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Wrestling With Rates

Mike Zaccardi

THE S&P 500 WAS UP 0.8% last week. It was a wild ride, with the Volatility Index climbing to almost 40—the highest level in 15 months—as investors grappled with the threat of rising interest rates. The Federal Reserve is steadfast in its plans to aggressively raise short-term interest rates. Bank of America Global Research was the buzz of Wall Street on Friday morning, with its economic team saying it now expects the Fed to hike rates by a quarter-point at all seven remaining meetings this year.

If Bank of America is right, we’ll be able to earn upwards of 2½% to 3% on money market accounts by the end of 2023. But keep in mind that forecasts vary widely. Still, the fear is that tighter Fed policy will lead to slower economic growth.

Amid the monetary policy uncertainty, corporate earnings are coming in fast. FactSet’s earnings insight blog provides the latest earnings season figures. It’s been a solid but not spectacular reporting period thus far. FactSet says that 77% of S&P 500 companies have beaten earnings estimates, near the five-year average beat rate. Aggregate earnings, however, are just 4% above analysts’ expectations, well below the 8.6% five-year average.

With the S&P 500 down 7% year-to-date and earnings continuing to climb, price-earnings (P/E) ratios are becoming more reasonable. The U.S. stock market now looks cheaper than at any time last year. The ratio based on expected earnings is at 19.2, near the five-year average of 18.5, says FactSet. Outside the S&P 500—such as among foreign stocks—valuations appear much better.

Meanwhile, the economy was humming along until Omicron hit. The Commerce Department reported Thursday that real gross domestic product grew at a 6.9% annualized clip in the fourth quarter. That’s the fourth fastest pace since the high-growth days of the mid-1980s. Much of the huge growth in the economy was the result of inventory restocking, which is seen as less indicative of sustainable growth.

Looking ahead, economists expect the latest COVID variant to hurt job growth in January. We’ll get a fresh look at the employment situation on Friday. Some forecasters expect the Labor Department to report a drop in jobs after a stellar 807,000 gain in December’s employment report.

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