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Too Early To Get Bullish: Mike Wilson Sees S&P Tumbling To 3400 In Less Than Three Months

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by Tyler Durden
Monday, May 23, 2022 - 06:01 PM

A curious trend has emerged in Bank of America's monthly Fund Manager Survey: with every passing month, as the S&P grinds lower and lower until it finally briefly dipped into a bear market on Friday, the prevailing consensus among Wall Street investors for where the "Fed put" is has also declined with every passing month...

... and is currently at just 3529, down from 3647 in April, and from 3698 in February.

None of that is a surprise to Morgan Stanley's Michael Wilson (the second most bearish "Michael" - and strategist - on Wall Street after BofA's Michael Hartnett) who one week after saying that the S&P will likely drop to 3,400 as "that is where valuation and technical support lie" before rebounding to his base cae target of 3,900, picks up where he left off and in his latest Weekly Warm-up note, says that bearishness is spreading fast and "de-rating is now a consensus view" but the magnitude is still up for debate (as the above shrinking Fed Put trends show).

As Wilson elaborates in his latest note (available to pro subscribers) while most clients agree P/Es should be lower than last year, there is still some debate around how low P/Es should fall. In this context, many MS clients believe that the de-rating is now over with the S&P 500 NTM P/E having fallen to 16.5x from 21.5x last November. Here Wilson agrees, but is not so sure that earnings forecasts are correct.

In fact, Wilson adds, the S&P 500 reached a reasonable level last week when ERPs traded as high as 345bps which is right in line with Morgan Stanley's current fair value target. However, according to Wilson, 345bps is too conservative now given the likely fall in earnings forecasts and PMIs over the next 6 months, not to mention the greater than average geopolitical risks. Indeed, P/Es typically lead EPS revisions and this time should be no different.

Meanwhile, just to make sure he continues to lead the market on the way down as all of his peers scramble to catch down to his year-end forecast, Wilson again lowered his target P/E on both a normalized (16.5x) and short term (14.5x) basis "given the risk to earnings growth that is more visible and less deniable, particularly for consumer and technology oriented companies. Or as he puts it:

"... the S&P 500 P/E will fall toward 14x ahead of the oncoming downward EPS revisions. ~14.5x, which assumes an ERP of ~400bps, mutiplied by the current NTM EPS of $237 is how we arrive at our near term overshoot of fair value scenario of 3400- which we have discussed in recent reports."

Meanwhile, energy - a sector we have been pitching since the summer of 2020 - has officially emerged as the most favored sector by generalists, and inflation expectations remain high. As such, Wilson warns that investors view the hawkish Fed as appropriate and since he expects the S&P to drop at least another 550 points to 3,400, Wilson cautions that "the Fed put strike price is now below 3500."

Furthermore, while bearishness is now pervasive, Wilson notes that this is a necessary condition for a sustainable low, but an insufficient one. Indeed, as we pointed out in last month's Fund Manager Survey, "while sentiment and positioning for active institutional investors is low, asset owner clients remain heavily exposed to equities. As they reallocate, this should further weigh on equity prices."

Continuing his trek through Wall Street's bearish underbelly, Wilson next pays a visit to the biggest question mark facing the US economy - the health of the consumer - which according to Walmart and Target is far worse than career economists and Fed talking heads will have everyone believe.

As Wilson puts it, while COVID has been a terrible period in history, many consumers, like companies, actually benefited financially from the pandemic: "Between the combination of record amounts of stimulus provided directly to many households and asset price inflation for homes, stocks and crypto currency, most consumers experienced a one time windfall in wealth." But coming into 2022 Wilson's view, just like ours, was that "this gravy train was about to end for most households as we anniversaried the stimulus, asset prices de-rated and inflation in non-discretionary items like shelter, food and energy ate into savings."

And indeed, consumer confidence readings for the past 6 months supported the view that things aren't so great anymore for the average household. Yet, many investors have continued to argue erroneously the consumer is likely to surprise on the upside with spending as they use up excess savings to maintain a permanently higher plateau of consumption (this, as we noted last October, was the core premise behind Goldman's cheerful late 2021 GDP forecasts which the bank crucified last weekend).

The shift from goods to services has been the other rallying cry for the US consumer, a theme which as Wilson has frequently noted, is a net negative for the stock market given the much higher contribution of consumer goods versus services companies to the overall market cap of the consumer discretionary sector.

If that wasn't enough, over the past few weeks more nascent weakness has emerged as the consumer sector has been pummeled by bad news from the largest US retailers (WMT, TGT, ROST, etc) all of whome cited weaker demand and profitability. This is in line with Wilson's that the consumer will remain a positive contributor to the overall economy this year but the slowdown in consumer activity will contribute to negative operating leverage. It's effectively the reversal of the over earning that many consumer oriented companies experienced over the past few years.

