August Market Commentary: Will a Month of Fresh Data Change the Fed’s Aggressive Stance?

July Recap and August Outlook

July marked the best month for the markets since November 2020.

What happened, after the rout of the first half? Some ideas:

  • It’s a bear market rally sparked by better-than-expected earnings
  • Inflation has really peaked or is near a peak, and the Fed is newly dovish after September, with lower rate increases in November and December and a decrease (!) mid-2023

The fly in the ointment? That pesky second quarter GDP contraction that could be interpreted as a sign that we are in or near a recession. But there is other, more positive data too.

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Inflation, the Fed, and Recession. It’s Not Linear.

The June CPI number came in at 9.1%. This is not only the second consecutive month that we’ve seen an increase – it was a whopper. Consensus expectations were for an 8.8% annualized increase in inflation. This huge spike came after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a surprise 75 basis points after the June meeting and communicated that more – and higher – rate increases are in store.

As measured by the futures markets, the immediate response was to assume that the high inflation number would increase the likelihood of the Fed enacting at least a 75-basis point rate increase and potentially a 100-basis point increase at the FOMC meeting at the end of July.

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Staying Safe Around Bears

The S&P 500 recently breached bear territory, which is largely agreed to be a market that has dropped 20% from a recent peak. It’s common to see some retracing. The “bear-market bounce” is real.

However, even if the market recovers a bit, it will take some time, good sentiment, and real economic progress for performance to climb from bear to correction to neutral to positive.

In the meantime, outside of a short, sharp drop in 2020, we haven’t seen this volatile market since, you guessed it, 2008.

Driven by inflation, global uncertainty, supply chain issues, and rising rates – economists are predicting a recession in the months and years ahead. Some are even saying we’re in a recession now.

With a bear market, and 20%+ drops in the market, comes a wave of emotions: Stress, sadness, and anxiety. The list can go on and on.

The National Park Service has a lot of advice for safeguarding yourself when you encounter not-Smokey out in the wild. And much of it is based on psychology and managing your own fear, so that you stay in control of yourself and the situation.

We’ve borrowed from that playbook to give you tactical pointers in navigating bear markets, volatility, and turbulence.
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July Market Commentary: Will the Fed’s Rate Resolve Lead to Recession?

June Recap and July Outlook

After a barely positive May, June saw the bear market return across indices. We ended up with the worst first half performance since 1970. A mid-month surprise 75 basis point rate hike at the June FOMC meeting, followed by Fed Chairman Powell’s testimony to Congress in which he indicated aggressive rate increases at the July and September meetings, convinced markets that inflation is the priority for the Fed.

Chairman Powell indicated that the current level of inflation – a historic 8.6% – will require a short-term rate of at least 3% to get to a neutral level. With the Fed funds rate currently at 1.50%-1.75%, that means several more rate increases this year.

Are we headed for a recession? Are we already there? Or is the Fed’s plan to slow the economy and bring the labor markets into balance beginning to work?

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What Just Happened? The Fed Increases Velocity and Accepts Reality

The Federal Reserve raised the key short-term interest rate by 75 basis points in response to the release of the May headline CPI number, which increased to 8.6%. This marked the first 75 basis point increase in the Fed funds rate since 1994. That wasn’t the most unusual thing about the announcement. All year, Fed Chairman Powell has been striving to telegraph to markets exactly what the Fed’s intentions are with rates. Clarity and allowing time for markets to adjust has been the strategy for minimizing disruption.

The CPI inflation number release came at the tail end of the “blackout” period the Fed observes around communications before an FOMC meeting. Without the ability to communicate the Fed’s thinking to the markets, the Fed Chair had to weigh the possible loss of credibility such a surprise announcement would cause against the urgent need to combat inflation aggressively.

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I Keep Hearing We're Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

I Keep Hearing We’re Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

There’s been more than a few news headlines recently claiming that we’re on the verge of an economic recession.  For many business owners and investors the word recession is a lot like Voldemort.  It’s so evil and scary that you’re not even supposed to say it.  “Recession” evokes fears of falling stock prices, unemployment, and scarcity.

So what exactly is a recession?  And should we treat them with the same respect that Harry Potter treats Lord Voldemort?

Recessions are technically two or more consecutive quarters where national gross domestic product contracts.  Gross domestic product (GDP) is sum of all the goods and services a country produces.  It’s the broadest and most common way to measure economic activity and the strength of the economy.  Growing GDP is a good sign, falling GDP is a bad sign.  This is what US GDP growth has looked like since 1930.  Lots of major swings between 1930 and 1950, and relatively steady since about 1985.  Note that by that time the US dollar was the world’s reserve currency, we were off the gold standard, and interest rates had started to stabilize after stagflation in the 1970s.

I Keep Hearing We're Nearing a Recession. Are We Nearing a Recession?

Now on to why you should care.  The more goods and services a country produces, the better off its citizens are financially.  There’s more wealth being created, more jobs available, and usually faster rising wages.  For businesses this means that your customers have more stable employment and more discretionary income to buy your products.

In a recession GDP contracts.  There’s less economic activity.  From a business’s perspective your customers have fewer jobs, lower wages, and less discretionary income.  Revenue dries up, and you may be forced to lay employees off yourself.  Times are tough.

From an investor’s perspective, recessions are tough on asset prices.  The value of your stock holdings, including index funds, depends on the market’s expectation of future cash flows & profitability.  Recessions are tough on cash flow, tough on profitability, and tough on stock prices.  Recessions often coincide with bear markets.

So where are we now?  Are we actually nearing a recession, or is the rhetoric we’re hearing on the news just propaganda?  I’m no economist, but I do have some background and stay informed as part of my day job.  Here’s my take on whether we’re nearing a recession.

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