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August Strategy Meeting 2023 – Inflation’s Grip is Loosening

Author: Tim Sharp

Researcher: Jack Williams

Published: August 24, 2023

It has been an eventful month with markets, surprising the bears once again.

Asia ex-Japan was the best performing region, the Hang Seng rose 6.1% during this period as market participants overlook weak factory and services data, choosing instead to concentrate on Beijing’s latest measures to stimulate consumption and kickstart what has so far been a lacklustre covid recovery.

We remain somewhat sceptical of China as an investable market with geopolitical tensions, slowing growth (albeit still at a higher rate than the majority of nations) and the commercial property downturn continuing.

As of writing this publication, stories of Country Garden (2007.HK) another real estate behemoth in China missing interest payments and scrapping plans to inject cash into the business emerge, sparking renewed fears of a smaller scale Evergrande calamity or economic downturn in the region as the government struggles to regain confidence.

As a team we are very intrigued by the landscape of LATAM equities currently as we seek to benefit from the downturn in rates and a potential rotation back into equities following a period of elevated rates in the region.  The Brazilian Bovespa index gained 3.3% in July following the BCB’s first rate cut of 50bps, Chile too cut rates the week before with their central bank moving to cut by 100bps and minutes from their July meeting suggesting another 75-100bps could be cut in August.

Global fixed income was flat to marginally weak with credit and emerging market bond index spreads falling slightly more, in line with a risk on environment. Listed infrastructure and real estate recovered 4% during the month, although this was mixed at a subsector level and could well be perceived as bargain hunting at these discounted levels. At the time of writing news is emerging of Buffet moving Berkshire into the housebuilding sector, accumulating stakes worth over $814mm in three US names, Dr Horton (6mn Shares), Lennar (152,572 Shares) and NVR (11,112 Shares).

To our relief, and somewhat in-line with our own expectations, the vice-like grip of inflation eased across markets with EU, UK and US readings all surprising to the downside, U.K headline reached 7.9% while core hit 6.9%.

While still extremely data dependant, it is encouraging to see inflation heading in the right direction and adds weight to the argument that within developed markets we could be close to terminal rates and a pause by central banks (excluding Japan) is likely from here while they seek to assess the stickiness of their remaining inflation. Until recently the soft-landing argument was sneered at by many market participants, however this is now being priced as the most likely outcome.

The BoJ continues to run very loose monetary policy stimulating inflation, although this has been favourable for Japanese equity markets with investors looking for value and positive earnings momentum. We continue to find ourselves attracted to Japanese equities due to the favourable mix found within markets. Japan offers attractive valuations on companies engaged in some of the most pioneering industries to which globally we could be at the inflection point of mass adoption, think Robotics, Technology, AI, Automation, Japan has had a foot in this camp for many years now and this could well be a very interesting period for the region. We see the opportunity mix alongside valuations as a big reason for the Nikkei making 33-year highs back in May.

While the committee kept S.A.A unchanged we took this moment to re-visit some of our inflation beneficiaries including an overview of the  food retail sector. We reviewed the razor-sharp margin nature of the businesses, increased governmental and societal pressure for lower food prices and valuation extensions on equities within the space to P/E’s in excess of 30x. . Falling inflation and persistently tight labour markets also present a significant challenge for these businesses. In summary we see better value and opportunity elsewhere in areas such as UK Pharma.

We have also noticed a growing concern amongst market participants and economists that the ECB could be drastically close to a policy misstep. Many believe the economic picture within the Eurozone economy is not as rosy as it is currently being painted by the central bank, combine this with their aggressive tightening regime and could yield a hefty blow to businesses, individuals and equity markets within the region.

A.S.R (Absolute Strategy Research) undertook a comparison of the global financial crisis and the economy post pandemic; it would seem several of the mistakes witnessed amidst the GFC have not been repeated. Post GFC compared to post pandemic saw a major difference, whereas stimulus in the GFC was removed to be replaced by years of austerity leading household incomes and assets to shrink, following the pandemic fiscal stimulus has remained looser for longer replacing what was a long-term deflationary threat with this new inflationary environment.  ASR expect a slower pace rate of cuts than expected, weaker growth and higher for longer interest rates which could spell volatility for investors given current market expectations.

ASR see the current forecast of rates falling while the economy slows as overly optimistic, siding with central bankers. We see the yield curve inversion being solved by principally falling short term rates. Long dated bonds are also pricing in continued falling inflation, however, if inflation surprises by staying higher for longer (it wouldn’t be the first time sticky inflation has caught investors off guard) then there could be a case to be made for long term yields to remain elevated over a longer term, meaning the unwinding of the curves inversion may unfold in a different manner to that of the general consensus. Long term yields are also likely to remain elevated in the presence of high budget deficits which will require funding through an increase in the issuance of coupon securities.

Advancements in technology along with a strong consumer are two clear reasons the market has performed well this year, however as a team we question the underlying statistics leading many to this outcome. The excess savings figure we see as highly subjective and continue to advocate for the study of credit flows to assess strengths and weaknesses within consumer behaviours.

Despite strong returns year to date, earnings on a forward basis are flat, leaving P/E ratios vulnerable. ASR believe any significant upside in the SPX from these current levels would need EPS growth in excess of 15% or forward P/E’s of 20X, which would see equity indices looking stretched to say the least. Now investors can achieve 5.5% on 3-month cash rates and the trailing earnings yield of the SPX is at 4.16%, we question whether investors are being fairly compensated for the any risk taken when risk free options seem so attractive in these times. When compared to bonds ASR state Global Equity Risk Premium is the lowest since 2007 and US ERP is at a 19-year low. Even with the optimism being created by investors, equities look expensive on a relative basis and are generally priced for perfection in our view. This creates an awkward dilemma for any companies trading on elevated multiples that cannot live up to the image valuations have painted. Any disappointments in earnings or guidance would likely be met with a fierce market reaction.

In aggregate we remain underweight equities, overweight short-dated fixed income and overweight alternative strategies.

Our investment strategy committee, which consists of seasoned strategists and investment managers, meets regularly to review asset allocation, geographical spread, sector preferences and key global market drivers and our economist produces research and views on global economies which complement this process.

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