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Market Update – February 2024

Summary

  • A generally positive month for equities
  • But a negative month for bonds as investors’ rate expectations shift
  • Economic data remains strong, but surprises are possible

 

February saw a bifurcation between equity and bond returns, with generally positive moves for global equity markets driven by strong corporate earnings reports, while fixed income came under pressure again as economic data remained resilient and expectations for interest rate cuts were pushed further out into 2024.

The first chart below shows equity market returns in pound terms during February, with outliers to the up and downside. One positive story to immediately pull out here is that of Chinese equities (dark purple line), where we saw a gain of more than 9% during the month. Having hit a five-year low coming into February, activity data over the Luna New Year holiday period showed good strength, and this, combined with more supportive interventions from the Chinese government boosted sentiment.

Given how far the Chinese index has fallen over the last year, this barely moves the dial in terms of relative returns, and valuations remain extremely cheap, but with the news getting less bad, we see this as a positive development, and we remain optimistic on the region’s prospects.

As written about last month, the Chinese government have been steadily introducing explicit and implicit stimulus and stabilisation measures, including restrictions on securities lending for short selling, easing of real estate restrictions, greater access to credit for real estate related companies, and the possibility of sovereign bond issuance to fund national projects. China’s National People’s Congress is taking place at the time of writing, and with growth targets and strategies often announced here, we can reasonably expect support to continue to flow.

Elsewhere, somewhat inevitably, we saw strong performance from US equities broadly (green line) and from the growth and technology-focused Nasdaq index (pink line) in particular, returning 6.0% and 7.0% respectively. During the month we saw quarterly earnings results from the ‘Magnificent 7’ tech stocks, which resulted in some extraordinary performance from a couple of members of this exclusive club; Meta and Nvidia.

Meta jumped by 20% on its 2nd February results day, which was the largest one day market cap gain for any stock in history, before promptly being beaten by Nvidia a couple of weeks later which itself jumped by around 16% on its own results day, adding some $277bn of market cap in one day. To put that into context, $277bn is over $20bn more than the market cap of the entire UK listed investment trusts universe of c.$250bn, and not far off the entire FTSE 250’s market cap.

These largest technology-focused companies’ share prices have been driven by the AI narrative over the past year, but despite strong earnings reports, expectations for future growth keep moving higher. Per the chart below, the largest ten stocks in the S&P 500 are trading on a multiple of roughly 30x forward earnings, with these earnings already expected by investors to expand much faster than the rest of the index. This compares to around 18x forward earnings for the remainder of the S&P 500, where earnings expectations are more modest, but still in themselves elevated in absolute terms and relative to other regions.

Meeting these earnings expectations will in part depend on whether AI lives up to current hype.  While the speed of rollout and adoption of AI is impressive, its eventual impact is hard to confidently forecast at this stage:

Finally in equities, the UK performed relatively poorly during the month following a -0.3% (quarter-on-quarter) fourth quarter GDP print that showed the UK falling into a technical recession in 2023. Despite this, we think that the fundamental and macroeconomic backdrop for the UK is positive; the labour market is strong, the housing market seems to be picking back up again, consumers have got a lot of savings they can still deploy, and important leading indicators are strong, indeed stronger than most other major nations.

In fixed income, once again high yield bonds (yellow line), which of course are much more closely linked to equities than government bonds in terms of their risk return profile, outperformed, while more traditional government and investment grade corporate bonds underperformed, as we saw signs that inflation might not be completely under control continued, and central banks started to push back on rate cut narratives given continued economic strength.

Given the recent strength in economic data, we have seen a repricing of investors’ expectations with regards interest rate cuts as the chart below shows, which was the main driver of weakness particularly in the government bond space. The chart highlights the pathway for US interest rates that investors now expect (red line) vs what was expected at the end of December 2023 (blue line), with fewer and later rate cuts now priced in.

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – January 2024

Summary

  • A mixed start to the year for equities
  • Bond markets fell as investors parred back rate cut expectations 
  • Oil Prices rallied as tensions mounted in the Middle East

 

Listen to the audio version

Discover more insights from our Divisional Director, Peter Donaldson, and Investment Manager, Imogen Hambly as they delve deeper into last month’s market update.

Listen now

 

In contrast to the broad-based rally that we saw in markets through Q4 2023, asset class returns were far more mixed during January, as investors sought to reassess their interest rate assumptions, pushing back the expected date of that all-important first rate cut.

Across developed markets, data releases continued to show economic resilience, with consumers still spending, housing markets still active, and government stimulus packages providing ongoing support to the corporate sector. Strong activity levels led inflation to surprise to the upside in December, although it remained on its downward trend. This offered sufficient evidence to support interest rate cuts through 2024, but forced traders to rethink when those cuts will begin, with central bankers eager to ensure they do not cut rates too early and reignite the fire of high inflation.

Against this relatively positive macroeconomic backdrop, equity markets returned a varied set of results, with the global equity index gaining 0.7% in sterling terms.

While developed markets were generally buoyed by the encouraging growth data, issues within the Chinese market led to losses across broad emerging market and Asian equities, despite announcements by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) of a range of new stimulus measures.

Within fixed income, the re-adjustment in interest rate expectations weighed on returns from government and corporate bonds, with the global aggregate bond index falling 1.3%, in GBP, through the month. Other rate sensitive areas also struggled as short-term bond yields moved up. Most notably, real estate and small-cap equities both posted losses.

