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U.S. economic activity continued to pick up this week, albeit more slowly, as new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities trend downward, according to City National Bank's investment leaders.
"Economic fundamentals continue to improve," boosted by growing consumer spending, although high unemployment and the lack of a new government stimulus package to support businesses and jobless workers "will be a further drag on the pace of that recovery," said Ben Goetsch, senior analyst at City National Rochdale, the bank's investment advisory organization.
Consumers also remain concerned about contracting the virus, muting their outlook, Rochdale analysts noted during the team's meeting on Sept. 16.
Keep reading for your weekly market update.
Coronavirus trends continue to improve - with new cases decreasing in 48 of the 50 states - and hospitalizations and fatalities declining nationally, Goetsch said, citing data from covid19-projections.com, the COVID Tracking Project and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Only two states were in the "red zone," with increasing cases, as of Sept. 11, he said.
"We expect this down trend to continue for the next several weeks" and for sentiment to gradually improve, Goetsch said.
Mortality per hospitalization is much lower than earlier in the outbreak, likely because treatments have advanced and hospitals are better prepared, he said.
While business confidence is strengthening and more are reopening, consumer confidence remains low, likely hampered by Washington's inability so far to approve a strong follow-up stimulus package and by individuals' concern over catching the lethal virus, Goetsch said.
Senior portfolio manager Lindsey Cook, citing J.P. Morgan data, noted that credit and debit card spending has picked up since mid-August after a pause during the summer, which has been spurred by declines in new cases, business reopenings and back-to-school purchases.
Spending patterns continue to reflect social distancing behavior, with stay-at-home goods almost back to normal and virus-sensitive businesses like hotels, restaurants, entertainment and recreation continuing to struggle, said Cook, again citing J.P. Morgan data.
Consumers aren't back to normal behavior, with many concerned about visiting doctors, dentists and salons, she noted.
Data from Apple and the Transportation Security Administration shows that Americans continue to avoid mass transit as well, preferring to work from home to avoid the virus and to walk or drive when they need to travel, according to Cook.
It may take years for air travel to return to normal, and City National Rochdale is limiting investments in travel and leisure, she said.
Continued downward coronavirus trends may improve consumer sentiment, Goetsch said. He noted, however, that concerns over an uptick in cases during the cold weather months and flu season have generated uncertainty.
While the labor market continues to make progress, joblessness remains high, Cook noted, citing Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data showing continuing unemployment claims at nearly 14 million.
“We have a long way to go, and it will take time to get back to normal levels on many of these metrics," she said.
The economy should get a boost from retailers rebuilding their inventories, Cook said, again citing the St. Louis Fed and noting that retailers have been unable to keep up with pent-up demand as lockdowns, business closures and supply shortages have hampered production.
Meanwhile, new research offers encouraging data on coronavirus immunity, including one study indicating that some patients may enjoy immunity for more than four months, and another suggesting that a significant part of the population has developed T-cells — possibly related to infections from milder coronaviruses — that attack COVID-19, according to Goetsch.
Vaccine development continues to progress, with Phase III trial data expected in the coming weeks. Distribution, a massive undertaking requiring specialized equipment and coordination between federal agencies, states, pharmacies and healthcare providers, could pose issues, Goetsch noted.
In a market with high stock valuations and low interest rates, City National Rochdale remains focused on high-quality, reasonably valued U.S. and emerging-market Asia stocks, including high-dividend U.S. equities and high-yield bonds. Rochdale's analysts anticipate moderate returns on core equities in the intermediate term, Goetsch said.
High-dividend stocks have underperformed this year and offer great opportunity, noted David Abella, managing director and senior portfolio manager. Citing multiple market data sources, he noted that high-dividend equities are priced attractively compared to growth stocks and historical performance.
Rochdale sees opportunity in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which have maintained their dividends during the pandemic even as their stocks were hit, Abella said. The pandemic has had varying effects on different real estate sectors, with industrial and specialty real estate faring better than offices, residential and retail, he noted.
City National investment advisors are monitoring political polls, which continue to show Democratic candidate Joe Biden leading and Senate control too close to forecast, and are talking to clients about possible portfolio moves based on potential policy changes governing gift and estate taxes.
City National Bank senior wealth planner Shilpa Mirchandani offered the example of a married couple with a $30 million estate that would be subject to a potential $2.7 million estate tax under current law.
A lower estate tax exemption could result in a $7.2 million estate tax instead, she said.
“Exemption levels today are at all-time highs, and interest rates are at all-time lows," she explained, noting that some clients are considering various gifting strategies now to take advantage of the current market and regulatory environment.
In this election season and always, City National Bank and its investment advisory organization, City National Rochdale, remain committed to delivering objective, non-partisan market analysis and investment guidance, with the goal of helping our clients make informed financial decisions.
In these turbulent times, City National encourages you to review your investment portfolio with your advisor. Contact our financial professionals today to ask questions and receive help with your wealth planning needs.
You also are encouraged to keep up-to-date with the latest economic perspectives and shifting global markets during the pandemic by signing up for City National Bank's newsletters here. Delivered biweekly, straight to your inbox.
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