First Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting without Charlie Munger: What to expect from Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett walks the floor and meets with Berkshire Hathaway shareholders ahead of their annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska on May 3rd, 2024. 

David A. Grogan

When Warren Buffett kicks off Berkshire Hathaway‘s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday, the absence of Charlie Munger will be on everyone’s mind.

Some 30,000 rapt shareholders are descending on Omaha for what’s been called “Woodstock for Capitalists.” Pandemic lockdown apart, it will be the first without Munger, Buffett’s longtime partner who passed away in November about a month shy of his 100th birthday.

“The meeting will only have one comedian up there” this year, said David Kass, a finance professor at the University of Maryland and a Berkshire shareholder, who has attended more than 20 annual meetings. “There’ll be, let’s say, a more serious, less humorous background.”

The annual meeting will be exclusively broadcast on CNBC and livestreamed on CNBC.com. Our special coverage will begin Saturday at 9:30 a.m. ET. For the first time, Berkshire will broadcast its annual meeting movie that had previously always been reserved only for those in attendance in Omaha. Many speculate this year’s will be a tear-jerker tribute to Munger.

Vice Chairman of Non-Insurance Operations Greg Abel, Buffett’s designated successor, will fill Munger’s seat in the afternoon session, helping answer shareholder questions. Vice Chairman of Insurance Operations Ajit Jain will join Buffett, the CEO, and Abel in the morning session. Buffett has said they expect to field about 40 to 60 questions Saturday.

“The tone of the meeting is certainly going to be a lot different without Charlie,” said Steve Check, CEO of Check Capital Management and a longtime Berkshire shareholder. “He was the one that really made it funny. It’s getting closer and closer to the transition, so it’s good to see Ajit and Greg on the stage.”

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at a press conference during the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting, April 30, 2022.

CNBC

Munger’s investment philosophy rubbed off on Buffett early on, giving rise to the sprawling conglomerate worth $860 billion that Berkshire is today. Generations of investors also appreciated Munger’s trademark bluntness and humor, rare to come by on Wall Street.

If anything, the sea of Buffett admirers will cherish his folksy wisdom even more as the “Oracle of Omaha” turns 94 in less than four months.

Here are some of the big topics shareholders want Buffett to discuss:

  • Inflation: Price pressures have proved sticky lately. What impact is inflation having on Berkshire’s businesses? Which businesses are being hurt (and helped) the most?
  • Apple: Why did Berkshire trim its Apple stake in the fourth quarter? Investors will look for Buffett’s outlook on the tech stock given its challenges in China and recent news of a giant, $110-billion stock buyback.
  • Secret stock pick: Berkshire has been buying a financial stock for two quarters straight. What is it?
  • Record cash: Does Buffett plan to put his record level of cash to work?
  • A slowdown in buybacks: With Berkshire shares outperforming this year, will Buffett continue to slow down his own buyback program?
  • Life after Buffett: More details on Berkshire’s succession plan.

Macro commentary

The annual meeting comes at a tricky time for markets as a pickup in inflation puts the brakes on the Federal Reserve’s plan to cut interest rates this year. While the Berkshire CEO doesn’t make investment decisions based on daily headlines, investors still are eager to hear any market commentary and guidance from the protege of the father of value investing, Ben Graham.

“They don’t time their investments,” Kass said of Berkshire. “The economy goes through cycles. They totally ignore cycles. They invest for a long run, and they really ignore what pretty much what the Federal Reserve is doing. I believe that will be his answer.”

Apple

Shareholders may seek an explanation as to why Berkshire sold about 10 million Apple shares (1% of its massive stake) in the fourth quarter. At the end of 2023, Berkshire owned 905,560,000 shares of the iPhone maker, worth more than $174 billion and taking up more than 40% of the portfolio.

The move came as a surprise to many because Apple has been Buffett’s favorite stock for years, and he even called the tech giant his second-most important business after Berkshire’s cluster of insurers. What’s more, the last time Buffett trimmed this bet, he admitted it was “probably a mistake.’

Shares of the iPhone maker got a big boost Friday after the firm announced that its board had authorized $110 billion in share repurchases, the largest in company history. However, Apple posted a decline in overall sales and in iPhone sales.

Secret holding

There’s a small chance that Buffett will reveal the identity of the mystery bank stock that Berkshire has been buying for two quarters straight.

In the third and fourth quarters of 2023, Berkshire requested that the Securities and Exchange Commission keep the details of one or more of its stock holdings confidential. Many speculated that the secret purchase could be a bank stock as the conglomerate’s cost basis for “banks, insurance, and finance” equity holdings jumped by around $2.37 billion.

“He will comment as late as possible…. Charlie would be the only one that would let it slip once in a while. It’s not going to happen with Warren,” Check said.

Succession

Berkshire’s succession could be front and center at this meeting after Munger’s passing. Abel, became known as Buffett’s heir apparent in 2021 after Munger inadvertently made the revelation.

Abel has been overseeing a major portion of Berkshire’s sprawling empire, including energy, railroad and retail. Buffett revealed previously that Abel’s taken on most of the responsibilities at Berkshire.

Still, some questions remain as to who will be helping allocate capital at Berkshire, and the roles of Buffett’s investing managers Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, who is also the CEO of Geico.

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Friday’s S&P 500 and Nasdaq-100 rebalance may reflect concerns over concentration risk

It’s arguably the biggest stock story of 2023: a small number of giant technology companies now make up a very large part of big indexes like the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq-100. 

Five companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia and Alphabet) make up about 25% of the S&P 500. Six companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia, Alphabet and Broadcom) make up about 40% of the Nasdaq-100. 

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq are rebalancing their respective indexes this Friday. While this is a routine event, some of the changes may reflect the concerns over concentration risk. 

A ton of money is pegged to a few indexes 

Now that the CPI and the Fed meeting are out of the way, these rebalances are the last major “liquidity events” of the year, corresponding with another notable trading event: triple witching, or the quarterly expiration of stock options, index options and index futures. 

This is an opportunity for the trading community to move large blocks of stock for the last gasps of tax loss harvesting or to position for the new year. Trading volume will typically drop 30%-40% in the final two weeks of the year after triple witching, with only the final trading day showing significant volume.

All of this might appear of only academic interest, but the big move to passive index investing in the past 20 years has made these events more important to investors. 

When these indexes are adjusted, either because of additions or deletions, or because share counts change, or because the weightings are changed to reduce the influence of the largest companies, it means a lot of money moves in and out of mutual funds and ETFs that are directly or indirectly tied to the indexes. 

Standard & Poor’s estimates that nearly $13 trillion is directly or indirectly indexed to the S&P 500. The three largest ETFs (SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, iShares Core S&P 500 ETF, and Vanguard S&P 500 ETF) are all directly indexed to the S&P 500 and collectively have nearly $1.2 trillion in assets under management. 

Linked to the Nasdaq-100 — the 100 largest nonfinancial companies listed on Nasdaq — the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ) is the fifth-largest ETF, with roughly $220 billion in assets under management. 

S&P 500: Apple and others will be for sale. Uber going in 

For the S&P 500, Standard & Poor’s will adjust the weighting of each stock to account for changes in share count. Share counts typically change because many companies have large buyback programs that reduce share count. 

