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MarketScape · 01.30.23

Why January's Rise May Mask a Riskier Reality

January has all the hallmarks of a classic “junk rally.”

  • Volatility & Risk
  • Equity Insights
  • Factor Investing
Michael Hunstad, Ph.D.
Chief Investment Officer – Global Equities

Key Points

What this is

Chief Investment Officer of Global Equities Mike Hunstad, Ph.D., reminds investors that some rallies during times of economic stress may not be what they seem.

Why it matters

Lower quality stocks, often with negative earnings, have led the January rally. But we see too many risks to for investors chase that rally.

Where it's going

We think investors should position their equity allocations to lower volatility, higher quality stocks as economic risks remain.

While global equity markets have started the year with solid returns, high-risk and  , notably, have led this positive performance. Combining this with declining market volatility and cyclical sector outperformance, January has all the hallmarks of a classic junk rally.


We caution that in times of economic stress, these junk rallies are common and usually brief. They can also mask economic and fundamental risks. We see plenty of risks on the horizon for investors to take a defensive stance. Let's take a closer look.


In January, developed-market, large-cap stocks have risen about 6%, but returns have been far from uniform across securities. Lower-risk stocks have posted gains of less than 2%, while their higher-volatility counterparts have put up a 12% return, a spread of more than 1,000 basis points.


Viewed from a financial quality angle, developed, large-cap stocks with positive earnings have returned about 5%, while those with negative earnings have outperformed at more than 10%. The small-cap market has been even more extreme, where stocks with negative earnings, currently about 40% of companies, returned in excess of 16%-- more than double those with positive earnings.


A look at sectors also reveals a wide dispersion of performance. Cyclical sectors, like consumer discretionary, have returned more than 8% in January, while defensive sectors, such as consumer staples, have fallen more than 3%-- also a spread of about 1,000 basis points.


Interestingly, equity returns have not followed earnings revisions.  have favored higher-quality names despite their poor stock performance. All in all, we see a textbook case of investors paying up for junk.


We think this adds up to some premature risk on euphoria. Inflation remains persistent, and interest rates will likely continue to rise. And, importantly, we don't think investors have sufficiently accounted for a likely political standoff over the and the equity volatility that it would cause. All of that is reason enough to maintain a lower-volatility, higher-quality defensive posture in equities.

Main Point

Likely best to stay away from the junk rally

High risk and low quality stocks have notably led strong stock performance to begin the year. Large cap stocks with positive earnings have returned about 5%, while those with negative earnings have outperformed at more than 10%. We’ve found that these rallies can lose momentum quickly during times of economic stress. We think investors should positioning their equity allocations defensively, toward lower volatility and high quality equities.

Point of View

Why Investment Portfolios May Produce Unintended Outcomes

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Curved Wooden Trellis

Michael Hunstad, Ph.D.

Deputy Chief Investment Officer & Chief Investment Officer of Global Equities

Michael Hunstad is deputy chief investment officer and chief investment officer of global equities for Northern Trust Asset Management. Michael is a member of the Asset Management Executive Group and has oversight of all equity portfolio management, research and trading activities including quantitative, index and tax-advantaged strategies. Additionally, he assists with the development of investment vision, strategy portfolio construction and risk management framework for the firm’s broad investment platform.

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