March 8, 2021
“To everything there is a season… a time to gain and a time to lose.” Using a synonym for turn, Wall Street prefers “rotate, rotate, rotate”. Since the most recent “bottom” in the market just ahead of the election, there has been a rotation in the markets from technology toward more cyclical issues. Due in large part to the decline in COVID cases around the country and opening states like Texas and Mississippi, there is hope that summer will be full of concerts, ballgames, and movies. While maybe not at capacity, the expectations for “normal” has pushed investors toward companies that benefit from fully opening the economy. Inflationary worries have also crept back into investors’ minds, although Fed Chair Powell gave no indication of adjusting their low rates for a long-time policy. Commodity prices have picked up very noticeably as many indices tracking them are up over 15% from this point a year ago. If the economic expectations are indeed correct, it will be a time to build up and dance, rather than to mourn.
Expectations were high for the last chat by Fed Chair Powell before the Fed enters their “quiet” period ahead of their next meeting in mid-March to address the rise in rates. He basically said that there remains plenty of “slack” in the economy and any inflationary pressures are like to be “transitory”. To translate, with employment where it is today and the gains reported last Friday, were it to continue, it would take until late 2023 before the economy made it back to employment levels last seen just before the pandemic started. He (and the Fed) also believes that the rise in commodity prices will flatten out in the months ahead as supply and demand begin to balance out. There have been so many disruptions due to the virus, that getting goods into the economy has been tough, so what is available can be had at a high price. That should moderate as businesses open, and money begins to flow around the economy. The employment report on Friday showed the impact of businesses opening as many of the “new” jobs were in leisure and hospitality. As weather warms and (maybe?) restrictions eased, employment gains should be quite large in the months ahead. The bigger questions will be whether prices begin to moderate or will the Fed have to deal with rising inflationary pressures.
The excitement was not in stocks, but in the bond market last week and seemingly for the past month as investors wring their hands about incipient inflation. We have been down this road more than a few times over the past couple of decades. Commodity prices are up over 20% vs. a year ago, their fastest rate in 10 years. The steepening yield curve, or long rates rising fast than (the nailed down) short rates is a typical response. These bouts do not last long, a few months or so, before commodity prices begin to decline. What is normal too, is a steep yield curve. We have had more than 2 percentage point differences between short and long-term rates for years. Starting with 9/11/01, the next three years saw a very steep yield curve. Again, starting a year ahead of the stock market bottom in March of 2009 and for the next eight years the yield curve was steeper than today. What is less typical is the flat curve that we have had up until a year ago. During those periods, stock investors did just fine.
The death of technology has been called for quite often over the past few years. The rotation toward value and away from growth has had its moments before investors headed back to technology. Even international, where technology is a small portion of their economies is seeing investor interest pick up recently. The top stocks within the various popular averages are down an average of 10-13%, with the top 5 averaging a better than 20% drop. As we have highlighted often over the past few years, technology companies are selling at very high multiples given their recent earnings and sales. If the economy does indeed begin to re-open, people will be wanting to have “experiences” once again rather than be tied to a technology device. Just maybe this time we see the move toward other parts of the market as a lasting “thing”. Markets usually shift leadership coming out of recessions. This one has just taken longer than most.
We will be watching the yield curve and commodity prices to judge the staying power of any inflationary pressures. Bond investors are likely to suffer additional declines in value as yields rise. Finally, full passage of the stimulus package could be a signal to “sell the news” as investors have been buying the rumor for months.
The opinions expressed in the Investment Newsletter are those of the author and are based upon information that is believed to be accurate and reliable but are opinions and do not constitute a guarantee of present or future financial market conditions