It's time to take stock of markets in 2015 and provide our thoughts on where things are headed in 2016. Before we get to the predictions, let's take a look at the consensus view of economists and market mavens heading into 2015 to see what they got right, and what they got wrong.
Consensus forecast for 2015 GDP by economists under a survey conducted by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank at this time last year was for 3.00% growth. This view was confirmed in a similar survey of the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2015. Now, with only one day remaining in the year, it looks like 2015 GDP will be closer to 2.00%, a substantial miss. Not surprising, really. In a recent report of Goldman Sachs, researchers found that the consensus forecast for GDP has been wrong in 13 of the past 16 years with economists consistently erring on the side of optimism.
Stock market predictions are equally skewed it turns out. With the S&P 500 wavering on either side of flat for the year, the consensus forecast of stock gurus by CNN Money for 2015 was for a gain of 8% on the year (the index is at 2063 as of this writing, in the red for the year). Nonetheless, stocks still trade at over 19x trailing earnings, a historically high market multiple.
Predictions for the bond market were even further from the mark, with market forecasters expecting a substantial rise in bond yields (and decline in bond prices) for several years now. Yet the UST 10-year currently stands at 2.29% (versus 2.22% this time last year). Hardly the drubbing professionals were expecting.
This having been said, let's take a look at where things could be headed in 2016.
GDP will likely slow further from its tepid pace of 2015 as the dollar strengths, global demand weakens and oil (as well as other commodities) continue to drag down the energy and materials sectors. With the economy reaching full employment (irrespective of the falling labor participation rate) gains in personal income will likely be limited. While the argument can be made that a low unemployment rate increases the leverage of workers over management, income gains from this source will be far lower than moving people from unemployment to employment, as reflected by a lowered unemployment rate.
At the same time, consumers continue to be concerned about the economy and their personal levels of savings, as reflected in a rising savings rate. Rising savings with limited income gains spells trouble for retailers and consumer spending more generally. Don't look for any gains in governmental spending either in an election year. At the same time, a strengthening dollar jeopardizes corporate profits and exports. Piece it all together and it's hard to make an argument for rising GDP in 2016.
In this environment, and with stocks at lofty levels, the market will be vulnerable. Against a backdrop of Fed tightening volatility will be inevitable. Profit margins will compress and if p/e multiples contract, the downside for stocks could be pronounced.
US Treasury bonds may present the best opportunity for gain, if the foregoing conclusions about growth and corporate profitability are plausible. With slower growth comes lower inflation, benefiting holders of fixed income instruments. While the Fed may be tinkering at the short end, their ability to control the long-end (absent an unwind of long QE positions) is limited. With a lowered Federal budget deficit forecast for 2016 comes lower Treasury issuance, with an emphasis on the short end, as the Treasury has already so indicated. If there is global turmoil in the year ahead, the fear trade will rush investors into UST, with significant price appreciation a distinct possibility.