX-EXEMPT
Intermediate Municipal Bonds = Merrill Lynch Municipals, 3-7 Yrs Index
A subset of The Merrill Lynch U.S. Municipal Securities Index, including all securities with a remaining term to final maturity of between 3 and 7 years.
Municipals, Broad Market = Merrill Lynch Municipal Master Index
Tracks the performance of U.S. dollar denominated investment-grade tax-exempt debt publicly issued by U.S. states and territories, and their political subdivisions.
Absolute Return Funds = HFRX Absolute Return Index
Tracks the performance of hedge funds aiming to provide stable performance regardless of market conditions. Such funds tend to be less volatile and less correlated to market benchmarks. Data is based on estimates for the most recent months, may not include performance for the last business day of the indicated month and is subject to revision.
Market Directional Funds = HFRX Market Directional Index
Tracks the performance of hedge funds that add value by participating in the direction of various financial markets. Such funds characteristically have higher expected volatility than Absolute Return strategies (see above). Performance data is based on estimates for the most recent months, may not include performance for the last business day of the indicated month, and is subject to revision.
Equity Volatility = CBOE VIX Index
Aims to measure investor expectations for near-term stock-market volatility as conveyed by the pricing of stock options on the S&P 500 index that mature within 30 days.
Implied Inflation = 10-Yr TIPS Implied Inflation
Gauges investor expectations for future U.S. inflation based on the difference between the yield on a 10-year TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Security) and the yield on a nominal 10-year Treasury.
Gold Spot $/oz.
An index intended to measure the current price of gold, based on futures contracts deliverable in the following month priced in U.S. dollars per Troy ounce.
Oil = Brent Crude Oil Spot Price $/bbl
Brent Crude Oil refers to a particular grade of crude oil often quoted in financial reports as the global benchmark for the price of oil. It typically trades at a premium to the West Texas Intermediate price.
U.S. Dollar = Trade-Weighted U.S. Dollar Index
Value of the U.S. dollar relative to a composite of 26 currencies of major U.S. trade partners, weighted based on trade data.