Q1 2015 Equities - Keep the Faith
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, Kleinwort Benson Investors International's Chief Investment Officer