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Market turbulence: The impact of weak data and Big Tech domination


The impact of weak data and Big Tech domination

Recent macroeconomic data from the world's largest economy, the United States, have been disappointing, and not in a minor way. This downturn has been significantly more negative than expected, raising concerns among economists and investors alike. Over recent months, various economic indicators have painted a bleak picture.


For example, the U.S. manufacturing sector, as evidenced by recent PMI (Purchasing Managers' Index) and ISM (Institute for Supply Management) reports, has significantly underperformed relative to forecasts, signaling a slowdown. This underperformance is not just limited to manufacturing but extends to the broader economy, including consumer sentiment and regional economic indicators. These developments collectively suggest that the economy is facing challenges that could derail the most optimistic forecasts, which had anticipated consistent economic growth alongside falling inflation.


Interestingly, China, the world's second-largest economy, also reported weaker-than-expected performance in the second quarter. Despite extensive government efforts to stimulate growth, various sectors of the Chinese economy, particularly manufacturing and real estate, have struggled. This underperformance reflects deeper structural issues within China's economic model, including high debt levels and demographic challenges. While China has been a significant engine of global growth for decades, its current slowdown poses risks not just domestically but globally, given its integral role in global supply chains and international trade.



In contrast, Europe has shown some resilience, performing surprisingly better than expected. Despite ongoing challenges, including high energy costs and geopolitical tensions stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, European economies have managed to sustain moderate growth. This relative strength is partly attributed to robust consumer spending and fiscal support measures implemented by various governments. However, it's essential to note that Europe’s overall economic performance is still relatively weak, especially within its industrial sector, which has been hit hard by supply chain disruptions and fluctuating demand.


All these developments suggest that the most optimistic economic forecasts, which predicted steady growth with decreasing inflation, are being put to a severe test. The notion that economies could experience simultaneous growth and falling inflation now seems increasingly precarious. The recent data, particularly from the U.S., underscore this point. Not only did the PMI and ISM data come in weaker than expected, but labor market data and regional indices from key U.S. regions have also signaled a slowdown. These indicators collectively suggest that a significant economic slowdown is already underway.



One of the critical conditions for preventing weaker economic data from triggering panic on Wall Street is a decline in inflation. Inflation has been a central concern for policymakers and investors alike, as rising prices erode purchasing power and can lead to higher interest rates, which in turn dampen economic activity. If inflation does not decrease as hoped and economic readings continue to weaken while price pressures remain high, significant stress will likely appear in the stock market. Over the past several months, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has suggested the possibility of a 'soft landing,' where the economy slows down enough to curb inflation without tipping into a recession.


This scenario has found many supporters, especially as the economy demonstrated robustness alongside declining inflation. However, this delicate balance now seems to be evaporating. Month by month, the rate of inflation decline is slowing, in part because the high base effect from the previous year is no longer providing a cushion.


Adding to the market's jitters, a few days ago, stocks of companies heavily invested in artificial intelligence, such as Dell and Salesforce, saw significant declines. These drops may be early warning signs of an overheated market. Wall Street, known for its volatility and rapid reactions to economic data, is facing challenging times. This is particularly true for portfolio managers who have actively managed their investments to avoid overexposure to Big Tech stocks.



Despite these efforts, it is a small group of technology companies driving the stock indices to new highs, skewing the market's overall performance. Passive funds, which track selected benchmarks and are not actively managed, have been drawing billions of dollars in fresh capital, rewarding investors with significant profits. This influx of capital into passive funds has led to a situation where a narrow group of stock managers is turning to high-risk strategies in a bid to outperform the market.


These managers are increasingly betting on a smaller number of lucrative companies across the United States, undermining the fundamental principle of diversification. Diversification is a risk management strategy that involves spreading investments across various financial instruments, industries, and other categories to reduce exposure to any single asset or risk. However, in the current market environment, the allure of high returns from a few high-performing stocks is leading many to concentrate their investments narrowly.


This approach, while potentially rewarding in the short term, poses significant risks. The phrase "grasping at straws" is apt, as these managers are taking on more risk to stay competitive and avoid being left behind in the market's rally. Renowned investor Howard Marks has warned that financial bubbles form when too much capital chases a limited number of assets. His insights suggest that the current market behavior could be setting the stage for future instability.



Supporting this concern, data collected by Bloomberg Intelligence shows a trend towards increased concentration in investment funds. Last year, eighty-eight stock funds were launched with fewer than 50 stocks each, compared to just 19 annual launches in 2010. The average number of stock holdings in new equity ETF funds has shrunk to its lowest level since 2010, averaging around 136 this year. This trend is also evident in mutual funds, where the focus is shifting towards a smaller group of carefully selected stocks. This concentration is seen as a way to stand out in a market where a narrow group of large-cap companies has made it increasingly difficult to beat the indices.


Historically, such concentration has been a recipe for market collapses. For instance, the Nifty 50 bubble of the early 1970s saw investors flocking to a group of top U.S. companies, many of which are now forgotten. Companies like Kodak, Polaroid, and Xerox were once market darlings but eventually fell out of favor, leading to significant losses for investors. The consequences of such concentration are growing, with some market analysts suggesting that betting against Big Tech might now be a viable strategy. Others, however, continue to defend the tech sector, particularly companies involved in artificial intelligence.


Investment authorities interviewed by Bloomberg are unanimous in their assessment: current market conditions present an opportunity for talented investors to demonstrate their skills. The challenging environment means that the risk premium for outperforming benchmarks could be exceptionally high. However, this also exacerbates the diversification problem outside of technology giants. According to Laffer Tengler Investments, novice investors are excessively diversifying their portfolios, thereby missing out on potential returns from well-chosen stocks. The data, however, are unequivocal.



Big Tech stocks continue to surge, while the rest of the market lags. In 2023, only 27% of stocks in the S&P 500 outperformed the benchmark, according to Bank of America. This percentage appears even smaller now. Currently, the five largest stocks in the S&P 500 – Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Amazon.com, and Meta Platforms – account for more than a quarter of the index's total market capitalization. This dominance is because Wall Street views these companies as the likely winners in the AI race. Investing in artificial intelligence requires substantial capital investments that smaller firms cannot afford. Additionally, successful AI ventures require business models that can scale rapidly.


Thus, the debate continues: which side is correct? The question remains open. All the companies mentioned have businesses that are closely tied to the health of both the global and national economies. This interconnectedness means that their performance is not just a reflection of their own innovations but also of broader economic trends. As the market navigates these turbulent times, the interplay between macroeconomic data, investor behavior, and company performance will be critical in determining the future trajectory of the economy.


05.06.2024



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