With the release of our outlook for the coming year comes a cycle of feedback and debates from clients and investors. We look at those discussions around equity markets, valuations, and more in 2022.
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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Mike Wilson, Chief Investment Officer and Chief U.S. Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It's Monday, November 22nd at 11:30 a.m. in New York. So let's get after it.
Last week, we published our outlook for 2022 and spent a lot of time discussing it with investors. This week, we share feedback from those conversations where there is agreement and pushback. Our first observation is that there wasn't as much engagement as usual. Part of this may be due to the fact that our general view hasn't changed all that much, leaving us with an unexciting overall price target for the main U.S. indices. We also sense there's a bit of macro fatigue setting in, with many investors struggling to generate alpha in what appears to be a runaway bull market for the S&P 500 - the primary U.S. equity benchmark for most asset managers. This lines up with one of our key messages for the upcoming year - focus on the micro and pick stocks if you want to outperform. As the economic recovery matures, more companies are struggling with the imbalances created by the pandemic. To us, this generally means focus on earnings stability and superior execution skills as key factors when identifying winning stocks from here.
Going back to our conversations, there's a broad agreement with our more recent tactical view that U.S. equity markets are ahead of the fundamentals, but they can stay elevated in the near-term given incredibly strong flows from retail, systematic strategies and buybacks. Furthermore, pressure to keep up with the benchmarks is curtailing willingness to de-risk early. While there are signs of deterioration under the surface with many individual companies suffering from inflation pressures, supply bottlenecks and even demand destruction in some cases, the S&P 500 earnings forecasts are still moving higher, albeit at a slower pace. More specifically, we are witnessing weak breadth as the major averages make new highs.
Most clients feel that in the absence of an outright decline in earnings forecasts, seasonal strength can maintain the market's elevated levels and there's no reason to fight it. Having said that, while there is agreement valuations are currently rich, the primary push back to our outlook for next year is that we are too bearish on valuation. While many investors we speak with think 2022 will be more challenging than this year, most still expect US equity indices to deliver 5-10% returns over the next year, while we project flat to slightly down returns in our base case. The primary difference of opinion is on valuation, which appears vulnerable, in our view, to tightening financial conditions and a more uncertain range of outcomes in the economy and earnings over the next 6 months, and that should lead to higher risk premiums or lower valuations.
The other key debate with clients center on the strength of the US consumer. Recent macro data like retail sales, and micro data from strong consumer earnings in the third quarter, suggests that consumers remain ebullient into the holidays. This is very much in line with the survey that we published two weeks ago - the same survey that suggests this strength may not be sustainable into next year due to weakening personal financial conditions from higher inflation. Our analysis and comparison of the Conference Board and University of Michigan consumer confidence surveys appear to support a deterioration into next year - a key reason we are underway the consumer discretionary sector despite strength into the holidays.
Bottom line, U.S. equity markets have delivered another stellar year of returns, which is typical in the second year of an economic recovery. However, given the speed of this recovery and record returns over the prior 18 months, we thought it was prudent to reduce our equity exposure back in early September. While our timing on that risk reduction was wrong, higher prices, driven mostly by higher valuations, only make the risk/reward for 2022 worse, not better. In short, stick with larger cap, higher quality stocks at reasonable valuations.
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