Markets Make Modest Climb in Evolving Inflation Landscape

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Key Observations

  • Global capital markets generally grew modestly during May with value stocks outpacing their growth counterparts and international markets topping U.S. stocks.
  • Declining interest rates and persistent appetite for yield supported fixed income.
  • Coming off a low base in 2020, U.S. inflation (CPI) jumped noticeably in April. Supply chain issues and increased demand resulted in near-term pricing pressure. We do not expect inflation to rise to a level that would ultimately hinder the economic recovery.
  • Investors remain suitably compensated to bear risk but should remain attentive to a still nascent global economic recovery.

Market Recap

Markets around the world in May generally climbed higher, although at a more muted rate than earlier in 2021. Optimism for sustained economic recovery continues, thanks to progress with vaccination efforts and the subsequent reopening of communities. However, concerns that inflation could surge to levels serving as a barrier to a fully rehabilitated economy led to more modest returns this month.

U.S. stocks (Russell 3000 Index) eked out a small gain of 0.5%. Value stocks outpaced their growth counterparts across regions. Sectors such as energy and financials (which are more prevalent in the value indices) were among the leading sectors in the month, fueled by higher commodity prices and a steeper yield curve. As we have previously referenced, developed markets abroad have larger concentrations in those cyclical market segments (such as financial and industrials) that tend to outperform when value rotates into favor. Developed non-U.S. equity, as marked by the MSCI EAFE Index, returned 3.3% in May.

Vaccination efforts continue to improve in many nations and the recently announced European Union COVID-19 recovery fund further bolstered investor optimism. Additionally, a falling U.S. dollar benefitted foreign equity performance. Emerging markets posted modestly higher gains with the MSCI EM Index returning 2.3%. Potentially intrusive regulation pressured large Chinese technology stocks while many developing nations continue to struggle with elevated cases of COVID-19 and vaccine distribution.

Fixed income markets were somewhat subdued during the month but recouped a bit of what was lost earlier in the year when interest rates were moving higher. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index returned 0.3% during May. Despite the worrisome inflation report, interest rates were little changed as the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield modestly declined from 1.65% to 1.58%. Investment grade credit spreads inched tighter although high yield spreads widened a bit, coming off the 10-year low that was touched on May 3. Despite wider high yield spreads, investor demand for yield remains pronounced and the high yield index ultimately finished 0.3% higher. Elevated inflation data and increasing commodity prices were tailwinds for real assets this month, pushing the S&P Real Asset Index 1.9% higher in May.

Inflation Thoughts

U.S. inflation has been widely discussed this year, and rightfully so, as historic fiscal stimulus programs, ultra-accommodative monetary policy and an economy moving ever closer to self-sustaining status moved inflation expectations higher. The most visible evidence on this front comes in the form of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ April report depicting a 4.2% year-over-year increase in its Consumer Price Index (CPI), the largest increase since September 2008. The less volatile Core CPI measure, which excludes food and energy components, also rose a noteworthy 3% over the same period.

We should keep in mind that much of the increase over the last year can be attributed to a low base effect, as recent data solidifies from the unsustainably low levels witnessed in the spring of 2020 following the essentially complete shutdown of the economy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notable components driving the April reading included energy (+25.1% year-over-year) and used automobiles (+21% year-over-year). Commodity prices plunged in the immediate wake of the pandemic as consumers stayed home and businesses closed, but they have staged a steadfast recovery since then in anticipation of a global recovery. Supply chain disruptions (blocked canals, semiconductor shortage, pipeline hacks, etc.) also impacted prices across industries but are beginning to show signs of being addressed and alleviated. Although Charles Schwab recently noted that shipping from Shanghai to Los Angeles has been taking more than double the typical 14-day journey, ports are now showing less backlog and the Baltic Dry Freight Index (which measures bulk material prices across popular global shipping routes) has moved off its peak earlier in the month.

The Federal Reserve’s perspective on the recently heightened inflation data is that it’s transitory. The Fed remained firmly committed to its existing cohort of policies and stances while letting inflation run above its long-term target of 2% in a bid to not prematurely extinguish the economic recovery. Slack in the labor market persists as unemployment rates remain higher and the number of employed sits well below pre-pandemic levels – conditions which should hinder inflation from rising to troubling (and recovery extinguishing) levels near term.

Unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus since March 2020 has injected liquidity into the system and is, indeed, a potential catalyst for higher inflation long term. We also note that U.S. M2 money supply peaked at 27% in February from a year earlier, yet the velocity of money – the number of times one dollar is spent to buy goods and services per unit of time – is at its lowest level in 50 years. This serves as one gauge that recovery still has a way to go. Short-term inflation will likely trend higher as we cycle off the 2020 lows and we expect may run at a higher rate compared to subdued pre-pandemic levels. We continue to believe that all things equal, inflation is unlikely to take hold at a level that would serve to derail the recovering global economy.  As we have stated throughout the year, an allocation to a diversified pool of real assets can be an appropriate and effective way to protect portfolios from the potentially damaging repercussions of inflation.

Market Outlook

We continue to see plenty of evidence of a global economy making steady progress toward self-sustaining and better synchronized growth. That’s why we remain favorably inclined toward risk assets with the full recognition that recovery from the pandemic is unlike anything we, as investors, have ever encountered.

The path to a full economic recovery will remain heavily influenced by ongoing disparate conditions across the globe, including: 1) vaccination efforts, 2) the terms, conditions and expectations pertaining to individual governments’ economic stimulus efforts, and 3) differentiated valuations across global capital markets. While periodic bouts of market volatility may test our collective patience in the near future, we believe that investors continue to be appropriately compensated to thoughtfully bear risk in ways otherwise consistent with their larger risk and return objectives.

If you have questions about your portfolio, please reach out to us directly at 770-368-9919 or email Cliff, [email protected] or Kevin, [email protected].

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