“Without your health, your money is worthless.” – Suze Orman
Fourth Quarter Summary
Global financial markets generally rose in the fourth quarter, but still ended 2022 with steep losses.
Equities rose nicely in October and November, buoyed by better-than-feared earnings reports and persistent hopes for a Federal Reserve pivot in 2023. December marked a return to a sobering reality, as Fed efforts to dramatically slow inflation weighed on the markets. The fourth quarter also saw the rise of fixed income with 10-year Treasury yields first falling then rallying as the holidays approached. The U.S. dollar staged a reversal, giving up half its gains for the entire year. This benefited commodities such as oil and copper. Gold joined the group but ended flat for the year.
A Gradual Shift of Investor Focus
As 2022 progressed, investors turned from inflation concerns to speculating about the Fed Funds terminal rate. Keeping in mind the rapid pace of tightening from 0.25% of last March to the present target of 4.50%, it is generally believed that rates will reach 5.00-5.50% by May of this year.
After that, there is a disconnect between Fed guidance and market expectations regarding how long higher rates will prevail. Fed officials indicate keeping rates at higher levels through the rest of 2023, while bond futures indicate a Fed pivot to lower rates as early as summer. This has resulted in a tug of war between equity and fixed income markets, with a trading range prevailing in both
The Fed’s Dilemma
Fed members, including Chairman Jerome Powell, believe the labor market is still too hot. They insist it must loosen considerably (that is, unemployment must go up) to contain wage inflation and avoid a wage-price spiral developing, similar to the 1970s. The inflation problem is compounded by a permanent reduction in the labor force due in large part to the pandemic, requiring the Fed to hold rates higher for longer. Currently, job openings stand at 1.7 times the number of available workers, down from twice that in early 2022. However, numbers are still substantially above full employment levels which prevailed before the pandemic.
The Economic Outlook
The economy has been growing at a good pace, though pockets of weakness have developed, especially in manufacturing and housing. Consumers are still spending, thanks to a residual cash balance of about $1.2 trillion from pandemic stimulus checks. However, spending continues to favor such services as restaurants and travel (including airlines and lodging), which benefited from the pandemic. Going forward, hefty cost of living increases for Social Security recipients, as well as pay increases for federal, state, and local employees will provide more funds for consumer spending. This should help support the economy until at least mid-year.
Sometime in the second half of 2023, the economy could slow considerably due to cumulative effects of rapid Fed tightening and consumers depleting pandemic stimulus checks. With demand slowing, unemployment will begin to pick up and a recession, or at least a “stall speed” economy with little to no growth, will become a real possibility. Events abroad, such as the war in Ukraine and China’s uncertain emergence from Covid, remain risks to the global outlook for economic growth.
Investment Strategy for 2023
Recall that throughout 2022 we reduced the equity weightings for portfolios and increased fixed income allocations. At first, we added to short-term instruments such as money market funds, which were one of the few investments that did not lose principal value in a down market. As yields on longer dated Treasuries such as the 10-year note rose over 3.50%, we began to slowly reallocate a portion of the short-term fixed income into longer maturity bond investments. As the economy weakens and longer yields peak, we will continue to reallocate towards longer-term fixed income from money market funds.
We also rotated many of theequity holdings into lower valuation and defensive stocks, which should do better in a slow growth or recessionary environment. Further large reductions in US equity weightings are not likely, since at current levels, the upside to downside potential return is much better than it has been since the pandemic. At some point, we may add to international holdings, as some countries are very attractively valued while possessing above average growth potential for the next several years.
2023 will feature numerous cross currents still due to the pandemic. This includes the uneven progress of supply chain issues, effects from a structurally smaller labor force and changing consumer spending patterns. Other factors such as Fed tightening and its effects on the economy will also play a leading role. We advise our clients to be patient and not overreact to individual events, as such actions could detract meaningfully from investment returns.
“The dollar is our currency, but it’s your problem.” — John Connally, U.S. Treasury Secretary, 1971-1972
Third Quarter Recap
Financial markets fell broadly after a roller-coaster summer. Equities rose sharply for the first several weeks of the quarter, but swooned in the last half of the period. Fixed income did the same, as did oil, copper and other commodities. Even gold and other safe havens fell. The U.S. dollar was an exception, marching upward against all other major currencies with rising U.S. interest rates proving attractive to foreign investors.
