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The Retired Investor: Financial Markets Face Year of Unknowns

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Historically, mid-term election years are notoriously periods of underperformance in the stock market. The post-election year is a different story altogether. Will 2023 be one of those years?
 
The average return for the stock market in the 12 months after elections has been 16.3 percent.
 
2022 will qualify in history as one of those underperforming mid-term election years. To date, the benchmark S&P 500 Index, has lost roughly 20 percent thus far and may end the year even lower.
 
Historically, looking back to 1932, S&P 500 returns have averaged 14 percent in a split Congress and 13 percent in a Republican-held Congress under a Democratic president. The facts are that stock markets do well when there is gridlock in Congress. Neither new spending initiatives nor tax increases are likely to pass a divided Congress. In the aftermath of this election, if the House and or Senate flip to the GOP, the best that can be said is that additional business regulation will be limited and may even be rolled back somewhat in areas such as energy, pharmaceuticals, biotech, and the financial sectors.  
But a rebound in the markets next year is far from a sure thing given the global economic background. We are wrestling with the highest inflation rate in a generation, sky rocketing interest rates, the Ukrainian war, and a worldwide economic slowdown. The International Monetary Fund has cut its forecast for global growth from 3.2 percent in 2022 to 2.7 percent next year. That is the weakest growth rate since 2001.
 
As the global economic pie shrinks, I expect to see a rise in worldwide trading blocs as the world fights for a bigger piece of the shrinking pie. A North-South economic and political axis has been forming for more than a decade with China in the lead in expanding trade and investment in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
 
Russia has joined this bloc in response to Western economic sanctions, while nations such as India, Brazil, some of Eastern Europe as well as certain energy producers in the Middle East are strengthening economic ties with both Russia and China. Together, these countries represent more than one-third of the world's economic output and two-thirds of its population. As global growth slows, expect trade wars to accelerate between this bloc and a U.S.-led trading bloc. That trade group includes most of Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and a host of other pro-democratic nations.   
 
A recession seems to be all but guaranteed in 2023 here in the U.S. In a recent CNBC CFO Council survey, more than 68 percent of chief financial officers (CFO) are convinced that a recession will unfold during the first half of 2023. No CFO surveyed believed the country will escape a recession. It is just a question of how severer the recession will be. I believe that will depend on how high the Fed must raise interest rates to bring inflation down.
 
Inflation was identified as the biggest risk facing the economy and businesses by the Federal Reserve Bank. Most Americans would agree with that position. Unfortunately, inflation, now over 8 percent, has been much stickier than most experts expected. As a result, the ongoing central bank tightening of monetary policy that began this year will continue into 2023.
 
The longer inflation remains elevated, the longer and higher interest rates must climb. The main debt instrument the Fed uses in raising interest rates is the Fed funds rate. All other debt instruments key off that rate. Bond investors expect the Fed will ultimately target a Fed Funds rate above 5 percent. The Fed's announced target rate is now between 3.75 percent-4 percent. Bond investors expect the Fed will ultimately target a rate above 5 percent before all is said and done. That means we still have a sizable amount of tightening yet to come.
 
The Fed is counting on higher interest rates to slow demand by reducing economic growth while increasing the unemployment rate. That would hopefully reduce the rate of inflation. Some economists could see inflation fall to 5-6 percent under this scenario.
 
I expect that rising interest rates will result in a slowing economy in the first half of 2023, resulting in a mild recession, and a decline in the headline inflation rate. The financial markets, I expect, will remain volatile as these economic developments unfold. Traders, witnessing a gradual decline in inflation, will jump the gun, bid markets higher, and expect the Fed to ease, only to be disappointed.
 
The Fed will remain steadfast for months, in my opinion, until they are sure their policies are working. This divergent behavior will whipsaw investors. It will likely create a series of vicious bear market rallies only to see chasers caught in nasty bull traps. I expect to see lower highs and lower lows as January and February progress.
 
At some point in the first quarter, fears that the Fed will "over tighten" and force the economy into an even deeper recession will make the rounds on Wall Street as well as in Washington. That will add fuel to the fires of uncertainty and likely make a life for Fed officials difficult, especially if the labor market weakens. We could also see increased stress in financial markets here and abroad, as credit markets grow tighter.
 
U.S. corporate earnings for the benchmark S&P 500 Index currently at $225 will probably take it on the chin. I expect at best, earnings will be flat versus 2022 and may decline to roughly $200 in a worst-case kind of scenario. If you slap a 15 times earnings ratio onto that number, you come up with a 3,000-price level on the Index, compared to the 3,900 level today.  
 
As such, I see a rather nasty first-quarter decline in the stock markets to fresh lows that could take the S&P 500 Index down another 10 percent-20 percent or so from here. I am forecasting a final capitulation in the stock market around the end of March 2023 with a tentative bottom of 3,200.
 
When do I see the Fed pivot or at least pause in tightening? That depends on inflation, but I do believe it will take several months before the Fed will be willing to relax its policies once inflation begins to fall. That hasn't happened yet. Let's say it does happen over the next six to nine months, sometime in the second quarter of 2023.
 
If so, I expect the markets will anticipate this change. The U.S. dollar will begin to retreat, interest rates start to decline, and we should see stocks and bonds bounce in the Spring and throughout the summer. For the year, my guesstimate, which will change for sure as the year progresses, is a target of 4,500 on the S&P 500 index.
 
I would expect to see assets that are negatively correlated to a declining dollar such as materials, commodities, energy, and maybe cryptocurrencies do well. Emerging markets would also benefit as would U.S. and foreign stocks in general. As interest rates decline, there would also be an upside in bond prices across the board as well as bond funds. High-yielding dividend stocks and value stocks would also do well.
 

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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