Markets Now Accept Rate Cuts Unlikely
- Inflation has proven sticky, even as growth weakens. Markets are realizing that policy rates are set to stay higher for longer. We like quality in stocks and bonds.
- Tech stocks surged further last week even as debt ceiling talks spurred bouts of volatility. Long-term bond yields climbed on still-hot U.S. inflation in April.
- U.S. jobs data this week should show a tight labor market is keeping wage pressures elevated. We think that keeps inflation sticky and above policy targets.
Since the end of 2022, we’ve been saying that rate cuts this year would be unlikely as inflation sticks around. Markets are waking up to our view as a look under the hood reveals signs of weaker growth in major economies and market weakness due to rate hikes. Debt ceiling talks and the U.S. Treasury potentially being unable to pay its bills by early June have added to recent market volatility. We like quality in portfolios. We upgrade UK gilts to neutral as yields price in more rate hikes.
Stubbornly high inflation has prompted the Fed’s fastest rate hike campaign since the 1980s. Markets are no longer pricing in repeated Fed rate cuts, a sign they’re grasping inflation’s persistence, in our view. And the full effect of central banks’ rate hikes is kicking in. Data last week showed Germany has entered recession even with a smaller-than-feared energy shock. In the U.S., GDP has held up but it has arguably entered a recession based on gross domestic income, which assesses the economy’s performance on an income rather than spending basis. A deeper look reveals stocks reflect worsening growth: The S&P 500 index was up nearly 10% so far this year (dark orange line in the chart). But a few large technology firms valued above $200 billion are driving those gains as they benefit from the artificial intelligence buzz. Applying equal weighting to all companies in the index regardless of size shows it’s down over 1% this year (yellow line) – extending 2022’s hefty losses.
Inflation and wage growth remain sticky, even with this deteriorating growth picture. Why? U.S. consumer spending’s shift back to services from goods caused core inflation to fall at first. Yet labor constraints persist, with unemployment still near historic lows. We think tight labor markets are keeping wage gains high, making overall inflation stubborn. April PCE inflation data out last week confirmed that. Inflation is running even hotter in Europe, especially the UK. Central banks face a clear trade-off, in our view: crush activity to ease labor constraints and curb inflation – or live with some above-target inflation.
We see the Fed nearing a pause in rate hikes and living with some inflation to avoid the deep recession needed to get inflation near its target. But we don’t see the Fed coming to the rescue of a faltering economy with rate cuts later this year due to the sharp trade-off between inflation and growth. Markets are coming around to our long-held view after having until recently priced in repeated rate cuts in 2023. We think the European Central Bank will hike more, regardless of the economic damage. The Bank of England (BOE) is in a similar position. Markets have priced in as many as four more BOE hikes. We think that might be a bit overdone, as it would be equivalent to the Fed hiking to around 7-7.5% – enough to trigger a severe recession.
We have a relative preference for UK gilts given this outlook. We close our previous underweight on UK gilts as yields return near levels reached during last September’s turmoil. We favor quality in our portfolio. We’re neutral investment grade credit and think yields above 5% compensate for wider spreads due to any downturn. We’re overweight emerging market (EM) local currency debt given peaking EM rates and a broadly weaker U.S. dollar. We also look for quality in equities, with a preference for companies that are able to grow their earnings and wield pricing power to pass on higher costs. Cushioning portfolios from inflation is also key. We like inflation-linked bonds as markets underestimate the persistence of U.S. inflation but better appreciate it in Europe, we think. On a strategic horizon of five years or more, we lean into real assets that can buffer inflation like infrastructure and industrial properties. Strategically, we see returns for the developed market (DM) stocks above bonds as growth returns and inflation lingers in the U.S. DM stocks look riskier to us in the near term than fixed income is given current yields. Debt ceiling concerns have upped market volatility, but we see the growth-inflation trade-off as a bigger driver of volatility longer term. We prefer EM stocks as they better price in the damage, yet China’s growth stalling would pose risks.