This quarter, Apple, Alphabet, Comcast, Exxon Mobil, Visa and Marathon Petroleum will all see their share counts reduced, so funds indexed to the S&P will have to reduce their weighting. 

S&P 500: Companies with share count reduction

(% of share count reduction)

  • Apple        0.5%
  • Alphabet   1.3%
  • Comcast    2.4%
  • Exxon Mobil  1.0%
  • Visa                0.8%
  • Marathon Petroleum  2.6%

Source: S&P Global

Other companies (Nasdaq, EQT, and Amazon among them) will see their share counts increased, so funds indexed to the S&P 500 will have to increase their weighting. 

In addition, three companies are being added to the S&P 500: Uber, Jabil, and Builders FirstSource.  I wrote about the effect that being added to the S&P was having on Uber‘s stock price last week.  

Three other companies are being deleted and will go from the S&P 500 to the S&P SmallCap 600 index: Sealed Air, Alaska Air and SolarEdge Technologies

Nasdaq-100 changes: DoorDash, MongoDB, Splunk are in 

The Nasdaq-100 is rebalanced four times a year; however, the annual reconstitution, where stocks are added or deleted, happens only in December. 

Last Friday, Nasdaq announced that six companies would be added to the Nasdaq-100: CDW Corporation (CDW), Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), DoorDash (DASH), MongoDB (MDB), Roper Technologies (ROP), and Splunk (SPLK). 

Six others will be deleted: Align Technology (ALGN), eBay (EBAY), Enphase Energy (ENPH), JD.com (JD), Lucid Group (LCID), and Zoom Video Communications (ZM).

Concentration risk: The rules

Under federal law, a diversified investment fund (mutual funds, exchange-traded funds), even if it just mimics an index like the S&P 500, has to satisfy certain diversification requirements. This includes requirements that: 1) no single issuer can account for more than 25% of the total assets of the portfolio, and 2) securities that represent more than 5% of the total assets cannot exceed 50% of the total portfolio. 

Most of the major indexes have similar requirements in their rules. 

For example, there are 11 S&P sector indexes that are the underlying indexes for widely traded ETFs such as the Technology Select SPDR ETF (XLK). The rules for these sector indexes are similar to the rules on diversification requirements for investment funds discussed above. For example, the S&P sector indexes say that a single stock cannot exceed 24% of the float-adjusted market capitalization of that sector index and that the sum of the companies with weights greater than 4.8% cannot exceed 50% of the total index weight. 

At the end of last week, three companies had weights greater than 4.8% in the Technology Select Sector (Microsoft at 23.5%, Apple at 22.8%, and Broadcom at 4.9%) and their combined market weight was 51.2%, so if those same prices hold at the close on Friday, there should be a small reduction in Apple and Microsoft in that index. 

S&P will announce if there are changes in the sector indexes after the close on Friday. 

The Nasdaq-100 also uses a “modified” market-capitalization weighting scheme, which can constrain the size of the weighting for any given stock to address overconcentration risk. This rebalancing may reduce the weighting in some of the largest stocks, including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia and Alphabet. 

The move up in these large tech stocks was so rapid in the first half of the year that Nasdaq took the unusual step of initiating a special rebalance in the Nasdaq-100 in July to address the overconcentration of the biggest names. As a result, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Amazon and Tesla all saw their weightings reduced. 

Market concentration is nothing new

Whether the rules around market concentration should be tightened is open for debate, but the issue has been around for decades.

For example, Phil Mackintosh and Robert Jankiewicz from Nasdaq recently noted that the weight of the five largest companies in the S&P 500 was also around 25% back in the 1970s.

Disclosure: Comcast is the corporate parent of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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UBS sees a raft of Fed rate cuts next year on the back of a U.S. recession

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell takes questions from reporters during a press conference after the release of the Fed policy decision to leave interest rates unchanged, at the Federal Reserve in Washington, U.S, September 20, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

UBS expects the U.S. Federal Reserve to cut interest rates by as much as 275 basis points in 2024, almost four times the market consensus, as the world’s largest economy tips into recession.

In its 2024-2026 outlook for the U.S. economy, published Monday, the Swiss bank said despite economic resilience through 2023, many of the same headwinds and risks remain. Meanwhile, the bank’s economists suggested that “fewer of the supports for growth that enabled 2023 to overcome those obstacles will continue in 2024.”

UBS expects disinflation and rising unemployment to weaken economic output in 2024, leading the Federal Open Market Committee to cut rates “first to prevent the nominal funds rate from becoming increasingly restrictive as inflation falls, and later in the year to stem the economic weakening.”

Between March 2022 and July 2023, the FOMC enacted a run of 11 rate hikes to take the fed funds rate from a target range of 0%-0.25% to 5.25%-5.5%.

The central bank has since held at that level, prompting markets to mostly conclude that rates have peaked, and to begin speculating on the timing and scale of future cuts.

However, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said last week that he was “not confident” the FOMC had yet done enough to return inflation sustainably to its 2% target.

UBS noted that despite the most aggressive rate-hiking cycle since the 1980s, real GDP expanded by 2.9% over the year to the end of the third quarter. However, yields have risen and stock markets have come under pressure since the September FOMC meeting. The bank believes this has renewed growth concerns and shows the economy is “not out of the woods yet.”

“The expansion bears the increasing weight of higher interest rates. Credit and lending standards appear to be tightening beyond simply repricing. Labor market income keeps being revised lower, on net, over time,” UBS highlighted.

“According to our estimates, spending in the economy looks elevated relative to income, pushed up by fiscal stimulus and maintained at that level by excess savings.”

The bank estimates that the upward pressure on growth from fiscal impetus in 2023 will fade next year, while household savings are “thinning out” and balance sheets look less robust.

“Furthermore, if the economy does not slow substantially, we doubt the FOMC restores price stability. 2023 outperformed because many of these risks failed to materialize. However, that does not mean they have been eliminated,” UBS said.

U.S. Treasury yield curve will likely continue to steepen, analyst says

“In our view, the private sector looks less insulated from the FOMC’s rate hikes next year. Looking ahead, we expect substantially slower growth in 2024, a rising unemployment rate, and meaningful reductions in the federal funds rate, with the target range ending the year between 2.50% and 2.75%.”

UBS expects the economy to contract by half a percentage point in the middle of next year, with annual GDP growth dropping to just 0.3% in 2024 and unemployment rising to nearly 5% by the end of the year.

“With that added disinflationary impulse, we expect monetary policy easing next year to drive recovery in 2025, pushing GDP growth back up to roughly 2-1/2%, limiting the peak in the unemployment rate to 5.2% in early 2025. We forecast some slowing in 2026, in part due to projected fiscal consolidation,” the bank’s economists said.

Worst credit impulse since the financial crisis

Arend Kapteyn, UBS global head of economics and strategy research, told CNBC on Tuesday that the starting conditions are “much worse now than 12 months ago,” particularly in the form of the “historically large” amount of credit that is being withdrawn from the U.S. economy.

“The credit impulse is now at its worst level since the global financial crisis — we think we’re seeing that in the data. You’ve got margin compression in the U.S. which is a good precursor to layoffs, so U.S. margins are under more pressure for the economy as a whole than in Europe, for instance, which is surprising,” he told CNBC’s Joumanna Bercetche on the sidelines of the UBS European Conference.

