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So, are we in a recession?

Markets are rallying despite GDP contracting and higher rates on the horizon. What gives?

Our Top Market Takeaways for July 29, 2022

Markets in a Minute: Well, technically…

A day after the Federal Reserve raised its policy interest rate by another 75 basis points, the data for U.S. GDP from the second quarter showed that the economy contracted again.

Let’s start with the big debate: should we characterize the current economic environment as a recession? The simple case for is that GDP growth has been negative for two quarters in a row. Technically, that’s a technical recession.

But we think the focus on the recession debate could be distracting investors from the more important signals that came from the GDP release and the Fed’s meeting on Wednesday.

The first takeaway is that rate hikes are having their intended impact. The economy is slowing, and quickly. The housing and goods sectors are going through a substantial slowdown. Together, they dragged 2nd quarter GDP down by ~1.8%. All of the other major housing related economic data released this week came in below economist estimates, and companies from Weber Grills to Stanley Black & Decker reported ugly quarterly earnings reports.

The second is that we are probably closer to the end of the Fed’s rate hiking cycle than the beginning. The Fed acknowledged this backdrop of slowing growth in their policy statement. And while their primary focus is still on getting inflation back to target, in the press conference they hinted that the worst of the tightening cycle is probably over. Two ideas help support this view.

The first is that the Fed thinks they are close to “neutral” or the theoretical interest rate that neither stimulates nor restricts economic activity. This is important because a guiding principle for this tightening cycle has been to get to neutral as quickly as possible.

Next, Powell said that it would probably be appropriate to slow the pace of rate increases once they get into restrictive territory. Because their next move will get them into restrictive territory, it follows that smaller rate hikes are likely going forward. This aggressive rate hiking cycle has been the primary reason for the poor performance from both equities and bonds so far this year, so smaller rate hikes should be welcomed by investors.

Instead of getting distracted by the “recession” debate1, the weak GDP report and the Fed’s meeting give us added confidence in our view that the deteriorating growth backdrop and falling inflation will enable the Fed to stop raising interest rates early in 2023.

In markets, that means a sigh of relief, recession or not.      

Spotlight: Rally on, Wayne

For both equity and bond markets, it doesn’t really seem like anything has gotten better. Europe is still facing an energy supply crisis, inflation hasn’t abated, growth is slowing dramatically, the Fed is still hiking aggressively, the housing market is rolling over, and consumer sentiment is in shambles.

But something must be changing.

Broad equity markets have rallied by ~11% from their early June lows, 10-year bond yields are down over 80 bps from their year to date highs, and the Bloomberg Aggregate Bond Index has rallied by over 5% from this year’s lows. 

Back in May, we laid out the potential criteria for a bottoming market: [1] a peak in inflation, [2]  a change in tone from the Fed, and [3] at least avoiding the worst case outcomes in Europe and China.

On [1]  the news on inflation has actually improved despite June’s scorching CPI report. Crude oil, like bond yields, peaked on June 14th. Coincidence? Probably not.

Way back then, it seemed like spiraling gasoline prices would force the Fed to raise interest rates even more aggressively to help contain inflation expectations. Instead, crude prices dropped 21% and took off some of the inflationary heat. Further, retailer earnings reports have consistently shown increasing inventories and an appetite for markdowns to clear them. Inflation has been stubborn, but it is looking more likely that it has indeed peaked.

On [2], the Fed’s press conference confirmed what the market may have been suspecting: that the Fed wasn’t going to hike by 75 bps at a time forever. The expectation from here is that we get a slower pace of rate hikes in the fall. As a result, 2 year treasury yields have dropped from their high of ~3.5% to ~2.85%.

And on [3], the situation on the ground in both Europe and China is still fluid, but it doesn’t seem like it is getting materially worse. In a year when markets are bruised, sometimes a break in the bad news counts as good news. 

Under the surface, it is also notable that markets are rallying on what would have been characterized as “bad” news. On the day that the Fed hiked by 75 bps, the long-duration secular growth stocks like those that are in the Nasdaq 100 rallied by 2.5%. The index extended its gains after Amazon and Apple posted strong earnings and is now at the highest level in 2 months.

On the day that the GDP release confirmed a technical recession and material weakness in the housing sector, housing equities actually rallied by over 2% and are now ~20% above their lowest levels of the year. On the single stock level, O’Reilly, the auto parts dealer, missed their earnings estimates and cut their full year earnings forecast yesterday, but the stock still managed to gain 2.5%.  

We don’t know whether or not the bottom is in, but there have been enough glimmers of hope on the inflation and Fed tightening front, and so much damage already done to markets, that even a modest change towards better news can mean gains for markets.

Investment Takeaways: Focus on conviction

While equity markets are staging a welcome relief rally, we don’t have a high degree of confidence in the near term direction of travel. That is why we are focused more on areas where we feel better about the potential upside and downside. Core fixed income and preferred equities could provide the appropriate profile.

  • Consider core fixed income as a portfolio ballast. Bond yields have fallen substantially over the last month given the reasons we laid out above, but if the economy does enter a (real) recession, then we think that interest rates have much further to fall. Even after the bond market rally, we would still advocate adding to the asset class.
  • Look for pockets of opportunities in risk assets. Dislocations provide opportunity. Preferred equities have been at the center of this year’s dislocation because they contain both bond- and equity-like characteristics. We think at current price and yield levels, there could be a compelling opportunity for “equity-like” returns while maintaining an added layer of protection because you are higher in the capital structure. Even after the rally, it is our preferred risk asset at the moment.

For more on how these considerations fit into your overall plan, please reach out to your J.P. Morgan Advisor.

1. Even if you do think we are in a recession (we don’t), you’d have to admit that it is a pretty bizarre one. Over the two quarters that headline GDP was negative, the economy added 2.7 million jobs, the unemployment rate fell from 3.9% to 3.6%, the travel sector strained under excess demand, and consumer debt delinquency rates hovered near all-time lows.

All market and economic data as of July 29, 2022 and sourced from Bloomberg and FactSet unless otherwise stated.

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