Column: Perish the thought – stocks might fall: Mike Dolan
You almost have to re-read the small print for a reminder that stocks may ever fall again.
The oft-used compliance disclaimer that the value of your investments may go down as well as up seems to be largely ignored by stock investors this days.
And after a three-year winning streak, fund managers are clearly betting on another.
Bank of America’s penultimate monthly fund manager survey of 2021 shows the biggest overweight U.S. equities in eight years – with as few as 8% of the 388 respondents, managing more than $1 trillion in assets, claiming to be underweight stocks at large.
And a weekly JPMorgan client survey had 60% planning to add even more equity exposure over the coming days and weeks.
As 2022 investment outlooks from banks and funds stream in, the basic arguments for sticking with stocks are pretty simple.
If a global pandemic and the sharpest economic contraction in a generation didn’t spark a negative year for expensive equity indices – many wonder just what will right now.
Keep riding the liquidity swell until it’s finally drained still seems to be the consensus.
Central banks may already be cutting emergency supports with inflation back on the radar – but the last place you want to be is in bonds unless you think we’re heading back into a slump within 12 months.
It’s also hard to argue with the fact that stocks don’t often go down over a full calendar year anyhow. The S&P500 has only ended in the red about one in four years since 1960.
For a more diversified spread of equity risk, such as MSCI’s all-country stock index, it’s been the best rolling three-year period since the dot.com bubble 20 years ago and there have been only 4 down years since then. The index has precisely doubled from the deep but brief pandemic trough of March 2020.
Aside from the famous boom and bust at the turn of the millennium, no three-year period has been better for stocks in the 34-year history of that global index.
Given those metrics, the overwhelming consensus and the apparent lack of alternatives, you’re inclined to sit up and take notice when what was one of the most bullish houses on Wall St forecasts a drop in stocks in 2022.
Just this week Morgan Stanley – one of the most vocal and accurate Wall St forecasters of a V-shaped market recovery after the pandemic hit last year – said it sees the S&P500 some 6% below current levels by the end of next year.
That’s hardly a signal to run for the hills – but any negative sign on stock market forecasts is noteworthy these days and only the banking collapse of 2008 generated a more negative year for the S&P500 since the dot.com crash.
Morgan Stanley’s reasoning was far from alarmist, preferring to stress a ‘normalizing’ of growth and asset prices.
It talked of the “training wheels” coming off the post-COVID recovery next year as policy supports are gradually removed and financial assets to have to balance on their own for a change.
“Markets are facing many ‘normal’ mid-cycle problems: better growth colliding with higher inflation, shifting policy and more expensive valuations.”
Keeping its call in the context of nerves about tighter credit and financial conditions, it sees 10-year Treasury yields ending 2022 back at 2.10% from 1.6% today – basically only back to where it was in the middle of 2019.
Yet even these relatively anodyne forecasts are outliers.
Goldman Sachs expects another 9% on the S&P500 through next year, JPMorgan sees the index adding another 6% through the middle of next year at least and UBS sees it 6% higher by the end of 2022.
Of course some of this is just about timing – just when does the wind change on policy mixed with still largely unknowable macro variables around inflation and even the pandemic itself.
Unigestion portfolio manager Olivier Marciot said he’s cautious about the year ahead but retains exposure to risk assets while watching central bank policy unfold.
“History has demonstrated that trying to anticipate the actual change in financial conditions from an accommodative to a tightening situation usually yields disappointing results.”
What’s more, forecasts already on the table are from where we stand in November. And a lot can happen in illiquid year-end markets when investors may be itching to bank profits.
Already the dollar is rising sharply on a mix of inflation and interest rate concerns but also jarring geopolitics between western allies and Russia and China – from the Belarus border to Ukraine and Taiwan and even in space. And a rising dollar effectively tightens world financial conditions on its own.
Military flashpoints or related energy price shocks and power blackouts in Europe and elsewhere could make for an even nervier year-end than usual.
Come New Year’s Eve, maybe even Morgan Stanley’s 2022 call will start to look bullish.