Quarterly Market Performance Commentary
The third quarter of 2022 closely followed themes of the previous quarter, while continued market volatility made it just as hard to navigate. Major indices (DJIA, NASDAQ, S&P 500, and Russell 2000) throughout the quarter showed periods of optimism followed by sudden drops to new 2022 lows at the end of the quarter. Investors continue to face headwinds as inflation metrics and rising interest rates weigh heavily on markets. August’s inflation rate was reported to be 8.3% (See Figure 1, below).1 While this was a 0.2% drop from the previous month’s year-over-year level, the rate was higher than anticipated and has resulted in continued monetary policy action. The Federal Reserve’s solution to high inflation has been a series of interest rate hikes, the most recent being a 75 basis point (0.75%) raise after their Sept. meeting, — the third of its kind this year. According to Barclays Capital, the third quarter GDP is expected to come in at +0.3%, potentially ending what some have deemed a recession by one commonly used definition.2 However, given the state of other economic indicators and recent market performance, many analysts do not believe this to be true. Despite these worries, the Fed has made it clear that quelling inflation is their top priority and it is unlikely that they will back down on rate hikes without clear results.
Figure 1: Contributions to Inflation
Figure 1. U.S. Inflation Remained High in August—https://www.wsj.com/articles/us-inflation-august-2022-consumer-price-index-11663017630?mod=series_inflation
Similar to equity markets, interest rate hikes have also wreaked havoc on the bond markets. Bond yields have risen to their highest level in over a decade which has caused the price of those bonds to fall significantly as the two are inversely related. With bond yields rising, only 20% of S&P 500 stocks have a dividend payment greater than the yield of the 10-year Treasury note, a trend that, if continued, could lead to further reallocation of assets from equity markets to bond markets.3 Even fewer dividend-paying stocks are higher than the 2-year Treasury note yield which, as of quarter end, is yielding higher than the 10-year note – another historic indicator of a looming recession.
Domestic Equity and Fixed Income
Investor optimism was higher through the first half of the third quarter as markets rallied from mid-July into August on softening inflation metrics. The Nasdaq index broke out into a fresh bull market, raising more than 20% from its June lows. However, the rally was short-lived as markets ultimately came down in the latter half of the quarter. Except for this brief market rally, third-quarter equity performance followed trends set in motion at the start of the year with high volatility and an overall downward-trend in returns for the quarter. Although month-to-month metrics have appeared to stabilize from earlier in 2022, inflation has continued to dominate financial newsreels with year-over-year metrics in the +8% range through Q3.1 There is no end in sight for Russia’s War in Ukraine, further exasperating supply-side issues throughout the economy. Combine that with
China’s Zero-Covid policy, and the recent news that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”) will be cutting oil production, the global economy is feeling pressure.
From a domestic sector perspective, Energy and Consumer Discretionary were the only sectors with positive performance in Q3, returning 2.3% and 4.4% respectively. All other major sectors returned a loss for the quarter with Communication Services and Real Estate leading the way with losses of –12.7% and –11.0% respectively.
Bonds have continued to offer no relief to investors through the third quarter (See Figure 2, above). Losses have persisted due to continued interest rate hikes and the expectation of potential future hikes. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond index, recognized as a proxy for the investment-grade bond market, returned –4.8% in Q3, leading to the worst start to a calendar year since the inception of the index.
Are We In a Recession?
Figure 3a. US Unemployment Rate
Figure 3a. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor
Figure 3b: S&P 500 Index One-Year Annualized Returns
Figure 3b. Source: Why Investors shouldn’t overreact to talk of recession. Vanguard-https://investor.vanguard.com/investor-resources-education/news/why-investors-should-not-overreact-to-talk-of-a-recession
This has been a common question debated over the last few months as the Federal Reserve has stepped up its fight against inflation. The term has also been highly politicized, especially as we near midterm election season here in the U.S. Meanwhile, the generic definition of a recession (see below), allows for speculation and interpretation, and as a result, we’re seeing contradictory reports and articles on the topic. All of this furthers investor and retirement plan participant confusion about how this impacts their savings and investments.
