Perspective - Economics

Three themes for 2019 - and some black swans

We discuss three themes that will shape market performance in the coming year, as well as four events that could take investors by surprise.

23/01/2019

Keith Wade

Keith Wade

Chief Economist & Strategist

2018 was a challenging year for investors with US equity and government bond markets both returning less than cash. Two factors were instrumental in delivering this outcome: disappointment with global growth and less cash flowing through the global economy (tighter liquidity).

These factors will continue to influence markets in the year ahead. We have identified three key themes that will prove important for investors in 2019. We also discuss four “black swans” - events which are plausible but not currently being given much weight by markets.

Theme 1. Lower availability of cheap money exposes those reliant on borrowing

In 2019 we expect the volume of money in the global financial system to reduce. The main reason for this is a change in the activities of major central banks. After a period of buying government bonds, the US Federal Reserve (Fed) plans to now sell back some of these investments, withdrawing some cash in circulation. The European Central Bank has said it will stop buying bonds. This leaves the Bank of Japan as the only major central bank still contributing to new money to the financial system (through the purchase of its government bonds).

This matters because when money is easily accessible, and available to borrow cheaply, investors are prepared to take greater risks. In recent years this has helped direct investment into peripheral eurozone markets (e.g. Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy), some emerging markets and also lower grade corporate credit. As liquidity is withdrawn from the system, an important support for these markets disappears. The early effects of this trend were already being seen in emerging markets in 2018. In 2019 they look set to intensify.   

Theme 2. The return of emerging markets

Given the above discussion it may seem odd but we believe that emerging markets can make a comeback in 2019 – if the US Fed’s policy of interest rate rises comes to a halt. Should this happen - and we forecast one more rate rise in June, taking US rates to 2.50-2.75% - there is good reason to believe the US dollar will lose some of its strength. This would provide a welcome relief to those investors that borrow in dollars –a heavy weight of whom reside in the emerging markets.

The positive effects from this development could more than offset the pressure from the withdrawal of money in the global financial system and escalating trade tensions. Arguably, prices for emerging market assets may already be discounting the worst, with both equities and foreign exchange in those countries having fallen significantly so there is room, following some good news, for a bounce.

Macroeconomic developments will be important as well though and it may need more government spending and/or tax cuts from China before investors’ confidence is more firmly restored. The worry of a US-China trade war remains a looming threat but there is no reason to expect an outright contraction in overall trade as activity should be diverted elsewhere.

Theme 3. Populist pressures mean governments turn to quick fix policies

Without the engine of US or Chinese demand, global growth tends to slow. The US outperformed, in growth terms, in 2018 as a result of President Trump's tax cutting agenda. Other leaders and governments have been taking note. In France, President Macron responded to weekends of riots by meeting populist demands for lower taxes. In the event of a hard exit from the EU, the UK is planning its own fiscal boost. Japan may well be the exception, with an increase in a consumption tax scheduled for October 2019. However, even here measures are being taken to offset the impact.

In any case, the key point is that governments seeking growth are no longer making economic reforms to increase competition or make labour markets more flexible. The approach today is to deliver a quick fix through a tax cut, increased public spending or regulation such as a rise in the minimum wage rate. Some of these measures are warranted and overdue but others are a response by governments to populist pressures.

How are these themes likely to shape market performance in 2019?

Much of the bad news is already priced in by the markets. This of course is no guarantee of positive returns in 2019 but it does mean that markets are better positioned for disappointment and hence potentially more resilient to shocks than they were last year.

This article is summarised in the following infographic. The article continues below.

Black swans: Thinking the unthinkable

The themes above are reasonably well-known. Black swans are the “unknown unknowns”. By definition, we cannot anticipate them but we have identified four scenarios are plausible. We think they are also worth consideration.

1. Another eurozone crisis

The first eurozone debt crisis began in 2009 and saw several eurozone member states (most notably Greece) become unable to repay (or refinance) their debts. A number of countries were also unable to bail out over-indebted banks. The European Central Bank (ECB) stepped in, effectively printing money to ensure the markets continued to have access to cash, thereby preventing a suspension in activity and possible economic collapse.

Since then, there has been a call, from President Macron in particular, for the creation of a central fund to support growth should such events arise again. This has yet to be formed. A potential new crisis was only narrowly avoided at the end of 2018 when the spending plans of the new populist Italian coalition government tested the strict guidelines of the European Commission. Such drama is likely to play out again in 2019 given the broader rise of populist politics.

2. No Brexit 

This may seem inconceivable given the time and energy currently being poured into sorting a withdrawal agreement. However, “no Brexit” is the only outcome that will not require a vote (apart from "no deal"). As MPs have rejected the current deal on offer, and the EU unlikely to concede anything further, there must be a possibility that the government cancels Article 50 and stays in the EU.

3. Military action 

Sadly, there are plenty of hot spots which could ignite in 2019. The proxy war in the Middle East (being fought in Yemen and Syria) could become an actual war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China has ambitions for Taiwan and across the region. The recent departure of defence secretary James Mattis indicates a more isolationist US, creating opportunities for others to fill the void. If President Trump’s dismissal of the UN’s function leads to a less co-ordinated international response to territorial skirmishes, Russian ambitions could re-escalate.

4. Trump does not run for re-election in 2020 

Although it is often difficult to read the president's intentions, he appears to be constantly campaigning and setting himself for a second term. However, he will have to see off US Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election first. Furthermore, he is already the oldest person to be elected president, taking office at the age of 70 and would be 78 if he served a whole second term. Health may be a factor. Or, he could simply decide to do something else: there has been talk of him founding a media empire – Trump TV anyone?