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  • Writer's pictureAdam Schacter

Market Perspective - Spring 2024


Guide to the markets

 

Sifting through financial information online is becoming quite onerous with so many opinions out there, so we've consolidated what we believe to be informative and insightful into one Market Commentary.


In 2023, the U.S. economy (the biggest economy in the world and our largest trading partner) showed resilience despite challenges, with growth at 3.2% and inflation declining towards the Fed's 2% target. However, risks remain as cyclical tailwinds fade and the U.S. election approaches.

 

The Federal Reserve's decision to maintain rates in March signaled a shift in sentiment, with fewer expected rate cuts in 2024 and a reduction in quantitative tightening. Despite rising long-term interest rates, equities continued to perform well.

 

Alternative investments still seem to offer opportunities for portfolio enhancement, but careful evaluation across asset classes is crucial as the investment landscape evolves.

 

Consumer resilience contrasts with emerging stress in the market, while business spending remains supported, and the housing market stabilizes.

 

The labor market remains strong, but inflation concerns persist amid geopolitical tensions. The Federal Reserve's policy decisions will certainly influence global market sentiment and hence investment strategies.

 

Internationally, economic conditions vary, highlighting the importance of diversification in navigating the evolving investment landscape.

 

In summary, amid a dynamic market environment, diversification and prudent risk management are essential for investors.


I have included below an economic & market update from J.P. Morgan Asset Management that I would like to share. This Guide to the Markets provides concise insights into economic trends globally, emphasizing growth, employment, and inflation. The commentary, and its many supporting charts, are presented by JP Morgan's Chief Global Strategist Dr. David Kelly, and they highlight the major themes and concerns impacting investors today.



From JP Morgan’s Dr. David Kelly:


Despite facing numerous challenges in 2023, the U.S. economy defied widespread predictions of recession. Growth moderated to a still-strong 3.2% pace in the fourth quarter while inflation continued to fall towards the Fed’s 2% target, although progress has slowed in recent months. This year, moderate job gains and easing inflation should allow the U.S. economy to continue on a soft-landing path. That said, as cyclical tailwinds fade and the U.S. election approaches, there are still plenty of risks to economic stability.

 

Meanwhile, while the Federal Reserve held rates steady its March meeting, the Fed’s updated dot plot showed only the smallest possible majority of FOMC members expecting as many as three rate cuts in 2024, and they reduced the number of expected rate cuts in 2025 from four to three, underscoring the very gradual nature of projected policy easing. On a more positive note, they did express their intention to begin to reduce quantitative tightening fairly soon.

 

As investors adjusted to the prospect of fewer rate cuts, long-term interest rates moved higher during the first quarter. Equities, however, appeared unphased by this, setting new all-time highs with the largest stocks still leading the charge. In the year ahead, attractive relative fundamentals outside of the largest stocks should support broader equity market performance, while fixed income should play its traditional role of providing income and diversification. Outside of public assets, alternatives still offer investors to enhance portfolio performance through alpha, diversification, and income.

 

In this Guide to the Markets, we assess the recent performance of the markets and economy, considering trends in growth, jobs and inflation in the U.S., and how these trends are shaping the outlook for monetary policy. This is followed by comments on growth from around the globe. Finally, we consider the implications of all of this for those investing across asset classes and highlight the importance stepping out of cash and actively engaging with opportunities in alternative assets.



The U.S. economy ended 2023 on a high note, with the fourth quarter marking the sixth consecutive quarter of growth at or above 2%. While the economy may struggle to match last year’s impressive performance, 2024 looks set to be another year of expansion.

 

Consumers have displayed impressive strength, supported by a tight labor market. That said, some signs of stress are emerging. While revolving credit as a share of disposable income is not flashing any warning signs, auto and credit card loan delinquencies have risen above their pre-pandemic levels, with student loan delinquencies likely to follow. As a still tight labor market and rising real wages offset dwindling excess savings and tighter credit conditions, consumers should continue to spend at a more moderate pace this year.

