A Year of Two Halves

By Noel O'Halloran, Thursday, 5th January 2012 | 0 comments

Asset returns in 2012 will be positive but most likely modest. The first half of the year will remain tricky and will be similar to H2 2011, as equity markets are set to remain range bound and volatile. The two major debates surrounding the state of the global economy and the fate of the eurozone will continue to dominate. For the second half of the year, there are reasons for optimism and I expect a more positive environment.

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While not a vintage year in return terms, 2011 certainly will be remembered for its various geopolitical shocks and macroeconomic events. The first half was noteworthy for the Japanese earthquake and the Arab Spring uprisings, and the second half was dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and by fears of an economic double dip in the global economy.

For 2012 my expectation is that asset returns will be positive but most likely modest. The first half of the year will remain tricky and will be similar to H2 2011, as equity markets are set to remain range bound and volatile. The two major debates surrounding the state of the global economy and the fate of the eurozone will continue to dominate. For the second half of the year, there are reasons for optimism and I expect a more positive environment where equity markets rise to higher levels, supported by positive fundamentals from valuation and earnings. Fixed income markets should experience a trickier year and core sovereign bond markets are set to produce negative returns.

In making these forecasts, my three core assumptions remain:

  1. The global economy will survive the mid-cycle slowdown of recent quarters and we will NOT see a double dip recession.
  2. A “disaster scenario” for the eurozone will be avoided.
  3. China will avoid a hard landing in its economy. I expect growth to continue to slow but from very high levels of 10% to around 8%.

Difficult first half of year

The early months of this year will be difficult for equities.

The eurozone crisis is far from over and we are very likely to see a further bout of turbulence as a result, with Spain and Italy’s very heavy financing schedules in the first quarter being a possible catalyst. Eurozone economic data should weaken as a result.

But there are potential problems elsewhere as well. The markets will remain anxious about a “hard landing” for the Chinese economy, while banks globally will continue to de-leverage hence dampening activity, and earnings expectations will need to be revised downwards in line with slower growth figures.

Second half to be more positive environment.

As we proceed through the year a number of the risks events mentioned above will diminish. Neither economic nor earnings growth will suddenly “stop”, and the economic cycle will continue. The key support of markets remains in place, i.e. the strength of company balance sheets. Companies remain healthy and generally have very strong cash balances to deploy into merger and acquisition activity, dividend increases, or share buybacks.

Central banks will remain market friendly and I expect that emerging market central banks will loosen monetary policy, as inflation ‘rolls over’, giving central banks much more scope to ease. And in the eurozone, the recent funding facility for banks announced by the ECB is a very positive development.

Importantly, as we enter 2012, commentators are predominantly cautious and investor positioning globally appears to be neutral at best. This is actually a positive indicator for investors, indicating that many investors are already underweight their neutral benchmarks and therefore have limited scope for further selling, so there is plenty of scope for contrarian investors to be quite optimistic on this basis.

At KBI Global Investors, we continue to analyse all these fundamentals and to manage your portfolios accordingly. The market environment we envisage will require continued active portfolio management taking into account reward and associated risk.

At regional level, after a challenging 2011, emerging market equities provide a very attractive opportunity. At stock selection level, we will continue to emphasise companies with strong fundamentals, i.e. balance sheet, cash flow and management. Investing in companies with higher than average and growing dividends was a winning strategy in 2011 and I expect this to continue. Company management will continue to provide strong leadership through their actions - leadership that seems to be lacking in the political arena.

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Yesterdays winners eventually kill

Nov-22-2016
By Noel O'Halloran, Chief Investment Officer  | 0 comments

 

Over recent quarters we have seen global equity markets hitting all time highs while at the same time there has been extensive media coverage of pension fund deficits blowing apart pension schemes. While they seem quite contradictory, both of course are correct because equity market levels affect the assets of a pension scheme, while its liabilities are calculated with reference to government bond yields – the lower the yield, the higher the liabilities. With government bond yields at historic low levels until recently, liabilities rose more quickly than assets, pushing up deficits to levels that in some cases have become unsustainable.

As a result defined benefit pension trustees are under pressure to buy government bonds. I strongly challenge this and indeed increasingly over recent quarters there are trends I highlight that are dominating thinking and investment flows that make me nervous:

  • The advice to de-risk pension schemes by selling equities to buy government bonds to reduce deficits
  • The move from active to passive equity management
  • Buying yesterday’s winners

This dominance of these trends make me nervous and lead me to the old phrase - “If everybody is thinking the same, then nobody’s thinking!”.  Just as trees don’t keep growing to the sky for ever, many market  ‘winners’  do reach a crescendo of hype which means that it’s time to get nervous and take action as an investor. Remember the great investment trends such as buying dot com stocks as they soared in the early 2000s, the move into Irish property during the mid 2000s and other such ‘winning’ trades? As we all know now, it turns out they were classic investment bubbles.

Thinking the unthinkable reminds me that this month, for the second time in six months, the world has seen a dramatic political outcome that completely caught consensus off-side. And for the second time in six months, global equity markets have not only survived the aftermath, they have thrived which is the exact opposite of what the consensus would have expected.

