July 2018 Market Report
During the month to June 29th, 2018, major equity markets displayed a mixed trend, dropping overall and with considerable individual market and day to day variation. There was an abundance of market moving news over the period whether at corporate, economic or political level. The European Central Bank appeared to become more certain of removing QE over coming quarters but delaying any interest rate increase until 2019, while economic news was generally dull. Political events in Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey influenced bond spreads and Forex markets. US market watchers continued to grapple with ongoing tariff discussions, Iranian nuclear/sanctions, NAFTA friction and North Korean meeting uncertainty as well as domestic issues. In the Far East, North and South Korea made faltering progress towards an agreement while China flexed its muscles in response to Trump’s trade and other demands and relaxed bank reserve requirement late in the month. The UK reported mixed economic data with satisfactory developments on the government borrowing side, inflation slightly lower than expected, but poor revised GDP first quarter figures. The data and ongoing Brexit confusion had forced the MPC to keep interest rates on hold at the previous meeting although the MPC appears to be turning more hawkish.
Aggregate world hard economic data continues to show steady expansion, excluding the UK, as confirmed by the IMF and the OECD with some forecasts of 2018 economic growth in the 3.5% to 3.9% area although recent sentiment indicators indicate some current economic softness. Fluctuating currencies continued to play an important part in asset allocation decisions, the stronger US dollar again being the major feature over June 2018, although lagging the yen year to date. Bond holders saw modest gains over the month, largely for haven reasons, although the year to date development has seen UK and US 10-year yields rise, while those in Germany and Japan have fallen. Oil was the main commodity feature both before and after the June OPEC meeting.
Interestingly, at the half year stage equity indices, gilts and sterling adjusted world equities have essentially delivered a flat performance, a buoyant first quarter almost exactly cancelled out by a weak second quarter, and the FTSE Private Investor Index Series also shows zero or slightly negative returns for the six-month period (Source FT,30/06/2018). In topical football parlance “all to play for in the second half”.
Global Equities fell over the month the FTSE ALL World Index dropping 1.61% in dollar terms and now showing a loss of -2.40% since the beginning of the year. The UK broad and narrow market indices outperformed other major markets over the month in local terms, although underperformed in sterling adjusted values from the end of 2017. Emerging markets, Germany, and Asia ex-Japan were the relative underperformers and declined in absolute terms while the S&P and NASDAQ showed absolute and relative gains. In sterling adjusted terms, Japan and America remain the outperformers on year to date performance amongst the major markets while the UK and parts of Europe remain in negative territory. The VIX index while still up about 50% from the year end, seems to have stabilised, with occasional short upward spikes. At the time of writing, the absolute VIX level stands at 15.22, far from the 9-10 level that prevailed much of last year and reflecting a level of uncertainty but far from the extreme levels experienced during major market meltdowns of the past.
Sector volatility was more muted during the month, influenced by both global factors e.g. sanctions, tariffs as well as corporate activity and ex-dividend adjustments. Oil and gas and utilities led the sectors over the month, the former also one of the top sectors year to date while banks, life assurance and property all suffered monthly relative declines. The general retail area continues to experience profit warning and downgrades and is understandably one of the weaker stock market sectors so far this year.
Gilt prices fell marginally over the month and are now down 0.98% year to date in capital terms, the 10-year yield standing at 1.31% currently. Other ten-year yield closed the month at US 2.83% Japan, 0.02% and Germany 0.26% respectively. UK corporate bonds also fell marginally in price terms over the month, ending June on a yield of approximately 2.75%. Amongst the more speculative grades, emerging markets stage a bounce in prices after several weak months. Floating rate issues continue to outperform gilts year to date in both capital and total return terms. Preference shares have recovered from the Aviva U-turn and remain attractive fixed interest alternatives. See my recommendations in preference shares, convertibles, corporate bonds, floating rate bonds etc. A list of my top thirty income ideas (all yielding over 5%) from over 10 different asset classes is available.
Amongst the major currencies, a stronger dollar was the major monthly feature rising 1.43% in trade weighted terms, largely on relative economic news The Japanese yen and the British pound both fell, the latter being very sensitive to ongoing Brexit discussion. As mentioned above, the FX moves are becoming a growing factor in asset allocations discussions. Year to date the Japanese and American equity markets are outperforming the UK and European benchmarks in sterling terms.
