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Thoughts on the Market

Mike Wilson: Markets React to Omicron


With last week’s news of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, markets sold-off sharply on Friday, but beyond the headlines, there may be other underlying factors at play.

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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 29th at 1:00 p.m. in New York. So let's get after it.

Last week, the big news for markets was this new COVID variant named Omicron. While we don't yet know the characteristics of this variant with respect to its transmission and mortality rates, some nations are already acting with new restrictions on travel and other activities. These new restrictions is what markets were fearing the most on Friday, in our view.

I'm also confident that markets were already expecting some seasonal increases in cases as we enter the winter months. This is why I'm not so sure Friday's sharp sell-off in equity markets was as much about Omicron as it was just a market looking for an excuse to go lower. In fact, equity markets had already been weak heading into Thanksgiving Day - a period that is almost always positive for stocks. This was before Omicron was a real concern, so why would that be the case?

As we laid out in our year-ahead outlook, the combination of tightening financial conditions and decelerating growth is usually not bullish for stocks. When combined with one of the highest valuations on record, this is why we have a very unexciting 12-month price target for the S&P 500. Finally, as discussed on this podcast for the past 6 weeks, stocks typically do well from September to year end if they are already up until that point. However, we felt like that seasonal trade would be tougher after Thanksgiving, as the Fed began to taper its asset purchases and institutional investors moved to lock in profits rather than worrying about missing out on further upside. With retail a large buyer during Friday's sharp sell-off, it appears that the institutional investors were the ones selling. In short, it looks like that switch to locking in profits may have begun.

Today's bounce back also makes sense in the context of a market that understands Omicron is probably not going to lead to a significant lockdown. In fact, we're already hearing reassuring words from the authorities making those decisions.

The bottom line is that markets were already choppy, with many higher beta indices and stocks trending lower before this latest COVID variant. Breadth has also been weak, with erratic leadership. High dispersion between stocks is another market signal that suggests the rising tide may be going out. Our view remains consistent - the investment environment is no longer rich with opportunity, which means one must be more selective. In a world of supply shortages, we favor companies with high visibility on earnings due to superior pricing power or cost management. We also think it makes sense to be very attendant to valuation and not overpay for open ended growth stories with questionable profitability. From a sector standpoint, Healthcare, REITs and Financials all fit these characteristics.

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