As the market enters correction territory, don’t blame the American consumer

An Amazon.com Inc worker prepares an order in which the buyer asked for an item to be gift wrapped at a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, U.S., November 12, 2020.

Amazon.com Inc | Reuters

The initial third-quarter report on gross domestic product showed consumer spending zooming higher by 4% percent a year, after inflation, the best in almost two years. September’s retail sales report showed spending climbing almost twice as fast as the average for the last year. And yet, bears like hedge-fund trader Bill Ackman argue that a recession is coming as soon as this quarter and the market has entered correction territory.

For an economy that rises or falls on the state of the consumer, third-quarter earnings data supports a view of spending that remains mostly good. S&P 500 consumer-discretionary companies that have reported through Oct. 25 saw an average profit gain of 15%, according to CFRA — the biggest revenue gain of the stock market’s 11 sectors.

“People are kind of scratching their heads and saying, ‘The consumer is holding up better than expected,'” said CFRA Research strategist Sam Stovall said. “Consumers are employed. They continue to buy goods as well as pursue experiences. And they don’t seem worried about debt levels.” 

How is this possible with interest rates on everything from credit cards to cars and homes soaring?

It’s the anecdotes from bellwether companies across key industries that tell the real story: Delta Air Lines and United Airlines sharing how their most expensive seats are selling fastest. Homeowners using high-interest-rate-fighting mortgage buydowns. Amazon saying it’s hiring 250,000 seasonal workers. A Thursday report from Deckers Outdoor blew some minds — in what has been a tepid clothing sales environment — by disclosing that embedded in a 79% profit gain that sent shares up 19% was sales of Uggs, a mature line anchored by fuzzy boots, rising 28%.

The picture they paint largely matches the economic data — generally positive, but with some warts. Here is some of the key evidence from from the biggest company earnings reports across the market that help explain how companies and the American consumer are making the best of a tough rate environment.

How homebuilders are solving for mortgages rates

No industry is more central to the market’s notion that the consumer is falling from the sky than housing, because the number of existing home sales have dropped almost 40% from Covid-era peaks. But while Coldwell Banker owner Anywhere Real Estate saw profit fall by half, news from builders of new homes has been pretty good.

Most consumers have mortgages below 5%, but for new homebuyers, one reason that rates are not biting quite as sharply as they should is that builders have figured out ways around the 8% interest rates that are bedeviling existing home sellers. That helps explains why new home sales are up this year. Homebuilders are dipping into money that previously paid for other incentives to pay for offering mortgages at 5.75% rather than the 8% level other mortgages have hit. At PulteGroup, the nation’s third-biggest builder, that helped drive an 8% third-quarter profit jump and 43% climb in new home orders for delivery later, much better than the government-reported 4.5% gain in new home sales year-to-date.

“What we’ve done is simply redistribute incentives we’ve historically offered toward cabinets and countertops, and redirected those to interest rate incentives,” PulteGroup CEO Ryan Marshall said. “And that has been the most powerful thing.”

The mechanics are complex, but work out to this: Pulte sets aside about $35,000 for incentives to get each home to sell, or about 6% of its price, the company said on its earnings conference call. Part of that is paying for a mortgage buydown. About 80% to 85% of buyers are taking advantage of the buydown offer. But many are splitting the funds, mixing a smaller rate buydown and keeping some goodies for the house, the company said.

Wells Fargo economist Jackie Benson said in a report that builders may struggle to keep this strategy going if mortgage rates stay near 8%, but new-home prices have dropped 12% in the last year. In her view, incentives plus bigger price cuts than most existing homes’ owners will offer is giving builders an edge. 

At auto companies, price cuts are in, and more are coming

Car sales picked up notably in September, rising 24% year-over-year, more than twice the year-to-date gain in unit sales. But they were below expectations at electric-vehicle leader Tesla, which blamed high interest rates, and at Ford

“I just can’t emphasize this enough, that for the vast majority of people buying a car it’s about the monthly payment,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on its earnings call. “And as interest rates rise, the proportion of that monthly payment that is interest increases.” 

