@theMarket: Beware the Hikes of March
There is a more than an even chance that the Federal Reserve Bank hikes interest rates at least 25 basis points by the end of March 2022. Several analysts expect another three hikes by the end of the year. As an equity investor, this should concern you.
This week, both the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and the Producer Price Index (PPI) came in as expected. But "expected" does not mean anything like good on the inflation front. On a year-over-year basis CPI was up 7 percent, while PPI hit 9.7 percent for all of 2021.
And while economists debate whether inflation and economic growth will subside over the course of this year, the Omicron variant is throwing a big kink into those forecasts.
In my Jan. 13, 2022, column "No Shows Threaten Economy," I pointed out the millions of workers in the global labor force who have been forced to stay off the job while recovering from this highly contagious variant. It has also created additional delays in the supply chain. Container and cargo congestion is building among the world's 20 largest ports.
Since much of the inflation rise has been caused by supply chain problems, the short-term impact of more delays indicates to me, a higher rate of inflation going forward. As such, the Fed seems honor-bound to raise rates faster (and maybe at 50 basis points, instead of the expected 25) in order to deliver on their promise to contain inflation.
But the bond vigilantes over in the fixed income markets have already taken matters into their own hands. They have bid up the U.S. Ten-Year Bond yield to 1.72 percent. At one point this week, it climbed to above 1.8 percent. Most bond traders are now expecting yields to rise to 2 percent through the next few months.
As such, foreign investors, who usually line up to buy U.S. Treasury bonds in the government's frequent auctions, have not been as eager to do so. This week's 10- and 30-year auctions were meh, at best. None of this has been good for the stock market.
If you have been reading my columns, you know that technology companies do not do well in an environment of rising interest rates. The high-flyers, that is stocks with little or no earnings but huge price gains, have been bearing the brunt of the downward pressure. But even the big guys are feeling the pressure at this point, with the NASDAQ 100 down 10 percent from its highs.
Every time these market favorites try to get up off the floor, they are pounded down again. Investors, trained to "buy the dip," are getting their fingers chopped off. In fact, underneath most indexes, everything that qualifies as speculative, whether it's crypto, electric vehicles, marijuana stocks, Fintech, etc. have been all been taken to the woodshed.
Those readers who have followed my advice have hopefully avoided much of the carnage. If you haven't acted to reduce the leverage in your portfolios, there is still time. I am expecting that we will see an oversold bounce in the stock market on Tuesday next week for a few days. Why?
Earnings season is now upon us. Most investors eagerly anticipate the "FANG" companies' results and usually buy stocks in anticipation of that event. Since they are such a large weighting in the overall market, great FANG earnings usually buoy the entire market. As such, I would expect the same thing will happen again.
The fly in that ointment is that while earnings may be stellar, guidance won't be. Between the omicron variant, supply chain issues, inflation, and the Fed's tightening stance on interest rates, the near-term future that FANG executives see, I'm guessing may not be as rosy as many investors expect.
If I am right, and the markets do bounce, take that opportunity to reduce exposure to the overall market. I am still looking for a serious correction in the weeks ahead. If the correction is steep enough, chances are that the Fed might back off on further tightening, but at this point that is just a supposition based on past Fed behavior. In any case, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
@theMarket: Fed Meeting Notes Throw Markets a Curve
Investors were set back on their heels this week after reading the latest member comments from the Federal Open Market Committee's December 2021 meeting. It suggests that the Fed is prepared to tighten far sooner than most expected.
Members seem to say that the Federal reserve bank central bank was prepared to shrink its $9 trillion balance sheet "much sooner and faster" than anyone expected. This is in addition to the already announced plan to reduce its asset purchases faster than they first planned. Couple that with expectations that we could see three interest rate hikes this year and one can understand why stocks dropped this week.
The U.S. Ten-Year Treasury Bond yield spiked to the highest level seen in months at 1.74 percent. That sent technology shares plummeting, especially those of high-price stocks with little or no earnings prospects. The prospect of monetary tightening raised fears of a coming recession and with it a declining stock market.