A generally weak month for commodities with the notable exception of oil receiving a boost from the recent OPEC meeting. Gold and other precious metals fell, as did some of the softer agricultural products after previous monthly gains. At the half year stage, oil,wheat and soya are amongst the few commodities showing absolute price gains.
Over the coming months, geo-political events and Central Bank actions/statements will continue be key market drivers while early second quarter company results will likely add some additional volatility. Ongoing corporate activity will however remain at a high level, following the record deal flow reported in the first half of 2018. With medium term expectation of rising bond yields, equity valuations and fund flow dynamics will also be increasingly important areas of interest/concern.
US watchers will continue to speculate on the timing and number of interest rate hikes 2018/2019 and longer-term debt dynamics, as well as fleshing out the winners and losers from any tariff developments (steel, aluminium, EU, China,NAFTA)-a moving target! Additional discussions pertaining to North Korea, Russia (July 16th), Iran, Venezuela, and Trump’s own position could precipitate volatility in equities, commodities and currencies. In Japan market sentiment is likely to be influenced by economic policy and Abe’s political rating, the recent yen weakness being a positive factor for equity investors. Recent corporate governance initiatives e.g non-executive directors, cross holdings, dividends are also helping sentiment European investment mood will be tested by economic figures (temporary slowdown or more sustained?), EU Budget discussions, Italian, Turkish and Spanish politics, and reaction to the migrant discussions. Hard economic data and various sentiment/residential property indicators will continue to show that UK economic growth will be slower in 2018 compared to 2017, and further down grades may appear as anecdotal second quarter figures trends are closely analysed. Brexit discussion have moved to a new level, discussions on the “custom union” being currently hotly debated. The current perception of a move to a “softer” European exit will inevitably lead to pressure from many sides. Political tensions stay at elevated levels both within and across the major parties and considerable uncertainties still face individual companies and sectors. Industry, whether through trade organizations or directly e.g. Bae, BMW, Honda,Ryanair is becoming increasingly impatient, and vocal.
On a valuation basis, most, but not all, conventional government fixed interest products continue to appear expensive against current economic forecasts and supply factors, and renewed bond price declines and further relative underperformance versus equities should be expected in the medium term, in my view. Price declines are eroding any small income returns leading to negative total returns in many cases. On the supply point there are increasing estimates of US bond issuance against a background of diminished QE and overseas buying.
Equities appear more reasonably valued, apart from some PE metrics, (especially in the US), but there are wide variations, and opportunities, in both broad asset classes. Equity investors will be looking to see if superior earnings growth can compensate for higher interest rates in several areas. Corporate results from US, Europe and Japan have, on aggregate, been up to expectations over the first quarter of 2018, although EY noted that the number of UK profits warning were about 10% higher than the previous year at the nine-month stage, mostly in the home improvement, motor, government supply, restaurant and other retail areas.US earnings rising at about 22% during the first quarter, will face a slowdown once the one-off factors dissipate.
Outside pure valuation measures, sentiment indicators and the VIX index are showing significant day to day variation, after the complacency of last year.
In terms of current recommendations,
Continue to overweight equities relative to core government bonds, especially within Continental Europe and Japan. However, an increased weighting in absolute return and other vehicles may be warranted as equity returns will become increasingly lower and more volatile, and holding greater than usual cash balances may be appropriate. Among major equity markets, the USA is one of the few areas where the ten-year bond yields roughly the same as the benchmark equity index. The equity selection should be very focussed. Certain equity valuations are rather high, especially on a PE basis (see quarterly). A combination of sharper than expected interest rate increases with corporate earnings shocks would not be conducive to strong equity returns. Ongoing and fluid tariff discussions could additionally unsettle selected countries, sectors and individual stocks Harley Davidson, German car producers etc.
- UK warrants a neutral allocation after the strong relative bounce over the quarter on the back of stronger oil price, sterling weakness and corporate activity. Ongoing Brexit debate, political stalemate and economic uncertainty could cause more sterling wobbles, which in turn could affect sector/size choices. I would expect to see more profits warnings (Countryside,H&M- latest casualties) and extra due diligence in stock/fund selection is strongly advised.
