There’s one big question on the Street lately as the markets and economy falter: Will we or won’t we head into another recession? For investors, understanding how to play either or any scenario could be a leg up.
“I think people’s nerves are very frayed here at the minute, not even so much because of what’s going on in the markets themselves, but what’s going on in the world,” Lisa Shalett, chief investment officer at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, tells Fortune of the broader geopolitical uncertainty. “I think we’re at a pretty fraught time.”
According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, the odds of a recession in the next one to two years are “uncomfortably high,” he tells Fortune. He places those odds at about one-in-three in the next 12 months, and says he’s watching things like oil prices, consumer sentiment, and the yield curve for clues.
For investors, a recession could mean switching up the playbook to move into more defensive investments (read: high-flying growth and tech stocks likely aren’t going to work for investors’ portfolios like they did the past two years). So far this year, the S&P 500 is off nearly 14%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite is down almost 23%.
“If we see another acceleration in inflation, if we see another shutdown [in China], and we have another terrible geopolitical event … that can spiral out of control and push inflation higher, well then that could put us on the brink of … maybe a recession before the end of the year,” says LPL Financial’s chief market strategist Ryan Detrick.
With the trajectory of the U.S. economy still uncertain, Fortune asked several strategists how investors can be ready for a variety of economic scenarios.
Scenario 1: No recession in 2022
Some strategists are of the view that we don’t see a recession—at least not near term.
For those like Morgan Stanley’s Shalett, the reasons why can be boiled down pretty simply: “When it comes to the broader economy, and why we’re not calling for recession, is to get a recession, you actually have to hit consumers. And right now, consumers are in phenomenal shape, the job market is still very strong,” she says. “While income growth is not keeping up with inflation and there’s angst there, the reality is that consumers are still spending.”
Indeed, though consumer confidence has been sinking, spending is still strong at the moment, and jobs data is remaining steady, with unemployment hovering around 3.6%. Corporate America’s balance sheets, meanwhile, are also “in very solid shape,” says LPL’s Detrick. (Like Shalett, he thinks the odds of a recession this year are “slim”.)
In fact, more optimistic strategists like Detrick suggest that if inflation peaks soon, that could even provide a “major catalyst” for confidence and the stock market to have a second-half-of-the-year comeback.
In a better-case-scenario, Detrick suggests buying up some “beaten up” darlings—namely, tech and growth names, and communication services. Those stocks have “really become cheap relative to where they were” considering the big tech rout we’ve seen so far in 2022. Detrick also points out that small caps broadly are “historically” cheap at the moment, and if we avoid a recession and the economy “surprises to the upside,” small caps could pose a compelling option for investors.
“Cyclical stocks do well in times of market booms,” adds Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Schwab Center for Financial Research. And Shalett notes that if we do get a “re-acceleration scenario, you’re going to want to load the boat back up with cyclicals” and own things like energy, banks, housing, retail, consumer discretionary, and “things of that nature.”
Scenario 2: A (standard) recession
When it comes to a recession, according to Schwab’s Frederick, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when we get it, how deep will the recession be, and how long will it last?” (His take: It will likely be “relatively mild” and won’t last very long.)
Experts point out that there are a couple concerning signs, including big retailers like Target and Walmart‘s most recent earnings, which warned of excess inventory—something that contributed to the negative GDP number in the first quarter, according to Shalett. Plenty of eyes on the Street are also watching the Federal Reserve’s policies to battle inflation, and whether or not they might usher the economy into a recession. And as Moody’s Zandi postulates, there’s a close to 50/50 chance of a recession within the next two years.
If you don’t like those odds, and think we may be headed for darker days, strategists suggest a few plays for investors.
Those like Shalett, Detrick, and Frederick note a variety of defensive picks like utilities, staples, health care, large caps, non-cyclical tech stocks, insurance, and telecoms could do well in a recession environment. However, Frederick cautions that “we’re not talking about selling all your tech stocks and buying all utilities and staples—we’re talking about, maybe you reduce your tech exposure by 5% or 10% and you add 5% or 10% to utilities or healthcare or staples,” two areas he notes also often have sizable dividend yields, which could help provide a bit of extra cushion in harder times.
LPL’s Detrick also points out that despite their poor performance so far this year, bonds could also do well in a recession scenario.
But the good news is none of the strategists that spoke with Fortune anticipate this recession would be especially nasty, but rather more garden variety.
Scenario 3: No recession, but weak growth or stagflation
Some call it a “soft landing,” “stagflation,” or perhaps a “mid-cycle slowdown,” but investors may be facing a scenario where the economy avoids slipping into a recession, but growth is weaker or slowing.
For one, LPL’s Detrick postulates that we’re in a “mid-cycle slowdown.” And in fact, economists like Zandi suggest that a cooling, especially in employment, from the rapid recovery of the past two years “is desirable—we need to slow down.”
Morgan Stanley’s Shalett believes we’re in, and will likely remain in, a stagflationary environment—meaning one with high inflation and slowing economic growth. In that environment, she suggests investors “own everything”—which could mean being “style neutral, sector neutral, region neutral, factor neutral; you don’t want to be momentum, you don’t want to be quality. You just want to be neutral and you want to ride the wave up and down and have exposure to both sides of it, because it’s too hard to call,” she argues. In other words: diversify.
LPL’s Detrick is of the same mind, arguing that in this scenario, instead of investors trying to “pick a favorite” in the market, “having more of a barbell approach with some growth and some value makes a lot of sense.”
No matter where the U.S. economy is headed, it can’t hurt to be prepared.
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