colorful of old oil tanks after uesd at outdoor junk place photo in sun lighting.

Our Top Market Takeaways for September 15, 2023

Market update: The back-to-school flurry

Stocks swung on a jam-packed week.

Here are just a few things that happened:

  • Chip designer Arm sprinted out of the gate on its much anticipated first trading day, marking the largest IPO of the year so far.
  • After what’s been a tepid recovery, China may finally be seeing some green shoots. The latest round of data showed manufacturing activity and consumer spending were stronger-than-expected in August. This could be an early sign that all of policymakers’ piecemeal moves could be adding up to stabilize growth.
  • Kicking off a slew of central bank meetings over the next week, the European Central Bank (ECB) hiked yesterday to its highest deposit rate ever. With growth now slowing after over 450 basis points of hikes in the last 15 months, policymakers signalled the move could be their last.
  • The United Auto Workers began their historic strike at the Big Three Detroit automakers. So far, initial action is just at one plant per firm.
  • Things heated back up in the latest U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) report. Headline CPI – which looks at the prices of a basket of consumer goods and services – accelerated to a 3.7% pace on the year (from 3.2% in July). Higher gas prices this summer were mostly to blame.
This bar chart shows the August CPI components month over month percentage change.

To that last point, whether you’re driving, flying or cooling off your home in the late-summer heat, chances are
you’re feeling some of the sting of higher fuel costs. Today, we dig into what’s behind the moves and whether they’re cause for concern.

Spotlight: Gas prices are going up: Should you be worried?

The price of oil is at its highest of the year, popping above $90 per barrel yesterday for the first time since November 2022. With oil up over +30% just since June, this has also pushed the prices of distillates such as gasoline and diesel up along with it. The average price of regular U.S. gasoline is $3.85 per gallon at the moment, up from around $3.50 just a few months ago.

This chart shows the US dollar price of WTI from January 2021 to September 14, 2023.

First things first: What’s behind the moves?

Oil prices started to sink at the start of the summer. So to boost prices and support the market, OPEC+ (an organization of some of the largest oil-producing nations) swooped in with production cuts. Saudi Arabia and Russia have been at the center of the moves, extending their planned production cuts through December. Together, the broader OPEC+ group is now holding back 4 million barrels of crude per day – the largest production cut outside of a recession over the last two decades. So, with less supply to go around to meet still red-hot demand, prices have been on a tear higher.

Could it get worse?

There’s always the chance of short-term spikes. But, unless we see an unexpected geopolitical event, we think it would be hard to see prices over $100/barrel (which would look more eyebrow-raising). It comes back down to supply and demand:

  • Supply: Higher oil prices could tempt other producers into action. It looks like independent producers in both the United States and Canada could boost supply by at least 500,000 barrels/day in the next few months. As U. S. - Iran relations thaw, Iran has also been sending more oil to the market.
  • Demand: Despite growth in China slowing its roll, global demand for energy has held up at record levels. But, as the heat dies down and folks phase out their summer travel, demand should cool. Climate patterns should help, too. El Niño (a band of warm water that forms in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean) often leads to warmer winter weather in the United States. The last time we saw an El Niño winter, oil demand fell more than 15%.

That’s all to say, risks remain, but we think oil prices will ease (likely towards the mid-$80s) as more supply comes online and demand slows. This should help temper fuel costs in the coming months.

What does it all mean?

There are two big worries:

  • Higher oil prices will finally crack the consumer.
  • Higher oil prices will undo the progress that central banks have made on inflation.

Higher oil prices will finally crack the consumer. The worry goes that pain at the pump is coming at the worst time, especially for less affluent households. Most consumers don’t have any pandemic-era savings left, more people seem to be turning to debt to keep up their purchases and student loan payments are about to restart.

Those are real challenges, and more people may feel the pinch in their pocketbooks in the months ahead, but we don’t think it’s enough to derail an otherwise strong consumer.

For one, most who want a job have one. The labor market is strong, and there are still 1.4 job openings available for every unemployed person. This means most consumers have reason to keep spending. And even as more people use debt to finance their purchases, the overall ratio of household debt-to-income still looks healthy.

It’s also worth noting that energy prices may matter less than they used to. In 1974, consumers spent almost 10% of their wallet share on energy goods and services. Today, it’s around 4%. And excluding supervisors, the average U.S. worker can buy 7.5 gallons of gas per hour worked, more than they could for most of 2005 - 2014.

Higher oil prices will undo the progress that central banks have made on inflation. Higher gas prices may add pressure to the next few inflation prints. But, over the balance of the next year, we think inflation will keep cooling. More signs than not point to easing oil prices, and rent prices and other core services (which have been the stickiest drivers of inflation) are still easing, with ample room for progress. That should also help support incomes.

We don’t think these dynamics will change anything for the Federal Reserve at its meeting next week. We’d still take the over that policymakers go on pause, but with a caveat that markets are betting on a 50% chance of one more hike by the end of the year. Either way, the conversation seems to have decidedly shifted from “how high” the Fed should hike rates to “how long” it will hold there. This means the key thing to watch next week will be the Fed’s view on the path of policy in 2024 (its “dot plot”), which could give us a sense for the timing and pace of any rate cuts.

Investment considerations: There’s always going to be something

The market stratosphere is full of reasons not to invest. But through all the challenges and risks, and even through periods of heightened optimism, investors who have stayed the course have generally benefitted from growth, innovation and progress.

To us, a 60/40 portfolio of stocks and bonds remains one of the best starting points, offering the potential for growth and income. And to add an additional element of diversification, alternatives such as real assets can help protect against risks around inflation.

The chart describes the examples of “reasons” not to invest. It describes the cumulative returns of a 60/40 portfolio since a series of events (from 1999 to now).

Your J.P. Morgan team is here to discuss what these dynamics mean for you and your portfolio.>

All market data from FactSet and Bloomberg Finance L.P., 9/14/23.

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