After last year’s pain, the start of 2023 has been nice. Stocks are up nearly 10% and bonds have bounced over 4%. The mood has quickly shifted from doom and gloom to optimism. Is this shift fully justified?
For the past 18 months, almost everything has hinged on inflation. To vanquish the post-Covid surge in inflation, the Fed abruptly raised rates from zero to about 4.5% to 4.75%. After one more 0.25% expected interest rate hike, most investors now believe the Fed will finally pause.
Why the pause? The outlook for inflation has really improved. According to the Fed’s preferred measure, we’ve seen a discernable decline in inflation from around 5.5% at its worst point last year to the latest reading of 4.4%. It’s likely heading lower still. But, it will take some time to get to the targeted 2% inflation rate the Fed wants. And, most expect it will take economic pain to get us there.
With the hope for a Fed pause, investor focus has now clearly shifted to the health of the economy. Naturally, this is where things start to look fuzzy.
It’s awfully difficult to believe that cumulative rate hikes of about 5%, at such a quick pace, won’t push us into a recession soon enough. Interest rate hikes are seen as a blunt tool and they affect the economy with both “long and variable lags.” In normal language, they take time to really bite.
Given this, investors have been bracing for the pain to come. But, lately, the optimistic idea that we can squash inflation without feeling real economic pain has once again taken root. The idea that the Fed can actually thread the needle is back in vogue, as it was last June. This optimism has translated into diversified balanced portfolios recovering roughly half of their losses from the market low in mid-October.
Other than simply breathing a sigh of relief when reviewing their monthly statements, how should investors react to this mood shift?
Keep in mind that certain very reliable economic indicators, such as the “yield curve”, implies a looming recession of some depth. The 10-year Treasury now yields 3.4% as compared to the 3-month Treasury Bill yield of 4.5%. This upside-down relationship has a very good record as a recession predictor. If inflation proves to be stickier or the interest rate hikes start to kick in too strongly, the market rebound could easily reverse.
In all humility, though, nobody really knows the short-term direction of markets. Nonetheless, after last year, taking a fresh look at your portfolio’s mix of stocks and bonds is in order. The time to do this review is from a position of strength. And, there’s absolutely no doubt things look quite strong right now!
Jason P. Tank, CFA, CFP® is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at [email protected] and at www.FrontStreet.com