Daily Commentary

Providing succinct, entertaining and savvy thinking on global capital markets. Our goal is to provide discerning investors the most essential information and commentary to stay in tune with what's happening in the markets, while providing unique perspectives on essential financial issues. And just as important, Fisher Investments MarketMinder aims to help investors discern between useful information and potentially misleading hype.

On Europe and the UK’s Energy Pain

Europe’s energy crisis has dominated headlines for nearly a year, with many fearing shortages will lead to recession. The Continent’s hot and dry summer has further stoked energy supply concerns, as droughts impact increasingly in-demand electricity. We don’t dismiss the economic pain for households and businesses, but our focus is on the market impact. In our view, the widespread discussion of an energy-driven recession across the pond reveals how dour moods are—a sign of the low bar reality must clear to positively surprise.

Of course, moods are dour for a reason. Natural gas prices are surging in Europe, with hot weather boosting demand and Russia throttling supply in response to EU sanctions. Russian gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline have been around 20% of contracted volumes since late July, straining Europe’s ability to generate power while filling storage for the winter.[i] Beyond this, the summer heat has impacted other energy sources: In France, high river water temperatures are interfering with nuclear reactor cooling. In the UK, energy regulator Ofgem will announce October’s energy price cap (which resets semiannually) on August 26, and some anticipate the new cap will double today’s record levels—worsening UK households’ burden.

Politicians have responded in myriad ways. The EU has asked member states to reduce gas demand voluntarily. Some governments have imposed new taxes, from the UK’s windfall tax on energy firms, which passed last month, to Germany’s levy on households to help utilities. Pols have also sought to provide relief. Italy approved a €17 billion aid package while the Netherlands cut energy taxes for 8 million households. The contenders in the UK Conservative Party leadership contest are each reportedly preparing household assistance packages to introduce once they take office next month. France plans to re-nationalize power operator EDF—in which it already owns an 84% stake—in order to sell electricity below cost without getting pushback from minority shareholders. An example of that resistance: The government ordered EDF to sell nuclear power to its rivals at below-market prices, and EDF is now suing for having to take a loss.

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Retail Sentiment and Gas Prices

Good news! Gas prices are down, and economic data are starting to show the fruit. Exhibit A: July retail sales, which were flat overall as sales excluding gas stations rose. That largely confirms the latest U-Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, which inched higher in July and August as consumers expressed relief about the easing pain at the pump. We don’t see this as a big economic change, but it should help shore up sentiment—part of the late-2022 wave of falling uncertainty we expect.

Unlike the full consumer spending report, retail sales aren’t adjusted for inflation. Accordingly, sharp price swings can skew the data. That happened with gas station sales in July: They fell -1.8% m/m, heavily influenced by falling prices.[i] The national average price of regular unleaded is now down -21.4% from its mid-June peak, which appears to have freed up some money for more discretionary spending last month.[ii] Excluding gas stations, retail sales rose 0.2% m/m. Excluding motor vehicles and parts as well (given their falls stemmed more from shortages than weak demand), sales jumped 0.7% m/m.[iii] This comparison isn’t apples-to-apples, but to illustrate a practice we see in publications often: That far exceeds the monthly change in both headline and core (ex. food and energy) prices in the month, implying growth stemmed from higher demand, not inflation.

We won’t go so far as to call this some big economic positive or a sign the US is set to avoid a recession, as some outlets did Wednesday. Spending on gasoline is still spending—it adds to GDP. Changes in gas prices tend to shift where people spend without significantly altering how much they spend. Nor do we think this is a sign that Consumer Discretionary stocks’ earnings are about to categorically turn the corner after some high-profile Q2 disappointments. Sales at clothing stores and general merchandise stores (e.g., department stores) fell in July, and as of June (the latest data available) both had big inventory piles to work through.[iv] There may yet be more earnings weakness ahead as some firms continue clearing stockpiles and reorienting toward consumers’ post-pandemic preferences. Mind you, we think stocks are looking well past this, but it is a reminder to keep realistic expectations for—and not get hung up on—near-term earnings data.

