Top investor: Why higher interest rates are coming ‘sooner than people think’—and what it means for stocks

March 14, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
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In recent weeks, Wall Street has been wrestling with the question: Does the rotation trade have legs?

That growth-versus-value debate has resurfaced among investors, and despite a big rally in recent days coming off of a rapid correction, some money managers see more trouble ahead in the high-flying tech- and growth-stock space.

Andrew Slimmon, senior portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, argues that the Street maybe be underestimating the risk of rapidly rising rates (in particular, the 10-year Treasury yield) in the next couple months. High yields tend to be bad for higher-risk, high growth stocks because they make safer investments like bonds seem more attractive to investors by comparison.

A faster increase is more likely, Slimmon tells Fortune, because “The economy is stronger than what consensus believes. I think that we’re going to accelerate faster than what consensus believes, and so I think we’re going to surprise to the upside.” Plus, with a fresh round of stimulus checks hitting Americans’ bank accounts, he’s estimating the 10-year yield could hit 2% by May, faster than many projections on the Street anticipate.

“I think the risk is rates are higher, sooner than what people think,” he argues.

Slimmon’s reasoning is that large, economically sensitive segments of the market, including the S&P 500, small caps, copper, and oil, are all trading higher today than they were pre-pandemic. “You have all these things that are saying, ‘Hey, the economy is coming on.’ The one exception [is] interest rates.”

Indeed, yields are still lower than they were at the start of last year, even with the 10-year Treasury yield jumping to over 1.6% in recent weeks and spooking growth investors. “If we go to 2% by May, you’re going to see growth go through another bout of real pain, and you’re going to see further acceleration into this value trade,” Slimmon argues. “I think the rotation will continue.”

Slimmon is using the recent bounce in the Nasdaq (up 5.6% since Monday, despite a Friday selloff) to trim holdings in tech and growth stocks, instead “looking at this rally as an opportunity to increase my exposure to value,” he says.

Among his preferred value-oriented areas: financials and materials.

Despite their recent strength, financials look particularly attractive to Slimmon compared to tech due to their low price-to-earnings ratios (the sector is trading at around 10 times earnings, per S&P Global data). Financials are also posting “better earnings revisions than some of the tech stocks,” he says. “I think that’s a more intriguing area right now.”

That’s not to say investors should bail out of tech full-stop. Slimmon suggests if rates rise in a “slow grind” to 2% by October or November, growth stocks should do well alongside the overall market. It “doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a portion of your money in those stocks,” he adds, but “just recognize that they are very, very volatile.”

From a longer-term perspective, however, he’s also eyeing “higher quality” dividend-paying defensive stocks that could pose an attractive opportunity over the next couple years if rates continue to climb. (Which they will, according to Slimmon, who thinks we could end 2021 with yields at 2.5%.)

Those sectors, like health care and consumer staples, have “really lagged for a while now,” notes Slimmon. Though he’s not aiming to overweight stocks in the low-risk areas, “When the Fed says, ‘Okay we’re raising rates,’ and value starts to peter out, I’m not sure it’s going to be back to growth,” he argues. “I think it’s going to be the safety trade.”

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