Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Mar 21, 2022

Late Cycle Signals

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, March 21st at 1:00 p.m. in New York. So let's get after it. 

A year ago, we published a joint note with our Economics and Cross Asset Strategy teams arguing this cycle would run hotter but shorter than the prior three. Our view was based on the speed and strength of the rebound from the 2020 recession, the return of inflation after a multi-decade absence and an earlier than expected pivot to a more hawkish Fed policy. Developments over the past year support this call - US GDP and earnings have surged past prior cycle peaks and are now decelerating sharply, inflation is running at a 40-year high and the Fed has executed the sharpest pivot in policy we've ever witnessed. 

Meanwhile, just 22 months after the end of the last recession, our Cross Asset team's 'U.S. Cycle' model is already approaching prior peaks. This indicator aggregates key cyclical data to help signal where we are in the economic cycle and where headwinds or tailwinds exist for different parts of the market. 

With regard to factors that affect U.S. equities the most, earnings, sales and margins have also surged past prior cycle highs. In fact, earnings recovered to the prior cycle peak in just 16 months, the fastest rebound going back 40 years. The early to mid-cycle benefits of positive operating leverage have come and gone, and U.S. corporates now face decelerating sales growth coupled with higher costs. As such, our leading earnings model is pointing to a steep deceleration in earnings growth over the coming months. These negative earnings revisions are being driven by cyclicals and economically sensitive sectors - a setup that looks increasingly late cycle. 

Another key input to the shorter cycle view was our analysis of the 1940s as a good historical parallel. Specifically, excess household savings unleashed on an economy constrained by supply set the stage for breakout inflation both then and now. Developments since we published our report in March of last year continue to support this historical analog. Inflation has surged, forcing the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively in a credible effort to restore price stability. Assuming the comparison holds, the next move would be a slowdown and ultimately a much shorter cycle. 

Further analysis of the postwar evolution of the cycle reveals another compelling similarity to the current post-COVID phase - unintended inventory build from over ordering to meet an excessive pull forward of demand. In short, we think the risk of an inventory glut is growing this year in many consumer goods, particularly in areas of the economy that experienced well above trend demand. Consumer discretionary and technology goods stand out in our view. 

Now, with the Fed raising rates this past week and communicating a very hawkish tightening path over the next year, our rate strategists are looking for an inversion of the yield curve in the second quarter. While curve inversion does not guarantee a recession, it does support our view for decelerating earnings growth and would be one more piece of evidence that says its late cycle. 

In terms of our U.S. strategy recommendations, we continue to lean defensive and focus on companies with operational efficiency with high cash flow generation. This leads us to more defensive names with more durable earnings profiles that are also attractively priced. 

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This year is validating our call for a shorter but hotter economic cycle. As the indicators begin to point to a late-cycle environment, here’s how investors can navigate the change.

DISCLAIMER: Important note regarding economic sanctions. This research references country/ies which are generally the subject of comprehensive or selective sanctions programs administered or enforced by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), the European Union and/or by other countries and multi-national bodies. Users of this report are solely responsible for ensuring that their investment activities in relation to any sanctioned country/ies are carried out in compliance with applicable sanctions.

Each week, Mike Wilson offers his perspective on the forces shaping the markets and how to separate the signal from the noise. Listen to his most recent episode and check out those of his colleagues from across Morgan Stanley Research.

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