iShares 2023 Midyear Outlook


  • Holding tight. Higher for longer interest rates support allocations to high quality fixed income.
  • Pivoting to new opportunities. Equity markets are priced for an optimistic outcome; investors may want to consider steering towards a defensive stance.
  • Mega-forces, mega soon. Trends such as demographics and artificial intelligence are impacting present day returns, not just in the future.


The first half of 2023 has been characterized by opposing narratives. In the recessionary data camp, we’ve seen a slowdown in the manufacturing sector coupled with tighter credit conditions following March’s banking turmoil. Excess savings rates have fallen, especially in lower income households.1 On the soft-landing end of the spectrum, however, the labor market remains incredibly robust, with unemployment rates hovering near all-time lows.2 Inflation has moderated only slightly, despite the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates 500bps to levels not seen since 2007, pointing to a resilient consumer buoyed by stable earnings potential as wage growth remains firmly above the pre-pandemic decade.3

Still, despite divergent signals in the macro data, financial markets kicked off the year with a stellar start — seven of the eleven S&P GICS sectors are in the green, and most financial assets have outperformed cash allocations so far in 2023 (Figure 1). While many point to the artificial intelligence (AI) boom as a driver of the market rally, a closer look tells a broader story: the trimmed mean performance of the S&P 500 (removing the top and bottom 10 performers) has returned 8.8%, suggesting that the equity market is pricing in an optimistic outcome on both growth and earnings, in our view.4

Figure 1: Total return across asset classes

Quilt chart that shows the performance across various asset classes (broad stock market, bond market, gold, world equities excluding US, emerging market equities, and cash).

Source: BlackRock, Bloomberg, chart by iShares Investment Strategy. As of June 20, 2023. Index performance is for illustrative purposes only. Index performance does not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Index performance is measured by the following indexes: EM Equity: MSCI Emerging Markets IMI Index; Gold: ICE LBMA Gold Price Index; S&P 500: SPX Index; Bloomberg US Agg: Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index; World ex-US: MSCI World Ex USA Index; Cash: ICE BofA 0-3 Month US Treasury Bill Index.

Chart description: Quilt chart showing the performance across various asset classes (broad stock market, bond market, gold, world equities excluding US, emerging market equities, and cash). The quilt is dated from 2018 to 2023 YTD and ranks each asset by total return. In 2023, the S&P 500 is the top returning exposure.

We think that outcome is far from certain given the disparities outlined above, but expect the second half of 2023 to be driven by three main narratives:

  1. The Federal Reserve nearing the end of its hiking cycle and pausing on rate hikes, which could allow duration in the belly of the curve to return as a ballast in portfolios.
  2. Inflation remaining sticky, much above the Fed's 2% mandate, allowing for interest rates to remain high for the near term. Investors may want to focus on the growing role of bonds as an income generator in portfolios.
  3. Corporate profitability coming into question as firms grapple with higher input costs, which means focusing on companies with strong balance sheets and margin resilience remains paramount.

We believe that this is an investment regime where nimble asset allocation and a willingness to tweak portfolio positioning to adjust to the macro data is prudent. ETFs can be an important tool to do so efficiently.


During the Global Financial Crisis and pandemic era lockdowns, central banks slashed policy rates and introduced quantitative easing to stimulate slowing economies. Central banks were able to respond to these crises forcefully because inflation pressures were well-contained amid surging unemployment. Today, however, unemployment is near record lows while headline CPI is running at twice the Fed’s 2% inflation target. The pace of inflation is declining but still needs to fall further. Although inflation has averaged a monthly rate of 0.3% over the past six months, it needs to average just below 0.08% to reach the Fed’s target by the end of the year and open the door for policy easing.5

Figure 2: Potential inflation paths

Line chart depicting the possible paths of inflation, dating from 2017, including 0.1%M/M, 0.2% M/M, and 0.3% M/M inflation.

Source: BlackRock, Bloomberg, Bureau of Labor Statistics, chart by iShares Investment Strategy. As of June 1, 2023.

Forward looking estimates may not come to pass.

