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4Q Outlook: Politics, Policy, and the Pandemic

Fourth Quarter 2020 
By Nanette Abuhoff Jacobson and Daniel Cook, CFA

How will US election risk, policy support, and progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine balance out?

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


The contrast is stunning: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has been followed by the greatest equity rebound in history (despite the recent sell-off). But we reject the theory that the market is in a bubble. The technology sector, whose rally has raised the most alarm, enjoys excellent fundamentals, and we think it could continue to exceed expectations in a low-growth world.

US election risk is also top of mind with investors, as the large number of mail-in ballots is likely to mean delayed results and legal challenges, and perhaps even civil unrest. The uncertainty will be a negative for global markets, but we expect election volatility to be temporary and are more focused on what comes next. Over our 12-month horizon, the main reasons to own risk assets1 in our view are: progress on treatments and vaccines for COVID-19; continued fiscal and monetary support; the gradual reopening of economies; and positive demand technicals in a near-zero yield environment for developed markets (FIGURE 1). Our bullishness, however, is tempered by global economic indicators that remain well below pre-COVID levels, the potentially reduced fiscal and monetary oomph of future policy action, and COVID-19 uncertainty, (including a possible second wave, the path of vaccine trials and distribution, and the vaccine take-up rate).

 

Figure 1

“TINA” More Relevant at Near-Zero Yields

Ten-year real bond yields (%)

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Source: Bloomberg | Past performance does not guarantee future results. | Chart data: January 2014–August 2020

 

We continue to prefer US equities given our expectation that global growth will recover slowly. The “TINA” effect (There Is No Alternative) is powerful given low fixed-income yields and the potential yield and earnings growth that US equities may provide.

Investor cash levels also remain high and could provide support for equities. We are neutral on European, Japanese, and emerging-market (EM) equities, as we think less attractive fundamentals are offset by cheaper valuations. We expect interest rates to stay low, given the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) new policy framework, and find many areas of credit attractive given the demand for yield and the Fed’s asset-purchase support. We believe the COVID-19 shock is deflationary and, consequently, think commodities could be a source of funds. The one exception is gold and other precious metals, which we think could be a complement to fixed income for diversification purposes in a period of near-zero yields.

 

Equities: Leaning Toward Growth

We are moderately bullish on US equities given the less cyclical nature of the economy and the market’s growth and technology exposure. In the post-COVID regime that we expect—low growth, low inflation, and low rates—growth areas such as technology could remain attractive thanks to their potential to increase earnings and cash flow despite rich valuations (FIGURE 2).

 

Figure 2

Advance in Tech Supported by Higher Earnings

S&P 500 IT Sector Index

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Tech P/E ratio is the tech price/earnings ratio calculated as last market price divided by trailing 12M earnings per share. | Source: Bloomberg | Chart data: January 1997 – August 2020 | The S&P 500 Information Technology Index comprises those companies included in the S&P 500 Index that are classified as members of the GICS information technology sector. | Past performance does not guarantee future results. Indices are unmanaged and not available for direct investment.

 

European and Japanese equities are cheap and their economies are recovering enough to potentially warrant some exposure, but equity valuations matter very little over a one-year horizon and both regions are highly exposed to the fragile global economy. To turn more bullish, we would want to see evidence that a widely distributable vaccine was on the way or that global leading economic indicators were turning more positive.

Europe has undertaken enough policy support to prevent material downside for the economy, though not enough to provide much upside. We are closely monitoring Brexit developments and prefer to steer clear of UK equities at this time. In Japan, we think new Premier Yoshihide Suga will continue the reflationary policies of his predecessor, but we fail to see a catalyst for the Japanese market to move much higher.

Emerging markets are a heterogeneous asset class, and country differentiation is key. Most of the countries and regions we currently find attractive are in Asia, and China tops the list. The country has made great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19, and our macro team expects a steady if unspectacular economic recovery. Countries we see reasons to avoid include Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa. 

