The Start of the Year Blues: Leading into 2023
While default spreads rose across ratings classes, the rise was much more pronounced for the lowest ratings classes, part of a bigger story about risk capital that spilled across markets and asset classes. After a decade of easy access, translating into low risk premiums and default spreads, accompanied by a surge in IPOs and start-ups funded by venture capital, risk capital moved to the sidelines in 2022.
In sum, investors were shell shocked at the start of 2023, and there seemed to be little reason to expect the coming year to be any different. That pessimism was not restricted to market outlooks. Inflation dominated the headlines and there was widespread consensus among economists that a recession was imminent, with the only questions being about how severe it would be and when it would start.
The Market (and Economy) Surprises: The First Half of 2023
Halfway through 2023, I think it is safe to say that markets have surprised investors and economists again, this year. The combination of high inflation and a recession that was on the bingo cards of some economists at the start of 2023 did not manifest, with inflation declining sooner than most expected during the year:
It is true that the drop in inflation was anticipated by some economists, but most of them also expected that decline to come from a rapidly slowing economy, i.e., a recession and to be Fed-driven. That has not happened either, as employment numbers have stayed strong, housing prices have (at least up till now) absorbed the blows from higher mortgage rates and the economy has continued to grow.
During the course of 2023, the Fed was at the center of most economic storylines hero to some and villain to many others, with every utterance from Jerome Powell and other Fed officials parsed for signals about future actions. That said, it is worth noting that there is very little of consequence in the economy or the market, in 2023, that you can attribute to Fed activity. The Fed has raised the Fed Funds rate multiple times this year, but those rate increases have clearly done nothing to slow the economy down and inflation has stabilized, not because of the Fed but in spit of it. I know that there are many who still like to believe that the Fed sets interest rates, but here is what market interest rates (in the form of US treasury rates) have done during 2023:
As in 2022, the change in default spreads is greatest at the lowest ratings, with the key difference being that spreads are declining in 2023, rather than increasing, though the spreads still remain significantly higher than they were at the start of 2022.
Stock Markets Perk Up: The First Half of 2023
I noted that risk capital retreated from markets in 2022, with negative consequences for risky asset classes. To the extent that some of that risk capital is coming back into the markets, equity markets have benefited, with benefits skewing more towards the companies and markets that were punished the most in 2022. To understand the equity comeback in 2023, I start by looking at the increase in market capitalizations, in US $ terms, across the world in the first six months of the year, with the change in market capitalizations in 2022 to provide perspective:
After strengthening in 2022, the US dollar has weakened against most currencies in 2023, albeit only mildly.
US Equities in 2023: Into the Weeds!
The bulk of the surge in global equities in 2023 has come from US stocks, but there are many investors in US stocks who are looking at their portfolio performance this year, and wondering why they don't seem to be sharing in the upside. In this section, I will start by looking with an overall assessment of US equities (levels and equity risk premiums) before delving into the details of the winners and losers this year.
Stocks and the Equity Risk Premium
I start my assessment of US equities by looking at the performance of the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ during the first half of this year:
Sector and Industry
The divergence between the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ's performance this year provides clues as to which sectors have benefited the most this year, as risk has receded. In the table below, I break all US equities into sectors and report on performance, in 2022 and in the first half of 2023:
Market Capitalization and Profitability
The first six months of the year have also seen concentrated gains in a larger companies and this can be seen in the table below, where I break companies down based upon their market capitalizations at the start of 2023 into deciles, and then break the stocks down in each decile into money-making and money-losing companies, based upon net income in 2022:
I know that one of the critiques of this market rise is that it has been uneven, but almost all market recoveries are uneven, with some groupings of companies always doing better than others. That said, there are lessons to be learned from looking at the winners and the losers in the first half of 2023 market sweepstakes:
- Big tech: There is no doubt that this market has been largely elevated not just by tech companies, but by a subset of large tech companies. Seven companies (Apple, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Amazon, Tesla, Meta and Alphabet) have seen their collective market capitalization increase by $4.14 trillion in the first half of 2023, accounting for almost 80% of the overall increase in equity values at all 6669 publicly traded US equities. If these stocks level off or drop, the market will have trouble finding substitutes to keep the market pushing higher, simply because of the size of the hole that will need to be filled.
- With a profitability skew: While this does seem like a reversion to the tech boom that drove markets prior to 2022, the market seems to be more inclined to rewarding money-making tech companies, at the expense of money-losers. If risk capital is coming back in 2023, it is being more selective about where it is directing its money, and it is therefore not surprising that IPOs, venture capital and high yield bond issuances have remained mired in 2022 (low) levels.
- And an economic twist: One reason that these big and money-making tech companies may be seeing the return of investor money is that they have navigated the inflation storm relatively unscathed and some have emerged more disciplined, from the experience. The two best cases in point are Meta and Google, both of which have not only reduced payrolls but also seem to have shifted their narrative from a relentless pursuit of growth to one of profitability.
It is true that as market rallies lengthen, they draw in more stocks into their orbit, and it is possible that the market rally will broaden over the course of the year. That said, this has been a decade of unpredictability, starting with the first quarter of 2020, where COVID ravaged stocks, and I don't think it makes much sense to take charts from 2008 or 2001 or earlier and extrapolating from those.
The Rest of the Year: What's coming?
The market mood is buoyant, as investors seem to be convinced that we have dodged the bullet, with inflation cooling and a soft landing for the economy. The lesson that I have learned not just from the first six months of 2023, but from market performance over the last three years, has been that macro forecasting is pointless, and that trying to time markets is foolhardy. If I were to make guesses about what the rest of the year will bring, here are my thoughts:
- On inflation, the good news on inflation in the first half of the year should not obscure the reality that the inflation rate, at 3% in June, still remains higher than the Fed-targeted value (of 2%). That last stretch getting inflation down from 3% to below 2% will be trench warfare, and we will be exposed to macro shocks (from energy prices or regional unrest) that can create inflationary shocks.
- On the economy, notwithstanding good employment numbers, there are signs that the economy is cooling and it is again entirely possible that this turns into a slow-motion recession, as real estate (especially commercial) succumbs to higher interest rates and consumers start retrenching.
- On interest rates, I do think that hoping and praying that rates will go back to 2% or lower is a pipe dream, as long as inflation stays at 3% or higher. In short, with or without the Fed, long term treasury rates have found a steady state at 3.5% to 4%, and companies and investors will have to learn to live with those rates. I have never attached much significance to the yield curve inversion as a predictor of economic growth, but that inversion is unlikely to go away soon, as near term inflation remains higher than long term expectations.
- On equities, the one certainty is that there will be uncertainties, and it is unlikely that the market will repeat its success in the second half of 2023. I did value the S&P 500 at the start of the year, and and argued that it was close to fairly valued then. Updating this valuation to reflect updated perspectives on both dimensions, as well as an index price that is about 16% higher, here is what I see:
Download spreadsheet with valuationNote that I have used the analyst projections of earnings for the index for 2023 to 2025, and adjusted the cash payout over time to reflect reinvestment needed to sustain growth in the long term (set to 3.88%, after 2027). After the run up in stock prices in the first six months, stocks look fairly valued, given estimated earnings and cash flows, and assuming that long term rates have found their steady state. (Unlike market strategies who provide target levels for the index, an intrinsic value delivers a value for the index today; to get an estimate of what translates into as a target level of the index, you can apply the cost of equity as the expected return factor to get index levels in future time periods.)