U.S. Outlook: Aging economic expansion still flexing its muscles | Capital Group Canada | Insights



U.S. Outlook: Aging economic expansion still flexing its muscles

Alan Berro, portfolio manager
Jared Franz, economist
Don O’Neal, portfolio manager
Darrell Spence, economist

The U.S. economy remains strong in face of late-cycle concerns. With volatility rising and valuations elevated, selective investing will be key in 2019.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. economy remains strong in the face of late-cycle concerns.
  • Expect heightened volatility and slower growth ahead.
  • U.S. equities aren’t likely to match stellar returns of past 9 years.
  • Look for companies with solid dividends and long runways of growth.

Age is just a number. But at 114 months and counting, it‘s fair to say that the U.S. economic expansion may be eligible for its American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) card. Consider that the average expansion since 1950 has lasted 67 months. Does that mean the U.S. is long overdue for a recession?

“We are presumably late in the game, but there is always the possibility of extra innings,” says portfolio manager Don O‘Neal. “These cycles can go on for a long time. It all depends on the fundamentals.”

Recall that game three of the 2018 World Series reached the 18th inning — double the innings of a typical game. The contest lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes before a spectacular home-run swing clinched it for the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it is with economic cycles. They can continue indefinitely until some type of catalyst brings them to an end.

The catalyst is usually a clear imbalance that arises over time in the economy, such as the housing bubble of the mid-2000s or the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The strength of the current expansion has been modest by historical standards and although government and corporate debt levels are elevated, a clear catalyst for derailing the expansion has not yet surfaced. Indeed, the likelihood of a recession in the next 12 months recently stood at just 14.9%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The same model had exceeded 30% before each of the last seven recessions.


“We have not yet seen the excesses that would signal an imminent recession,” says Capital Group economist Jared Franz. “I expect to see an economy that is still positive in 2019 but growing a bit slower, and the risk of recession will rise throughout the year.”

Momentum is strong, but inflation is rising

Rather than slowing down, the U.S. economy continues to demonstrate its resilience.

With unemployment at its lowest level in 49 years, wage growth has ramped up. In October, average hourly earnings rose 3.1% from a year earlier, the biggest gain since 2009. What’s more, consumer spending and industrial production are strong.

The Purchasing Managers‘ Index (PMI), a measure of manufacturing activity, recently stood at 57.7, indicating expansionary conditions. Any number above 50 indicates expanding manufacturing activity. Rising manufacturing activity has been an indicator of rising inflation.


“These conditions suggest continued growth in 2019,” says Capital Group economist Darrell Spence. “But the strong employment and wage growth, the manufacturing activity and the resource utilitization rate — a measure of spare capacity in the economy — give you a sense of the direction of inflation. The signal is pointing clearly upward.”

Core inflation — the measure that strips out volatile energy and food prices — stood at 2.2% in September. Including food and energy, inflation hit 2.83% in September.

Three T’s spell more volatility in 2019

After years of calm, volatility returned to the U.S. stock market in 2018. Investors can expect more volatility in 2019, driven largely by three key factors: tightening by the Fed, trade tensions and too much debt.


Reacting to a strong U.S. economy, a tight labour market and moderately rising inflation, the Fed is expected to continue raising short-term interest rates in 2019.

“If the Fed sees inflation pick up, it will take more aggressive action,” Spence says. “And investors will have to reset their expectations, which could induce further volatility.”

This is happening at a time when government, corporate and consumer debt are all dramatically on the rise. Rising debt costs could have a significant impact on the bottom line for companies.

At the same time, global trade has taken centre stage as the U.S., China, Europe and others seek to rewrite the rules of world commerce in their favour. With these trade battles still evolving, it’s difficult to calculate a precise impact on the economy, but tariffs will be a drag on growth.

“Our base case assumes 10% tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports, plus some retaliatory tariffs from China,” Franz says. “That would likely reduce U.S. GDP growth by about 50 basis points, or half a percentage point.”

Of course, if the tariffs are expanded the impact would be greater. “This is a very fluid situation that we will monitor closely throughout the year,” Franz says.

