Improving economic environment
As positive evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccines and their distribution has become more apparent, the market continued to respond by factoring in the increasing probability of a durable re-opening of the economy.
“Mobility” is a new metric that can only be measured through ubiquitous cell phone and GPS tracking. This data is considered a good precursor to stronger economic activity. As the incidence of COVID infection has declined and vaccination rates have grown, mobility metrics have moved up considerably, indicating that people are starting to engage in the economy again.
Government policies have injected enormous amounts of cash into consumers’ pockets and provided access to abundant low-cost capital for corporations. Consumers have considerable wherewithal to spend, and corporations are confident they have solid funding to accommodate increasing levels of demand.
As always, the bond market has been a key indicator regarding the direction of the economy. Since the beginning of the year, long-term interest rates are up 0.75%, while short-term rates, anchored by Federal Reserve (Fed) policy, have not changed. This movement of yields on longer maturity bonds rising faster than yields on shorter maturity bonds is known as a “steepening yield curve.” Historically this has been one of the best indicators of impending economic growth.
However, these developments have also contributed to growing anxiety about the potential for rising inflation, which has been dormant in recent years. Treasury inflation protected securities (TIPS) are now pricing in rising inflation, commodity prices have surged, and housing prices have vaulted higher.
Meanwhile reported inflation statistics remain at about 1.5% and are not confirming the growing market concern. However, inflation is a lagging indicator. It is expected that inflation could hit at least the Fed’s long-held target of 2%, based on widespread shortages caused by the pandemic’s impact on supply chains, massive liquidity in the system, and pent-up demand.
Rising rates and rotation
Rising interest rates and expected economic improvement continue to drive investor rotation from the long winning growth sectors of the economy to the economically sensitive areas of the economy and into the value and small cap equity sectors. It is also fueling growing interest in industries oriented to energy, financial services, and consumer discretionary products.
This rotational shift, which began with startling force in November 2020, has shown some signs of waning recently. The small cap sector, which continued to surge at the start of the year, has now pulled back, and the large cap growth sector is showing signs of reestablishing its strength. However, this may be just another blip in an up-and-down trend that characterized the 1st quarter.
Key “big picture” issues
What are the key areas that will influence the direction of the economy and the markets for the balance of 2021? While the following key areas are interrelated, most are currently moving in a trend that remains supportive of the economy and the equity market – but not the bond market.
- Vaccination. After a halting start, the national vaccination effort has really picked up speed. Significantly, mitigating the virus remains the single biggest issue to support economic activity and reinforce investor confidence that the country and the world is moving past the challenges of the pandemic. However, this vaccination effort is now a race against the COVID variants that are now accelerating and threatening to trigger a fourth wave of infection. Also, other parts of the world – especially Europe – are lagging in their vaccine efforts relative to the U.S.
- Employment. As the virus mitigation and vaccination efforts continue, the employment picture has significantly improved. It is expected that the surge in hiring will continue and that the return of paychecks will augment government support programs in providing healthy support to the economy.
- Consumer spending. The consumer seems poised to go on a spending spree as the economy reopens. Armed with a record level of savings, an improving jobs market and the rising wealth created by the surging stock and housing markets, the consumer will be a powerful contributor to growth as the year progresses.
- Supply problems. As pent-up demand is met by expected consumer spending, supply problems may become an obstacle to rebuilding supply chains.
- Government spending. The Biden administration is now moving to enact an ambitious program to provide long-term support to the economy through infrastructure investment and social program spending. The price tag for this initiative is significantly larger than the emergency policy steps that were enacted over the past year, however the cost would be stretched over a longer time frame. Central to this plan is the proposal to significantly increase corporate and some personal tax rates, as well as to increase the rate on capital gains, which could negatively impact the stock market.
- Inflation. Such large spending programs on top of the trillions that have already been injected into the economy in response to the pandemic could lead to inflation problems. A surge in inflation could seriously depress bond and stock prices. In fact, the bond market has already felt the impact of these concerns.