Uncertainty prevails – where are markets heading from here?
We unpack how oil, bond and stock market dynamics are driving our investment approach today.
Our Top Market Takeaways for June 3, 2022
When bad news is good news
Investors are still trying to figure out the puzzle of inflation, monetary policy, and growth. Heading into Friday, the S&P 500 is up about +0.5% and the tech-heavy NASDAQ-100 +1.7% on the week. Treasury yields are up across the curve, but remain close to levels from a month ago.
As uncertainty prevails, many investors are poring over data looking for clues on where the economy and markets are headed from here. Markets know to expect the Fed to deliver two more 50bps rate hikes by the time summer is over, but the question is how much tightening they signal thereafter.
Based on this week’s releases, one might point to U.S. manufacturing data as a sign that the economy is still running too hot and needs more policy tightening. It showed a surprise pickup in activity last month. Or, one might home in on the labor market as evidence that inflationary pressures are easing and the Fed’s mission is on track. The economy added more jobs than expected in May, but fewer than it did in April. Average hourly earnings rose another +0.3% versus the month prior, which is in-line with the average seen before the pandemic in 2018 and 2019.
In the months ahead, bulls are likely to maintain the mindset that “bad news” in the form of downside misses in economic data is “good news.” Meanwhile, stronger-than-expected data may galvanize those who insist that the recent gains off the lows are merely a bear market rally.
Either way, bears and bulls alike have plenty they can point to in the bigger picture in order to make their case right now. In an effort to pull back the curtain on how we process information to come to our views, let us unpack what we see going on in oil, bond, and equity markets that’s driving our investments approach today.
OPEC+ output targets just got a boost, but the oil market is still tight.
On Thursday, OPEC+, the group of countries that deliver nearly half of the world’s oil supply, announced they would increase production quotas from 475,000 to 648,000 barrels per day in July and August. We’ll take it, but there’s no guarantee OPEC member countries will actually be able to meet the higher supply quotas, especially since many are already near capacity. Estimates from J.P. Morgan’s Investment Bank suggest the actual increase may be less than 175,000 per day–not a lot.
To boot, the EU formally announced a ban of Russian oil imports earlier this week (well, partially–the embargo applies to imports delivered by sea, but not pipelines). This follows the U.S. ban back in March. Less scrupulous buyers, like China and India, are still taking delivery of Russian crude at a record $35 discount…but refined products from Russia, which include gasoline and diesel fuel, are off the market.
Also, China’s oil demand is down about 1.5 million barrels per day since the start of the year, diminished by the country’s springtime COVID-19 resurgence. Shanghai lifted its lockdown this week, suggesting demand is set to pick back up. Finally, note that travel picks up in the summer. The seasonal demand increase has been slower this year versus history, but higher airfares and prices at the pump aren’t yet deterring demand to a meaningful degree.
What we think: With little wiggle room between supply and demand, oil prices seem likely to stay supported by a floor of ~$100 per barrel through year-end. Especially as China emerges from its latest round of lockdowns and summer travel season picks up, risks are skewed to the upside. In our view, oil reaching $150 per barrel isn’t out of the question.
The cost of borrowing has risen, but corporate debt burdens are still low.
After taking advantage of ultra-low interest rates in 2020 and 2021, the typical investment grade company is currently paying about 3.6% interest on its outstanding debt. If that company were to take on new debt today, it would cost about 4.6%.
The good news is that corporate debt service costs relative to revenues are at their lowest level since 1969. Even as revenue growth slows and companies have to borrow anew to replace financing from maturing bonds, there’s sufficient cushion to keep debt burdens manageable for investment grade companies. High yield issuers are likely to have a harder time as credit spreads widen on the back of slowing growth, higher costs, and heightened recession risks.
What we think: Default probabilities still look low in both the high yield and investment grade spaces. That said, the compensation for taking on more credit risk in high yield may look attractive compared to the potential risk and reward in stocks right now, but less so versus the yield potential with negligible default risk found in the investment grade space today. All things considered, adding exposure to core bonds is one of our highest conviction ideas right now.
U.S. equity valuations have come down, but earnings expectations have risen.
The -12% year-to-date decline in the S&P 500 has manifested through a meaningful decline in equity valuations. The price-to-earnings ratio based on consensus earnings expectations for the next 12 months has fallen from 21.3x at the start of the year to 17.4x today. That’s still above the 15.5x 20-year average, but below the 18.6x average of the past five years.
Meanwhile, the street’s earnings expectations have actually moved higher this year. Much of the rise can be chalked up to earnings beats for Q1: 77% of S&P 500 companies reported better-than-expected results, collectively exceeding expectations by 4.7%.
It’s worth noting that the “valuations down, earnings up” dynamic isn’t unusual for times of uncertainty and macroeconomic transition. Valuations tend to reflect investors’ perceptions of scenario probabilities first, and changes to earnings expectations follow.
What we think: We’re expecting earnings estimates to come down and validate at least some of the valuation unwind by year-end. That’s based on signs that economic growth is slowing more quickly than expected (leading to slower revenue growth) and higher input costs (pressuring margins). Based on our base case views, we actually think the broad S&P 500 is close to fairly valued today, with modest upside potential into year-end.
What it means for investors
Higher oil prices feed through to most areas of the global economy, complicating the outlook for consumer spending, corporate margins, and growth at large. As such, holding a sliver of tactical exposure to the energy complex–through equities, bonds, or the commodities themselves–may be prudent as a hedge.
Bonds issued by investment grade companies offer a compelling bang-for-your-buck in terms of quality, defensiveness, and respectable yield. As equity market volatility persists, we think core bonds can serve as valuable portfolio ballasts.
Stock market upside may be capped by slowing earnings growth from here, but remember that they are long-term capital appreciation vehicles. With valuations back to pre-pandemic levels, the entry point looks fairly compelling assuming a multi-year time horizon. But take a risk-aware approach: derivatives can offer upside exposure with downside protection, and we think higher quality market segments (like Healthcare, or Tech stocks trading at a reasonable price) could emerge as outperformers in the year ahead.