Nvidia versus the Fed

Source: Tatton Investment Management, "Tatton Weekly" 24/05/2024

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Following the strong upwards surge in stocks and bonds at the beginning of May, capital markets have recently moderated and were mostly flat, to slightly down, overall this week. Britons were preoccupied with Rishi Sunak’s surprise election call – polling now less than six weeks away – but capital markets clearly had bigger things to worry about. Stellar results from AI tech giant Nvidia excited, but minutes from May’s meeting of the US Federal Reserve dampened investor sentiment in equal measure. It was the US economy’s back-and-forth narrative in a nutshell: healthy growth and profits, but stock market valuation held in check by the resulting headwinds from higher interest rates for longer.

No election nerves.

First, matters closer to home. It was not just global stocks that shrugged off the election announcement; the FTSE 100 barely reacted either. UK equities were virtually flat on Wednesday, but fell into week’s end, following the negative lead of the US markets the day before. For the globally focused multinationals that make up our main index, Fed policy is seen as more important than domestic politics.

Markets’ nonchalance towards British politics also reflects the view that no major economic or financial changes are expected. With the Labour party’s commanding lead in the polls, betting markets have it as a near-certainty that 14 years of Conservative-led rule will end. But Keir Starmer has committed his party to tight spending rules, so the economic effects – at least in the medium-term – are likely to be marginal.

That is not to say there will not be any. If Labour manages to live up to its housebuilding pledges, it should provide a moderate growth boost – though it will not reverse the effects of years of undersupply. In the long-term, taxes will probably be higher than they would have been under continued Conservative rule, but public investment will likely be higher too. Like the last Labour government, Starmer’s party is focused on “crowding in” private investment for infrastructure.

Closer ties with the EU would go a long way to repairing the adverse growth effects of Brexit, which is widely quoted to have cost the UK economy 5% relative to comparable G7 economies, but Starmer has already ruled out rejoining the single market or its customs union. Without vociferous Brexiteer backbenchers, a Labour government might at least have more conciliatory relations with our largest trading partners – so small trade improvements are possible. Perhaps this is why sterling strengthened against the euro following Sunak’s announcement.

In any case, the Bank of England’s timeline for rate cuts will be much more important for short and medium-term prospects. This will be unaffected by the election, and looking at forward rate expectations, as implied by the bond markets, August remains the most likely date for a first cut. Recently weak consumer data should solidify the Bank of England’s decision.

Nvidia ‘fights’ the Fed – and loses.

As mentioned, US events this week were much more important for markets’ overall mood. Nvidia’s incredible earnings growth for the first quarter showed that the AI boom still has plenty of way to go. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang beamed that generative AI is the “next industrial revolution”. With year-on-year revenues up 262% and profits six-fold, the chipmaker is clearly positioned as its baron. The meteoric rise of Nvidia’s market cap continues.

In the early part of the week, the discussion was about the chipmaker’s outsized influence on US and even global equity market sentiment. Thursday showed the limits of that influence, however. Minutes from the Fed’s meeting earlier this month were released, and the tone of discussion was notably more hawkish than markets had been expecting. Despite Nvidia stock jumping 9.3% on the day – and adding an incredible $218 billion to its market cap in the process – the wider S&P fell 0.74%.

The nerviest part for investors was reported talk of whether another rate rise might be needed. While the Fed’s timeline for rate cuts has been consistently pushed back this year, investors have not dared whisper the word hike. Implied rate expectations shifted and shorter-term bond yields (in particular the 2-year yield) picked up, making equities less attractive.

Checks and balances

To be clear, no one thinks a rate hike is the Fed’s likely next move. “Various participants mentioned a willingness to tighten policy further should risks to inflation materialise in a way that such an action became appropriate,” according to the minutes from May 1st meeting, but there is little sign that chairman Powell agreed with those sentiments. The minutes are backwards looking too. Inflation data since then has been more comforting, with a CPI report from mid-month suggesting that the 2% inflation target is on track – albeit a slow, bumpy track.

Really, it should be no surprise that some policymakers feel tighter policy might be needed if inflation stays elevated or moves higher. The US economy has comprehensively proved doubters wrong over the last couple of years, with both resilient growth and consumer sentiment. We have known for a while that inflation pressures are the natural consequence of that strength. The Fed wants to support growth, not choke it off with punishingly high rates. But, many signs suggest that the economy does not need this support and can handle high rates just fine.

The growth-inflation dynamic is currently acting like a system of checks and balances on capital markets. Investors naturally get excited about strong business sentiment and profits, but these come with inflation pressures and ‘higher for longer’ interest rates. As happened this week, the Fed does not actually have to do anything to keep markets from overreaching; the push and pull of growth and inflation expectations does it for them. Decent stock returns, underpinned by earnings growth, are likely in this environment – but melt ups are not. To us, that seems like a reasonable trade-off for long-term investors.

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