‘Thou shalt not worship false gods’ and so what about this recommended buying of government bonds — buying yesterday’s winners? Over recent weeks we have finally witnessed a material rise in bond yields and in my view there is a strong possibility that we have begun to finally burst the global bond bull market (bubble?). Will the election of Trump be recorded in the annals as the catalyst to burst the 35-year bond bull market?

Some arguments that make me believe that a further increase in bond yields is likely to happen include an increase in growth and inflation expectations and an increase in fiscal spending which will push up government borrowing.  It makes, in my view, much more sense for pension trustees to wait and see for a period whether these factors themselves reduce pension deficits via higher bond yields, rather than buying government bonds at their current, very expensive, levels.

It’s been a peculiar world since the global financial crisis in 2008, one where investors are constantly worried about something!  Nonetheless it has been a strong equity bull market, since the first quarter of 2009. This bull market has been a difficult one for many active asset managers who have struggled to beat their index and we have therefore seen a massive redirection of investor money towards indexed equity funds – again buying yesterday’s winners?

In my view the bull market has created significant valuation dislocations in large cap stock indices today. I believe strongly that buying the index is buying the highest risk and most inflated elements of the market right now. I remember active managers making similar anti-consensus arguments about technology stocks in the early 2000s and Japan in the late 1980s---they were right and I feel similarly today. Passive management is buying yesterday’s winners. Active management is aimed at buying tomorrow’s!

Noel O’Halloran, Chief Investment Officer, KBI Global Investors

 

 

KBI Global Investors Ltd is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland and subject to limited regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK. Details about the extent of our regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority are available from us on request.

 

Eoin Fahy, Chief  Economist, KBI Global Investors shares his view following the announcement of the US Election results.

 

Although Mr Trump won by a very narrow margin in terms of total votes, the nature of the US electoral system is such that the Republican party now controls not only the presidency, but also both houses of Congress.  While markets are understandably nervous about the likely policies of the new President, and in particular his attitude to international trade, including existing trade agreements, the fact that one party controls all of the government should make it easier for legislation to pass, in sharp contrast to recent years when a divided congress made this extremely difficult. The relatively subdued response of the financial markets (at the time of writing) probably reflects at least some degree of optimism that the new administration will be able to significantly increase spending on infrastructure and reform the US corporate taxation system, again benefitting US businesses. It is also possible that a part of a possible corporate tax reform could include measures to encourage the repatriation of cash held overseas by US corporates.

Of course, the markets will be focussing on Mr Trump’s choice of key personnel (hoping to see experienced policymakers in charge of the Treasury and the State Department, for example,  as well as an indication of who Mr Trump would like to see heading the Federal Reserve when Janet Yellen’s term ends), and even more importantly will be watching closely to see if the new administration will follow through on his commitment to renege on international trade agreements and take a much tougher approach to existing, and new, trade deals. 

The president-elect’s policies on trade will be a key focus in the weeks and months ahead, in our view.  Mr Trump clearly favours new, and much more restrictive, controls on international trade, and for example, has said that he wishes to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  It is not unusual for elected politicians, however, to change their views on key issues after they have been elected, and at this stage the markets do not seem to be expecting material, significant, and adverse changes to international trade.  If, however, Mr Trump really did press ahead with radical changes to NAFTA, or indeed unilateral withdrawal from NAFTA, this would most likely come as a significant and unwelcome shock to the markets.

The president-elect also spent a great deal of time during the campaign talking about China and trade, and making it clear that he would seek to restrict/penalise some types of imports from China, and also insist that China open up its markets to more US exports of goods and services.  Again, it is difficult to say at this stage whether he will follow through on his campaign rhetoric, but disruption to the arguably the most important trade flow in the world, that between the US and China, would clearly damage world economic growth and again would not be welcomed by the markets. 

In view of the importance of trade to the incoming president and to the financial markets, it is important to note that most legal experts agree that the US president has considerable legal powers in the area of international trade, and does not necessarily need support and/or approval from Congress in order to significantly change trade policy in many important respects.

A further issue for consideration, especially for the government bond market, is that Mr Trump’s policies seem likely to push up the US budget deficit.  This, together with higher inflation resulting from higher trade barriers and/or unskilled labour shortages due to immigration restrictions, should push up bond yields somewhat, which in turn might favour stocks with a value bias.

Our conclusion is that at this very early stage, it does seem clear that the election of Mr Trump will lead to higher uncertainty and a potential for significant change in economic policies, but it will take some time for markets to digest these changes.  Different segments of the financial markets are beginning to assess the impact of Mr Trump’s policies, if implemented, and as a result a period of considerable volatility and uncertainty lies ahead, in our view.  

 

 

 

 

KBI Global Investors Ltd. is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland and subject to limited regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK. Details about the extent of our regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority are available from us on request. The views expressed in this document are expressions of opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice.


On a dramatic day for UK, European, and the global financial markets, Eoin Fahy, Chief  Economist, takes a look at the Brexit issue and in particular at five 'Myths’, that have arisen about what happens next.

 

Myth 1: As the UK is now set to leave the European Union, governments will now move quickly to introduce border controls on trade between the UK and the EU.

