With so much riding on the Fed’s moves, it’s hard to know how to invest

Where the markets go from here depends on whether and how deftly the Federal Reserve pivots from its hawkish stance.

  • By Conrad de Aenlle,
  • The New York Times News Service
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Making money was easy for investors when they could still plausibly believe that the Federal Reserve might back down on its aggressive campaign to subdue inflation at any cost. But harsh words from the Fed chairman, Jerome H. Powell, backed by a string of large interest rate increases, finally convinced markets that the central bank meant business, sending stock and bond prices tumbling.

A nervous confidence returned as October began, with stocks experiencing a big two-day rally, but then prices sank anew. Investors at first seemed more confident that the Fed would reverse course, but anxiety returned as they worried about how much damage would be inflicted before that happened. Where the markets go from here, and how to position an investment portfolio, depends on whether and how deftly the Fed changes its strategy.

“A crescendo of factors is coming together that makes me think we’re going to have another few weeks of pain before the Fed capitulates,” said Marko Papic, chief strategist at the Clocktower Group.

Mr. Papic thinks a dovish turn may come soon, as the Fed signals that it would settle for inflation two or three percentage points above its 2 percent target.

Others think more pain lies ahead, maybe a lot more. A prerequisite for a pivot might be a “credit event,” said Komal Sri-Kumar, president of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies, meaning a default by a large investment firm or corporate or government borrower, often with severe consequences.

The Fed’s plan is to slow inflation by slowing economic growth, and part of its plan is working splendidly. The Conference Board reported late last month that its index of 10 forward-looking indicators fell for the sixth consecutive month. The purchasing managers’ index, a gauge of manufacturing activity, has risen in only two of the last 10 months. But inflation remains stubbornly high, with consumer prices rising 8.2 percent in the year through September, almost ensuring that the Fed will continue raising rates.

A growing recognition that the Fed is likely to remain hawkish has sent the S&P 500 plummeting. It lost 5.3 percent in the third quarter after it was up nearly 14 percent midway through the period. The downturn began to accelerate in late August, when Mr. Powell delivered a speech at the annual economic conclave in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He mentioned inflation 45 times, and of the Fed’s program to bring it back to 2 percent, he said, “We will keep at it until we are confident the job is done.”

His blunt language also helped sink bond prices, which are inversely related to bond yields. The yield on 10-year Treasury instruments rose to 4 percent in late September from 2.6 percent in early August, lending credibility to forecasts that the Fed would keep tightening until its benchmark interest rate hits 5 percent.

High interest rates are not the only source of concern in the markets. The dollar recently hit 20-year highs against other major currencies. Though a strong dollar mitigates inflation on imported goods in the United States, it makes American goods and services more expensive in world markets, which worsens inflation abroad and hurts many American businesses, increasing the probability of a recession in the United States.

Then there is Russia’s war in Ukraine, which raises doubts that Western Europe will meet its energy needs as winter approaches. Threats by Russia’s leaders to use nuclear weapons could eventually hit stocks hard.

If the Fed relaxes its aggressive posture, the markets might rally. But Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, warned that any relief could do more harm than good.

“Now that the Fed finds itself in such an uncomfortable situation — one mostly of its own making — it may be inclined to eschew further rate hikes,” he wrote in a commentary for the website Project Syndicate. “Yet such a course of action would risk repeating the monetary-policy mistake of the 1970s, saddling America and the world with an even longer period of stagflationary trends.”

(Stagflation — high and persistent inflation combined with tepid growth — is the worst of both worlds, economically.)

The Fed may be damned if it pivots and damned if it doesn’t. In a recent CNBC interview, Jeremy Siegel, professor emeritus of finance at the University of Pennsylvania, accused the central bank of ignoring troublesome signs for the economy, including soft housing indicators and a collapse in growth of the money supply.

During and long after the global financial crisis of 2008, the Fed held interest rates down and bought billions of dollars worth of securities — measures that increased asset prices and supported the economy. Now, by raising rates and reducing its holdings, the Fed has depressed the value of stocks and bonds.

“Asset prices have become a lever that the Fed is using to reduce the price pressures,” Michael Farr, chief executive of the financial advisory firm Farr, Miller & Washington, wrote in a note to investors. “The strategy, which seems fraught with peril, is designed to trigger a reverse wealth effect, tamping down asset prices so that people feel less wealthy and therefore spend less. Lower spending means less demand, which means lower inflation. At least that’s the hope.”

It’s a hope Mr. Farr is tenuously clinging to. He noted that indicators of inflation expectations show that investors “continue to believe that the Fed will be successful in bringing down inflation over the intermediate term.” If it is, that would help markets recover, even in the absence of a dovish pivot.

Tony DeSpirito, chief investment officer of U.S. Fundamental Equities at BlackRock, is also optimistic.

“In the near term, I can see inflation rolling over,” he said. “A number of companies are reporting excess inventories, home price growth has turned a little negative. The real question is how fast it comes down, and to what level.”

He expects the Consumer Price Index to settle around 3 or 4 percent. But inflation is likely to remain a chronic problem, in his view, as certain trends that kept it in check for decades, notably trade liberalization, subside and the emphasis shifts from efficiency in supply chains to resiliency.

“The long-term disinflationary impulse has ended,” Mr. DeSpirito said.

As for short-term inflation, if the Fed is trying to curb it by actively targeting asset prices, at least it has accomplished the targeting part. The average domestic stock fund fell 4.2 percent in the third quarter, according to Morningstar, with technology, communications and real estate portfolios underperforming.

The average international stock fund lost 9.5 percent, with Europe and China funds faring especially poorly.

Bond funds provided no refuge, with the average portfolio down 2.7 percent.

Given the uncertainty of the Fed’s next moves, how to position an investment portfolio is proving especially tricky these days.

Mr. Sri-Kumar advises remaining cautious toward stocks and risky corporate bonds and recommends Treasuries and other high-quality bonds. The 10-year yield won’t go higher than 4 percent, he predicted.

“Remain underweight equities, and start getting your toes wet in long-dated, highly rated debt securities,” he said.

With so many uncertainties, Mr. DeSpirito favors a barbell approach to stocks. Own some in industries that do well when economic growth picks up, such as energy and financial services, and others in industries that hold up in a recession, especially health care, he said.

Anticipating a swift pivot, Mr. Papic of the Clocktower Group prefers energy and industrial metal commodities.

He advises buying bonds “if you’re in the camp that believes the Fed is going to break something.”

He doesn’t think that the Fed will break anything but that it might come close.

“The next couple of months are really scary,” Mr. Papic said, “but the Fed in November will look at a slew of factors — C.P.I. coming down, U.S. geopolitical allies hurting, the U.S. economy negatively impacted — that will combine to tell them the current pace of hawkishness is not necessary.”

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