Signs of a recession may be on the horizon, says fmr. Fed economist Claudia Sahm

Meanwhile, private payrolls ex-health care are growing at close to zero and some of the 2023 fiscal stimulus is rolling off, Kapteyn noted, also reiterating the “massive gap” between real incomes and spending that means there is “much more scope for that spending to fall down towards those income levels.”

“The counter that people then have is they say ‘well why are income levels not going up, because inflation is falling, real disposable incomes should be improving?’ But in the U.S., debt service for households is now increasing faster than real income growth, so we basically think there is enough there to have a few negative quarters mid-next year,” Kapteyn argued.

A recession is characterized in many economies as two consecutive quarters of contraction in real GDP. In the U.S., the National Bureau of Economic Research Business Cycle Dating Committee defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.” This takes into account a holistic assessment of the labor market, consumer and business spending, industrial production, and incomes.

Goldman ‘pretty confident’ in the U.S. growth outlook

The UBS outlook on both rates and growth is well below the market consensus. Goldman Sachs projects the U.S. economy will expand by 2.1% in 2024, outpacing other developed markets.

Kamakshya Trivedi, head of global FX, rates and EM strategy at Goldman Sachs, told CNBC on Monday that the Wall Street giant was “pretty confident” in the U.S. growth outlook.

“Real income growth looks to be pretty firm and we think that will continue to be the case. The global industrial cycle which was going through a pretty soft patch this year, we think, is showing some signs of bottoming out, including in parts of Asia, so we feel pretty confident about that,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.”

Trivedi added that with inflation returning gradually to target, monetary policy may become a bit more accommodative, pointing to some recent dovish comments from Fed officials.

“I think that combination of things — the lessening drag from policy, stronger industrial cycle and real income growth — makes us pretty confident that the Fed can stay on hold at this plateau,” he concluded.

Correction: Between March 2022 and July 2023, the FOMC enacted a run of 11 rate hikes to take the fed funds rate from a target range of 0%-0.25% to 5.25%-5.5%. An earlier version misstated the range.

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The IPO market has grown quiet again. Here’s what is behind the shift in sentiment

Traders working at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), on Sept. 20th, 2023.

NYSE

It’s quiet out there in IPO land — very quiet.

This is it: the weeks before Thanksgiving usually bring a spate of large IPOs eager to go public before the holiday season starts.

“Whatever you are going to get between now and the end of the year should be happening right now,” Don Short, head of venture equity at InvestX, told me.

Except, nothing is happening.

“The bad companies can’t go public, and the good companies don’t want to go public in a bad market,” Matt Kennedy from Renaissance Capital said.

A terrible performance for stocks in October, higher-for-longer interest rates, poor after-market performances from the recent spate of initial public offerings this summer and the prospects of dramatically lower valuations appear to be causing many IPO candidates to rethink or delay their debuts.

The steady rise in the 10-year Treasury yield was a particular deal killer.

“That was a big wet blanket” for the IPO market, Greg Martin from Rainmaker Securities told me.

Companies delaying IPOs

Waystar, which was considering launching its roadshow last week, is reportedly delaying its IPO until December or into 2024.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Panera Bread was laying off 17% of its corporate staff in advance of a possible IPO next year.

Others still interested in an IPO may have to take very large haircuts.

Buy now, pay later firm Klarna, another oft-mentioned IPO candidate, told CNBC it has no immediate plans to go public. The company last raised cash at a valuation of $6.7 billion, which marked a massive 85% haircut to its previous valuation of nearly $46 billion.

Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein has not made a decision on the timing or valuation of an IPO, but sources familar with the company’s plans told Bloomberg the company was targeting a valuation of $80 billion to $90 billion. However, the most recent funding round in May valued the company at $66 billion.

This is in stark contrast to most years, when big IPOs went public in November and December.

Rivian, the biggest IPO of 2021, priced on Nov. 9, 2021, and began trading the next day. Hertz raised $1.3 billion in November 2021. Braze raised $500 million the same month, Sweetgreen raised $364 million. Allbirds raised $303 billion.

Airbnb went public in December 2020 and raised $3.5 billion. The day before that, Doordash raised $3.4 billion. A month earlier, in November 2020, Sotera Health raised $1.1 billion, and Miravai Life Sciences raised $1.6 billion.

But the year-end IPO gold rush fizzled in 2022, and it’s fizzling again this year.

So far, 96 IPOs have raised $18.8 billion in 2023, according to Renaissance Capital. That’s following on 2022, when a measly $7.7 billion was raised, the worst year for IPOs in decades. By contrast, a normal year should see at least $50 billion raised.

Recent IPOs aren’t helping

It didn’t help that the recent spate of IPOs have not gone well.

“What I was hearing was that everyone that was lining up after Instacart went public [in September] pulled their deal and everything went a bit quiet,” Short told me.

Three of the biggest IPOs of the year are trading below their offering prices, and, a fourth, Arm, is trading near its debut price, after dipping below it in early trading Thursday.

Largest IPOs, 2023
(from offering price)

Arm about flat
Kenvue down 13%
Birkenstock down 8%
Instacart down 10%

Source: Renaissance Capital

Marketing automation company Klaviyo, which went public in September, is also trading 8% below its offering price of $30 after reporting earnings on Tuesday.

Restaurant chain Cava Group went public in June and at $31 is trading above its initial offering price of $22, but the stock was as high as $57 in the month after it went public, so at Wednesday’s price of $31 most of the original buyers of the stock after the open are under water.

The Renaissance Capital IPO ETF (IPO), a basket of roughly 60 of the largest IPOs in the past two years, is down 17% from its July peak to October trough, S&P wasn’t as bad but similar trajectory.

Some companies may still go public

The market is not completely closed.

“I wouldn’t discount December. If the latest rally continues, we could get more activity,” Kennedy said. “Companies want to go public when there is an expectation the market is going to trade up.”

There are some small firms still in the pipeline.

U.S. natural gas producer BKV, which filed for a $100 million IPO in November of last year, recently updated its prospectus, which is a sign they are still looking to go public.

Homebuilder Smith Douglas, which filed for a $100 million IPO in September, also updated its prospectus in mid-October.

American Healthcare REIT, which filed in September 2022, filed updated financials and announced an additional underwriter (Morgan Stanley) this week.

Here’s another problem: AI

Tough choices for IPO candidates

That leaves IPO candidates with three choices: 1) go public, likely with a substantial haircut, 2) stay private, also likely with a haircut, and hope that your venture capital source will continue to fund you, or 3) merge or go out of business.

Greg Martin from Rainmaker Securities runs one of the leading private platforms for trading pre-IPO companies. He told me the companies in the best position are those who could fund their operations from their own cash flow, but that is not a large group.

“The private financing markets are even worse than the public financing markets, so you really don’t want to be running out of cash right now,” Martin said, adding that he is seeing much lower prices for private sales of stock compared with two years ago.

That leaves many of the roughly 800 tech unicorns (those with valuations above $1 billion) in a precarious position.

“We are starting to see unicorns die,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of lower quality unicorns with negative EBIDTA [cash flow], and there’s not much demand for them in the public markets, so the M&A route is increasingly likely for a lot of companies.”

