Rocky stock market faces a critical test. Plus, TSX picks for protecting cash flows and hedge funds make historic U-turn on bond bets

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A volatile stock market faces a critical test this week, when the U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates and give more insight on its plans for tightening monetary policy to fight surging inflation.

Worries over an increasingly hawkish Fed have helped drag the benchmark S&P 500 index down more than 12 per cent so far in 2022, the biggest percentage drop to start the year in more than half a century. The month of April marked the biggest monthly fall since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

While investors have ramped up expectations of how aggressively the central bank may tighten monetary policy, many are concerned the Fed will not be able to keep the economy afloat as it battles the worst inflation in nearly four decades.

Compounding concerns over monetary policy, investors have been riled by everything from rising bond yields to the war in Ukraine and more recently lockdowns in China. The market is also entering a historically weaker six-month period for stocks.

“We’re going to be in for, I think, more dicey, choppy, volatile markets here for a while longer, just because of the uncertainty,” said Randy Frederick, vice-president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin, Tex., who said that “things turned the other direction right at the beginning of the year,” coming off a strong fourth quarter at the end of 2021.

Investors widely expect the Fed to raise rates by 50 basis points when the central bank’s meeting concludes on Wednesday. They are also bracing for signals from Fed Chair Jerome Powell about the future path of interest rates, the central bank’s plans for reducing its balance sheet and its view on when inflation will recede. Policy makers raised rates in March by 25 basis points, the first increase since 2018.

“If the Fed continues to expect high levels of inflation and they don’t see it moderating in the future, that will be a concern for investors,” said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors. “It will mean that the Fed will continue to raise rates and tighten monetary policy, which the market is expecting, but maybe even more aggressively.”

Beyond this week’s action, policy makers have coalesced around an overall increase of the federal funds rate to at least 2.5 per cent by year end.

Crucial to the tightening plans will be how persistent officials view the current pace of inflation after March’s consumer price index showed an annual increase of 8.5 per cent, the largest rise in more than 40 years.

Given that there are indications inflation has started to peak, said Kei Sasaki, senior portfolio manager at Northern Trust Wealth Management, “if there is an even more resounding hawkish tone coming out of that meeting, then that could certainly be viewed as negative.”

As investors have girded for tighter monetary policy, bond yields have jumped this year, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to about 2.9 per cent from 1.5 per cent at the end of 2021.

That has particularly put pressure on tech and growth stocks, whose valuations rely on future estimated cash flows that are undermined when the investors can earn more on risk-free bonds. The Russell 1000 growth index has fallen about 18 per cent so far this year.

Meanwhile, investor sentiment is dour. The percentage of individual investors describing their six-month outlook for stocks as “bearish” rose to 59.4 per cent, its highest level since 2009, according to the latest weekly survey from the American Association of Individual Investors.

To be sure, after the market’s recent slide, the Fed’s actions could provide some comfort should they avoid raising new concerns. After the Fed’s expected rate hike in March, the S&P 500 rallied more than 8 per cent over the ensuing two weeks.

Investors will continue to keep an eye on corporate results, after a mixed week of earnings from megacap companies. Reports from Pfizer Inc., Starbucks Corp. and ConocoPhillips Co. are due this week, among others.

With the calendar flipping to May, seasonality also looms as a possible factor for investors. The S&P 500′s strongest six months of the year since 1946 have been November through April, when the index has risen an average of 6.8 per cent, according to CFRA.

By comparison, the index has gained only 1.7 per cent on average from May to October.

However, more recently, the trends have not been as strong. In the past five years, the S&P 500 has averaged a 7.2-per-cent gain in the May-October period versus 5.5 per cent for November to April, according to a Reuters analysis.

— Lewis Krauskopf, Reuters

Also see: Rising economic fear batters Wall Street

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Stocks to ponder

Nexus Industrial Real Estate Investment Trust (NXR-UN-T) This Ontario-based REIT owns a portfolio of 106 industrial, office and retail properties located across Canada. With a unanimous buy recommendation from seven analysts, it has a yield of 5 per cent and the average target price implies a potential price return of 17 per cent over the next year. Jennifer Dowty explains why this is a REIT to watch.

