Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Dec 18, 2023

Does the U.S. Equity Rally Still Have Steam?

With Mike Wilson
U.S. Equities Research for Investors


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Mike Wilson, Chief Investment Officer and Chief U.S. Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues bringing me a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It's Monday, December 18th at 11 a.m. in New York. So let's get after it.

Going into last week, the key question for investors was whether Fed Chair Jay Powell would push back on the significant loosening of financial conditions over the prior six weeks. Not only did he not push back, his message was consistent with the notion that the Fed is likely done hiking and will begin cutting interest rates next year. Markets took the change in guidance as an all clear sign to ramp up risk further.

Given that policy rates are well into restrictive territory, the Fed likely doesn't want to wait to shift to more accommodative policy until it's too late to achieve a soft landing. That's a bullish outcome for stocks because it means the odds of a soft landing outcome have gone up even if this dovish shift also increases the risk of inflation reaccelerating. Given the price reaction to the news last week, it appears that markets are of the view that the Fed isn't making a policy mistake by shifting more dovish too soon.

For investors looking to capitalize on this shift, it's important to note that markets started to price this dovish tilt back in November, with one of the sharpest declines in interest rates and loosening of financial conditions. As discussed in prior podcast, this accounted for most of the 15% rally in equity valuations over the past six weeks. While Powell's dovish shift has given investors a catalyst to pursue higher valuations, the markets may have moved in advance of last week's dovish transition. We think equity prices will now be more dependent on the effect that this dovish shift has on growth rather than valuations alone. If growth doesn't improve, the rally will run out of steam. If it does improve, there could be further to go in the upside and we would also see a change in market leadership and a broadening of stock performance.

On that note, since the lows in October, small cap stocks have done better and breadth has improved. However, when looking at past cycles we find that smallcaps underperform both before and after Fed rate cuts. This speaks to the notion that the Fed typically cuts rates as nominal growth is slowing and small caps tend to be quite economically sensitive. Thus, the introduction of rate cuts may not drive sustainable outperformance for small caps or lower quality stocks by itself. However, if the earlier than anticipated dovish shift in the context of a still healthy economic backdrop can drive a cyclical rebound in nominal growth next year, small caps look compelling over a longer investment horizon. In our view, the probability of this outcome has gone up given last week's Fed meeting, but it's far from a slam dunk after such a strong rally.

From here it'll be important to watch relative earnings revisions, high frequency macro data and small business confidence for signs that a more durable period of cap outperformance is coming. For now, relative earnings revisions remain negative for small caps and relative margin estimates have just recently taken another turn lower. Meanwhile, purchasing manager indices remain below the expansion contraction line of fifty and small business confidence remains low in a historical context and is yet to turn convincingly higher. That said, these indicators may now start to turn in a more favorable manner given last week's events.

The bottom line, small caps and lower quality stocks have rallied sharply with the S&P 500 since October. We believe most of this outperformance is due to short covering and the seasonal tendency for the year's laggards to do better into the end of the year in January. For this trend to continue beyond that, we will need to see nominal GDP reaccelerate and for inflation to stabilize at current levels rather than fall further toward the Fed's target of 2%. While this may seem counterintuitive, we remind listeners that the average stock does better when inflation is rising, not falling and that may be what the market is now anticipating.

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Hear how the Fed’s announcement of upcoming rate cuts could affect equity markets—particularly small-cap stocks.

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