As tensions escalated across the Middle East, commodity markets performed well, with the Bloomberg Commodity index gaining 0.5%, in pound terms, and global oil prices rallying. Despite ongoing disruption through the Suez Canal and the consequent impact to global shipping, for now, aggregate commodity prices remain below levels seen at the start of the Israel – Gaza conflict.

As the chart above shows, at a regional level, Japanese equities (in dark blue) retained their upward momentum from 2023, outperforming other regions and gaining 7.0% in local currency terms, or 4.7% in sterling, with the strength of the pound weighing on translated returns. Across Japan, stocks are continuing to benefit from positive investor sentiment, driven by a number of factors, including low inflation, a positive growth outlook, and policy driven corporate reform.

Elsewhere, the US technology index, the Nasdaq (in pink), had another strong month, gaining 4.6% in GBP and driving the broad US S&P 500 index (in green) higher. From an earnings perspective, recent results indicate a general decline in US profit margins through Q4, however from a macroeconomic standpoint, data continues to hold up well across the region, with employment and wage growth figures pointing towards a robust labour market, while December’s GDP print came in above consensus expectations. In combination, although downside pressures are beginning to filter through, optimism around a ‘soft-landing’ scenario still appears to be supporting the region’s stock market.

Across Europe and the UK, the prospect of higher-for-longer interest rates weighed on returns. European equities (in light purple) were positive in local currency terms, but flat in pound terms, while UK equities gave back a portion of the gains we saw through the latter months of last year.

As noted previously, it was another difficult month for the Chinese market (in dark purple), with equities failing to show any kind of positive price action. The aforementioned policy announcements made by the government and the PBOC through January were designed to provide support to the economy, the real estate sector, and the stock market. However, despite their best intentions, the short-term effect of the policies was to underscore concerns about an economic recovery that is being hampered by an ongoing property crisis, deflation, and weak consumer confidence. Poor performance from China filtered through to the broad Asia ex Japan (in yellow) and Emerging Market (in red) indices, where GBP returns through the month were -4.0% and -3.7%, respectively.

In bond markets, it was a return to the trend we saw through 2023 with high yield and global credit outperforming government bonds, as traders sought to balance the ongoing strength of economies with falling inflation data, ultimately parring back their bets on Q1 interest rate cuts and leading government bond yields to rise.

As the chart above indicates, the move upwards in government bond yields hurt much of the fixed income space, notably US Treasuries (in black) and UK gilts (in dark blue), which fell -0.4% and -2.2%, respectively. The Global High Yield index (in yellow), however, rose 0.3% through the month, benefitting from the more positive macro picture, and the resulting reduction in spreads. US Credit (in pink) also outperformed, eking out a positive return of 0.1%. Again, this comes as a result of reported economic resilience across the US.

Ultimately, the month saw market participants interpret the strength of the economic data as a clear indication that rate cuts are not yet required. Consequently, it was no surprise that central banks across the US, UK and Europe held interest rates steady, with, US Federal Reserve Chair, Jay Powell, turning uncharacteristically specific in his January press conference, stating that a rate cut as early as March is unlikely.

In spite of the more hawkish tone adopted by central banks through the month, it is still generally accepted that inflation levels are falling back to target, as shown below, and while aggregate GDP growth levels are slowing, economies are not likely to enter into deep recessions – meaning rate cuts can come during 2024, and they can do so at a considered pace.

Per the above, there is little denying that the inflation picture is beginning to look relatively healthy, with both core and headline figures moving in the right direction across emerging and developed markets. January has however drawn a spotlight towards the inflationary risks that are present in within the global economy right now.

Commodity prices provided a strong disinflationary force through the latter months of 2023, with falling energy prices benefitting corporates and individuals alike.

Year to date though, escalating tensions across the Middle East and Red Sea have not only pushed up oil prices, but have added to shipping disruptions, with delays and rising costs beginning to intensify.

Encouragingly, corporates are so far managing to absorb these inflationary impulses through healthy inventory levels and well diversified energy systems. What’s more, Western economies are now benefitting from imported Chinese disinflation. As such, while activity levels in China remain depressed, it is likely that goods and commodity prices in the region are going to continue to fall and China will remain a disinflationary force, able to counteract the more inflationary geopolitical factors.

After what was an exciting end to 2023, the new year has started with a little less enthusiasm as investors have sought to digest the implications of December’s strong activity data, against a backdrop of falling inflation and mounting geopolitical risks. Despite this pick up in volatility, there remain plenty of opportunities across different asset class, but as always, diversification will remain key as we try to navigate this highly changeable market environment.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – Review of 2023 and 2024 outlook

Fairstone Portfolio Manager, Harry Scargill explores market insights with his 2023 review and 2024 outlook.

Gain a comprehensive overview of the market’s unexpected twists and turns, followed by a look into what to anticipate in the coming year.

 

Review of 2023

Many readers will remember that coming into 2023, it was consensus from economists that we would see some, if not all, of the developed world enter a recession. A poll by the FT showed that in December of 2022, 80% of economists polled thought that we would be in a recession by the end of 2023, while some thought we were already in one at the time. We can now safely say that those predictions were wrong. Instead, throughout 2023, we saw unemployment stay low, consumer spending remain resilient and revisions for full year GDP, particularly in the US, revised consistently upwards.

