Markets Wait for the Lagged Effect of Higher Interest Rates to Show Up in Economic Data
The Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes occurred in 2022, but the full impact of its restrictive measures has not yet been fully felt in the real economy. While the U.S. economy contracted during the first half of 2022, it expanded at a robust +3.2% annualized pace during the third quarter. Consumer spending remained strong throughout most of 2022 despite high inflation, and the U.S. labor market added more than 4 million jobs through the end of November. The data indicates the U.S. economy has withstood tightening thus far, but the real test will come in 2023 as the cumulative impact of higher interest rates becomes clearer.
While a recession is not a foregone conclusion, it is possible the economy could be tested in 2023. An index of leading economic indicators shows the U.S. economy is already starting to slow as the impact of higher interest rates takes hold. Figure 3 graphs the month-over-month change in The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index, which tracks ten economic components that tend to precede changes in the overall economy. Included in the components are the average weekly hours worked by manufacturing workers, new home building permits, and the volume of new orders for capital goods, such as equipment, vehicles, and machinery. The chart reveals that the Leading Economic Index has decreased every month since March 2022, an indication the economy is slowing after a period of strong growth during the pandemic recovery.
Equity Valuations Are More Attractive, But Corporate Earnings Are An Open Question
Whereas inflation and central bank policy were the primary drivers of markets in 2022, economic data and corporate fundamentals are expected to play a larger role in determining the market’s direction in 2023. Figure 4 tracks two important S&P 500 metrics. The top chart tracks the next 12-month price-to-earnings ratio, which divides the S&P 500’s projected next 12-month earnings by its current price. It shows valuation multiples expanded during the pandemic as interest rates were cut to near 0% before reversing lower during 2022 as rising interest rates weighed on company valuations.
While current valuations are at a more attractive starting point today than at the beginning of 2022, corporate earnings are an open question entering 2023 with the potential for an earnings reset as the economy slows. The bottom chart in Figure 4 tracks the S&P 500’s trailing 12-month earnings growth, showing the jump in corporate earnings during the pandemic. Despite expectations for an economic slowdown, Wall Street analysts still forecast single-digit earnings growth for the S&P 500 in 2023. The positive earnings growth forecast is encouraging, but it creates a risk for the market. If actual earnings growth falls short of the forecast, stock prices could decline as markets price in lower actual earnings.
2023 Outlook – Turning the Page on 2022’s Historic Tightening Cycle
2023 brings the next phase of the tightening cycle where the lagged effects of tighter monetary policy will be felt. It has the potential to be a year of two halves. In the first half, the focus is likely to shift from the number of future interest rate hikes to how much those interest rate hikes will slow the economy. Some data, such as the housing market, indicate that tighter monetary policy is being transmitted into the economy at a rapid pace. Home sales are slowing, and homebuilder confidence weakened every month during 2022 and now sits at its lowest level since 2012. At the same time, consumers continue to spend, and employers continue to add jobs. There is still a wide range of possible outcomes, and the unique nature of the pandemic followed by rapid interest rate cuts and hikes makes the path forward less certain.
The second half has the potential to be different depending on how severe the slowdown is in early 2023. Markets are based on forward-looking decisions, and investors will be watching closely for signs that the economy has bottomed and is recovering. Plus, Figure 1 in our 2022 Recap contains an encouraging historical trend. The chart shows there have only been two instances of consecutive negative S&P 500 return years since 1950, in 1973-1974 and 2000-2002. This does not necessarily mean the S&P 500 will produce a positive return in 2023 or trade higher in a straight line from here, because it may not. However, it does provide helpful historical context in a volatile environment.