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3Q Outlook: Do the Fundamental Things Apply?

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

With political and COVID-19 risks still on the horizon, how might investors approach the market in the second half of the year?

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


Global equity markets have staged a remarkable rebound over the past few months, recouping 73% of their COVID-19 decline as of June 22. The speed and magnitude of the risk rally is unprecedented relative to past economic shocks, so it’s understandable that investors are asking whether there’s a disconnect between the market gains and the economic fundamentals. In the short term, we think the market recovery is justified: Treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 are likely on the horizon, monetary and fiscal policy support is strong, and economies are slowly reopening (Figure 1).

However, after the initial burst of economic improvement from ultra-depressed levels, we expect a slower pace of recovery. In addition, since the fundamentals are dependent on the course of and treatments for a disease, and recovery from a unique and drastic shock, it’s difficult to have a high degree of confidence about the path of the global economy. Taking all of this into account, we think volatility will remain elevated over the next 6–12 months and have tilted our views only modestly in favor of more aggressive exposures, leaving us fairly neutral across asset classes.

We continue to prefer US equities given our expectation that global growth will recover slowly and to a weak level. 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 and find many areas of credit attractive. We believe the COVID-19 shock is deflationary and, consequently, think commodities could be a source of funds.

 

Figure 1

Fiscal and Monetary Support for a Recovery

Fiscal stimulus announced in 2020 (% of GDP)

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As of June 2020 | Source: Wellington Management

 

M1 money supply (year-over-year % change)

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Source: Bloomberg | Chart data: US and Japan: May 2004–May 2020; Euro area:  May 2004–April 2020 | M1 is the money supply that is composed of physical currency and coin, demand deposits, travelers’ checks, other checkable deposits, and negotiable order of withdrawal (NOW) accounts.

 

Equities: A Balanced Approach

Our moderately bullish view on US equities stems from the less cyclical nature of the economy and the potential for the market’s heavy growth and tech exposure to continue outperforming. While value may have its day in the sun during the initial economic recovery, we think the post-COVID-19 world could closely resemble the post-financial-crisis world, with aggressive monetary stimulus, low growth, low rates, and low inflation. Against this backdrop, we expect growth equities to outperform over the next year, despite rich valuations.

We have upgraded our view on Europe to neutral based on the region’s progress toward recovery from the virus (or at least its first wave), solid monetary and fiscal support, and cheap valuations. The European Central Bank is committed to containing sovereign spreads1 for at least another year, and German fiscal stimulus has surprised on the upside. However, Europe remains highly exposed to the unsettled global backdrop and must reckon with Brexit by year end.

We have also raised our view on Japanese equities to neutral as the policy response has exceeded our expectations and the country has been relatively unscathed by the virus. Despite cheap valuations, however, Japan’s equity market is very sensitive to changes in the global economy, and the path there may be too bumpy to justify exposure to Japanese equities.

Emerging markets are a heterogeneous asset class, and country differentiation is key. We find some countries and regions attractive, including China, Russia, and Eastern Europe, but we also see reasons to avoid others, such as Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa. Broadly speaking, we think emerging markets may suffer the most in the second half of 2020 as weaker healthcare systems and safety nets are stressed by the COVID-19 outbreak. We are comfortable with a neutral stance, however, and think a scenario where a stronger global recovery or a weaker US dollar benefits EM equities is realistic, though not our base case (Figure 2).

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 June 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.

 

Figure 2

Weaker Dollar Poses Upside Risk for Value-Oriented Assets

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Past performance does not guarantee future results. | Sources: Datastream, Wellington Management | Chart data: December 1998–May 2020

 

Credit: Have Spreads Come Too Far?

Like equities, credit has had an extraordinary run this past quarter, with spreads narrowing hundreds of basis points2 in many cases. Despite that, spreads remain cheap and the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) credit purchase programs give us confidence that they could narrow further and potentially provide attractive total returns over the next 12 months.

The Fed has the potential to become an enormous buyer of credit with its newly created Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF) programs. The combined US$750 billion of buying power represents 42% of the outstanding universe of investment-grade corporates with maturities of five years or less, and we think it effectively short-circuits the process of liquidity risk becoming solvency risk for stressed companies (see “The Fed’s Credit-Purchase Programs May be a Game Changer”). The Fed’s purchase programs also include high-yield ETFs and “fallen angels.” While recessions have typically meant peak default rates in the 10%–13% range, we believe access to liquidity could keep the default rate under 10%.

Within credit, we find emerging-market debt less attractive. Valuations are more expensive and, with many large countries in the EM debt index, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey, still battling rising COVID-19 case counts, we think fundamentals are likely to worsen.

