Weekly Market Compass: The next few months could be a slog for these economies
What a week — both the S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite Indexes reached all-time highs last Thursday, but we also saw a reversal of the rotation from growth/defensives to cyclicals in both European and U.S. markets. Markets are clearly reacting to the problems that many economies are facing as COVID-19 continues to impact growth.
Recent data shows evidence of these problems.
Europe may face a modest recession
Europe is clearly at risk of a double-dip recession, albeit a modest one. The IHS Markit Flash Eurozone Composite PMI (Purchasing Managers Index) clocked in at 47.5, down from December’s 49.1.1 And it’s not just services that drug down that number; there was also a decline in manufacturing PMI, which actually fell to a seven-month low. And the weakness was spread throughout Europe.
This should come as no surprise. The Oxford Blavatnik Stringency Index, which tracks the level of economic lockdowns in various countries, indicates that stringency in many European countries is at or near the highest levels that have been experienced since the start of the pandemic. In other words, first-quarter economic activity could contract again, although if it does, I would expect this to be a very shallow contraction. More fiscal support is coming, and I expect the European Central Bank to remain supportive.
And so Europe just needs to get through this “fifth quarter of 2020,” and then I expect the situation to improve. I think that by later in the second quarter we will see improvement in economic activity as vaccine distribution becomes widespread.
The UK get more bad news
The UK is in a worse situation, at an even greater risk than the eurozone of a double-dip recession in the current quarter. The preliminary reading of the IHS Markit/CIPS UK Composite PMI fell like a lead balloon, dropping from 50.4 in December to 40.6 in January.1 Chris Williamson, chief economist at IHS Markit, explained the drop in the composite: “Services have once again been especially hard hit, but manufacturing has seen growth almost stall, blamed on a cocktail of COVID-19 and Brexit, which has led to increasingly widespread supply delays, rising costs and falling exports.”1
What’s more, on Friday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson shared more bad news: 1) the UK strain of the virus is not only more contagious but appears to be more deadly; 2) lockdowns might last until this summer. And so we should not expect economic strength in the near term, although I maintain that the economy is very likely to rebound substantially as vaccines are distributed.
Japan suffering too
Flash PMI readings for January indicate Japan is facing some headwinds too. Also last week the Bank of Japan warned of increasing risks to the economic outlook for Japan, and that efforts to control the virus could have impact beyond just the services sector. And while COVID-19 has been well-controlled in Japan relative to many Western countries, Japan has not yet rolled out any vaccines. They are still in clinical trials, but rollout is expected to start by late February
The U.S. awaits the fate of fiscal stimulus
The U.S. is also facing serious economic headwinds due to COVID. U.S. markets seem to have focused recently on the potential for additional fiscal stimulus. Janet Yellen, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be U.S. Treasury Secretary, made a strong case for more fiscal stimulus last week. She recognized concerns about growing debt levels, but also argued that there’s no time like the present to borrow since rates are so low. However, by the end of the week there was concern that President Biden would not have enough support to get his proposed $1.9 trillion package passed.
On days when markets are encouraged by the likelihood of more stimulus and a stronger rebound, cyclical stocks have outperformed. But when markets are worried that no more stimulus is forthcoming, or when economic data disappoints, secular growth stocks — especially tech — have outperformed.
I expect this “seesaw” stock market behavior to continue in the near term. While I still believe a strong economic rebound is in the offing later in 2021, there are likely to be glitches before we get there, as I have warned before. The tech sector has recently exhibited defensive qualities that I expect to continue and which I believe could be valuable in the next few months as we slog through what is likely to be a difficult time for the economy. Low interest rates help this situation given that tech valuations are admittedly stretched; investors have historically been more forgiving of valuations with rates so low.
The other side of the seesaw is exposure to cyclicals. I am most excited about one sector in particular: consumer discretionary. I think the global economic recovery will be robust and inclusive, creating and restoring jobs — and spurring consumers to spend. And in many countries, consumers have built up impressive savings because of a lack of spending during the pandemic. This could be deployed rather quickly once vaccines are distributed broadly and there is a return to something akin to “normalcy.”
I expect that, in a world awash in monetary stimulus, with significant fiscal stimulus as well, there will continue to be an upward bias for stocks. That doesn’t mean we won’t see a stock sell-off in 2021. It could be triggered by the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield rising (we could see a sell-off if it rises too quickly) or fears about inflation increasing — even though I expect the U.S. Federal Reserve to reiterate this week its commitment to remain very accommodative and tolerant of a spike in inflation over its target. There could be other triggers — a continued rise in infections, especially more serious strains, or a slowdown in vaccine rollouts. We don’t know when this could occur — and while I believe it would be short-lived, I also believe it’s very important to be broadly diversified both across and within stocks, bonds and alternatives.
While broad diversification is critical, investors could consider overweighting both the technology and consumer discretionary sectors within their equity sleeve. Both could serve different purposes in a portfolio — one offering some defensive qualities while the other offering the potential to participate in the recovery.
1 Source: IHS Markit, Jan. 22, 2021
2 Source: Business Insider, “Janet Yellen suggests ‘curtailing’ cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, saying they are mainly used for illegal financing,” Jan. 20, 2021