The “risk-on” trend continued last week, helped mainly by stronger U.S. economic data, heightened expectations for more European Central Bank stimulus and additional stabilization in oil prices. High yield spreads fell and equities rose, with the S&P 500 Index climbing 2.7%.1 Over the past three weeks, U.S. stocks have nearly recovered all of the ground they lost earlier in the year.1
Evidence Does Not Point to a U.S. Recession
The bearish case for the U.S. economy and equities is that the Federal Reserve inflated risk asset prices and did little to stave off an inevitable recession by keeping rates at artificially low levels for seven years. In contrast, the bulls would argue that the long period of zero rates created a robust economy and allowed unemployment to fall to below 5%. We lean more toward the positive case. Despite still-weak global manufacturing, the weakness in the energy sector and ongoing global financial market turbulence, consumer spending is rising, inflation is slowly ticking higher and economic growth is accelerating. In our view, there is almost no evidence of a pending slowdown in growth, let alone signs of a recession.
Weekly Top Themes
1. U.S. jobs growth once again experienced a solid month. February’s labor market report showed a surprisingly strong 242,000 new jobs were created.2 The data showed some negatives as well, including a slight downtick in wage growth and smaller number of hours worked.2
2. Manufacturing activity showed a slight improvement. February’s Institute of Supply Management’s manufacturing index increased, likely due to increased consumer spending.3 The index remains below 50, however, and a relatively weak international backdrop remains a headwind.3
3. We believe oil prices are bottoming. Over the next few months, U.S. oil production is forecasted to drop from roughly 9 million barrels per day to closer to 8.5 million.4 This should help prices continue to advance.
4. We expect the Fed to raise rates two or three times in 2016. This could change if economic growth weakens and/or global financial conditions deteriorate.
5. Global policymakers remain biased toward policy easing. The G20 meeting demonstrated that government officials believe the world economy remains sound, but they will engage in aggressive fiscal or monetary policy actions to promote growth if conditions worsen.
It May Take Better News for the Rally to Continue
Financial markets appear to be normalizing in recent weeks after the risk asset rout that started the year. We would caution, however, that market improvements have come about because the news has become less bad, not because it has turned good. Investor sentiment is fragile and will likely remain so for some time. One of the key variables remains oil prices. Oil markets have stabilized in recent weeks, but volatility and a renewed downturn could occur anytime. We also believe we need a sustained improvement in U.S. and Chinese economic data before investors grow more confident. Finally, the global political system remains a wildcard. The current focus is on the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The odds favor the status quo, but a potential “brexit” would be destabilizing for the U.K., and the uncertainty is fueling downward pressure on risk assets.