by Adam Jones, Researched by Alex Hulkhory
As a foreword to this month’s investment commentary, we wanted to acknowledge the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza. Whilst we would never want to downplay the immeasurable social and humanitarian costs of the hugely tragic events over the past month, this is not our area of expertise. In our role as custodians of our clients’ assets, our focus is always through the lens of how any events are likely to impact global asset markets.
Much of last month’s blog centred around inflation, and the ongoing risks this presents to asset prices. Although this remains an important issue, as with markets, our attention this month is focused on the ongoing strength of the US economy. In our view, consumers globally have faced increasing headwinds as extreme inflation and rising interest rates have – in theory – reduced their spending ability.
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Post the Global Financial Crisis in the era of ultra-loose monetary policy and quantitative easing, the old edict “don’t fight the fed” became almost gospel to many market participants. In short, the path of monetary policy drives the overall performance of risk assets. Indeed, against a backdrop of significant tightening in 2022 this adage rang especially true. Asset prices – not just equities – suffered significantly.
Investment markets are forward looking and beyond the impact of changing discount rates, we saw the idea of an impending recession in 2023 creeping into the minds of investors. In our view, this was one of the most widely anticipated recessions in modern history. [i]Bloomberg economics had predicted a 100% percent probability of a US recession by October 2023. Comparing this to the latest figures released by the [ii]Bureau of Economic Analysis, which showed US GDP accelerated to an annual rate of 4.9% in the third quarter of 2023, something doesn’t quite add up…
The investment truism “never bet against the American consumer” has returned to the fore with a bang. We can certainly include ourselves in the list of market participants that have been surprised by the ongoing resilience of US consumer spending. In our view, this strength has been the backbone that has propelled equity markets and US GDP this year. One potential explanation has been the level of COVID savings that were accrued whilst we were all in lockdown. However, we feel this is finite and there are clear signs the US consumer is beginning to feel the pinch. The personal savings rate [iii] continued to decline through September, falling to a rate of 3.4%. Whilst we are inclined to side with the Fed, only time will tell who will win out in this battle.
What’s been happening in markets?
October heralded Q3 earnings season, an eagerly anticipated look into many of the big tech names that have propelled markets. Touching on the colloquially named ‘Magnificent 7 (The tech-focused, seven largest constituents of the S&P500), we felt that broadly their earnings were impressive. However, it was perhaps an insight into just how high expectations – and valuations – have become!
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, was an excellent example of this. Despite delivering a meaningful [iv]beat on both earnings and revenue, the stock was punished with a bruising 9.5% fall on the day of results. This was also evident for the companies delivering exceptional results with, at best, anaemic upward movements.
This weakness was also reflected in the broader markets with the [v]S&P500 joining the Nasdaq in official correction territory from the highs reached earlier this year. October was a difficult month for markets generally, with most asset classes delivering negative returns. One particular standout was [vi]gold, up 7.4% over October. As a safe-haven asset this reflects recent increases in geo-political tension.
Looking slightly closer to home it was difficult month for the UK market, which was down more than 3% over October. This may in part be driven by sector composition. Energy is not an insignificant component of the UK market and the sector fell by 8.7% over the month. The economic back drop also remains challenging with [vii]ASR’s Nowcast showing continued deceleration along with PMI’s firmly below 50. In our view, one saving grace is that equity valuations here in the UK remain among the most compelling in the global equity universe.
Return of the bond vigilantes…
Another interesting development has been taking shape in bond markets over the past month. Longer dated bond yields have continued to climb, with US 10-year treasuries almost touching 5% on the October 19th. Despite the implied equity risk premium – the extra return investors demand for holding risk assets relative to government bonds – being at near [viii]historic lows of only 30bps, markets have been unwilling to purchase treasuries en masse. This has no doubt been exacerbated by the current Fiscal position in the US where significant deficits exist alongside exceptionally low levels of unemployment, which we believe to be an unsustainable aberration over the long term.
Given significant levels of indebtedness, large fiscal deficits and an apparent desire to reduce the scale of public sector balance sheets an important question is being asked by markets. Who, ultimately, is going to buy the bonds that DM governments so clearly need to issue? With the need for issuance to cover significant government spending over the coming years, in our view there have been growing fears that yields may have to move meaningfully higher for demand to meet supply. This could partly explain why investors’ appetite for bonds has been lacklustre despite their apparent attractiveness relative to riskier assets such as equities.
Whilst we have seen yields come down at the margin, we expect investors to be more sensitive to changes in fiscal policy and the resulting issuance as we move forward. The “Bond vigilantes” – a term famously coined by Economist Ed Yardeni to describe fiscal hawkishness by markets – are back!
How have central banks responded?
In a break from the new normal, central banks broadly left rates unchanged this month. Much of this is wanting to assess the impact of the rises we have seen over the past two years. However, the previously highlighted [ix]rise in bond yields will also have a meaningful impact in tightening financial conditions, doing a lot of work on behalf of the major central banks.
In what was largely seen as a sleepy month for policy makers, the Bank of Japan provided a point of interest. With the Japanese Yen trading below ¥150 to the dollar – the historic level at which the BoJ has intervened – many had speculated that we could see a shift in policy. [x]Given its influence on global bond markets this could have especially meaningful consequences, particularly if this drew significant levels of liquidity out of bond markets!
[vi] Absolute Strategy Research Investment Committee Briefing – October 2023
[vii] Absolute Strategy Research Investment Committee Briefing – October 2023
[x] John Authers – points of return 31/10/2023