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@theMarket: Markets Liked the Fed's message

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The first interest rate rise in years was officially triggered in this week's Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Since then, stocks gained more than 5 percent on the news, which was contrary to many investors' expectations.
 
The reaction was even more confusing when you consider how hawkish Chair Jerome Powell and his FOMC members were both in the minute meetings and in Powell's Q&A session after the meeting. The Fed is officially planning for seven rate rises this year after the 25-basis point move on Wednesday.
 
The next hike could come as early as the central bank's next meeting in May. There is no guarantee that the next hike could be even higher than 25 basis points. That, said Powell, would depend on the data. The overall message, however, was clear enough: inflation is the Fed's No. 1 priority and will remain so for the months ahead.
 
You may remember that in my last column, I predicted that the markets would like the outcome of the meeting. The gains since then have been north of 5 percent. The positive reaction could have been fueled by Powell's contention that the economy remains strong and is in great shape to accommodate tighter interest rates now. His prediction that inflation could end the year below 5 percent could have also heartened investors. I question that number, but I think there was another reason for the gains, which was purely psychological.
 
As I have said countless times in the past, investors hate uncertainty. For months unanswered questions have bedeviled investors. "Will they, or won't they raise rates and by how much?" "How high will inflation rise, and what is the Fed really going to do about it?" "Will the Ukraine War temper the Fed's actions?" I could go on, but you catch my drift.
 
Uncertainty is what investors wake up to in the morning, worry about all day, and obsess over when we hit the sack at night. Clearing up even a little of the unknow has a beneficial effect on a market starving for stability.
 
But now that the Fed meeting is over, (until the next one) where will investors focus their attention? The obvious answer is the Ukraine-Russian crisis. Both sides of the conflict appear to be coming closer to a cease-fire. It would not surprise me to see a truce of some kind announced in the days ahead. You might ask, "Why?"
 
It is all about the calendar. Ukraine is running out of time, if their farmers hope to take advantage of the planting season for wheat and corn. if this war goes on, and the fields lay fallow, the world could face a life-threatening shortage of food. We are already facing massive shortages due to climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
 
Unlike additional oil that can practically be pumped at the flick of a switch by Saudi Arabia or the UAE, additional food stuffs are governed by the calendar. If you miss the planting season, you can't do anything about it until the next season, which is months, if not a year, away.
 
So, if I am right, and the war winds down, we could see a few weeks of upside into April 20th or so. That could mean another 200 points or more tacked onto the S&P 500 Index from here. A cessation of hostilities would also recoup some of the losses in the beaten-up European markets. And let us not forget China, the world's second largest economy.
 
China's about face this week in promising to ensure stability in capital markets, support overseas stock listings, resolve risks around property developers and complete the crackdown on technology companies has removed another overhang weighing on the markets. If the Chinese government fulfills its promise to add more monetary and fiscal stimulus to their slowing economy, that may also eliminate some of the drag in the global economies brought on by the crisis in Eastern Europe.
 
U.S. stocks, under that scenario, would rise. I would imagine overseas markets would gain even more in the short term. But all these bullish actions would likely come to an end in late April as the next quarter's earnings season begins, the May Fed meeting and another rate hikes looms closer, and the inflation rate tops 10 percent.
 
A good chunk of the the move in equities this week has been simply short covering. It remains to be seen if real buyers decide to push markets higher. There needs to be a fundamental reason for that to happen. It could be a cessation of hostilities.
 
I still see a difficult first half of the year that will probably spill over into the summer. Sure, we can have relief rallies like we are in right now. But for me to become more bullish, I would need to see earnings bottom, inflation subside, and the Fed to stop tightening monetary policy. Don't hold your breath.
 

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

@theMarket: A Whiff of Stagflation

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The economy is slowing. Inflation is climbing. Investors are worried that these trends appear to be a recipe for the "S" word.
 
The economic concept of stagflation where the witches' brew of a faltering economy, aided and abetted by skyrocketing inflation, harkens back to the malaise of the late 1970s. At that time, interest rates rose to nearly 20 percent. Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), reached an annual average of 13.5 percent by 1980. Oil prices (like today) surpassed $100 a barrel.
 
Blame for this period of stagflation fell squarely on OPEC, a newly formed energy cartel of oil producers, that decided to raise oil prices sharply after decades of artificially controlled suppressed prices by mostly Western nations and their energy producers.
 