Maybe, but that’s not what’s happening at General Motors, even if investor reaction to good numbers at GM was muted because of the strike by the United Auto Workers union. 

GM tops Q3 expectations but pulls full-year guidance due to mounting UAW strike costs

GM beat earnings expectations by 40 cents a share, but shares fell 3% because of investor worries about the strike, which forced GM to withdraw its fourth-quarter earnings forecast on Oct. 24. Ford, which settled with the UAW on Oct. 25, said the next day it had a “mixed” quarter, as profit missed Wall Street targets due to the strike. Consumers came through, as unit sales rose 7.7% for the quarter, with truck and EV sales both up 15%. GM CEO Mary Barra said on GM’s analyst call that the company gained market share, posting a 21% gain in unit sales despite offering incentives below the industry average.

“While we hear reports out there in the macro that consumer sentiment might be weakening, etc., we haven’t seen that in demand for our vehicles,” GM CFO Paul Jacobson told analysts. But Ford CFO John Lawler said car prices need to decline by about $1,800 to be as affordable as they were before Covid. “We think it’s going to happen over 12 to 18 months,” he said. 

Tesla’s turnaround plan turns on continuing to lower its cost of producing cars, which came down by about $2,000 per vehicle in last year, the company said. Along with federal tax credits for electric vehicles, a Model Y crossover can be had for about $36,490, or as little as $31,500 in states with local tax incentives for EVs. That’s way below the average for all cars, which Cox Automotive puts at more than $50,000. But Musk says some consumers still aren’t convincible. .

“When you look at the price reductions we’ve made in, say, the Model Y, and you compare that to how much people’s monthly payment has risen due to interest rates, the price of the Model Y is almost unchanged,” Musk said. “They can’t afford it.”

Most banks say the consumer still has cash, but not Discover

To know how consumers are doing, ask the banks, which disclose consumer balances quarterly. To know if they’re confident, ask the credit card companies (often the same companies) how much they are spending. 

In most cases, financial services firms say consumers are doing well.

At Bank of America, consumer balances are still about one-third higher than before Covid, CEO Brian Moynihan said on the company’s conference call. At JPMorgan Chase, balances have eroded 3% in the last year, but consumer loan delinquencies declined during the quarter, the company said.

“Where am I seeing softness in [consumer] credit?” said chief financial officer Jeremy Barnum, repeating an analyst’s question on the earnings call. “I think the answer to that is actually nowhere.”

Among credit card companies, the “resilient” is still the main story. MasterCard, in fact, used that word or “resilience” eight times to describe U.S. consumers in its Oct. 26 call.

“I mean, the reality is, unemployment levels are [near] all-time record lows,” MasterCard chief financial officer Sachin Mehra said.

At American Express, which saw U.S. consumer spending rise 9%, the mild surprise was the company’s disclosure that young consumers are adding Amex cards faster than any other group. Millennials and Gen Zers saw their U.S. spending via Amex rise 18%, the company said.

“Guess they’re not bothered by the resumption of student loan payments,” Stovall said.

Consumer data is more positive than sentiment, says Bankrate's Ted Rossman

The major fly in the ointment came from Discover Financial Services, one of the few banks to make big additions to its loan loss reserves for consumer debt, driving a 33% drop in profit as Discover’s loan chargeoffs doubled.  

Despite the fact that U.S. household debt burdens are almost exactly the same as in late 2019, and declined during the quarter, according to government data, Discover chief financial officer John Greene said on its call, “Our macro assumptions reflect a relatively strong labor market but also consumer headwinds from a declining savings rate and increasing debt burdens.”

At airlines, still no sign of a travel recession

It’s good to be Delta Air Lines right now, sitting on a 59% third-quarter profit gain driven by the most expensive products on their virtual shelves: First-class seats and international vacations. Also good to be United, where higher-margin international travel rose almost 25% and the company is planning to add seven first-class seats per departure by 2027. Not so good to be discounter Spirit, which saw shares fall after reporting a $157 million loss.