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Tesla Investor Rode A 14,800% Gain Due To A 27-Year-Old Analyst

Koney had no real background in the auto industry when he first encountered Tesla. (File)

Owuraka Koney forms part of an elite group on Wall Street: Those who foresaw Tesla Inc.’s wild growth potential before it even went public.

Koney was just 25 when he stumbled across the fledgling electric-vehicle maker while researching other companies for Jennison Associates. He was immediately taken with Tesla’s vision and by 27 managed to convince his colleagues at Jennison to gamble on the stock.

A dozen years and some 14,800% later, Koney isn’t satisfied. He still sees lots of room for additional gains as the company releases a “tsunami” of new cars in the coming years. At the same time, he expects the auto industry to undergo a massive consolidation as it makes the challenging shift away from combustion engines.

Koney, talking for the first time publicly about how Jennison built a Tesla position now worth $5.9 billion, said the Elon Musk-led company built EV expertise early and has fine-tuned its products, positioning itself to be among the survivors. Koney thinks by 2026, Tesla could be pumping out twice the 2 million or so cars it’s expected to deliver this year. That will set it up for further growth, even as dreamy notions of fully self-driving cars remain years away.

“They are mostly a car company today. That’s what drives the majority of their revenue,” Koney said. “A few years from now that will still be the case.”

When Tesla posts quarterly earnings on Wednesday, Koney won’t be especially worried about the company’s seemingly constant volatility. The results will be a barometer for how well a series of price cuts are working in an increasingly crowded market, in which both legacy automakers and startups are constantly introducing alternatives to the Model 3 and Model Y, Tesla’s two workhorse vehicles.

Koney said he’s thinking more about three years from now, when he expects next-generation Tesla cars will be rolling off a newly built assembly line in Mexico. He sees those models being made cheaply at high volumes, putting investors like Jennison in line for another Musk windfall.

kkqd5al

Chance Meeting

Koney had no real background in the auto industry when he first encountered Tesla. He was born in Ghana and spent part of his childhood in Gambia. His father was a judge, and his mom worked for Ghana Airways. After studying economics and political science at Williams College, he got his first job in finance as an aerospace analyst at UBS Group AG.

Jennison, an affiliate manager of PGIM with about $175 billion under management, hired Koney in 2007 to cover the industrial sector. Two years later, the analyst embarked on a nationwide tour of the EV ecosystem to understand why one of the companies he followed, Johnson Controls Inc., was considering building a lithium-ion battery business. One of the startups he visited impressed him so much he began forming a whole new investment idea.

When Koney met with Tesla at its retail store in Silicon Valley, Deepak Ahuja, Tesla’s then-chief financial officer, said the company would first break into the market at the high end, where consumers were willing to pay a premium for an EV. Then they would drive downmarket as quickly as possible, increasing volume and lowering the price of each successive model.

Koney came away bullish, but Tesla still faced a lot of risks. He kept a close watch on the company as it gained a stronger footing. In April 2010, the carmaker received a low-interest $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy – a lifeline as it was creating the Model S. A month later, Tesla bought a shuttered factory once owned by a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. That June, Tesla went public at $17 a share, valuing the company at about $1.7 billion.

Koney met more executives, including its then-chief technology officer, JB Straubel, and its head designer, Franz von Holzhausen. By 2011, convinced Tesla was “for real,” it was time for him to pitch Jennison on the idea.

“Owuraka believed that Tesla was going to revolutionize the auto industry,” said Kathleen McCarragher, head of growth equity at Jennison. “He had a deep understanding of the significance of Tesla’s competitive advantages.”

Among the factors Koney highlighted to the team was that Tesla had created its own battery system, had structural cost advantages compared to traditional automakers and had a “unique company culture that could create innovative solutions,” McCarragher said.

Jennison owns more than 20 million Tesla shares, making it one of the company’s largest investors. The asset manager declined to say how profitable its bet on Tesla has been over the years, citing compliance issues. The stock has gained more than 135% in 2023 and is up 14,853% since mid-2011, when Jennison first disclosed its initial shareholding in a regulatory filing.

High Volatility

For nearly a dozen years, Koney has ridden the waves of stomach-churning volatility, a similar experience to the other company he pegged as a potential behemoth early in his time at Jennison: Netflix Inc. Few stocks are as polarizing as Tesla, and each day begins with absorbing the news flow, checking Reddit and “aggressive lurking” on Twitter.

Some of the ups and downs have been triggered by Musk himself, and behind the scenes Koney has found himself in disagreements with the multibillionaire.

In 2016, Tesla wanted to acquire SolarCity, a rooftop solar-panel installer run by Musk’s cousins. Some investors balked: Tesla was in the throes of working on the Model 3, its first mass-market car, and the deal seemed ill-timed.

As Tesla lobbied shareholders for support, the company arranged for a phone conversation between Koney and Musk. The analyst was rushing home to his infant daughter when the call from the CEO came through. His mother, who’d been helping with childcare, picked up as Koney walked in the door and told him “this guy called Elon” was on the phone.

Shareholders overwhelmingly approved the SolarCity deal; Jennison voted against it. Solar still isn’t a big part of Tesla’s energy business, where much of the excitement is focused on the company’s Megapack batteries for utilities.

“I was not a fan of that deal, and I’m still not,” Koney said. “I like Elon. But I’m not a fanboy, per se. We don’t just sign off on everything.”

By 2018, Tesla was in a manufacturing ramp-up period so taxing and capital intensive, Musk called it “production hell.” According to the CEO’s retelling, the company was weeks away from bankruptcy, and key executives quit.

That was also the year Musk infamously tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420, and had “funding secured.” Koney shot Tesla an email and was ultimately deposed by investors who sued Musk in federal court (the transcript of the analyst’s deposition is sealed).

Early 2019 was equally rough: Tesla closed stores and missed delivery targets, and Ahuja left. But Koney saw the second quarter of the year as a turning point: Tesla became cash-flow positive, proving it could build the Model 3 and make money. It’s still the only US company with a profitable EV business.

Tesla is not immune to risks. The company itself says it is highly dependent on Musk, who is also the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. In October, he acquired Twitter Inc. for $44 billion. This month, he announced the leadership team for xAI, his latest startup.

“Elon is a big driver for Tesla’s success,” said Koney. “The less time he spends on Twitter and the more time he spends on Tesla, I’m happy.”

Full Self-Driving

In March, Tesla gave a lengthy investor presentation at the company’s headquarters and factory in Austin, and Musk shared the stage with several other executives. Koney was there in person, paying close attention to the more than 160 slides that Tesla showed.

Besides the breadth of executive talent, Koney’s biggest takeaway was the “unboxed” assembly process that Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, highlighted. He said the company will move away from complex and cumbersome methods the industry has used for more than a century, eliminating hundreds of parts and simplifying assembly processes. Koney believes Optimus, Tesla’s humanoid robot, could ultimately be put to work on production lines to install seats and interior panels.

That could reduce costs, which would be especially helpful as Musk slashes prices of Tesla models to keep growing sales as other carmakers release waves of competing electric vehicles.

While those cuts will pressure profit margins, Musk has said the company could make so much money on autonomous-driving software in the future, it doesn’t need to make upfront returns on vehicle sales. The CEO has long made lofty claims about AI-powered cars that haven’t come to pass.

