Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Mike Wilson, Chief Investment Officer and Chief U.S. Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, I’ll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It’s Monday, December 13th at 11:30 a.m. in New York. So let’s get after it.
In writing our year ahead outlook, we were faced with what we think is a wider than normal range of potential economic and policy outcomes. This higher “uncertainty” was one of the inputs to our key conclusion – that valuations for U.S. equity markets were likely to come down over the next 3-6 months. In our discussions with hundreds of clients since publishing our outlook, the conversations have centered on these three potential outcomes and how to handicap them.
First is Goldilocks. When we published our outlook on November 15th, this was the prevailing view by most clients. In this outcome, supply picks up in Q1 to meet the excess demand companies are having a hard time fulfilling. Inflation has a relatively fast but soft landing towards 2-3%, which allows for growth to remain strong and multiples to remain high. The S&P 500 reaches 5000 by year end 2022. And this was our bull case in our outlook with a 20% probability.
In the second outcome, inflation remains hot and the Fed responds more aggressively. Under this outcome, inflation proves to be stickier as supply chains and labor shortages remain difficult to fix in the short term. The Fed is forced to taper faster and even raise rates on a more aggressive path. This was our base case, as it essentially lined up with our hotter but shorter cycle view we first wrote about back in March. At the same time, operating leverage fades as costs increase more in line with revenues. This leaves market breadth narrow in the near-term as valuations fully normalize in line with the typical mid-cycle transition. While there is some debate around how much P/Es need to fall, we believe 18x is the right number to use for year-end 2022. When combined with 10% earnings growth, that gives us a slight downside to the index from current prices, or 4400 on the S&P 500. We put a 60% probability on this outcome.
The third outcome assumes supply ticks up, but demand fades. Under this scenario, we assume supply comes too late to meet what has been an unsustainable level of consumption for many goods. It’s also too expensive for customers who have become wary of higher prices, which leads to demand destruction for many areas of the economy. While services should fare better and keep the economy growing, goods producing companies suffer. Under this scenario, the Fed may back off on their more aggressive tightening path. Rates fall, but not enough to offset the negative impact on margins and earnings, which will end up disappointing. This is essentially the “Ice” part of our Fire and Ice narrative turning out to be chillier. Equity risk premiums soar and multiples fall more than under our base case. This was our bear case with a 20% probability.
Since publishing, we feel more confident about our base case being the most likely outcome. Inflation data continues to come in hot and companies are having little problem passing it along, for now. While this will likely lead to another good quarter of earnings, we suspect there will be more casualties too, as execution risk is increasing. This will leave dispersion high and leadership inconsistent – two more conclusions in our outlook. Stock picking will be difficult, but a necessary condition to generate meaningful returns in 2022 as the market index is flat to down over the next 12 months.
This is a big week on policy outcomes, with the Fed likely to announce a more aggressive timeline for tapering its asset purchases. In short, we expect the Fed to tell us that they will end its asset purchase program by March 31st. While our base case always assumed the Fed would respond appropriately to higher inflation, this is a more aggressive pivot than what we expected a month ago. Importantly, the Fed is now suggesting stable prices are important to achieving its primary goal of full employment, which means inflation is taking center stage until it’s under control. Finally, we think Jay Powell and the Fed will be under much less pressure from the White House versus the last time they were aggressively removing monetary accommodation in late 2018. Part of this is due to the fact that inflation is a much bigger problem today than it was in 2018, and part of it is due to the observation that the White House today is not as preoccupied with the stock market. Bottom line, the Fed is determined to bring down inflation, and falling stock prices are unlikely to stop them from trying.
In this kind of an environment, we continue to favor companies with earnings stability and reasonable valuations. That means large cap defensive quality stocks. In short, boring can be beautiful.
Thanks for listening.