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Britain’s Sky-High Inflation Fosters Low Expectations

The UK notched a dubious milestone in July, becoming the first major country to record double-digit inflation this year. The Consumer Price Index’s 10.1% y/y rate is the fastest since 1982, and the Office for National Statistics estimates it is just the fourth trip over 10% in 70 years.[i] This is obviously not good news, not least because essential goods and services—food, gasoline, household energy—fueled much of the rise. But even excluding food and energy, “core” inflation accelerated to 6.2% y/y, driving worries of entrenched price hikes hitting consumer spending hard—and giving UK stocks a nasty recession to price in.[ii] In our view, a UK recession is possible and could already be underway. But we see reasons to think reality has a higher likelihood of going better than feared, not worse.

With that said, inflation is quite likely to accelerate from here due to the way household energy costs factor in. Millions of households are on what is known as the default tariff, which is not a barrier to international trade in this case, but rather the official term for the standard electricity pricing for households that don’t secure a fixed-term rate by switching providers. Parliament capped this rate in 2019, but it isn’t a hard, permanent ceiling. Every six months, regulators announce a new maximum for the default tariff, typically based on how wholesale prices have evolved over the prior half year. When wholesale prices rise, power suppliers tend to treat the price cap as a target to mitigate the likelihood of future losses. Hence, Brits endured huge stair-step increases to household energy costs last October and this April. Yet dozens of suppliers have failed anyway after being forced to take steep losses when wholesale power prices spiked, limiting competition and probably pushing prices even higher.

Later this month, the UK’s energy regulator will announce the new price cap that will take effect in October. Some researchers anticipate it will double the current ceiling in order to reduce the risk of more suppliers going bust if power is in short supply this winter. The Bank of England projects the cap increase will cause inflation to pass 13% y/y in October—a forecast some warn is too optimistic. Labor market data released earlier this week showed real wages falling at the fastest rate in the dataset’s short history over the three months ending in June (-3.0% y/y), a figure that doesn’t account for either the forthcoming price cap hike or the fact that tax brackets aren’t indexed to inflation. So we can understand why people think the consumer spending outlook is bleak.

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The Puzzle in UK GDP

UK GDP came out Friday morning, and here are the facts: Output fell -0.1% q/q in Q2, according to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) first estimate, with the bulk of the decline seemingly coming from June’s -0.6% m/m drop.[i] Ordinarily, the logical interpretation would be that the flattish quarterly reading obscures a late-quarter slide, implying the economy has weakened significantly since spring and signaling bad times ahead. However, due to some calendar quirks that the ONS warned skewed monthly data pretty heavily, in this case we think the quarterly figure is probably more telling. It isn’t predictive, and stocks are likely looking ahead to the next 3 – 30 months rather than what happened in April through June, but we think putting these data in context can help investors better weigh the UK’s economic fundamentals overall.

The calendar quirk in question is the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which pulled one bank holiday from May into June and added another to the calendar. This resulted in two fewer working days in June and an extra one in May, which the ONS warns threw off their seasonal adjustments. The official monthly GDP release states plainly that there will be a visible effect on both May and June data and concludes: “Caution should be taken when interpreting the seasonally adjusted movements involving May and June 2022.”[ii]

In our view, this should provide some relief about the fact that all major categories—services, heavy industry and construction—declined month-over-month. Most of that drop stems from having fewer working days in June than May. Similarly, the jump in entertainment services and restaurant spending probably stems from people having two additional days of leisure—days with big celebrations up and down the country to celebrate the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. We don’t view this boom as any more representative of the country’s underlying economic health than the drops in other categories of services and the manufacturing industry. We aren’t saying there is no core weakness. Businesses reported higher energy and input prices as headwinds in June, which probably contributed to falling output in the categories that rely on petrochemical feedstock. But with so much one-time skew, it is impossible to disentangle the two. With July data likely to benefit from an easy comparison with June, we probably won’t get a clearer read until August figures hit the wires—which won’t happen until mid-October.

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Q2 Earnings in Focus

Q2 earnings season is winding down, with the vast majority of S&P 500 companies having reported. The results? Three-fourths of those reporting so far beat expectations, and revenues did much of the heavy lifting. Yet while Energy earnings soared, profits in the other 10 sectors overall fell, echoing the split among sector returns during the bear market. We think this is a good reminder that stocks look forward.

