For those who tend to bury their head in the sand when markets get ugly, you might be surprised by what’s happened over the past six months.
Back in early October, the stock market rout seemed to be picking up steam. Inflation worries were raging and the Fed was talking tough about more interest rate hikes to come. As a result, many saw a recession just around the corner. And, then, as if a switch was flipped, stocks bounced and bonds popped.
At its lowest point last fall, the stock market was down about 25%. After the recent rebound, stocks are now only 10% off their highs. Similarly, back in October, bonds had dropped an unheard of 15%. Despite their recent recovery, bonds are down a still-dismal 8% from their highs. But, it’s been a really good run for bonds lately. Overall, you could say that roughly half of last year’s pain has been recouped, but, not at all, forgotten.
So, what has spurred the market’s recovery? As always, the answer is complicated, counterintuitive and possibly questionable.
The consensus expectation of a coming recession seems to have caught the attention of the Fed. Inflation is showing clear signs of declining, albeit very slowly. This trend has given the Fed some justification to turn more of their attention to the health of the economy and signal a “pause” in future interest rate hikes. Like everyone else, they want to see how the economy is faring.
Once the Fed started to speak in calmer tones, things shifted. The market adopted the mindset of “some bad news might actually be good news.” With each economic headline pointing to a slowdown, not only are future rate hikes taken off the table, the possibility for rate cuts goes up. That alone boosted both stocks and bonds. And, now, with the recent mini-banking crisis throwing a wrench into the system, the probability of future interest rate cuts is now the base case.
This can be seen in the shape of the yield curve. Longer-term interest rates are far below short-term rates. Today, you can safely earn around 4.5% just sitting in a money market fund. But, if you choose to lend to the government for 2 years, you’ll only earn about 3.8%. The yield is even lower still on the 10-year Treasury. That shows how confident investors are of future rate cuts. This phenomenon is known as an inverted yield curve and it’s historically been a bad sign. It has a perfect record as a recession indicator.
If the economy does go into a recession, the question is how deep will it be and how long will it last. There is little way to know for sure. On balance, and especially given how quickly the mood can shift, I’d say being a bit cautious with your portfolio is probably prudent.