High Swell: Riding the wave of volatility
June proved to be a grim month for investors. Substantive falls in equities, wider credit spreads and higher bond yields made positive returns scarce. Only currency (mainly the USD) and cash produced positive returns amongst the major asset classes. June’s performance also dragged down returns for the June quarter as well as leaving calendar year-to-date numbers in some key equity markets (US, UK, Australian and EM equities) relatively flat. Likewise returns from bonds so far this year have moderated as yields in major bond markets have started to rise and credit spreads, particularly amongst physical securities, have widened.
With volatility picking up, where you draw your line does matter, but the bottom-line is that the tough environment envisaged for investors in 2015 is unfolding.
The most recent pick-up in volatility can be directly traced to renewed concerns over Greece and the stalemate between the Greek “Syriza” government and the European institutions propping it up (primarily the ECB, the IMF & the European Commission). The Greek government is pushing back on additional austerity and the further reforms demanded before additional funding will be paid, bringing to a head the sustainability of Greece’s debt position and questions over its future within the Euro. How this plays out in the near term is uncertain, but in reality the only surprise about Greece’s problems should be around timing, not magnitude. The simple reality is that Greece can’t pay back what it owes, and won’t. A new deal might kick the can a bit further down the road, but it won’t solve the problem.
The good news about Greece is that it isn’t big enough to derail the European recovery, nor is it likely to upset the European banks significantly as Greek exposure has been largely quarantined. The biggest risk would seem to be contagion – that is that the Portuguese or the Italians (for example) say if it’s OK for Greece, then
why not us, and broader pressure on the Euro grows. It’s also a potent and high profile example of the downside of an overleveraged global economy.
For some time now we have argued that markets have been unduly complacent about these and other risks. Volatility has been low, yet downside risk to asset prices high.
The key idea behind our argument is that valuations across many assets are extended. Positive economic growth, low inflation, extremely accommodative monetary policy (low rates and QE), together with central bank reassurances have pushed assets to extended levels (US bonds and equities head the list and credit is not far
behind). Investors are implicitly placing their trust in central bankers to “steer the ship” – notwithstanding the fact that their longer term track records are not good. It is notable, and no coincidence, that the major equity markets that have performed best this year are Japan and core Europe, and these are the 2 markets where QE remains in play. Of the laggards, the US and the UK are probably the nearest to having rates rise, while Australia continues to struggle given still relatively high rates and the headwinds of a slowing economy and falling commodity prices.
Extending this theme, US recovery, while to be welcomed, on the one hand could be problematic. Especially to the extent that it causes investors to rethink their numbers as to the medium term economics of their investments in a world where rates may not be 0% ad infinitum, and where they no longer have the comfort of knowing that there’s “fat” in the price. Investments that made sense against record low nominal interest rates and bond yields may not make as much sense as interest rates rise. Likewise the ability of the Fed to continue to manage expectations as tightly as it has will diminish, particularly if wages and inflation start to rise.
There is no guarantee of course that this will happen, but the flip side is probably worse. If the Fed haven’t raised rates this side of Christmas it probably means the US recovery is fading – with little room for policy to respond other than to re-engage QE. Clearly not a good situation and not one where I’d want to be owning US
equities on extended longer run Cyclically Adjusted PE (CAPE) multiples of around 26 times – multiples that have historically preceded very low long run returns.
The pick-up in volatility in June has not fundamentally changed the investment outlook nor turned the dial significantly on our return forecasts. With one or two notable exceptions, we expect low returns over our forecast (3 year horizon). However, just as June highlighted - especially the last week of June - market prices
can change quickly.
Reflecting this, we are defensively positioned. While not as defensive as we could be – mainly because we do not expect a pronounced structural turndown in asset prices until the next downturn / recession in the US economy and we still think is some way off.
Within equities, we retain our preference for Australian equities. With the recent underperformance of Australian stocks improving relative valuations, our medium term thinking here is reinforced. Our least preferred major market is the US and while it has been a relatively poor performer so far this year, we retain a low absolute exposure. Emerging market equities have performed poorly and Chinese stock valuations remain problematic in aggregate. We do not see enough value in EM to compensate us for the inherent risks in these markets, particularly as the Chinese bubble deflates and US monetary tightening (hopefully) unfolds.
We have continued to trim portfolio duration, reducing its exposure to rising bond yields, but have not cut completely, recognising that the downside risks to global growth are not insignificant and that should these risks materialise bonds would rally, notwithstanding the low level of yields currently prevailing.
Our currency views remain unchanged. The Australian dollar continues to “tread water” against the USD, but is likely to resume its downward trend as US rates rise and the secondary effects of the terms of trade decline wash through the Australian economy.
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