“With the market continuing to seemingly will a travel recession into existence despite evidence to the contrary from daily [government] data and our consumer surveys, Delta’s third-quarter beat and solid fourth-quarter guide and commentary should finally put the group at ease about a consumer “cliff,” allow them to unfasten their seatbelts and walk about the cabin,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker said in a note to clients.

One tangible impact: United is adding 20 planes this quarter, though it is pushing 12 more deliveries into 2024, while Spirit said it’s delaying plane deliveries, and focusing on its proposed merger with JetBlue and cost-cutting to regain competitiveness as soft demand for its product persists into the holiday season.

As has been the case throughout much of 2023, richer consumers — who contribute the greater share of spending — are doing better than moderate-income families, Sundaram said.

The goods recession is for real

Whirlpool, Ethan Allen and mattress maker Sleep Number all saw their stocks tumble after reporting bad earnings, all of them experiencing sales struggles consistent with the macro data.

This follows a trend now well-entrenched in the economy: people stocked up on hard goods, especially for the house, during the pandemic, when they were stuck at home more. All three companies saw shares surge during Covid, and growth has slacked off since as they found their markets at least partly saturated and consumers moved spending to travel and other services.

“All of the stimulus money went to the furniture industry,” Sundaram said, exaggerating for effect. “Now they’ve been falling apart for the last year.”

Ethan Allen sales dropped 24%, as the company said a flood in a Vermont factory and softer demand were among the causes. At Whirlpool, which said in second-quarter earnings that it was moving to make up slowing sales to consumers by selling more appliances to home builders, “discretionary purchases have been even softer than anticipated, as a result of increased mortgage rates and low consumer confidence,” CEO Marc Bitzer said during Thursday’s earnings call. Its shares fell more than 20%. 

Amazon’s $1.3 billion holiday hiring spree

Amazon is making its biggest-ever commitment to holiday hiring, spending $1.3 billion to add the workers, mostly in fulfillment centers. 

That’s possible because Amazon has reorganized its warehouse network to speed up deliveries and lower costs, sparking 11% sales gains the last two quarters as consumers turn to the online giant for more everyday repeat purchases. Amazon also tends to serve a more affluent consumer who is proving more resilient in the face of interest rate hikes and inflation than audiences for Target or dollar stores, according to CFRA retailing analyst Arun Sundaram said.

“Their retail sales are performing really well,” Sundaram said. “There’s still headwinds affecting discretionary sales, but everyday essentials are doing really well.

All of this sets the stage for a high-stakes holiday season.

PNC still thinks there will be a recession in early 2024, thanks partly to the Federal Reserve’ rate hikes, and thinks investors will focus on sales of goods looking for more signs of weakness. “There’s a lot of strength for the late innings” of an expansion, said PNC Asset Management chief investment officer Amanda Agati.

Sundaram, whose firm has predicted that interest rates will soon drop as inflation wanes, thinks retailers are in better shape, with stronger supply chains that will allow strategic discounting more than last year to pump sales. The Uggs sales outperformance was attributed to improved supply chains and shorter shipping times as the lingering effects of the pandemic recede.

“Though there are headwinds for the consumer, there’s a chance for a decent holiday season,” he said, albeit one hampered still by the inflation of the last two years. “The 2022 holiday season may have been the low point.” 

Deloitte predicts soft holiday sales

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‘The high for equities is not in,’ says technical strategist who unpacks the stocks to buy now.

Siegel argues that bonds, which have been giving stocks the shove, have proven to be a terrible inflation hedge, but investors have forgotten that given it’s 40 years since the last big price shock. “Stocks are excellent long-term hedges, stocks do beautifully against inflation, bonds do not,” he told CNBC on Tuesday.

