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Soaring High: Stock Market Hits Record Milestones with Economic Optimism

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Robert Tavares

May 18, 2024 - 13:18 pm

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Stock Market’s Record Surge: A Grounded Optimism Amid Economic Ripples

Amidst the chaotic intricacy of Wall Street, a historical pinnacle has been reached as the market completes a remarkable rebound, defying initial speculations and setting new records that underline a cautiously optimistic outlook for the economy. In a span of seven weeks, the stock market has witnessed a full circle of events, transcending the unexpected turbulence at the close of the first fiscal quarter and standing testament to Wall Street's confidence in a soft economic landing—a feat that has now been ostensibly achieved.

The Dow's Monumental Milestone

The financial world watched with bated breath as the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared above the 40,000 mark—a number that, while arbitrary, holds considerable weight as a symbol of economic vitality and investor confidence. Keith Lerner, an established strategist at Truist, has depicted on a chart the historical instances when the S&P 500 hit all-time highs, revealing a pattern suggesting that once reached, these records tend to be not only sustainable but often a prelude to further gains. However, a note of caution is sounded as we reminisce about the fleeting euphoria of 2007's record highs, which was subsequently followed by a precipitous fall.

The Rally's Anatomy

Drilling down into the intricacies of the latest rally, one finds a plethora of positive indicators. The robust performance of banking stocks and the financial sector reaching new heights bode well for the rally's continuity. Detailed analysis by the esteemed Bespoke Investment Group shows that a majority of stocks have seen appreciable gains, with the market breadth supporting a strong advance. Furthermore, the compression in junk-bond spreads hints at a risk-on sentiment pervasive in the markets, asserting an almost record-level of confidence relative to government bonds.

On the policy front, the Federal Reserve has maintained a steady interest rate stance that has seemingly coalesced with the requirements of a growing economy and moderating inflation—a blend that suggests a commendable calibration by the central bank.

A Market Unfazed: The VIX and Potential Risks

Despite potential headwinds, the market's resilience is underscored by the quiescent CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index (VIX), which measures the market's expectation of near-term volatility and reflects investor demand for protection against it. Closing below 12, this indicator reached its lowest point since November 2019, painting a picture of investor tranquillity not observed in years. However, lurking beneath this calm could be the seeds of risk, making the current landscape more like the calm before an unforeseen storm rather than a perpetual state of bliss. An unfavorable inflation report or a disappointing outlook from a stalwart like Nvidia could abruptly shift the sentiment.

Yet, as long as the market retains its current character, skepticism seems unwarranted, and the upward momentum plausible. That being said, it would require only a moderate lift for the market to emit signals of being overbought and to rekindle the trader optimism that was dampened in the previous months. At present, neither technical nor sentiment indicators suggest an overheated environment.

Perspective and Projections

While the lack of a market collapse might prompt questions, historical patterns show a resilient success rate for recoveries after a marginal pullback—seemingly ensuring a minimum continuation of the rally. Financial experts such as BMO's Brian Belski have made adjustments to their year-end targets for the S&P 500, pushing the already significant ceiling even higher to 5,600, reflecting an ambitious yet feasible 6% uptick from the current levels. Furthermore, the average prediction from Wall Street strategists still leans towards an upward potential, albeit a more measured one.

In terms of valuation, while the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios remain high, the slight reduction in the S&P 500 P/E from the previous peak is due to upwardly revised profit forecasts—suggesting that the valuation is marginally more justified now than before.

However, the silhouette of a defensive market has begun to emerge, with consumer cyclicals showing signs of fatigue and transportation stock lagging behind. The Citi U.S. Economic Surprise Index tipped into the negative, indicating that the macroeconomic data are beginning to underperform relative to analysts' expectations. This shift was mirrored by the unanticipated flattening of retail sales for the month of April.

The Market Mood: Just Enough Pessimism

The view from the trading floors seems to perceive the market's present condition as a blend of optimism tinged with caution—the "right amount of wrong," to borrow the phrase from a famous Las Vegas advert. This temperate cool-off period is interpreted as potential aid to the Federal Reserve in its efforts to control inflation without forcefully nudging the economy towards weakness. Analysts propose a compensatory dynamic wherein weaker consumer spending in lower income brackets is counterbalanced by lively industrial and technological hardware capital expenditures, as well as resilient fiscal support mechanisms.

Moreover, positive signs are also observed in consumer activity outside the U.S., which could potentially act as a counterweight to any domestic consumer spending fatigue that may be developing.

Yet the delicate balance of interpreting economic downturns as a positive for market dynamics is tenuous and susceptible to rapid shifts. The context for this sentiment is a mixed bag of occurrences including two bear markets within a span of four years, an S&P 500 that has shown relatively modest gains over the past two and a half years, and a current bull market that, by historical standards, could be considered conservative in both its duration and cumulative returns.

Challenging Established Market Norms

The conundrum facing market analysts involves assessing the relevance of historical patterns in an economic cycle that proves to be anything but conventional. Since the pandemic-induced recession in 2020, financial paradigms have shifted, with household finances bolstered by government aid and involuntary savings, leading to a recovery dynamic starkly different from the norm.

Even more peculiarly, the Treasury yield curve has been inverted for a prolonged period with no imminent recessionary indications, in contradiction to traditional economic signals. In another break from the expected, the stock market's preemptive rally did not coincide with the initiation of the Fed's tightening cycle, and instead, a steep downturn marked the period.

Among the most surprising developments was the market low in October 2022, a point at which the S&P 500's forward P/E still floated above 15, with unemployment figures remaining under 4% during a phase of economic expansion. Contrast this to the present, where the Fed shows a leaning towards easing policy under similar unemployment conditions.

Drawing from history, the Leuthold Group highlights that the current market surge mirrors those that have occurred in the later stages of economic expansions. Previous instances of such later-cycle recoveries include periods beginning in 1966, 1998, and 2018, with the latter aborted by the onset of COVID-19. Should the prevailing rally follow the trends observed in these historical precedents, it could potentially peak towards the end of the current year around an S&P level of 5,700, indicating another 7-8% climb.

Leuthold's Chief Investment Officer, Doug Ramsey, while circumspect, acknowledges that these historical analogies have surprisingly held true in times they were least expected to. His words underscore the inherent unpredictability of the stock market and economic trends, which often defy the most educated projections.

In conclusion, the current state of the stock market serves as a reflection of a conflicting amalgam of historical experience, economic fundamentals, and investor sentiment. While the indices are reaching new highs and optimism is cautiously warranted, underlying challenges and unconventional markers persist. As investors and strategists peer through the fog of economic indicators and market dynamics, they walk a tightrope of forecasting and strategy that continues to evolve with the changing winds of global finance.

For more detailed insights and to explore the data referenced in this article, readers can visit Truist's insights at Truist, Bespoke Investment Group's research at Bespoke Investment Group, Ned Davis Research at Ned Davis Research, and the Leuthold Group's analysis at Leuthold Group.