Hedging against downside risk

Posted on March 3, 2015 by - Investment, News

Divergent monetary policies and growth
trends could be key themes of 2015

The return of volatility – as valuations and investor complacency remain elevated – will make it vital for investors to consider hedging against downside risk and cut back on ‘me too’ investments this year, according to the BlackRock Investment Institute’s (BII) 2015 Investment Outlook.

The Outlook, ‘Dealing with Divergence’, explores the Institute’s main economic assumptions, top investment ideas and views on likely crosscurrents for 2015. The BII anticipates that divergent monetary policies and growth trends could be key themes of 2015. Financial conditions in the US and UK will likely tighten due to a pickup in growth and improving labour markets, and will loosen elsewhere, particularly Japan and Europe.

For investors, caution will be key, as valuations in most markets are rich, and investor faith in monetary policy underpinning asset prices is high, with many investors now embracing momentum investment strategies.

Strengthening calls for monetary stimulus
Around the globe, the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has been unusually tepid, the BII notes, with nominal growth in 2015 expected to be below the 15-year trend in most economies, except for the US and Japan.

According to the report, many pro-growth assumptions – rising wages and inflation expectations, a behind-the-curve Fed and an uptick in global growth – did not pan out in 2014, while GDP forecasts have recently had one common thread: downward revisions.

On the other hand, the ongoing oil price decline, if sustained, could counterbalance the low-growth trend in 2015, giving a boost to growth in most economies. The price fall should dampen headline inflation in the developed world. This could strengthen calls for monetary stimulus in weak economies and help keep a lid on bond yields in stronger ones. Cheap oil could drive up consumer demand and benefit some emerging markets nations due to improved trade balances, reduced government subsidies and lower inflation.

A cyclical upswing for the US
The US economy is in a cyclical upswing and is one of the world’s few major economies expected to perform well throughout this year. A rising US dollar will likely be the key financial market trend of 2015, bringing a de-facto tightening of global financial conditions because the greenback is still the world’s premier funding currency. European and EM companies with US sales could benefit from a strong US dollar.

Steady growth in employment, a moderate (yet patchy) housing recovery and rising capital spending (capex) all point to a sustainable recovery. The BII expects the Fed to start tightening monetary policy in 2015, but only at a gentle pace, likely ending at a historically lower end point than in previous cycles.

When it comes to the impact of higher rates on US equities, the BII notes that there is likely to be a big difference between the performance of low-beta stocks (defensives) – which historically do well when rates are falling (and vice versa) – and high-beta stocks (cyclicals) – which do best when rates rise, but only when the rise is mild. If history repeats itself, this could bode well for cyclical stocks in 2015.

A booster for European risk assets
The BII describes the eurozone as like ‘a low-flying plane that constantly hits air pockets, with occasional lifts and near-death experiences.’ Its recovery from the recent financial crisis has fallen far short of that from previous crises around the world – and dramatically short of the typical recovery from past recessions.
Eurozone growth could yet surprise on the upside, the BII believes, with expectations at rock-bottom and the European Central Bank likely to deliver on market hopes for full quantitative easing (QE). QE’s ‘wealth effect’ (the impact on consumer spending from boosting asset prices) would not mirror the US experience due to lower equity and home ownership rates in Europe, but QE could have a big impact on confidence.

Even a moderate cyclical rebound would be a booster for European risk assets, the BII says, and indeed the bar is low. The ideas for exploiting a potential rebound include cyclicals such as European automakers – many companies are trading near 2008/09 lows – and contrarian investments in beaten-down luxury goods makers and integrated oil majors.

Monetary stimulus to jumpstart Japan’s economy
Japan is ‘all in’ on a high-stakes bet that monetary stimulus will jumpstart the country’s economy, the BII says, with the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet now swollen to almost 60% the size of Japan’s GDP.

The Bank of Japan is buying equities as well, a move that – especially when combined with a decision by Japan’s $1.2 trillion Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) to more than double its allocation to Japanese and foreign equities – should offer a big boost to equity markets. Other pension funds and households may start mirroring the GPIF’s move and shift some of their cash piles into stocks.

Market gyrations are not out of the question, however, with the biggest near-term risk for Japan a loss of momentum for ‘Abenomics’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to revitalise the economy and drag Japan out of a two-decade economic funk.

Satellites of the eurozone and Asia
Divergence in the emerging world is becoming more evident due to tightening US monetary policy and falling commodity prices, according to the BII. The reforms anticipated in many emerging markets this year are only likely to accentuate this divergence. Satellites of the eurozone and Asia will likely import dovish monetary policies from the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan respectively, and will have room to cut rates to spur growth. Brazil and Russia might have to hike rates to defend their currencies. Others, including Mexico and China, stand to gain from US economic momentum.

What these diverse countries have in common, the BII notes, is that traditional export models are challenged, with export growth essentially flat for the past three years. The reasons are weak global demand from the developed world and a deceleration in the emerging world’s locomotive, China.

Weak emerging market currencies and equity prices have offset the lack of export growth to some extent, yet countries could do more to unlock their potential: improve infrastructure, institutions and education, and enact reforms to make their economies more competitive.

Emerging market equity valuations are generally cheap, relative to both developed market stocks and their own history, but the BII suggests that company selection will remain key to effective strategies in this sector.