Koney thinks that Full Self-Driving Beta – Tesla’s name for its driver-assistance software – is getting incrementally better, and requiring less input from the driver. He should know: He has a Model X with FSD Beta and regularly drives it in Manhattan.

“It’s extremely cautious around pedestrians, which it should be,” Koney said. “There’s a ways to go before FSD works in a city like New York, let alone a place like Mumbai.”

More bullish for Koney is the fact Tesla is building a new factory in Mexico that will make its next-generation cars.

Though details are scant – vehicles were shrouded under white sheets during its investor day – Tesla expects them to be winning products. The company wants to make 20 million vehicles a year by 2030 and will need a cheaper, high-volume models to get there.

It’s a far cry from 2009, when Koney was excited about the fledging EV maker but much of Wall Street questioned whether the company was viable.

“When I look at Tesla today, I’m no longer worried about survival,” said Koney. “It’s just a question of how successful they will be.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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Major central banks were expected to pause rate hikes soon. Now it’s not so clear cut

Traders react as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell is seen delivering remarks on a screen, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, March 22, 2023.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The market has long been pricing in interest rate cuts from major central banks toward the end of 2023, but sticky core inflation, tight labor markets and a surprisingly resilient global economy are leading some economists to reassess.

Stronger-than-expected U.S. jobs figures and gross domestic product data have highlighted a key risk to the Federal Reserve potentially taking its foot off the monetary brake. Economic resilience and persistent labor market tightness could exert upward pressure on wages and inflation, which is in danger of becoming entrenched.

The headline U.S. consumer price index has cooled significantly since its peak above 9% in June 2022, falling to just 4.9% in April, but remains well above the Fed’s 2% target. Crucially, core CPI, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, rose by 5.5% annually in April.

As the Fed earlier this month implemented its 10th increase in interest rates since March 2022, raising the Fed funds rate to a range of 5% to 5.25%, Chairman Jerome Powell hinted that a pause in the hiking cycle is likely at the FOMC’s June meeting.

However, minutes from the last meeting showed some members still see the need for additional rises, while others anticipate a slowdown in growth will remove the need for further tightening.

Fed officials including St. Louis Fed President James Bullard and Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari have in recent weeks indicated that sticky core inflation may keep monetary policy tighter for longer, and and that more hikes could be coming down the pike later in the year.

The personal consumption expenditures price index, a preferred gauge for the Fed, increased by 4.7% year-on-year in April, new data showed Friday, indicating further stubbornness and triggering further bets on higher for longer interest rates.

Several economists have told CNBC over the past couple of weeks that the U.S. central bank may be forced to tighten monetary policy more aggressively in order to make a breakthrough on stubborn underlying dynamics.

According to CME Group’s FedWatch tool, the market currently places an almost 35% probability on the target rate ending the year in the 5% to 5.25% range, while the most likely range by November 2024 is 3.75% to 4%.

Patrick Armstrong, chief investment officer at Plurimi Group, told CNBC last week that there was a double-sided risk to current market positioning.

“If Powell cuts, he probably cuts a lot more than the market’s pricing, but I think there is above 50% chance where he just sits on his hands, we get through year-end,” Armstrong said.

“Because services PMI is incredibly strong, the employment backdrop incredibly strong, consumer spending all strong — it’s not the kind of thing where the Fed really needs to pump liquidity out there unless there is a debt crisis.”

European slowdown

The European Central Bank faces a similar dilemma, having slowed the pace of its hiking increments from 50 basis points to 25 basis points at its May meeting. The bank’s benchmark rate sits at 3.25%, a level not seen since November 2008.

Headline inflation in the euro zone rose in April to 7% year-on-year, though core price growth posted a surprise slowdown, prompting further debate as to the pace of rate rises the ECB should be adopting as it looks to bring inflation back to Earth.

The euro zone economy grew by 0.1% in the first quarter, below market expectations, but Bundesbank President Joachim Nagel said last week that several more rate hikes will be needed, even if that tips the bloc’s economy into recession.

The ECB shouldn't pause amid persistent inflation, former central banker says

“We are in a not at all easy phase, because inflation is sticky and it’s not moving as we would all hope it would, so it’s quite important as Joachim Nagel said today that the ECB stays open for further rate hikes as long as it needs until the drop-off is done,” former Bundesbank executive board member Andreas Dombret told CNBC last week.

“Of course, this will have negative implications and negative effects on the economy too, but I strongly believe that if you let inflation [de-anchor], if you let inflation go, those negative effects will be even higher, so it is very important for the credibility of the ECB that the ECB stays the course.”

The Bank of England

The U.K. faces a much tougher inflation challenge than the U.S. and the euro zone, and the U.K. consumer price inflation rate fell by less than expected in April.

The annual consumer price index dropped from 10.1% in March to 8.7% in April, well above consensus estimates and the Bank of England’s forecast of 8.4%. Meanwhile core inflation jumped to 6.8% from 6.2% in March, which will be of greater concern to the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee.

With inflation continuing to prove stickier than the government and the central bank had hoped, now almost double the comparable rate in the U.S. and considerably higher than in Europe, traders increased bets that interest rates will need to be hiked further in order to curtail price rises.

Significant chance there won't be any Fed cuts this year despite market's certainty, CIO says

“Supply shocks, still de-anchored inflation expectations, fewer promotional discounting, and some potential margin building are likely keeping prices from normalising as quickly as traditional models would imply,” explained Sanjay Raja, chief U.K. economist at Deutsche Bank.

“We now expect a slower descent to target, and with price and wage inflation now likely to remain stronger than anticipated, we raise our terminal rate forecast to 5.25%. Risk management considerations will, we think, force the MPC to push rates higher and further than previously intended.”

Deutsche Bank now sees monetary policy shifting “firmly” toward a “higher for longer” era, Raja added.

The market is now pricing a 92% chance of a further 25 basis point rate hike from the Bank of England at its June meeting to take the main bank rate to 4.75%, according to Refinitiv data on Friday afternoon.

But despite the expectations for rates to rise further for longer, many economists still see a full reversal of course before the end of this year.

Berenberg had previously projected three cuts by the end of 2023, but cut this down to one in response to last week’s inflation print.

Signs of pivot from Fed will boost sentiment toward a higher market, CIO says

The German bank kept its end-2024 call for a 3% rate unchanged, projecting six 25 basis point cuts over the course of next year, but also put a 30% probability on a further 25 basis point hike in August to take the bank rate to 5%.

“Policy changes operate with uncertain effects and variable lags. As a consequence of the shift away from floating-rate mortgages towards fixed products over the past decade, the pass-through of monetary policy to consumption via the housing market takes longer than in the past,” said Berenberg Senior Economist Kallum Pickering.

“This highlights the risk that, if the BoE overreacts to near-term inflation surprises, it may set the stage for a big inflation undershoot once the full effects of its past policy decisions play out.”

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The Fed is likely to hike rates by a quarter point but it must also reassure it can contain a banking crisis

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates Wednesday by a quarter point, but it also faces the tough task of reassuring markets it can stem a worse banking crisis.

Economists mostly expect the Fed will increase its fed funds target rate range to 4.75% to 5% on Wednesday afternoon, though some expect the central bank could pause its hiking due to concerns about the banking system. Futures markets were pricing in a roughly 80% chance for a rate rise, as of Tuesday morning.

