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12 June 2018

Guaranteed security? Investment implications of US foreign policy.

North Korea summit opens the way to an easing of sanctions and international recognition – while G7 allies are left reeling

North Korea has recently made enormous progress towards re-integration with the world economy on its own terms, and in particular security guarantees for its incumbent administration. Development of nuclear missile capability in 2017, followed by the willingness to discuss the destruction of this same capability only a year later does indeed highlight that Kim Jong-un may be, in Trump’s words, a very worthy and smart negotiator. Potentially, the prize is as large as a return to the world community of nations. The contrast with the disarray at the meeting of the traditional G7 allies days earlier was striking - and these trade disagreements are the greater risk for markets in our view.

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29 May 2018

Long hot Italian summer.

Likely September elections may be a referendum on euro and EU membership

Italy’s failure over the weekend to form a government was driven by the refusal of the Italian President Mattarella to appoint the hardline Eurosceptic Paolo Savona to the position of economy minister. From the perspective of President Mattarella the recent election was not a referendum on the euro; for the Five Star/League coalition his refusal to accept Savona was interference in the democratic process. An incoming caretaker government is being put in place but is not the issue; elections later in the year will in effect be the referendum on the euro. For investors, this creates significant uncertainty over the summer months and into the autumn.

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16 April 2018

2018 Earnings forecasts: Still robust, for now.

Corporate sector soldiers on despite increasing geopolitical tensions

Geopolitics will in our view continue to present headline risk for the rest of the year. The US/China trade détente has broken apart as the US administration addresses the prospect of China challenging for dominance in the world economy. This weekend’s military response to the use of chemical weapons in both Salisbury, UK and Syria may for now be described as “mission accomplished” but it remains to be seen what the response would be to any further provocation. At the same time, there has been a run of disappointing economic data in the eurozone. Nevertheless, earnings estimates remain relatively stable for now in aggregate as the recent strength of the oil price leads to upgrades in energy, offset by modest downgrades in other sectors.

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1 February 2018

Rising bond yields: Mini-drama perhaps, but not a crisis.

Rising yields a ‘known’ risk – declining economic momentum would be a bigger concern

This week’s modest declines in equity markets may be the largest of the last nine months but that is only an illustration of just how far equity market volatility has fallen. The narrative of rising bond yields and inflation expectations is being used to explain the market declines. This is understandable and we ourselves have previously highlighted the anomalously low level of global bond yields. However, rising yields are a known risk for 2018 and unlikely to create a major sell-off in equity markets by themselves. We would be more concerned if there was firm evidence of a meaningful slowdown in economic momentum. Such evidence is - for now - largely absent in either Europe, the US or China.

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9 October 2017

Economic data surprising to the upside in Q3.

Strong PMI indices add weight to the case for tighter monetary policy

While valuation concerns for equity markets remain in place, recent economic data in the US and eurozone also points to something of a mini-surge in economic momentum over the last 3 months. PMI data has been coming in ahead of expectations and economic surprise indices have turned higher in all regions. During 2017, investors have had to balance their longer-term valuation concerns with generally robust profits growth and improving economic sentiment. While soft data such as PMI indices should not significantly shift portfolio asset allocations, a hiccup before the end of the year is now looking less likely.

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26 September 2017

If you think it is quiet… it is..

Lowest levels of daily volatility since the 1970s for developed markets

In June we highlighted the low level of volatility in global equity markets. This low volatility regime has continued through the summer and, as Exhibit 1 shows, now represents a dramatic and sudden break with 2016. For the Datastream developed markets index, if measured by the percentage of days with a greater than 25bps close-to-close daily move, the summer of 2017 represents the quietest period for developed markets since inception of the index in 1973. Investors should perhaps consider that market volatility is on average 50% above current levels when building portfolios for the longer-term.

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12 September 2017

Interesting times for central bankers.

If growth is picking up, why are bond yields still so low?

