April Gains Across Economic Data Suggest Return to Normal May Be Imminent

worker driving forklift in factory

Key Observations

  • Equity markets across the globe advanced in April and, in a reversion to return patterns witnessed earlier in the pandemic, were led by large cap and growth names.
  • Monetary and fiscal policy accommodations and the continued escalation of vaccination distribution efforts fueled gains on the economic data front, exemplified by first quarter U.S. GDP growth of 6.4%.
  • An increasingly clarified path toward normality and a strong start to earnings season bolsters our guardedly optimistic posture toward risk assets, restrained by somewhat elevated valuations, pandemic hotspots, tax policy considerations and resurgent geopolitical risks.

Market Recap

Is a return to normal on the horizon? Investors in April were emboldened by reaffirmed commitments to accommodative stimulus and the demonstrable gains made toward wider scale vaccination, which led to major capital markets around the world delivering uniformly positive results last month. Importantly, the stimulus and vaccination efforts stoked tangible gains across a host of economic data, suggesting the bid to return to normal is both viable and, perhaps, imminent.

The 6.4% growth of the U.S. GDP in the first quarter was particularly notable as it provides a very direct link to the economic impact of consumers, who spent at a rapid clip in the period. Having booked three consecutive quarters of robust growth, the U.S. economy is now, remarkably, within earshot of its pre-pandemic peak level. Recent GDP growth elsewhere around the world is a bit more mixed with solid gains in China offset by weaker results in the Eurozone and Japan. U.S. Equities (Russell 3000 Index) returned 5.2% in April, although a reversal from the prior few months took hold with larger capitalization and growth sectors reasserting their leadership.

Investors anticipated robust earnings results from several large technology companies, which drove equity prices higher within the sector. Those expectations broadly came to fruition, with 94% of technology companies beating earnings estimates and the sector reporting 40% year-over-year earnings growth[1].

International developed and emerging market equities generated positive returns in April but modestly trailed the U.S. as many foreign countries continue to face challenges with virus containment and vaccine distribution. The MSCI EAFE rose 3% and emerging market stocks gained 2.5%. U.S. Treasury yields moved lower with the 10-year and 30-year both falling 11bps to 1.63% and 2.30%, respectively. The Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Index, a proxy for returns on Treasury and investment grade corporate bonds, returned 0.8% in April. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield Index benefitted from modest credit spread tightening and generated a 1.1% return over the month. Most real assets generated healthy returns amid higher inflation expectations and increasing demand. The S&P Broad Real Asset Index, which is comprised of equities, fixed income, and futures representative of liquid real assets, returned 4.5% through April.

Continued Economic Momentum

Purchasing manager survey activity around much of the world continues to trend positively while remaining at levels indicative of expansion. On the heels of a very strong reading in March (59.1), the IHS Markit Flash Manufacturing PMI reading in April for the U.S. moved up to 60.5. 

Recent PMI results in the Eurozone and Japan have been expansionary as well although the related data in China has softened a bit. Specific to the U.S., while both demand and factory output remains elevated, those surveyed indicate that supply chain disruptions are hindering production and pressuring input costs.  We expect these bottlenecks will start to ease as suppliers recalibrate their processes in response to the evolving economic backdrop. Inflation measures may, indeed, rise a bit near-term but we share the Fed’s sentiment that escalating prices will be transitory and not otherwise inhibit the economic recovery. 

Labor market improvements provide additional evidence to the idea that employers are preparing for a sustained ramp up in economic activity as reopening efforts accelerate. The U.S. economy added over 900,000 jobs in March, the unemployment rate ticked down to 6%, and particularly noteworthy gains were sourced in the segments of the economy (e.g., leisure & hospitality) hit hardest at the pandemic’s onset.

For more information, please reach out to us directly at 770-368-9919 or email Cliff, cliff@cwoconner.com or Kevin, kevin@cwoconner.com.

[1] Factset, as of March 31, 2021

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Cliff is the founder and president of C.W. O'Conner Wealth Advisors, Inc. Cliff earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Accounting from Georgia State University.