Bislang wurde die Ansicht, dass die USA (und vielleicht Europa) im Laufe des Jahres 2023 in die Rezession eintreten würden, einstimmig geteilt. Angesichts der anhaltenden Belastungen durch die hohen Erdgaspreise dürfte dies für Europa früher gelten als für die USA, nachdem die Auswirkungen der Zinserhöhungen der US-Notenbank allmählich zu greifen beginnen. Volkswirte prognostizierten eine starke Verlangsamung; die Konsensschätzungen hatten für das zweite Quartal einen Tiefpunkt des Wachstums erwarten lassen. Kritisch gesehen wurden Bond Yield Curves umgedreht, was in der Vergangenheit ein aussagekräftiger Indikator für eine Rezession war (siehe Abbildung 1).
Dieser Konsens hat sich allmählich abgeschwächt. Das deutlichste Gegenargument bisher: die Erholung der Risk Assets in diesem Jahr. Globale Aktien legten bis zum 1. Februar um fast 8% zu, während die Spreads von High Yield Bonds um 50 Basispunkte schrumpften. Hat die Renditekurve einen falschen Alarm ausgelöst? – Vielleicht.
Unser Makro-Team geht noch immer von einer Rezession in den USA aus. Ihrer Ansicht nach ist die Inflation, insbesondere das Lohnwachstum, hartnäckiger, als die Märkte derzeit erwarten. Demnach bedeutet dies, dass die Federal Reserve ihre Leitzinsen länger höher halten und eine starke Verlangsamung des Wachstums auslösen muss, um den Preisdruck zu verringern (d. h. die Phillips-Kurve ist flach).
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Recession or not?
The scenario in which recession either does not materialise or is mild assumes that the encouraging trends recently seen in inflation persist. Monthly core goods inflation has been negative for several months and rent of shelter should fall as high mortgage rates dampen housing market activity. Wage growth indicators have improved, notably the latest average hourly earnings data and employment cost index.
If these patterns hold, the Fed could be able to cut policy rates by the end of summer, or so the market expects. The inverted yield curve then simply reflects that pattern, but a recession is avoided because inflation ultimately does turn out to be transitory. The cause of the inflation was extraordinary (lockdowns, then pandemic stimulus and finally reopenings), and its dissipation is also likely to be unconventional.
The fly in the soft-landing ointment is the state of the US labour market. The unemployment rate has been at 3.5% (and falling) when a rate at above 4% is historically needed to see wage growth consistent with the Fed’s 2% core inflation target. The number of job openings has remained high, suggesting there is far more demand for labour than supply.
While employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, it is below where it likely would have been had the pandemic not occurred, and lower participation rates means there are fewer people to take the available jobs (see Exhibit 2).
It is hardly helpful when central bankers say their policy decisions are ‘data dependent’, but under the circumstances, it is understandable.
The Fed recently decided to raise rates by another 25bp. Its message – that rates will stay higher for longer and that a bigger slowdown in economic growth is needed – is premised on the view that wage inflation persists and goods prices do not continue to decelerate as quickly.
However, after the latest policy decision, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that if inflation does continue to fall sharply, the central bank would cut rates in response. We will all need to wait and see if inflation recedes as hoped before knowing whether the yield curve signal was a false alarm.
US GDP growth beat expectations in the fourth quarter, and not surprisingly earnings from the latest reporting season have also so far come in above analysts’ forecasts. Worries that profit warnings and negative guidance would lead to a market downturn have been disappointed: most CEOs are still foreseeing solid demand. Personal consumption expenditures rose by 5% in the quarter (in nominal terms, annualised). It is only once demand begins to weaken that downgrades will likely follow.
In any case, analysts have already sharply revised down their expectations for near-term earnings growth for US companies. At the end of September, forecasts were for year-on-year earnings growth in the first half of the year of 7%. It is now -1%, in line with consensus expectations of economic growth troughing in the second quarter.
By the end of the year, however, earnings growth is forecast at an optimistic 11%. Equity markets naturally look through near-term drags; evidently, they are focusing on the potential boost to growth from China’s reopening and anticipating a looser Fed policy.
As always, the key judgment for equity investors is whether earnings growth estimates are realistic. Given the negative revisions we have had, they are now far more so than they were several months ago. Even if real US growth is negative in the second and third quarters, in nominal terms the economy is still set to expand over the course of the year, as are earnings (see Exhibit 3).
The Fed’s own predicted rate path would likely lead to a sharply lower level of GDP, in which case earnings estimates will need to drop further.