Chart description: Line chart depicting the possible paths of inflation, dating from 2017, including 0.1%M/M, 0.2% M/M, and 0.3% M/M inflation. The chart shows inflation moderating most severely with 0.1% forecasts.

Central banks are now counting on a marked slowdown in growth to help them reduce inflation. Indeed, the Fed has repeatedly cited a “sustained period of below-trend growth" as a necessary precondition for reducing inflation to 2%.6 This time around, central banks may not respond to a slowdown by riding to the rescue. Rather, they may need to maintain rates at a restrictive level for an extended period.

Stepping out of cash into high quality fixed income

Many investors are overweight cash relative to historical allocations due to the deeply inverted yield curve, elevated fixed income implied volatility, and cash currently yielding about 4.9%.7 Cash held by money market funds hit a record $5.5tn8, while advisor model data suggests that average cash allocation has risen to 5.5%, the highest on record.9 Global money market funds have received nearly $800bn in inflows year to date.10

However, holding too much cash can leave investors at risk of missing out on bond or stock market rallies. As rates appear set to peak with the approaching end of the Fed’s hiking cycle, investors may want to consider stepping into high-quality, medium-term fixed income (bonds with maturities between 3-7 years). On average, between 1990 and February 2023, core bond exposures performed 4% better than cash equivalents when the Fed held or dropped rates. Similarly, high quality short-term bonds performed 1.9% better than cash in the same environment.11

The Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index (the Agg) now yields close to 4.7% and has a duration (or sensitivity to interest rates) of 6.3 years.12 Even if the Fed were to raise rates higher than current market expectations, the carry earned from higher coupons can be sufficient to counter losses realized by rising rates (Figure 3). So far in 2023, investors have flocked towards longer-maturity exposures, a reversal from 2022’s trend: intermediate and long-term fixed income ETFs have gathered $27.6bn of inflows year to date, 15% more than their short-term counterparts.13

For investors looking for more yield and willing to bear more risk, emerging market (EM) local currency bonds offer a yield of 7.7% on a weighted average coupon of 5.9%.14 At these levels, we believe investors are adequately compensated for long-term inflationary risk, given many EM central banks target ~3% inflation. EM central banks may be able to start easing soon after a two-year hiking cycle that will benefit allocations to local currency EM bonds. We also believe that the U.S. dollar likely hit a cycle peak in Q4 2022, and outside of a global hard landing scenario that could trigger demand for safe havens, EM currencies seem primed to maintain their value versus the U.S. dollar in the second half of 2023.

Figure 3: Higher carry means more buffer against adverse price moves

Bar chart showing the different returns from the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index as the 10-year Treasury yield adjusts.

Source: BlackRock, Bloomberg, chart by iShares Investment Strategy. As of June 20, 2023. U.S. Bond Aggregate yield and duration represented by the Bloomberg US Agg Total Return Value Unhedged USD Index (LBUSTRUU Index).

Chart description: Bar chart showing the different returns from the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index as the 10-year Treasury yield adjusts. The chart shows a buffer – even as the yield moves up, the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index can still provide positive returns.

Regardless of the duration profile investors choose, with elevated interest rates, investors may want to be flexible around incoming data. In practice, this means being more tactical in their strategies and adjusting allocations as incoming data clarifies the economic outlook. It also suggests being opportunistic in finding securities whose higher yields justify taking additional risk. Investors may wish to consider active strategies with experienced managers who have performed well in a variety of rate environments.


Investors face a dilemma in the second half of the year: do they believe the pervasive market narrative that we’re headed for a soft landing, which can extend the bull market, or do they brace for a slowdown in the economy and perhaps underpriced downside to equities?

Despite exogenous shocks of a regional bank crisis and the U.S. debt limit, the S&P 500 has rallied to highs not seen since before the Federal Reserve started hiking rates in 2022.15 With equities seemingly pricing out diminishing risk to cyclicals, equity volatility has collapsed to levels more consistent with the post-GFC environment of zero-interest rate policy.16 In part, the market optimism reflects the underlying data: real average hourly earnings has ticked positive in recent months, buoying strong retail sales data and underscoring the strength of the U.S. consumer.17

But if we shift our focus back to the underlying growth reality, the picture is more muddled: U.S. manufacturing PMIs remain in contractionary territory, services PMIs are in a downtrend, the labor market is showing signs of cooling, and credit conditions remain tight.18 So while the hard data continues to hold up, leading economic indicators paint a more pessimistic portrait of growth in the back half of the year.

