Blog Hero Image

Posted by Craig Basinger on Jul 3rd, 2023

Everything Has Gone K-Shaped

Economic parlance often tries to use a single letter to capture what is happening. For example, a V-shaped recovery in the economy or market represents a sudden drop followed by a sudden rise; L-shaped is a sudden drop followed by a muted recovery. 'K' is used to denote a divergent two-pronged recovery – the portion of the letter going up to the right representing the positive and the downward to the right portion of the letter representing things that are not going well. At the moment, it appears both the economy and markets are K shaped.

Take the economy; some aspects are going really well. Spending on services remains robust, thanks to pent-up demand and still resilient labour markets. Meanwhile, manufacturing and other cyclical components continue to show weakness. Or the equity markets. The technology-heavy NASDAQ is up 30%, as is Japan. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up a paltry 2%, as is the TSX. Divergent, just like the letter 'K.'

Market returns are often divergent, but this is extreme

Economic Resilience or Just Delayed?

The study and analysis of the economy is really the study of human behaviour and decision-making. During the pandemic, we all changed our behaviours just a little bit, and this aggregated in such a way to really change the economy. Buying stuff, watching too much Netflix, and staying home more often pushed supply chains beyond capacity and wrecked other business models (all the cupcake shops are long gone from the downtown path). Then behaviours started to change back, some faster than others.

We shouldn't be too surprised to see economic activity in manufacturing slowing while service-related activity remains robust. This is very evident in Purchasing Managers' Survey data (PMIs). Looking across most major economies, service activity remains in expansion mode (above 50) while manufacturing activity has been in contraction mode (below 50) over the past year.

Service activity remains robust

The glass-half-full lens for this data is that overspending on goods during the pandemic and subsequent catching up within supply chains resulted in bringing demand forward into 2020-2021. Normalizing our spending on goods is simply manifesting in less manufacturing activity. This is also evident in other metrics. Trucking demand is way down, given cardboard box shipments are running almost 10% below year-ago levels. Think of those little boxes on your porch. Meanwhile, our desire to travel, eat, and do stuff has services activity rather robust.

The glass-half-empty lens would highlight the fact that changes in manufacturing activity often precede economic activity in the service sectors of the economy. Implying that service activity is at risk of following the trend in manufacturing, providing yet another sign of future slowing in economic activity. Add this to the inverted yield curve, recession probability models and leading indicators.

This divergence of economic activity can also be seen from one economy to the next. China and Germany, which have relatively larger portions of their economy driven by manufacturing, have seen a downturn in data. Meanwhile, economies such as the U.S., which are more service-oriented, have remained more resilient.

What Comes Next?

Not surprisingly, there are two potential paths (there are probably more than two, but let's simplify). The normalization of goods spending could work itself out and stabilize, with service activity keeping the global economy growing at a reasonable pace. Or all those rate hikes that hit manufacturing/good spending quicker could finally start to weigh on services activity. Bringing on slower economic growth or even recession. We remain in the latter camp but must acknowledge the resilience of the economy or at least that we have once again been a tad early.

Looking at consensus economic forecasts for global economic growth, there is no denying that 2023 is shaping up better than the collective wisdom predicted. Six months ago, forecasts for developed economic growth were barely above zero, and now it has risen to almost 1%. Still a sizeable deceleration from 2022, but at least it isn't negative.

The good news kind of ends there, as forecasts for 2024 have continued to be revised lower for both developed and emerging (developing) economies. Taken at face value, global economic growth still appears set to slow to near stall speed….just later than many had previously expected.

2023 GDP consensus forecasts have been improving

Release Valve and Pressure Cracks

After two months of flirting with the 4,200 level, it was clear this was a major resistance level for the S&P 500. Once released, this pressure point opened the floodgates in June. Aggressive repositioning and short covering from extremely depressed levels on the futures market led to one of the largest weeks of money entering the market over the past five years. Total mutual fund and ETF weekly inflows nearly reached $28 billion mid-month. Lots of fresh new money-long positions have been established as FOMO kicked into high gears. The futures market has also seen a sudden move off some of the most bearish positioning we've seen in the E-mini futures over the past twenty years.

4,200 was the release valve

Sentiment has shifted; AAII Bull-Bear reading is now over +20. Not extreme, but any time you have this much of a gap between the bulls and bears, it typically follows some strong returns in the market and is a sign that it is becoming increasingly tilted towards excessive greed. As a contrarian, it's time to take some notice whenever sentiment shifts by such a degree and be ready for a reversal. At this point, it just doesn't seem worth it to jump into the momentum trade from a risk/reward standpoint. Historic flows coupled with stretched sentiment are both signs of pressure cracks building in the market. In addition, the VIX, maybe the most well-known measure of market sentiment. At 14, it's a sign that complacency is abundant in the market.