The truth is, there is no strict definition of a recession. However, there is a general rule of thumb often used that categorizes a recession as a period when gross domestic product (“GDP”) contracts over two consecutive quarters. According to this definition, the U.S. fell into a recession over the summer as we saw GDP contract in both Q1 & Q2. There are a few issues with this rule of thumb, but the most glaring is that this definition does not account for the other areas of the economy that may lead to a different conclusion. One such contradictory area is the tight labor markets, which have remained resilient thus far (See Figure 3a, left).
The official determination of a recession is left to a nonprofit academic group known as the National Bureau
of Economic Research (“NBER”), which much more loosely categorizes a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.”4 The NBER does not rely on a single measure of economic activity, but instead reviews a combination of economic data, such as GDP, unemployment rates, personal income and other metrics to arrive at the determination.5 It takes time to compile these multiple data points and thus, takes time to make an official declaration of an economic recession.
If we are not currently in a recession, we likely will be soon, according to Ned Davis Research which has placed the odds of a recession at 98%.6 Predictions such as this can be alarming, especially to those preparing for retirement. However, it is important for investors to keep in mind that stocks typically start to recover before recessions end and recessions are generally much shorter compared to most investor time horizons (See Figure 3b, above).7 Attempting to time the market has proven to be difficult for most investors, and participants should be reassured of their retirement plan time horizons and goals prior to making any rash decisions as a result of current market conditions. So long as participants are invested appropriately, the best course of action is usually to stay the course!
Inflation’s Impact Extends to 2023 IRS Limits Forecast
The IRS calculates annual retirement plan limits based on a combination of the prior year’s limits along with a formula that is derived from the Consumer Price Index (“CPI”) inflation metrics from the current federal fiscal year.8 For 2022, this is defined as the 12-month period from October, 1 2021 to September 30, 2022. So far, inflation has surged throughout the 2022 federal fiscal year, and as a result, the 2023 IRS limit increase may be one for the record books with the highest one-year increase both in dollars and as a percentage (See Figure 4, right).
According to Milliman, which utilized a formula along with the 11 months of available CPI data, we may see the 2023 IRS limits increase for an individual’s elective contributions to $22,500, an increase of $2,000 from the 2022 limit. Catch-up contributions for participants at or over the age of 50 may increase to $7,500, an increase of $1,000 from the 2022 limit.9 This may be a silver-lining to inflation, but it is great news for retirement savers in a position to increase deferrals into their retirement plans. Again, please note these are predictions of the limits for 2023 and the official limits are expected to be released in November 2022.
Not much has changed through the third quarter of 2022 as it pertains to legislation surrounding retirement plans. Over the better part of the last year there have been six new retirement-specific bills introduced in their respective chambers of Congress10, 11, 12, 13 (See Figure 5, right). Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2022, dubbed the SECURE Act 2.0, is the only bill to have progressed to the next stage in the lawmaking process – being overwhelmingly approved in the House of Representatives earlier this year. The bill now sits in the Senate, awaiting a series of revisions and further debate.
As it stands today, the bills share many of the same objectives as demonstrated by their significant overlap in provisions. However, some of the more impactful provisions include mandatory automatic enrollment and escalation for plans established after 2022, increased and
expanded catch-up contributions for participants at or over the age of 50, and authorization of student loan repayments, all of which would serve to benefit retirement plan participants.14
The window is quickly closing for a bill to pass prior to November elections. If a bill were to pass, updates to your plan documents will typically be handled by your recordkeeper or third-party administrator, if applicable. Keep an eye out for communication from Forest Capital Management or your other retirement plan service providers for updates on the legislation front.
Retirement Plan Litigation Update
Being a plan sponsor and fiduciary to a retirement plan warrants an additional eye on the retirement plan litigation front. Many plan sponsors are aware of the “common” retirement plan lawsuits brought forth for items like excessive fees, which are often targeted in large and mega-sized retirement plans. However, we’ve seen a new facet of litigation come to light as it relates to investment prudence, specifically surrounding which group of target-date funds (“TDF”) plan sponsors have implemented. While this is important for our plan sponsors to be aware of, these types of lawsuits are really the first of their kind and many legal experts are jumping on the inherent flaws of the claims. While Forest Capital can’t provide a legal opinion on this matter, we are monitoring this ongoing litigation and will provide material updates to plan sponsors as needed as part of our co-fiduciary responsibilities.