This caused a stampede into "old economy" stocks that actually earn money and boast a strong balance sheet with little debt. Value stocks suddenly found their mojo again but when the markets take a nosedive like they did on Wednesday, Jan. 5, few stocks escaped the carnage.
The risk I see is that a handful of stocks hold the key to overall market performance and most of them are technology stocks of some sort. Higher interest rates are like kryptonite to the technology sector and pose a real threat to the markets overall.
Apple, Microsoft, Nvidia, Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are included in the majority of mutual or exchange traded funds, and most of the large cap equity indexes. I would venture to say that they represent at least 25 percent of most indexes. If for any reason these stocks begin to falter, they could take the entire market down with them. I think that is a real possibility, if the Fed carries out its new program of tightening and I believe they will.
There is a healthy debate among investors over whether the Fed, in the face of a large market sell-off caused by their actions, would have the stomach to carry out their plans. That is understandable given how long the Fed has had our back. In times past, most notably in 2018, the Fed has come to the rescue when markets suffered a severe decline.
The problem in that belief is that it places the Fed between a rock and a hard place. Inflation is impacting the nation, especially Main Street, (where America's voters live). It is an election year as well, and President Biden and the Democrats are hurting in the polls. The president wants something done about inflation and Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Bank's Chairman, has been tasked to do just that.
The dilemma is how does he cool inflation, and at the same time avoid precipitating a whoosh down in the stock markets by raising interest rates. I really can't see how Powell is going to accomplish that without hurting the markets in the process. However, I believe the circumstances of higher inflation, possible slower economic growth, and the present surge in the latest coronavirus variants will pass by mid-year, but in the meantime, prepare for more stock market turmoil ahead.
Next week, I expect more volatility with gains and losses depending upon the day, but the trend should be up, at least slightly ... I have been predicting a 15-20 percent decline ahead in the stock market in the first quarter of 2022. It could begin as early as the end of next week. Nothing in the market's behavior this week has changed my mind about that.
@theMarket: Markets Up on Thin Holiday Trading
The Santa Rally continued this week with the S&P 500 Index hitting a new record high. Most stocks that gained did so on little volume. Don't read too much into this week's gains, however.
There is an old, rarely used term called "painting the tape." It is a mild form of market manipulation where market traders buy and sell securities among themselves to create an appearance of substantial trading activity. The goal is to fool investors into buying into stocks, sectors, or the market thereby driving prices higher.
These kinds of tactics often result in an unsustainable spike higher in the averages, followed by a period of consolidation, or decline. The back half of the week stocks consolidated but we will have to wait until the next week to discover the market's next move.
This week most newsletters, brokerage houses, and investment advisors were releasing their forecasts for 2022. Those predictions span the gambit. Some are buying value; others are buying growth. Many are simply arguing to buy both since they have no idea what will outperform. Most on Wall Street are sticking with large cap technology, arguing that they are both defensive and aggressive (go figure). Selling the high-flying, Kathy Wood stocks, seems to be a popular call. Bottom line — no one knows.
However, just about everyone will be taking credit for fabulous 2021 returns. Few will remind readers that it is not difficult to make money for their investors when the S&P 500 Index is up 25 percent for the year. If truth be told, credit for those returns should go to the United States government.
The Federal Reserve Bank's massive monetary stimulus, coupled with trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus, created those gains in the stock market. Of course, no one wants to acknowledge that. But that era may well be over.
Last week, I warned readers that government stimulus is now winding down.
The U.S. central bank is planning to raise interest rates soon. Worldwide, some central banks are already doing just that. At the same time, fiscal stimulus is also declining. In the U.S., President Biden's Build Back Better spending plan is expected to be the last such program on the docket, if it is ever passes. Experts give it less than a 50 percent chance of succeeding.
So, let's keep this simple. Ignore the debate on how high inflation will rise (or not). Forget the arguments on when the supply chain bottlenecks will ease, or whether Omicron will be the worst, or even the last, variant to afflict the world. Answers to those questions are merely guesstimates anyway.
