Equity markets finally took a breather last week, as investors digested spotty earnings and began to discount the possible economic downside of U.S. isolationism. While profits should dictate the trend in stocks over the long haul, equity valuations have soared since the election, it is critical to consider the durability of this trend and other influences at this juncture.
The recent string of positive economic surprises raises the risk that monetary conditions will tighten further, especially amidst rising inflation pressures and a tight labor market. As such, the broad market remains in a dangerous overshoot phase, predicated on hopes for a sustained non-inflationary global economic mini-boom.
The risk is that these hopes are dashed by nationalistic policy blunders (i.e. protectionism and trade barriers) or a more muted and drawn out improvement in global economic growth than double-digit earnings growth forecasts would imply.
There appears to be full buy-in to a durable bullish economic/profit outcome. We have constructed a ‘Complacency-Anxiety’ Indicator (CAI), using a number of variables that gauge investor positioning, sentiment and risk on/off biases (see chart). The CAI is at its highest level ever, signaling extreme confidence/conviction in the outlook for equities.
All of this argues for maintaining a capital preservation mindset rather than chasing market euphoria in the near run. Elevated complacency suggests that the consensus is focused solely on return rather than risk. It will be more constructive to put money to work when anxiety levels are higher than at present.