These new rounds of lawsuits are again targeting large and mega-size retirement plans, centered around a TDF suite managed by BlackRock—the BlackRock LifePath Index funds. All TDFs offer participants a unique set-it-and-forget-it investment option that de-risks as participants approach retirement age. These funds have quickly grown in popularity and are now commonly selected as a retirement plan’s Qualified Default Investment Alternative (“QDIA”). The BlackRock Funds consist of lower-cost passively managed funds, and as a result, are one of the lower-cost TDF suites available. Participants in the lawsuits allege that their employers were not acting in their best interest as the TDF suite did not achieve adequate returns compared to other comparable TDF suites, and that their employers were simply seeking a low-cost investment fund without consideration of performance. There has been significant uproar in the retirement industry with many claiming that these lawsuits are unfounded; investments cannot be selected with the knowledge of future returns, but instead based upon the historical performance and information available at present. It should also be noted that the Blackrock TDFs were the only low-cost TDF suite to earn a gold-star rating from Morningstar, Inc. in 2022.15 Many further argue that if these cases prove to be successful, it would set a dangerous precedent allowing lawsuits for nearly any fund that has underperformed relative to peer funds, regardless of when/how the fund was initially selected. Again, Forest Capital will inform plan sponsors of any relevant litigation developments as needed.
- “News Release Consumer Price Index—August 2022” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13 September. 2022, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cpi.pdf
- Rapoza, Kenneth. “Gloom Or Doom For Global Economy? Vanguard Gives 65% Recession Odds” Forbes, 18 September. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2022/09/18/gloom-or-doom-for-global-economy-vanguard-gives-65-recession-odds/?sh=79d319143228
- Otani, Akane. “Rising Bond Yields Change the Calculus for Stocks” The Wallstreet Journal, 19 September. 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/rising-bond-yields-change-the-calculus-for-stocks-11663516082?page=1
- Mitchell, Josh. “What is a Recession and Are We in One Now?” The Wallstreet Journal, 28 July. 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-a-recession-and-are-we-in-one-now-11655392738
- Moore, Geoffrey H. “Business Cycles, Inflation and Forecasting, 2nd Edition” National Bureau of Economic Research, 1983, Accessed 25 September 2022, http://www.nber.org/chapters/c0687
- Hajric, Vildana and Lee Isabelle. “Everything-Selloff on Wall Street Deepens on 98% Recession Odds” Bloomberg, 26 September 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-26/everything-selloff-on-wall-street-deepens-on-98-recession-odds
- “Why investors shouldn’t overreact to talk of a recession” Vanguard, 30 August. 2022, https://investor.vanguard.com/investor-resources-education/news/why-investors-should-not-overreact-to-talk-of-a-recession
- Clark, Charles J. “2023 IRS Limits Forecast—April” Milliman, 18 May. 2022, https://www.milliman.com/en/insight/2023-IRS-Limits-Forecast-April
- Clark, Charles J. and Kendig, Abby “2023 IRS Limits Forecast—August” Milliman, 15 September. 2022, https://www.milliman.com/en/insight/2023-irs-limits-forecast-august
- “Open Executive Session to Consider the Enhancing American Retirement Now (EARN) Act: The United States Senate Committee on Finance.” United States Senate Committee On Finance, https://www.finance.senate.gov/hearings/open-executive-session-to-consider-the-enhancing-american-retirement-now-earn-act.
- Katz, Michael. “Reps Introduce Increasing Small Business Retirement Choices Act.” PLANADVISER, 6 May 2022, https://www.planadviser.com/reps-introduce-increasing-small-business-retirement-choices-act/.
- “Retirement-Focused Rise & Shine Act Clears Senate Help Committee.” PLANSPONSOR, https://www.plansponsor.com/retirement-focused-rise-shine-act-clears-senate-help-committee/.
- “Auto-Portability Legislation Introduced.” Ascensus LLC, https://www.ascensus.com/news/news-articles/auto-portability-legislation-introduced/.
- Stephen Miller, “Congress Considers ‘SECURE Act 2.0’ with a New Round of Retirment Plan Fixes” SHRM, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/congress-considers-a-new-round-of-retirement-legislation.aspx
- Austin R. Ramsey, “BlackRock 401(k) Investment Suits Send Message ‘Nobody’s Safe’” Bloomberg Law, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/blackrock-401k-investment-suits-send-message-nobodys-safe