 

Business spending has endured tighter lending standards better than expected, supported by increased spending on intellectual property with greater emphasis on developing artificial intelligence capabilities. Tailwinds from AI spending and support from the federal government should continue to partially offset the impact of higher interest rates, while inventories should continue to grow at a steady pace. However, tighter lending standards and weaker corporate profits could still constrain growth in capital expenditures.

 

The housing market has stabilized at depressed levels, and while a boom in the sector seems unlikely given elevated mortgage rates, tight supply suggests a recovery in activity is more likely than another decline. Trade may be a slight drag on the economy as a stillstrong dollar and sluggish global growth weigh on exports. Meanwhile, increased spending on public infrastructure and stronger hiring should continue to support government spending.

 

Overall, the U.S. economy remains on a soft-landing track, although last year’s momentum looks set to fade. That said, with a U.S. election on the horizon, high policy rates, and elevated geopolitical tension, risks remain that could knock the U.S. economy off its steady path.


 


While the labor market has normalized from its postpandemic boom, the U.S. economy still added an impressive 250,000 jobs per month in 2023 and has sustained this pace into early 2024. This has occurred even as the unemployment rate has remained at or below 4% since December 2022 – the longest such streak of low unemployment since the late 1960s. Despite fears of an economic slowdown, strong growth in the U.S. labor supply has allowed employers to steadily hire workers and narrow the gap between supply and demand.

 

After falling sharply during the pandemic, labor supply in the U.S. staged an impressive recovery over the last two years, largely due to increased immigration. In fact, in fiscal year 2023, Immigration Services approved over 2 million applications for employment authorization, a 70% increase from a record 1.2 million in fiscal 2022. With this surge in migrant workers, employers were able to fill open job openings without applying upwards pressure to wages, helping to explain why strong job creation hasn’t sparked higher inflation. Importantly, a strong recovery in the labor force participation rate has also boosted labor supply. While continued aging of baby boomers into their retirement years has left the overall labor force participation rate below pre-pandemic levels, participation amongst the working age population, or those aged 18-64, has fully recovered its pandemic losses.

 

Moving forward, still elevated job openings and moderate economic growth point to steady job gains ahead. While this would seem to imply a steady decline in the unemployment rate, the continued influx of migrants should provide a fresh source of workers which could keep the unemployment rate within a narrow range of 3.5% to 4.0%.



 

While year-over-year CPI inflation remains well below its June 2022 peak of 9.1%, it has stubbornly hovered around 3.2% since October, sparking fears of no further meaningful decline However, we believe that there are still disinflationary forces that should keep inflation on its downward path this year.

 

Core goods prices trended lower in 2023 as supply chain distortions related to the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued to fade. Even with recent conflict in the Middle East, supply chains are still in good shape, and goods prices should remain well behaved. On the more volatile components, energy prices have risen in recent months while food prices continue to ease. Moving forward, slow global demand limits the likelihood of a surge in either of these categories. Lastly, shelter inflation, which accounts for over a third of the CPI basket, should follow real-time measures of market rent increases lower.

 

That leaves us with core services prices excluding housing, a closely watched measure by the Fed given its ties to the labor market. As we show on the right-hand slide of slide 27, progress here has stalled in recent months, largely due to “transportation services,” which remains elevated due to things like auto insurance and repair costs. However, as the rollover in vehicle and auto prices feed through the data, pressures here should ease substantially. This, along with moderating wage growth, should allow services prices to trend lower through the end of the year.

 

Overall, the disinflationary trend established in 2023 should continue into 2024. While the ride down may take slightly longer than anticipated, the Fed should feel reasonably confident that inflation can fall to close to their 2% target by the end of the year.



