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21 March 2019

Brexit: EU can do it if you really want….

Prospects of an orderly exit receding but no-deal remains less likely than extension

Alastair George, Chief Investment Strategist

The obstacle in the way of the amended Withdrawal Agreement (“the deal”), a document supported by both the EU and PM May, remains the UK Parliament. However, in our view, those accusing the UK Parliament of irresponsibility may as well level that charge at the institution of parliamentary democracy, described famously as the worst form of government except for all the others. While the currently chaotic scenes may be unnerving, there appears little appetite for compromising long-standing UK democratic principles, arcane or not. A week is a long time in UK politics and the prospects of an orderly exit on schedule are now clearly receding, compared to our earlier thoughts. Even so, an extension to Article 50 remains more likely than no-deal or Article 50 revocation and a way out of the impasse is also within the EU’s power.

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14 March 2019

Brexit: PM May’s deal may finally be in sight.

UK Parliament has motioned itself into a corner

This post has been updated to reflect the events of Thursday March 14.

Alastair George, Chief Investment Strategist

This week the UK Parliament has voted to avoid no-deal under any circumstances and at any time. In addition, Parliament comprehensively rejected the government’s Withdrawal Agreement, as modified by the additional instrument and declaration negotiated with the EU at the weekend. Following the votes on Thursday March 14, the choice for next week will be between supporting a short extension to Article 50 – and by implication supporting the modified Withdrawal Agreement - and a much longer extension. Under the second option of a prolonged extension, all possibilities (except perhaps no-deal) are on the table, including a new government, general election and second referendum. It is high stakes but we still cannot rule out the UK Parliament will do the “right” thing, for investors at least, by approving the Withdrawal Agreement - after trying everything else.

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12 March 2019

Brexit: The big guns go silent.

PM May has quietened her opposition for now – but will it be enough?

Overnight, the UK and EU have agreed an additional instrument which provides further assurances that the Northern Ireland backstop will be temporary. In particular, should either the UK or EU act in a manner which seeks to apply the backstop indefinitely, as decided by an arbitration panel of judges, then the other party would be entitled to a suspension of its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement. It is not a time-limit on the backstop, nor a change to the Withdrawal Agreement. It also does not give the UK a unilateral right to terminate its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, but merely appeal to arbitration in the event of suspected foul play. Nevertheless, the mechanism for unilateral suspension is a significant concession in our view which may be sufficient to win over enough MPs in the UK’s Parliament. Key to any success will be the legal opinion expected later today of UK attorney general Geoffrey Cox.

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14 February 2019

Market outlook: balanced but still biased to upside.

Impact of lower rates, China tax cuts and political progress likely to be evident by mid-2019

Weak incoming data, both in respect of profits forecasts and the global economy is in sharp contrast to the strong performance of risk assets such as equities and corporate credit during 2019. Conflicting narratives can certainly create angst but in this case reflect investors’ belief that central banks have acknowledged the slowing global economy. We would concur that easier financial conditions means relief from negative economic surprises may be in sight by mid-year. Despite having risen sharply in the first few weeks of the year, on balance we believe global equities now have the prospect of volatile but still upward progress, as political events unfold.

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28 January 2019

ECB fiddles as eurozone turns.

Compared to US Fed, ECB seems flat-footed as growth slows

During the recent period of market volatility the US Fed has in our view successfully re-positioned itself on the doveish end of expectations, both in terms of interest rate and more recently balance sheet policy. The ECB in comparison appears flat-footed, with ECB President Draghi failing to use the opportunity in his press conference last week to emphasise policy flexibility in the event of a downturn. Ironically, the most recent disappointing incoming data is concentrated in the eurozone, rather than the US.

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19 December 2018

Brexit: Prepare for a confrontation.

No-deal preparations on both sides represent a predictable escalation in tensions

UK PM Theresa May has survived the confidence vote triggered by her own party. A further proposed House of Commons confidence vote is also destined to be defeated. However, PM May’s continued premiership does not mean there will be no change in Brexit tactics. She faces the same unresolved conflicts as before. In order to deliver her deal, she may shift towards a more confrontational position with the EU in order to obtain increased leverage. Investors should not confuse this with actively seeking a no-deal Brexit. However, the road to amending the Withdrawal Agreement and winning UK Parliamentary approval now seems paved with market volatility. While UK markets are now trading at valuation levels which discount a significant degree of Brexit disruption, declining earnings forecasts in both the eurozone and UK suggest that it is too early to materially increase equity exposure to these markets.

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16 November 2018

Brexit: A decisive step into the fog.

