You don’t need us to tell you moods are down right now. Inflation is elevated, oil prices are up and all eyes remain on Ukraine. As ever, though, a key challenge for investors is to tune that down long enough to look forward and ask, “How much of this dour news do markets already reflect?” In our view, stocks’ drop since January largely reflects these factors. There is no silver bullet that will give you a perfect view of the extent to which prices reflect sentiment. But looking to what people have said in recent surveys can help reveal the magnitude of sentiment’s plunge following Russia’s invasion—helping illustrate what markets have pre-priced.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, polls found consumers and businesses feeling dour. The main reason: inflation. In the US, both The Conference Board and the University of Michigan’s sentiment surveys of American consumers dipped in February. The former reported fewer consumers plan to make big-ticket purchases (e.g., cars or vacations) in the next six months, while the latter fell to its lowest level in 10 years. Per a February Gallup poll, 42% of Americans described the economy as “poor” and “getting worse,” up from January. Interestingly, only 2% called the “situation with Russia” an important problem facing the country—likely a reflection of the pre-war survey period, as responses were taken from February 1 – 17.
Similar themes emerged overseas before Russia’s barbaric act. Research firm GfK found consumer confidence in both the UK and Germany worsened in February, with rising prices cited as the main concern. However, surveys weren’t universally negative. The ZEW Indicator of Economic Sentiment for Germany improved in February as respondents anticipated easing COVID restrictions and an ongoing economic recovery. In Australia, a National Australia Bank survey of business conditions rebounded in February, with firms crediting a slowdown in Omicron cases and an easing of supply bottlenecks. Even a Financial Times/University of Chicago survey of macroeconomists conducted on the eve of war, February 21 – 24, put “geopolitical tensions tied to Ukraine” fourth on the list of things that could pause Fed interest rate hike plans. Not that it will do so, but we think those answers would be radically different in a poll taken today—a point more recent surveys illustrate well.
For example, Sentix’s Investor Confidence Index for the eurozone, taken March 3 to March 5, fell from 16.6 in February to -7.0 in March, its lowest reading since November 2020.[i] The gauge’s expectations index fell by -34.75 points—the largest drop in its 20-year history. Sentix found similar results for Germany and Eastern Europe. According to an Infratest poll of German voters conducted from February 28 – March 2, 69% agreed with the government’s plan to increase defense spending, with 47% citing a change in attitude due to Russia’s invasion.[ii] Though the majority of respondents support Western sanctions, 64% fear a deterioration in Germany’s economic situation tied to the conflict. In Australia, a Westpac-Melbourne Institute poll taken from February 28 – March 4 showed consumer sentiment fell for a fourth straight month in March.[iii] Domestic issues (i.e., inflation and floods in southeast Queensland and New South Wales) weighed on sentiment the most, but 87% of respondents were negative on international conditions—likely a sign Russia’s hostilities were hurting moods in the Land Down Under, too.
Now, it is important to note that polls don’t predict behavior. Just because someone says they lack confidence doesn’t mean they won’t spend or invest, and as post-invasion surveys show, feelings change quickly. But surveys are a snapshot in time. They reflect how people feel in the moment, which is heavily influenced by what just happened. Considering the nonstop coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict over the past two weeks—and all the speculated global fallout—it isn’t surprising for respondents to feel dour, in our view. We have seen other issues dominate headlines over the past 12 months, including COVID variants (and related restrictions), supply chain issues and, most recently, elevated inflation. The persistent attention on those stories puts them atop people’s minds—and likely influences survey respondents’ answers.
To be clear, the problems highlighted in surveys are real, and we don’t dismiss their impact. War is a tragedy. The disruptions to commerce hurt businesses and consumers alike. Inflation weighs on households’ finances. But from an investing perspective, the discussion of these issues influences and shapes expectations. Stocks move most on the gap between expectations and reality. As recent surveys show, the former are low right now. That suggests markets already reflect the effects of war, implying the bar for reality to deliver positive surprises on the economic front is pretty low—common during corrections (swift, sentiment-driven declines of -10% to -20% off market highs). While no one can time corrections, in our view, this sort of deteriorating sentiment is common around their lows.
If you would like to contact the editors responsible for this article, please click here.
*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.