Figure 4: Leading economic indicators continue to contract

Line chart depicting manufacturing and services PMI dating from 2006.

Source: BlackRock, Bloomberg, chart by iShares Investment Strategy. Manufacturing as represented by ISM U.S. Manufacturing PMI, Services as represented by ISM U.S. Services PMI. Grey area denotes recessionary period as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. As of June 20, 2023.

Chart description: Line chart depicting manufacturing and services PMI dating from 2006. The chart shows manufacturing steadily decline since 2020, as does services. Manufacturing is now in contractionary territory.

This is all to say that economic risks to the downside have not evaporated — yet we see scant evidence of them in current valuations. Changes in earnings expectations reflect newfound optimism, with 12-month forward EPS growth at nearly 7%, up from just 3% at the end of Q1.19 Although investors may be keen to move beyond the recession narrative, we believe there is still widespread uncertainty around the lagged impacts of monetary policy, quantitative tightening, and credit conditions — that is a lot for a market to look past, particularly one plagued by narrow market breadth and significant earnings divergences.

This is not to say we expect a deep recession, but a mild slowdown also makes the case for a mild recovery. This leads us to believe that the near-term upside for markets is capped and downside risks are underappreciated: expectations may now (finally) exceed reality. In short, recent resiliency is not proof that these headwinds cannot spell pain ahead. An uncertain future calls for more balanced pricing of risk — one which we believe is poorly reflected in U.S. equity pricing.

Against this backdrop, we think there are three ways for investors to stay invested while bracing for a wider variety of outcomes than markets currently appreciate:

  1. Find income through dividends. We emphasized earlier our preference for fixed income, but we also favor equity income for investors with current income needs. We like dividend growth strategies, which seek companies with a history of consistently growing their dividends. Financial strength and discipline underscore these exposures, which is coupled with quality characteristics: dividend paying stocks boast a higher free cash flow yield and lower leverage compared to the broader market.
  2. Focus on quality. For those looking to moderately reduce risk, we see room to reallocate into high quality companies trading at reasonable prices. With our view that the Fed is unlikely to cut rates this year, we continue to avoid highly speculative growth, but do see opportunity in quality-tilted growth stocks.
  3. Seek to reduce portfolio risk with minimum volatility. Bears bracing for a sharper downturn can add defensiveness with allocations to the minimum volatility factor to help hedge downside risk. Last year is emblematic of the role minimum volatility can play: MSCI USA Min Vol Index outperformed MSCI USA Index by 12.6% amid the volatility spurred by inflation and tightening monetary policy.20

Figure 5: Risk and reward: upside and downside capture in defensive exposures

Bar chart depicting 10-year upside and downside capture, relative to the S&P 500 Index (broad market).

Source: Morningstar Direct. Analysis shows cumulative 10-year upside and downside capture for each strategy in relation to the S&P 500 Index. “Quality” is represented by the MSCI USA Quality Index, “Dividend Growth” by the Russell 1000 Dividend Growth Index and “Minimum volatility” by the MSCI USA Minimum Volatility Index. "U.S. large cap MFs" is represented by a hypothetical portfolio meant to represent the U.S. large cap mutual fund universe as defined by Morningstar. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. You cannot invest directly in an index. As of May 31, 2023.

Chart description: Bar chart depicting 10-year upside and downside capture, relative to the S&P 500 Index (broad market). The chart shows Quality, Dividend Growth, Minimum Volatility, and U.S. Large-Cap Mutual Fund exposures. The green bar is each exposure’s upside capture relative to the broad market, while the pink chart shows each exposure’s downside capture relative to the broad market.

