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Investment Strategy

Is a Goldilocks economy just a fairy tale?

Forgive the cliché, but it’s an apt one. Goldilocks had another visit with the three bears last week, and some things have changed since their last meeting. A strong economy is emerging alongside lingering risks, while stock markets power higher. How do onlookers make sense of the outlook? So far, here’s what we’re seeing:

  • Still too hot: Inflation above central bank targets
  • Still too cold: Big borrowers feeling the pinch
  • What’s just right: Corporate profits finding their sweet spot

In all, the rest of 2024’s story will be told based on whether—and how—Goldilocks finds that “just right” balance for the economy. We think that’s possible, marking a constructive backdrop for investors. Meanwhile, opportunities are unfolding to meet the hot and cold challenges along the way.

Still too hot: Inflation

Goldilocks probably felt some relief as U.S. inflation cooled for the first time this year. After a hot first quarter, the April Consumer Price Index (CPI) revealed a slight slowdown, with headline prices clocking in at a 3.4% annual pace, down from March’s 3.5%. Even the core measure, stripping out volatile food and energy components, ticked lower to 3.6% from 3.8%.

The progress is evident: More than 55% of the items in the CPI basket are now running at a rate below the Fed’s 2% target. A year ago, more than half were clipping at an above 4% pace.

But the bears are still lurking: That cooldown still doesn’t pass the Fed’s 2% temperature check. Shelter inflation remains stubborn, decelerating just tick by tick, and services are sticky amid a still rebalancing labor market. Meanwhile, goods prices can only drop so much, and commodity prices remain elevated. Those risks are consistent in Europe and the UK too, albeit they appear more contained for now.

The balance of evidence signals progress to come, with inflation continuing to decelerate from here. But it may only go so far. A stronger economy likely dictates higher inflation and higher policy rates than the last cycle. This has consequences, both good and bad.

Still too cold: Big borrowers

Heading into 2024, economists and investors alike expected a wave of rate cuts. Some central banks, as in Switzerland and Sweden, are now on their way. But too hot inflation is forcing the Fed to hold rates higher for longer.

Most segments of the economy have proven resilient in the face of that pressure. But for some, high rates mean cold porridge. Borrowing, for both consumers and corporations, simply becomes more expensive.

Consider this: The start of the year was marked by record new bond issuance as high-quality companies capitalized on a fall in rates that has since reversed. Many weaker borrowers missed the window, and now face higher costs compared to their original debt agreements. This could spur pockets of stress to broaden beyond well-known trouble spots such as commercial real estate, and could squeeze the likes of small and medium-sized businesses, which tend to be more indebted. Their ability to repay interest obligations is now below pre-COVID levels.

Those companies also employ about three-quarters of the private sector in the U.S., and consumer spending has been under a microscope. Last week’s retail sales gauge stagnated (albeit off a strong Q1 run), and the New York Fed’s latest summary on household debt showed more borrowers are falling delinquent on credit card and auto loan payments. Again, this doesn’t mean the consumer is in trouble: Mortgages, which represent about 70% of all U.S. household debt, aren’t seeing the same stress, with delinquency rates well below levels seen during the Global Financial Crisis. The same is true on this side of the pond – where mortgages make up an even larger share of household borrowing. High and stable wages also support income power and, in turn, spending. But points of stress are nonetheless important to monitor.

What’s just right: Corporate profits

Corporate America has been signaling good things ahead, defying too hot and too cold challenges. As we recently shared what we’ve heard on the Street this earnings season, S&P 500 companies look to have grown profits by more than 5% year-over-year in Q1. What’s more, all sectors are beating estimates, protecting (and growing) their margins by passing on higher costs to still solid consumers.

With that increased confidence, more companies are rewarding their shareholders by boosting share buybacks by the most in years. They’re also telegraphing big spending plans to invest in the future. Artificial intelligence (AI) is commanding attention, while capital expenditure plans are also broadening beyond just big tech players. A focus on infrastructure, security and supply chain resiliency is likewise boosting investment in the “traditional” economy.

To us, this means that stocks maintain their role of long-term return generators in portfolios, powering through higher growth, inflation and interest rates.

The takeaway: On balance, last week brought Goldilocks closer to a “just right” temperature for the economy, with inflation cooling and growth settling. This creates a constructive backdrop for multi-asset investors. Yet, still too hot inflation and the cold pinch of tighter credit highlight challenges that are worth monitoring. As the year unfolds, investors can confront those challenges with a toolkit prepared for the spectrum of potential scenarios. For instance, equities and real assets can hedge against too hot inflation, while private lenders can help navigate strain in credit markets. The rate reset comes with costs, but we also believe it comes with potential.

Your J.P. Morgan team is here to discuss what this means for you.

 

All market and economic data as of May 2024 and sourced from Bloomberg Finance L.P. and FactSet unless otherwise stated.

We believe the information contained in this material to be reliable but do not warrant its accuracy or completeness. Opinions, estimates, and investment strategies and views expressed in this document constitute our judgment based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice.

The S&P 500 index is widely regarded as the best single gauge of large-cap U.S. equities and serves as the foundation for a wide range of investment products. The index includes 500 leading companies and captures approximately 80% coverage of available market capitalization.

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With 2024’s tale still unfolding, we decipher between promising dynamics and looming threats.

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  • The S&P 500 index is widely regarded as the best single gauge of large-cap U.S. equities and serves as the foundation for a wide range of investment products. The index includes 500 leading companies and captures approximately 80% coverage of available market capitalization.

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