The central bank is contemplating using its interest rate tools at the same time it is trying to soothe markets and stop further bank runs. The fear is that rising rates could put further pressure on banking institutions and crimp lending further, hurting small businesses and other borrowers.

“The broader macro data shows some further tightening is warranted,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America. He said the Fed will have to explain its double-barreled policy. “You have to show you can walk and chew gum at the same time, using your lender-of-last-resort powers to quell any fears about deposit flights at medium-sized banks.”

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell addresses reporters after the Fed raised its target interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, during a news conference at the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, February 1, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Federal regulators stepped in to guarantee deposits at the failed Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and they provided more favorable loans to banks for a period of up to one year. The Fed joined with other global central banks Sunday to enhance liquidity through the standing dollar swap system, after UBS agreed to buy the embattled Credit Suisse.

Investors will be looking for assurances from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell that the central bank can contain the banking problems.

“We want to know it’s really about a few idiosyncratic institutions and not a more pervasive problem with respect to the regional bank model,” said Gapen. “In these moments, the market needs to know you feel you understand the problem and that you’re willing and capable of doing something about it. … I think they are exceptionally good at understanding where the pressure is that’s driving it and how to respond.”

A month of turmoil

Markets have been whipsawed in the last month, first by a hawkish-sounding Fed and then by fears of contagion in the banking system.

Fed officials begin their two-day meeting Tuesday. The event kicks off just two weeks after Powell warned a congressional committee that the Fed may have to hike rates even more than expected because of its battle with inflation.

Those comments sent interest rates soaring. A few days later, the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank stunned markets, sending bond yields dramatically lower. Bond yields move opposite price. Expectations for Fed rate hikes also moved dramatically: What was expected to be a half-point hike two weeks ago is now up for debate at a quarter point or even zero.

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The 2-year Treasury yield is most sensitive to Fed policy.

Messaging is the key

Gapen expects Powell to explain that the Fed is fighting inflation through its rate hikes but then also assure markets that the central bank can use other tools to preserve financial stability.

“Things going forward will be done on a meeting-by-meeting basis. It will be data dependent,” Gapen said. “We’ll have to see how the economy evolves. … We’ll have to see how financial markets behave, how the economy responds.”

The Fed is scheduled to release its rate decision along with its new economic projections at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. Powell will speak at 2:30 p.m. ET.

The issue is they can change their forecast up to Tuesday, but how does anyone know?

Diane Swonk

Chief economist at KPMG

Gapen expects the Fed’s forecasts could show it expects a higher terminal rate, or end point for rate hikes, than it did in December. He said it could rise to about a level of 5.4% for 2023, from an earlier projection of 5.1%.

Jimmy Chang, chief investment officer at Rockefeller Global Family Office, said he expects the Fed to raise interest rates by a quarter point to instill confidence, but then signal it is finished with rate hikes.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a rally because historically whenever the Fed stops hiking, going to that pause mode, the initial knee-jerk reaction from the stock market is a rally,” he said.

He said the Fed will not likely say it is going to pause, but its messaging could be interpreted that way.

“Now, at the minimum, they want to maintain this air of stability or of confidence,” Chang said. “I don’t think they’ll do anything that could potentially roil the market. … Depending on their [projections], I think the market will think this is the final hike.”

Fed guidance could be up in the air

Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG, said she expects the Fed is likely to pause its rate hiking because of economic uncertainty, and the fact that the contraction in bank lending will be equivalent to a tightening of Fed policy.

She also does not expect any guidance on future hikes for now, and Powell could stress the Fed is watching developments and the economic data.

“I don’t think he can commit. I think he has to keep all options on the table and say we’ll do whatever is necessary to promote price stability and financial stability,” Swonk said. “We do have some sticky inflation. There are signs the economy is weakening.”

Fed needs to 'call a timeout' and stop hiking rates, says Bleakley's Peter Boockvar

She also expects it will be difficult for the Fed to present its quarterly economic forecasts, because the problems facing the banks have created so much uncertainty. As it did during the Covid pandemic in March 2020, the Fed might temporarily suspend projections, Swonk said.

“I think it’s an important thing to take into account that this is shifting the forecast in unknown ways. You don’t want to overpromise one way or the other,” she said. Swonk also expects the Fed to withhold its so-called dot plot, the chart on which it shows anonymous forecasts from Fed officials on the path for interest rates.

“The issue is they can change their forecast up to Tuesday, but how does anyone know? You want the Fed to look unified. You don’t want dissent,” said Swonk. “Literally, these dot plots could be changing by the day. Two weeks ago, we had a Fed chairman ready to go 50 basis points.”

The impact of tighter financial conditions

The tightening of financial conditions alone could have the clout of a 1.5 percentage point hike in rates by the Fed, and that could result in the central bank cutting rates later this year, depending on the economy, Swonk said. The futures market is currently forecasting much more aggressive rate cutting than economists are, with a full percentage point — or four quarter-point cuts — for this year alone.

“If they hike and say they will pause, the market might actually be okay with that. If they do nothing, maybe the market gets nervous that after two weeks of uncertainty the Fed’s backing off their inflation fight,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “Either way we still have a bumpy road ahead of us.”

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The Fed could also make a surprise move by stopping the runoff of securities from its balance sheet. As Treasurys and mortgages mature, the Fed no longer replaces them as it did during and after the pandemic to provide liquidity to financial markets. Gapen said changing the balance sheet runoff would be unexpected. During January and February, he said about $160 billion rolled off the balance sheet.

But the balance sheet recently increased again.

“The balance sheet went up by about $300 billion, but I think the good news there is most of that went to institutions that are already known,” he said.

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Fed expected to slow rate hiking to a quarter point but will stay unrelenting in inflation battle

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates by just a quarter point but also likely signal it will stay vigilant in its fight against inflation even as it reduces the size of the hikes.

The Fed releases its latest rate decision Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, and Fed Chair Jerome Powell briefs the media at 2:30 p.m. The expected quarter-point hike follows a half percentage point increase in December, and would be the smallest increase in the federal funds target rate range since the first hike of the cycle last March.

While the meeting is expected to be relatively uneventful, strategists say it could be a challenge for the Fed chief to temper the reaction in financial markets. The markets have been rising as investors expect the central bank might succeed in a soft landing for the economy while also snuffing out inflation sufficiently to move back to easing policy.

“How is he going to tell people to calm down, chill out and don’t get so excited by us getting close to the end of the interest rate increases?” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “He’s going to do that by still saying the Fed’s going to stay tight for a while. Just because he’s done doesn’t mean it’s a quick bridge to an ease.”

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following the announcement that the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by half a percentage point, at the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2022. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

The Fed’s rate hike Wednesday would be the eighth since last March. It would put the fed funds target rate range at 4.50% to 4.75%. That is just a half percentage point away from the Fed’s estimated end point, or terminal rate range of 5% to 5.25%.

“I think he will push back on financial conditions. I think the markets are expecting that. I think people realize how much credit spreads have moved, how much the equity market has moved, how much tech stocks have moved. This month has been extraordinary,” said Rick Rieder, BlackRock’s chief investment officer for global fixed income.

