The NCAA College Basketball Final Four is set. Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon, and South Carolina are headed to Phoenix, Arizona to determine this year’s college basketball national champion. In that spirit, following our “Sweet 16” commentary last week, this week we share our “Final Four Factors” for the stock market in 2017: 1) economic growth, 2) earnings, 3) corporate tax reform, and 4) the Federal Reserve (Fed). We expect a hard-fought battle between these factors and market risks, including a policy mistake from a government or central bank, trade protectionism, and geopolitics.
We continue to expect near 2.5% growth in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, roughly in line with long-term averages and slightly above Bloomberg’s consensus (2.2%). We expect economic growth to be supported by improving business investment, steady consumer spending gains, and, later in the year, pro-growth fiscal policy. Our favorite leading indicators, including the just-released Leading Economic Index (LEI) from the Conference Board, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Manufacturing Index, and the yield curve, suggest a low probability of recession over the next 12–18 months. Domestic economic data have broadly surprised to the upside in recent months, as illustrated by the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index [Figure 2], which measures the mix of economic data coming in above versus below economists’ forecasts. Overseas data are improving as well. The economic growth we expect provides a favorable backdrop for stock market performance as we highlighted in our Outlook 2017: Gauging Market Milestones. Since WWII, in years when the U.S. economy does not enter recession, the S&P 500 Index has produced an average annual gain of 12%. Also note that the best stock market performance has come when GDP is growing 2-4% (+12.1% average S&P 500 gain), rather than rapid growth of over 4% (+9.6%) or modest growth of below 2% (+0.3%), based on the past 50 years of historical data. Bottom line: We expect a moderate pickup in economic growth in 2017 may help to provide a favorable backdrop for U.S. stocks over the balance of the year.
The fortunes of this “Final Four Factors” have changed a lot over the past year. A year ago at this time, we were in the heart of an earnings recession. Companies faced a challenging global economic environment including an embattled energy sector in the midst of a historic downturn, a strong and rising U.S. dollar, and fears of an Asian currency crisis. Turning to today, the earnings recession is over, S&P energy sector earnings are growing again, and the U.S. dollar has stabilized. S&P 500 earnings for the fourth quarter of 2016 rose 8% year over year. Consensus expectations on corporate earnings are calling for near 10% year-over-year growth in 2017 based on Thomson Reuters estimates. A number of factors are supporting earnings in the U.S., including the strong February reading for the ISM Manufacturing Index. We believe economic growth is on the upswing in the U.S. and globally. Oil prices have remained relatively stable at prices far above 2016 lows. The U.S. dollar has stabilized at lower levels and is not expected to be much of a drag on earnings this year. Forward estimates in recent months have held up better than they have historically, increasing our confidence that solid earnings gains may be achieved. And corporate profit margins for S&P 500 companies outside of energy have remained resilient, despite some labor cost pressures that are to be expected in the eighth year of an economic expansion. Finally, pro-growth policies out of Washington, D.C. may give earnings a lift in late 2017 or early 2018, including corporate tax reform (more on that next). Bottom line: We expect high-single-digit S&P 500 earnings growth in 2017 to potentially drive further, though modest, gains for stocks. Earnings growth may be supported by better U.S. economic growth, rebounding energy sector profits, a stable U.S. dollar, and resilient profit margins.
CORPORATE TAX REFORM
Corporate tax reform remains the centerpiece of President Trump’s economic agenda and, despite the failed attempt to get an Affordable Care Act (ACA) replacement bill through the House last week, is still likely to get done at some point in the next year. Bringing the rate down should help boost economic growth, stimulate corporate investment, reduce incentives for U.S. companies to move offshore, and perhaps most important for stock market investors, lift corporate profits—some estimate by 10% or more. Because of the importance of the tax overhaul to markets, Trump’s immediate pivot to taxes on Friday (March 24) should be welcomed by market participants (and last week’s S&P 500 losses may be attributable to healthcare’s implications on the rest of the Trump agenda). Getting tax reform done will be easier than healthcare because there is more widespread agreement on what is needed. However, tax reform is also very complicated and, given a fractured Congress, varied special interests, and lost political capital, may be a bumpy ride. Bottom line: It is positive for markets that Trump and his team will immediately shift from healthcare to corporate tax reform where agreement is more widespread. But comprehensive tax reform will still be difficult to achieve; plans may need to be scaled back and could take longer than expected (into early 2018).