Bottom line: Markets are reassessing policy rate expectations as sticky inflation makes clear central banks won’t cut them this year – or will keep hiking. We turn to high-quality sources of income in the short term and stay cautious about risk assets.
Major tech stocks surged further last week; leading U.S. stocks slightly higher – even as the U.S. potentially facing a technical default dominated market attention. Meanwhile, long-term Treasury yields climbed after data showed that April U.S. PCE inflation remained hot. A credit rating agency warned it could downgrade the top-notch Treasuries rating if the U.S. defaults reinforcing our view investors will demand more compensation for holding long-term bonds given higher policy rates.
The latest economic data from Germany suggests that the economy shrank for the second quarter in a row – indicating a technical recession. Germany’s GDP has now dropped below its pre-Covid level. See the chart.
Energy prices surged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, squeezing real incomes and dragging consumer spending down. German manufacturers suffered from both higher prices and shortages of crucial equipment.
The energy shock fading would usually indicate better times ahead. But we see the delayed impact from the European Central Bank’s (ECB) rapid rate rises kicking in as the energy shock fades. And that’s why we expect economic activity to contract across the euro area later this year. A contraction should help bring core inflation down from its current highs, but we still see inflation persisting above the ECB’s 2% target in the coming quarters. That leaves no room for the ECB to consider cutting interest rates this year, in our view.
1 Pricing in the damage
- Recession is foretold as central banks try to bring inflation back down to policy targets. It’s the opposite of past recessions: Rate cuts are not on the way to help support risk assets, in our view.
- That’s why the old playbook of simply “buying the dip” doesn’t apply in this regime of sharper trade-offs and greater macro volatility. The new playbook calls for a continuous reassessment of how much of the economic damage being generated by central banks is in the price.
- In the U.S., it’s now evident in the financial cracks emerging from higher interest rates on top of rate-sensitive sectors. Higher mortgage rates have hurt sales of new homes. We also see other warning signs, such as deteriorating CEO confidence, delayed capital spending plans, and consumers’ depleting savings.
- The ultimate economic damage depends on how far central banks go to get inflation down. The Federal Reserve signaled a pause after hiking rates in May. But it also reiterated that persistent inflation means no rate cuts this year. We see the European Central Bank going full steam ahead with rate hikes to get inflation to target – regardless of the damage that entails.
- Investment implication: We’re tactically underweight DM equities. They’re not pricing the recession we see ahead.
2 Rethinking bonds
- Fixed income finally offers “income” after yields surged globally. This has boosted the allure of bonds after investors were starved for yield for years. We take a granular investment approach to capitalize on this, rather than taking broad, aggregate exposures.
- Very short-term government paper looks more attractive for income at current yields, and we like their ability to preserve capital. Tighter credit and financial conditions reduce the appeal of credit.
- In the old playbook, long-term government bonds would be part of the package as they historically have shielded portfolios from recession. Not this time, we think. The negative correlation between stock and bond returns has already flipped, meaning they can both go down at the same time. Why? Central banks are unlikely to come to the rescue with rapid rate cuts in recessions they engineered to bring down inflation to policy targets. If anything, policy rates may stay higher for longer than the market is expecting. Investors also will increasingly ask for more compensation to hold long-term government bonds – or term premiums – amid high debt levels, rising supply, and higher inflation.
- Investment implication: We prefer very short-term government paper over long-term government bonds.
3 Living with inflation
- High inflation has sparked cost-of-living crises, putting pressure on central banks to tame inflation with whatever it takes. Yet there has been little debate about the damage to growth and jobs. We think the “politics of inflation” narrative is on the cusp of changing. The Fed’s rapid rate hikes will stop without inflation being back on track to return fully to 2% targets, in our view. We think we are going to be living with inflation. We do see inflation cooling as spending patterns normalize and energy prices relent – but we see it persisting above policy targets in coming years.
- Beyond Covid-related supply disruptions, we see three long-term constraints keeping the new regime in place and inflation above pre-pandemic levels: aging populations, geopolitical fragmentation, and the transition to a lower carbon world.
- Investment implication: We’re overweight inflation-linked bonds on a tactical and strategic horizon.
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