Reality: The UK’s vote to leave the EU is the start – not the end - of the exit process. It is likely that it will be late 2018, at the earliest, before the UK could legally exit, and it could in fact be considerably later than that. The exit mechanism in European law states that once the UK formally informs the EU of its intention to leave, under the terms of Article 50 of the European Treaty, a two-year period of negotiations begins, at the end of which the UK would legally leave. This period could only be extended by unanimous agreement of all 28 countries involved.  However, there have been some suggestions that the UK might opt not to invoke this particular article of the Treaty, as it puts inconvenient time limits and restrictions on the exit process.  Instead it may start a more informal set of negotiations to facilitate the exit.

Either way, however, it is very clear that barriers to trade between the UK and the EU will not be in place in the immediate future.

Myth 2: The European Union is falling apart.

Reality: The Brexit vote is a real blow to the EU, but it cannot be said to be “falling apart”. The fact that one country has voted to leave should be seen in the context of the growth (not decline) of the number of countries in the EU in recent years. Prior to 1973, there were only six countries in the EU. That grew to 12 in 1986, 15 in 1995, 25 in 2004, 27 in 2007 and 28 in 2013. The departure of one country, even the UK which is the third-largest member with about 13% of the EU population, does not mean that the union is falling apart. This is perhaps especially the case for the UK, which has always been seen as somewhat “semi-detached” from the EU, with much less enthusiasm for the EU at official and general public level than in most other EU member states.

To be fair, while it’s wrong to say that the EU is falling apart, it is not impossible to make the case that the UK’s departure could (note could, not will) lead to further departures over the next few years. The EU is unpopular in some countries such as Denmark, and the Dutch electorate recently voted against an EU agreement with Ukraine in a sign, perhaps, of its disaffection with the EU. In Greece, to date the electorate appear to continue to favour EU membership notwithstanding the extreme difficulties there, but further austerity measures and social unrest could change that picture. And there is always the possibility that the UK will lead to populist parties in other countries organising similar referenda, potentially with similar results. But this does seem unlikely at this stage, and certainly not a “done deal”.

Myth 3: Brexit will inevitably lead to a recession in the UK, and probably in Europe as well.

Reality: There can be little doubt that Brexit is negative for the UK economy, as has already been stated by a myriad of independent institutions and economists, inside and outside the UK.  But we need to be careful not to confuse “slow growth” with “recession”. A recession is a possibility; there is no doubt about that, particularly if the UK’s exit is badly handled. A scenario where negotiations failed to achieve an agreement to allow reasonably tariff-free access to each other’s markets could lead to a recession if it had a very negative effect on trade. 

But it’s much more likely that the negative impact would be felt over several years, keeping growth to a much lower level than would otherwise have been the case, and could well push up the unemployment rate, perhaps.

Turning to the impact on the rest of Europe, the negative impact on trade, and business confidence, is most unlikely – in its own right – to be big enough to cause a recession. While trade with the UK is important, the UK is just not important enough to cause a recession for a trading bloc as large as the eurozone. 

That said, a recession in Europe is nonetheless possible (though not probable) as a result of a different channel, i.e. a repeat of the European sovereign debt crisis. One conceivable scenario is that investors become concerned that other countries will leave the EU and it will eventually break up completely. In that scenario, weaker countries could no longer expect financial support from wealthy countries like Germany, or from the European Central Bank, and so in an extreme case they might be forced to default on their debts. 

Bond yields for peripheral, high-debt countries like Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy would soar, and the damage to business confidence, combined with an inevitable credit crunch, would cause a sharp recession in Europe.

This scenario is unlikely and certainly not our base forecast, however.

Myth 4: The result of the referendum means that the issue is now closed. The electorate has spoken and the UK will certainly now leave the EU.

Reality: While it is certainly very likely that the UK will leave, it is not a certainty. As mentioned above, it will probably be at least two years before the UK could legally leave the EU, which gives plenty of time for UK and European politicians to reach an agreement on revised terms for UK membership of the EU, allowing a second referendum to be held, this time – potentially - resulting in a vote to Remain in the EU. We should not forget that a substantial majority of the members of the UK Parliament are in favour of remaining in the EU – approximately half of the ruling Conservative Party, as well as the considerable majority of the various opposition parties.

That said, a reversal of the decision would not be easy to achieve. Outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron has explicitly said that another referendum is not a possibility, and he or any other politician trying to overturn the referendum result could be seen to be defying the vote of the people, so they would need to be able to argue that circumstances have changed so much that a second vote is necessary.  This is possible, but unlikely.

Myth 5: Protest parties now dominate European politics.

Reality: It is easy to look at the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU, combined with the strong showing of many other protest/populist parties across Europe, and conclude that these protest parties are about to take power in Europe. But the facts say otherwise. In the most recent general or Presidential elections, most of these parties obtained support ranging from about 15% to 25%. In Spain, Podemos took 21% of the vote in its most recent general election, while the Five Star movement in Italy got 26%, Syriza in Greece reached 35%, Sinn Fein in Ireland took 14%, the National Front in France took 18%, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) took 13%. The exception is Greece, where Syriza took about 35% of the votes (but due to an unusual voting system, came very close to forming a majority government). These vote shares show a high level of support, certainly, but far below majority status.