 

With the fourth quarter earnings season in the books, earnings growth finished 2023 flat despite a year of above average economic activity. While these are seemingly lackluster results, they actually surpassed initial expectations for a small earnings contraction. Robust economic activity supported revenues, which were the largest contributor to earnings growth, as consumer strength and pricing power helped boost sales. Margins, however, have detracted from earnings as higher wages, inflation in input costs and geopolitical turmoil offset some of the costs savings of adapting more efficient technological processes. This dynamic was evident in the fourth quarter as margins fell after a third quarter recovery.

 

While profits could experience healthy growth in 2024, downside risks to analyst expectations for double-digit earnings growth remain. Indeed, gloomy commentary from management teams point to tougher times ahead as growing revenues will become increasingly difficult in an environment of moderating consumer demand and disinflation. However, after the “Magnificent 7” companies drove the lion share of earnings growth in 2023, profit leadership should broaden out this year.



 

Late last year, the Federal Reserve sparked investor enthusiasm for aggressive policy easing in 2024 after they signaled that rates are at their cycle peak. Since then, mixed economic data has challenged investors’ outlook for rate cuts and left them searching for more guidance.

 

At its March meeting, the Federal Reserve left rates unchanged at a range of 5.25% to 5.50% and continued to signal three rates cuts in 2024. However, they cut their forecast for rate cuts in 2025 from four cuts to three. In addition, they boosted their projection for the federal funds rate in the long run from 2.5% to 2.6%, in a sign of a slightly more hawkish stance.

 

In addition, to rate cuts the Fed signaled that they plan to slow the pace of quantitative tightening fairly soon. This should leave the Fed with much larger Treasury holdings that before the pandemic for an extended period of time, helping hold long-term interest rates down. With market expectations and Fed messaging very much in sync, it would likely take a meaningful change in the economic outlook to trigger any sharp movement in long-term interest rates in the months ahead.



 

The international economy ended 2023 on a rather sluggish note, although there were some exceptions. This dynamic will likely persist into 2024, as some economies could outshine others amidst slowing global momentum.

 

Depressed sentiment in China continues to challenge both domestic and global growth, and even more economic troubles could lie ahead without meaningful policy support for consumers and manufacturers. Similarly, Europe remains burdened by weaker consumption and business activity, particularly in Germany. However, the prospects of lower energy prices and rising real wages have sparked optimism for improvement ahead. In Japan, the end of negative interest rates should serve as a strong tailwind for activity after the country narrowly avoided a technical recession last year. Other markets, such as Mexico, India and Taiwan have benefited from positive secular trends, including supply chain diversification and semiconductor manufacturing related to AI.

 

This year could bring better performance for places like Japan and some European markets while others, like China, may continue to struggle. With U.S consumer activity expected to slow, there is still potential for growth differentials to narrow and for other global markets to surprise to the upside.



 

After hopes for aggressive policy easing fueled an impressive bond market rally late last year, most sectors shown on slide 31 are off to a slower start in 2024 as resilient economic data have forced investors to reign in their expectations for rate cuts. That said, with market and Fed expectations now largely in-line, the worst of bond market volatility is likely behind us, and current yields appear increasingly attractive.

 

Indeed, with higher yields now offering an attractive “yield cushion,” fixed income offers strong asymmetric returns. Taking the U.S. Aggregate as an example; if yields were to fall by 1%, an investor could expect a return upwards of 11%. However, if rates were to rise by 1%, the coupons from the bonds would help offset some of the price depreciation, and that same investor could expect a loss of only 1.5%.

 

While rising interest rates led to negative bond returns in 2022, those higher rates today offer investors both positive real income and the portfolio protection provided by the traditional tendency of bonds to rally when stocks falter in the face of economic weakness.



 

After an impressive 2023, U.S. equities have continued their upward momentum in the early months of 2024. In fact, resilient corporate profits and hopes for policy easing have produced multiple all-time market highs this year. However, market performance remains concentrated as the largest stocks in the index have continued to dominate. While valuations might look stretched, there are still plenty of attractive opportunities outside of this cohort of Mega Cap stocks.