- Within UK sectors, some of the higher yielding defensive plays e.g. Pharma, telco’s and utilities have attractions relative to certain cyclicals and many financials are showing confidence by dividend hikes and buy-backs etc. Oil and gas majors may be worth holding despite the outperformance to date. Remember that the larger cap names such as Royal Dutch and BP will be better placed than some of the purer exploration plays in the event of a softer oil price. Mining stocks remain a strong hold, in my view (see my recent note for favoured large cap pooled play). Corporate activity, already apparent in the engineering (GKN), property (Hammerson), pharmaceutical (Glaxo, Shire?), packaging (Smurfit), retail (Sainsbury/Asda) is likely to increase in my view.
- Continental European equities continue to be preferred to those of USA, for reasons of valuation, and Central bank policy, although political developments in Italy, Spain and Turkey should be monitored closely. Improving economic data adds to my enthusiasm for selected European names, although European investors may be advised to focus more on domestic, rather than export related themes. Look at underlying exposure of your funds carefully. Remember that certain European and Japanese companies provide US exposure, without paying US prices. I have recently written on Japan, and I would continue to overweight this market, despite the large 2017, and 2018 to date outperformance. Smaller cap/ domestic focussed funds may out perform broader index averages e.g. JP Morgan Japanese Smaller Companies and Legg Mason.
- Alternative fixed interest vehicles, which continue to perform relatively well against conventional government bonds, have attractions e.g. floating rate funds, preference shares, convertibles, for balanced, cautious accounts and energy/ emerging/speculative grade for higher risk. These remain my favoured plays within the fixed interest space. See recent note
- UK bank preference shares still look particularly attractive and could be considered as alternatives to the ordinary shares in some cases. If anything, recent sector “news” has highlighted the attractions of the sector.
- Alternative income, private equity and renewable funds have exhibited their defensive characteristics during recent equity market wobbles and are still recommended as part of a balanced portfolio. Many of these are already providing superior total returns to both gilts and equities so far this year. Reference could be made to the renewable funds (see my recent solar and wind power recommendations). Results from Greencoat on February 26nd and Bluefield Solar the following day reinforce my optimism for the sector. Selected infrastructure funds are also recommended for purchase after the recent Corbyn / Carillion inspired weakness (see note).
- Any new commitments to the commercial property sector should be more focussed on direct equities and investment trusts than unit trusts (see my recent note comparing open ended and closed ended funds), thus exploiting the discount and double discount features respectively as well as having liquidity and trading advantages. However, in general I would not overweight the sector, as along with residential property, I expect further price stagnation especially in London offices and retail developments. The outlook for some specialist sub sectors and property outside London/South-East, however, is currently more favourable. Investors should also consider some continental European property See my recent company note, after management update last week.
- I suggest a selective approach to emerging equities and would currently avoid bonds. Although the overall valuation for emerging market equities is relatively modest, there are large differences between individual countries. A mixture of high growth/high valuation e.g. India, Vietnam and value e.g. Russia could yield rewards and there are signs of funds moving back to South Africa on political change. Turkish assets seem likely to remain highly volatile in the short term. As highlighted in the quarterly, Chinese index weightings are expected to increase quite significantly over coming years and Saudi Arabia, is just being allowed into certain indices.
Full third quarter report will soon be available to clients/subscribers and suggested portfolio strategy/individual recommendations are available. Ideas for a ten stock FTSE portfolio, model pooled fund portfolios (cautious, balanced adventurous, income), 30 stock income lists, hedging ideas and a list of shorter term low risk/ high risk ideas can also be purchased, as well as bespoke portfolio construction/restructuring.
Good luck with performance! Ken Baksh 02/07/2018
Ken has over 35 years of investment management experience, working for two major City institutions between 1976 and 2002.
Since then he has been engaged as a self-employed investment consultant. He has worked with investment trusts, unit trusts, pension funds, charities, Life Fund,hedge fund and private clients. Individual asset managed have included direct equities and bonds pooled vehicles currencies, derivatives and commodities.
Projects undertaken in a number of areas including asset allocation, risk control, performance measurement, marketing, individual company research, legacy portfolios and portfolio construction. He has a BSc(Mathematics/Statistics) and is a Fellow Member of the UK Society of Investment Professionals.
Phone 07747 114 691
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