 

Credit: Still a Good Case for Tighter Spreads

It was another good quarter for credit spreads,2 which narrowed 20–100 basis points (bps),3 and total returns were in the 1%–5% range with high yield among the best performers. The backdrop for continued spread tightening is positive in our view: 1) the economy is slowly improving; 2) the Fed will be on hold for years with its new average inflation targeting strategy; 3) demand for extra yield over government bonds is strong; and 4) valuations are at median levels versus history.

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 September 2020, are based on available information, and are 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.

Within credit, we continue to favor high yield and think spreads could potentially tighten around 100 bps more over the coming 6–12 months. Defaults spiked in the April–July period but have already come down, and we expect a drawn-out default cycle with slightly elevated defaults relative to the long-term average of 4%. We prefer high yield to bank loans given the prospect of short-term yields staying at zero for several years. We also think “fallen angels” (bonds downgraded from investment-grade to high yield) will remain elevated into 2021 as some companies struggle with deteriorating credit metrics. Fallen angels have historically added to high-yield returns (FIGURE 3).

 

Figure 3

Fallen Angels Have Added Return to High Yield

Cumulative growth (assuming base value of $1 as of 1/31/05)

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Performance metrics are based on monthly returns during the period from 1/31/05 to 7/31/20. | For illustrative purposes only. | Past performance does not guarantee future results. | The Bloomberg Barclays US High Yield Fallen Angel 3% Capped Bond Index is a component of the US Corporate High Yield Index that is designed to track USD-denominated, high-yield, fixed-rate corporate bonds that have been downgraded from investment grade. | The Bloomberg Barclays US High Yield Corporate Bond Index is an unmanaged broad-based market-value weighted index that tracks the total-return performance of non-investment grade, fixed-rate publicly placed, dollar-denominated and nonconvertible debt registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

 

We see securitized assets as a way to express a positive view on residential housing, though we are cautious on commercial property such as malls and offices. With mortgage rates below 3%, unemployment declining, and millennials—now the largest age group in the US—creating a large source of demand, we see tailwinds for sectors such as workforce housing and credit-risk transfer. We are moderately bearish on emerging-market debt, especially USD-denominated sovereign debt. These economies have been hit by higher government spending and, given their export orientation, the global slowdown. We find corporate debt, with fewer sovereign-related problems, a more attractive option for EM debt exposure.

 

Risks

The biggest near-term risk is the US presidential election. Uncertainty surrounds the process and, we think the potential for post-election civil strife is quite high. Risk markets are also likely to initially react poorly to a blue-wave scenario in which Democrats win the White House and control both houses of Congress, paving the way for higher corporate taxes and more regulation (FIGURE 4).

 

Figure 4

Greater Potential for a Democratic Sweep

Swing state Trump 2016 election margin (thousands)* Current net polling (thousands)^ Current continuing unemployment claims (thousands)
Arizona 91 -346 200
Florida 113 -672 410
Michigan 11 -706 439
North Carolina 173 -312 170
Pennsylvania 44 -898 583
Wisconsin 23 -332 139

* The Trump 2016 election margin is based on the 2016 presidential election and the margin represents the difference between votes received for Trump and Clinton. | ^ The current net polling is based on Trump’s net approval rating as of 9/13/20; then the number of lost voters is extrapolated by using the approval rating and number of registered voters in each state. | The current continuing unemployment claims are for the week ending 8/29/20. | Sources: New York Times, United States Census Bureau, United States Department of Labor

 

However, we are more focused on longer-term risks, including COVID-19 developments. Markets are optimistic that a safe, effective vaccine will be ready for distribution in 2021, so a disappointment on this front or a second wave of the virus in this fall or winter could derail the global recovery. In this scenario, we think more stimulus will be forthcoming.

