Asset prices in The Monday Briefing
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The behaviour of the equity market provides useful signals about where investors think the global economy is heading. As we move into the second half of 2018 here’s our mid-year assessment of what equity markets are telling us.
The biggest change is in investors’ attitude to risk. In 2016 and 2017 investors made money investing in riskier assets. Emerging market equities soared and as confidence spread about the Europe’s recovery, so, too, did euro area markets. Caution has returned this year and outside the US the returns on equities have been meagre to negative. Globally equities are down 8% from their January peak.
US stocks have done better, returning 6% this year. The star performers have been tech and retail, up 14% and 20% respectively, supported by robust consumer demand. (Checking the numbers I am kicking myself for not buying Netflix stock at the time I subscribed to their service. Shares have doubled in value this year and have risen ten-fold in the last five years.)
There’s never a shortage of things that could go wrong with the global economy. One that’s joined the list in recent months is worries about the health of some emerging market (EM) economies. In a sign of unease nervous investors have been pulling money out of EM equity and bond funds. What’s happening and why does this matter for the rest of the world?
EMs are feeling the effects of the unwinding of a decade of cheap money policies in the US. Low US interest rates encouraged investors to move capital into higher yielding emerging markets equities and bonds. Vast amounts of capital flowed into EMs, pushing up asset prices and bolstering growth. The impact of the unwinding of that great experiment in monetary policy is feeding through to EMs.
The previous Chair of the Fed, Janet Yellen, said she hoped that the reversal of Quantitative Easing (QE) would be as “dull as watching paint dry”. Yet when QE was being rolled out the effects, especially on asset prices, were anything but dull. And just as buying assets makes money cheap and plentiful so selling those assets should have the reverse effect. Ms Yellen’s hopes for a boring unwinding of QE seem predicated on the process happening very slowly. Like the fabled frog failing to notice the cold water becoming warmer and eventually boiling, the aim seems to be to reverse QE so slowly that markets will hardly notice.
In the last decade Britain and the US have experienced an unusual combination of soaring asset prices and sluggish wage growth.
Between 2006 and 2016, the total value of assets held by UK households rose by 59% while average incomes increased by just 24%.
The oil price has had a turbocharged run in the last year, rising almost 60%. Last Friday it closed at a three year high of $77 a barrel. From the, early 2016, lows of under $30 the oil price has risen by over 160%.
Three factors explain the rebound in oil prices.
First, the global economic upswing has come faster than expected fuelling demand for oil and bolstering prices. Despite a first quarter wobble, the global economy is likely to grow at the fastest rate in seven years in 2018.
Last month Deloitte’s economists from across the world met in London to assess the outlook for the global economy. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion. Rather than trying to summarise individual views, here are some of the areas where the discussions affected my own thinking.
There are numerous explanations for why technology is no longer boosting productivity in the way it did in the twentieth century. The US economist, Robert Gordon, argues that today’s technologies are less productivity-enhancing than the great inventions of the past. The opposing view is that technology is still working its magic, but in ways, such as improving the quality of goods and services, which are poorly captured by the statistics.
The latest Deloitte survey of UK Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) released this morning shows that business confidence has edged up and is running not far off its long-term average. CFOs seem to have shrugged off weakness in equity markets and concerns about trade with perceptions of uncertainty dropping to the lowest levels since the spring of 2016, before the EU referendum. This finding fits with our own “Worry Index” which tracks newspaper references to terms relating to uncertainty and risk. It dropped to a ten-year low in the first quarter.
Donald Trump’s scepticism about free trade is longstanding and was a prominent feature of his 2016 presidential campaign. Such was the appeal of Mr Trump’s protectionist stance that his opponent and former free trade advocate Hillary Clinton found herself renouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership she had once promoted.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis poverty, inequality and social inclusion have become high profile issues. To its adherents, and there are many, the solution is for the state to provide adults with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to cover their basic needs, allowing them to earn whatever they wanted in addition. Implementing a UBI would represent a profound change in the role of the government and its effect on peoples’ lives.
In a sign of the tough trading conditions on British high streets two well-known retail names, Toys R Us and Maplin, fell into administration last week.