Quarterly Letter Excerpt: Economy & Markets

What does it mean to have humility? Classically defined, it is “a feeling or attitude awarding no special standing that makes you better than others.” As we close out the year, there are many lessons 2023 can teach us. Perhaps most salient is the concept of humility, especially relating to financial markets. Sour moods festooned the investment landscape as the year began. Inflation was high, interest rates were rising, stocks (and bonds) had just closed out a tough year, and recession was expected by most. Fast forward twelve months, as the year closes inflation is lower, rates have peaked, stocks (and bonds) logged solid returns, and the US has so far avoided recession. On the latter, while our process is thorough, I got it wrong in 2023. But it’s fanciful to expect that we’ll get everything right. Rather the aim is simply to go to bed a little smarter than when we woke up. To be lifelong learners and compound our knowledge. Fortunately, our toil and tenets position us to do just that.

We lost the venerable Charlie Munger this year. For over six decades Charlie was Warren Buffett’s sage right-hand at Berkshire Hathaway. He used to say, “we try to arrange our affairs so that no matter what happens we’ll never be sent ‘back to go,’” [Monopoly board game reference]. At Albion, we manage money under a similar belief. We don’t speculate. We invest. We don’t bank on short run forecasts when building portfolios. We take a long-term view. Indeed, an investment strategy shouldn’t hang on getting macro and market calls correct, and any such projections must carry a sizable dollop of humility. In practice, this means portfolio execution is incremental as opposed to extensive. Again, avoiding ‘back to go.’ This conduct is core to our investment philosophy. Adhering to these principles, plus sound investment selection, work together to deliver laudable risk-adjusted returns over time. Knowing the future is impossible. Accepting this is the first step to becoming less fragile and more adaptable. Instead, we pursue strategies that can survive whatever may occur.

Now, let’s review the fourth quarter.

The October through December period saw a continuance of the post pandemic expansion. GDP was (very likely) somewhat higher, the labor market is healthy, and consumer demand endures. Meanwhile, as we’ve anticipated, inflation is now about 3% (sub-3% by some measures!) and the Fed has clearly communicated that they’re done hiking rates. On balance, economic and market conditions sit somewhere between favorable and improving. This sent equities bounding higher. Concurrently, business profits – the lifeblood of stock prices – have perhaps bottomed if we avoid recession. That last piece is critical; we’ll revisit in a moment. A
ding against the quarter was the awful Israel / Hamas war that broke out on October 7th. While markets, including energy, have taken the turmoil in stride, the human cost has been immense.

The overall good vibes sent valuations higher. The S&P 500 now goes for about 21.5x trailing earnings and 19.5x 2024 estimates. Not cheap, especially against yields that, despite the recent drop, are near multi-year highs. It’s also not wildly expensive. Profit growth for the whole of 2023 will settle in slightly better than flat (versus 2022) and growth expectations for 2024 infer an impressive +12% stride. And it’s here where the question of recession / no recession matters most. As for Wall Street’s big picture 2024 outlook? The consensus is now (unsurprisingly) cheerful. Economists and strategists expect a decent year for stocks (i.e., building on ’23 gains) and no recession. Our outlook? Unhappily we still see elevated risk of a mild recession. Yes, the economy has been resilient. But just because a slump hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t. The business cycle always looks good just before it slides.

Generally, when you spike rates it has a negative impact that works with a lag. The idea that the Fed can take rates from 0% to nearly 5.5% with over a trillion in quantitative tightening (QT), over a short period of time, and that the economic pendulum will stop from strong growth to perfect growth without going negative doesn’t make sense to us. It would be ahistorical to expect that. There’s evidence of this in many of our preferred leading indicators, like LEI and the Treasury yield curve, as well as some early signs that strong employment and a robust consumer may be waning. Add to this those higher rates – plus the view that they may stay up here for a while (“higher for longer”) – and we still see heightened odds of recession near-term. We’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite this stance, with great humility and borrowing from Munger’s book of wisdom, we’re not betting the farm. Instead, the result of our uncharacteristically cautious macro outlook means we’ve added some “defense” to growth portfolios while, importantly, staying fully invested. We consider this approach to strike a functional balance between respecting short-term risks while staying true to our DNA as long-term investors. The big money is not in the buying and selling, but in the waiting. We will continue to manage your precious capital using a resolute investment philosophy, quality securities, and the best possible information. Many thanks for your trust in us. Happy New Year!

