Market participants expect 2023 to be an improvement on the year just ended, a low bar to clear after central bank tightening to choke off rampant inflation crushed stock and bond valuations in 2022.
Just how improved will depend on how long it takes the U.S. Federal Reserve — which boosted its key federal funds rate last year to between 4.25% and 4.50% in December from 0% to 0.25% in March — to signal a looming end to its rate hiking cycle.
"Markets, arguably, are going to be a little bit better" in 2023, mostly on the strength of higher bond market returns, even as the macroeconomic backdrop in the U.S. and Europe worsens, said Paul Kalogirou, Hong Kong-based head of client portfolio management, Asia and global multiasset solutions, with Manulife Investment Management. How the Federal Reserve reacts to that economic slowdown will determine whether a broader range of risk assets will be gaining ground as the coming year ends, he said. As of Sept. 30, the Toronto-based money manager reported C$801 billion ($588.2 billion) in assets under management.
Some asset management houses are relatively optimistic on that score.
"Our base case is inflation comes off the boil relatively quickly," allowing the U.S. Fed to turn its focus to growth, said Michele Barlow, Hong Kong-based head of investment strategy and research, Asia-Pacific, with State Street Global Advisors.
SSGA's report on the coming year, "Navigating a Bumpy Landing," predicted the Fed could begin cutting rates as early as the fourth quarter of 2023. Boston-based SSGA reported AUM of $3.48 trillion as of June 30.
That timing would be consistent with "some kind of risk-on scenario" in the second half of the coming year, Ms. Barlow said in an interview.
Others contend the hurdle for any Fed easing in 2023 will be high.
That can only happen "if the medicine the Fed is currently prescribing is working," inducing a sharp slowdown or a recessionary environment from the first half of the coming year, said Sonja Laud, London-based chief investment officer with Legal & General Investment Management. LGIM reported AUM of $1.6 trillion as of June 30.
The focus of the economic landscape will inevitably "shift somewhat" from inflation risk to recession risk as the coming year progresses but inflation is likely to remain high, "given that wage growth is not moderating," said Saira Malik, San Francisco-based chief investment officer with Nuveen LLC, the New York-based asset management arm of TIAA-CREF.
"Our expectation is that the decline (in headline inflation) will be more gradual than what is currently priced in," agreed Jon Pliner, New York-based senior investments director and U.S. head of delegated portfolio management with Willis Towers Watson PLC.
That could prove a stumbling block for a Federal Reserve intent on re-establishing its inflation-fighting credentials after insisting, when price pressures first emerged in 2021, that they were likely to prove transitory.
"The Fed has been clear — and we believe them — that they are going to keep policy rates high for an extended period through 2023," said Erik Knutzen, managing director and chief investment officer – multiasset class with New York-based Neuberger Berman Group LLC.
Equity market valuations have yet to fully reflect that prospect, despite widespread expectations that the U.S. economy, along with the U.K. and Europe, will fall into recession early in the new year, money managers said.
"The market does not yet believe the Fed" and it probably should, said Mr. Knutzen. Neuberger Berman had AUM of $401 billion as of Sept. 30.
Against that backdrop, some market veterans warn that signs of exuberance, irrational or not, could delay Fed easing. "The more relief rallies we have, the longer it's likely to be, because they want to really tighten conditions," said Virginie Maisonneuve, London-based global CIO equity with Allianz Global Investors. AGI reported AUM of €521 billion ($554.9 billion) as of Sept. 30.
For now, said LGIM's Ms. Laud, equity markets appear to be pricing in a soft landing "and we are very cautious that this might be a bit premature," raising the prospect of more downside during the coming year.
Andrew Pease, Russell Investments' London-based global head of investment strategy, said he has concerns about potential downside in 2024 as well if a so-called soft landing by the Fed in 2023 allows inflationary pressures to continue simmering just below the surface.
On a potential "Goldilocks" scenario, he said: "You get the slowdown to, say, 1% growth or half a percent growth, the unemployment rate goes up by about a percentage point and inflation comes back down with a 2 in front of it." While possible, "a lot of things would have to go right for that case to play out," he said.
If, instead, inflation were to drop to a percentage point or two above the Fed's 2% target, pushing up real incomes in a way that causes consumer spending to accelerate, the central bank could have to resume tightening toward the end of 2023 — well after the first quarter pause in the rate hiking cycle many market participants now expect — and lift the fed funds rate toward 6%, Mr. Pease predicted. That could result in a significant recession in 2024 that would overshadow the shallow, brief downturn widely anticipated now for 2023. Mr. Pease said that scenario, while unlikely, is perilous enough to merit concern.
Complicating the outlook now is an especially daunting environment for making forecasts, market veterans said.
Russell's base case is for a recession in 2023 but "this has been such a different cycle on so many different levels that it's very, very hard to predict," Mr. Pease said.
"We're all looking at the same indicators" — the biggest tightening since former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, the yield curve as inverted as it has been since the 1980s, the Institute for Supply Management index is now below 50, which are all recession precursers but "we're coming out of this most unusual economic environment ever," the Russell veteran noted. Maybe the ISM, focused on goods, is "not the best indicator" at a moment when demand for services is playing catch up following a pandemic surge in goods purchases, he said.
Forecasting, difficult at the best of times, is particularly challenging now in an environment dominated by potential tail risks, including the Russia-Ukraine war and China's pandemic reopening, said LGIM's Ms. Laud.
For example, a peace deal in Ukraine would cause gas prices to plummet and U.K. and European stocks to go through the roof — a challenging consideration to integrate into a normal, fundamental analysis, Ms. Laud noted.
"We're particularly looking at the reaction function of the labor market" — how interest rate changes could impact a labor market coming out of two years of pandemic lockdowns, Ms. Laud said. Such an analysis could hold the key to forecasts on interest rates and recessions, she added.