David Rosenberg, the former chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch, has been saying for almost a year that the Fed means business and investors should take the U.S. central bank’s effort to fight inflation both seriously and literally.
Rosenberg, who today is president of Toronto-based Rosenberg Research & Associates Inc., expects investors will face more pain in financial markets in the months to come.
“The recession’s just starting,” Rosenberg said in an interview with MarketWatch. “The market bottoms typically in the sixth or seventh inning of the recession, deep into the Fed easing cycle.” Investors can expect to endure more uncertainty leading up to the time — and it will come — when the Fed first pauses its current run of interest rate hikes and then begins to cut.
Fortunately for investors, the Fed’s pause and perhaps even cuts will come in 2023, Rosenberg predicts. Unfortunately, he added, the S&P 500 could drop 30% from its current level before that happens. Said Rosenberg: “You’re left with the S&P 500 bottoming out somewhere close to 2,900.”
At that point, Rosenberg added, stocks will look attractive again. But that’s a story for 2024.
In this recent interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Rosenberg offered a playbook for investors to follow this year and to prepare for a more bullish 2024. Meanwhile, he said, as they wait for the much-anticipated Fed pivot, investors should make their own pivot to defensive sectors of the financial markets — including bonds, gold and dividend-paying stocks.
MarketWatch: So many people out there are expecting a recession. But stocks have performed well to start the year. Are investors and Wall Street out of touch?
Rosenberg: Investor sentiment is out of line; the household sector is still enormously overweight equities. There is a disconnect between how investors feel about the outlook and how they’re actually positioned. They feel bearish but they’re still positioned bullishly, and that is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. We also have a situation where there is a lot of talk about recession and about how this is the most widely expected recession of all time, and yet the analyst community is still expecting corporate earnings growth to be positive in 2023.
In a plain-vanilla recession, earnings go down 20%. We’ve never had a recession where earnings were up at all. The consensus is that we are going to see corporate earnings expand in 2023. So there’s another glaring anomaly. We are being told this is a widely expected recession, and yet it’s not reflected in earnings estimates – at least not yet.
There’s nothing right now in my collection of metrics telling me that we’re anywhere close to a bottom. 2022 was the year where the Fed tightened policy aggressively and that showed up in the marketplace in a compression in the price-earnings multiple from roughly 22 to around 17. The story in 2022 was about what the rate hikes did to the market multiple; 2023 will be about what those rate hikes do to corporate earnings.
You’re left with the S&P 500 bottoming out somewhere close to 2,900.
When you’re attempting to be reasonable and come up with a sensible multiple for this market, given where the risk-free interest rate is now, and we can generously assume a roughly 15 price-earnings multiple. Then you slap that on a recession earning environment, and you’re left with the S&P 500 bottoming out somewhere close to 2900.
The closer we get to that, the more I will be recommending allocations to the stock market. If I was saying 3200 before, there is a reasonable outcome that can lead you to something below 3000. At 3200 to tell you the truth I would plan on getting a little more positive.
This is just pure mathematics. All the stock market is at any point is earnings multiplied by the multiple you want to apply to that earnings stream. That multiple is sensitive to interest rates. All we’ve seen is Act I — multiple compression. We haven’t yet seen the market multiple dip below the long-run mean, which is closer to 16. You’ve never had a bear market bottom with the multiple above the long-run average. That just doesn’t happen.
MarketWatch: The market wants a “Powell put” to rescue stocks, but may have to settle for a “Powell pause.” When the Fed finally pauses its rate hikes, is that a signal to turn bullish?
Rosenberg: The stock market bottoms 70% of the way into a recession and 70% of the way into the easing cycle. What’s more important is that the Fed will pause, and then will pivot. That is going to be a 2023 story.
The Fed will shift its views as circumstances change. The S&P 500 low will be south of 3000 and then it’s a matter of time. The Fed will pause, the markets will have a knee-jerk positive reaction you can trade. Then the Fed will start to cut interest rates, and that usually takes place six months after the pause. Then there will be a lot of giddiness in the market for a short time. When the market bottoms, it’s the mirror image of when it peaks. The market peaks when it starts to see the recession coming. The next bull market will start once investors begin to see the recovery.
But the recession’s just starting. The market bottoms typically in the sixth or seventh inning of the recession, deep into the Fed easing cycle when the central bank has cut interest rates enough to push the yield curve back to a positive slope. That is many months away. We have to wait for the pause, the pivot, and for rate cuts to steepen the yield curve. That will be a late 2023, early 2024 story.
MarketWatch: How concerned are you about corporate and household debt? Are there echoes of the 2008-09 Great Recession?
Rosenberg: There’s not going to be a replay of 2008-09. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a major financial spasm. That always happens after a Fed tightening cycle. The excesses are exposed, and expunged. I look at it more as it could be a replay of what happened with nonbank financials in the 1980s, early 1990s, that engulfed the savings and loan industry. I am concerned about the banks in the sense that they have a tremendous amount of commercial real estate exposure on their balance sheets. I do think the banks will be compelled to bolster their loan-loss reserves, and that will come out of their earnings performance. That’s not the same as incurring capitalization problems, so I don’t see any major banks defaulting or being at risk of default.
