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2020 Outlook: Optimism With a Pinch of Realism

December 2019 
By Nanette Abuhoff Jacobson

While tail risks could re-emerge, our outlook has brightened enough to consider less defensive positioning.

Managing Director and Multi-Asset Strategist at Wellington Management Company LLP and Global Investment Strategist for Hartford Funds.
Daniel Cook, CFA
Multi-Asset Analyst, Wellington Management


For most of 2019, our gloomy view of the global economy—including heightened tail risks related to Brexit and the US-China trade war, and our lingering concern that central bank stimulus would fall short of market expectations—kept us sheltered in safer assets. As we prepare for 2020, we are encouraged by improving leading economic indicators, receding tail risks, and the fact that markets are no longer baking in much central bank support. While sentiment surveys have improved in recent weeks, flows and positioning data remain quite defensive, leaving room for a boost to risky assets as investors set allocations for the new year (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1

Where’s the love? Cash and fixed income absorbed equity outflows

Cumulative market flows (US$ billions)

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Source: Emerging Portfolio Fund Research (EPFR) | Asset class flows made up of ETFs and non-ETFs (> 99% non-ETF for money market funds), institutional and retail, and domestic and international. | Chart data: November 5, 2014–November 6, 2019

The recovery in economic data is still fragile and tail risks could re-emerge, but we’ve seen enough to at least dip a toe back into risky assets. We prefer equities to bonds and within equities, prefer Europe and the US to Japan and emerging markets. Additionally, we expect risk-free rates to rise gently, but we still find some areas of credit markets attractive. In particular, we prefer a “barbell” of high-yield and securitized to investment-grade corporate bonds, emerging market debt (EMD), and bank loans. We think high yield can benefit from positive equity performance and securitized can provide better risk/reward than investment-grade corporates. We have lowered our view on commodities to moderately bearish as we see less need for precious metals as a hedge and few reasons to expect much higher inflation—thus our preference for industrial metals and natural resources as sources of cash.

The recovery in economic data is still fragile and tail risks could re-emerge, but we’ve seen enough to at least dip a toe back into risky assets.

 

Global fundamentals: A bottoming process
We focus our attention on indicators that we think lead the purchasing managers’ index (PMI)1—a measure of economic strength that tends to move coincidentally with the market. After turning downward for most of 2019, many of the indicators that usually lead the PMI by a few months seem to be bottoming. What’s more, we’re about at the point where the interest-rate declines of the last 12–18 months (about 1%) should begin to give growth a boost.


Our multi-asset views

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Change is from previous quarter. Views expressed have a 6−12 month horizon and are those of the authors. Views are as of December 2019, and are based on available information, and subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may make different investment decisions for different clients. This material is not intended to constitute investment advice or an offer to sell, or the solicitation of an offer to purchase shares or other securities.

Europe
Overall, Europe’s economy performed poorly in 2019, but in the last few months of the year several reasons for optimism emerged. Following a multi-year downturn in manufacturing, many of the short-term leads look to have bottomed. And while manufacturers suffered from a slowdown in exports, consumers were more resilient as the job market was steady and inflation was low. Further, the decline in rates from late 2017 to late 2019 should provide some tailwind to the economy in 2020 (Figure 2). Given the improving macroeconomic picture and cheap valuations, we have raised our view on European equities to moderately bullish.


Figure 2

Past declines in interest rates should help economies in 2020

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Sources: Bloomberg, Wellington Management | Chart data: December 1998–November 2019. Eurozone manufacturing PMI data is lagged 18 months and is from June 2000 to November 2019. German bund 10-year yield data is from December 1998–October 2019.

 

US

The US manufacturing economy is stuck in a tug-of-war between easier financial conditions and the uncertainty of the trade war. In the end, we think President Trump will likely choose the economy (his greatest strength in the polls; Figure 3) over being tough on China, in a bid to boost his re-election campaign. Meanwhile, consumers continue to enjoy solid job gains and a strong housing market. Thus, we look for uncertainty to continue to subside and the economy to maintain its solid if unspectacular growth. We continue to hold a moderately bullish view on US equities.

 

Figure 3

Trump still scores well on the economy

US adults’ approval ratings for President Trump’s handling of issues

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Chart data: November 2019 | Source: Real Clear Politics

 

Japan

The big question hanging over Japan’s economy is how it will recover from this past October’s VAT (value-added tax) hike. Signs thus far seem benign, a modest fiscal easing is in the pipeline, and our global industry analysts continually point to corporate governance reforms having a positive impact on returns. However, we haven’t seen a decisive turn in the leading indicators and still fear that a negative geopolitical event could push up the yen and pressure equities. We have a neutral view on Japanese equities.

 

Emerging markets

Emerging markets should benefit from an improving global backdrop and reduced tail risks. In China, targeted stimulus seems to be offsetting the confidence drag from the trade war, and the expansion of the services and consumer side of the economy continues unabated. We think China’s economy will muddle through with some upside potential. While headline data remains weak, underlying data suggests that the cycle has stabilized.

