Weekly Update

An Overview of Current Economic and Market Conditions

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Published January 29, 2021

This has been the rare week where investment news has become very mainstream. The frenzied trading in Gamestop and other heavily-shorted stocks has created all kinds of buzz. There are plenty of articles discussing the phenomenon of the armies of individual investors going after big-money short sellers. Once the sparks stop flying and the dust settles, there will be some big winners and losers from this market aberration. Meanwhile, the broader markets roll on, mostly unaffected by the turmoil in that handful of stocks. Below is the latest analysis from the market analysis team at Charles Schwab. We think it provides an excellent overview of the current state of markets, risks, and investor perceptions. We note that though there are many calls for a “bubble” in the stock market, the earnings growth expected largely supports the elevated price-earnings ratio. It certainly creates higher risk though for companies that miss earnings or issue disappointing outlooks. Herewith, the folks at Schwab:

“Optimism remains strong for an economic rebound, as COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out. However, with the pace of vaccinations lagging original projections and the virus continuing to spread at record and alarming rates, growth will likely struggle in the near term. Ultimately, herd immunity still represents the light at the end of the tunnel, but the path forward is darkened by efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The labor market faces persistent headwinds. The December U.S. employment report showed a loss of 140,000 nonfarm payroll jobs, the first decline since April 2020. More sectors added jobs than eliminated jobs, but the leisure/hospitality sector took a big hit, accounting for nearly 500,000 job losses (for a more comprehensive look at the report, click here). Despite some overall bright spots, U.S. payrolls still have meaningful ground to make up, as we’re almost 10 million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels.

The labor market’s recovery momentum has slowed

Nonfarm Payrolls

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 12/31/2020.

The overall slowdown in the economy has been a side effect of the continued spread of the virus, which has prompted renewed regional lockdowns and restrictions. As a result, consumers have tightened spending in certain areas, which has in turn hurt businesses—especially those in the services sector—and their prospects for survivability.

Meanwhile, the stock market has continued to climb, with some choppiness, as investors look forward to a vaccine-driven recovery, even though recent economic data has been less exciting. This disconnect is reflected in the U.S. Citi Economic Surprise Index, which has continued to decline. The index measures incoming economic data relative to expectations, with a positive reading reflecting stronger-than-expected results and a negative reading the opposite (note: as the economy emerged from the depths of the crisis, the index spiked to its highest level on record, simply due to economists’ inability to accurately forecast the hit from the pandemic).

The Citi Economic Surprise Index has continued to decline
U.S. Citi Economic Surprise Index

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, as of 1/13/2021.

Conversely, Citi’s Panic/Euphoria Index, shown below, reflects extreme investor. The level has shot up way beyond that reached during the euphoric period of the late-1990s technology-stock bubble.

Nevertheless, investor sentiment is at euphoric levels

Source: Citi Research, Pinnacle Data, Haver Analytics, as of 1/9/2021.

Because of the disconnect between investor sentiment and actual economic growth, sentiment is a persistent risk to stocks. A significant negative catalyst—in the form of virus-/vaccine-related bad news, a deterioration in fundamentals, or ongoing political turmoil—could spark a near-term downturn. For now, though, momentum and liquidity remain the driving forces for the market’s climb higher.

Global stocks and economy: A slow start

Global economic growth is struggling as 2021 gets underway, with COVID-19 infection rates and fatalities continuing to rise as countries accelerate the rollout of vaccination programs. With several countries having administered first-dose inoculations to only about 3%-5% of their populations within the first month of the programs, lockdowns are likely to remain in place and skew economic data to the downside in the first quarter. However, we expect the pace of the vaccine rollout to pick up, with 50% or more of the population in major countries likely to receive the first vaccine dose by the end of the second quarter. This may begin to provide a sharp restart to growth starting in the second quarter.

Vaccinations off to a slow start


Source: Charles Schwab, reports from government officials in referenced countries. Data as of 1/11/2021.

We believe a new economic cycle is beginning as the global economy emerges from the virus-induced economic downturn. This could lead to outperformance by international stocks supported by better economic growth, lower equity valuations, and a weaker U.S. dollar.
Market leadership tends to last for many years, even a decade, before reversing at the start of a new cycle. For example, after international stocks outperformed in the 1980s, the 1990 recession saw a shift to U.S. stock outperformance. The 2001 recession saw a switch back to international outperformance, and the 2008 recession flipped the switch again to U.S. outperformance. And now, the start of a new cycle may once again signal a switch to international stocks.

Annualized performance by economic cycle

Annualized Performance

Dates reflect economic cycle peaks defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Annualized total return between cycle peaks measured by MSCI USA Index and MSCI EAFE Index.
Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg data as of 1/11/2021.

This may continue as the new economic cycle strengthens. International economic and earnings growth is expected to outpace that of the United States and valuations are currently at extremes between U.S. and international stock markets, as you can see in the chart below. Both forward and trailing price-to-earnings ratios have a considerable, above-average spread of 4-5 points between U.S. and international markets, implying a relative overvaluation for U.S. stocks that may foster longer-term outperformance by international stocks.

