From Hard Landing to Soft Landing to No Landing?

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Investing Caffeine
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I haven’t received my pilot’s license yet, but in trying to figure out whether the economy is heading for a hard landing, soft landing, or no landing, I’m planning to enroll in flight school soon! With the Federal Reserve approaching the tail end of an aggressive interest rate hiking cycle, investors have been bracing for a hard landing. However, with near record-low unemployment (3.4%) and multi-trillion dollars in government stimulus still working its way through the system, others see an economic soft landing. More recently, economic data has been flying in at an accelerating pace, which could mean the economy will stay in the air and have no landing.

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For those waiting for an imminent recession, it looks like there could be a delay. In other words, bearish pessimists may be waiting at the gate longer than expected. As you can see in the chart below, economists at the Atlanta Federal Reserve are currently forecasting economic growth (GDP – Gross Domestic Product) to increase to a respectable +2.8% rate for the first quarter.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

How have investors been interpreting this confusing array of landing scenarios? The stock market has stabilized and risen since last October (S&P +13.7%) but has also hit a temporary air pocket last month (-2.6%). Similarly, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has rebounded +13.9% since October, but pulled back further in February (-4.2%). As mentioned earlier, investors are having difficulty reading all the economic dials, instruments, and controls in the cockpit because there is no consensus on interest rates, inflation, economic growth, corporate earnings growth, and employment.

At the one end of the spectrum, you have a consumer who remains employed and willing to spend his/her savings accumulated during the pandemic. Case in point, air travel has hit pre-pandemic levels of 2019, despite business travelers staying at home conducting business on Zoom (see red line on chart below).

Source: Calculated Risk

At the other end of the spectrum, we are witnessing the crippling effects that 7% mortgage rates can have on the $4 trillion real estate industry. As you can see from the chart below, sales of existing homes have plummeted at the fastest rate since the beginning of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

With all of that said, there is a consensus building that inflation is steadily coming down. Even the very skeptical and hawkish Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, acknowledged that the “disinflationary process has begun.” We can see that in this inflation expectation chart below (green line), which measures the average anticipated inflation over the next five years by comparing the difference in yields between the five-year Treasury Notes and the five-year TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protection Securities).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Although, currently, there are many financial crosswinds swirling, the good news is that in the near-term, the economy has been maintaining its elevation and there is no imminent sign of a hard landing. We certainly could face the potential of turbulence and changing weather conditions, but that is always the case when you invest in the financial markets. If, however, inflation continues to move in the same direction, and growth continues to surprise on the upside, there may be no landing at all. Under this scenario of maintaining a comfortable altitude, I guess I can put my pilot training on hold.

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Investing Caffeine, a blog written by professional money manager Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®. Investing Caffeine will wake up your investment brain by tackling the complex issues of investing and financial planning, with the goal of educating and entertaining your mind.