The Path to a Soft Landing is a Narrow One, yet Stocks Hold Together

March 2023

The latest RBA statement highlights the problem of high inflation and that the path to a soft landing is a narrow one. It reiterates the RBA’s commitment to pursuing a 2 – 3 % inflation target, a target which notably the current RBA leadership has never sustainably achieved. It flags further interest rate increases too, as has the Federal Reserve. Markets think a further two rate increases in Australia are needed bringing the cash rate to circa 4% and, more importantly, home loan rates beyond 6%.

Home loan rates of over 6% will cause much pain to the average Australian mortgagee rolling off a fixed rate mortgage this year and make a meaningful impact on consumer discretionary spending. As such, we have already seen building approvals fall off in January and much anticipation that Australia will be heading in later 2023 for its first real housing-associated recession since the early 1990s. Much of the global economy is battling similar issues, and housing price falls.

Somewhat perplexingly, equities have held up in 2023 despite belated recognition from bonds that the interest rate pressures aren’t over and despite earnings margin deterioration and higher discount rates. Surely equities should have realised by now that we are heading for recession and that the cost of money has risen, so why are they so slow to get the memo?

The answer to this question is critical to the path forward. So, let’s consider it.

There are a few potential reasons for high valuations and equity market intransigence, led by the US:

(1) Corporations are still awash with cash because of the massive post-covid government stimulus and are still engaging in aggressive buybacks globally. These corporations feel the need to do something with their cash and prefer to spend it buying their stock regardless of price.

(2) The price-independent “passive investor” or buyer has become dominant in markets. Passive managers don’t value anything before they buy it and are price and outlook insensitive. This tends to boost market prices.

(3) The amount of speculation in markets remains incredibly high. Options markets now trade over $1 trillion in notional value daily, which is greater than physical buying. Much of these are one-day or less options capable of easily moving market pricing in the short-term due to its sheer leverage and dominance!

Equity markets have hence never been more casino-like and vulnerable to speculative flows. No wonder price movements defy belief in recent times and over short periods. Much of the market doesn’t care whether we are in a recession in late 2023 because it’s either price insensitive or only concerned with the current day’s price movements. How we got to this ridiculous scenario is another story.

So, it is indeed different in a meaningful way this time because of the character of market participants, but will it be different when we enter recession and earnings, and earnings margins take a more significant hit? This depends on the provision of one key factor, the actual amount of liquidity provided by central banks, commercial banks, and governments to the market.

Commercial banks are and will likely be less willing to lend money to the less creditworthy when the outlook is poor, but what about governments and central banks?

Governments, on the other hand, have become more fiscally irresponsible and dominant globally. They are likely to continue stimulating no matter what, given recent trends for greater government, the need for massive stimulus programs for infrastructure, climate change and increased military spending, and worsening dependency ratios and inequality.

The swing factor is central banks. Suppose central banks are true to their words and are committed to getting inflation down sustainably. In that case interest rates will increase further and potentially stay higher for longer in the face of economic weakness. Quantitative tightening will suck liquidity out of the market.

Given the above, the equity market is still likely to suffer and behave as it has in every other recession (assuming we get a recession, which leading indicators suggest is highly probable).

The challenge for the outlook is that markets don’t trust central banks to do what they say, and they have legitimate reason to be sceptical. Central banks could easily give up on tightening measures and reverse course in the face of weakening economies and rising unemployment. Equally, there is a solid case to be made given the sheer amount of debt in the global economy there isn’t a realistic option for central banks to become fully responsible now. It is simply too late as the economy has been overly financialised, and without ongoing stimulus, a deflationary bust will ensue which politicised central banks can’t tolerate. In other words, financial repression is needed whereby interest rates are kept artificially low to stimulate higher structural inflation to wear away high debt levels over time. This provides a potential path for equity markets to hold up and explains how it could be different this time.

In our view, both the bears and bulls will be wrong and right. Central banks are first likely to cause a market accident or hard landing particularly given the nature of market participants and speculation in today’s equity market, yet ultimately will be forced into a path of financial repression. It’s a matter of timing. So, while cash looks attractive today, its attractiveness is likely to be somewhat fleeting. Equally equities are unattractive today but will likely provide a great buying opportunity at some point later this year.

History has convincingly demonstrated that in every market sell-off investors don’t buy at the bottom and become afraid to become invested. Investors hence need to be invested, but just prudently at this point in time to avoid the risks of a hard landing in the short-term while still capture the likely benefits of financial repression over time. This means being invested with truly active and dynamic management that will buy into economic and equity market weakness when it arises but is investing cautiously with low equity market exposure for now, patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike. This management style will look to take advantage of an opportunity that we know investors are not structured to achieve and will otherwise miss. You need to be in it to win it, but equally you need to ensure the journey is tolerable too.

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