The securitized market includes a broad mix of asset types and properties, so security selection is paramount. In addition, the Fed’s buying programs have split the market into “haves” and “have nots,” depending on whether an asset is included in one of the programs. To the extent one can generalize, we prefer structures in the residential property market over those in the commercial property market. We are cautious on malls and offices compared to industrial and multi-family properties. Meanwhile, housing affordability (based on home prices, income, and mortgage rates relative to household income) is high and housing supply is low. With a pickup in the housing market emerging, the credit-risk transfer market may offer a way to take advantage of these dynamics.

 

Risks

The biggest downside risk to our views is that the recession is longer than anticipated and risk assets correct. A disappointment on the medical front, a resumption of lockdowns in areas where there are new outbreaks of COVID-19, or a second wave in the fall could derail our base case that we are on a path to recovery over the coming year.

While the growth rate of COVID-19 is rising in emerging markets, it is declining enough in the developed world for us to consider an upside risk: the possibility that the economic recovery is stronger than our base case, and the recent leadership in value persists. In that scenario, cheaper areas of the market, such as non-US, smaller-cap, and deeper-value equities, could potentially outperform. Further US-dollar weakness could also be associated with a risk-on environment, especially in emerging markets.

While COVID-19 has been the biggest preoccupation of market participants, there are other risks to consider, including a potential uptick in political risks. US-China relations have deteriorated during the year. If President Trump’s reelection chances worsen as the November election approaches, the administration might pull out of the Phase 1 trade deal or otherwise increase trade tensions (Figure 3). In addition, a Joe Biden presidency would likely mean increased regulations and taxes. The pandemic and the riots that erupted after George Floyd’s death have brought heightened attention to gaps and inequities in healthcare, education, and opportunity, and could push Biden’s platform further to the left.

 

Figure 3

Trump Reelection Worries Could Mean More Trade Tensions and Increased Risk of a Democratic Sweep

Swing state Trump 2016 election margin (thousands)* Current net polling (thousands)^ Current continuing unemployment claims (thousands)
Arizona 91 -409 211
Florida 113 -576 967
Michigan 11 -652 756
North Carolina 173 -467 538
Pennsylvania 44 -760 847
Wisconsin 23 -266 256

* 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 6/13/20; 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 5/30/20. | Sources: New York Times, United States Census Bureau, United States Department of Labor.

 

Brexit is also looming. While we think the European Union (EU) recovery fund has greatly reduced the tail risk of a euro breakup, it seems more likely that the UK and the EU won’t have an agreement by the end of the year and that there will be some form of hard Brexit.

 

Investment Implications 

 

  • A balanced approach to 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 risk in the near term, we have a neutral view on non-US equities.
  • Value for the short term — We see a short-term case for some exposure to value-oriented markets and sectors, including financials and other cyclical areas in industrials and consumer discretionary. Longer term, we think tepid economic growth could continue to make technology a relative winner on the strength of 5G expansion and the growing demand for data, speed, and enterprise software.
  • Opportunities in credit — Spreads have narrowed but are still well wide of median levels. Given the Fed’s unprecedented support for credit, we think spreads will continue to grind tighter. We are less optimistic about EM debt given valuations and poorer fundamentals. Structured credit is not the target of Fed credit programs, but the market offers exposure to the improving US residential housing market.
  • High-quality bonds — We think agency mortgage-backed securities and high-quality government bonds can 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.

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. 

  

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

2 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 indices, and the yield of a fixed-income security.

Important Risks: Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Security prices fluctuate in value depending on general market and economic conditions and the prospects of individual companies. • Different investment styles may go in and out favor, which may cause underperformance to the broader stock market. • 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. • 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. • Loans can be difficult to value and less liquid than other types of debt instruments; they are also subject to nonpayment, collateral, bankruptcy, default, extension, prepayment and insolvency risks. • Investments in high-yield (“junk”) bonds involve greater risk of price volatility, illiquidity, and default than higher-rated debt securities. • Mortgage-related and asset-backed securities’ risks include credit, interest-rate, prepayment, and extension risk. • Investments in commodities may be more volatile than investments in traditional securities.

Neither MSCI nor any other party involved in or related to compiling, computing or creating the MSCI data makes any express or implied warranties or representations with respect to such data (or the results to be obtained by the use thereof), and all such parties hereby expressly disclaim all warranties of originality, accuracy, completeness, merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose with respect to any of such data. Without limiting any of the foregoing, in no event shall MSCI, any of its affiliates or any third party involved in or related to compiling, computing or creating the data have any liability for any direct, indirect, special, punitive, consequential or any other damages (including lost profits) even if notified of the possibility of such damages. No further distribution or dissemination of the MSCI data is permitted without MSCI’s express written consent.

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