 

On the left of slide 10, we compare the price-to-earnings ratio of the top 10 stocks in the S&P to that of the broader index. The historically narrow nature of the recent rally has left the top 10 stocks significantly more expensive than the broader index, while the remaining stocks look cheap comparatively and are trading closer to their long-term average.

 

Indeed, index concentration is not a new phenomenon as the weight of the top 10 stocks in the S&P 500 has been rising since 2016. However, while the top 10 stocks dominated earnings growth last year, their earnings contribution hasn’t kept pace over the long run. With the top 10 stocks now representing a third of the index but only a fourth of the earnings, there appears to be a strong case for investing in the rest of the index.

 

If economic growth continues at a steady pace in 2024, gains should broaden out beyond the largest names as the market grinds higher. In this environment, an active approach can help identify those companies with high quality earnings and attractive valuations that are being overlooked by the markets.



 

While many U.S. based investors may feel inclined to focus on opportunities at home, there are attractive fundamental tailwinds emerging outside of the U.S. that can’t be ignored.

 

In terms of earnings growth, the U.S. has been the standout market as of late, although prospects in other countries are improving. In particular, higher inflation in Japan and Europe has allowed companies to raise prices and expand their margins, and the end of negative interest rates in both countries should help boost profits for Financials, a key sector in both markets. While pessimism around China has weighed on Emerging Market earnings estimates, they have stabilized in recent months, suggesting that the worst of this pessimism is already priced in.

 

With the exception of China, strong equity returns since the beginning of 2023 have pushed valuations higher. Even still, in both absolute terms and relative to their own histories, international markets continue to look attractively priced compared to the U.S. Overall, the potential shift in earnings growth across international markets, combined with discounted valuations, presents an attractive opportunity for U.S. investors looking to diversify abroad.



 

With equity valuations elevated and bond yields low relative to history, less impressive returns from the 60/40 portfolio moving forward may force investors to look elsewhere for consistent outcomes across alpha, income and diversification. However, investors willing to venture outside of the public markets can leverage a range of different alternative assets to reach their desired outcomes. Indeed, as we show on the slide above, alternative assets can offer low correlations to public markets, diversified income streams and enhanced long-run returns.

 

Real assets shown towards the left, such as real estate, infrastructure and transport, tend to be less correlated to a traditional 60/40 portfolio while providing robust income. Private equity and venture capital, towards the right, provide much higher total returns but come with higher correlations to public markets and less income generation.

 

The classic 60/40 stock-bond portfolio still looks attractive, but adding a sleeve of alternatives can help long-term investors achieve strategic goals through higher alpha, better diversification, and enhanced income.



 

Thanks to the Federal Reserve’s rate hiking campaign, cash looks more attractive today than in the last two decades. With yields north of 5% and minimal risk, many investors have decided to allocate more heavily to cash, pushing money market fund assets to a record $6.1 trillion.

 

However, history shows that staying parked in cash after the peak in interest rates usually leaves money on the table. In the last six rate hiking cycles, the U.S. Aggregate Bond Index outperformed cash over each of the 12- month periods following the peak in CD rates, while the S&P 500 and a 60/40 stock-bond portfolio outperformed in 5 of these periods.

 

This is not to say that investors should abandon cash altogether, as liquidity is an important allocation in any portfolio. However, there is an opportunity cost in holding onto too much cash, and investors should put long-term money in long-term assets. Following a peak in interest rates there has always been a better asset than cash to deploy capital.

 

This remains the case today, as the U.S. and global economies continue to grow even as inflation wanes and central banks begin to back off from very tight monetary policy. However, with the higher valuations produced by the strong investment returns of 2023 and early 2024, it is more important than ever that investors maintain well-diversified portfolios designed to reduce risk as well as provide solid long-term income and capital gains.


The Market Insights program provides comprehensive data and commentary on global markets without reference to products. Designed as a tool to help clients understand the markets and support investment decision-making, the program explores the implications of current economic data and changing market conditions.

J.P. Morgan Asset Management Market Insights and Portfolio Insights programs, as non-independent research, have not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research, nor are they subject to any prohibition on dealing ahead of the dissemination of investment research.