Don’t miss: ‘Bond math’ shows traders bold enough to bet on Treasurys could reap dazzling returns with little risk

Other stock cheerleaders out there are counting on a fourth-quarter rally, which, according to LPL Financial, delivers on average a 4.2% gain as portfolio managers snap up stock winners to spiff up performances.

Our call of the day from Evercore ISI’s head of technical strategy, Rich Ross, is in the bull camp as he declares the “high for equities is not in,” and suggests some stocks that will set investors up nicely for that.

Ross notes November is the best month for the S&P 500
SPX,
Russell 2000
RUT
and semiconductors
SOX,
while the November to January period has seen a 6% gain on average for the Nasdaq Composite
COMP.
He says if the S&P can break out above 4,430, the next stop will be 4,630 within 2023, putting him at the bullish end of Wall Street forecasts.

In addition, even with 10-year Treasury yields back at their highs, the S&P 500 is still ahead this week and that’s a “great start” to any rally, he adds.

Evercore/Bloomberg

What else? He says “panic bottoms” seen in bond proxies, such as utilities via the Utilities Select Sector SPD exchange-traded fund ETF
XLU,
real-estate investment trusts and staples, are “consistent with a bottom in bond prices,” which is closer than it appears if those proxies have indeed bottomed.


Evercore/Bloomberg

Among the other green shoots, Ross sees banks bottoming following Bank of America
BAC,
+1.14%

earnings “just as they did in March of ’20 after a similar 52% decline which culminated in a year-end rally which commenced in Q4.”

He sees expanding breadth for stocks — more stocks rising than falling — adding that that’s a buy signal for the Russell 2000, retail via the SPDR S&P Retail ETF
XRT
and regional banks via the SPDR S&P Regional Banking
KRE.

The technical strategist also says it’s time to buy transports
DJT,
with airlines “at bear market lows and deeply oversold,” while railroads are also bottoming and truckers continue to rise.

As for tech, he’s a buyer of semiconductors noting they tend to gain 7% on average in November, and Nvidia
NVDA,
-2.88%

has been under pressure as of late. He also likes software such as Microsoft
MSFT,
+0.82%
,
Zscaler
ZS,
+0.66%
,
MongoDB
MDB,
+0.90%
,
Intuit
INTU,
-1.43%
,
Oracle
ORCL,
-0.05%
,
Adobe
ADBE,
+0.93%
,
CrowdStrike
CRWD,
+0.55%

and Palo Alto Networks
PANW,
+1.38%
.


Evercore/Bloomberg

“The strong tech will stay strong and the weak will get strong,” says Ross.

The markets

Stocks
SPX

COMP
are dropping, with bond yields
BX:TMUBMUSD10Y

BX:TMUBMUSD02Y
mixed. Oil prices
CL.1,
+1.82%

BRN00,
+1.69%

have pared a stronger rally after a deadly hospital explosion in Gaza City, with Iran reportedly calling for an oil embargo against Israel. Gold
GC00,
+1.84%

has shot up $35.

For more market updates plus actionable trade ideas for stocks, options and crypto, subscribe to MarketDiem by Investor’s Business Daily.

The buzz

Morgan Stanley
MS,
-6.02%

posted a 10% earnings fall, but beat forecasts, with shares down. Abbott Labs
ABT,
+3.12%

is up after upbeat results and aguidance hike and Procter & Gamble
PG,
+2.91%

is up after an earnings beat. Tesla
TSLA,
-0.89%

(preview here) and Netflix
NFLX,
-1.20%

(preview here) will report after the close.

Read: Ford CEO says Tesla, rival automakers loving the strike. He may be wrong

United Airlines shares
UAL,
-7.83%

are down 5% after the airline lowered guidance due to the Israel/Gaza war. Spirit AeroSystems
SPR,
+22.60%

surged 75% after the aircraft components maker announced a production support deal with Boeing
BA,
+0.88%
.