After a dismal six months, oversold conditions and better-than-feared second quarter earnings led to a sharp 14% rally in the S&P through mid-August. Indeed, many market strategists and technical analysts surmised that the bear market was over and that an entirely new bull market had begun.
A Fed Plateau, Not a Pivot
The major rationale for market bulls at the beginning of the quarter was that the rate of inflation had peaked and the Fed would soon taper increases in the Federal Funds rate, perhaps even lowering rates early next year. Unfortunately, inflation reports continued to run hot with some Fed officials lamenting that the market rally made financial conditions too loose to cool off prices.
In late August, Chair Powell delivered a toughly worded speech at the annual Jackson Hole Symposium stating that lowering inflation was the number one goal. However, it would involve some economic pain, possibly even a recession, though he stopped short of actually predicting one.
Both stock and bond markets sold off sharply following Powell’s remarks and continued to do so after Labor Day, with strong non-farm Payroll and Consumer Price Reports reflecting the persistence of inflation in the economy. This was followed by another 75-basis point (0.75%) increase — the third in a row — at the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in late September. Committee members signaled that the Fed Funds rate could approach 4.50% by early 2023, remaining at that level for most, if not all of next year.
The Problem of “Sticky” Inflation
The rate of inflation remains uncomfortably high, even though gasoline and food prices have dropped somewhat since spring. Housing-related costs, another major inflation factor, have been weakening, although rents will continue to stay up for a while. This is due to rental contracts renewing annually and still reflecting elevated market prices from the previous 12 months.
Wages may be even more intractable, as the job market remains very tight. Salary increases are running over 5% and will continue with close to 10 million jobs still open from the pandemic. Although some companies are anticipating a recession and have announced layoffs, many others recall the difficulty of hiring people over the last two years and are hoarding employees to keep from losing them.
The Strong U.S. Dollar and Its Effects, Both Here and Abroad
A strong dollar may help the economy somewhat by making imports cheaper. At the same time, it makes our exports more expensive, hurting the earnings of U.S. multinational corporations. It also causes problems for other currencies. The quote at the top by John Connally (a former Treasury Secretary and the Texas governor who was seriously wounded during the JFK assassination), sums up a long-held fiscal and monetary truism: the American economy is looked at first, and foreign markets will be taken into consideration only if something goes horribly awry.
The U.K. recently had a brush with adversity when its new government introduced a stimulative fiscal policy that clashed with the tight monetary policy of the Bank of England (BOE). Fortunately, the British government soon reversed its course and dropped its more controversial tax proposals, which helped to stabilize the pound and its bond market. Nevertheless, the U.S. Treasury and the Fed will have to keep an eye on foreign developments.
The Outlook for the Remainder of 2022
As mentioned in previous reports, we have consistently dialed down portfolio risk this year by:
Increasing short-term fixed income investments (such as money market funds, whose principal value does not fluctuate while their yields have jumped since spring)
Adding to satellite (alternative) strategies
At this point, a recession by late 2023 is a 50-50 probability.
Inflation will have to fall significantly than it has so far to cause the Fed to relent from its tight monetary policy.
One key to inflation is the job market, which must cool off to cause inflation to follow suit.
San Luis Obispo, CA – Ashley Wilken, Senior Wealth Manager with The Rice Partnership, has been selected as one of Pacific Coast Business Times 40 Under 40 Honorees, Class of 2022.
According to the publication, nominees must be under 40 years old and have made significant contributions through professional or volunteer work in the Tri-County region.
As the Senior Wealth Manager for The Rice Partnership and head of the firm’s San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles offices, Wilken has been recognized for her achievements in the financial industry since 2011.
She also takes on a highly active role in the community, currently serving on the boards of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary Club of Paso Robles. She has also previously served on the boards for the SLO County California Women for Agriculture and the California Central Coast Girl Scouts.
Previously, Wilken worked as a commercial and agricultural lender in San Luis Obispo County since graduating from Cal Poly with an MBA and a degree in Agribusiness. She is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM and NFLPA Registered Player Financial Advisor.
The Rice Partnership LLC is a national financial advisory firm headquartered in Honolulu with branches in Maui and California. The firm specializes in investment management and estate planning, as well as tax and strategic advisory services for individuals, families and charitable organizations throughout Hawaii and the mainland.