Investment Strategy

Bull vs. bear: 3 debates that defined the week

The good times keep rolling.

Stocks notched more new highs this week. The tech-heavy NASDAQ Composite was the latest to join the club of record-breakers, even in the midst of investors’ dialed-down enthusiasm for the Federal Reserve’s pivot party to rate cuts.

But while the bulls are euphoric, the bears are waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Below, we dig into the debates that have defined the week, and where we stand—on inflation, the strength of the rally and Washington happenings.

1) Where’s inflation really headed?

Bears say: Inflation progress has stalled, with news this week that the Fed’s preferred core PCE gauge increased in January by its most in a year (at a pace of +0.4% month-over-month). Goods disinflation, which was one of the first areas to show improvement, displayed some signs of petering out. Services prices are still sticky: Shelter has been slow to cool, and Chair Powell’s “supercore” services ex-shelter metric increased the most on the month since December 2021. If this trend continues, Fed rate cuts feel further off.

Bulls say: This week’s figures were just as expected. One month doesn’t disrupt a trend, and price pressures seem on their way back to 2% targets more quickly than many thought over the last year. For instance, one of the most powerful disinflationary forces, shelter, has yet to unfold.

We say: There are going to be bumps along the way, but we think central bankers have the ammunition needed to win the fight against inflation. For one, the labor market continues to rebalance alongside still-solid growth. More foreign born workers and women are re-entering the labor force, alongside the allure of work-from-home postings. (Did you know that, according to LinkedIn, almost half of new jobs added last year were remote or hybrid?) This has helped wage growth cool with minimal economic pain to date. Without rate cuts, though, further disinflation means real rates would continue to push higher and run the risk of overtightening. So on balance, while rate cuts may be less urgent than previously thought, they’re still on the way.

Disinflation is still happening, even with a slight stall in progress

U.S. Core PCE Index, 3, 6, and 12-month % annualized

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Haver Analytics. Data as a of January 31, 2024. PCE = Personal Consumption Expenditures. 

This creates a more nuanced approach to bond markets. If you are focused on rightsizing your strategic portfolio allocations, we still believe now is the opportunity to lock in yields and capture defensive characteristics by extending duration. That said, tight credit spreads and the potential for more interest rate volatility should prompt more tactically focused investors to find better value on the shorter end of the duration spectrum (i.e., in the 2–3 year range).

2) Can the stock rally keep going?

Bears say: The stock market is in a bubble. The so-called “Magnificent 7” have driven the lion’s share of the rally, pushing the S&P 500 to its most concentrated since the 1970s. All that enthusiasm seems wrapped up in AI hype that hasn’t proven its worth yet: Investors seem excited about changes that could take years, or even decades, to unfold. With stock valuations this high, it feels scarily familiar to the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.

Bulls say: It doesn’t look like much is standing in the way of more gains. The economy is solid. Inflation is easing. Fed cuts seem to be coming. Corporate earnings have been strong, and companies most closely linked to AI boast robust profitability. And not to mention, history is on our side: February officially marked a four-month-long rally. Since 1950, we’ve seen 13 other instances where the S&P 500 notched consecutive gains in November, December, January and February. Every time, the market was higher a year later, with an average gain of almost 17%.

We say: We agree that the path forward for markets is higher. We think big tech can continue to climb and other segments of the market can join in. For one, we think AI hype is real: Big tech companies, which are some of the most avid enablers and beneficiaries of AI, are already seeing real revenue contributions from their investments. Consider this about chipmaker Nvidia: Despite climbing a staggering 460% since the start of 2023, its forward P/E valuation is still the same now as it was then (33x)—and it’s a far cry from the high of 63x last year. Stellar earnings growth has been the power behind its ascent. Other companies across industries are also deploying their own generative AI efforts, and we expect that to create real cost and efficiency savings sooner rather than later. The risk, of course, is that all those efforts don’t live up to their expectations—the bar is high.