So, the recession never came and economic data across the developed world was better than expected. This therefore sets up for a good backdrop for equities – and it turns out, despite not feeling like it for much of the year, that 2023 was a good year for most risk assets. Below, we are showing returns, in sterling, for some major indexes across the full year. We have the Nasdaq that gained 46%, driven by excitement around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the hope that we will soon be seeing lower rates in the US as inflation came under control. Followed by the, also tech heavy, World Growth index at 32%, then the broader S&P with a gain of 17%, India, Japan and Europe around 13%, global smaller companies at 9%, the FTSE 100 at a lower, but respectable, 8%, and then emerging markets up 4%. Asia finished flat and then the major outlier of Chinese equities, down 16%.

2023 has just shown how difficult it is to predict markets and economies, particularly as we still unwind issues from the pandemic and the considerable stimulus that came with it. We simply just don’t have precedent for an environment like this and how it may affect asset classes. So, despite many major events happening, accompanied by lots of very negative headlines, equities actually performed pretty well. The key therefore is to remain invested, stick to long-term planning, and allow the power of compounding to work in your favour.

As previously mentioned, a lot of the gains in markets this year have been driven by the rise of Chat-GPT, and what that could mean for wider use of AI advancements and who the winners of that story would be. Thus far, the main winners have been named as the “Magnificent 7”, which as a group consists of Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Nvidia, Amazon, Meta (Facebook) and Tesla. These 7 stocks are now the 7 largest in the global equity index, accounting for 30% of the US index, and as a group gained around 106% (in USD) in 2023.

Turning to fixed income, much like equities, bonds battled through a difficult and volatile year, but ended in positive territory across all major indexes that we are showing below. The best performing index here is high yield bonds, gaining 13.7%, which came as a surprise to most investors, as this was an asset class many expected to be weak this year. This is a similar story for the equities, given the poor sentiment in this asset class coming into the year, economic resilience has really boosted returns of those invested. We have seen defaults rising through the year, but remaining low in context of history. However, despite this strong run, investors do remain somewhat cautious of high yield bonds due to spreads being very narrow compared to history and the difficulty it will likely face if the economy does begin to roll over.

We then have sterling credit, gaining 9.5%, global corporates up 9.1%, US corporates up 8.1% and European corporates up 7.5%. Again, benefitting from attractive starting yields and boosts from economic resilience.

The laggards are sterling Gilts, which rallied very strongly from November to end positive, having spent most of the year in negative territory, and up 3.4%. Around the same level of returns from US treasuries and slightly behind the global index-linked market.

Outlook for 2024

As we look out to 2024, we enter with cautious optimism across equity and bond markets. The key question remains whether we have pulled forward a lot of the good news from 2024 into 2023, and whether we may still get the economic impact of the rate rises felt across the economy. Or whether we will truly enter a new growth cycle and the market has every right to be optimistic.

All eyes will continue to be focussed on inflation, unemployment and GDP growth, as a guide as to where central bank interest rates may be headed. Current consensus is that inflation will continue to move lower through this year, in a fairly stable manner, with the US and Europe ending the year close to the 2% target, and the UK still a little higher. Investors therefore hope that this will allow central banks to declare victory on their battle with inflation, and lower rates to a less restrictive level. Markets are currently pricing in around six 0.25% cuts in the US across 2024, which is double the guidelines provided by the Fed. The market is also expecting these cuts to happen in the first half of the year, maybe even in March, whereas the Fed has suggested they would come closer to the end of the year.

However, it remains key to understand what the cause of these cuts could be, as markets will react very differently based on whether the cuts are coming from a strong economic backdrop while inflation remains low, or whether we will need to cut rates to support a weaker economy. Many strategists are also making the point of why we would even want rate cuts if the economic data is still strong with low inflation, and that central banks might leave that option in their back pocket for any future issues that will inevitably crop up.

Entering 2024, we have valuations of equities looking fairly cheap in many regions, particularly the UK and Emerging Markets, which trade at a discount to the rest of the developed world and when compared against their long-term averages. We also have bonds providing very attractive yields, even at the lower risk end of the market, which should provide a good level of support for balanced portfolios. This provides investors with a relatively positive backdrop, alongside tailwinds such as AI, the green transition and potentially lower interest rates. We therefore continue to strongly believe that it is key for investors to remain diversified, and that while there are reasons to be more cheerful, there are still significant risks at play. Particularly given the fact we have both UK and US general elections likely to happen in the final quarter of the year.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – December 2023

Summary

  • A strong finish to the year for equities and bonds
  • Despite the volatility, most major asset classes ended 2023 positively
  • The market now looks forward to potential rate cuts in 2024

 

The positive sentiment from November carried on through December, as both equity and bond markets ended the year in in good spirits. The global equity index ended up 4.3%, which combined with the growth in November led to gains of 14% in the final two months of the year.

The significant driver of the returns for both bonds and equities was due to the continued downward trend of inflation seen across key markets. It was a similar story as to last month, with investors cheering the idea of inflation steadily moving back towards central bank target levels of 2%. This month’s numbers showed that in the US, inflation fell again to 3.1% from 3.2% in November, which led to the Federal Reserve (Fed), in their December meeting, outlining that rate hikes in the US are likely to now be behind us, and that we might see rate cuts in 2024.

Closer to home, we saw both the Bank of England (BOE) and European Central Bank (ECB) hold rates steady, following similar positive data relating to their inflation readings. UK CPI fell to 3.9%, from 4.6% in the previous month, whereas in Europe, headline inflation fell to 2.4%, the lowest figure for 2 years.

As the chart above shows, the strongest equity market in December was again the FTSE 250, gaining 9.2%, which replaced November as the strongest month of the year for the index. Elsewhere in the UK, the FTSE 100 also performed well, gaining 3.7%, which put it in the middle of the pack.