International valuations appear relatively attractive

International Valuations
Source: Charles Schwab & Co, FactSet, as of 1/11/2021.

Since the end of April of last year, when global economic data appeared to have hit the low point for the cycle, international stocks have been outperforming U.S. stocks. If global growth resumes, as we expect, it may bolster international equities’ outperformance in 2021.

Fixed income: Bond yields rise with inflation expectations

After months of languishing near record lows, 10-year Treasury yields finally pushed above 1%, the highest level since March 2020. It’s striking that the move came in a week of unprecedented events in the Capitol and the weakest employment report in eight months. For better or worse, markets often seem out of sync with current conditions. In this case, the bond market is focused on the potential for stronger growth and higher inflation in 2021.

Ten-year Treasury yields exceed 1% for the first time since March
Ten-year Treasury yields

Source: Bloomberg. U.S. 10-year Treasury yield and the projected range for the 10-year in 2021 (USGG10YR Index). Daily data as of 1/8/2021.

Three factors are behind this outlook:

  • Hopes that vaccines will allow the economy to recover from the Covid-19 crisis;
  • Expectations for expansive fiscal policy under the Biden administration;
  • Signals from the Federal Reserve that it will maintain a very easy policy stance.

With vaccine distribution picking up, prospects for getting the pandemic under control are improving. There still appears to be a long way to go, but progress on getting large numbers of people vaccinated is being made, which should allow hard-hit sectors of the economy to begin recovering. Once it is safer for people to congregate, sectors like travel and hospitality, restaurants and bars, and schools can begin to return to normal activity. Stronger employment growth should follow.

The Biden administration, supported by a slim majority in Congress, has laid out ambitious plans for boosting economic growth, starting with spending to address the COVID-19 crisis. Direct aid to struggling households, small businesses, and local governments are all on the agenda. In addition, there is talk of infrastructure spending and debt forgiveness. Even if the spending falls short of the administration’s goal, it is significantly more than the market had priced in prior to the run-off elections in Georgia that tipped the Senate in favor of the Democrats.

The Fed continues to signal that it will keep its current policy stance in place until inflation rises above its 2% target level. Under its new framework, the Fed won’t start to raise interest rates in advance of a rise in inflation. Instead, it intends to let inflation run above its target level in hopes of driving the unemployment rate lower.

The combination of these three factors is driving inflation expectations higher. The implied inflation rate derived from the Treasury Inflation-Protected Security (TIPS) market has risen sharply in the past few months, signaling expectations that inflation will reach the Fed’s 2% target.

Inflation expectations continue to rise

Notes: A measure of the average expected inflation over the five-year period that begins five years from the date data are reported. The rates are comprised of Generic United States Breakeven forward rates: nominal forward 5 years minus US inflation-linked bonds forward 5 years.
Source: Blomberg 5-year, 5-year Forward Inflation Expectation Rate (USGG5Y5Y Index). Daily data as of 1/8/2021.

We continue to expect 10-year U.S. Treasury yields to move up to near 1.6% even while the Fed keeps short-term interest rates near zero. Our suggested strategy is to keep the average duration in a bond portfolio low to mitigate the impact of rising rates. We don’t expect a big move up in inflation, but with “real” interest rates negative (that is, below the inflation rate) there is room for higher bond yields.

1 A real interest rate is a rate that has been adjusted to remove the effects of inflation.”


Market Update

Stocks kicked off the week with a volatile Monday morning session. The Nasdaq swung back and forth a full 3% in Monday morning trade on no real news. Things settled down in the afternoon with the index ramping back up to a +0.7% close. A full 20% of the S&P 500 provides quarterly earnings reports this week. Investors will be looking to see if the company outlooks justify the pricey market. Tuesday brought flat trade despite a raft of solid earnings from companies as widespread as healthcare’s Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), industrials goods maker 3M (MMM), banker UBS (UBS), and defense contractor Raytheon (RTX). Tech shares dominated the middle of the big earnings week. Microsoft (MSFT) announced stellar results after Tuesday’s bell with shares leaping higher to begin Wednesday’s session. However, investors sold the news to push the broad market indexes down over -2% Wednesday. Concerns over the speed of Covid vaccine rollouts combined with a “sell the news” mentality to put pressure on shares. Stocks rebounded +1% Thursday though recent tech/consumer darlings, Apple (AAPL) and Tesla (TSLA) both fell notably after their earnings reports. Friday brought another -2% drawdown with investors continuing to be willing to take some of the air out of the market’s substantial march higher since November.

After posting gains for 11 of the prior 12 weeks, the Russell 2000 smallcap index (IWM) finally slipped back. The -4.39% slide only gave up the prior two weeks worth of gains. The S&P 500 (SPY) slid -3.35% to give up all of the year-to-date gains. The Nasdaq (QQQ) 100’s -3.34% weekly loss merely reversed the prior week’s gain. All indexes closed at or above the closely watched 10-week moving average, a level they have held above since late October.

Warm wishes and until next week.