What we do know is what the government plans to do. Given their intentions, it is hard for me to believe that the economy can continue to grow at its present rate, while shutting off the spigot of all this government money. Common sense would tell you that the economy will take a hit, growth should slow, and with it, corporate earnings, which brings us to the stock market.
Sometime in the first quarter of 2022, I expect a rather serious correction in the stock market due to the government decline in stimulus. I have stuck my neck out and pinned late January, early February, as a possible start date for this event. What should you do?
I advise readers to hire an investment advisor as a first step. They will be able to maneuver through what I suspect will be a difficult year (or years) better than you can. If that is not an option, I suggest you reduce risk.
Move to a more conservative portfolio. Consumer durables, telecom, REITS, healthcare are some suggestions, but these sectors have already risen in price substantially in December. Make no mistake, however, if my call proves correct, you can expect losses no matter how conservative you may be. What I do not suggest you do is sell everything and move to cash.
For one thing, I could be wrong. Second, stocks could continue to rise over the next few weeks, or months, even if I am ultimately proven right. And after correction, I expect markets to bounce back. Very few will know when to get back in. So, stay invested, just not as aggressively.
@theMarket: Markets Are Heading for Trouble
The continuing volatility in the stock market is troubling. It is likely signaling difficult times ahead as early as January or February 2022. As such, it is time to consider risk management.
After over a decade of steadily rising equity prices with few interruptions, investors have been lulled into believing that investing in stocks is a riskless game of never-ending profitability. Newcomers to the stock market arena, like your typical Robinhood investor, have been using stocks to supplement, or even replace, earned income. Unfortunately, I believe we are entering an environment where the investment themes are changing to our detriment.
The most important change I see has been the pivot in the Federal Reserve Bank's monetary policy from dovish to hawkish. The Fed's focus switch from full employment to combating inflation is expected to reduce liquidity in the markets. That decline in liquidity, which has been supporting the financial markets for years, is going to impact the equity markets negatively. I believe that process has already begun.
Inflation, one of the worst economic aftershocks of the pandemic, is the second variable that I see impacting stocks and bonds. Do I expect a hyperinflationary environment in 2022? No, but I do believe inflation will remain persistent throughout most of the year before subsiding. A little inflation, experts say, is good for stocks. That's probably true, but we are beyond "a little" at this point. Inflation is impacting corporate earnings, reducing profit margins, and forcing many companies and small businesses to raise prices.
That leads me to believe that in the first half of 2022, a lower level of corporate earnings will not be able to justify the present price levels of the stock market. As earnings and guidance weaken somewhat, so will the stock market. That is not a good environment for further market gains.
The economy will also suffer. Consumers, thanks to continued price increases, may reach a point where they curtail some of their purchases. They may focus on buying things they need, like consumer staples, as opposed to things they want. That will slow the economy. As a result, we could live through a few months that could best be described as "stagflation." That means a slowing economy and rising inflation.
I think that this stagflation, if it were to occur, would be a transitory event. By the second half of the year, we could see inflation begin to moderate (as supply shortages are resolved) and the economy grow, even if it is at a slower rate. If all the above were to occur, it would put the Fed between a rock and a hard place. They may be forced to choose between protecting Main Street from the crippling effect of further rises in inflation. But if they do raise interest rates, as they intend to, they risk precipitating a serious decline in the stock market.
What therefore should an investor do as we enter the New Year? In the very short term, nothing. We may still enjoy a somewhat abbreviated Santa Rally next week. I expect a possible pullback on Monday into Tuesday and then up again for a day or two. No different than what we have been dealing with for the last few weeks. Overall, therefore, I see a bigger chance that the markets will gain a little more between Christmas and New Year.
I expect that positive momentum to last through the first half of January 2022, but beyond that I am expecting trouble. A double-digit decline in the stock market (20 percent-plus) sometime in the first quarter would not surprise me. It could happen as early as the third week in January and last through February or beyond.