It appears the low volatility/high valuation regime in equity and credit markets is continuing into the autumn. This is despite an important and imminent US Fed balance sheet reduction announcement. Furthermore, October brings details of the ECB’s plans to reduce the net purchases of its own QE program. While central bankers are quick to claim credit for any improvement in economic conditions, the decline in long-term bond yields over the summer questions the durability of the expansion as the yield curve flattens. It also remains to be seen if investors will re-appraise the low level of risk premia in global markets as QE is withdrawn.

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16 August 2017

Earnings momentum remains stable for now.

Economic surprise driving EUR v USD but no FX hit to eurozone profits estimates

It may be the perfect environment for passive strategies as the lack of catalysts during 2017 has led to a continuation of the low volatility yet highly-valued equity market regime. In particular, it has been a robust year for corporate profitability. 2017 earnings growth forecasts remain pinned around 10%. Even while the medium-term outlook for markets looks challenging on valuation grounds as extraordinary monetary stimulus is unwound, those looking for a significant correction in the short-term should beware as corporate earnings trends remain robust at present.

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11 August 2017

North Korea: A problem not of Trump’s making.

Missile development program slowly shifts the political balance

North Korea’s recent successful test of a missile capable of reaching much of the US mainland is clearly a concern but it is not because such an attack is imminent or likely. The history of military rocket development suggests that it will still be some years before North Korea could be assured of a successful, let alone multiple, strike on the US or even Guam. However, in the event of any attack, the overwhelming superiority of US forces would undoubtedly ensure the destruction of North Korea. Therefore in many respects Trump’s most aggressive comments this week were a statement of the obvious and investors should accordingly not over-react, even as volatility has risen during thin trading over the holiday season.

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17 July 2017

Fed policy: Don’t forget your flip-flops.

US inflation and growth numbers undershoot expectations

It is just a few weeks since the US Fed raised interest rates and central bankers globally opined on a removal of monetary accommodation (albeit slowly) as the global recovery gathered momentum. Unfortunately, some inconvenient facts are already casting their shadow. The Atlanta Fed US GDP nowcast for Q2 17 has fallen to 2.4% from 4% at the start of June, with disappointing US retail sales contributing to the downgrade. Furthermore, core CPI has undershot expectations with the year-on-year figure now at 1.7% for June, compared to 2.3% at the start of the year. Fortunately for central banks, the holiday season has started and the focus may be elsewhere. However, some re-calibration of the trajectory of US monetary policy may already be necessary.

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12 June 2017

Fed rate decision: One and done - or not done?.

One and not done would spook markets in our view

On Wednesday 14 June, we believe the US Fed is highly likely to raise the target range for the federal funds rate by a further 0.25%. We believe the opportunity the move policy rates further away from the zero “lower bound” will not easily be passed-up as US unemployment figures improve and as importantly without spooking markets, which have priced this move in. However, a signal of “one and done” for 2017 – or at least “one and wait and see” will be critical to keep markets buoyant. In addition, investors will be watching for benign comments in respect of any adjustments to the Fed’s balance sheet policy.

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1 June 2017

Volatility: Low, but downside protection in demand.

We struggle to understand why market volatility has fallen so far in 2017

One of the notable aspects of equity market performance during 2017 has been the rapid fall in market volatility. Trailing 90-day realised volatility for the S&P 500 has reached 7% in recent weeks. Over the last 20 years, these are levels are matched only during a brief period over 2005-2006. We do not see an especially strong parallel with 2005 as at that point US equities were still moderately valued and the US economy was expanding after a mild recession. We believe investors are once again becoming complacent; but also note the skew towards higher priced put options suggesting within the options market at least that downside protection is at a premium.

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14 May 2017

Earnings forecasts: a short-term support for markets.

Rising estimates notable in continental Europe

While economic surprise indices may now be rolling over, US earnings forecasts for 2017 are effectively unchanged since January. In the UK and continental Europe forecasts have risen relatively sharply since the start of the year, reflecting in the UK a continued tailwind from sterling weakness and in continental Europe the long-awaited improvement in economic activity.

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3 May 2017

Sector view: Boring old insurance.

