Powell, Putin, and Probabilities

Apr 1, 2022 | Newsletters

Powell, Putin, and Probabilities

Dear Clients and Friends,

A string of unexpected events in the first quarter left investors scratching their heads and dramatically adjusting probabilities of potential market outcomes. Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve emerged from hibernation this winter with a roaring appetite for interest rate hikes that may cool the economy and create new uncertainties for the bond market. Vladimir Putin also surprised the free world by invading Ukraine, forcing decision-makers to re-think the odds of a global economic recovery, just as the Covid pandemic began to fade. This client letter will evaluate upside and downside probabilities for markets as investors grapple with emerging risks and opportunities.

A challenging quarter

Surging bond yields and geopolitics drove broad U.S. markets down as much as 13% in mid-March, although a late-quarter rally left the S&P500 down only 5%, the first quarterly decline since early 2020. Losses increased for growth and technology stocks, which suffered a 20% decline from early January to mid-March, though a similar St. Patty’s Day rally left the Nasdaq down only 9% for the quarter.

During the quarter we gradually accumulated shares of both growth and value companies trading at a discount, while modestly trimming energy positions that had reached new all-time highs. We also took advantage of rising rates to add attractive bonds to client portfolios.

Reflecting on the quarter, the late March rebound in equities may have stemmed from investors assigning a higher probability of improving fundamentals. The bullish move anticipated that the US economy and blue-chip companies can manage through the overlapping challenges of a pandemic, rising interest rates, and a land war in Europe.

The question for investors is what comes next. Are stocks a leading indicator, suggesting that many of these macro concerns will resolve? Or could the late March rally be a temporary blip as new challenges emerge? Let’s explore both sides of this debate, starting with the bear case.

Reasons to worry

Many cautious investors point out that we are in the middle of a polycrisis, with multiple, overlapping challenges facing markets, starting with pandemic-related lockdowns in China and new Covid strains emerging. Bears also stress that we are in the early innings of a multi-year period of Fed rate hikes, intended to hit the brakes on runaway inflation.

The unfolding crisis in Ukraine continues to harm innocent civilians, while also wreaking havoc with global commerce, triggering commodity shortages, and raising prices. The bearish argument worries that higher interest rates, surging inflation, and battered supply chains may trigger a recession, driving corporate earnings and stock prices lower. Probabilities for future stock market gains appear bleak in this scenario.

Reasons for optimism

Bulls might suggest that pandemic-related stress on the economy will continue to decline as governments, companies, and individuals adapt to emerging variants. Rising corporate profit margins indicate to us that companies are finding creative ways to grow amid the pandemic.

Bulls also anticipate a more contained situation in Ukraine, with a reasonable probability that the warring factions will find a compromise that reduces global tensions. The Federal Reserve is watching the Ukraine war intently, especially since the conflict impacts global economic growth and inflation. Optimists expect Jay Powell to support companies and investors more than his predecessors such as Paul Volcker whose prescriptive rate hikes jolted the economy in the 1980s.

Even with rising rates, bulls see the potential for a slowing economy and a soft landing for an overheated job market. A slowdown in hiring might balance out the supply and demand for workers, reducing wage pressure. In a gradual slowdown scenario, companies will continue to grow earnings above the rate of inflation, and stocks will continue to appreciate.

Is there a middle ground between the optimists and pessimists? We see a realistic probability that companies will find a way to manage through emerging threats, though the road may be bumpy at times. Looking through the current challenges, we expect long-term earnings growth, and we continue to favor equity ownership as a preferred way to compound wealth and offset inflation.

As many of us look forward to baseball’s opening day and warmer weather, we remain mindful of the headwinds and tailwinds that may push the economy, corporate profits, and equity valuations. We continue to monitor emerging trends in global capital markets and search for additional investment opportunities that meet our core investment principles and your goals and objectives.

We wish you all the best this spring.

Michael Bailey, CFA
Director of Research

Michael Mussio, CFA, CFP®


Important Disclosure Information: Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended or undertaken by FBB Capital Partners [“FBB]), or any non-investment related content, made reference to directly or indirectly in this commentary will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. Due to various factors, including changing market conditions and/or applicable laws, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this commentary serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from FBB. FBB is neither a law firm, nor a certified public accounting firm, and no portion of the commentary content should be construed as legal or accounting advice. A copy of the FBB’s current written disclosure Brochure discussing our advisory services and fees continues to remain available upon request or at www.fbbcap.com. Please Remember: If you are a FBB client, please contact FBB, in writing, if there are any changes in your personal/financial situation or investment objectives for the purpose of reviewing/evaluating/revising our previous recommendations and/or services, or if you would like to impose, add, or to modify any reasonable restrictions to our investment advisory services. Unless, and until, you notify us, in writing, to the contrary, we shall continue to provide services as we do currently. Please Also Remember to advise us if you have not been receiving account statements (at least quarterly) from the account custodian. Historical performance results for investment indices, benchmarks, and/or categories have been provided for general informational/comparison purposes only, and generally do not reflect the deduction of transaction and/or custodial charges, the deduction of an investment management fee, nor the impact of taxes, the incurrence of which would have the effect of decreasing historical performance results. It should not be assumed that your FBB account holdings correspond directly to any comparative indices or categories. Please Also Note: (1) performance results do not reflect the impact of taxes; (2) comparative benchmarks/indices may be more or less volatile than your FBB accounts; and, (3) a description of each comparative benchmark/index is available upon request.

You May Also Like


As the calendar turns from March to April, many sports fans are eagerly awaiting the college...


Get In Touch