Limited support for UK PM May’s Brexit deal creates further uncertainty

UK PM May’s Brexit deal has achieved the unlikely honour of uniting both pro-EU and Brexiteers in rejecting it. Despite a difficult House of Commons session yesterday, she only reiterated later her role is to finalise the text and bring it back to Parliament for a vote in December. At this point it is difficult to see how she will succeed. A key rival is in the process of securing the 48 letters required for a vote of no-confidence and she has failed to secure a new Brexit minister. Without an election, any new PM would have the difficult task of renegotiating the current deal - and would have to create a credible deterrent of no-deal to succeed. An election risks a Labour government less accommodating to the corporate sector. Both these scenarios are likely to be unwelcome for financial markets. The probability of sufficient change to the draft agreement to pass the UK Parliament appears slim but would in contrast be welcomed by investors. 

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16 October 2018

Market valuations improving in UK and Europe.

There are risks, but valuation risk is slowly receding, with the exception of the US

October’s equity market volatility may already be in the rear-view mirror despite the evident risks of Brexit and lingering concerns over Italian debt sustainability. If markets stabilise close to current levels, the recent volatility may in hindsight be seen as a helpful correction towards aligning equity market prices to normalised interest rates and bond yields. Following the recent market declines, but following solid earnings growth and ROE in 2018 to date, median non-financial price/book levels, with the notable exception of the US, are now close to long-term averages. While there may be concerns over the sustainability of current profit margins, rising bond yields or geopolitical events, valuations can now move down from the top of investors’ lists of risks.

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21 September 2018

Brexit: UK Risk premium likely to remain in place.

Investors face continued UK uncertainty and polarising outcomes post-Salzburg

The unproductive summit of European leaders in Salzburg this week has highlighted the lack of substantive progress on finding any solution to an exit agreement for the UK which will satisfy the EU, Ireland, Northern Ireland,  UK government and UK parliament. Most importantly the declaration by EU Council President Tusk that the UK’s “Chequers” plan will undermine the single market highlights an objection in principle to the UK’s initiative for a free trade area in goods during any Brexit transition period. This principles-based roadblock suggests that tinkering at the edges – such as customs checks in the Irish Sea are irrelevant details. We see elevated political risk in the UK, potentially polarising the outcome between a hard Brexit and no Brexit. Investors will also need to consider the increased risk of a populist UK government.

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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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25 May 2018

Italy: Political risk strikes (again) in eurozone.

Political power and resolve of EU and ECB should not be underestimated (again)

The prospect of a populist Five Star/League coalition government in Italy has spooked Italian bond markets with yields soaring in recent weeks. Nevertheless, this price move may still be viewed in the context of a correction, given the clearly large difference in fundamental credit quality between Italy and Germany, both from a political level and as measured by the government debt burden as a percent of GDP. It is a situation which is likely to create investor anxiety but the precedent of Greece suggests that the ultimate political power of the EU and ECB is considerable. An “Italexit” scenario would create a high degree of market uncertainty but remains low probability in our view.

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9 May 2018

2018 Earnings forecasts: Another Trump bump for energy.

Rising oil price continues to support 2018 earnings forecasts

While our concerns on valuation remain in place, in the short-term market performance is more closely linked to the trend in forecasts profits. Those looking for a reason to sell equities on this basis are likely to be disappointed. As we approach the half-year point, median earnings growth forecasts for the US remain robust at 18% while eurozone and UK equities are at 8%. For now, our base case remains that the benign derating – equities moving sideways while interest rates and profits increase - will continue.

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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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23 March 2018

Market declines: US LIBOR or US trade war?.

Headlines scream trade war while a surge in US LIBOR is tightening US financial conditions

It is very easy to point the finger at US trade sanctions against China as a reason for the recent declines in equity markets. The prospect of a near-term confrontation, in respect of access to markets and IP protection (a free competition zone perhaps rather than a free trade area), is clearly unhelpful for global equity sentiment. China’s transition from a catch-up nation to an economic competitor always had to be resolved at some stage. However the second dynamic at work during Q1 18 is a rapid rise in US LIBOR, over and above that of official US interest rates. This is tightening monetary conditions rather faster than policymakers may have intended.

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2 November 2017

Government bonds in the firing line.

The next twist in the story is likely to push global yields higher

It is always important to put aside preconceptions and let all the data speak – and not just that which confirms prior beliefs. At present, the data which best models the long-term outlook (valuations) are suggestive of relatively weak returns in global equities and this has informed our cautious positioning. Furthermore, bond yields and interest rates remain unusually low on a historical basis. Yet for the short-term, economic surprises are currently positive, business sentiment strong and profits growth relatively robust. It is this short-term data which also needs to be heard.