In a fully valued market, a defensive sector priced sensibly

Our view that developed market valuations remain somewhat extended remains place. However, there is one sector which does not appear overvalued or compromised by legacy liabilities and questions over the future sustainable return on equity. Nor does it appear directly in the line of fire of technology’s advance like retail, or subject to on/off policy switches in China which have contributed to the de-rating of the resources sectors. European insurers appear from a top-down perspective to offer sensible valuations, reasonable returns on equity and high dividend yields in a low interest rate environment.

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23 March 2017

Market wobble? Still time to re-position portfolios.

No clear trigger for recent market declines

Even if some calm has now returned, the market declines this week are perhaps a little more disconcerting than usual as they have occurred with no obvious trigger and followed an extended period of very low volatility. This makes the situation a little more uncertain, as specific triggers can often be analysed, quantified and discounted. There is therefore the danger of investors becoming fearful of the unknown - and risk averse - should the declines become more serious.

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16 March 2017

Just what the Fed wanted.

A rate increase and a rising market – but was it really dovish?

Having primed markets to fully expect a US rate increase, the FOMC followed through on the 15th March. If the aim was to deliver a rate increase without abruptly causing tighter financial conditions (code for declining equity and credit markets), then it was mission accomplished. Following the FOMC announcement the dollar eased against other currencies, bond yields fell and equity markets gained. However, despite comforting language within the statement we detected a more strategic, rather than data dependent, direction for US interest rates in the press conference Q&A.

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13 March 2017

Ready for the rollover?.

Tentative evidence of slowing economic momentum

Despite buoyant global asset markets, we are seeing increasing evidence of slowing economic momentum. In the US, bank loan growth has slowed significantly since Q4 16 and the Atlanta Fed’s GDP nowcast is only indicating 1.2% US growth for the current quarter, compared to over 2.5% as recently as early February. In the UK, the services PMI peaked in January and is now declining while in Europe - a bright spot in terms of economic surprise – disappointing German factory orders cast some doubt on the durability of any recovery. China’s M2 money supply growth has also ebbed since Q1 16, suggesting an easing of basic materials prices, should prior correlations still hold.

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23 February 2017

FOMC minutes: Fairly soon = March or June?.

FOMC minutes highlight risk market will be caught offside by Fed in 2017

The most recent FOMC minutes suggest to us that March is a live meeting for the next US interest increase, in contrast to market expectations which imply a less than 20% probability of a hike. We believe the market continues to underestimate the resolve of the US Federal Reserve to use the opportunity of low unemployment and close to target inflation to re-normalize US interest rates.

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17 February 2017

Earnings estimates stuck in low gear.

Still no sign of Trump bounce in corporate profits outlook

Now, several months after Trump’s election there has been ample time for the corporate sector to re-evaluate the 2017 outlook in respect of improved economic optimism. However, we have found that earnings upgrades have not to date followed positive economic surprises. In the past, short-term market direction has been closely linked to earnings momentum and the current absence of upgrades points to a period of sluggish market performance.

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16 January 2017

Earnings Revisions: Waiting for upgrades?.

Though global equities continue to benefit from significantly increased investor optimism, US and continental European earnings forecasts for 2017 have remained stubbornly static over the last 3 months. However, in the UK 2017 earnings estimates continue to move higher, tracking the decline in sterling and providing a degree of fundamental support for the FTSE100. For US and continental European equity markets, the increasing divergence between 2017 profits forecasts and their respective price performance, when added to the lack of valuation support, puts a question mark over how much further the rally can run.

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9 January 2017

Valuations trump noisy narratives: increased caution on global equities.

Price/book valuations point to sub-par equity returns over the next 12m

Judging only by current equity market valuations, global equity investors are significantly more likely than usual to achieve only below average returns over the next 12 months, if prior correlations remain a guide to the future. Average price/book multiples for world equities are once again at peak levels, similar to those prevailing in 2007 and 2000, and this is reinforced by a similar picture for P/E ratios. We believe investors should factor in the possibility that broad equity market exposure may result in weak or negative returns and stock-pickers cannot rely on a tailwind of benign markets over the next 12m.

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22 November 2016

Earnings revisions: Gap widens between U.S. equities and earnings forecasts.

