The stock market has moved higher thus far in 2024 with investors anticipating the Fed cutting interest rates, no recession and a return to earnings growth. This is the 14th time in the past 74 years when a positive January has followed a year with returns in excess of 15%. In 12 of those prior 13 times, the stock market recorded positive returns for the entire year with a median return of 16.3%.
Despite investor expectations, Fed Chairman Powell has indicated that the Fed will not be in a rush to begin cutting rates and he reiterated that view on “60 Minutes” Sunday. Jobs created in January were well above expectations and will give the Fed the ability to keep rates higher for longer. It is also notable that in the official comments, the Fed removed an entire paragraph about the stability of the financial system – the same day that New York Community Bank reported a loss and slashed its dividend due to its exposure to commercial real estate.
Perhaps the biggest economic surprise of 2023 was the nation’s pace of growth. Early last year, the majority of economists were forecasting a recession, with the minority anticipating a soft landing. However, it appears the economy grew over 3% in real terms. The key was the robustness of consumer spending fed by government stimulus and a strong labor market. Much of the consumers’ Covid-era excess savings has now been depleted, but thus far, consumer spending remains strong while government debt remains elevated.
With nearly half of the S&P 500 companies reporting their fourth quarter earnings, the tally has come in 7% higher than expected with every economic sector reporting positive surprises. Overall earnings growth is 4% but a large portion of that growth has come from five companies: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta (Facebook). Microsoft is viewed as the artificial intelligence (AI) leader and its cloud services business is accelerating in large part due to AI tools it offers clients. Alphabet’s AI and cloud initiatives also performed well, but its core digital advertising business growth missed some expectations. Apple generates massive free cash flow, and it returns that cash to its shareholders, primarily through stock repurchases. Meta has seen a huge jump in its cash flow after cutting spending on the metaverse as a percentage of revenues. Amazon has become more vertically integrated and is now shipping the vast majority of what it sells. It has built a very profitable advertising business and Amazon Web Services is a giant cloud servicing firm.
Outside of these companies, there are plenty of other trends to watch including reshoring, infrastructure needs, the need to upgrade electrical grids and capacity to support EV and AI demands and restocking our military in the face of multiple wars. When looking at specific companies, large free cash flows are a differentiator. Achieving leadership in today’s world and maintaining that leadership requires a lot of capital. In a world where debt costs are high and the monetary base is shrinking, having plenty of cash is a huge advantage. The capital still has to be deployed wisely, but having the funds to grow is a significant advantage.