Continuing the trend of the year, we also saw strong performance from the technology heavy Nasdaq index, gaining 5.5%, with the wider S&P 500 not far behind at 4.4%. The S&P actually finished the year on a streak of 9 positive weeks in a row, the longest since 2004. This meant that as we closed out 2023, we sat with those two indexes trading very close to all-time highs. Asian equities also performed well, gaining 4.5%, following a rally in the last week of the year. The story was the same for Emerging Markets, which finished in line with European equities in gaining just below 4%.

The laggard was China, which despite a late rally lost 2.6% in December. We also saw Japanese equities lagging, with a fall of 0.6%, following a very strong year for that market.

Much like equities, major bond indexes also finished the year very well, as shown in the graph above. It was a very good month for UK based bonds, with Gilts as the best performer, gaining 5.8%, followed by sterling corporate bonds which gained 5%.

We then have a cluster of indexes all increasing in the low-to-mid 4% range, which includes global inflation-linked bonds, global high yield, as well as global and US corporate bonds. Assets that still performed well but lagged were US treasuries at 3.4%, and European Government bonds and Corporate Credit which gained 3.6% and 2.7% respectively.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – November 2023

Summary

  • Strong economic momentum supported equity markets
  • Bond yields fell, leading to gains across fixed income
  • Expectations increased that ‘peak rates’ have been reached

 

Positive sentiment was seen across global markets through November, with the global equity index closing up 8.1%, in what was the best month for equities in three years. Across developed markets, early signs that inflation levels are moderating and will retreat back to target levels through next year are providing investors with a good deal of confidence. Furthermore, recent data releases continue to reflect economic resilience, helping to reinforce the view that central banks have reached a peak in their rate hiking cycles, and may in fact move to cut interest rates sooner than was previously anticipated.

This adjustment in interest rate expectations provided a positive boost for both government and corporate bonds, leading the global aggregate bond index to gain 5.0% through the month. With bond yields in retreat, growth-oriented equities outperformed their value counterparts, while small- and mid-caps also rallied.

Elsewhere, movements in bond yields benefited real estate equities – however commodity markets suffered through the month. Despite ongoing tensions across the Middle East, elevated levels of oil output from both the US and the OPEC+ nations pushed the oil price lower, providing another source of positive impulse for global equities.

Gold was a notable outlier within the commodity index, continuing its upward trend from last month and closing November at a level very close to its all-time high. Throughout 2023, the gold price has shaken off the negative price pressures associated with higher real yields, instead rallying on the growing level of demand that has come from central banks looking to diversify their reserve assets.

As the chart above shows, equity returns across most major regions were positive, led by the UK’s mid-cap biased FTSE 250 index (in light blue), which posted its best month of the year, adding 6.9%. In contrast, the UK’s large cap index, the FTSE 100 index (the orange line), had a somewhat more lacklustre period, posting a modest gain of 1.8%, with the latter’s tilt towards commodities and value equities driving its relative underperformance.

In the US, the technology-heavy Nasdaq index (in pink) benefitted strongly from the pull back in bond yields, adding a further 6.6% (in GBP) through November. In local currency terms the Nasdaq gained almost 10.7% through the period, with the broad S&P 500 index (in light purple) also gaining a very respectable 8.9% in USD – however, a strengthening of the UK pound versus the US dollar led UK investors to experience lower translated returns.

Chinese equities (dark purple line) had another difficult month, falling 1.4% in pound terms and bringing year to date returns to -13.5%. While the region’s stock market continues to come under pressure from slowing growth, it would be remiss to forget that China is an $18 trillion economy, that is highly integrated into the global market. Its dominance pans numerous sectors, with the country responsible for the manufacture of 80% of the world’s solar panels and in control of 75% of global battery cell production. It is not, therefore, a region that should be written off as the result of a period of sub-par returns.

What’s more, November played host to a much-anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. Tensions between the two regions have been running high for some years now, but early reflections on this meeting show it to have been constructive – with agreements made relating to climate change and military cooperation. Although this leaves countless trade barriers in place between the two countries, the direction of travel here is important, and in the longer term should help boost both Chinese, and global, equity markets.

In fixed income, falling yields led to strong price rises across the asset class. Having noted last month that yields on US 10-year Treasuries pushed above 5% for the first time since 2007, late November saw them fall back below 4.4%, reflecting the market’s growing conviction that the Federal Reserve will begin cutting interest rates as soon as March 2024.

This drop in government bond yields swiftly filtered through to corporate credit, as the above chart indicates, with US corporate bonds (in pink) outperforming and posting gains of 6.0%. Strong data releases, indicative of positive economic momentum, also benefitted investment grade and high yield credit, with spread compression seen across global bond markets. While recent months have seen spreads on US corporate bonds trade in line with their 20-year medians, November’s strong performance has led to a narrowing in spread levels, again suggestive of the market’s positive outlook for the US economy as we move towards the new year.

At both a corporate and government level, movements in European bond prices were slightly more subdued through the month, albeit gains were still made. While inflation across the Eurozone is clearly retreating, growth in the region remains depressed, with manufacturing activity data still sitting deep into contractionary territory and reports that European corporates are beginning to react by reducing staffing levels for the first time since 2021.

However, per the above chart, if we look out to next year, GDP growth across the Eurozone is expected to turn a corner and post an increase, as compared to this year – bucking the trend of other global regions. What this indicates, is that different regions are now at different stages in their respective cycles, which as we move through 2024, will provide an element of support to global growth as a whole.

