The economic momentum continued its recovery from the pandemic induced lockdowns in the 1st quarter 2021 with real GDP expanding at an annual rate of 6.4% in the first quarter of 2021. Massive spending measures by the government, unprecedented Fed policy measures, overall strong employment recovery and greater vaccination rates drove strong economic activity, delivering strong S&P 500 operating earnings largely above expectations up 34.1% year over year trending at $187.43 from $139.00 at year end. Inflation reached 2.6% in the first quarter due to reopening demand along with material and product shortages. Consumer spending expanded 10.7% at an annual rate in the first quarter supported by strong household income as federal stimulus checks continue.
The rotation into cyclical – value stocks which started last September continued in the first quarter which helped thrust the S&P 500 to new highs despite consolidation in the mega caps. Equity markets are priced to perfection, however, on the assumption rates will remain low for a long time. I think you could see a serious correction in asset prices if the Fed must tighten monetary policy to combat inflation. The Fed has warned asset valuations are high and vulnerable noting the economy is a long way from their goals. While high priced stocks could eventually earn the profit necessary to justify today’s valuations under a completely opened economy, what happens when the fiscal stimulus is turned off? And how will the markets react to the beginning of the Fed tapering? Additionally, while the virus remains the greatest threat to the economy, what Black Swan events are unforeseen due to the excessive liquidity in the economic system and how will current inflation pressures play out in the economy?
The pandemic lockdown induced recession appears to have ended May 2020 looking at the Leading Economic Index and the ISM Purchasing Managers Indexes. Now we are at the beginning stages of a new cyclical bull market exhibited by an acceleration after the economy troughs. In this phase of the business cycle, the Fed keeps rates low while credit conditions trough allowing stocks to advance sharply until interest rates rise. U.S. stock sectors that perform well in the early cycle are typically materials, financials, industrials, information technology and consumer discretionary stocks.While economic growth looks good short term and earnings have rebounded strongly recently what happens when growth moderates after a fully opened economy returns to trend line growth? Asset prices will have to correct under a reversion of the means representing historical multiples.
Source: JP Morgan Asset Management.
The long-term outlook for equities remains strong (2022 earnings are projected to be up 10.9%) but a near term consolidation in major indices would be expected. Although 2021 returns have mostly been attributed to rising earnings as opposed to multiple expansion, valuations remain high by historical standards. Pair this with a pull forward in returns in the markets pricing in an already robust rebound, a 5-10% selloff would be normal. Additionally, US GDP growth is projected to peak in the coming months which would historically correlate with a correction in markets. When the ISM manufacturing index registers above 60, typically coinciding with peak growth, the S&P 500 has experienced median returns of -1% during the subsequent month and a measly 3% return during the subsequent 12 months. The latest monthly readings in March and April were 60.7 and 64.7, respectively.
So, look for some consolidation in the equity markets short-term. The bond market will remain under pressure as the Fed will have to manage higher inflation. Long-term the equity markets will have to also adjust to potentially higher taxation but remains attractive given the economic backdrop.
Commentary Disclosures: Covington Investment Advisors, Inc. prepared this material for informational purposes only and is not an offer or solicitation to buy or sell. The information provided is for general guidance and is not a personal recommendation for any particular investor or client and does not take into account the financial, investment or other objectives or needs of a particular investor or client. Clients and investors should consider other factors in making their investment decision while taking into account the current market environment.
Covington Investment Advisors, Inc. uses reasonable efforts to obtain information from sources which it believes to be reliable. Any comments and opinions made in this correspondence are subject to change without notice. Past performance is no indication of future results.