The Rundown

These stocks can help protect cash flow in a falling market

April’s big market selloff was surprising only in that it was so long coming. Investors seemed determined to ignore all the warning signs, including the global economic impact of the war in Ukraine, the sudden and rapid rise of inflation, the increasingly hawkish pronouncements of our central bankers, the ongoing supply chain issues, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. Yes, the markets always climb a wall of worry. But this looks more like a skyscraper. What’s an income investor to do in this situation? Focus on cash flow, not share prices. Here are Gordon Pape’s suggestions for stocks to focus on.

One-year GICs are the best deal in town for safety seekers

It’s time to drain down some of the billions sitting in savings accounts. A suggestion from Rob Carrick on where to put it: One-year guaranteed investment certificates. With rates as high as 2.5 to 3.1 per cent, they offer complete safety in these uncertain times and a return that compares well to alternatives.

Elon Musk selling his Tesla shares adds one more reason to avoid the stock

Elon Musk is reducing his ownership stake in Tesla Inc. (TSLA-Q) to focus on other opportunities, raising the question of whether besotted investors should follow his lead. David Berman shares his thoughts.

What $280-million fund manager Ryan Bushell is buying and selling

For money manager Ryan Bushell, it’s no longer a question of whether a recession will come, but when, given the current pace of interest rate hikes. Mr. Bushell feels relatively prepared for a potential recession, however, by putting together client portfolios he believes can stand up to different market environments. Brenda Bouw spoke to Mr. Bushell about what he’s been buying and selling.

Hedge funds suddenly become less bearish on U.S. bonds

The Federal Reserve’s well-telegraphed plan to hike interest rates by half a percentage point on Wednesday and start reducing its balance sheet has failed to ease inflation and growth worries, prompting bond investors to seek safety by adjusting the duration of their portfolios. Meanwhile, with worries over U.S. economic growth now rivaling deeper-rooted concerns over inflation, hedge funds have slashed their bearish Treasuries bets by the most on record and bond market volatility has climbed to a 13-year high.

Five reasons dividends are an investor’s best friend

A reader asks a great question: Why are dividends considered to be so important? After all, it’s not as if investors gain anything from the dividend, because the stock price adjusts lower (all else being equal) on the ex-dividend date. The dividend tax credit is a major advantage, but are there any other advantages? John Heinzl shares his thoughts.

Also see: John Heinzl’s model dividend growth portfolio as of April 30, 2022

Warren Buffett slams Wall Street, reveals big investments at Berkshire Hathaway meeting

Warren Buffett on Saturday used the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to reveal major new investments, including a bigger stake in Activision Blizzard Inc., while also railing against Wall Street excess and addressing the risks to his conglomerate of inflation and nuclear war.

Others (for subscribers)

The most oversold and overbought stocks on the TSX

How Fairfax stock taught this investor about the value of long-term investing

Copper, iron ore yet to reflect China’s weakening industrial outlook

Monday’s analyst upgrades and downgrades

Monday’s Insider Report: Executive invest over $750,000 in this financial stock

Globe Advisor

Opportunities in ‘recession-proof’ consumer staples as inflation and interest rates rise

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Ask Globe Investor

Question: Further to John Heinzl’s recent comments on Canadian companies paying dividends in U.S. dollars, how are dividends treated from Canadian banks that are also traded on the New York Exchange? Does the dividend tax credit apply here as well?

Answer: If you buy 100 shares of Royal Bank, you own 100 shares of Royal Bank. It doesn’t matter if you bought the shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange in Canadian dollars, or on the New York Stock Exchange in U.S. dollars. Nor does it matter if you hold your shares on the Canadian dollar side of your account and receive your dividends in loonies, or on the U.S. dollar side of your account and receive your dividends in the currency-adjusted equivalent of U.S. dollars.

As Royal Bank is a Canadian company, its dividends qualify for the dividend tax credit. This is true regardless of the exchange on which you purchased the shares or the currency in which you receive the dividends.

–John Heinzl (E-mail your questions to jheinzl@globeandmail.com)

What’s up in the days ahead

Robert Tattersall takes a fresh look at Redline Communications, which is now subject to a takeover bid, and the Contra Guys update their investment case for Vaalco Energy.

Click here to see the Globe Investor earnings and economic news calendar.

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Compiled by Globe Investor Staff