This document is a general communication being provided for informational purposes only. It is educational in nature and not designed to be taken as advice or a recommendation for any specific investment product, strategy, plan feature or other purpose in any jurisdiction, nor is it a commitment from J.P. Morgan Asset Management or any of its subsidiaries to participate in any of the transactions mentioned herein. Any examples used are generic, hypothetical and for illustration purposes only. This material does not contain sufficient information to support an investment decision and it should not be relied upon by you in evaluating the merits of investing in any securities or products. In addition, users should make an independent assessment of the legal, regulatory, tax, credit, and accounting implications and determine, together with their own financial professional, if any investment mentioned herein is believed to be appropriate to their personal goals. Investors should ensure that they obtain all available relevant information before making any investment. Any forecasts, figures, opinions or investment techniques and strategies set out are for information purposes only, based on certain assumptions and current market conditions and are subject to change without prior notice. All information presented herein is considered to be accurate at the time of production, but no warranty of accuracy is given and no liability in respect of any error or omission is accepted. It should be noted that investment involves risks, the value of investments and the income from them may fluctuate in accordance with market conditions and taxation agreements and investors may not get back the full amount invested. Both past performance and yields are not reliable indicators of current and future results.

J.P. Morgan Asset Management is the brand for the asset management business of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and its affiliates worldwide.

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Your portfolio

 

Of course, I try my absolute best to ensure my human outlook does not spill into your investment strategy.


“If the consensus on Wall/Bay Street is often wrong – and evidence from 2023 does little to dispel that notion – then in the year ahead investors are facing either the mother of all rallies or a selloff for the ages. That’s because most investment outlooks from major banks, advisors and asset managers envisage the same middle-of-the-road scenario in 2024: They see interest rates finally starting to bite, a benign economic slowdown, and a central bank pivot to easier policies setting the stage for a late-year rebound.” – Bloomberg

 

As a strategic asset allocator (decisions made based on past outcomes) versus a tactical asset allocator (decisions made based on future outlook), my belief is that future short-term outcomes are not yet known, and that past outcomes are a matter of fact.

 

Based on this framework, we make systematic determinations for portfolio shifts every quarter. The end result of these determinations was to reduce your overall equity/stock holdings in July of 2021, then increase them in July of 2022, and then reduce them again in July of 2023. Note that we recently made a systematic shift to reduce our equity exposure in April 2024.


A graphical representation of what I describe above, contrasted against the S&P 500 index (just one of several market factors) over the past 4+ years, can be found below, whereby green dots represent a shift into equity, and red dots represent a shift out.

 

From a historical perspective, you may find that this strategy has yielded results that had your portfolio overperform in 2020, underperform in 2021 (shifting out as stocks went up), and overperform in 2022 (despite the down year) and 2023.


Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google LLC. Used with permission.

 

We continue to monitor any potential new holdings on an almost daily basis, and continue to evaluate your existing holdings to determine if the reasons we bought them in the first place remain true today.

 

I hope you find this both interesting and informative in keeping pace with the events of today’s financial world.

 

This publication contains the opinions of the writer. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but no representation or warranty, express or implied, is made by the writer, Designed Securities Ltd. or any other person as to its accuracy, completeness or correctness. This publication is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any securities. The information in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute investment, financial, legal, tax or accounting advice. Many factors unknown to us may affect the applicability of any statement or comment made in this publication to your particular circumstances. Hence, you should not rely on the information in this publication for investment, financial, legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult your financial advisor or other professionals before acting on any information in this communication.

 

Embark Wealth is an investments trade name of Designed Securities Ltd (DSL). DSL is regulated by the Canadian Investment Regulatory Organization (www.ciro.ca) and Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (www.cipf.ca ). Investment products are provided by Designed Securities Ltd. and include, but are not limited to, mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. Adam Schacter is registered to provide investment advice and solutions to clients residing in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

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