February was a reminder of what lies under the surface of the artificial-intelligence ('AI') mania...

Last month, news broke that both the U.K. and Japan had officially entered into recessions. Japan even lost its spot as the world's third-largest economy... It's now the fourth largest, behind Germany.

The eurozone economy – while not quite in recession territory yet – also signaled slowing growth... In February, it slashed its 2024 gross domestic product ("GDP") expectations from 1.2% growth to just 0.8%.

Altogether, Japan, the U.K., and the eurozone account for roughly 24% of the world's GDP. In other words, roughly a quarter of global GDP is under stress.

There's also the constant stream of headlines coming out of China about its weak economic growth, government bailouts, and serious real estate issues. China accounts for another 18% of the world's GDP.

So, in all, more than 40% of global GDP is under pressure. And yet, U.S. investors remain optimistic...

The S&P 500 Index has climbed 7% so far this year. As we've covered, most of the gains stem from the red-hot "Magnificent Seven" tech stocks. Currently, they account for 30% of the index's total valuation. Nvidia (NVDA) alone accounts for 15% of the index's gains since 2023.

Clearly, the AI mania is driving this market optimism.

As we'll explain today, that's a problem for all investors. While AI has contributed to some economic growth over the past year, it's not enough to justify the market's overall bullish outlook...

These latest headlines beg the question: Is the worst behind us... or is this just the beginning?

And unfortunately, it looks like the latter.

The fact is, there are still economic pressures that have yet to come to the surface.

For one, U.S. corporate bankruptcies are piling up. The number hit a 13-year high in 2023 and is expected to keep climbing in 2024. There's also the nation's struggling commercial real estate sector, which is set to be a major source of losses for banks. U.S. office vacancy rates rose to a record 19.6% in the fourth quarter of 2023.

We expect a wave of U.S. defaults – likely led by commercial real estate – to land soon. And when it does, investors are going to panic.

That's because they're acting as if these very real issues don't exist...

We can see this through our aggregate Embedded Expectations Analysis ("EEA") framework.

The EEA starts by looking at average stock prices for U.S. companies. From there, we can calculate what the market expects from future cash flows. We then compare that with our own cash-flow projections.

In short, it tells us how well U.S. companies have to perform in the future to be worth what the market is paying for them today.

As you can see, 2022 was a record year for U.S. companies' profitability. The aggregate Uniform return on assets ("ROA") reached a high of 13%. While the numbers for 2023 aren't yet finalized, it looks like last year's profits will take a bit of a hit... with Uniform ROA expected to fall to about 11%.

And yet, the market is already pricing in a rebound, even though the worst is likely still to come...

Investors don't see the current risk from today's economic pressures. They're too focused on what's going right in the economy, particularly with AI-driven tech.

Meanwhile, they're completely ignoring the warning signs coming out of almost every other industry, particularly in debt-laden areas like commercial real estate.

While tech may carry our economy over the long term, it's not strong enough to shield us from waves of default elsewhere.

Investors who get too comfortable in this tech-focused market might end up regretting it.


Joel Litman
March 4, 2024