A rally that could dampen the Fed’s efforts

Easy credit and a stock market that is rising too quickly could defeat the Fed’s efforts to chill the economy and crush inflation.

Stocks rallied Tuesday as the Fed began its two-day meeting, capping January’s gain of nearly 6.2% for the S&P 500. The tech sector was up 9.2% for the month. Rates have fallen since the end of the year, with the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield at roughly 3.5%, after it ended December at about 3.9%.

Rieder expects Powell to deliver his comments with a hawkish tone. “I think if he’s hawkish, I think the markets have built that in. I think if he’s not, the market could make another leg,” he said.

In the futures market, fed funds futures continued to price a terminal rate of less than 5%. The futures also show investors expect the Fed to actually reverse policy and cut rates by at least 25 basis points by the end of 2023. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“I think he’s going to be hawkish relative to market pricing,” said Jim Caron, head of macro strategies for global fixed income at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Caron said the Fed’s downsizing of its rate hikes will be seen dovish in itself. Prior to December’s 50 basis point hike, the central bank raised rates by 75 basis points four times in a row.

“He wants to defend the validity of the 5% to 5.25% terminal rate [forecast],” said Caron. “At the same time, he sees record housing prices are coming down. Wage inflation is coming down. The auto sector is not doing great. Retail’s not doing so great. The jobs market is doing OK. Wage inflation is coming down but it’s still above comfort levels.”

Listening carefully to the Fed’s messaging

Caron said Powell also wants to be careful not to sound too hawkish. “It’s very easy for there to be a mistake in the communication from the Fed or there could be a mistake in the way the market initially interprets things as well,” he said. “That tells me there’s going to be a lot of volatility.”

Investors will be attuned to any comments Powell makes about the economy and whether he expects it to dip into recession, as many economists forecast. The central bank has not projected a recession in its forecast, but it expects very sluggish flat growth, and it sees the unemployment rate rising sharply to 4.6% later this year, from its December level of 3.5%.

The Fed is not expected to make any major changes in its policy statement when it announces the rate hike. Its last statement said that “ongoing increases” in the target rate range will be appropriate in order to reach a policy position that can send inflation back to 2%.

The Fed is making headway against inflation. Personal consumption expenditure core inflation rose by 0.3% in December and was at 4.4% on an annual basis from 4.7% in November, the slowest increase since October 2021

Strategists say the Fed needs more data and will likely wait until at least March to signal how long it could continue to raise interest rates. If it stays at the same pace, there could be two more quarter-point hikes.

The Fed will not be releasing any new forecasts or economic projections Wednesday. Its next forecast is the quarterly release of economic projections at the March meeting, and that is one way markets will get more clues on the intended rate path.

“They don’t want financial conditions to ease all that much, and they don’t have a new set of forecasts to give, so I think what that means is you have fewer changes in the statement and that line about ‘ongoing increases’ is going to stay the same,” said Michael Gapen, Bank of America’s chief U.S. economist.

Gapen said it will be difficult for Powell to sound too hawkish. “Actions speak louder than words. If they decelerate [the size of rate hikes] for the second straight meeting in a row, it’s hard to back that up with overtly hawkish language,” he said.

Boockvar said Powell should emphasize how the Fed will keep rates at higher levels, despite the market view that it will soon cut rates. “Powell is more focused on inflation going down and staying down than trying to help the S&P 500,” said Boockvar. “His legacy is not going to be determined by where credit spreads are or where the S&P is going. It’s going to be determined by whether he slayed inflation and it stayed down.”

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Inflation is expected to have declined in December, but it may not be enough to stop the Fed

A woman shops in a supermarket as rising inflation affects consumer prices in Los Angeles, California, June 13, 2022.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The pace of consumer inflation is expected to have fallen slightly in December from the prior month because of a sharp drop in gasoline and energy prices, but the annual rate is still likely to remain uncomfortably high.

According to Dow Jones, economists now expect a decline of 0.1% in the consumer price index on a monthly basis, but inflation is still expected to climb at a 6.5% rate from the prior year. That compares to a gain of 0.1% in November, and a 7.1% pace year over year. However, the CPI is well off the 9.1% peak rate in June.

Core CPI, excluding energy and food, is expected to be up 0.3% in December, gaining 5.7% on a year-over-year basis. Core CPI rose 0.2% in November and 6% on a yearly basis.

“We welcome it with open arms. It’s good news,” said KPMG chief economist Diane Swonk of the expected decline. “It’s great and it helped to fuel consumer spending in the fourth quarter. … But it’s still not enough.”

The consumer price index is expected Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. It is the final CPI report before the Federal Reserve’s Feb. 1 interest rate decision. For that reason, the inflation number has become a major event for financial markets, and now some traders are betting it will show inflation slowing even more than economists forecast. They also point to weaker-than-expected wage growth in December’s jobs report, as well as other data that reflects lower inflation expectations.

Stocks rallied on Wednesday ahead of the report. “The market is looking at it as glass half full. Inflation is rolling over, and the Fed is almost done raising interest rates,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “I think they remember the last two months when you had numbers that were well below expectations. They’re just assuming that’s going to be the case again.”

Expected impact on the Fed

In the futures market, traders continued to bet the central bank will raise rates by just a quarter point at its next meeting. Meanwhile, some economists continue to expect policymakers will increase the fed funds target rate by a half percentage point. Market expectations are just 20% for a 50 basis point hike. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“It’s amazing how much reaction and overreaction there is for one single data point,” said Simona Mocuta, chief economist at State Street Global Advisors. “Clearly the CPI is very important. In this particular case, it does have fairly direct policy implications, which are about the size of the next Fed rate hike.”

Mocuta said a cooler CPI should influence the Fed. “The market has not priced the full 50. I think the market is right in this case,” she said. “The Fed can still contradict the market, but what the market is pricing is the right decision.”

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Wilmington Trust chief economist Luke Tilley said a 12% decline in gasoline prices in December and other decreases in energy prices — for expenses like home heating — helped drive inflation lower.

“Shelter is the main focus because of the lag,” he said. Rental market data shows a slowing in rates, but the CPI has not yet reflected it. “Everyone is familiar with the lag that it takes for the data to show up in the CPI,” Tilley added. “We think there could be a sharper slowdown.” Shelter costs are 40% of core CPI.

Shelter is expected to be up 0.6% month over month. Tilley said with the decline in the real estate market, he is hearing from landlords that they are having a more difficult time raising rents. “We’re penciling in slower increases in January and February and March on that shorter lag,” he said.

A focus on inflation in services

Economists are watching closely to see how much inflation related to services rises in CPI, since goods inflation is expected to continue to come down now that supply chains are operating more normally.

“The headline monthly changes over the last two, three months overstate the improvement. We’re not going to get the same help from gasoline in the next report. I don’t want to see an acceleration in shelter. I want to see some of the discretionary areas show deceleration,” said State Street’s Mocuta. “I think right now the focus is very much on the services side.”

The market is laser focused on inflation since the Fed’s progress in fighting it could determine how far the central bank will go on its rate hiking path. The rate increases are slowing the economy, and how much more it chooses to do so could be the difference between a soft landing or a recession.

“The hope is that basically we are now in a position where you could envision a soft landing. That requires the Fed to not only stop raising rates but ease up sooner and that doesn’t seem to be where they’re at,” said Swonk. “The Fed is hedging a different bet than the markets are. … This is where nuance is really hard. You’re in this position where you’re improving. It’s like a patient is getting better, but they’re not out of the hospital yet.”