The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.5% in the third quarter of 2018. That’s significantly higher than the roughly 2% average rate of growth experienced during the post-financial crisis period through 2017.

With stiffer headwinds, expect more modest equity returns

Looking out at the coming year, rising inflation likely will put increasing pressure on corporate profit growth, which soared 26% in the third quarter of 2018. Also, the impact of the tax cuts enacted at the end of 2017, which propelled profit growth in 2018, will fade as the year progresses.

Spence believes profit growth will remain positive in 2019 but should slow down. “I expect earnings growth in the single digits, which would be consistent with an economy that is still growing but at a slower rate,” he says.

What’s more, after a 10-year bull market, U.S. stocks are expensive. The S&P 500 Index has advanced nearly 400% over that timeframe, and market valuations have expanded. As of October 31, the forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the S&P stood at 15.3 — hardly nosebleed territory, but elevated by historical standards and at a level that suggests market returns will be more modest over the next five years.

“I don’t see how the overall market can generate better than single-digit returns over the next few years,” says portfolio manager Greg Johnson. “There will still be opportunities to pursue superior returns, but at this stage selectivity is critical.”

Value-oriented companies have lagged the market

A look beyond broader market results reveals that not all areas have advanced at the same pace. A small handful of leading-edge, fast-growing companies have driven much of the market return in recent years, many of them innovative companies in the technology and consumer discretionary sectors. Online retailer Amazon, for example, has soared about 2,500% since the end of the last bear market. Many so-called value-oriented companies have trailed the broader market and carry more modest valuations.


Some companies have lower valuations for a reason, including lackluster growth prospects, says portfolio manager Alan Berro.

“I have avoided some companies in the consumer staples area over the last several years, including many of the food stocks and household products stocks, because I did not see the growth potential,” Berro says. “So even with lower valuations, I viewed them as expensive.”

How does Berro think about investing this late into a bull market? “I look for companies whose prospects are misperceived by the market,” he says. “It is a little harder today, but there are always opportunities.”

For example, shares of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have come under pressure in recent years due to patent expirations and headlines focused on lowering drug prices, leaving select companies with relatively attractive valuations.

Some of these drugmakers have invested heavily in the development of cancer therapies that may present powerful new growth opportunities. “When you look at a company like Merck, they have developed a cancer drug called Keytruda, which many expect will be a first-line cancer therapy,” Berro notes.

Berro also focuses on companies that can maintain their dividends in the event of an economic downturn. “That often means looking for conservatively run companies with strong balance sheets and good cash flows,” he says.

Look for long runways, deep moats

For growth-oriented investors, not all companies with higher P/E ratios are expensive. Some technology companies whose shares led the bull market have businesses with long runways of potential growth. Consider cloud computing — software and services that run on the internet. By 2021, cloud spending is expected to rise to US$302.5 billion, nearly double the US$153 billion spent in 2017, according to industry researcher Gartner. The movement of IT workloads to the cloud is boosting demand for the services of Amazon’s cloud computing unit, Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example.

Investors in high-flying innovative companies, however, should expect  volatility going forward. Since the financial crisis of 2008, Amazon shares have declined at least 15% on 10 occasions, and more than 30% in three different periods. But following each of the previous corrections, its shares hit new highs.


“In the early days of a market correction, stocks that have done the best in the recent period often come down the most,” O’Neal says. “But over a long-term horizon, the outlook for these companies can continue to be strong.”


Alan Berro

Portfolio manager

Alan has 32 years of investment experience, 27 with Capital. He has covered U.S. utilities, capital goods and machinery companies. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a bachelor's from UCLA.

Jared Franz


Jared covers the U.S. and Latin America. He joined Capital Group in 2015. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern.

Don O’Neal

Portfolio manager

Don has 31 years of investment experience, all with Capital Group. As an investment analyst he covered chemical, aerospace and defense, and environmental companies. Don holds an MBA from Stanford.

