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  • Market Commentary September 2019

Market Comment  01/09/2019

Market Commentary September 2019

Cornelian's Investment Team give their commentary of the month past and Investment Outlook for September.

The MSCI UK All Cap NR index returned +1.3% during the three months to the end of August, underperforming the MSCI World ex UK (£) index which returned +9.0% in Sterling terms and +5.3% in local currency. The relative outperformance of international markets was driven largely by the resilience of the US market (MSCI USA NR Index), which returned 6.6% in local currency, and the decline of Sterling against most major currencies.

Stock markets rallied in June and July as hopes rose of co-ordinated policy responses to counteract the global slowdown. This optimism was punctured somewhat in August as trade negotiations between the US and China unexpectedly broke down and President Trump surprised the market with further tariffs on Chinese goods.  

Rising trade war risks saw Asia ex Japan, Japan and Emerging Market equities all perform poorly relative to the UK in local currency. 

In Sterling terms, the strongest major regional equity index was the USA (MSCI USA NR index, +10.4%), with underlying outperformance amplified by currency gains. Rising trade war risks saw Asia ex Japan, Japan and Emerging Market equities all perform poorly relative to the UK in local currency, but this was more than offset in Sterling terms by currency gains.

Alongside many developed market government bonds, Gilts performed strongly (MSCI iBoxx GBP Gilts TR index, +6.2%) due to rising Brexit-related fears and expectations that central banks around the world would cut interest rates as numerous indicators suggested that global growth was slowing faster than expected. Both Investment grade debt (ICE BofAML Sterling Corp, +5.6%) and ‘riskier’ high yield debt (BAML £ High Yield index, +2.8%) underperformed Gilts.

The Brent crude oil price ended August at $60.4/barrel, a decrease of 6.3% since the end of May. The oil price fell as concerns increased that the weaker global economic growth environment could undermine OPEC attempts to stabilise the oil price going forward.

The gold price rose 16.4% to $1520/oz during the period, supported by ‘safe haven’ demand and declines in the opportunity cost of holding gold as global interest rate expectations collapsed. Sterling weakness ensured the gold price rose by more for UK based investors (+21.0% to £1251/oz).

Investment Outlook

There has been a palpable loss in momentum in the global economy as end demand has been less forthcoming than expected and inventories have increased to levels which are uncomfortable. This has not gone unnoticed by government bond investors, but investors in riskier assets appear to be ignoring the evidence on the hope that policy makers will step in and come to the rescue once again.

In this they are probably right. Central banks around the world are becoming more vocal concerning their willingness and readiness to ease monetary policy and the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates for the first time since the financial crisis.

Mario Draghi, the ECB’s President announced that he was prepared to move interest rates deeper into negative territory and print more money if inflation and economic growth do not pick up shortly. The timing of his announcement was curious as he seemed to be binding his successor’s hands to an easing course (Draghi leaves his post at the end of October). However, he was reacting to a sudden and sharp drop in inflation expectations in the Eurozone, which, if not arrested, could result in a prolonged period of deflation and slack economic growth. This is in the knowledge that, dependent upon country, politicians within the Eurozone are either unwilling or unable to boost fiscal spending.

Cutting interest rates to even more negative levels and re-introducing quantitative easing will result in more of the same.

From our perspective, it is disappointing that the levers that Draghi has reached for are the same levers that he has used before which helped prop up asset prices, but did not deliver a sustained improvement in Eurozone economic activity. As we have already seen, this course of action increases inequality and promotes political populism. Cutting interest rates to even more negative levels and re-introducing quantitative easing will result in more of the same, that is: more private sector debt; more investment in riskier assets (as yield is chased); and the misallocation of capital (which is distorted by a negative ‘risk free’ rate of return). Another term for this is financial repression. If enacted, this will mean that achieving a self-sustaining level of economic growth that helps the region escape an environment of low growth and low inflation will become even more difficult.

In anticipation of significant monetary policy easing going forward, investors have bid up the price of debt, such that the value of debt now trading on a negative yield (if held to maturity) has never been higher (source: Bloomberg Barclays). Furthermore, investors have also priced in four interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve in the United States over the next twelve months.

The strong performance of the US stock market has been driven almost entirely by multiple expansion.

Equity and credit prices have responded as policy makers would have hoped. The strong performance of the US stock market has been driven almost entirely by multiple expansion as investors price in a projected lower cost of financing, rather than an anticipation that global economic growth will rebound. Indeed, earnings have been revised down consistently as the year has progressed.

The questions that now have to be answered are (a) whether the impact of this next raft of ‘co-ordinated’ stimuli from the US, the Eurozone and China has already been largely priced in and (b) whether the effect of the policy easing will have a weaker impact on the underlying economy than expected. We think the answers to both questions are probably yes, particularly if President Trump follows through with his threat to increase tariffs on Chinese imports.

Initially, investors are likely to focus on the next raft of monetary policy easing measures (which should support asset prices), particularly as the average investor is fairly defensively positioned and may be pushed into adding more risk as another bout of financial repression takes hold.

Despite the cuts to earnings forecasts that analysts have made to date, forecast earnings growth for 2020 over 2019 continues to look over ambitious.

Nonetheless, numerous economically sensitive companies have reported relatively disappointing trading performances year to date and are relying on a strong second half to deliver results in line with previous management guidance. This will be difficult to achieve. Despite the cuts to earnings forecasts that analysts have made to date, forecast earnings growth for 2020 over 2019 continues to look over ambitious and this may become a material issue towards the end of 2019. As a result, we’ve started to take advantage of high asset prices to take some equity risk off the table.

The Brexit issue has moved into its next reincarnation as the new Prime Minister takes the government’s helm. With promises to cut taxes and increase spending as well as ramping up the possibility of a no deal Brexit, it is difficult to see international investors returning to buy UK assets in the near term particularly as the probability of another general election is rising. The risk therefore to UK based investors’ global multi-asset portfolio values, that Sterling strength would engender, seems relatively limited in the near term. This situation is of course highly fluid and we remain ready to react accordingly as the facts change.

Cornelian Investment Team

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