Economic and Markets Outlook for 2014
Five years on from interest rates being cut to almost zero in most Western economies, and the introduction of QE programmes in the US, UK and Japan, the global economy finally seems to be moving onto a more secure footing. Risks remain though, particularly the high levels of government and consumer debt in most Western economies, which remain a constraint on future growth. In addition, the weakness in inflation indices and continued high levels of unemployment, mean that a renewed global economic downturn, in the immediate future would be very damaging, as there would be very little policy flexibility to offset economic weakness. Our regional views are as follows:
- The UK economy has been recovering strongly since last spring when the Help to Buy scheme was announced. This recovery has been led by housing and mortgage demand, rather than by the business investment that is required for a healthy and sustainable economic recovery. However, the consumer can drive a continued recovery through 2014 and up to the 2015 election, if savings rates continue to fall.
- The US economy has entered 2014 growing at a near 3% pace, and this is expected to continue for 2014. As in the UK, business investment is still a problem, as companies appear far more concerned with growing dividends and buying back shares to boost their share prices than by investing for future growth.
- The European economy is still struggling. Growth should be positive in 2014 after close to zero in 2013, but recovery will be constrained by continued austerity by most governments, negative inflation rates in many peripheral economies, and by banks still seeking to reduce their loan books ahead of the ECB’s Asset Quality Review later in 2014.
- The Japanese economy continues to respond to Abenomics. The increase in the National Sales Tax from 5% to 8%, which will take place in April, will mean a strong first quarter but a weak second quarter. However, the Bank of Japan has indicated that it is ready to increase its already large QE programme to mitigate any economic weakness.
- In Asia, Chinese growth is slowing as the authorities there are seeking a rebalancing of growth away from the wasteful over-investment seen in recent years towards greater consumer spending. Higher wages have been a key part of this, but this has been funnelled into property speculation rather than consumption. The central bank is trying to deflate the housing market without deterring the consumer from spending.
- Other emerging economies are facing problems as the improvements in growth elsewhere are impacting the flows of financial market liquidity, which have been supporting them. Current account deficits in Brazil, Turkey and South Africa, are now causing falls in their currencies and higher interest rates in response, which will lead to weaker growth in 2014.
2014 should see the world economy move back towards a more normal pace of growth. For central banks, the dilemma is when to move back to more normal settings for monetary policy. We believe that official interest rates are unlikely to rise in the West during 2014, as it is likely that central banks will err on the side of risking creating inflation rather than risking creating more unemployment.
Entering 2014, the consensus amongst most investors on the prospects for the global economy and for stock markets in 2014 is one of greater optimism than for several years. However the two factors of improved economic prospects and stronger financial markets, do not necessarily occur simultaneously. Indeed, stronger economic growth has already led to the Fed tapering its QE programme, and investors bringing forward their expectations of when interest rates will begin to rise. Typically, the financial markets perform well in expectation of improved growth, but when that growth appears, the liquidity in the financial markets is then needed by the real economy for investment. This tends to mean rising bond yields and falling P/E ratios, and subdued investment returns.
For the UK markets in particular, the domestic pension funds have experienced a significant improvement in their funding position from the combination of rising equity prices and rising bond yields. Many schemes are being advised by their actuaries to take advantage of this improvement and to “de-risk” their portfolios by reducing equities and buying index-linked bonds.
Within bond markets, we are not particularly hopeful of much in the way of returns in 2014, and hold UK index-linked bonds for their favourable tax treatment, and the option they provide should UK inflation expectations increase. Emerging market government bonds issued in US dollars now offer attractive yields for the level of credit risk that they bring (such as those witnessed in the recent poor economic developments in Turkey and Argentina).
We favour UK commercial property, where we believe that the market cycled has reversed from falling rents and capital values to one where rents and capital values are rising. The yields on commercial property are also attractive compared with those available on bonds and equities.
Within equity markets, we favour: (i) Japan, but with the yen exposure hedged, as the Bank of Japan will continue to print money until economic recovery and inflation appear well-set; (ii) UK smaller companies, which for many years have not delivered the extra performance over large and medium-sized companies normally achieved from such investments – the current strength we are witnessing in the UK domestic economy should be reflected in better performance from smaller companies; and (iii) Asia, where valuations are historically below average in absolute terms and long term growth prospects remain strong. We have a neutral view on the larger companies in the UK equity market, with valuations on the leading index of 100 UK companies near their long term averages. The market would benefit from weakness in the pound, as profits in the second half of 2013 have been hurt by the strength of Sterling against the Dollar, Euro and Yen.
We expect the Dollar to be the strongest currency in 2014, but would expect a stronger Pound against the Euro and Yen. We are more cautious on the US and European equity markets. In the US, corporate earnings expectations are already very high, and the valuations on those expectations are also at historically high levels, so strong performance from US equities will be difficult to achieve. In Europe, in addition to high expectations of earnings growth and above-average valuations, as in the US, the growth outlook also remains subdued, bringing an extra degree of risk to European share prices.
We expect equities to outperform bonds during 2014, as they did in 2013 but expect the year to be both less profitable and more volatile for investors.
Investment Team, London Wall Partners
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