From an investment perspective, we look to this as a source of optimism. Not only are we nearing the bottom of the cycle in some areas, but subdued stock market returns across numerous regions mean attractively valued, high quality companies, are not hard to find. While volatility will also certainly remain elevated, by retaining a clear focus on quality, valuation and upside potential, we believe there are ample reasons to enter the new year with an element of positivity.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – October 2023

Summary

  • October saw roundly negative returns across global equity markets
  • Better fortunes for ex-US fixed income
  • Precious metals perform well amidst geopolitical uncertainty

 

Listen to the audio version

Discover more insights from our Divisional Director, Peter Donaldson, and Investment Director, Oliver Stone as they delve deeper into last month’s market update.

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There was little positive news in October for equities. As the first chart below shows, equity indices fell to a greater or lesser extent through the month.  Losses were driven by the prospect of ‘higher for longer’ interest rates which hurt equity valuations, while the Israel-Hamas conflict dampened risk appetite. Developed market equities outperformed emerging market equities over the month, growth stocks proved relatively resilient versus their value counterparts, and large-cap companies outperformed small-caps, all of which continued the trend of 2023.

Commodities were a notable outperformer during the month, with prices reversing some of their year-to-date losses on the back of the tragic events that unfolded in the Middle East. Oil prices rallied amid concerns that an escalation into a wider regional conflict could disrupt oil supply, but most notably we saw a flight to gold as a safe haven, whose price rose by 8.5% in pound terms (black line).

The gold price is currently hovering around the $2,000/oz mark again despite real interest rates and the US dollar having moved higher, showing that it’s still a genuine hedge for geopolitical risk:

Europe (purple line) was marginally the best performing region, just pipping the US (green line) to top spot despite falling by around 2%, with UK large-caps (orange line – FTSE 100) also there or thereabouts in falling by 2.5%. US indices wobbled towards the end of the month as some of the “Magnificent 7’s” Q3 earnings reports disappointed investors, but they rallied into the end of the month and have started November extremely strongly.

October saw a flurry of data signalling the resilience of the US economy, including a blockbuster jobs report, strong retail sales data and a blowout GDP print of 4.9% annualised for the third quarter. Inflation came in hotter-than-expected, with the headline figure flat at 3.7% year on year in September, against expectations of a slight moderation.

Chinese equities (dark purple line) were weak once again, falling by 4.5% despite there being some positive upside surprises in their third quarter GDP numbers, industrial production and retail sales. Nonetheless, continued weakness in the real estate sector, and reports of new US restrictions on AI chip exports to China further dampened market sentiment, and China’s poor performance dragged down the MSCI Asia ex-Japan Index (yellow line) and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (dark orange line), which both fell by mor than 4% on the month.

In fixed income, returns from US-focused indices were negative, but we saw brighter spots elsewhere, as the second chart below shows. During the month the US 10-year Treasury yield pushed above 5% for the first time since 2007, driven by a combination of buoyant economic data making ‘higher for longer’ rates look increasingly likely, and concerns around the sustainability of government finances. A move higher in yields was seen throughout the global government bond market and in credit, widening spreads dented monthly returns for both investment grade and high yield bond markets.

US Treasuries (black line) fell by 0.65% during the month, with similar losses seen for global investment grade corporate bonds (purple line) and high yield bonds (yellow line); both of which indices are dominated by US exposure.

But elsewhere there were positive returns, with European (green line) and UK government bonds (dark blue line) outperforming, and rising by 0.86 and 0.66% respectively, after central banks paused rate hikes again during the month.

Outside of financial markets, attention was fixed on the tragic events unfolding in the Middle East where a surprise attack was carried out in early October by Hamas on Israel with truly appalling, indiscriminate killings of civilians and hostage taking, which has resulted in a strong retaliation by Israel via a ground invasion of Gaza.

The key question for investors is to try and understand how widely the conflict will spread, and what impact it may have on global markets, with the third chart below from the team at Alpine Macro succinctly illustrating a range of potential scenarios that are probabilistically weighted:

The Alpine team ascribe a 70% probability to the first scenario at the top of the chart unfolding – a limited regional escalation – which will and has seen an Israeli ground invasion coupled with already mounting international pressure to limit the conflict as casualties mount. There will and have been threats from other regional actors – namely Iran and Hezbollah – to escalate, but this scenario expects minimal regional escalation, avoiding a major regional war.

The rationale for this is that the U.S. has already deployed significant naval and marine forces to the Eastern Mediterranean, providing a deterrent, and that despite most Arab states supporting the Palestinian cause, there is little appetite for an expanded war, or for that matter a victory for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran.

Moving to the second and third scenarios, these carry a much higher level of risk and could create significant market turmoil. While they do carry a low level of probability, scenarios that involve an escalation of conflict drawing in more actors, and particularly ones that directly involve Iran, must be considered given the potential impacts on notably the global oil price. Any attack on Iranian infrastructure and resulting escalation would disrupt Persian Gulf oil exports, and potentially draw the U.S. into the fray.

For now, there has been limited escalation outside of the main protagonists, but risks remain, and regardless of any market outcomes these events add to the wave of geopolitical risk we’re seeing unfolding more widely.

Looking ahead to the final months of 2023, it remains key to be diversified across asset classes, strategies and geographies as volatility is likely to remain elevated. October saw major central bank meetings take place in Europe, UK, US and Japan, with governors all ‘pausing’ interest rate hikes, but still at pains to point out their fight against inflation is not yet won, and to expect rates to remain higher for longer.

