As the data come in, "the impact from higher costs is definitely starting to bite," Michael Wilson, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley, said in a note to clients.
"Our contention continues to be that the majority of the cost pressure is the result of the economy running too hot last year which has led to higher labor costs among other things," he added. "This essentially tipped over the profits cycle."
At the heart of the analysis is the position that the timing of the late-2017 tax cut was poor, providing stimulus to an economy that was ready to break out anyway. The result was that consumers in 2018 sopped up overcapacity — production running ahead of consumption — allowing GDP to run well ahead of potential.
2019, then, has served as a payback to some of that, and economists expect the first quarter to show a sharp albeit temporary slump in growth to near zero.
What worries Wilson and other Wall Streeters is what happens if the jobs numbers stay soft even while wages continue to increase and a profits recession should hit corporate America.
Those kinds of conditions could put the Federal Reserve in a policy box — forced to try to control wage inflation even though real inflation as economists measure it has yet to really hit the broader economy.
"The profits recession is more a function of the business cycle overheating than most appreciate, which means labor markets may soften further along with capital spending until the profits recession ends which is unlikely after just one quarter of modestly negative growth," Wilson said. "It also means there probably isn't as much slack in the economy as many investors think and as depicted by the cost pressures now evident."
That, he said, would thwart a prevailing Goldilocks sentiment of controlled growth and lead more to a Hansel and Gretel economy, "a fairy tale about the dangers of an unwholesome appetite as a means of survival – i.e., chasing prices higher and justifying it with the wrong narrative."