Darrell Spence

Darrell has 25 years of investment industry experience, all with Capital Group. He is a CFA charterholder and earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Occidental College, where he graduated cum laude.




Commissions, trailing commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with mutual fund investments. Please read the prospectus before investing. Mutual funds are not guaranteed, their values change frequently and past performance may not be repeated.

Unless otherwise indicated, the investment professionals featured do not manage Capital Group‘s Canadian mutual funds.

References to particular companies or securities, if any, are included for informational or illustrative purposes only and should not be considered as an endorsement by Capital Group. Views expressed regarding a particular company, security, industry or market sector should not be considered an indication of trading intent of any investment funds or current holdings of any investment funds. These views should not be considered as investment advice nor should they be considered a recommendation to buy or sell.

Statements attributed to an individual represent the opinions of that individual as of the date published and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Capital Group or its affiliates. This information is intended to highlight issues and not be comprehensive or to provide advice. For informational purposes only; not intended to provide tax, legal or financial advice. We assume no liability for any inaccurate, delayed or incomplete information, nor for any actions taken in reliance thereon. The information contained herein has been supplied without verification by us and may be subject to change. Capital Group funds are available in Canada through registered dealers. For more information, please consult your financial and tax advisors for your individual situation.

Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance, and actual events and results could differ materially from those expressed or implied in any forward-looking statements made herein. We encourage you to consider these and other factors carefully before making any investment decisions and we urge you to avoid placing undue reliance on forward-looking statements.

The S&P 500 Composite Index (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Capital Group. Copyright © 2020 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global, and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution or reproduction in whole or in part are prohibited without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.

FTSE source: London Stock Exchange Group plc and its group undertakings (collectively, the "LSE Group"). © LSE Group 2020. FTSE Russell is a trading name of certain of the LSE Group companies. "FTSE®" is a trade mark of the relevant LSE Group companies and is used by any other LSE Group company under licence. All rights in the FTSE Russell indices or data vest in the relevant LSE Group company which owns the index or the data. Neither LSE Group nor its licensors accept any liability for any errors or omissions in the indices or data and no party may rely on any indices or data contained in this communication. No further distribution of data from the LSE Group is permitted without the relevant LSE Group company's express written consent. The LSE Group does not promote, sponsor or endorse the content of this communication. The index is unmanaged and cannot be invested in directly.

Bloomberg® is a trademark of Bloomberg Finance L.P. (collectively with its affiliates, "Bloomberg"). Barclays® is a trademark of Barclays Bank Plc (collectively with its affiliates, "Barclays"), used under licence. Neither Bloomberg nor Barclays approves or endorses this material, guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information herein and, to the maximum extent allowed by law, neither shall have any liability or responsibility for injury or damages arising in connection therewith.

MSCI does not approve, review or produce reports published on this site, makes no express or implied warranties or representations and is not liable whatsoever for any data represented. You may not redistribute MSCI data or use it as a basis for other indices or investment products.

Capital believes the software and information from FactSet to be reliable. However, Capital cannot be responsible for inaccuracies, incomplete information or updating of the information furnished by FactSet. The information provided in this report is meant to give you an approximate account of the fund/manager's characteristics for the specified date. This information is not indicative of future Capital investment decisions and is not used as part of our investment decision-making process.

Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested in directly. Returns represent past performance, are not a guarantee of future performance, and are not indicative of any specific investment.

All Capital Group trademarks are owned by The Capital Group Companies, Inc. or an affiliated company in Canada, the U.S. and other countries. All other company names mentioned are the property of their respective companies.

Capital Group funds and Capital International Asset Management (Canada), Inc. are part of Capital Group, a global investment management firm originating in Los Angeles, California in 1931. The Capital Group companies manage equity assets through three investment groups. These groups make investment and proxy voting decisions independently. Fixed income investment professionals provide fixed income research and investment management across the Capital organization; however, for securities with equity characteristics, they act solely on behalf of one of the three equity investment groups.

The Capital Group funds offered on this website are available only to Canadian residents.

Related Insights

Related Capital Group Funds (Canada)