July was an illustration of the adage that “the market is not the economy.” U.S. stocks had their best month in two years while the economy received discouraging news about both growth and inflation.
But rather than illustrating another adage — “bad news is good news” — the contrast is a reminder that economic fundamentals are one of three main drivers of asset prices, and their influence varies over time.
With a return of 12% in July alone, the Nasdaq Composite Index recovered more than a third of the loss incurred in the brutal first half of 2022. The other, less volatile indexes also had a strong month, reducing the year-to-date losses to 10% and 13% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 Index respectively.
The good news did not extend to the economy. On the contrary in fact.
Assorted U.S. Troubles
July was full of worrisome news about sky-high inflation (9.1% as measured by the consumer price index for June), negative GDP growth (-0.9% for the second quarter), a drop in real incomes and diminished household savings.
Company after company warned that the damaging impact of inflation on their costs was now increasingly accompanied by worries about revenue as rising prices destroyed demand for some goods and even services, though less so for now.
Politicians, as opposed to the majority of economists who take a more holistic definition of the concept, debated loudly whether the U.S. is in a recession.
With Google “recession” searches already surging, this added to the likelihood of a more cautionary spending approach on the part of both households and businesses — this as the Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation metric, the personal consumption expenditures price index, rose to a level not seen since January 1982.
It’s no wonder the Fed, scrambling to control the policy narrative and seeking to limit more harm to its already-damaged credibility, raised interest rates 75 basis points into a weakening economy — when markets increasingly priced in the likelihood of a rate U-turn in 2023 because of a Fed-induced recession.
The concerning news was not limited to the U.S. economy. It was also global.
In its periodic update of its world economic outlook, the International Monetary Fund described the global economy’s prospects as “gloomy and more uncertain.”
The IMF cut its growth projections for 2022 by 0.4 percentage points to 3.2%, a significant amount for a mid-year revision, and by 0.7 percentage points to 2.9% for 2023. It also revised up its inflation forecasts and warned of possible financial and debt problems.
Having worked at the fund for 15 years earlier in my career, I can assure you that officials there do not use words such as “gloomy” lightly. And the words are appropriate given that this weekend’s contractionary data for China’s manufacturing sector confirmed that all three systemically important regions in the world — China, the euro zone and the US — are slowing significantly at the same time.
The Fed’s Next Move
One interpretation of the striking contrast between the economy and markets in July is that the bad economic news will lead the Fed to pause its monetary tightening early and then lower interest rates quickly and perhaps even suspend its plans for balance sheet contraction — thereby returning to a policy pattern that, for years, loosened financial conditions and drove asset prices higher.