As we sensed at the beginning of the year (see our January Note, “50 shades of black”), stock markets recovered sharply from the mood of panic prevailing at the end of 2018, through a rebound fuelled by the Federal Reserve’s U-turn on monetary policy normalisation. The MSCI World Index gained 11.21% in the first two months of the year, cancelling out the entire correction it experienced in the fourth quarter of 2018. The unavoidable question is whether that rebound stands a good chance of continuing over the months to come.
A collision between monetary and economic cycles was the backdrop to market movements in 2018. But it won’t be this year
The global economy has slackened further and its weak points are still unmistakably present. From the build-up of political uncertainty in Europe and the United States to the threat posed by overleveraging at a time of waning GDP growth, investors have ample grounds for wanting to play it safe this year. But that uninviting reality is being “augmented” – or at least mitigated – by what is objectively speaking a more placid environment than last year. Financial markets are now fully cognizant of the unfolding economic slowdown. And so are central bankers, who no longer feel required to stick to their script of unrelenting monetary policy tightening. A collision between monetary and economic cycles was the backdrop to market movements in 2018. But it won’t be this year.
We can rather expect a lacklustre configuration that will hardly be conducive to sustainable trends. With the markets gradually and gingerly breaking free from the collision-course conditions that characterised 2018, what is called for are investment strategies geared to generating alpha instead of to managing betaand betting on a clear market direction.
Any number of political developments have the potential to upend financial markets this year, from eleventh-hour Brexit negotiations between the European Commission and the UK government to new twists in Sino-American trade talks, and from fresh US threats to hike tariffs on imported German cars to the upcoming EU elections. Over the next few months or even weeks, these major hazards from the standpoint of investor and consumer confidence – and therefore economic growth – will come to a head, which makes them a cause for short-term concern. But a more likely outcome is that the various protagonists will ultimately stop short of shooting themselves in the foot through their brinkmanship. Because – however unwise it would be to expect politicians to behave wisely – the contending forces may well work out a modus vivendi of sorts, providing investors with welcome relief after months of anxiety.
Leaving aside short-term developments, market trends are still likely in 2019 to be shaped primarily by the overall health of the economy, which now looks quite underwhelming. The global slowdown has continued as we anticipated.
In the United States, the construction sector shows signs of further weakness, and things don’t look any better in manufacturing – the Markit PMI survey for manufacturing slid to 53.7 in February, its lowest reading since 2017. But as long as demand for services holds up (the key indicators have remained fairly steady for the past year) with the help of a still-booming job market, overall output growth should slow only moderately. This forecast recently gained further plausibility when the Federal Reserve abruptly ditched its dogmatically hawkish stance, openly acknowledged its fear of market pressure and expressed increasing disregard for short-term inflation indicators.
Meanwhile, a positive resolution of the US-China trade dispute could provide a tangible boost to business sentiment and investment. Such an outcome will of course depend on whether the parties can walk the fine line between long-term ideological confrontation and their mutual interest in striking a deal that allows them to save face without being self-destructive. But the US economic slowdown, the forthcoming presidential election campaign in the country and the financial market swoon observed in December all raise the odds for a deal that both sides can at least claim represents progress for them.
The world economy as a whole therefore appears to be heading in these first few months of 2019 for a landing – the softness of which will be moderated by central banks, whose plans to tighten monetary policy are increasingly off the agenda.
The upside of this slow-growth phase is that stock price dispersion could heavily influence portfolio returns, contrary to 2018
This suggests that equity indices are likely to score only mediocre gains with respect to their current levels: average valuation levels have recovered since the start of the year and the prospects for corporate earnings growth look meagre. The upside of this slow-growth phase is that stock price dispersion could heavily influence portfolio returns, whereas performance in 2018 depended much more heavily on judgements about overall market direction. More specifically, the shares of companies with reasonable valuations that succeed in sustaining profit margins and business growth will most likely trade at a substantial quality premium in the bleak economic climate we expect to see in 2019. Generating alpha should likewise take precedence this year over making one-way directional bets in the fixed-income market, above all for corporate bonds.