September 3, 2018

Macroeconomic overview

While the synchronised global expansion is over, global growth remains robust, mainly thanks to a still-buoyant US economy. Indeed, the US economy is set to grow at its fastest pace since 2005. Further out, we might start to see question marks about the impact from tariffs and Fed hikes, but that is unlikely until some time in 2019. Encouragingly, European data has shown an uptick from a slower start to the year, with PMIs still well in expansion territory and German growth holding up thanks to consumption and investment. Overall, we are not worried about a downturn for the time being.

Trade tensions are unlikely to abate anytime soon, as China and the US were unable to come to an agreement at their latest talks. The US imposed tariffs on another USD16 billion of Chinese goods, to which China immediately retaliated. The US has threatened more, which China has said it would match as well. On the other hand, the US & Mexico have come to an agreement for NAFTA, and tensions between the US and Europe have abated – but China remains the big fish for the US. Ahead of the midterm elections, an amelioration with allies and a tough stance towards China is likely to play well with the electorate, which implies tensions will persist for now. In terms of consequences, they appear relatively muted in the US, less so in China, but it might still be too early to tell what sort of impact one can expect – inflationary (because of higher prices) or deflationary (because of slower growth) – and how big.

In positive European news, eight years and USD330 billion in loans later, Greece is finally done with its massive bailouts. Of course, work still remains, but Greece should see access to the markets restored. But, calm in the Eurozone is unlikely, as Italian budget negotiations get underway with risks that the likely shift from a primary surplus to a primary deficit scares markets. Indeed, there is significant uncertainty around the fiscal outlook, and a more confrontational relationship with the EU isn’t helpful.

The latest Fed minutes showed that policymakers are willing to raise rates again, so long as the U.S. economy remains healthy. The September hike is firmly priced in, and expectations for a December hike are above 60%. Beyond that, the outlook could become more uncertain, though the market expects 2 more hikes in 2019. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell also spoke in Jackson Hole, with his comments perceived as more dovish than anticipated, as he mentioned more attention to data and less on rules, implying the path of rate hikes isn’t set in stone.

The US dollar remains supported by stronger growth and interest rate differentials, a trend we expect to persist. The euro has retreated in recent months, and given a number of headwinds for the old continent, we do not expect a sharp rebound for now – it should stay around 1.15 to 1.20. Concern about EM currencies has grown in light of the Turkish Lira depreciation, but we see little risk of contagion, and see more risk in countries with idiosyncratic stories like Turkey, Argentina, Russia and Brazil. Nonetheless, with slower Chinese growth, a stronger USD and higher rates, caution is warranted as investor sentiment towards emerging markets could remain challenged.

Market outlook
Markets, particularly in the US, continue to ignore political & geopolitical headlines and grind higher. US markets, which have continued to reach all-time highs, are supported by strong earnings and corporate activity, as well as solid economic growth. Indeed, second quarter earnings growth was higher than expected and 85% of earnings releases showed upside surprises.
Across the Atlantic, earnings growth was disappointing, but it remains around 6-7% for 2018. Next year’s expectations are still around 9% earnings growth, which should be supported by the much weaker euro. Nonetheless, European markets remain challenged. Indeed, investor sentiment is facing something of a wall of worry: slower growth (albeit still at high levels), Italy, earnings, Brexit, Turkey and exposure in the banking sector, as well as trade fears. Much of this is impacting the European banking sector, where we still see long-term opportunities, given cheap valuations and overly negative sentiment. We still expect European markets to follow the US higher, but it is likely to be a more muted upside.
Treasury yields have remained within a relatively tight range, capped by trade fears & geopolitical risks, but underpinned by strong fundamentals. We expect this trend to continue as we head into the fall. For now, we believe the bulk of the rate adjustment is behind us.
We are also seeing investors appear less concerned about duration, as longer-term growth prospects are not as strong, implying less upside risks for yields. As such, for those more concerned about investing in this late cycle phase, adding more core, defensive strategies, in addition to the more flexible, absolute return strategies, could be interesting portfolio protection.
Credit markets have also seen a stabilisation, and we continue to expect spreads to range-trade around current levels in both IG and HY. Despite more volatility in markets, spreads have proven relatively resilient, particularly in high yield, which is still seeing strong demand. We are not worried about a significant sell-off in markets, and see any increase in volatility as opportunities in a still-expensive market.
We believe risk assets should continue to grind higher, and maintain our exposure, but are not adding too much risk. We still prefer to be invested than staying on the sidelines, and believe US equities will outperform. We look for diversifying and de-correlating strategies, such as shorter duration, yield enhancing strategies and absolute return flexible strategies. For a little more protection, while it is still early and we do not expect a sharp downturn, we also look at more core, defensive