The lagged effects of much tighter monetary policy globally are still only slowly starting to filter through to the real economy, and market conditions may well continue to be fractious. Despite this uncertainty, we still see many good looking opportunities across the financial landscape, particularly within unloved parts of the equity market which should play out over the medium term and reward patient investors.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – September 2023

Summary

  • September saw mixed returns across global equity markets
  • US tech equities have a rare negative month
  • Bonds continue to struggle

 

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Discover more insights from our Divisional Director, Peter Donaldson, and Investment Director, Oliver Stone as they delve deeper into last month’s market update.

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We saw a mixed month for equities in the round, with weakness in several regions obscured by a very strong last trading day of September as the first chart below shows; indicative of quarter-end rebalancing. The UK’s FTSE 100 index (orange line) rose most by 2.3%, with performance driven by gains from more cyclical, value stocks, helped along by a weaker pound. Energy stocks performed particularly well, with the oil price having risen by around 30% since its June lows. As a reminder the FTSE 100 is heavily exposed to that sector to the tune of around 15%.

The UK has been receiving a modicum of positive press recently, with the FTSE 100 making headlines in regaining its status as Europe’s largest stock market by market cap, and with some strategists starting to recommend a tilt towards it as the inflation picture here finally starts to look more controlled. Valuations remain highly compelling across a range of metrics, both in the FTSE 100 and even more so in the mid-cap focused FTSE 250 index, which had another poor month (light blue line) despite a last day bounce. With outflows from UK equity funds continuing, and survey data showing global fund managers are very underweight the UK, we feel that there is scope for significant improvement here.

Elsewhere, the US tech-focused Nasdaq index (pink line) struggled this month, falling by 2.3% as US bond yields continued to rise amidst continued hawkish rhetoric from central bankers. The US Federal Reserve kept interest rates on hold at their September meeting but again made it abundantly clear that investors need to get used to the idea of higher rates for longer. US equities in local currency terms had their worst month since September 2022; not helped by worries around another potential US government shutdown, which despite being avoided over the 30th September weekend, has since precipitated the ousting of Kevin McCarthy from his House speaker role, and raised renewed shutdown risks for November:

Fixed income markets had few bright spots to speak of in September, despite central banks beginning to signal that they are coming to the end of their rate hiking cycles. As the second chart below shows, performance was weak across the board, with bonds globally seeing their worst month in 2023, and government bond yields taking out some long standing records during the month.

UK Gilts (blue line) were the best performing developed market government bond index, falling by 1.0% and erasing gains enjoyed earlier in the month from a lower than expected inflation print and a ‘pause’ from the Bank of England. US Treasuries fell by 2.2%, with the yield on a 10 year Treasury at one point in September rising above 4.6%; the highest point since 2007.

Once again, the most significant weakness came from global inflation linked bonds (light blue line), which fell by 4.0%. This part of the market has a particularly high level of sensitivity to interest rate expectations due to its generally long-dated maturity nature, and with yields rising over the month, it was hard hit.

As mentioned above, a hot topic of conversation today is whether we have reached the end of central banks’ rate hiking cycles, and by extension, a peak for interest rates. The third chart below shows headline interest rate levels for a wide range of countries and regions, and after nearly two years of aggressive, rapid rate hikes, it shows what could be interpreted as a set of burgeoning plateaus:

Central banks’ sole focus remains on returning headline inflation back to target. However, given the progress made on rate hikes, and with headline inflation generally now beginning to slow, policy rates in most economies are now more likely than not close to peaking. After the massive overshoot of inflation targets we would expect central banks to tread cautiously in terms of future rate hikes, but to likely err on the side of keeping rates higher for longer.

Of key importance is that investors and businesses are beginning to believe this rhetoric, as the fourth chart below shows. This chart illustrates survey data from a wide selection of global businesses, with the bars representing the proportion of respondents that believe each of the three major central banks will start to cut rates by the end of 2023. The light blue bars are the responses from June this year, and the dark blue bars are September’s responses, with a huge shift in beliefs being apparent over this short space of time – surveyed business leaders’ expectations for early rate cuts have collapsed as central bank rhetoric continues to be stoically hawkish.

Of course, we must remember that monetary policy is, as history suggests, about tightening until something breaks. If a financial crisis or a recession breaks out, interest rates will have to come down fast, though if inflation is still above target as and when that happens, central banks will face an interesting dilemma.

Looking ahead to the final quarter of 2023, it remains key to be diversified across asset classes, strategies and geographies as volatility is likely to remain elevated. In the first days of October we have seen large intraday swings in equity, bond and commodities markets, and with the lagged effects of much tighter monetary policy only slowly starting to filter through to the real economy (amongst other factors), market conditions may well continue to be fractious. Despite this uncertainty, we still see many good looking opportunities across the financial landscape, particularly within unloved parts of the equity market which should play out over the medium term and reward patient investors.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – August 2023

Summary

  • August saw negative returns across global equity markets
  • Asian and Emerging Markets struggled following weak Chinese equity performance
  • Government bonds continued to underperform

 

Global equity markets returns were largely negative through August, with the global equity index losing 1.2%, in local currency terms. On a regional basis, Asia and emerging markets underperformed, largely due to a swing back towards negative sentiment in Chinese equities. In pound terms, the MSCI Emerging Markets index (shown below in red) and MSCI Asia ex Japan index (below in yellow) were both down 4.9%.

Elsewhere we saw strong relative performance from US and Japanese equity markets, following the trends we have seen for the majority of the year so far. Japanese equities have , as well as positive equity market reforms.