As Exhibit 1 shows, sector returns from their early peak this year through the year’s low point to date on June 16 mostly previewed how earnings turned out. While S&P 500 earnings overall rose 6.7% y/y, much of that came from Energy earnings soaring 299.2%. Excluding Energy, they fell -3.7%.[i] So while headline earnings growth was near its 7.1% annualized average historically, it masks some underlying weakness.[ii] Yet first-half sector returns largely captured the earnings dynamic below the surface, with only Energy positive through Q2. Markets anticipated high oil prices’ impact on Energy earnings well in advance of official reports.

Exhibit 1: S&P 500 Sector Returns, 1/3/2022 – 6/16/2022

Source: FactSet, as of 8/11/2022. S&P 500 sector total returns, 1/3/2022 – 6/16/2022.

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An Overlooked Reason Behind July’s Slowing Inflation

Editors’ Note: Inflation remains a hot political topic, so please understand that our commentary is intentionally non-partisan and focused on the potential market implications only.

In all the coverage of July’s inflation report, we have seen numerous explanations for why the inflation rate decelerated from June’s 9.1% y/y to 8.5% y/y. There is much chatter about falling gasoline prices. Some argue the Fed’s recent moves are starting to bear fruit. We see an alternative, widely overlooked explanation, and we think understanding it can help investors better navigate inflation’s wiggles over the period ahead.

That explanation: the base effect, which we have long eyed as a likely disinflationary force this year. The inflation rate, as a year-over-year calculation, measures the percentage change between prices in one month and that same month a year prior. The “base” is that year-ago price level, which is the denominator in the calculation. As we all learned in grade school fraction lessons, a higher denominator can result in a smaller quotient—and vice versa. That is what happened in July.

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A Word on the Inflation Reduction Act’s Climate Spending

Editors’ Note: MarketMinder is politically agnostic. We don’t prefer any politician, political party or policy proposal and assess political developments for their potential economic and market impact only.

As investors continue digesting the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is now heading from the Senate to the House of Representatives, the conversation seems to be shifting from its tax changes to its spending provisions—in an optimistic sense. We have seen numerous articles arguing the tax breaks and subsidies for wind, solar, electric vehicles and other similar technologies will bring big gains for investors who try to ride those waves. Sounds nice, but in our view, this is a manifestation of a basic behavioral error: Stocks are probably too efficient for Congress’s plans to be a meaningful market driver from here.

In our coverage of the tax provisions, we pointed out that nothing in the bill was a surprise. Its contents were pulled over from the old Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill, which bounced around Congress throughout 2021 and early 2022. That bill was a hodge-podge of the Biden administration and several high-profile congresspeople’s campaign pledges, placing these initiatives in headlines way back in 2020. In our view, that history—and all the speculation, forecasts, opinion pieces and other chatter it generated—sapped the tax changes’ surprise power, which is the primary source of most legislation’s market impact. What is true for taxes must logically be true for the subsidies and tax breaks headed “green” energy’s way.

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What to Make of the Disbelief Towards July’s Jobs Numbers

Amid the dog days of summer, we received some good economic news late last week: a strong July jobs report. A handful of observers cheered the month's figures, saying they suggested recession isn’t underway after all. However, most experts worried the unexpectedly robust numbers would motivate the Fed to keep hiking interest rates—increasing the risk of an economic hard landing. In our view, the largely dour reaction to overall positive, if backward-looking, data says more about the state of sentiment today than anything about the US economy going forward.

Widely watched jobs measures showcase the labor market’s recovery from the pandemic-driven downturn. July nonfarm payrolls rose by 528,000, better than expectations of 250,000, and bringing total payrolls to 152.54 million—a tick higher than February 2020’s pre-pandemic reading of 152.50 million. (Exhibit 1) The unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5% from June’s 3.6%, returning to February 2020’s level. (Exhibit 2) The one laggard is the labor force participation rate: It slipped to 62.1% from June’s 62.2% and has been drifting further away from February 2020’s 63.4% for months. (Exhibit 3)

Exhibit 1: Nonfarm Payrolls, July 2019 – July 2022

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Sinema Speaks, Delivering Inflation Reduction Act Tweaks

Editors’ Note: MarketMinder favors no politician nor any political party. Our commentary is intentionally nonpartisan and seeks only to identify the probable market and economic impacts of developments.

