Amid geopolitical turmoil, a higher cost of living and sustained stock and bond market losses, it may be difficult to face the new year with hope instead of caution. This feeling is reflected in consumer sentiment data, which is biased toward recent experience and landed squarely in “the dumps” (to use a technical term) for nearly all of 2022.
And it’s no wonder. U.S. stocks slumped into a bear market and stayed there—the S&P 500 index returned -18.1% in 2022 (including dividends) after touching -25.4% in early October. And to pour salt on investors’ wounds, the U.S. bond market had its worst calendar year on record, down 13.0%. Stocks and bonds tumbling at the same time is rare. Since 1976, using monthly data, the two asset classes have experienced simultaneous negative returns just 10 times over 552 rolling 12-month periods—that’s less than 2% of the time, and it had only happened twice before 2022.
However, stock and bond returns were positive in the fourth quarter; the S&P 500 returned 7.6% and the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index advanced 1.9%. Foreign stocks were even stronger, with the MSCI EAFE index posting a 17.3% gain in Q4. We have a way to go to recover the S&P’s high set last January—and there’s always the possibility of a backslide—but gains are gains. To come full circle to one of our first points, sentiment is a contrarian indicator:
Periods when consumers and investors are fearful, as they were in 2022’s final months, can be a precursor to market gains. Inflation, which split time in the news cycle with recession fears and Russia’s war on Ukraine, looks to have peaked last summer. Gas prices rose as high as $5 a gallon in mid-June and have since fallen back closer to $3 a gallon—pretty much where they were in fall 2021. And inflation’s pace, measured by yearover- year increases in consumer prices, slowed from 9.1% in June to 6.5% in December. If that trend continues, we could see inflation land somewhere between 3% and 4% by midyear 2023. (One upside to inflation, which we mentioned last quarter, is that Social Security recipients will start seeing a nearly 9% cost-of-living increase reflected in their benefit checks this month.)
While falling energy prices are one component of inflation’s decline, the other part of the story is Federal Reserve policymakers’ ongoing efforts to bring it to heel. The central bank leapt into action in 2022, rapidly hiking the benchmark fed funds rate from near zero to a range of 4.25% to 4.50% at year-end. (A good part of bonds’ price declines and rising yields can be attributed to this shift in policy.) While the pace of their interest-rate hikes slowed in December, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Co. have signaled their intent to stay on task until inflation is closer to their long-term target of 2%. Keeping interest rates higher for longer risks pushing the economy into a recession. We have more to say on recessionary indicators, portfolio positioning and 2023 financial planning considerations below, but first, let’s hit the history books for a look at periods when bad news led to to good news in the stock market.
The Negative-to-Positive Pattern
2022 was the 18th losing calendar year for the benchmark S&P 500 index since its inception in 1957 and its worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis. Historically, the index has had a 70% hit rate, posting gains in seven out of 10 calendar years. We looked at how the S&P performed after each of its 17 prior negative calendar years. As you can see in the chart below, not only did the index rebound in all but three of the following years, but the average return was 12%. And that’s not counting reinvested dividends.
In other words, bad years in the market are typically followed by good years. For those in retirement who are worried they don’t have time to recover from a down market, we’d encourage you to read our bear market case studies (adviserinvestments.com/bear-study/), which may offer some reassurance.
With the battle against inflation in full swing, investors have increasingly turned their attention to the prospect of a recession. Should that come to pass, it would arguably be the most widely predicted U.S. recession ever. But nothing is guaranteed, and the wisdom of the crowd doesn’t tell us when the recession might start (if indeed it does), how long it might last or how deep it might cut.
The jobs picture has confused the issue. Rising unemployment is generally a harbinger of recession. With unemployment at just 3.5% and nearly two job openings for every jobseeker, that indicator doesn’t line up with a contracting economy. And with consumer balance sheets on solid footing as wages inch up, it’s possible we could spend our way past recession entirely.
Bonds and other tells suggest a different story. For one, the bond market’s yield curve is inverted (a clear indicator that investors are worried about the economy’s growth prospects). Additionally, the housing market is weak (existing home sales fell in 10 consecutive months through November and are down more than 35% year-over-year). A range of other forward-looking factors tracked by the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index are also in decline. So, let’s say we are destined for recession, however shallow or deep, sooner rather than later—what does that mean for stocks? Over the last 10 recessions, stocks fell an average of 3% (excluding dividends) from start to finish and were down an average of 11% at the midpoint.
Have we already experienced a recessionary bear market? As noted earlier, the S&P 500 (not counting dividends) declined 19% in 2022 after reaching a nadir of 25% below its prior high during the year. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t fall further, but traders’ expectations for recession may already be priced into the market.
Planning for the Year Ahead
We won’t know if we’re in recession until it’s well underway—the nature of the data behind the determination is backward looking. That’s one reason we don’t believe the fear of recession should drive our portfolio allocation decisions. Instead, history argues for staying with a diversified, all-weather strategy appropriate to your risk tolerance and long-term goals.
Pulling on that diversification thread, we know 2022 was a particularly disappointing year for anyone who saw their bond investments, normally a cushion to falling stock prices, decline in value. It’s natural to wonder if bonds have lost their effectiveness as diversifiers and risk-control vehicles.
But remember, with a drop in price, bond yields rise. And a bond’s yield is a decent predictor of its returns over the next 10 years. With bonds now yielding north of 4%, they have become far more attractive than they were this time last year.
In effect, this means that bonds are paying out more income each month—money you can spend or reinvest. Since bonds mature at par (or 100 cents on the dollar), you also know that so long as the issuer doesn’t default, the price of an individual bond or those held by a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund will eventually recover.
These are the contractual forces by which bonds have gotten their reputation as portfolio shock absorbers. Therefore, we continue to believe that now is not the time to abandon a well-built, balanced portfolio that includes fixed-income securities.
And, from a planning perspective, while portfolio returns are often the default for measuring success, we think there are other critical components to ensuring that your overall financial plan will help you meet your objectives.
First, understanding your cash flow underlies much of the planning process. This doesn’t mean you need to know where every single dollar ends up, but tracking your expenses over a one- to three-month period can give you a high-level grasp of how and what you’re spending.
Second, it’s important to understand and manage the risks in your life. We recommend periodically reviewing your insurance coverage. Do you have appropriately sized life, disability and property/casualty policies?
Third, leveraging tax-advantaged accounts is an important component of your long-term plan. You have until April 2023 to top off IRAs, Roth IRAs and health savings accounts for 2022. And starting in 2025, investors nearing retirement age can make additional catch-up contributions to their employersponsored plans (as we note in our sidebar on Secure 2.0).
Last, and perhaps most important of all, make sure your financial plan and portfolio are organized around your goals. Your wealth adviser can review the three main points we just mentioned to keep you on track. They’re here to serve as the quarterback of your financial life and ensure you are getting all the services you need. From tax and estate planning to investments and charitable giving strategies, we’re always just a phone call or email away. Please get in touch, and if we don’t hear from you, you’ll surely hear from us.
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