Since energy is used in so many of the industrialized economies to produce just about everything, this oil shock reverberated throughout the economy. As costs rose, prices pushed higher causing more and more inflation (sound familiar). It didn't help that for the most part, monetary expansion was the name of the game throughout most of that decade.
 
Looking back, economic growth and unemployment in the 1970s was uneven at best with two recessions, one at the beginning of the decade, and another from 1973 through 1975.
 
It's not hard to point to the similarities between then and now.
 
Today, we are confronting similar supply shocks, which began during the pandemic and have since been amplified by the onset of the Ukrainian War. We have also been functioning under a highly expansionary monetary policy that has been in place since the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Where we differ today is in the areas of economic growth and employment. Neither qualify as coming even close to stagnation.
 
Proponents of stagflation would say that it is only a question of time before the economy slows and is in fact doing so as I write this. They would be right, at least in the short-term. Most economists expect this present quarter to register anemic growth. Yet, for the year 2022, the expected growth rate is still 3 percent and 2.3 percent for 2023.
 
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions may trigger recessions in both warring countries. Theses actions will also spill over to the European Community (EU) and directly impact its economies. It will also create even further supply chain obstacles and higher inflation.
 
One would expect that the U.S. economy will feel these impacts as well. The Conference Board estimates that these headwinds could cut as much as half a point or more from our growth rate.  On the unemployment front, we are nowhere near where we were in the 1970s. Right now, unemployment is at a low of 3.8 percent. And readers must remember that global economies are less energy intensive than they were back then. In a research report, UBS Wealth Management USA argued that "oil intensity of global GDP has dropped by 25 percent since 1990 (and by more than 50 percent since the early 1970s when oil price shocks caused recessions)."
 
However, what we don't know is what economic impact the Fed's intention to tighten monetary policy will have on the economy. Investors point to what happened when Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker addressed inflation back then. He raised interest rates to double-digit levels, drove inflation down, but also sent the economy into a deep recession. Could the Fed do that again?
 
I doubt that today's Fed will ignore the past and simply "do another Volcker." But make no mistake, the Fed is going to raise interest rates next Wednesday, March 16 by 25 basis points and likely raise rates again at the next two meetings. How will the markets handle that?
 
We are the lower end of the box on the S&P 500 Index (the lower end of that box is 4,310, give or take 20 points). I believe markets will continue to move on every headline between now and the FOMC meeting next Wednesday.  If I were a betting man, I would say markets like what Chair Jerome Powell has to say. In the meantime, stocks are managing to hold up and will continue to do so, barring a game changer in the Ukraine conflict.
 
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.
 
Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

@theMarket: Do Not Chase Stocks

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Commodities are soaring. Interest rates are falling. Stocks can't get out of their own way. All of this is occurring, while the first war in decades continues to rage in Ukraine. Seems to me that any gains in the market averages next week will remain dead cat bounces in this bear market.
 
Yes, I hate to be a squeaky wheel, but I've got to call it like I see it. We have a much greater chance of sliding lower from here than higher. Here's why.
 
Investors received a new lease on life this week when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, testifying before the Senate banking Committee, triggered a market rise in the averages.  All he did was relieve a little market angst by stating that a 25 rather than a 50-basis point move should be expected later this month at the FOMC meeting. In that context, I would label the resulting short market bounce as simply a relief rally.
 
Initially, the markets rallied because the Fed is not raising rates as high as expected. That usually means higher stock prices, so the bounce was understandable. But the reason the Fed plans to raise rates in the first place is due to soaring inflation. What did investors do?
 
Prices of basic and precious metals, like aluminum, nickel, copper, gold, silver, and food commodities like wheat, corn, fertilizer, and of course, oil and gas were bid up leading the market gains.  The combination of these Russian fear trades, plus inflation plays, continued to lead gains throughout the week. Technology and speculative areas were largely left in the dust.
 
This action has only pushed up commodity prices even higher. Now what will that do to the inflation rate?  Push it even higher, and possibly make the Fed reconsider its plans. Those bond traders who were betting on a "one and done" interest rate hike have changed their forecast. The betting is that there will be at least two more hikes coming before June.
 
On Thursday night, March 4, the Russians attacked Ukraine's largest nuclear facility, which provides 20 percent of European electricity. Fortunately, there did not appear to be any leakage of radioactivity but that could have occurred. The U.S. dollar jumped more than 1 percent, an extraordinary event, indicating a "run for the hills" mentality overwhelming investors.
 