Elsewhere in emerging markets, we see areas of opportunity driven by positive reforms, including in Brazil and India, and areas of disappointment brought on by policy-making headwinds, including in Turkey and South Africa. Russia also remains a standout in terms of its fiscal discipline. Overall, we have increased our view on emerging market equities to neutral. We’ll need greater clarity on the global economy before we’ll be comfortable upgrading to a bullish view.

 

Credit

Credit enjoyed an impressive year in 2019, with Treasury yields and spreads2 falling. Spreads are on the tight side now, but given the likelihood of rangebound global interest rates, strong demand from overseas, and our base case of no recession over the next 12 months, we think defaults will remain low too, so we remain moderately bullish on the asset class.

Credit enjoyed an impressive year in 2019, with Treasury yields and spreads falling.

 

Within credit, we remain moderately bullish on high yield and securitized, but have lowered our view on investment-grade credit a notch to neutral. Spreads are about 100 basis points (1.0%) over Treasuries, which is below the median since the index’s inception. Wider spreads can be found, but they are concentrated in 30-year BBB-rated companies, where we think the risk/reward is not appealing. Balancing these factors with favorable supply/demand technicals and healthy free cash flow, we think spreads will likely be rangebound.

We think securitized assets offer several potential benefits: structures that are default-remote and more diversified than corporate bonds, a way to tap into the relatively healthy US consumer, and spreads that compare favorably to corporate bonds with similar ratings. We believe real estate and other consumer-related assets are attractive areas within the securitized market. We favor high yield given our more positive equity view, as well as potential opportunities resulting from the extreme dispersion between high- and low-rated bonds.

A better global backdrop should be favorable for EMD. However, we think EMD is more vulnerable than other sectors to global political uncertainty. Within emerging markets, we prefer local debt. We think lower rate risk and currency exposure give local debt the best upside potential in a risk rally.

 

Exploring downside risks

With our recommendations shifting toward more risk-seeking opportunities, we have been exploring the downside scenarios. One key risk is an escalation of trade restrictions that further damages the global economy. Hostile actions or rhetoric from the US or China could cause negotiations to break down. Our base case remains that there is sufficient motivation on both sides to ease tariffs given the economic harm they have already done.

We may also be wrong about the scope for asset owners to shift from defensive to cyclical sectors, as sentiment has already turned more positive from the extreme bearishness of August and September.

Finally, we are concerned about the US election. Should a left-wing candidate win the primaries and build momentum against Trump, we think the equity market would be vulnerable.

A related issue is populism, which is finding expression in protests all over the world. As we are seeing in Hong Kong, these movements can be very disruptive and sink economies into recession.

Investment Implications 

Equities over bonds — We prefer equities to bonds as leading indicators have turned more positive, tail risks are reduced, and valuations in some risky assets are attractive. Past strong flows into cash and bonds could return to equities in 2020. We prefer Europe, where leads have bottomed and valuations are cheap, and the US, where we believe market risk is lowest. 

Rotation is real — Along with our more positive view on developed market equities outside the US, we see the recent rotation into cyclical and more value-oriented sectors persisting. We think investors should consider adding exposure to financials and industrials. We also think healthcare is attractive now that US politics has shifted away from Medicare-for-All.

Credit looks attractive — We anticipate a solid but unspectacular year for the economy and risk assets in 2020. This is usually a good backdrop for credit investing. We favor shorter-duration investments in US high yield and securitized assets.

High-quality government bonds — We think yields could rise gently but value the unique diversifying role that bonds can play in a portfolio. If we are wrong and growth sputters or tail risks reemerge, high-quality government bonds may likely to outperform. 



1 Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) is an indicator of the economic health of the manufacturing sector. A reading above 50 signals economic expansion; below 50 signals contraction.
2 Spreads are the difference in yields between two fixed-income securities with the same maturity, but originating from different investment sectors.

Important Risks: Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. • Fixed income security risks include credit, liquidity, call, duration, and interest-rate risk. As interest rates rise, bond prices generally fall. • Investments in high-yield (“junk”) bonds involve greater risk of price volatility, illiquidity, and default than higher-rated debt securities. • Loans can be difficult to value and less liquid than other types of debt instrument; they are also subject to nonpayment, collateral, bankruptcy, default, extension, prepayment and insolvency risks. • Foreign investments may be more volatile and less liquid than US investments and are subject to the risk of currency fluctuations and adverse political and economic developments.  These risks may be greater for investments in emerging markets or in a particular geographic region or country. • Risks of focusing investments on the healthcare related sector include regulatory and legal developments, patent considerations, intense competitive pressures, rapid technological changes, potential product obsolescence, and liquidity risk. • Investments in the commodities market and the natural-resource industry may increase liquidity risk, volatility and risk of loss if adverse developments occur. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.

The views expressed here are those of Nanette Abuhoff Jacobson. They should not be construed as investment advice. They are based on available information and are subject to change without notice. Portfolio positioning is at the discretion of the individual portfolio management teams; individual portfolio management teams and different fund sub-advisers may hold different views and may make different investment decisions for different clients or portfolios. This material and/or its contents are current as of the time of writing and may not be reproduced or distributed in whole or in part, for any purpose, without the express written consent of Wellington Management or Hartford Funds.

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