After $18 trillion rout, global stocks face more hurdles in 2023

With a drop of more than 20% in 2022, the MSCI All-Country World Index is on track for its worst performance since the 2008 crisis

Traders at the New York Stock Exchange. Money markets expect the Fed to switch into rate-cutting mode by the end of 2023. AFP
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More technology tantrums. China’s Covid-19 surge. And, above all, no central banks riding to the rescue if things go wrong. Reeling from a record $18 trillion wipeout, global stocks must surmount all these hurdles and more if they are to escape a second straight year in the red.

With a drop of more than 20 per cent in 2022, the MSCI All-Country World Index is on track for its worst performance since the 2008 crisis, as jumbo interest rate increases by the US Federal Reserve more than doubled 10-year Treasury yields — the rate underpinning global capital costs.

Bulls looking ahead at 2023 might take solace in the fact that two consecutive down years are rare for major equity markets — the S&P 500 index has fallen for two straight years on only four occasions since 1928.

However, the scary thing is that when they do occur, drops in the second year tend to be deeper than in the first.

Here are some factors that could determine how 2023 shapes up for global equity markets.

Optimists may point out that the rate-increase peak is on the horizon, possibly in March, with money markets expecting the Fed to switch into rate-cutting mode by the end of 2023. A Bloomberg News survey found that 71 per cent of top global investors expect equities to rise in 2023.

Vincent Mortier, chief investment officer at Amundi, Europe’s largest money manager, recommends defensive positioning for investors going into the New Year. He expects a bumpy ride in 2023 but reckons “a Fed pivot in the first part of the year could trigger interesting entry points”.

But after a year that blindsided the investment community’s best and brightest, many are bracing for further reversals.

One risk is that inflation stays too high for policymakers’ comfort and rate cuts don’t materialise. A Bloomberg Economics model shows a 100 per cent probability of a recession starting by August, yet it looks unlikely central banks will rush in with policy easing when faced with cracks in the economy, a strategy they used repeatedly over the past decade.

“Policymakers, at least in the US and Europe, now appear resigned to weaker economic growth in 2023,” Deutsche Bank Private Bank’s global chief investment officer Christian Nolting told clients in a note.

Recessions might be short but “will not be painless”, he warned.

A big unknown is how technology mega-caps fare, after a 35 per cent slump for the Nasdaq 100 in 2022. Companies such as Meta Platforms and Tesla have shed about two thirds of their value, while losses at Amazon and Netflix were close to or exceeded 50 per cent.

Expensively valued technology stocks do suffer more when interest rates rise. But other trends that supported technology’s advance in recent years may also go into reverse — economic recession risks hitting iPhone demand while a slump in online advertising could be drag for Meta and Alphabet.

In Bloomberg’s annual survey, only about half the respondents said they would buy stocks in the sector — selectively.

“Some of the tech names will come back as they have done a great job convincing customers to use them, like Amazon, but others will probably never reach that peak as people have moved on,” said Kim Forrest, chief investment officer at Bokeh Capital Partners.

Previously resilient corporate profits are widely expected to crumble in 2023 as pressure builds on margins and consumer demand weakens.

“The final chapter to this bear market is all about the path of earnings estimates, which are far too high,” said Morgan Stanley’s Mike Wilson, a Wall Street bear who predicts earnings of $180 a share in 2023 for the S&P 500, versus analysts’ expectations of $231.

The coming earnings recession may rival that of 2008, and markets have yet to price it in, he said.

Beijing’s early-December decision to dismantle stringent Covid-19 curbs appeared to be a turning point for MSCI’s China Index, whose 24 per cent drop was a major contributor to global equity market losses in 2022.

But a month-long rally in mainland and Hong Kong shares has petered out as a surge in coronavirus infections threatens the economic recovery. Many nations are now demanding Covid tests for travellers from China, a negative development for global travel, leisure and luxury stocks.

Technicals are increasingly driving day-to-day equity moves, with the S&P 500 recording below-average stock turnover in 2022, but explosive growth in very short-term options trading.

Professional traders and algorithmic-powered institutions have piled into such options, which were, until recently, dominated by small-time investors. That can make for bumpier markets, causing sudden volatility outbreaks such as the big intraday swing after October’s hot US inflation print.

Finally, with the S&P 500 failing to break out from its 2022 downtrend, short-term speculation remains skewed to the downside. But should the market turn, it will add fuel to the rebound.

Updated: December 31, 2022, 4:30 AM