And, while we believe the soft-landing scenario is overly reflected in current market pricing relative to the odds of a recession, we still see pockets of opportunity in more cyclically oriented stocks where valuations haven’t run up in the recent rally. U.S. energy equities should capture the upside of a growth environment if manufacturing and services PMIs reverse into expansionary territory, but still trade at a deep discount relative to history. Gravitating to higher quality companies and reasonable valuations makes more sense to us than positioning for a specific outcome, given the uncertainty of the path forward and our belief that it is simply too soon to tell whether a recession is on the horizon.


While global investors have been laser-focused on monthly inflation figures over the past two years, we see important mega-forces beyond the current economic cycle that could shape our societies and the longer-term inflationary environment in a more meaningful way. And the impact of those forces may be felt sooner than many investors appreciate.

Generative AI has been one secular force with surprisingly strong near-term tailwinds. Since OpenAI’s ChatGPT release at the end of 2022, investors have expressed the market opportunities of the theme through a narrow list of mega-cap tech names. Ironically, many investors have already implicitly owned the theme of AI through market cap weighted equity indexes. A study of 21k portfolios shows that while an average moderate equity portfolio has 16% exposure to the theme of robotics and AI, over 90% of this exposure comes from mega-cap companies (companies that have a market capitalization of $100bn or more).

Figure 6: How much thematic exposures do you think you own?

Bar chart depicting thematic exposures, split into smaller-cap holdings, and mega-cap holdings.

Source: BlackRock, Morningstar, BlackRock Portfolio Solutions as of September 30, 2022. Starting Portfolio Allocation is representative of advisors’ broad asset allocations for equities, based on analysis of 21,276 portfolios over the 12-month trailing period. For more information as how exposures have been determined, please see footnote 21.

Chart description: Bar chart depicting thematic exposures, split into smaller-cap holdings, and mega-cap holdings. The chart depicts each theme, showing the under-owned themes tend to have less mega-cap weightings.

While those mega-cap tech companies are capturing the early adoption of generative AI, the power of this general-purpose technology lies in its potential to revolutionize industries beyond technology — from creating new art forms to improving health care outcomes.

We see it translating to real economic impact in the long run, from greater productivity across the economy to reduced costs in various sectors. Instead of focusing on just a few technology companies, investors who seek long-term growth could benefit from a thematic investment approach that accesses all parts of the AI value chain, including tool developers, data services, and robotic manufactures. Year to date, U.S. investors have added nearly $1bn in net inflows into AI and robotics focused ETFs.22 Meanwhile, risk appetite for the broader technology sector also recently returned: U.S. listed tech focused ETFs saw the first largest week of inflows in May since December 2021, following months of outflows.23

With wider adoption in automation and advancement in AI-enabled medical research, the world is seeing more hopes for the demographic challenge of aging populations. However, there are more hurdles ahead. Over the next few decades, the working population is expected to continue to shrink as a share of total population on the back of low birth rates and increased life expectancy globally. This can be extremely costly for societies, reducing productivity and burdening public finance with higher total cost of healthcare and retirement programs. More importantly, the near-term demographic divergence between emerging market/developed market (DM) regions could further expand in the next 15 years, as DM economies see broad declines in working age cohorts while many EM economies could feel positive demographic impacts. Therefore, we see EM equities as an asset class that could benefit from the secular demographic force in the long run — the impacts of which could begin to be felt more near term.

Bar chart depicting population forecasts across various countries (including developed markets and emerging markets both).

Source: BlackRock, Bloomberg, UN Population Prospects, chart by iShares Investment Strategy. Change in population from UN Population Prospects, as of December 31, 2022. Forward looking estimates may not come to pass.

Chart description: Bar chart depicting population forecasts across various countries (including developed markets and emerging markets both). The chart shows expected population growth to be largest in India, while population decline to be most extreme in Italy. Green bars represent growth, grey bars represent decline.

Gargi Pal Chaudhuri

Gargi Pal Chaudhuri

Head of iShares Investment Strategy Americas at BlackRock

Kristy Akullian, CFA

Investment Strategy


David Jones

Investment Strategy


Jasmine Fan, CFA

Investment Strategy


Nick Morales

Investment Strategy


Jon Angel

Investment Strategy


Faye Witherall

Investment Strategy