The bottom line: populist/protest parties are now an important political bloc in many European countries, but they certainly do not dominate parliaments and they seem unlikely to take power anywhere other than Greece.

 

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The early weeks of 2016 were dominated by a very nervous and negative market environment, with headlines at the time being dominated by talk of the potential for global recession and persistent fears about deflation. The quarter ended on a much more confident note, with risk assets including equities rallying strongly and confidence restored in the global economic recovery and the health of the corporate sector. This ‘tug-of-war’ between for example; growth or recession, inflation or deflation, rate rises or rate cuts is something we as investors are now well accustomed to. As for outlook, we at KBI remain in the ‘glass half full’ camp as we have done since the global economic and market recovery commenced after the 2008 global crisis. Market volatility remains a constant feature as do the supportive actions of central banks, which once again came to the fore during the second half of the quarter. As such the first quarter of 2016 in many ways was a quarter of two halves, finishing on a more upbeat note. I continue to see equity market dips as a buying opportunity.

The more recent Federal Reserve comments have moved to reassure markets that interest rates would not be raised excessively, quickly or without regard to financial market fragility, have provided this strong underpinning to markets.  Meanwhile, the European Central Bank measures to boost bank lending and growth, including an expansion of its bond-buying programme, is also a positive. The central banks I believe will continue to support slow but steady economic growth. This growth while positive is unlikely to be robust at any time soon as we work through debt and other global overhangs.

Equities

As stated above, I regard market setbacks as an opportunity and not a threat. We are not as yet calling an end to the bull market that commenced during 2009 and I believe we have more years to run. A global economic and earnings expansion (albeit modest), supports higher equity markets from here. Equity markets in aggregate remain fairly valued and attractive versus other competing asset classes. 

During the latter half of 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 I highlighted material dislocations within equity markets and felt strongly these couldn’t be sustained. I highlighted the following dislocations which concerned us:

  • Growth stocks that were showing a significant outperformance over value stocks at magnitudes not seen since the early  2000s TMT levels.
  • I noted a major polarisation in relation to dividend yield, where for example in North America over the prior 15 months the lowest yielding quintile of stocks had outperformed the highest yielding quintile by in excess of 20%.
  • Significant industry group performance divergences. For example healthcare (biotechnology) and IT significantly outperforming industrial sectors.
     
  • The strong outperformance of Developed Markets over Emerging Markets.

These trends in all cases had resulted in major valuation gaps well beyond historic norms, which made us very uncomfortable.

At that point, I was anticipating a rotation from many of these extreme positions as I believed it would lead to a healthier overall stock market. Happily and interestingly there has been a relatively noticeable change in the first 5 months of 2016, with sector relative performance rotation; higher yield outperforming zero yielding stocks for example and a generally less defensive undertone helping value stocks and outperforming Emerging markets. We have also experienced a much better tone to commodity markets and to the surprise of many (not including us at KBI) a weakening dollar and some strength in Emerging market currencies. While the style shift year-to-date has been helpful, it has been modest from a mean reversion perspective, with potentially much more outperformance to be achieved from here I believe.

Fundamentals do always matter in the end and our concerns during 2016 was that in a risk-off/defensive mindset investors were almost investing for ‘growth at any cost’ and on the other side better valued companies or industries that were perceived as more pro-cyclical/less defensive were sold despite valuation. This is the big rotation I highlight year to date which can continue.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is in good health, with plenty of cash on its balance sheet and relatively little debt. A key driver for markets will be continued positive earnings growth over the next few quarters. I expect an increase in Merger and Acquisition activity, but also a focus on dividend yield and growth and other ways of returning cash to shareholders.

Bonds

Global government bond yields remain close to and increasingly in many cases below historic low levels.  A more confident world economy and increased inflation expectations over coming quarters should again not be positive for bond yields and I would expect yields to trend higher.

To conclude, I remain positive on the outlook for the global recovery and believe equities will continue to be beneficiaries of this. In contrast, while short term central bank behaviour is seen to underpin bond markets, I remain very bearish on a more medium term horizon.

Noel O’ Halloran, Chief Investment Officer 


KBI Global Investors Ltd. is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland and subject to limited regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK. KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd. is a registered investment adviser with the SEC and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland. KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd. is a majority-owned subsidiary of KBI Global Investors Dublin Ltd. This material is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase any security, product or service including any group trust or fund managed by KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd, or any of its affiliates, (collectively, “KBI Global Investors”). The views expressed are those of KBI Global Investors and should not be construed as investment advice. We do not represent that this information is accurate or complete and it should not be relied upon as such.  Opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.  

Markets remain extremely nervous with headlines at present being dominated by talk of the potential for recession and persistent fears about deflation.

For China which is the number one concern right now, we remain confident that despite delivering lower growth than prior years the economy will still deliver 6-7% GDP growth. Growth in the US and Europe remains reasonably solid with Europe expected to grow even more strongly than 2015 at close to 2% growth and the US is likely to deliver 2.5%. The US Federal Reserve will very slowly continue to raise their key interest rate over coming quarters. The ECB will maintain their very pro-growth stance having recently extended their QE programme. Commodity markets are friendless at present, but we do expect to see commodities bottom out as excess inventories are worked through in many global commodities.