Predicting Isn't Easy

It's always hard to make the right call when it comes to forecasting where markets will be in the future. Predictions are difficult, and we'd argue that they are a futile task for several reasons:

  1. Markets are complex: Financial markets attempt to tie in the complexities of the economy, business valuation, geopolitical events and sentiment every second of the day.
  2. Uncertainty: Nobody knows what's going to happen in the future. Unforeseen developments can play a major role in market movements. You also have Black Swan events, which are rare and unpredictable events that can disrupt the functions of the market.
  3. Behavioural: Despite the rise of AI and algos, markets are still largely driven by human factors. With it, they reflect a range of human emotions and all of our wonderful biases.
  4. Information Asymmetry: The speed and amount of new information that gets disseminated every single day makes it very difficult for strategists to gain any sort of information advantage.

We've been in the recession camp since the beginning of the year. We were not alone. In hindsight, most other strategists had the same idea. The consensus forecasted year-end level for the S&P 500 on January 20thstood at just 4,050. It's since risen to 4,091. Since 1999 there have been very few periods where the market trades through the average year-end forecast for the S&P 500. The fact that the S&P is now nearly 10% over the forecasted level speaks volumes about how fast the recent advance has happened and how widely out of sync the market appears to be with the macro and fundamentals. Besides the stimulus-fuelled advance following the pandemic, the spread has never been larger.

Spread between S&P and forecaster's year-end value is beyond stretched

Higher for Longer Driving Divergences

There were multiple themes that took hold during the first half of the year. The return of tech dominance fueled by the AI boom was front and centre, driving the NASDAQ 100 to its best first half on record. What started as the snapback rally off the lows last year, with the biggest losers becoming the biggest winners, gained momentum as everything AI took hold of the market. Rising rates be damned.

Quite the first half for the NASDAQ 100

Mega-cap tech companies have broken free of the rising rate handcuffs that restrained the sector in 2022. Unfortunately, not every sector was given the AI key. Central banks have resumed hiking, and there the market is currently expecting more to come. The higher for longer premise has taken a toll on many sectors, in particular Real Estate, Utilities and Telcos. Structural headwinds within parts of the real estate complex, particularly the office sector, remain firmly in place. Infrastructure, especially renewable energy companies, has also faced persistent pressure over the past few quarters. The dislocation across sectors is most evident when comparing cyclical sectors versus defensive sectors. We see the reoccurring K-shape in the graph below, which shows just how disjointed market the market has become. Amidst a murky evolving macro backdrop, spreads between the best and worst-performing sectors over the last three months reached nearly 30% a few weeks ago.

Tale of two markets so far this year

Earnings – Not all negative but certainly paying up for them

Part of this divergence is fundamentally driven. Headline expected EPS for the S&P 500 for 2023 and 2024 has moved slightly higher. In addition, the 3-month change, which was consistently negative for most of last year, is now positive. Though earning expectations have only risen a paltry 1.4%, the rate of change has drastically improved. With recession forecasts being pushed back and/or tempered towards a soft landing, Tech EPS are up a meaningful 12% from their 2023 lows. Likewise, other cyclical sectors have also seen a recent rebound. Defensives, on the other hand, are lagging. With the beginning of the Q2 earnings season set to kick off in a couple of weeks, we'll get a better picture of the winners and losers. Perhaps there is still a lot of wishful thinking in these estimates, especially with the vigorous growth pencilled in a few quarters from now. Earning expectations are still high and not consistent with any type of recession scenario. The market appears to be fully expecting a soft landing followed by a strong recovery. While possible, we still don't see this as a probable scenario given the lagged effects of monetary policy that is set to continue to tighten.

Earnings expectations stopped declining but have barely risen off the lows

Earnings estimates for the Technology sector have improved, but the market still might have gotten ahead of itself. In the chart below, we have the PE ratio for the S&P 500 Technology index as well as the S&P 500 and the ratio between the two. Valuations for the Technology sector are now 1.4 times higher than the index, which is historically quite stretched. While not quite at 2000 levels where the ratio rose to over two times, investors are clearly paying a high price to gain exposure to AI or the relative safety of fortress-like balance sheets for many of the big tech companies.

Tech valuations relative to the S&P are getting quite stretched

Market Cycle

Directionally, 2023 is playing out as expected – it is the magnitudes that are really surprising. Inflation, which remains, is gradually fading as a dominant fear in the marketplace. With peak central bank rates nearby and economic activity remaining surprisingly resilient, the market has continued to rally off the October lows. The S&P has regained 66% of its 2022 losses, the TSX 40%, but those losses were much less. International markets have regained 60% of their previous pain, with some markets reaching all-time highs.

One could conclude the next bull cycle has started, and nobody got the memo. Given the biggest bouncers were the biggest decliners in 2022, we believe this is a bear market bounce, albeit a big one. With credit conditions continuing to tighten, more forward-looking economic indicators rather bearish, and earnings starting to contract, we remain cautious. The drop in 2022 was a valuation decline. After this bounce, we believe a fundamental decline looms.