 Unfortunately, this is the kind of market where most market participants are headline driven. Given the circumstances, that is understandable. Algo traders are careening from buys to sells as news pops up on the terminals. Whether it is testimony from Powell, Russian cease fire rumors, oil embargo news, or new atrocities in Ukraine, stock prices either crater or explode hour to hour.
 
Few of these traders know or care about things like price/earnings ratios, balance sheets, corporate earnings or even macro data like the positive gains in employment we saw last month. Remember, most market participants have little to no experience in a higher interest rate environment nor how to invest in equities when inflation is rising. As for maneuvering world markets on a war footing, few have any experience at all.
 
It is obvious that just about everyone is focused on the oil price. The higher oil climbs, the greater the probability that inflation will continue higher, and the greater the chance that global economic growth slows.  Analysts at Bank of America, for example, have raised their forecast for oil to $120 per barrel by the middle of 2022.
 
At the present price of oil, the U. K's National Institute for Economic and Social Research estimates that the Russian-Ukraine conflict could hack $1 trillion off the value of the world economy. It could also add another 3% to the world's overall inflation rate. Predictably, Eastern Europe would get hurt the most. Those numbers worsen as the oil price rises.
 
There are all sorts of worst-case estimates as to where oil prices could go depending on whether there is an embargo on Russian oil, a reduction in exports due to war damage, or if Russia curtails energy supplies to Europe in response to sanctions.
 
It appears to me that the markets have settled on a worst-case price of between $120-$130-barrel oil at this time. If that were to happen, and remain at that level over several months, the impact on the U.S. economy would be to slow growth and bring on the specter of stagflation. I believe it is way too early to predict that outcome.  I did forecast back in December 2021, however, that this scenario would begin to make the rounds on Wall Street about now. In my opinion, the onset of stagflation would be a stretch, given the present robust growth rate of U.S. GDP and the Fed's intention of tightening monetary policy beginning in mid-March.
 
As for the future of the markets, I am sticking to my guns. Stocks will remain in a box until after the March 2022 meeting of the FOMC. That means we could easily test the lows of January 2022 again, either before or after the Fed hikes interest rates. 
 
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.
 
Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     

@theMarket: Blood in the Streets

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires Staff
It turns out that the president was correct in his warnings. Russia did invade Ukraine. Financial markets predictably crashed, but then rebounded. That's old news. What happens next?
 
In my last column, I wrote that the fate of the markets was in the hands of two big "ifs." One was an invasion of Ukraine by Russia. That has now occurred. That event broke the range the market was struggling to maintain on Thursday, Feb. 24. But by the end of the day Thursday the markets bounced back up big time. It was a classic investor behavior pattern of "sell the rumor, buy the news." Stocks fought to continue that bounce on Friday.
 
There is an old saying, attributed to Baron Rothschild, an 18th-century British nobleman, that "the time to buy is when there is blood in the streets." That famed member of the Rothschild banking family made a fortune buying into the panic that followed the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon. But buying becomes a bit more difficult if the blood spilled happens to be yours.
 
I have tried to steer investors to safety over the last two months. Whether you listened or not, my target level has been 4,060 on the S&P 500 Index. This week we hit a low of 4,114. I guess you can say that was close enough for government work. As such, I would begin to add back equities into my portfolio, if you haven't already. But that does not mean that this pullback is over.
 
I do not expect a V-shaped recovery in these markets. We have yet to see a "capitulation" day where 90 percent of all stocks are sold. Rarely, if ever, is a market decline over without at least one capitulation day. In addition, geopolitical events like this Ukraine debacle usually lasts several months, not several days. If the fear index, called the VIX, remains above 20 (and it is right now above 29), we could still see 100-point swings or more in the index averages daily.
 
And as usual, Wall Street strategists, who were so bullish a month ago, are now predicting confidently that we could see the S&P 500 fall to 3,750. It is therefore not the atmosphere where stocks can soar into a new bull market. There is still a boat load of headline risk, so purchases should be done slowly and not all at once. Average in as the professionals usually do. And any adds you may decide to make should be in the more defensive sectors of the market at first.
 
Of course, the markets can go lower, or bottom a little higher than my predictions. In markets like these where geopolitical uncertainty can move markets wildly, don't expect precise measurements. Suffice it to say that most of the decline is over in my books. 
 