Equities

After a relatively straight line bull market of six years since 2009, the current start of year market setback is not a surprise. Indeed many have been calling for this setback for some time. At KBI we regard this as a market correction and not a renewed bear market. We are not forecasting that the global economy will go back into a recession in 2016, which the markets are currently challenging.  Equity markets in aggregate look to be fairly valued.  ‘Inside’ the equity markets however, some major divergences have emerged over recent quarters for example:

Growth stocks are showing a significant outperformance over value stocks not seen since the early  2000s TMT levels
We note a major polarisation in relation to dividend yield, where for example in North America over the last 15 months the lowest yielding quintile of stocks have outperformed the highest yielding quintile by in excess of 20%
Significant industry group performance divergences. For example Healthcare (biotechnology) and IT significantly outperforming versus industrial sectors
The outperformance of Developed markets over Emerging Markets

These trends in all cases have resulted in major valuation gaps well beyond historic norms. We would anticipate and welcome a rotation from many of these extreme positions as we believe it would lead to a healthier overall stock market.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is in good health, with plenty of cash on its balance sheet and relatively little debt. A key driver for markets will be continued positive earnings growth over the next few quarters. We expect an increase in Merger and Acquisition activity, but also a focus on dividend growth and other ways of returning cash to shareholders.

Bonds

Global government bond yields remain close to or in some cases historic low levels.  A more confident world economy over coming months and quarters should again not be positive for bond yields and we would expect yields to once again trend higher .

To conclude, we remain positive on the outlook for equities in contrast to the current bearish and overly cautious consensus.

 

 

KBI Global Investors Ltd. is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland and subject to limited regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK. KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd. is a registered investment adviser with the SEC and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland. KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd. is a majority-owned subsidiary of KBI Global Investors Ltd. This material is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase any security, product or service including any group trust or fund managed by KBI Global Investors (North America) Ltd, or any of its affiliates, (collectively, “KBI Global Investors”). The views expressed are those of KBI Global Investors and should not be construed as investment advice. We do not represent that this information is accurate or complete and it should not be relied upon as such.  Opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.  

Noel O’Halloran, CIO of KBI Global Investors got off to a flying start as an aeronautical engineer. The scientific approach this experience engendered has paid off in his current role.  By Mark Battersby

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Where to from here...can equity markets keep going?
Despite the strong returns achieved last quarter, for euro investors in particular, I continue to take the ‘glass half full’ view and believe that equities can make further progress over the next 12 -18 months. It’s worth highlighting that in absolute valuation terms, equities are no longer cheap, as the MSCI World equity index is now on a P/E ratio (using 12 month trailing earnings) of 18 versus the 16.9 times historic average, and so equities are now above fair value relative to history. My core expectation from here is that further upward progress will be in line with earnings and dividend growth rather than by further P/E expansion. The slow-but-sure economic recovery we forecast will support this.

I could go further and highlight that there is perhaps a 20% chance that equities continue to perform strongly and continue to rerate even further upwards to a P/E of say 20. In a world where many major central banks continue to make strong efforts to boost growth (and inflation) through Quantitative Easing (QE) and other means, bountiful liquidity continues to flow into the financial system which can first drive asset prices strongly upwards, with the real economy responding with a lag. That abundant liquidity has already had a strong impact on government bond markets – with many eurozone government bonds yields being below zero for periods out to 5-7 years, or longer in some cases.

Those low bond yields, and very low deposit rates (negative in many cases) also support equities as they make bonds and deposits, the traditional alternatives to equities, extremely unattractive relative to equities, particularly equity strategies with appealing dividend yields of say 4%.

Where can it go wrong.....the key remains growth?

This equity bull market is now six years old and probably one of the few in history where investors have worried the whole way up. For me there are no signs of exuberance, such as we saw for example during the ‘TMT’ bubble of the early 2000s, as for every positive I can highlight, there can be a corresponding concern or worry.

For me THE key issues to watch will be:

1)   The US economy.  Growth in the US has been quite weak during the first months of 2015 with events such as severe weather being blamed. A rebound is expected by the markets and by most economists over coming quarters. If this does not happen, it would be a material unexpected negative as the US remains THE engine of the global recovery. This would have negative implications for the earnings and dividend growth I highlight above.

2)   Chinese growth. The Chinese government has been directing and managing a slowdown in their economy, towards or slightly below the 7% growth level. This has been achieved without any significant dislocations to markets or society. Any further significant slowdown from here to say 3 or 4% growth would be a significant negative for global equities

3)   The impact of ‘QE’ in Europe.  An obvious issue to watch is whether the ECB's QE programme will bear fruit. It's early days but there has been a more positive tone and indeed an economic pickup in Europe over recent months. A relapse would be provide a meaningful challenge and, at the least, a meaningful setback to equity markets. Greece will also remain in the European headlines

4)   Market breadth in the US.  While I remain generally relaxed, I am not relaxed with what I perceive to be quite a narrow and unhealthy US stock market. Over recent months in particular the market has been hitting new highs but led by a very narrow list of stocks in high-momentum, high-valuation sectors such as biotechnology and new-economy technology stocks. Large parts of the market aren't participating in these new highs. I would look to see the leadership in the market rotate and broaden out over coming quarters as if it doesn't, for me it would begin to echo the early 2000s market which would not be positive.