As a result, we remain moderately tilted towards defence. This translates into a moderate underweight in equities, marginal overweight in bonds and holding elevated cash. Among equities, we have a tilt towards international, market weight in Canada and underweight in the U.S. (unfortunate of late). This is partly valuation driven and some initial positioning for the next cycle, which we believe international will outperform. Bond allocations are lighter on credit, and duration is normal after years of low duration. Our base case is some sort of recession, and duration will once again be a portfolio's friend.

Market cycle indicators have improved a bit but remain below average, warranting our moderate portfolio tilt towards defence. We will remain keenly focused on signs of improvement/deterioration in the manufacturing measures and fundamentals as we enter the Q2 earnings season.

market cycle indicators

Portfolio Positioning

No changes to our portfolio positioning this past month. We remain with a moderate underweight in equities and a moderate overweight in cash and bonds. Full underweight in emerging markets and moderate overweight in international has worked well of late. The moderate underweight in U.S. equities, not so much.

asset class strategic guidance

We continue to find decent value in the more conservative parts of the bond market, given the rise in yields. Again, our fear of duration has fallen as a potential recession is our base case. And among alternatives, we continue to lean on volatility or defence strategies with real assets.

The Final Word

With K-like divergence among different equity markets, within markets depending on cyclicality and defensiveness, among types of economic activity, between different economies and between the market vs forecasts, there is no shortage of mixed signals. This is often a characteristic that becomes prevalent near key turning points. The turning point could be the start of a new bull, but we remain in the camp that it is a potential turn towards an economic or earnings recession.

We continue to lean towards defence but still have enough market exposure in case our conservative mindset proves misplaced.

— Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments
— Derek Benedet is a Portfolio Manager at Purpose Investments
— Brett Gustafson is an Analyst at Purpose Investments

Sources: Charts are sourced to Bloomberg L.P.

The content of this document is for informational purposes only, and is not being provided in the context of an offering of any securities described herein, nor is it a recommendation or solicitation to buy, hold or sell any security. The information is not investment advice, nor is it tailored to the needs or circumstances of any investor. Information contained in this document is not, and under no circumstances is it to be construed as, an offering memorandum, prospectus, advertisement or public offering of securities. No securities commission or similar regulatory authority has reviewed this document and any representation to the contrary is an offence. Information contained in this document is believed to be accurate and reliable, however, we cannot guarantee that it is complete or current at all times. The information provided is subject to change without notice.

Commissions, trailing commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with investment funds. Please read the prospectus before investing. If the securities are purchased or sold on a stock exchange, you may pay more or receive less than the current net asset value. Investment funds are not guaranteed, their values change frequently and past performance may not be repeated. Certain statements in this document are forward-looking. Forward-looking statements ("FLS") are statements that are predictive in nature, depend on or refer to future events or conditions, or that include words such as "may," "will," "should," "could," "expect," "anticipate," intend," "plan," "believe," "estimate" or other similar expressions. Statements that look forward in time or include anything other than historical information are subject to risks and uncertainties, and actual results, actions or events could differ materially from those set forth in the FLS. FLS are not guarantees of future performance and are by their nature based on numerous assumptions. Although the FLS contained in this document are based upon what Purpose Investments and the portfolio manager believe to be reasonable assumptions, Purpose Investments and the portfolio manager cannot assure that actual results will be consistent with these FLS. The reader is cautioned to consider the FLS carefully and not to place undue reliance on the FLS. Unless required by applicable law, it is not undertaken, and specifically disclaimed, that there is any intention or obligation to update or revise FLS, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise.

Craig Basinger, CFA

Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments. With over 25 years of investment experience, Craig combines an educational foundation in economics & psychology with years of experience in both fundamental and quantitative research. A long-term student of the markets, Craig’s thoughts and insights can be seen in his Market Ethos publications and through his regular contributions on BNN.

Craig and his team bring a transparent and cost-efficient approach to investment management. The team provides asset allocation OCIO services and directly manages over $1 billion in assets. The team manages dividend mandates, quantitative risk reduction strategies and asset allocation services.

Derek Benedet

Derek is a Portfolio Manager at Purpose Investments. He has worked for the past sixteen years in the investment industry with experience at CIBC Wood Gundy, GMP Securities as well as Richardson Wealth. He is a Chartered Market Technician (CMT), a designation obtained through expertise in technical analyses and is granted by the Market Technicians Association. His unique investment approach combines technical analysis, quantitative finance and fundamental analysis.

Brett Gustafson

Brett is a Portfolio Analyst at Purpose. He is responsible for relationship management and advisor support and focuses heavily on portfolio analytics for advisors, our own proprietary models, as well as equity research. With over nine years of experience in the investment industry, Brett started his career out as an Investment Advisor at a Canadian independent asset management firm where he cared for several high-net-worth families. Brett graduated from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He is currently pursuing his CFA designation with the goal of becoming a Portfolio Manager.