Finally, there is still a strong view from many clients to play a re-opening trade as the consumer moves from goods to services spending. However, as noted above, that trade may be at risk now as airline and other travel expenses become out of reach for many households, and we have in fact noted the drop in airline ticket purchases following the record surge in air fares.  As such, Wilson says that he remains underweight the consumer discretionary sector and believes it will disappoint on earnings this year.

There's more: while the narrative of the "strong US consumer" is cracking, Wilson says that the other big push back he received to his bearish year ahead outlook in recent client meetings, was on the view that technology spending would likely disappoint the aggressive assumptions coming into 2022. Technology bulls argue that work from home only benefited a few select companies while most would continue to see very strong growth from the very positive secular trends for technology spend. In fact, many bulls argued technology spending was no longer cyclical but structural and non-discretionary, especially in a world where costs are rising so much. Companies would spend more on technology, especially software, to become more efficient.

Wilson says he strongly disagreed with that view and argued technology spending is inherently cyclical and would follow corporate cash flow growth and corporate sentiment. There has also been a massive pull forward of many durable technology goods amid covid like PCs, handsets, servers, etc...a trend that would require a period of absorption in 2022.

That said, when marketing his mid-year outlook, Wilson found many technology investors are now on his page and more worried about companies missing forecasts than he has heard in over a decade. While some may view this as bullish from a sentiment standpoint, the MS strategist thinks it's a bearish sign as investors will likely want to wait to buy the dip from here and even sell key core positions which seems to be what's been happening since 1Q earnings season. Bottom line, Wilson believes that "technology spending is likely to go through a cyclical downturn this year and it could extend to even the more durable areas. While clients aren't in denial about this risk anymore, it's not fully priced, in our view. We remain underweight cyclical tech (hardware and semis) and neutral on internet/software."

Shifting the discussion to another topic, Wilson writes that "perhaps the biggest change in the past 6 months is the view that inflation is here to stay and no longer transitory." At the end of last year there was a more balanced view that inflation could come down in 2022 and allow the Fed to take a more modest path on rate hikes to get it under control. But that view is now out the window with the severe move higher in both front and back end rates. As a result, Wilson finds himself much more bullish on long duration bonds than the average equity client; he explains why:

Our more bullish view is even more in contrast to the views of macro and rates oriented clients. This is in stark contrast to year end when we were much more bearish on long duration bonds than the average equity client. As such, we are taking this as a contrarian signal, particularly given our more bearish view on growth which should drive more money into bonds from both retail and institutional asset allocators. In fact, we think part of the move lower in yields and stocks is the direct result of this re-allocation which has further to go.

Which brings us again to the topic du jour, the Fed Put, which Wilson repeats remains below 3,500 mostly due to the hawkish Fed. As the MS strategist notes, "this is another area where equity clients have pivoted significantly since year end. Most are now in the hawkish Fed camp and realize the reaction function has changed from prior decades. This is all due to the inflation genie having escaped from the bottle."

Echoing what we observed up top when looking at the sliding Fed Put estimates by FMS respondents, Wilson writes that many still think there is a Fed put but they acknowledge the strike price is now lower and agree that it's somewhere below 3500 on the S&P 500. This would be down approximately 15% y/y which is a level that will start to have a negative wealth effect - we showed this morning that as of this moment, a whopping $20 trillion in household wealth has been lost, a number which is still not enough for the Fed...

... which will also help slow demand, a necessary condition for the Fed to get inflation under control.

Taking all of this together, Wilson says that "equity clients are bearish overall and not that optimistic about a quick rebound" and while this is a necessary condition for a sustainable low, it is note a sufficient one. And while Wilson's 12 month target for the S&P 500 is 3900, he expects an overshoot to the downside this summer that could come sooner rather than later (sooner, since he expects the S&P to drop by almost 600 points in the next 3 months). Additionally, while sentiment and positioning for active institutional investors is low, asset owner clients remain more heavily exposed to equities, and as they reallocate toward bonds and other assets less vulnerable to slowing growth/recession, "this should weigh on equity prices in the near term."

In conclusion, Wilson thinks that 3400 is a level that more accurately reflects the earnings risk ahead and he expects that level to be achieved by the end of 2Q earnings season, if not sooner. Until then, he urges traders to use vicious bear market rallies to lighten up on the areas most vulnerable to the oncoming earnings reset.

More in the full note available to professional subscribers.

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