5)   Strange bond markets! To fundamentally rationalise bond yields at current yield levels is pretty impossible. The distortion created by central banks buying is seemingly very apparent. When I see for example that Danish home buyers now get paid by their bank to take out a mortgage or the Mexican government launches a 100 year bond denominated in Euros at a yield of just 4%, it’s not normal. Similarly when I was told that wealthy Swiss savers are now taking the money from their local Swiss bank account and lodging it in security company vaults and paying them 15 basis points per annum for the privilege because it’s cheaper than the negative rates the banks are paying, it’s certainly not normal! At some point just as with the TMT bubble, this bond bubble will burst. To pinpoint when or how is the difficult bit.

To conclude, despite strong returns to date, equities remain the asset class of choice against pretty much zero returns on cash and bond markets which are fundamentally unattractive in our scenario. From a macro perspective, the main change we expect to see over the next couple of months is confirmation of improved growth and activity in Europe, where a combination of the lower euro, much lower energy prices, and QE by the European Central Bank is expected to boost consumer and business spending, as well as exports.  Other economies are also expected to grow at a reasonable rate.  Globally, we expect to see further cuts in interest rates, particularly in Emerging Markets, but in contrast US interest rates are likely to rise (for the first time in many years) in the autumn.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is in good health, with plenty of cash on its balance sheet and relatively little debt.  We expect an increase in Merger and Acquisition activity, but also a focus on dividend growth and other ways of returning cash to shareholders.  Against this background in our portfolio construction we continue to emphasise stocks with strong cash flows, attractive balance sheets and strong and attractively positioned businesses. In a world of zero or negative cash rates, I expect equities with attractive and growing dividends to remain winners. 

Noel O'Halloran, Chief Investment Officer

During 2014 we recorded new highs for global equity indices as well as recording the sixth year in a row of positive returns from global equities. This was achieved despite many headline challenges be they geo-political or simply the ongoing challenges of the muddle through growth struggle for many of the world’s economies. From my general perspective, this constant ‘barrage of challenges’ to the recovery scenario was to be expected and has been a feature of the global equity recovery since March 2009. Global bond markets have also continued to hit new highs confounding all negative predictions (including yours truly) once again.

For 2015, I believe we can expect more of the same, albeit with more volatility than recent years. While the global equities have been in a bull market now for six years and is therefore quite mature, I don’t believe the bull market is over but do believe investors should expect more modest single digit returns for 2015. The lesson from recent years have been that while ‘hits’ have been many and frequent they are transient and eventually overcome by improving fundamentals and central banks that keep the recovery underpinned....so buy the equity dips!

Why more modest returns?

  • The key reason is that equity valuations are no longer cheap and I believe that returns should be more in line with global earnings growth – which I expect to grow by 6%. Over recent years strong double digit returns were driven both by earnings growth and an upward revaluation of P/E multiples. Although this re-rating could continue, it’s not my central expectation. This also underpins my strong preference for high but sustainable dividend yields as a component of total return.
  • Earnings themselves have become more dependent on top line growth as the impact of significant margin improvements over recent years lessens. In a muddle through growth environment for many economies, robust top line growth is not to be expected
  • One key reason to expect higher bonds and equity volatility is that the Federal Reserve (Fed) will change course and commence raising US interest rates this year. The US itself has been a strong driver of the market and economic recovery and low US interest rates have underpinned this. We don’t expect the Fed will make a policy mistake but that’s not to say that markets won’t experience another one of their ‘transient wobbles’ when it happens

What will we be watching?

  • Top of the list over the first quarter will be the euro (again). Click here to see our separate blog of Jan 7 for our views re same  
  • The dramatic oil price fall of late has been a significant market feature. I expect the majority of the fall is now complete and my running assumption is that the oil price stabilises around current levels in a range, perhaps for a number of quarters
  • Global central banks have remained the bedrock of the global recovery and while the Fed may change direction in 2015, I don’t expect the global central bank underpinning to change. While much negative energy will likely be expended worrying about the Fed, a corresponding positive may emerge in the form of the ECB embarking on a more radical quantitative easing programme, the Bank of Japan continuing to stimulate and many Emerging Market economies may surprise with more stimulative policies (both fiscal and monetary easing).

What could surprise?

