Investors longing for simpler days -- when a sharp run-up in major indexes, soaring corporate profits and rapidly expanding GDP were thought to signify an economic expansion was underway -- can be forgiven. This time around, bearish investors have disputed at every turn the mounting body of evidence that a recovery is building steam.
When corporate profits materialized in the wake of a credit meltdown much faster than expected, bears took issues with the lack of revenue growth. With top lines expanding again, some are now saying the sharp 5.9% GDP expansion last quarter was merely a one-time inventory correction that's destined to fade out.
So as the form of the materializing recovery gets labeled with everything from an L, U, V, square-root-shaped or -- just to cover all bases, inverted-square-root-shaped -- it may be best to call it the "Rodney Dangerfield" recovery. That's what Charles Schwab chief investment strategist Liz Ann Sonders did last week, because this rebound just can't get any respect.
It's More 1983 This Time
Sonders, who correctly called the turnaround in the stock market from recent lows, points to a roster of reasons to give the rally credit. The 11-month gain in leading economic indicators, as well as industrial production, is tracking the shape of the sharp recovery in 1983 and dwarfs the limp turnarounds that followed the past two recessions. Corporate cash flow at the end of 2009 exceeded spending by a record 16%. Profits and the hiring of temporary workers, usually a predictor a labor market rebound, are spiking.
So despite continued bearish proclamations that doom lies just around the next corner, investors may be wise to focus on the opposite risk instead. The Fed's easy-money policy that has ignited all assets could be coming to a close sooner than many anticipate. "Investors should be wary of forecasting a zero-rate environment too far into the future," Sonders wrote.
And markets are now finding the prospects of Fed tightening more credible by the day. Indeed, rumors that more restrictive monetary policy was in the cards poured cold water on the U.S. stock market on Friday, for example. Some emerging markets, like India, that have already recovered sharply are again raising interest rates. India now joins China -- where officials have been scrambling to curb bank lending in a bid to contain inflation -- in trying to actually cool its economy, suggesting that credit may be getting less easy around the world.
Employment Data Will Be Key
So, traders are keeping a particularly close eye on interest rates. While stocks are sure to feel the headwind of rising interest rates, at least they'll also get a bump from climbing earnings and broad perceptions that sustainable growth has returned. The bonds that investors flocked to for cover in the wake of the crisis, on the other hand, could get hit much harder.
Of course, more evidence will be needed before the Fed can definitively change its monetary posture. Employment data over the next several months will be especially key. "However, not until the recovery gets a lot more of the respect that Rodney Dangerfield was lacking should we expect the beginning of a rising-rate cycle," Sonders wrote.
If the economic data continue to be as solid as they have been, bears will have ultimately have no choice but to grow more respectful.
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