Though the bullishness is palpable, U.S. equity markets are not being driven higher by 2017 earnings forecasts, which have declined during November. In the absence of upgrades, we would now question how far the slogan of “Make America Great Again” can push U.S. equities. In the UK, market indices appear better supported as earnings forecasts are still increasing, even as the stock market has lagged. In Europe, in euro terms both the market and estimates have remained stable over the last quarter.

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16 August 2016

Earnings forecasts: Reassuringly stable?.

Recent trends in consensus earnings forecasts highlight analysts’ confidence in corporate performance for 2016, even as GDP forecasts continue to decline. For now, it appears that the global phenomenon of steadily declining earnings forecasts, a factor behind the relatively weak 2015 equity market performance, has ebbed. There also remains no observable impact on aggregate UK earnings forecasts from Brexit to date, although as we have previously noted for the UK, FX benefits for exporters have offset modest downgrades to sectors focused on the domestic economy.

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22 July 2016

UK earnings trends - stable and few surprises.

There has been much speculation in regard to the economic and market impact of the UK’s vote to exit the EU. However, even four weeks after the date of the referendum, there is no hard data to rely on. In the circumstances, survey data may also be misleading, with the risk that it reflects a projection of the personal views of respondents rather than a cold analysis of future prospects.  However, early indications are that 2016 UK consensus earnings forecasts have remained stable, a continuation of the trend seen since February.

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21 June 2016

Brexit, Fed: a short squeeze.

If in the short-run the market is a voting machine, as attributed to value investor Benjamin Graham, yesterday’s 3% rise in European markets represents a vote of confidence in the Remain campaign winning the UK’s referendum on Thursday and a consistently more dovish US Fed for the remainder of the summer.

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13 June 2016

Fed boxed in by yield curve.

It is looking increasingly likely the US Federal Reserve has missed its chance to engage in a meaningful interest rate tightening cycle. Globally, 10-year government bond yields have fallen sharply – in many cases to new record lows, in part due to the recent US jobs data and in part the increasing uncertainty over Brexit. This flattening of the yield curve is a strong indicator for a period of sub-par US growth, even if survey data has, for now, improved somewhat during Q2. Whether or not we are looking at a technical US recession is perhaps, technical, as in any case a period of even weak growth is inconsistent with positive surprises for corporate profits and equities.

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31 May 2016

Beware of buy and hold.

The last few decades of the 20th century represented a golden era for equity investment with an average compound annual return, including dividends, of 14% pa in the period 1973-2000 for the US, UK and Europe. In this century to date, the annualised rate of return has fallen to 5%.

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10 February 2016

Yellen’s testimony - No change to the Fed’s view.

If Fed chair Yellen’s speech today was an opportunity to communicate a more dovish outlook for US interest rates it has been passed up. Yellen highlighted the decline in the US unemployment rate to 4.9%, in-line with the Fed’s own longer-run estimate of a sustainable level and only talked of the uncertainty in regard to recent external factors and financial market movements – and notably to both the upside and downside. This gives little ammunition for bulls expecting a quick and wholesale reappraisal of the trajectory of US interest rates.

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RSS - Strategic Insight
Sector report cover
*Multiple Sectors
28/06/2018
Equity strategy and market outlook - June 2018

In this month’s strategy piece, Alastair George believes that the US vs rest of the world trade confrontation is becoming the dominant narrative. We cannot rule out at this point that negative responses in financial markets may be a prerequisite to negotiating a face-saving route out of the situation for all sides. However, earnings estimates show few signs of the impact of tariffs or disappointing UK and eurozone economic data and robust growth for 2018 remains the consensus forecast. Profits forecasts have even risen in the US in recent months and the median US company is now expected to deliver close to 20% earnings growth in 2018. However, offsetting the benefits of strong US profits growth is the prospect of tighter US monetary policy and larger fiscal deficits. The recent trade protectionism-related flight to safety is understandable but in our view current US 10-year Treasury yields still appear too low. Emerging markets may continue to struggle as the Fed remains focused on US domestic condition. There is no change to our cautious outlook. We continue to believe developed equity markets are in a period of consolidation. Valuations are moving closer towards long-run averages with markets simply trading sideways as profits grow while monetary policy is normalised.

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