Housing starts came short of expectations, with the Fed’s Beige Book of economic conditions coming at 2 p.m. Also, Fed Gov. Chris Waller will speak at noon, followed by New York Fed Pres. John Williams at 12:30 p.m. and Fed Gov. Lisa Cook at 6:55 p.m.

China’s third-quarter GDP rose 4.9%, slowing from 6.3% in the previous quarter, but beating expectations.

Middle East tensions are ratcheting up with protests spreading across the region after a massive deadly blast at a Gaza City hospital, and airports evacuated across France over terror threats. President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “it appears as though it was done by the other team.”

Read: Treasury says Hamas leaders ‘live in luxury’ as it unveils new sanctions

Best of the web

Bridgewater says the market has entered the second stage of tightening

Why the FDA needs to halt Cassava Sciences’ Alzheimer’s clinical trials

Hail, heat, rot in Italy push France to top global winemaking spot

Attacks across Europe put Islamist extremism back in spotlight

The tickers

These were the top-searched tickers on MarketWatch as of 6 a.m.:

Ticker

Security name

TSLA,
-0.89%
Tesla

AMC,
-0.73%
AMC Entertainment

AAPL,
-0.39%
Apple

GME,
-1.20%
GameStop

NIO,
-2.99%
Nio

AMZN,
-1.10%
Amazon

PLTR,
-0.59%
Palantir

MULN,
-0.06%
Mullen Automotive

TPST,
-11.20%
Tempest Therapeutics

TTOO,
-8.20%
T2 Biosystems

Random reads

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Listen to the Best New Ideas in Money podcast with MarketWatch financial columnist James Rogers and economist Stephanie Kelton.

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Big bank earnings in spotlight following historic failures: ‘Every income statement line item is in flux’.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.
JPM,
-0.11%
,
Citigroup Inc.
C,
+0.20%

and Wells Fargo & Co.
WFC,
+2.74%

— along with PNC Financial Services Group Inc.
PNC,
+0.37%

and BlackRock Inc.
BLK,
+0.05%

— report earnings Friday as Wall Street’s fixation on a recession continues to run deep. And following the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank
SIVBQ,
-12.21%
,
Signature Bank
SBNY,
+3.97%

and Silvergate Bank
SI,
-2.72%
,
along with efforts to seal up cracks in First Republic Bank
FRC,
+4.39%

and Credit Suisse Group AG
CS,
+1.27%
,
Wall Street is likely to review quarterly numbers from the industry with a magnifying glass.

“Every income statement line item is in flux and the degree of confidence in our forecast is lower as the probability of a sharper slowdown increases,” Morgan Stanley analyst Betsy Graseck said in a note on Wednesday.

For more: Banks on the line for deposit flows and margin pressure as they reel from banking crisis

She said that the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank last month would trigger an “accelerated bid” for customers’ money, potentially weighing on net interest margins, a profitability gauge measuring what banks make on interest from loans and what they pay out to depositors. Tighter lending standards, she said, would drive up net charge-offs — a measure of debt unlikely to be repaid — as borrowers run into more trouble obtaining or refinancing loans.

Phil Orlando, chief investment strategist at Federated Hermes, said in an interview that tighter lending standards could constrain lending volume. He also said that banks were likely to set aside more money to cover loans that go bad, as managers grow more conservative and try to gauge what exposure they have to different types of borrowers.

“To a significant degree, they have to say, what percentage of our companies are tech companies? What percentage are financial companies? Do we think that this starts to dribble into the auto industry?” he said. “Every bank is going to be different in terms of what their portfolio of business looks like.”

He also said that last month’s bank failures could spur more customers to open up multiple accounts at different banks, following bigger concerns about what would happen to the money in a bank account that exceeded the $250,000 limit covered by the FDIC. But as the recent banking disturbances trigger Lehman flashbacks, he said that the recent banking failures were the result of poor management and insufficient risk controls specific to those financial firms.

