Finding opportunities in stagflationary times

2022 has been a challenging year for equities. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has led to soaring energy and commodity prices, a global stock market slump and elevated volatility. Recession appears likely, certainly in Europe and probably in the US too. There is also an increasing risk of a prolonged period of “stagflation”, when real economic growth remains absent whilst prices continue rising.

Whether the ultimate outcome is recession or stagflation, the implications for corporate earnings are clearly negative. Margins are likely to experience pressure over the coming months as cost pressures become apparent and top-line revenue growth begins to slow. In this environment our focus is on pricing power. Looking further out long-term drivers of growth, such as climate change, are being over-looked. There are many opportunities for those with patience.

Markets have corrected across the board

The Tech-heavy Nasdaq index already entered a “bear market” (a 20% decline from the most recent peak) in May 2022. The S&P 500 and the Stoxx600 Europe both passed through that milestone in early June 2022 in US dollar terms.

History shows that the average duration of a bear market is 290 days.  Over the past 140 years, markets fall by 37% on average in these periods, which suggests potential further falls on both sides of the Atlantic with the floor of the S&P 500 perhaps at the 3,250 level.  As always in bear markets, continued elevated volatility is to be expected, with significant rallies likely at certain time, depending on news flow, as well as material drawdowns. This is likely to be particularly pronounced around Q2 earnings reports, which typically begin in mid-July in the US.

Recent events have reinforced existing market trends

Whilst the stand-out sector year to date has, not surprisingly, been energy, every other major global sector has produced negative returns.  Pandemic beneficiaries in the technology and consumer-facing sectors, which had huge incremental revenue and profit gains during the lockdown period, have been particularly heavily hit. Rising prices for electricity, heating, gasoline and food have forced consumers to rein in their spending, particularly for the more discretionary or expensive items not essential to daily life.

It is notable that a number of retailers in the US such as Walmart, Target and even Amazon, have experienced a significant moderation in revenue growth as well as a rapid build-up in inventory of unsold goods. The latter will have to be discounted in order to sell, creating a substantial hit to profitability. It is a similar picture in Europe as well.

In terms of market style factors so far in 2022, so-called “value” stocks have been the best performers. The value space includes energy and materials companies, but also many banks and insurance companies, which have benefited from the perceived positive impact of higher interest rates on their interest-earning assets such as their loan and bond portfolios.

In contrast, the performance of “growth” stocks has unsurprisingly been poor, reflecting an ongoing trend that started in late 2021 when the US Federal Reserve began highlighting the likelihood of higher rates in response to inflationary pressures. Growth stocks are typically assessed on the basis of future earnings and cashflows: higher interest rates negatively impact the discount rates used to value these flows.

Whilst the underperformance of growth as a style is perhaps not surprising, it is notable that the “quality” factor, which typically includes companies with higher and more reliable profits as well as low levels of debt, has also been a marked under-performer. Although about 40% of quality stocks are technology companies, a large proportion of these are established, cashflow-generative companies with strong balance sheets. The remainder of the quality space consists of large, defensive compounding companies. Given the magnitude of the drawdown in this space (-20% on average), we think there is a high probability of recovery in this area over the next 6-12 months.

What is unusual about today's recession-inflation balance?

We are monitoring the current recession-inflation balance very closely as it is in fact rather unusual. Many observers are comparing the current environment to the 1970s when inflation was rampant, and the cost-wage-price spiral became embedded before aggressive central bank action finally brought it under control after a period of extreme difficulty for markets. However, unlike in the 1970s, unemployment is at extremely low levels and in fact has been trending down.  

You would have to go back to 1951 to find a period where inflation was higher than 8% in the US and the unemployment rate was below 4%. In fact, since 1948 there have only been 15 months when there has been such polarisation between inflation and unemployment. Each time this has happened, there has been an economic recession within 18 months, followed by a period of relative stability and growth. Based on that statistic, it certainly seems likely that we will experience a recession, but the comparison suggests that there could also be a relatively swift normalisation in the global economy following that.

Let us hope that this does prove to be the case. There is a fine line between managing inflation (through interest rates) whilst preserving confidence and growth, and central banks may well yet fail in that endeavour.  Our base case is predicated on a successful central bank response, but clearly there is a risk that the momentum of inflation proves unstoppable. A perfect storm of this order would certainly be a considerable challenge for both equities and bonds.

A strategy for uncertain times

The strength of commodity prices is providing an extraordinary uplift to the earnings and cashflows of energy and mining companies, with many of these theoretically able to buy back their entire share capital within five years based on the current run rates. Against that backdrop, it certainly makes sense to retain exposure to these areas for the time being.

However, for both consumers and corporates, the combination of rampant inflation and rising interest rates (after a long period of cheap money) is already having a negative impact. “Demand destruction” is making itself apparent in many areas, from consumer spending patterns to corporate investment. Many companies will find it difficult to raise prices in such an environment and earnings disappointment will follow. Although markets have fallen substantially, the negative trend in earnings means that they may not be as cheap as they look.

Our focus therefore remains on pricing power: the ability to pass through cost increases without compromising demand. There are industries where pricing power is generally quite strong: healthcare for example is an area driven by innovation, where many companies have one or several unique products that give them the ability to sustain pricing and grow earnings.

Technology, particularly in software but increasingly also in leading edge semiconductor manufacture, is another area where individual franchises are ring-fenced and sought after, allowing these companies to prosper in difficult times.

A final observation

For understandable reasons the market is currently incredibly focused on the short-term picture. News flow change is constant, sentiment is quite negative, and volatility is high. Taking a step back however, the market seems to have lost sight of some of the key underlying trends that are likely to dominate our lives for many years to come. Climate change is a reality, and yet climate-related companies have fared relatively poorly in recent months as investors have focused on the price of oil, coal and other energy commodities.

Digitalisation is a reality that is accelerating hugely behind the scenes, and yet technology has been one of the weakest areas in the last 12 months. Advances in biotechnology continue apace, but again the space has been marked down heavily post-pandemic. In each case, opportunities are opening up for investors with the ability and patience to look through current market turbulence. We think that the long-term pay-off for investment in these areas of structural growth will be immense.

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