Earnings, not valuation expansion, have driven Nvidia’s rally

Return since December 31, 2022, %

Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. Data as of February 29, 2024. Note: Earnings refer to next 12-months EPS expectations. Valuation refers to next 12-months price-to-earnings ratio. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All companies referenced are shown for informational purposes only and are not intended as a recommendation or endorsement by J.P. Morgan in this context.

At the same time, other sectors and pockets of the market, such as consumer-linked names, healthcare, and small- and mid-cap companies, stand to join in the rally. Last year, the Magnificent 7 contributed 60% of the S&P 500’s 26% total return, while the remaining 493 companies accounted for just 40%. So far this year, that’s flipped, with “everything else” now driving almost 60% of the S&P’s return. We’re seeing it displayed in earnings too, with another better-than-expected Q4 earnings season: Every sector in the S&P 500 has exceeded analyst projections. As corporates gain more confidence in what we see as a soft landing for the economy, we expect profit growth to accelerate. Layoffs are a dynamic to watch, but so far, we take this as a sign that management teams are working to operate more efficiently. Indeed, profit margins have now stabilized at pre-COVID levels.

That’s not to say there won’t be volatility. The average year since 1980 has seen an intra-year max sell-off of 15% in the S&P 500. Yet, staying the course has historically proven beneficial: Of those years, stocks have still finished the calendar year higher 75% of the time.

3) Is Washington dysfunction manageable?

Bears say: Washington is a mess. Policymakers can’t seem to agree until the timer is almost out on important issues. Squabbling continues over budget plans—this year’s spending still isn’t officially decided, even if a government shutdown has been avoided for now (the latest stopgap measures only kick the can down the road to later this month). This makes Washington’s management of even bigger issues such as the ever-growing stockpile of government debt all the more worrisome. Some are concerned a doomsday fiscal crisis is on the horizon, especially with interest costs higher. On top of that, it’s an election year, and the two sides couldn’t seem further apart.

Bulls say: Markets don’t care about politics. Whether it’s worries about government shutdowns, debt ceiling drama or election candidates, the impact on markets has time and again proved to be short-lived. Policymakers always seem to figure it out, especially when the stakes are high, and the economy has been the bigger driving force for investors over the long term.

We say: We agree that the economy is in the driver’s seat, but there are risks. Budget disagreement is frustrating, and we’re not out of the woods yet. This could create near-term swings for markets, even if the impact is short-lived. Concerns around government debt are also warranted, but we think the risk is a longer-term one. The costs of a higher debt burden will need to be reckoned with at some point. Based on CBO projections, mandatory government spending will outstrip government revenues by the mid-2030s. At that point, it becomes more difficult for the economy to grow its way out of the problem. One of the potential solutions is to raise revenues through taxes, which means investors may want to consider making tax-efficient investing a priority in the coming decade.

The U.S. is on track for a fiscal reckoning – but likely not for another decade

% of U.S. GDP

Source: CBO, Haver Analytics. *Note: Spending and Total Revenue include Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Net Interest, Other Mandatory. Data as of August 15, 2023.

Finally, while there is growing chatter around the 2024 election, it’s worth noting that another Trump versus Biden stand-off offers more clarity at this point in the election cycle than we usually see. This could mean fewer scenarios for markets to discount. More distinct moves may come on the sector and industry level, but we think either candidate’s potential administrations will have solid earnings momentum on their sides to support markets.

We’re constructive on the year ahead

Debate is healthy, and there is no denying there are risks. In any given year, there are good things and bad things that can impact the economy and markets. Volatility around each of these catalysts as we move through 2024 is likely. Valuations may be high, but we tend to see the glass half full when we examine the current backdrop. Better growth instills more confidence across asset classes.

We are here to help you make informed investment decisions that keep you on track to achieve your goals. Contact your J.P. Morgan team to learn more.

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

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Here’s where we stand as investors clash over inflation, stock market highs and Washington dysfunction.

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