“COVID was something that affected everyone, universally, not just the banking companies but the entire economy, the entire stock market,” he said. “You go back to the global financial crisis in the ’07-’09 period, that’s something that really affected all of the financial service companies. I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

Also read: Banking sector’s growing political might could blunt reform in wake of SVB failure, experts warn

JPMorgan
JPM,
-0.11%

Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has said that Trump-era banking deregulation didn’t cause those bank failures. But in his annual letter to shareholders last week, he also said that the current turmoil in the bank system is not over. However, he also said that the collapse or near-collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and its peers “are nothing like what occurred during the 2008 global financial crisis.”

“Regarding the current disruption in the U.S. banking system, most of the risks were hiding in plain sight,” Dimon said. “Interest rate exposure, the fair value of held-to-maturity (HTM) portfolios and the amount of SVB’s uninsured deposits were always known — both to regulators and the marketplace.”

“The unknown risk was that SVB’s over 35,000 corporate clients – and activity within them – were controlled by a small number of venture capital companies and moved their deposits in lockstep,” Dimon continued. “It is unlikely that any recent change in regulatory requirements would have made a difference in what followed.”

The Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, along with a broader pullback in digital demand following the first two years of the pandemic, stanched the flow of tech-industry funding into Silicon Valley bank and caused the value of its bond investments to fall.

Don’t miss: An earnings recession seems inevitable, but it might not last long

But the impact of those higher interest rates — an effort to slow the economy and, by extension, bring inflation down — will be felt elsewhere. First-quarter earnings are expected to decline 6.8% for S&P 500 index components overall, according to FactSet. That would be the first decline since the second quarter of 2020, when the pandemic had just begun to send the economy into a tailspin.

“In a word, earnings for the first quarter are going to be poor,” Orlando said.

This week in earnings

For the week ahead, 11 S&P 500
SPX,
+0.36%

components, and two from the Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
+0.01%
,
will report first-quarter results. Outside of the banks, health-insurance giant UnitedHealth Group
UNH,
+0.70%

reports during the week. Online fashion marketplace Rent the Runway Inc.
RENT,
+3.75%

will also report.

The call to put on your calendar

Delta Air Lines Inc.: Delta
DAL,
+0.69%

reports first-quarter results on Thursday, amid bigger questions about when, if ever, higher prices — including for airfares — might turn off travelers. The carrier last month stuck with its outlook for big first-quarter sales gains when compared with prepandemic levels. “If anyone’s looking for weakness, don’t look at Delta”, Chief Executive Ed Bastian said at a conference last month.

But rival United Airlines Holdings Inc.
UAL,
+1.50%

has told investors to prepare for a surprise loss, even though it also reported a 15% jump in international bookings in March. And after Southwest Airlines Co.’s
LUV,
+0.03%

flight-cancellation mayhem last year brought more attention to technology issues and airline understaffing, concerns have grown over whether the industry has enough air-traffic controllers, prompting a reduction in some flights.

For more: Air-traffic controller shortages could result in fewer flights this summer

But limitations within those airlines’ flight networks to handle consumer demand can push fares higher. And Morgan Stanley said that strong balance sheets, passengers’ willingness to still pay up — albeit in a concentrated industry with a handful of options — and “muscle memory” from being gutted by the pandemic, could make airlines “defensive safe-havens,” to some degree, for investors.

“It is hard to argue against the airlines soaring above the macro storm underneath them (at least in the short term),” the analysts wrote in a research note last week.

The numbers to watch

Grocery-store margins: Albertsons Cos.
ACI,
+0.53%
.
— the grocery chain whose merger deal with Kroger Inc.
KR,
+0.96%

has raised concerns about food prices and accessibility — reports results on Tuesday. Higher food prices have helped fatten grocery stores’ profits, even as consumers struggle to keep up. But Costco Wholesale Corp.
COST,
-2.24%
,
in reporting March same-store sales results, noted that “year-over-year inflation for food and sundries and fresh foods were both down from February.” The results from Albertsons could offer clues on whether shoppers might be getting a break from steep price increases.

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