  • The markets to date have had a very nervous and negative reaction to the rapid oil price fall. They haven’t yet however put enough emphasis on the positive benefits of this fall.Over coming quarters, I expect we will see improved consumer spending, enhanced profitability in sectors such as transportation, and improved growth in countries (often Asian) which are large importers of oil. Lower inflation from lower oil prices will be written up as ‘deflationary’, but it is a benign deflation that actually benefits rather than hurts the beneficiaries. So while the damage to certain sectors such as oil stocks or countries such as Russia has been immediate, I think the beneficiaries haven’t yet been properly rewarded. Indeed, from our perspective many sectors with little direct exposure to oil have been severely overly-punished we would argue, and provide opportunity for investors.
  • At a regional level, having been hit with many concerns over recent years, Emerging Markets are increasingly off the radar of global investors.  I feel that they are becoming a forgotten asset class. Against a background of attractive valuations, reasonable fundamentals and a real possibility of interest rate cuts, Emerging Markets could be a surprise winner for 2015.
     
  • Another beaten up asset class for the contrarian investor to consider is broad commodity investments once more. They certainly could perform much better in an environment of increasing confidence surrounding global growth and a move to a more ‘risk-on’ environment. I’m not convinced at this point but perhaps one to revisit through the year.

To conclude, I believe that 2015 will be a positive year but one with more modest returns and with more volatility to be expected. Equities remain the asset class of choice against pretty much zero returns on cash and bond markets fundamentally unattractive in our scenario. Central banks will remain central actors on the stage, although their roles will change with the Fed likely to become more the ‘bad’ guy and the ECB and others to become increasingly centre stage. 

Noel O' Halloran, Chief Investment Officer

There is more than a touch of “déjà vu” in the financial markets at the moment.  Yet again we are faced with speculation about a country (Greece) leaving the eurozone.  Once more we are looking ahead to what seems likely to be a year of very weak growth and inflation in the eurozone.  And of course we are again waiting to see what the ECB will do when it finally makes its mind up about how to react to these various issues.  In our view the markets are correct to be worried about these problems – they are very real – but it remains more likely than not that the outcome will also be the same as in previous years – a “muddle through” with no dramatic progress towards better growth and inflation, but no collapse of the eurozone, no country leaving it, and no severe recession either.

Before explaining why we think the ‘muddle through’ scenario is the most likely, it is useful to take a look at recent developments as in some ways the situation that European authorities face now is as serious as anything seen at the height of the eurozone fiscal crisis in 2011/2012 – with the major difference being that financial market sentiment, so far, is dramatically more positive now than it was then.

Greek turmoil

Firstly, we focus on Greece.  As readers will be aware, the failure of the Greek parliament to elect a new President in three attempts last month forced the government to call early elections, in what was in effect a major victory for the opposition.  The leading party in all opinion polls is “Syriza”, a left-wing and relatively new party.  Until very recently it would also have been described as an ‘anti-European’ or ‘anti-euro’ party, and it can certainly still be called an anti-austerity party.  Syriza’s gains in popularity have been driven by the austerity policies implemented by the governing political parties, which policies in turn were largely forced on the government by the troika after Greece was the recipient of a large bail-out from the IMF, European Central Bank and other European governments. In practice those policies would have had to be implemented in any case but the troika has been blamed for the very severe cuts in spending that have been implemented during the crisis period.

Although Syriza is expected to win only about one-third of the votes, that share is expected to be significantly larger than any other party.  And, crucially, Greek electoral law gives a large ‘bonus’ allocation of seats to the largest party in the election, which means that Syriza is likely to have almost enough seats to form a government by itself. 

What makes all this so important is that Syriza has had policies that are very anti-establishment (for want of a better phrase).  It believes that the solution to Greece’s fiscal problems is for lenders to Greece to write off large amounts of the debt, and until recently at any rate Syriza has seemed to want Greece to leave the eurozone entirely.  It is adamantly opposed to the various austerity policies being implemented by the current government.  On the face of it, this is quite dramatic, particularly the desire to leave the eurozone.  If that still is the Syriza policy (more on this later), and if Syriza does win the election as expected, it would mark the first time that any eurozone country has been led by a party that supports exit from the eurozone. Even at the height of the eurozone fiscal crisis in 2011/2012, every eurozone government was adamantly and absolutely opposed to their country leaving the eurozone.

An exit from the eurozone would certainly be extremely messy – there are no provisions in European law to allow it, and it would involve the creation of an entirely new currency, as quickly as possible.  In all likelihood, the banking system or large parts of it would collapse and/or need huge taxpayer bailouts due to the mismatch between euro denominated liabilities and drachma (if that was the new currency’s name) denominated assets, and there would be a degree of chaos for some weeks in the interim period with a massive hit to economic activity in Greece.  Internationally, a Greek exit from the eurozone would surely bring more pressure on other peripheral countries in the zone, such as Portugal, Cyprus, Ireland, maybe even Italy and Spain, as if one country left the euro, others might be thought to be at risk of doing the same.  We would expect an extremely negative market reaction to such a development, one which might make the previous eurozone fiscal crisis look quite mild!

ECB grappling with difficult issues

Meanwhile, “back at the ranch”, the European Central Bank continues to struggle with dangerously low inflation and economic growth across the eurozone as a whole.  It seems reasonably clear that if inflation, in particular, falls further from here, the ECB will take more drastic actions to boost growth, inflation, and confidence.  The most likely option is that it will inject cash into the economy by buying government bonds, in the first half of the year, in effect printing the money with which to buy them.

