As the first quarter of the year is headed to the end and new challenges lay ahead for international financial markets, frame the actual situation is necessary to adapt to future changes.
2017 has been a record year both in terms of returns and volatility. Looking at historic data, seems obvious the past year represents an outstanding exception, may have the markets gone too exuberant? Economic and business data do not suggest so, with results exceeding expectations consistently.
European Union: Renaissance
The year that just ended has proven the comeback of growth in the economies in Europe. The expansion in GDP and the steady decline in unemployment from the record level of 2011 has spread to Mediterranean countries and gathers speed. France, Spain and Italy have inverted their road joining Germany and northern countries in what can be compared to a renaissance of European Economy.
As over 62% of EU countries’ total trade is done with other EU countries, the interdependency across EU economies has risen to levels which make necessary a harmonized growth to attain lasting results. Moreover, the strong reliance on exports, as testified by the fall in imports between 2012 and 2016 while exports grew in that period, has proven to be beneficial given the harmonized global growth. The EU accounts for 15% of global imports and exports approximately, making it the second world player and a necessary participant to global expansion. Which comes first, global growth or European expansion? The answer is irrelevant, as they influence and reinforce each other in a benign loop. The high levels of unemployment from which Europe started the recovery in 2012 leave space for further expansion, accompanied by low inflation rates which are consistent with an early stage recovery.
Fiscal and monetary policies do not represent a threat, at least now. Governments around Europe share similar electoral programmes centred on the reduction of fiscal pressure and the enhancement of investments. The policy makers at ECB do not want to break the toy by acting too fast deleveraging their balance sheet, but the market is anticipating the end of QE and the beginning of the tightening cycle by end of 2018, beginning of 2019. Low interest rates are here to stay as Mario Draghi said, so the extremely favourable economic environment is going to support Equities through the year. The effects of improved stability can be seen inside Europe, with outstanding levels of consumer and business confidence, and outside Europe, with the Euro-Dollar Exchange Rate moving consistently with the strengthening of European Economies. The strengthening cycle of Euro started in 2017 will continue with the economic recovery, until Euro strength weights too much on exports. At least in the foreseeable future, this is not the case.
Attractive valuations in European Equity offer long term opportunity for investors looking to take advantage of the economic environment. On the other hand, the extreme intervention of ECB in the Bond Market has created distortions in prices with risks skewed to the downside. This means that investors will be exposed to volatility, both in Equity and Debt Markets, once the normalization of interest rates begins in the following years.
United Kingdom: Uncertainty
A big question mark is represented by the United Kingdom: after the Brexit the outlook for UK economy has darkened leaving big gaps of uncertainty. Those gaps will be filled only after the conclusion of the negotiations with EU representatives with the deadline to negotiations fixed in October 2018. The IMF has already cut economic growth forecast for UK, expecting 2018 growth of 1.6%, down from previously forecasted 1.7%, followed by a further slowdown next year to 1.5%. The effects of uncertainty cited by Christine Lagarde, IMF Chief, are the delay in investments and the loss in spending power, caused by rising inflation, falling pound and stagnant wages.
As a result, the UK will live the global expansion only vicariously losing relative strength and power in respect to other countries which offer better opportunities. On the other hand, the UK government will have to counterbalance the possible losses in the financial industry, approximately high net worth 100.000 jobs in the City with cascade effects on housing market, leisure industry and most importantly on tax revenue. The possibilities of actions range from a tax cut to a more generic business friendly environment, with Equities resulting as the most beneficiaries of the situation. Government bonds on the other hand are not as attractive, given the deficit that the UK government will incur to support fiscal policies. The uncertainty already weighting on the Pound will continue until businesses will have clear investment plans to adapt to the changing environment and markets will have enough information to take positions.
United States: Goldilocks
The expansionary cycle started in the US after the Great Financial Crisis does not seem to have stopped, as testified by the healthy 2.3% annual GDP growth for 2017, the steady decline in unemployment rate to 4.1% and the inflation rate of 2.1%.
These are numbers of a country which have abandoned early stages of recovery and has entered the late stage cycle of economic expansion. In this environment fiscal and monetary policies diverge. The Federal Reserve has started the unwind of monetary policies in Q4 2017, by deleveraging the balance sheet from the record level of $4.5 trillion at a rate of $50 billion per month targeting a drop below $3 trillion by 2020. Moreover, the FED plans three rate hikes for 2018 as the normalization process continues, but the threat of inflation picking up at wages level is creating questions whether the FED is already behind the curve. Given the 2% inflation rate target, the FED may be forced to accelerate the hikes before expected from the market, causing turbulence to the new chair Jerome Powell.
In this context, the Tax Plan approved at the beginning of the year by the Congress represents the fiscal lever to counterbalance the monetary contraction. Cutting the corporate tax rate to 15%, President Trump aims to stimulate the economy enhancing job creation, wage growth and investments. The slash of the repatriation tax rate on corporate cash held overseas, from 35% to 10%, is the second major incentive for investments in the country. With $2.5 trillion in cash held by US-owned corporations overseas, it is rational to expect a big portion of it to be reinvested in the US in the form of dividends, buybacks and M&A operations. As the economy is moving closer to full employment, the benefits of fiscal stimulus will likely be constrained because the economy is already operating at near full capacity. Nevertheless, GDP growth is expected to reach 2.5 percent in 2018 and then to moderate to an average of 2.1 percent in 2019-20. US listed companies will see the benefits of the Tax Plan on their balance sheets starting from 2018. According to the most recent estimates by UBS analysts, S&P500 companies will post an increase in earnings of 18% for 2018: nearly half of it, 8.5%, will come from pretax income growth, while the tax cuts for corporations, M&A and buybacks will provide a 9.7% growth.
How much of this positive outlook is already priced in by the market? The S&P500 delivered a 21.7% return in 2017, with no negative months across the year and extremely low levels of volatility, while the first quarter of 2018 has been characterized by spikes in volatility and dispersed returns.
Valuations look stretched here: the Price to Earnings Ratio is above 25 and the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings, which takes into account the adjustment for the average inflation from the previous 10 years, is around 32. This does not mean that the market is going to crash, but that returns in the future are expected to be lower as the market is already pricing them in the valuations. The US market has historically been more expensive than the global markets, as it offers both the biggest companies and the highest diversification by sectors. Moreover, the US are the first global superpower by GDP, GDP per capita and international influence, which means that they will always attract more investments and will sell at a higher premium than other countries.
Two major factors to further consider are the Dollar and the Government Bond yield. The 10 Year Bond yield is approaching 2.9%, the first time since 2014, as the market is pricing in the widening budget deficit coming from the Tax Reform and the $1.5 trillion spending of the Infrastructure Plan proposed by Trump in February 2018. The Yield curve, represented by the difference between 10Y and 2Y yields, is downward sloping and consistent with late stage cycle expansion, the Goldilocks period before the end of the expansionary cycle.
The last factor to take into account is the Dollar. Uncle Ben’s currency has started a weakening cycle from the highs of 2017, providing support both to overseas earnings of US stocks and to the FED in reaching the inflation target. As the global economy strengthens, risk-off currencies like the Dollar and the Yen should weaken as capitals flow to riskier countries which provide higher returns.