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It Turned Out to be Just Chatter

CAMS Weekly View from the Corner – Week ending 7/29/2022

August 1, 2022

In recent months we periodically mentioned the economic soft landing scenario with a specific edition addressing the topic two months ago.  The soft landing view often arises when the Federal Reserve begins to raise interest rates in order to slow down price inflation. The phrase suggests a scenario whereby the Fed will be able to create a painless slowdown in economic activity while not causing any notable disruptions in the general employment market.  In this soft landing scenario the price inflation backdrop will smoothly glide lower to a point where price inflation is once again a non-topic for analysts and the citizenry and through it all the economy continues to grow nicely. Historically speaking and up to current day this is as close to magical thinking as the consensus can get relative to economics – in particular with our current structural backdrop. The now two month old referenced edition was titled “Soft Landing Chatter” and as the weeks have unfolded up to current week the evidence is underlining that was in fact just chatter.  Nothing substantive has unfolded to support said chatter. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) In that edition we addressed the fact that 1st quarter GDP had been negative and the jury was certainly out as to whether 2nd quarter GDP would be able to negate the building trend.  This past week confirmation came in that 2nd quarter GDP also came in negative which now gives us two consecutive quarters of such.  This offers the soft landing scenario continues to look ever less soft. Underneath all of this is the fact that price inflation has been on a runaway trend for well over a year now.  With this the Federal Reserve’s insistence for the bulk of that time that it was merely transitory and of little concern has placed them terribly behind the inflation curve. Households have struggled more with each passing month in the storyline as their wages, albeit growing, have not been able to keep up with price inflation.  The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Measure Early last week the Conference Board released their measures on Consumer Confidence.  Within the report is a measure of Consumer Expectations.  The importance is if collective households have tremendous concerns down the timeline they will most likely act cautiously as they make near future plans and purchases.  Below we quote part of their most recent readings on Expectations from consumers. “While the Present Situation Index was relatively unchanged, the Expectations Index continued its recent downward trajectory—falling to its lowest point in nearly a decade. Expectations have now fallen well below a reading of 80, suggesting weaker growth in the second half of 2022 as well as growing risk of recession by yearend.” Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board Per the above, households are speaking to the fact that their household earnings have not been keeping up with price inflation and hence are pinched between these two realities.

Above is a view that takes us back to 1965 for a broad perspective.  In one chart we are showing what Average Hourly Earnings growth looks like when simultaneously adjusted for price inflation.  When the chart is below the zero line this means households are “swimming under water” offering inflation growth rates are exceeding hourly earnings growth rates. If this occurs for more than a mere blip of time it often leads to an inevitable recession.  The red circles highlight the episodes where this occurred and led to recession.  The red arrow depicts our current experience.  (The faint blue vertical lines depict recessions.) We are now a year-and-a-half into seeing this negative wage growth rate in our current era which underlines the above Expectations measure from the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey.  As this continues it will only add to overall economic stress for the citizenry and through this will continue to increase odds of a hard landing not a soft landing. The Federal Reserve (Citizenry) Gets More Bad News The Federal Reserve has their long stated preferred measure of price inflation which is known as the Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index – PCE Index for short. Last week the most recent measure for this price index was released and underlined more bad news relative to how far behind the inflation curve the Fed is even with their most recent notable interest rate increase. The red vertical arrow (chart below) clearly denotes the rapid price inflation trend over the previous year-and-a-half while the red horizontal arrow highlights the Fed’s lack of response to the obvious runaway price inflation trend.  With this they are now playing catch-up while the citizenry pays the price of their mistaken transitory inflation view. This past Friday this PCE Index posted its largest growth rate to date in this inflation cycle.  Simply stated, per their preferred measure, inflation is holding high and strong.

Price inflation needs to fall rapidly and soon or else all of the above – negative GDP, dropping Consumer Expectations, households swimming under water relative to their wage growth and the Fed’s continued rapid increase in their Fed Funds Interest Rate will continue. With this it will continue to place the citizenry far from a soft landing experience and more into a hard landing whereby the economy continues to weaken while price inflation stays elevated.  That is a perfect description of stagflation and is far worse than your run of the mill recession. Stagflation leaves the citizenry in a weak economy while the Fed is forced to add pressure to such via continued interest rate increases to deal with the entrenched inflation.  That experience is anything but a soft landing.  Be careful of the consensus chatter – stay focused on reality via the data.  For our part we will continue to do just that as time shares her story.  I wish you well…

Ken Reinhart

Director, Market Research & Portfolio Analysis

Footnote:

H&UP’s is a quick summation of a rating system for SPX9 (abbreviation encompassing 9 Sectors of the S&P 500 with 107 sub-groups within those 9 sectors) that quickly references the percentage that is deemed healthy and higher (H&UP). This comes from the proprietary “V-NN” ranking system that is composed of 4 ratings which are “V-H-N-or NN”. A “V” or an “H” is a positive or constructive rank for said sector or sub-group within the sectors.

This commentary is presented only to provide perspectives on investment strategies and opportunities. The material contains opinions of the author, which are subject to markets change without notice. Statements concerning financial market trends are based on current market conditions which fluctuate. References to specific securities and issuers are for descriptive purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will work under all market conditions. Each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. PERFORMANCE IS NOT GUARANTEED AND LOSSES CAN OCCUR WITH ANY INVESTMENT STRATEGY.

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