Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Sep 25, 2023

A Shift in Stock Personalities

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 you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It's Monday, September 25th at 11am in New York. So let's get after it.

Since mid-July, stocks have taken on a different personality. As we've previously noted, second quarter earnings season proved to be a "sell the news event" with the day after reporting stock performance as poor as we've witnessed in over a decade. In retrospect, this makes sense given weakening earnings quality and negative year over year growth for many industry groups, coupled with the strong price run up in the mid-July which extended valuations. Those valuations continue to look elevated at 18-times earnings, especially given the recent further rise in interest rates and signs from the Fed that it may be adopting a higher for longer posture. On that score, the real rate equity return correlation has fallen further into negative territory, signaling that interest rates are an increasingly important determinant of equity performance. Furthermore, one could argue that the post-Fed-meeting response from equity markets was outsized for the rate move we experienced. One potential explanation for this dynamic is that the equity market is beginning to question the higher for longer backdrop in the context of a macro environment that looks more late-cycle than mid-cycle.

As discussed over the past several weeks, equity market internals have been supportive of the notion that we're in a late cycle backdrop with high quality balance sheet factors outperforming. Defensives have also resumed their outperformance, while cyclicals have underperformed. The value factor has been further aided by strong performance from the energy sector, while growth has underperformed recently due to higher interest rates. Given our relative preference for defensives, we looked at valuations across these sectors. In terms of absolute multiples, utilities trade the cheapest at 16 times earnings, while staples trade the richest at 19 times. That said, relative to the market in history, utilities and staples still look the cheapest, both are at the bottom quartile of the historical relative valuation levels, while health care relative valuation is a bit more elevated, but still in the bottom 50% of historical relative valuation levels. Overall valuations remain undemanding for defensive sectors in stocks, which is why we like them.

To the contrary, the technicals and breadth for consumer discretionary stocks look particularly challenged right now. We believe this price action is reflecting slower consumer spending trends, student loan payments resuming, rising delinquencies in certain household cohorts, higher gas prices and weakening demand and data in the housing sector. Our economists who avoided making the recession call earlier this year when it was a consensus view see a weakening consumer spending backdrop from here. Specifically, they forecast negative real personal consumption expenditure growth in the fourth quarter and a muted recovery thereafter. Meanwhile, travel and leisure has been a bright spot for consumption, but that dynamic may now be changing to some extent.

As evidence, our most recent AlphaWise survey shows that consumers want to keep traveling and 58% of respondents are planning to travel over the next six months. However, net spending plans for international travel declined from 0% last month to -8% this month, indicating consumers are planning fewer overseas trips. Domestic travel plans without a flight move higher. This indicates that consumers want to keep traveling, but are increasingly looking to taking cheaper trips and are choosing destinations to which they can either drive or take a train, rather than fly which is more expensive.

All these dynamics fit well with our late cycle playbook. In our view, investors may want to avoid rotating into early cycle winners like consumer cyclicals, housing related and interest rate sensitive sectors and small caps. Instead, a barbell of large cap defensive growth with late cycle cyclical winners like energy and industrials should continue to outperform as it has for the past month.

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With the economy late in its current cycle, early-cycle performers such as consumer and housing stocks are underperforming while energy and industrials should continue to outperform.

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