Why the Economy Should Normalize By the End of the Year
The path forward for the U.S. economy is being positioned as a choice between two outcomes: recession or a soft landing. But a third possibility offers a more compelling explanation for what we’re seeing in the markets.
Editor’s note: 2022 has opened largely positively as measured by the performance of the major indexes and the broader market. However, much of the concern on Wall Street remains the same: can we avoid a recession through a Fed-engineered “soft landing”?
Although recent surveys show small businesses are planning on slowing hiring and larger firms (especially in technology) have announced layoffs, employment rates are not weakening enough to signal a recession. That would seem to offer two paths forward, either the Fed is successfully navigating the economy through the eye of a needle, or the Fed will remain overly hawkish and ultimately induce a recession.
But what if it’s not a binary choice at all? Cabot Undervalued Stocks Advisor Chief Analyst Bruce Kaser recently presented a third alternative to his subscribers: an inventory cycle.
The entry below is an excerpt from December’s issue of Cabot Undervalued Stocks Advisor and we’ve elected to share this with readers of Cabot Money Club because it presents a narrative fit to current economic conditions unmatched by anything we’ve encountered elsewhere.
Massive Inventory Cycle?
We’re not market or economic forecasters, but we do try to make sense of what is going on. And, as we’ve commented on in earlier notes, it seems more and more likely that what is going on in the economy is a huge inventory cycle. Things were mostly in balance prior to the pandemic … then we had a complete collapse in demand followed by a massive surge in demand in some industries (cars, houses and tech gear as notable examples) but not others (restaurants, travel and retailing). At the same time, we had a collapse in the supply of just about everything as factories closed and people stayed at home.
This shifted abruptly as the economy reopened and many supply-demand imbalances reversed. Supply chains got jammed up, Russia invaded Ukraine and the federal government dumped a few trillion dollars of free money into the economy. Industries across the economy were thrown out of balance, first in one direction, then the other. It is surprising that most companies navigated through all this as well as they did.
Picture a calm pond, then drop a boulder into it. Everything is jumbled, massive waves roll outward, and then the waves rebound off the shore and back to the impact site, waves crossing other waves. It’s chaos … but eventually it all calms down.
With supply coming back online, and demand waning, the shortages are turning into gluts. Retailers are stuck with massive unwanted inventory. Oil has dipped back below $75. Tech gear and semiconductors are in ample supply. Housing is slumping.
We think that, if our view is right, the economy should normalize by late 2023 or early 2024.
What makes this a challenge is that most professional investors have never seen a true inventory cycle. The last REAL inventory cycle was probably 40 years ago, if not longer. So, most investors think that we’re headed into a recession, perhaps one that is deep and dark.
A related mistake is that many investors use year-over-year comparisons, which can be misleading. For example, in October, existing housing sales fell 28.4% from a year ago – implying a collapse in housing demand. But, this comparison is against the very strong year-ago post-pandemic demand surge. When compared to the pre-pandemic average, October sales were down only about 16%. And this decline may mostly be under-demand that offsets over-demand during the pandemic period. Perhaps what we are seeing is a reversion toward normalcy.
So, we may see recessions that roll through some industries and then others, but not all industries at the same time. If we’re right, this is probably the time to jump on cheap but reasonably healthy cyclical companies like many of those on our recommended list.
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