Alas, we have reached August—the notoriously slow news month when most governments are in recess and people worldwide are trying to squeeze in one final vacation before the kiddos go back to school. That doesn’t mean nothing happens, of course. But we do think it kind of explains why even slight changes to draft legislation can get heaps of attention. So it went Friday with the artist formerly known as Build Back Better (BBB) and now titled the “Inflation Reduction Act” (IRA[i]), which received centrist Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-AZ) backing after a few tweaks to the package of tax changes, climate and healthcare spending that moderate Joe Manchin (D-WV) hashed out with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week. As we write, most observers expect swift passage, perhaps as soon as late Sunday or early Monday. That could prove a touch optimistic, but regardless: Given the outsized attention and chatter about their potential impact on stocks, the bill’s main tax provisions seem worth a look.

To pass, the bill will first need the Senate Parliamentarian’s approval to enter the reconciliation process, which would enable it to pass on a simple-majority, party-line vote. That remains up in the air. Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough remains holed up in her office reviewing the draft legislation, and Congressional aides from both sides of the aisle are reportedly parading through to lobby her. (We have the utmost sympathy for her current ordeal.) For spending measures to qualify, they must be strictly budgetary, not policy changes dressed up as budget items, and some observers suspect pieces of the climate and healthcare provisions won’t qualify. If the bill clears that hurdle, then it needs unanimous support from Democratic Senators, which doesn’t seem certain yet. Manchin hasn’t yet weighed in on the changes Sinema drove, which remove one tax provision he wanted (eliminating the carried-interest provision) and add one he seemingly nixed several months ago (an excise tax on stock buybacks). This could be an unsolvable impasse. Even if it isn’t and the bill clears the Senate, its path in the House isn’t clear. The IRA is far removed from the version of BBB that passed in the House late last year, and it could be too watered down for some lawmakers’ tastes. It also doesn’t remove the cap on state and local tax deduction, which several Democratic lawmakers have demanded. Maybe this sails through, but we aren’t sure it will be so easy.

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On the BoE’s Dreary Forecast

The Bank of England (BoE) announced its biggest rate hike since 1995 on Thursday, raising the Bank Rate from 1.25% to 1.75%—but that wasn’t the day’s biggest news. Paired with that rate hike was the BoE’s August Monetary Policy Report, which included the bank’s updated economic forecasts. That forecast: inflation reaching 13% y/y when the household energy price cap resets higher in October and recession starting that quarter and lasting all of 2023. Looming over all of this is a fierce political debate on the BoE’s mandate and independence, which has featured in this summer’s Conservative Party leadership contest. We see some medium-term risks for UK stocks here, but not the ones you might think. Let us discuss.

When last we left the BoE in May, its top-line forecast was for inflation at 11% y/y and a -0.25% GDP contraction in 2023. Now it thinks the most probable scenario is CPI hitting 13% this autumn and GDP falling -1.25% in 2023. Our May coverage discussed the BoE’s methodology and inputs at length, so we won’t rehash that here, but suffice it to say they mostly extrapolate recent conditions forward, which is a big reason why forecasts often don’t pan out. (Which, in turn, is part of the reason for the political kerfuffle over the BoE’s status, which we will turn to momentarily.)

The BoE could prove correct. Wage growth, while strong in nominal terms, has lagged inflation, and the patchwork quilt of tax credits and rebates hasn’t offset the headwinds of this spring’s tax hikes and spiking household energy costs. We could see a scenario where GDP grows steadily in nominal terms but shows as contraction once the inflation adjustment kicks in. That would represent a fall in living standards and, yes, recession. Plus, the yield curve spent the past two weeks ever-so-slightly inverted, and as we write, it is just barely positive. Couple that with slight falls in broad lending and money supply in June, and there is some indication conditions are tightening.

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