Stocks fell last week as markets continue to weigh a strong January jobs report against signs that disinflation is well under way.

The still-strong labor market, coupled with improving business and consumer sentiment and international backdrop (see below), suggests reduced odds of a near-term recession. However, this also increases the odds of additional Federal Reserve (Fed) interest rate hikes to ensure inflation returns to the Fed’s 2% target. A lackluster earnings season with 2023 earnings now projected to be flat with 2022 suggests limited upside for stocks with the S&P 500 Index trading at 18 times the next-12-months’ earnings estimate, above the 25-year average of about 17 times.

Business and Consumer Confidence Rebound

The Conference Board’s CEO Confidence Index rebounded in the first quarter, its first increase in seven quarters. It indicates that while business executives are still cautious, they feel less pessimistic about the economic outlook. The index tends to lead capital expenditure growth by several quarters, which suggests a likely improvement in business spending toward the end of 2023.

CEOs’ assessments of current and expected conditions, both for the macro economy and for their own industries, improved from the lows last year. Even though most of them (93%, down from 98% in the fourth quarter of 2022) continue to anticipate a U.S. recession in the next 12-18 months, the outlook is for a brief and shallow recession without much spillover globally.

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index increased in the preliminary February survey to its highest level in over a year. The index has risen in seven of the past eight months, as consumer attitudes continued to improve amid persistent strength in the labor market and receding inflation. Current conditions advanced this month to its best level since December 2020.

Sentiment was up 5.7% from a year ago, posting its first y/y increase since July 2021. Positive momentum bodes well for the near-term outlook for consumer spending, suggesting lower odds of a near-term recession. But sentiment is still subdued, running well below the pre-pandemic peak and below the historical average. This suggests that consumers remain cautious, consistent with an uncertain outlook.

Global Backdrop Stabilizing

The global economy showed signs of stabilization at the start of the year, according to the latest global PMIs (business surveys). The global composite PMI saw its largest gain in seven months in January, putting the indicator on the cusp of stagnation (after a period of signaling contraction) and at a six-month high.

Contrary to December’s global PMI, which increased slightly on a month-to-month basis but showed other areas of weakness, this latest global data was broadly constructive, as both the manufacturing and services indexes picked up. Moreover, the composite indexes for new orders (including export orders), employment, and backlogs all increased, indicating improving demand globally. Conditions are likely to pick up, as the future output index jumped at one of its fastest paces on record and to its highest since April.

China’s reopening, due to the end of the zero-COVID policy, explained much of the rebound. But the improving trend was observed elsewhere, albeit to a lesser degree, as the global composite PMI exChina also increased.

Lackluster Earnings Season

With about 80% of the S&P 500 Index reported, fourth-quarter earnings are set to fall 1.4% year-over-year. In addition, the outlook for 2023 is lackluster with the consensus calling for earnings to be flat with 2022. Earnings growth is the critical factor for stock price gains.

Important News This Week

All eyes will be on Tuesday’s release of the consumer price index and Thursday’s release of the producer price index for signs of additional inflation progress. Wednesday brings retail sales and industrial production, with the Leading Economic Index on Friday.

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