Albion Financial Group is an SEC registered investment advisor. The information provided is intended solely for educational purposes and should not be construed as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any particular securities product, service, or investment strategy. Past performance is not indicative of future performance.


Albion CIO on KPCW with Partner Doug Wells

“…With the invasion of Ukraine, the disruption of the distribution of natural resources and food supply caused by that, and other supply chain factors. How should we look at the stock market, investing, and saving during this time?

Find out by listening to Albion Partner, Doug Wells‘s interview with Albion Partner and CIO Jason Ware.

Each week Doug co-hosts the one-hour show – Mountain Money – on Park City’s NPR affiliate, KPCW Public Media.


Weekly Market Recap

Weekly Recap: Equity markets rode a roller coaster fueled by inflation fears last week, with most stocks finishing lower. Headline inflation (as measured by CPI) rose above 4% for the first time since 2008, causing a short-lived spike in interest rates as well as widespread selling in equities as discount rates were
recalibrated. The fear of persistently higher inflation began to subside a bit
on Friday, allowing rates to fall and equities to recoup some of their losses.

Large cap tech stocks were hit the hardest, dragging down sector
performance for communications (-2.0%), information technology (-2.2%), and consumer discretionary (-3.7%). Meanwhile, cyclicals as well as traditional defensive sectors were mixed, with only consumer staples
(+0.4%), financials (+0.3%), and basic materials (+0.1%) finishing higher on the week.

Interest rates finished the week modestly higher, with benchmark 10y
Treasury yields rising 5bp while 30y yields were up 6bp. Credit spreads were mostly stable, resulting in small price declines across all sectors of the bond market on the back of the rise in Treasury yields.

Oil prices rose, with WTI closing back above the $65/barrel threshold.
Meanwhile, the national average price of gasoline rose above $3 per gallon
for the first time since late 2014. See the Chart of the Week for a time series.

Albion’s “Four Pillars”: Economy & Earnings – GDP growth was +6.4% annualized in Q1 2021, and is forecast to accelerate to +8.1% in Q2. Meanwhile, EPS for the S&P 500 turned positive y/y in Q4 2020 and will rise significantly y/y in Q1 2021 as the economy laps the onset of the pandemic.

Equity Valuation – the S&P 500’s forward P/E of 22x is above the historical average, and long-term valuation metrics like CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E ratio) suggest that compound annual returns over the coming decade are likely to be in the single digits. That said, lower equity returns may be justified in the context of ultra-low yields on alternatives like bonds and cash.

Interest Rates – Rates remain low by historical standards despite recent
volatility, supporting equity valuations and lowering borrowing costs.

Inflation – After staving off deflation early in the pandemic, the Fed has
communicated tolerance for short periods of above-target inflation. A
cyclical bump in inflation may occur in 2021 as pent-up demand is released, testing the Fed’s resolve, but we do not expect higher inflation to persist.

Learn News

Weekly Market Recap

Equities were mixed last week as the world watched the Suez Canal drama unfolding. Most sectors generated positive returns allowing the S&P 500 and the Dow to finish the week higher, while price declines in some large-cap communications names pulled the Nasdaq lower. Small caps were also lower on the week, as were many international stocks.

Bond markets mostly rallied last week. Treasury yields were lower as the curve flattened modestly, while credit spreads were stable.

Oil prices gyrated day by day as investors grappled with the impact of the Suez blockage on short term global supply.

Economic news was mixed last week. On a positive note, jobless claims hit new pandemic lows, and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index registered a large sequential index. At the same time, personal incomes & spending, capital goods orders, and home sales all fell.

Finally, in two days of testimony before the US Congress, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen both pledged to continue supporting the economic recovery and downplayed concerns about runaway inflation caused by excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus. As the Chart of the Week shows, the Core PCE Deflator (the Fed’s preferred inflation metric) remains below its 2% target.

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