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What’s priced into markets?

It’s been a strong start to the year, but challenges remain — from inflation to bank stress aftershocks to the debt ceiling. Are markets oblivious to the risks, or keenly aware of them?

Our Top Market Takeaways for April 28, 2023

Market Update: What’s priced in?

Take the bad with the good. On one hand, this week showed that growth is slowing, aftershocks from the banking crisis continue to reverberate, and the U.S. debt ceiling is lurking. Yet, Q1 earnings season is giving a strong signal that Corporate America is hanging on tight.

It's the latter that’s sent markets grinding higher this week. A global portfolio1 of stocks and bonds is now up to the tune of about 6% so far this year.

Markets are anticipation machines – virtually all price action can be explained by what investors expect to happen in the future. So does that mean that are markets oblivious to the risks, or keenly aware of them?

For today’s note, we offer our take on what’s priced in:

1. A slowdown…without a recession

The U.S. economy grew 1.1% in the first quarter this year, slowing from Q4’s 2.6% pace and missing expectations. Consumption was still strong, but companies cut back on investment and drew down on their inventories. While that’s not good news, investors have had a long time to prepare. Much portfolio purging happened last year – remember that 2022 marked the S&P 500’s worst year since the Global Financial Crisis and U.S. core bonds’ worst on record.

Markets also seem to be doing a pretty good job at sniffing out the problem areas. Heading into Friday, First Republic has lost a staggering -57% this week as questions around its future percolate, while broader regional banks are down just -1.2%. The same can be said for ongoing worries around commercial real estate. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) in the troubled office sector have sunk -18% this year, while the broader universe is +0.7% higher.

But while investors seem to have prepared for a slowdown ahead, the strong gains we’ve seen so far this year suggest that the potential for our base case of a recession isn’t fully appreciated either. As just a rough barometer, Google searches for “recession” have dramatically faded.

2. The Fed getting its job done…not sticky prices

Inflation has slowed, but is still hot and well-above the Fed’s 2% target – in large part due to a still resilient labor market. Yesterday brought word that 16K less people filed for unemployment insurance over the last week than the one before, even as companies have announced more job cuts lately (the likes of McDonald’s, Lyft, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Deloitte all joined in this month).

Yet, markets are still betting on the Fed getting things back in balance, with expectations for future inflation (for instance, 5-year breakeven rates) well-anchored around the Fed’s mandate. Consumers also tend to agree. The latest survey from the University of Michigan showed that while consumers think prices will climb by 4.6% over the next year (up from 3.6% in March), they expect costs to rise at a lesser 2.9% pace over the next five years (holding steady from the prior month).

We tend to agree that the Fed will get its job done (with one more hike at next week’s policy meeting and cuts in the final months of the year), but getting inflation in check will likely come at a greater economic cost than the market expects. The average economist on the Street expects the unemployment rate to rise to 4.7% from today’s 3.5%. But as the impact of the rate hikes already seen continues to build, and the flow of credit is stymied as banks cut back on lending, we think more pronounced layoffs may be on the cards.

3. A short-lived downturn in corporate profits…but not meaningful pain

While it’s still early days, earnings for Q1 are so far, so good. Banks have been much better than expected, mega cap tech has been blowing it out of the water, and consumer-linked names are showing they still have pricing power.

To be fair, things are definitely slowing down – right now, consensus expects S&P 500 earnings per share to fall -4% in Q1 over the prior year. But that’s already improved from expectations for more than -7% at the start of the quarter. And as just over half of the index has reported, some 80% of companies have bested expectations, above the 5-year average of 77%.

What’s more, markets are expecting this to pretty much be the worst of it, with this or next quarter marking the trough in profits and a quick bounce-back thereafter:

We think that’s probably just a bit too optimistic. Tailwinds like growing efforts to cut costs, stronger supply chains and a weaker U.S. dollar still need to be weighed against slower growth, higher prices and general business uncertainty. To us, that means earnings still probably decline around -4% for the balance of 2023, versus the market’s bet to eke out +1% growth.

4. Growth over value, and international over US…but there’s probably still some room to go

Much of the S&P 500’s rally this year is thanks to mega cap tech. For instance, the largest 10 stocks in the S&P 500 (seven of which are tech or tech-enabled firms) make up just over 25% of the index, but account for 6.0% out of the index’s 8.3% year-to-date total return. The remaining 490 stocks have contributed a mere ~2.3%. Tech could continue its reign as growth becomes scarcer and investors see the highest quality names as a safe havens – but over the medium-term, we still see more value in small and mid-cap stocks.

International stocks have been the other bright spot this year. Europe is outperforming the U.S. by 5.5% in dollar terms. Is it all priced in? We don’t think so. For one, Europe is still trading at a ~28% discount to the U.S. – wider than its longer-term 20% average.

5. Debt ceiling drama…but not default

Angst over the looming debt ceiling has revved back up. Even as House Speaker McCarthy passed a bill this week that would suspend the limit for a year in exchange for spending cuts, it’s unlikely to gain much traction in the Senate. Negotiations are just getting going, and lower tax revenues this year also suggest the X-date (the potential default date) could come on the earlier side.

Markets are reflecting some of the risk, with record-wide dispersion in T-bill yields (as investors avoid ones maturing near the potential default date) and a historic pop higher in U.S. government credit default swaps (i.e., the cost to insure against a default in government debt). These oddities will probably continue as policymakers work out the kinks, but we and investors believe compromise will be eventually be found to avoid a worst-case scenario.

All in all, the market seems priced for what we know now. It doesn’t fully reflect recession risks, but it doesn’t entirely account for a bull case of smooth sailing ahead either.

As investors seek answers, more volatility is likely ahead. Bonds can help smooth the ride and offer protection, especially as growth slows. That also means that U.S. stocks are probably in for a choppy ride, leading us to see more opportunities in select sectors (reasonably-priced technology, industrials, health care) and Europe and China. Taking a longer-term view with megatrends like the energy transition, supply chain reorientation and digital transformation may also offer stability and growth in the face of the evolving cycle.

It’s natural to be skeptical, especially given the existing slate of unknowns. Your J.P. Morgan team is here to help.

1.This refers to a portfolio proxied by of 60% of MSCI World Index and 40% of Bloomberg Global Aggregate Bond Index.


All market and economic data as of April 28, 2023 and sourced from Bloomberg and FactSet unless otherwise stated.

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