The fed funds rate range is currently at 4.25% to 4.5%, and the central bank has forecast a final high rate of 5.1% for this year.

“The Fed is also worried about a second round of supply shock, whether it’s China’s abrupt abandonment of its zero-Covid policy or something else from Russia. They don’t want to declare victory too soon,” said Swonk. “They’re making that very clear. They’ve said it over and over again and nobody listens.”

Economists expect another key metric — the personal consumption expenditure deflator — could show core inflation slowing even below the Fed’s forecast of 3.5% by Dec. 31. Some economists who expect a recession predict rate cuts before year-end, as the markets expect. But the Fed has no forecast for rate cuts until 2024.

Some strategists expect Fed officials to begin to sound more dovish and less at odds with the market view. Boston Fed President Susan Collins said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday that she was leaning toward a quarter-point hike at the next meeting.

“We think one of the changes in coming months is the Fed will soon realize it is cheaper to change the inflation narrative than reverse a recession leading to millions of lost jobs,” writes Fundstrat founder Tom Lee in a note Wednesday.

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Why everyone thinks a recession is coming in 2023

People who lost their jobs wait in line to file for unemployment following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S. April 6, 2020.

Nick Oxford | File Photo | REUTERS

Recessions often take everyone by surprise. There’s a very good chance the next one will not.

Economists have been forecasting a recession for months now, and most see it starting early next year. Whether it’s deep or shallow, long or short, is up for debate, but the idea that the economy is going into a period of contraction is pretty much the consensus view among economists. 

“Historically, when you have high inflation, and the Fed is jacking up interest rates to quell inflation, that results in a downturn or recession,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “That invariably happens — the classic overheating scenario that leads to a recession. We’ve seen this story before. When inflation picks up and the Fed responds by pushing up interest rates, the economy ultimately caves under the weight of higher interest rates.”

Zandi is in the minority of economists who believe the Federal Reserve can avoid a recession by raising rates just long enough to avoid squashing growth. But he said expectations are high that the economy will swoon.

“Usually recessions sneak up on us. CEOs never talk about recessions,” said Zandi. “Now it seems CEOs are falling over themselves to say we’re falling into a recession. … Every person on TV says recession. Every economist says recession. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Fed causing it this time

Ironically, the Fed is slowing the economy, after it came to the rescue in the last two economic downturns. The central bank helped stimulate lending by taking interest rates to zero, and boosted market liquidity by adding trillions of dollars in assets to its balance sheet. It is now unwinding that balance sheet, and has rapidly raised interest rates from zero in March — to a range of 4.25% to 4.5% this month.

But in those last two recessions, policymakers did not need to worry about high inflation biting into consumer or corporate spending power, and creeping across the economy through the supply chain and rising wages.

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The Fed now has a serious battle with inflation. It forecasts additional rate hikes, up to about 5.1% by early next year, and economists expect it may maintain those high rates to control inflation.

Those higher rates are already taking a toll on the housing market, with home sales down 35.4% from last year in November, the 10th month in a row of decline. The 30-year mortgage rate is close to 7%. And consumer inflation was still running at a hot 7.1% annual rate in November.

“You have to blow the dust off your economics textbook. This is going to be be a classic recession,” said Tom Simons, money market economist at Jefferies. “The transmission mechanism we’re going to see it work through first in the beginning of next year, we’ll start to see some significant margin compression in corporate profits. Once that starts to take hold, they’re going to take steps to cut their expenses. The first place we’re going to see it is in reducing headcount. We’ll see that by the middle of next year, and that’s when we’ll see economic growth slowdown significantly and inflation will come down as well.”

How bad will it be?

A recession is considered to be a prolonged economic downturn that broadly affects the economy and typically lasts two quarters or more. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the arbiter of recessions, considers how deep the slowdown is, how wide spread it is and how long it lasts.

However, if any factor is severe enough, the NBER could declare a recession. For instance, the pandemic downturn in 2020 was so sudden and sharp with wide-reaching impact that it was determined to be a recession even though it was very short.

“I’m hoping for a short, shallow one, but hope springs eternal,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG. “The good news is we should be able to recover from it quickly. We do have good balance sheets, and you could get a response to lower rates once the Fed starts easing. Fed-induced recessions are not balance sheet recessions.”

The Federal Reserve’s latest economic projections show the economy growing at a pace of 0.5% in 2023, and it does not forecast a recession.

“We’ll have one because the Fed is trying to create one,” said Swonk. “When you say growth is going to stall out to zero and the unemployment rate is going to rise … it’s clear the Fed has got a recession in its forecast but they won’t say it.” The central bank forecasts unemployment could rise next year to 4.6% from its current 3.7%.

Fed reversal?

How long policymakers will be able to hold interest rates at high levels is unclear. Traders in the futures market expect the Fed to start cutting rates by the end of 2023. In its own forecast, the central bank shows rate cuts starting in 2024.

Swonk believes the Fed will have to backtrack on higher rates at some point because of the recession, but Simons expects a recession could run through the end of 2024 in a period of high rates.

 “The market clearly thinks the Fed is going to reverse course on rates as things turn down,” said Simons. “What isn’t appreciated is the Fed needs this in order to keep their long-term credibility on inflation.”

The last two recessions came after shocks. The recession in 2008 started in the financial system, and the pending recession will be nothing like that, Simons said.

“It became basically impossible to borrow money even though interest rates were low, the flow of credit slowed down a lot. Mortgage markets were broken. Financial markets suffered because of the contagion of derivatives,” said Simons. “It was financially generated. It wasn’t so much the Fed tightening policy by raising interest rates, but the market shut down because of a lack of liquidity and trust. I don’t think we have that now.”

That recession was longer than it seemed in retrospect, Swonk said. “It started in January 2008. … It was like a year and a half,” she said. “We had a year where you didn’t realize you were in it, but technically you were. …The pandemic recession was two months long, March, April 2020. That’s it.”

While the potential for recession has been on the horizon for awhile, the Fed has so far failed to really slow employment and cool the economy through the labor market. But layoff announcements are mounting, and some economists see the potential for declines in employment next year.

“At the start of the year, we were getting 600,000 [new jobs] a month, and now we are getting about maybe 250,000,” Zandi said. “I think we’ll see 100,000 and then next year it will basically go to zero. … That’s not enough to cause a recession but enough to cool the labor market.” He said there could be declines in employment next year.

“The irony here is that everybody is expecting a recession,” he said. That could change their behavior, the economy could cool and the Fed would not have to tighten so much as to choke the economy, he said.

“Debt-service burdens have never been lower, households have a boatload of cash, corporates have good balance sheets, profit margins rolled over, but they’re close to record highs,” Zandi said. “The banking system has never been as well capitalized or as liquid. Every state has a rainy day fund. The housing market is underbuilt. It is usually overbuilt going into a recession. …The foundations of the economy look strong.”

But Swonk said policymakers are not going to give up on the inflation fight until it believes it is winning. “Seeing this hawkish Fed, it’s harder to argue for a soft landing, and I think that’s because the better things are, the more hawkish they have to be. It means a more active Fed,” she said.

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