At the very least, investors should reduce risk. And there is no guarantee that "buying the dip" will work this time around. And even if it does, the equity rewards may lie elsewhere. International markets, for example, or commodities, or both may hold better promise than stocks in the U.S.
For those who have been managing money on their own, I advise you to seek out a professional investment manager and do it quickly. The coming environment will demand experience, knowledge, and a cool hand. If you need advice on how or whom, give me a call or send me an email.
In the meantime, have a happy holiday season and enjoy the last move higher in the stock markets.
@theMarket: Markets Keep Churning
As most investors expected, the Federal Open Market Committee announced the start of their tapering effort but doubled the pace of the monthly taper to $30 billion a month until March 2022 when the effort will conclude. In addition, FOMC members see three, 25-basis-point increases in the Fed Funds interest rate next year, and more in 2023.
Faced with the end of a decades-long era of loose monetary policy, historical behavior would indicate interest rates up, equities down. That still seems a good bet despite the market's immediate reaction to the Fed announcement.
Some participants may still be scratching their heads after Wednesday's (Dec. 16) Federal Reserve Bank meeting this week. Normally, an announcement that monetary policy has pivoted to tightening and will likely continue over the next several years would send stocks lower. The opposite happened. Stocks went up. The S&P 500 Index jumped more than 1.5 percent, while the NSDAQ climbed 2.28 percent. The dollar declined, the VIX (the fear Index) dropped below 20 and commodities rallied.
There may be two reasons why the initial reaction to the announcement was contrary to expectations. During Monday, Tuesday, and most of Wednesday, the stock market dropped continuously with the S&P 500 declining by about 100 points. The tech-heavy NASDAQ did even worse. In my opinion, investors went overboard in discounting the Fed's negative news (which was largely already known by the markets). It was a classic "sell the rumor" market play. Jerome Powell and his band of monetary men failed to deliver anything more negative than what was expected, so the signal flipped to "buy the news."
The second explanation might be that despite the Fed's intention to raise interest rates next year, some on Wall Street doubt that will occur, or if it does, at a slower rate than the Fed has telegraphed. Why would that be the case?
There is a growing belief among some in the financial markets (including myself) that the first, and possibly second, quarter of 2022 may not be as strong as many expect. A combination of continued supply chain bottlenecks, higher inflation, and a winter surge in the infection rates of the coronavirus mutations (Delta and Omicron) could combine to slow economic growth.
If so, the Fed may not be willing to add to a slowdown by raising interest rates. It may also call into question how strong corporate earnings and guidance might be. And even of the Fed did try and raise interest rates with that background, the stock market would swoon. That would make the Fed quickly rethink further hikes in my opinion.
You might ask how the Fed's pivot to tightening might impact your investments in the stock market? My initial response is not encouraging. The market's upward response to the FOMC was all about the absence of additional negatives. There was nothing in the statement that was positive for equities. If you have been managing your portfolios on your own, I would advise you to hire good investment adviser — pronto.
The market action during the past few weeks is troubling. Professional investors are deleveraging. They are getting out of high-priced stocks with little or no earnings. Underneath the averages, many stocks are getting clobbered. Defensive stocks such as consumer durables, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS), telecom, and health care stocks are getting a bid, while all but the top five or six tech stocks (the FANG stocks) are being sold.
As I said last week, equity strategists are all over the place in their 2022 predictions. What that tells me is that they don't know what is in store for the markets in 2022. As for me, if I just look out to the end of the year (2021), I see continued volatility. Sure, next week we could see the markets bounce, but I have my doubts that we will see a normal end-of-the year Santa Rally.
The VIX still hovers above 20, which means volatility will remain high. Day to day, rotation between sectors seems to be increasing without rhyme or reason. The rally after the Fed announcement on Wednesday was sold down on Thursday with the technology sector erasing all its' gains. The smart money seems to be gravitating towards defensives, or if they are inflation bulls, moving into commodities.
I would be especially cautious as we move into the new year. It would come as no surprise to me if we were to see a substantial pullback. One larger than any we have experienced in 2021. It's time to get an investment adviser.