However, the Greece situation is an unwanted complication for the ECB.  If Syriza wins power in Greece, it will put huge pressure on Greece’s creditors to write off all or part of its debts.  And the ECB happens to be a large creditor of Greece as it owns, directly or indirectly, a large quantity of Greek government bonds (Greek government bonds are no longer investment grade, so many private sector investors no longer buy them).  Thus the ECB is currently trying to reach a decision on whether to buy large quantities of government bonds, at exactly the same time as it is being asked (by Syriza) to accept large losses on the Greek government bonds that it already owns.  That is a complication that the ECB – and all of us in the eurozone, perhaps – could really do without, and that might well prevent or substantially delay the introduction of further ECB measures to help the eurozone economy.

Muddle through still the most likely outcome

However, we should not get too carried away by all the seemingly bad news.  As we stated at the outset, we do NOT expect the situation to deteriorate very rapidly in the months or weeks ahead, notwithstanding the sometimes grim-looking outlook. There are a number of factors which will combine to make another year of “muddle through” more likely than a year of crisis:

  • In Greece, Syriza has significantly toned down its anti-European rhetoric in recent months. Most likely this is reaction to the realisation that it may very well soon be in power, and will have to make difficult choices in government.  It would not be the first opposition party, in any country, to become much more pragmatic once in power (or getting very close to it) than it was in opposition.  Now the party says that it is now not in favour of a Greek exit from the euro, assuming that a debt relief deal can be done, which appears to be a marked change in policy.
  • More than 70% of Greeks, in a recent opinion poll, want to remain in the eurozone, notwithstanding the tough austerity policies that have been perceived as being imposed by eurozone, and especially German, political leaders.
  • While Syriza is the leading party in all opinion polls, it is still getting only about a one-third share of support in those polls – far from an overwhelming mandate to discard conventional economic policies and/or exit from the eurozone.
  • At the ECB, although the financial markets are impatient with the pace of the ECB’s reaction to negative economic news, it seems fairly clear that the ECB will significantly step up the pace of liquidity creation (printing money) this year, and probably sooner rather than later.  Certainly it is undoubtedly unhelpful that the ECB may be forced into taking losses on its holding of Greek government bonds, at almost the same time that it may begin buying government bonds on a large scale.  But what choice does the ECB really have?  If it does not ‘step up to the plate’, there is a very substantial risk that inflation will fall into negative territory, and remain there, dragging economic growth down after it.  The only way that we can see the ECB not becoming much more radical in liquidity creation is if economic growth and inflation turns out to be much better than expected.

Our conclusion, therefore, is that 2015 will be a year of (even) greater volatility – and action - in the eurozone than was 2014, in terms of politics and policy. But as has been the case for several years now, the authorities will do enough to prevent that volatility and uncertainty translating into a full-blown crisis.  In the next couple of days, Noel O’Halloran, our Chief Investment Officer, will publish a separate blog outlining what this scenario means for asset allocation in 2015.

Eoin Fahy, Chief Economist, Investment Strategist

 Since the current global bull market began during the first quarter of 2009 there has beenconstant debate between bulls and bears about whether the markets are being driven by strengthening fundamentals or driven by free and abundant liquidity provided by central banks led by the US Federal Reserve. We have maintained a consistent view that the bull market has been driven by a combination of both liquidity and improving fundamentals. Markets themselves can be swayed by the additional ingredient of investor sentiment and as we know in relatively short time periods, investors can move from unbridled optimism to wholesale pessimism in a herd like manner. At present they appear to be veering towards the pessimistic side.

From our perspective while headwinds and challenges remain, the key factor we focus on is the economic outlook. We do not see a material change to the fundamental economic and market outlook we have been writing about now for the past number of quarters. A fundamental part of our thesis remains as written last quarter where we highlighted the slow return to "normalisation", with the nature of this economic recovery remaining similar to none other i.e. being particularly 'sub-par' as we work through the excesses that caused the last downturn. 

Central bank actions will be consistent with how they see their own specific economic area, but in a global interconnected world economy their impact is not isolated to their region. Indeed the more positive outlook for the US economy versus Eurozone has already been reflected in the rapid weakening of the euro so the markets are already doing some of the central bank’s work for them. Concerns about the Federal Reserve tightening are overdone and in particular by those with inflationary worries in mind. While there are reasons to worry about potential deflation in Europe there is not a corresponding argument to be over concerned about inflation in the US economy. In fact far from worrying about the removal of liquidity support from global markets, we believe that central banks need to keep interest rates at what will be viewed in history as emergency levels as this is what the 'sub-par' recovery necessitates.

Geopolitical events remain constants in the world of investing with the frequency and scale of events oscillating quarter to quarter. As an investor it is best analysed in terms of whether any economic impact is adequately modelled in economists’ forecasts and whether the risk is appropriately embedded in asset class valuations. At current levels, we believe equity markets to be again fairly valued and in line with historic averages with subsequent returns from here going to be strongly influenced by earnings and dividend growth rather than banking on higher valuations. The greater volatility and polarisation within market performance over recent months provides some very attractive investment opportunities for stocks or sectors that look to be overly punished by investors. 

Noel O' Halloran, Chief Investment Officer, KBI Global Investors

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