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19 October 2017

Profits forecasts stable – but no positive surprises.

Stronger PMI indices not following through to profits growth

While Q3 has brought something of a renaissance in economic surprise and purchasing managers’ indices we can at present see no sign of this improved sentiment in profits forecasts for 2017. Our weighted average consensus earnings forecast index remains steady for each of the UK, US and Europe ex-UK and the equal-weighted measures have declined, if modestly, since mid-year. In prior periods, our earnings forecast index tended to move slightly ahead of PMIs and economic surprise. The more recent data has not followed this pattern and highlights that what is good for the overall economy is not by necessity good for corporate profits. Furthermore, with central banks on a tightening path the risk for equity markets is that tighter policy is not offset by stronger profits growth.

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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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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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24 April 2017

French Election: Is populism already passé?.

Relief rally follows 1st round vote which puts Le Pen against a moderate

If last year was the year investors were caught out by misleading polls, today’s market action suggests that investors are being caught out by mistrusting them. A collapse in near-term euro volatility, sharply higher equity markets and a compression in the spread between French and German government bonds emphasises the relief that Le Pen was not in a run-off with a far left-wing candidate.

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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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3 March 2017

Earnings trends: Gap risk endures in US.

As US markets rise, US earnings forecasts fall

Equity investors have clearly taken some comfort from Trump’s recent address to the US Congress. While the speech was delivered with some unanticipated polish, there was in our view little new policy detail and we were surprised by the resulting surge in global equity markets. In our view, investors and the corporate sector will struggle to incorporate Trump’s fiscal initiatives into capital spending plans and profits expectations until more detail becomes available Therefore, in an enviroment where US earnings forecasts are declining, we continue to question the sustainability of the bull market in US equities.

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16 February 2017

C’est l’économie… French and German bond yields diverge.

It’s not the unlikely election of Le Pen, it’s the economy ...

The recent divergence between French and German government bond yields has been widely attributed to a possible victory for the anti-euro Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election. In our view this is not the whole story. The widening gap in terms of borrowing costs also mirrors the increasing economic divergence between France and Germany. Therefore, the increased risk premium for French government debt should be expected to persist, even after the election of a mainstream candidate, adding to pressure on the euro project.

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10 November 2016

Trump’s double surprise.

It is quite clear that in the days leading up to the U.S. Presidential election, both markets and surveys got it wrong. Traditional polling once again failed to spot the depth of support for radical political change. This was after all the U.S., which has delivered the strongest post-crisis economic performance of any developed nation. 

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17 October 2016

Sterling: Lower for longer as the EU strikes back.

The UK’s new Prime Minister Theresa May’s honeymoon period is clearly over. Days after emphasising the importance of national sovereignty and appearing to lean towards a ‘hard’ Brexit, a dawn raid on sterling and subsequent weakness has given opponents ammunition to attack the UK’s plan to leave the EU. Furthermore, tough talk from the UK government has been reciprocated from EU leaders and European heads of state. President of the European Council Donald Tusk may even have given the game away by linking the concept of a ‘hard’ Brexit to ‘no Brexit’. For sterling, we believe investors should look through the politics and focus on the economics.

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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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4 May 2016

Earnings forecasts: absence of a negative is not a positive.

Profits forecasts for the US, UK and Eurozone have been stable for the last 2 months. In the context of last year’s relatively dramatic declines in profits expectations (the worst year in a decade) this is a welcome development for equity investors.

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30/05/2019
Equity strategy and market outlook - May 2019

In this month’s strategy piece, Alastair notes that the much-anticipated resolution to the US/China trade dispute has failed to materialise. Furthermore, the likelihood of any resolution in the near term appears modest at best. His earlier more positive views on equities for 2019 were contingent on a US/China trade resolution by mid-year and his outlook has therefore become more cautious. A downward turn in survey data and consensus earnings forecasts has been re-established and ebbing global earnings momentum during the past four weeks consistent with softer PMI indices and slowing trade data. Short- and long-term bond yields have fallen in recent weeks, reflecting market expectations of a slowdown. A steady build-up of debt in the corporate sector of China and the US will become a greater issue if the economy slows. Therefore, he believes investors should now focus on balance sheet quality in equity investments at this point in the cycle. He moves to a cautious view on global equities from neutral. Given the still significant rally since the year-end, there is time to reposition portfolios and he believes investors should focus on specific companies with lower than average exposure to cyclical factors and trade headwinds, given the cautious outlook.

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