But I’m concerned about other pockets of the financial sector. The banks are actually less important to the overall credit market than they’ve been in the past. This is not a repeat of 2008-09 but we do have to focus on where the extreme leverage is centered.
It’s not necessarily in the banks this time; it is in other sources such as private equity, private debt, and they have yet to fully mark-to-market their assets. That’s an area of concern. The parts of the market that cater directly to the consumer, like credit cards, we’re already starting to see signs of stress in terms of the rise in 30-day late-payment rates. Early stage arrears are surfacing in credit cards, auto loans and even some elements of the mortgage market. The big risk to me is not so much the banks, but the nonbank financials that cater to credit cards, auto loans, and private equity and private debt.
MarketWatch: Why should individuals care about trouble in private equity and private debt? That’s for the wealthy and the big institutions.
Rosenberg: Unless private investment firms gate their assets, you’re going to end up getting a flood of redemptions and asset sales, and that affects all markets. Markets are intertwined. Redemptions and forced asset sales will affect market valuations in general. We’re seeing deflation in the equity market and now in a much more important market for individuals, which is residential real estate. One of the reasons why so many people have delayed their return to the labor market is they looked at their wealth, principally equities and real estate, and thought they could retire early based on this massive wealth creation that took place through 2020 and 2021.
Now people are having to recalculate their ability to retire early and fund a comfortable retirement lifestyle. They will be forced back into the labor market. And the problem with a recession of course is that there are going to be fewer job openings, which means the unemployment rate is going to rise. The Fed is already telling us we’re going to 4.6%, which itself is a recession call; we’re going to blow through that number. All this plays out in the labor market not necessarily through job loss, but it’s going to force people to go back and look for a job. The unemployment rate goes up — that has a lag impact on nominal wages and that is going to be another factor that will curtail consumer spending, which is 70% of the economy.
My strongest conviction is the 30-year Treasury bond.
At some point, we’re going to have to have some sort of positive shock that will arrest the decline. The cycle is the cycle and what dominates the cycle are interest rates. At some point we get the recessionary pressures, inflation melts, the Fed will have successfully reset asset values to more normal levels, and we will be in a different monetary policy cycle by the second half of 2024 that will breathe life into the economy and we’ll be off to a recovery phase, which the market will start to discount later in 2023. Nothing here is permanent. It’s about interest rates, liquidity and the yield curve that has played out before.
MarketWatch: Where do you advise investors to put their money now, and why?
Rosenberg: My strongest conviction is the 30-year Treasury bond The Fed will cut rates and you’ll get the biggest decline in yields at the short end. But in terms of bond prices and the total return potential, it’s at the long end of the curve. Bond yields always go down in a recession. Inflation is going to fall more quickly than is generally anticipated. Recession and disinflation are powerful forces for the long end of the Treasury curve.
As the Fed pauses and then pivots — and this Volcker-like tightening is not permanent — other central banks around the world are going to play catch up, and that is going to undercut the U.S. dollar There are few better hedges against a U.S. dollar reversal than gold. On top of that, cryptocurrency has been exposed as being far too volatile to be part of any asset mix. It’s fun to trade, but crypto is not an investment. The crypto craze — fund flows directed to bitcoin and the like — drained the gold price by more than $200 an ounce.
Buy companies that provide the goods and services that people need – not what they want.
I’m bullish on gold – physical gold — bullish on bonds, and within the stock market, under the proviso that we have a recession, you want to ensure you are invested in sectors with the lowest possible correlation to GDP growth.
Invest in 2023 the same way you’re going to be living life — in a period of frugality. Buy companies that provide the goods and services that people need – not what they want. Consumer staples, not consumer cyclicals. Utilities. Health care. I look at Apple as a cyclical consumer products company, but Microsoft is a defensive growth technology company.
You want to be buying essentials, staples, things you need. When I look at Microsoft Alphabet Amazon they are what I would consider to be defensive growth stocks and at some point this year, they will deserve to be garnering a very strong look for the next cycle.
You also want to invest in areas with a secular growth tailwind. For example, military budgets are rising in every part of the world and that plays right into defense/aerospace stocks. Food security, whether it’s food producers, anything related to agriculture, is an area you ought to be invested in.
You want to be in defensive areas with strong balance sheets, earnings visibility, solid dividend yields and dividend payout ratios. If you follow that you’ll do just fine. I just think you’ll do far better if you have a healthy allocation to long-term bonds and gold. Gold finished 2022 unchanged, in a year when flat was the new up.
In terms of the relative weighting, that’s a personal choice but I would say to focus on defensive sectors with zero or low correlation to GDP, a laddered bond portfolio if you want to play it safe, or just the long bond, and physical gold. Also, the Dogs of the Dow fits the screening for strong balance sheets, strong dividend payout ratios and a nice starting yield. The Dogs outperformed in 2022, and 2023 will be much the same. That’s the strategy for 2023.