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What will define markets for the remainder of the year?

As economic expansion presses forward, we are focused on five key considerations.


Our Top Market Takeaways for September 17, 2021.

 

MARKET THOUGHTS

The defining market questions heading into year-end

We have our eye on five key questions that will influence markets through the end of the year.

 

1. Can we get over the COVID-19 hump?

The Delta variant spread rapidly over the summer, but so too did vaccine penetration. Over 40% of the world has now received at least one vaccine dose, compared to just 10% in June. And while vaccines haven’t stopped rising case counts, they’ve done much to protect against the worst-case outcomes (rising hospitalizations and mortality rates).

Importantly, policymakers in highly vaccinated countries have been able to keep their economies open. Outside of airline travel, mobility in the U.S. economy and close contact spending have remained pretty much constant during the Delta wave. That said, we believe the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming endemic, and with each new wave, the negative impacts on the economy seem to be diminishing.

As we get over the Delta hump, we think the reopening trade could find a second wind. Cyclical areas, such as materials and services-oriented consumption, stand at the nexus of this potential leg higher.

But not all reopening trades are created equal. We’re still shying away from energy and airline segments of the stock market, as both have added debt and burned cash throughout the pandemic. Further, likely permanent damage to business travel and an ongoing desire to lower demand for fossil fuels give us pause on these areas.

 

2. What will Washington actually deliver? 

There is a laundry list of Congressional tasks that need to get done by year-end. In addition to the oft-mentioned infrastructure bill and the budget reconciliation, Congress also needs to resolve the debt limit to prevent a government shutdown, negotiate next year’s budget, and consider extending or terminating the plethora of COVID-19-related programs set to expire. We’re tired already.

Consensus expects about $2.3 trillion in new fiscal spending to be signed into legislation this year (we’ve penciled in a more conservative $1.5 trillion). But the economic impact will only go so far—a $2.3 trillion spending package over 10 years would increase federal spending by 5% per year (not exactly life changing).

More widely telegraphed, though, is how it’ll be paid for. The tax and spend plan released by House Democrats this week gave us a clue, calling for a 26.5% statutory corporate tax rate (only a touch higher than the 25% we’ve already baked into our outlook) and a 25% capital gains rate for high earners (substantially lower than President Biden’s initial proposal). The next proposal to watch for will be from the Senate Finance Committee.

Importantly, higher capital gains taxes tend to have a fleeting impact on markets. And while a corporate tax hike would present a headwind for all sectors, S&P 500 earnings still stand to grow another ~10% next year when factoring in the potential changes—and that’s on top of estimated ~45% growth this year.

3. Are Chinese officials going to reverse course on policy and regulatory tightening?

Although China’s economy was the first major one to emerge out of the crisis last year, growth in China is in a major slump, largely because policymakers took a more restrictive stance this year (its credit impulse is about as tight as its been over the last decade) and outbreaks of COVID continue across the country. Add to that surging input costs and a hoard of regulatory shifts, and it’s not too surprising Chinese assets have been some of the worst performers this year. Internet stocks in particular are down over 50% from February highs.

China’s annual growth goal of 5% has been well telegraphed. A recent shift toward easing from the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) could foreshadow a further loosening of credit conditions and, possibly, a subsequent pick-up in growth. And while more regulatory moves are likely on the horizon, China’s onshore equity markets appear more insulated from further ire than offshore markets.

That all said, we continue to see compelling opportunities in investing in China over the long term, but investors may need to be willing to tolerate the near-term risks and have some patience. A diversified multi-asset approach across stocks and bonds can dampen volatility, and we are also specifically focused on areas of the market that are aligned to China’s policy priorities, such as automation, robotics, clean energy and EVs.

 

4. When will higher input costs matter for the expansion and corporate profits?

We don’t think profits will feel the pinch anytime soon. Profit margins are actually near 10-year highs, as revenues are surging along with input costs. And it’s all thanks to productivity growth.

Corporations have been able to make productivity enhancements during the pandemic (such as enabling efficient remote work and investing in technology) that have more than offset costs. So instead of just thinking about higher input costs in a silo, it’s also worth looking at measures such as unit labor costs, or how much a business pays workers to produce each unit it makes. Unit labor costs have actually fallen because increased output and efficiency are offsetting rising wages.

This gives us confidence in the durability of earnings growth through this year and next—a key tenet of our view for more upside in stocks.

 

5. Is the Federal Reserve going to rush to the exit?

We don’t think so. Fed Chair Powell and his band of policymakers have been explicit about their data-dependent approach, and have taken leaps to ensure future moves are well telegraphed. Importantly, the Fed is not tone deaf and will not begin removing support unless the recovery is on stable enough footing.

That said, the U.S. economy has made substantial progress since the crisis (the labor market continues to heal even if Delta creates some speedbumps, and the consumer has proven resilient). We expect the Fed to announce tapering at its November meeting and formally begin the process in December.

Further, Powell has been very careful to cut a clear distinction between tapering and rate hikes, and the latter isn’t even a topic of conversation yet. The market currently expects the first rate hike to come in Q1 2023—about in line with the Fed’s mandate for an unemployment rate well below 4% and inflation averaging 2%.

This gradual and well-telegraphed removal of central bank liquidity, a continued rollover in “transitory” inflation forces, and a constructive growth outlook (even if some momentum is delayed) should push rates off their lows.  

 

Where we stand:

We’ve moved beyond recovery and into expansion. As we head into the home stretch of 2021, our constructive outlook leads us to continue favoring stocks over bonds. And as vaccine penetration enables continued reopening and bond yields rise off their lows, we see another leg higher in cyclical areas of the market. At the same time, growth stalwarts, such as tech and healthcare, tend to outperform in mid-cycle environments.

Moreover, what we don’t like is just as important as what we do. Cash continues to be our least favored asset class. And given bond yields are headed higher, we’re cautious on long duration core fixed income, instead favoring a shorter duration tilt and leveraging active managers to navigate tight credit spreads.

 

 

All market and economic data as of September 2021 and sourced from Bloomberg and FactSet unless otherwise stated.

We believe the information contained in this material to be reliable but do not warrant its accuracy or completeness. Opinions, estimates, and investment strategies and views expressed in this document constitute our judgment based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice.

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