20th May 2024

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Business Industry and Financial

U.S. Equities: Thoughts on the Market

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 a variety of perspectives, I’ll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It’s Monday, May 8th, at 11 a.m. in New York. So let’s get after it.

In this week’s podcast, I will discuss three major topics on investors’ minds. First quarter Earnings results, the Fed’s decision to raise rates last week, and how the consumer is holding up in the face of a debt ceiling debate with no easy solutions.

First, on earnings, the first quarter earnings per share beat consensus expectations by 6 to 7%. Furthermore, second quarter guidance is held up better than we expected coming into the quarter. That said, it’s important to provide some context. First quarter estimates came down 16% over the past year, double the 20 year average decline over equivalent periods and a more manageable hurdle for companies to clear. Furthermore, the macro data improved in January and February as seasonal adjustments and easy comparisons, with the early 2022 break out of Omicron flattered the growth rate. Nevertheless, this improvement also helped earnings results on a year-over-year basis and provided a boost to company confidence about where we are in the cycle. Unfortunately, many of the leading macro data we track have fallen and are now pointing to a similar reacceleration in earnings per share growth that the consensus expects. Ironically, this comes as many companies position 2023 growth recoveries as being contingent on a solid macro backdrop. If one is to believe our leading indicators that point pointed downward trends in earnings per share surprise and margins over the coming months, stocks will likely follow that negative path lower.

With regards to the Fed, Chair Powell pushed back on the likelihood of interest rate cuts that are now priced in the bond markets. While bonds and stocks faded after these comments, they closed the week on a strong note. We believe the equity market continues to expect the best of both worlds, interest rate cuts and durable growth. We view the likelihood of reacceleration in growth in conjunction with interest rate cuts is very low. Instead, we believe another chapter of our fire and ice narrative is possible. In other words, a tighter Fed even as growth slows towards recession. This would be a difficult environment for stocks.

So what are consumers telling us? Today, we published our latest AlphaWise Consumer Survey. Consumers continue to expect a pullback in spending for most categories over the next six months. Consumers still plan to spend more on essentials like groceries and household supplies. However, they are looking to pull back on discretionary goods spending categories with the most negative net spending intentions are consumer electronics, leisure activities, home appliances and food away from home. Grocery is the only category where low and middle income consumers said they’re planning to spend incrementally more over the next six months. They are not planning to spend more on any services categories. For high income consumers, travel is the only services category where spending intentions are positive and grocery is the only goods category where spending intentions are positive. Interestingly, the high income group indicated negative spending intentions for food away from home and leisure services.

Bottom line, the consumer looks to finally be pulling back from an incredible two year run of spending. That was always unsustainable in our view. Some of this may be due to inflation and dwindling savings, but also the very public debate around the debt ceiling, which does not appear to have any easy solution. This is just another wildcard risk for stocks as we head into the summer.

Thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcast app. It helps for people to find the show.