Looking at the US market, August brought a close to the Q2 earnings season, with particularly close attention paid to , the semiconductor design business, who reported on the 23rd of August, stating very strong growth in both revenues and profits for Q2, . The question remains, how much of this future growth is now priced into the shares, with the company now valued at over $1 trillion

Looking at the bond market, we saw major indices finish , with significant volatility throughout the month as conflicting economic data pulled markets in different directions. Below you can see that Gilts, in dark blue, struggled through most of the month, as the market digested the recent inflation data that came in at 6.8%. This was largely in line with expectations but not as low as some had hoped. This confirmed that we will likely see another hike of interest rates at the Bank of England’s next policy meeting later in September. However, Gilts then rebounded significantly towards the end of the month as investors felt these were now too oversold and weaker than expected economic data put a ceiling on how much further these rate hikes were likely to go.

The most significant weakness came from the Global Inflation-Linked index, in light blue, which has a high level of duration and is therefore the most sensitive to interest rate expectations. The poor performance came from stronger than expected economic data in the US, which prompted investors to price in interest rates being “higher for longer”. This view had further fuel added when Jerome Powell, Chair of the Federal Reserve, commented that they would stick to their mantra of “getting the job done” on inflation at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium. These comments and the economic data pushed US Government Bond yields up, and their prices down, particularly those bonds with a longer duration (10 to 30 years).

However, as you can see from the above chart, the Global Inflation-Linked index then rallied over the last few days of the month. This was due to weaker than expected labour related data from the JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) report, which led investors to think it was less likely that we would see another interest rate hike during 2023.  This highlights the difficulties that investors are facing in the current environment with conflicting data points moving prices quite significantly and all within a couple of weeks.

The charts below show the US Federal Reserve interest rate expectations that were being priced into the market in January 2023 (left) and then as of August 2023 (right).

As you can see, the January expectations suggested we would have taken rate hikes too far by now, and the Fed would have been forced to cut to lower than 5%. However, this has clearly not been the case, as rates are above that 5% level and expected to stay above unti mid-2024. As mentioned in last month’s report, the end of the rate hiking cycle is something both equity and bond investors are keeping a keen eye open for.

The other key topic of conversation this month was the ongoing issues with China’s property market, as the troubled developer Evergrande filed for bankruptcy, and The Country Garden reported record losses. The issues started when the Chinese Government decided to regulate the level of debt these developers were allowed to have; a problem that was then compounded as property sales have continued to slow. Officials have incrementally dialled up support for the market, by lowering mortgage rates and relaxing home-purchase restrictions in smaller cities, but to no significant effect yet.

We believe Chinese policymakers are trying to reduce the economy’s reliance on real estate over the long term, which would explain their reluctance, so far, to pursue a major property-market stimulus. Instead, they are opting for more targeted stimulus in order to hopefully place the economy on a healthier trend over the medium-long-term.

Looking ahead, we feel it remains key to be diversified across asset classes and regional equity allocations. August has been a great example of how economic data can pull markets, quite significantly, in different directions in the short-term as conflicting data is digested by investors. With regards to equities, we feel it is important to stay focussed on valuations, underlying earnings growth and corporate cost controls, as this will likely provide portfolios with more protection should global growth continue to trend downwards while interest rates remain elevated.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – July 2023

Summary

  • July saw positive returns across global equity markets
  • Asian and Emerging Markets equities benefitted from improving sentiment towards China
  • Government bonds continue to underperform

 

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Discover more insights from our Divisional Director, Peter Donaldson, and Portfolio Manager, Imogen Hambly, as they delve deeper into last month’s market update.

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Global equity markets returns were positive through July, with the global equity index gaining 3.2%, in local currency. On a regional basis, Asia and emerging markets outperformed, benefitting from a resurgence in positive sentiment towards Chinese equities. In pound terms, the MSCI Emerging Markets index (shown below in red) and MSCI Asia ex Japan index (below in yellow) had their best months since January, gaining 5.0% and 4.9%, respectively.

Elsewhere, developed market equities also posted gains, with the technology heavy Nasdaq index (the pink line above) continuing to grind upwards, adding a further 2.6%, in pound terms, through the month.

While positive, returns from European equities (shown above in purple) were slightly more lacklustre, with analysts now beginning to pare back their growth expectations, as the Eurozone flirts with a recession. Core inflation levels – that is, inflation less the more volatile food and energy components – across the region remain elevated, while manufacturing output has meaningfully slowed over the past few months and remains on a clear downward trajectory.

However, as sentiment towards Europe has weakened, that towards China has shown signs of strengthening. The past six months have seen equities across the region struggle in the face of slower than expected growth, falling exports and a burgeoning youth unemployment rate. But, despite these ongoing headwinds, July saw a number of encouraging policy developments that offer the potential to boost growth across, among others, the region’s ailing property and technology sectors. Investors welcomed this news, with positive price action seen across Chinese equities, leading to the region’s notable outperformance, per the chart below.

Moving on to the US market, where the mega cap technology stocks and those related to generative artificial intelligence have seen blowout returns over the past few months, what was witnessed through July was a far more broad-based rally in prices. The chart below shows returns of the US based S&P 500 market cap weighted index (the line in black) versus the S&P 500 equally weighted index (in red).

Through early Q2, the market cap weighted index saw a distinct uptick in returns versus the equally weighted index, indicating a concentrated rally in the largest companies. June and July, however, have seen the two indices move in tandem, with the equally weighted index slightly outperforming of late, raising hopes that this will be a more sustainable rally in US equity prices.

