Markets faced several challenges in 2022, including high inflation, historic central bank policy, the war in Ukraine, and Covid lockdowns in China. Inflation was a major factor in the markets throughout the year, with the headline consumer price index reaching a 40-year high of 9.1% in June. High inflation prompted the Federal Reserve and its global central bank peers to aggressively raise interest rates, which caused stocks and bonds to trade lower. There was no place to hide as central banks rapidly tightened monetary policy. Figure 1 shows the S&P 500 returned -19.4% in 2022, its worst annual return since 2008, and Figure 5 shows the Bloomberg U.S. Bond Aggregate produced its worst total return since 1976. This letter reviews the fourth quarter, recaps a difficult 2022, and discusses what the market will be focused on in 2023.
Putting 2022’s Interest Rate Hikes Into Perspective
The main story of 2022 was the reversal of monetary policy from extraordinarily accommodative levels during the Covid-19 pandemic. Figure 2 shows the speed and size of interest rate increases as central banks worked to bring inflation under control. The chart tracks the cumulative percentage of interest rate increases and decreases by global central banks during rolling three-month periods since 1995. For example, the 68% at the end of November 2022 indicates that central banks across the globe raised interest rates by a total of 68% from September to November. In contrast, the total amount of interest rate cuts during that same period was only 4%. As the data shows, 2022 was the quickest, largest, and most imbalanced global tightening cycle since the late 1990s.
The pace of interest rate increases is forecasted to slow during 2023. Central banks continue to hint that they are approaching the end of their interest rate hike cycle, citing concerns that further tightening could push the economy into recession. In addition, data suggests price pressures are easing. While the year-over-year headline consumer price index rose by 7.1% in November 2022, which is still high compared to historical levels, it was down from the 9.1% rate seen in June 2022. As inflation and central bank policy return to normal, a new uncertainty is emerging – the unknown effects of 2022’s rate hikes.
Equity Market Recap – Stocks Trade Higher in 4Q’22
Stocks traded lower during December but still ended the fourth quarter higher. The S&P 500 Index of large cap stocks returned +7.6% during the fourth quarter, outperforming the Russell 2000 Index’s +6.2% return. The Dow Jones Index, which includes large companies such as Visa, Caterpillar, Nike, and Boeing, was the top performer, returning +15.9%, while the Nasdaq 100 Index of technology and other growth-style stocks produced a -0.1% return during the fourth quarter.
Energy was the top performing S&P 500 sector during the fourth quarter, followed by the cyclical sector trio of Industrials, Materials, and Financials. Defensive sectors, including Health Care, Consumer Staples, and Utilities, were middle of the pack performers. Growth-style sectors, including Technology, Communication Services, and Consumer Discretionary, and interest-rate sensitive Real Estate underperformed as higher interest rates continued to weigh on valuation multiples.
International stocks outperformed U.S. stocks during the fourth quarter. The MSCI EAFE Index of developed market stocks returned +17.7% during the fourth quarter, while the MSCI Emerging Market Index returned +10.3%. A weaker U.S. dollar boosted the returns of international stocks, with U.S. dollar weakness driven by a shrinking monetary policy gap as other central banks catch up with the Federal Reserve’s aggressive policy. Separately, China’s decision to relax its Covid-zero restrictions raised the prospect of stronger global growth as one of the world’s biggest economies reopens.
Bond Market Recap – The Great 2022 Yield Reset
The bond market experienced a significant resetting of interest rates during 2022, with yields steadily rising as the Federal Reserve pushed through large interest rate hikes. Despite posting positive returns during the fourth quarter, bonds produced significant losses during 2022 as central banks raised interest rates at a rapid pace. The top chart in Figure 5 shows the Bloomberg U.S. Bond Aggregate produced a -13% total return during 2022, its biggest negative total return since tracking began in 1976.
The bottom two charts in Figure 5 examine the current state of the credit market after 2022’s rate hikes. The middle chart shows the 10-year Treasury yield sits at its highest level since 2007. Yields are now higher across most credit classes, and investors can earn a yield of around 4% to 5% on a portfolio of high-quality bonds, such as U.S. Treasury bonds and investment grade corporate bonds, without locking up capital for long periods of time. In the corporate credit market, the bottom chart shows the high-yield corporate bond spread, which is the extra yield investors demand to loan to lower quality borrowers, is in line with its median since 1999.
The starting point for bonds, both in terms of yield and credit spreads, is now more compelling than it has been in a long time. However, there is still the potential for continued volatility in the bond market. There is still significant uncertainty regarding how high the Fed will need to raise interest rates and how long it will need to keep interest rates at restrictive levels to bring inflation down to normal levels. There is a risk that inflation could remain above the Fed's 2% target, leading to an extended tightening cycle. At the same time, the economy is likely to start feeling the effects of 2022’s rate hikes in 2023, which could make bonds more attractive. The crosscurrents of uncertain central bank policy and a volatile global economy could keep interest rate volatility elevated and test bond investors’ nerves again during 2023.