Given our fairly balanced views, we also consider upside risk. We see three potential catalysts that could cause a definitive rotation into value-oriented sectors, which include non-US equities, deep cyclicals, commodities, EM equities, and EM currencies:

  • Vaccine — If a safe, effective vaccine comes to market, distribution begins sooner than expected, and take-up is strong, growth expectations would likely rise.
  • US dollar weakening — If global economic conditions stabilize and the US dollar weakens further, EM and cyclicals could outperform developed markets and defensives.
  • Valuations — Despite the gaping valuation disparity between growth and value, we believe mean reversion requires a catalyst. Given starting valuation levels, should either of our first two scenarios come to fruition, we would expect a growth-to-value rotation to gain momentum. 

 

Investment Implications 

Looking beyond the election — An election-related spike in volatility seems likely in the near term, but we expect the course of COVID-19 and fiscal and monetary policy to ultimately have more sway over markets.

Leaning toward growth in equities — We prefer US equities, as we think they could retain their premium given the slow recovery we expect over the coming year. Given the upside risks described above, we have a neutral view on non-US equities and see the case for taking profits in technology (but staying long) and moving into higher-quality value-oriented companies that are more exposed to a cyclical upturn within retail, financials, and industrials. Within EM equities, we prefer China for growth exposure.

Seeing more spread-tightening potential in credit — Spreads have narrowed but are still around median levels as of this writing. Given the Fed’s unprecedented support for credit, we think spreads will continue to grind tighter. We are less optimistic about EM debt given poorer fundamentals. Securitized assets are not the target of Fed credit programs, but the market offers exposure to the improving US residential housing market.

Diversifying with high-quality bonds — We think agency mortgage-backed securities and high-quality government bonds could potentially boost a portfolio’s diversification and liquidity if the recession is deeper or longer than we expect. We think taxable investors should consider municipal bonds given attractive valuations.

Enhancing diversification with precious metals — Given rock-bottom fixed-income yields, we think precious metals can potentially play a role in boosting portfolio diversification and mitigating the effects of a stagflationary environment and geopolitical tensions.
 

The views expressed here are those of the authors. 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. 

  

Subscribe to Nanette’s commentary at hartfordfunds.com/nanette



1 Risk assets (such as equities, commodities, high-yield bonds, real estate, and currencies) have a significant degree of price volatility.

2 Spreads are the difference in yields between two fixed-income securities with the same maturity, but originating from different investment sectors.

3 A basis point is a unit that is equal to 1/100th of 1%, and is used to denote the change in a financial instrument. The basis point is commonly used for calculating changes in interest rates, equity indexes and the yield of a fixed-income security.

Important Risks: Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. • 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. • Fixed-income security risks include credit, liquidity, call, duration, and interest-rate risk. As interest rates rise, bond prices generally fall. • US Treasury securities are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. • Municipal securities may be adversely impacted by state/local, political, economic, or market conditions. Investors may be subject to the federal Alternative Minimum Tax as well as state and local income taxes. Capital gains, if any, are taxable. • Investments in high-yield (“junk”) bonds involve greater risk of price volatility, illiquidity, and default than higher-rated debt securities. and counterparty risk. •The risks associated with mortgage-related and asset-backed securities include credit, interest-rate, prepayment, liquidity, default and extension risk. Investments in commodities may be more volatile than investments in traditional securities. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.

Additional Information Regarding Bloomberg Barclays Indices Source: Bloomberg Index Services Limited. BLOOMBERG® is a trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P. and its affiliates (collectively “Bloomberg”). BARCLAYS® is a trademark and service mark of Barclays Bank Plc (collectively with its affiliates, “Barclays”), used under license. Bloomberg or Bloomberg’s licensors, including Barclays, own all proprietary rights in the Bloomberg Barclays Indices. Neither Bloomberg nor Barclays approves or endorses this material, or guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information herein, or makes any warranty, express or implied, as to the results to be obtained therefrom and, to the maximum extent allowed by law, neither shall have any liability or responsibility for injury or damages arising in connection therewith.

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