The face-ripping rally we experienced this week is normal in bear markets. From the lows to the highs, the S&P 500 Index swung 180 points in a single day. We could easily see the reverse happen next week.
 
In this type of a downtrend, I believe we will need to test the lows and possibly go lower one, two, or even three times before this correction is over. That should take us close to the mid-March FOMC meeting. Even then, I am not expecting the overall market to come out of the doldrums before mid-year. Why?
 
My second big "if" of last week was the Fed. I am sure that the bond market will be wondering if their present expectations for seven interest rate hikes by the Fed this year remains a possibility. Could the Fed change its monetary tightening policy because of the invasion of Ukraine and resulting U.S. sanctions? My short answer is no.
 
Soaring oil and gas prices, and dislocations in the supply chain due to this geopolitical conflict, will only add upward pressure on the inflation rate. The Fed will continue to tighten, because they must, if we don't want to see hyperinflation. But I am not in the camp that seven rate hikes are being contemplated by the Fed membership. That premise is simply noise from a crowd of neophytes who have never worked in a rising interest rate environment. If the Fed raises interest rates even three times this year, I would be surprised.
 
That said, the Fed's monetary policy change will continue to pressure stocks through the first half of the year. That should cap any real upside we see going forward over the next three to four months. Still, flatlining by the stock market is better than going down I guess.
 
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.
 
Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.
 
     

@theMarket: Stocks Trapped in a Box

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Over the next three weeks, equities will likely trade in a wide range. The caveat to that forecast: if the Fed suddenly changes policy, or if a shooting war erupts in Ukraine. Those are two big ifs. Unfortunately, I can neither forecast when or what the next Fed head will say, nor predict Vladimir Putin's next move.
 
The next Federal Open Market Committee meeting occurs in mid-March. The latest CPI and PPI inflation data shows inflation accelerating at a rate much higher than economists and the Fed expected. It is all but certain, according to the bond market vigilantes, that the Federal Reserve Bank will raise interest rates at that time. As such, it is only a question of whether the rate increase will be a 25 or 50 basis point hike.
 
That will be only part of the equation. Investors will be expecting Chairman Jerome Powell to give them more insight as to how many rate hikes they can expect going forward, and what other monetary tightening the Fed will be planning as well. The risk will be that the equity market could swoon and test the lows if the Fed is perceived as more hawkish on tightening than expected.
 
That in the meantime, we have plenty to occupy our attention. This week the market's interest rate worries have been superseded by Russia's intentions toward Ukraine. Thus far, the conflict has been played out in the media in a "he said, she said" war of charges and counter charges.
 
War is never a good thing, suffice it to say. But besides the human costs of such a conflict, there would also be an economic price to pay. The sanctions that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to inflict on Russia in response to perceived aggression would inflict damage on the global economy and on the U.S. as well.
 
Russia supplies a great deal of the commodities that the rest of the world consumes. Sanctions could immediately cause substantial price spikes in commodities such as oil, gas, and coal. Russia is also a major exporter of rare earth minerals and heavy metals. One third of the world's supply of palladium (used in catalytic converters), for example, and titanium (think aircraft) is also mined and exported by Russia.
 
Ukraine is also a major source of neon, an essential input in the manufacturing of semiconductors. The Ukraine is one of the world's largest producers of wheat, as well as fertilizers (as is Russia). Hostilities could damage their ability to export or even harvest the nation's wheat supply.
 
I would expect price spikes in several food commodities as a result. That would add fuel to the inflation fire and could force the Fed to become even more aggressive in raising interest rates. It would not be a pretty picture for stock market investors.  
 
To be honest, no one knows whether Russia is bluffing or serious about invasion as a next step.  For me, a telltale sign of their intent would be any movement of medical facilities and supplies forward to the troop staging areas and border with Ukraine. This week, I have seen just that.
 
The risk is obvious. A shooting war would probably see the S&P 500 Index re-test the lows (4,222) of Jan. 24. Geopolitical events usually have a limited impact on the stock market, unless the hostilities are protracted and far-reaching.  If, on the other hand, a negotiated settlement was to occur, markets would likely fly higher. That "if" word is going to keep investors jumpy and prices in a box with every headline capable of moving markets 1-2 percent up or down.
 
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.
 
Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

 

     
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