As interest rates continue to rise though and the effects of past rate hikes start to be felt, so do downward pressures on growth, corporate earnings, and broad equity markets.

Both the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (the ECB) raised their policy rates by a further 25bps during July, a move that takes the ECB’s headline interest rate to its highest level in 22 years. Across Europe, the US, and the UK, Central banks have undertaken one of the fast rate hiking cycles on record as they fight to quell sticky inflation levels. But, with growth weakening and inflation levels moderating, as the chart below indicates, terminal rate expectations are now stabilising and even reversing, as is the case for the Bank of England (the blue line)

The end of the rate hiking cycle is something both equity and bond investors are keeping a keen eye open for.

On the whole, bond investors are looking through the slowdown in growth and are instead taking solace from strong labour market and consumer spending data, as well as the number of healthy corporate earnings reports that came out during the Q2 reporting season. Through July, this meant we once again saw outperformance from the higher risk portion of market, with high yield bonds (shown below in yellow) gaining 2.0%, while global investment grade credit (shown in purple) added 0.9%. Government bonds had another tricky period, with yields edging up – recall that bond yields and prices move in opposite directions – on the back of the aforementioned policy rate moves.

All things considered, we are seeing a lot of mixed signals from macro-economic data and markets at the moment. Across developed markets, growth and manufacturing are slowing, but labour markets are still proving extremely resilient. Corporate earnings are generally holding up, with a number of companies beating expectations recently – however, as the effects of interest rate hikes begin to bite, there are risks to the downside here.

From an investment perspective, plenty of opportunity exists across global markets, but as always, we are led to focus on a number of key factors – good quality companies, attractive valuations and above all else, diversification.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.

Market Update – June 2023

Summary

  • June saw better equity performance, with the US outperforming
  • Government bonds underperform
  • Opportunities in UK assets

 

June saw an improved month in the round for equities, with most regions positive in pound terms as the first chart below shows, but investors will have felt a sense of déjà vu from previous months as we saw yet again very strong returns for US equities at the expense of almost all other regions. The S&P 500 (green line) rose by 3.5%, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq index slightly further ahead, pushing its year-to-date gain to 25%, or nearly 32% in local currency term – streets ahead of any other major index.

At the time of writing, the Nasdaq is only around 10% from its end-2021 all-time high – a point at which we were writing about some of the most extreme valuation excesses of all time. While the drivers today are different (the profitless tech bubble remains popped for now) the longer this rally goes on, the closer we think we’ll be getting back to those extremes:

At the other end of the spectrum we saw the UK mid-cap FTSE 250 index (light blue line) falling by 1.5%, continuing its run of disappointing returns. This index is more domestically focused than the FTSE 100 and has been hit hard by poor macroeconomic news flow. However, this part of the UK market is now extremely cheap, trading on a forward price/earnings ratio of less than 10x with earnings estimates still rising.

The relative cheapness of UK equities is something we’ve touched on many times in previous notes, and despite better performance for the FTSE 100 last year, the UK market as a whole remains deeply undervalued and underowned versus other major regions. The second chart below neatly illustrates this by showing the relative valuation of the MSCI UK index versus Europe (dark blue line) and the World index (light blue line) which is heavily weighted towards US equities. The lower the line moves, the cheaper UK equities are being priced relative to their peers. In both cases it is clear that UK equities are significantly undervalued relative to history; versus Europe we need to go back to the 1970s to find a time when UK equities were similarly unloved. Importantly this all comes at a time when corporate earnings momentum in the UK remains strong:

In bonds as the third chart below shows, we saw positive returns most notably for high yield bonds (yellow line) which rose by 2.6% in line with generally positive, risk-on sentiment. In this environment government bonds struggled again, with US Treasuries falling by around 0.8% during the month. Gilts also fell by 0.5%, continuing their run of poor performance. Gilts are down around 4% in 2023 to date, while US and European equivalents are up 1.6% and 2.5% respectively:

As we’ve also spoken about in previous months, the UK has stood out this year in particular for its continued high levels of inflation and red-hot labour market. As a result, the Bank of England has now started to respond aggressively in kind, surprising markets with a 0.5% rate hike in June to bolster its inflation-fighting credibility, and backing the move up with tougher rhetoric; promising to do “what is necessary” to bring inflation back to 2%.

Investors have subsequently priced in a much higher peak for UK interest rates in 2024 of over 6% (6.5% at the time of writing) as the fourth chart below shows, and crucially they expect interest rates to stay at those elevated levels for an extended period of time. This is a much more hawkish position than was predicted just a few months ago, meaning the BoE’s actions are starting to have the desired effect:

Because of this, Gilt yields do now look relatively attractive versus US or European equivalents. The fifth chart below shows 10-year government bond yields for a range of countries, with UK Gilts (black line) currently generating a 4.4% yield; significantly in excess of other peer countries. Perhaps counterintuitively, given the BoE’s recent harder line approach, there is now a great potential for Gilts to offer some upside for investors as their actions have a greater chance now of inducing a growth and demand-led inflation slowdown:

Looking ahead, while coincident macroeconomic data remains robust, there are warning signs flashing from the global manufacturing sector, and from measures of consumer and investor sentiment. For now we still see the global economy demonstrating resilience in the face of tighter monetary and fiscal policy, but slowdowns are still forecasted for later this year and into 2024. As always, portfolio diversification remains essential.

 

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The value of investments may fluctuate in price or value and you may get back less than the amount originally invested. Past performance is not a guide to the future. The views expressed in this publication represent those of the author and do not constitute financial advice.