Repricing across all major asset classes has begun with a vengeance since December, as is to be expected during periods of rising interest rates. Indeed, the current market situation might shatter any investor's confidence. Headlines about the US government's upheaval, increasing interest rates, trade disputes, and decreasing asset values are enough to put anyone to the test. Markets, in our opinion, are pricing in two main factors: 1) rising interest rates and 2) fears about future economic growth.
As the Fed's target interest rate has continuously increased (currently 2.25 percent – 2.5 percent), capital markets are understandably responding to higher, more competitive rates on risk-free products such as Treasury money market funds. It seems to reason that if investors are earning 1% more on cash than a year ago – and nearly 2% more than two years ago – they will have higher expectations for riskier investments. Given the extraordinarily low market volatility in 2017, we believe part of this repricing is beneficial (and prior). Furthermore, the Federal Reserve will continue to tighten monetary policy only if they believe US economic growth is robust, which it is. However, recent market volatility may push the Fed to abandon its declared target of two more interest rate hikes in 2019.
However, when combined with an increase in the risk-free interest rate and pessimism about global growth, the recent asset price adjustment may appear severe. However, recent market movements, while painful, are not yet dramatic; remember, the equities market returned double digits in 2017. This is not to say we are unconcerned. Looking back at our first quarter 2018 outlook, we identified interest rates and trade disputes as important issues for 2018, but we did not anticipate the current amount of government uncertainty, notably in the United States and Europe.
In this regard, despite the present administration's bluster and the recent unnecessary confusion generated by the US Treasury Secretary's examination of bank stability, we believe Fed Chair Jerome Powell's seat is secure. Political risks are rising in Europe, notably Italy's budget squabble with Brussels, which appears to have been temporarily settled, and, most crucially, Brexit, for which only the March 29, 2019 date is known at this time. Finally, talks between the United States and China appear to have broken down, albeit trade conflict appears to be priced in more today than a year ago. These factors, taken together, are prompting market participants to re-price future expectations in the face of present robust economic fundamentals.
What We Are Doing
Aldwin Callen's client portfolios have already been repositioned to reflect a higher-risk environment. These measures, which we will describe in our Q1 2019 Economic Outlook (due out in mid-January), will allow us to take advantage of the almost 2.5 percent yield on shorter-term fixed income instruments while also keeping some "dry powder"" for future opportunities.
In terms of new opportunities, values have undoubtedly fallen across asset classes. Large-cap US equities, for example, are now trading at less than 15 times profit expectations for the next 12 months, in line with historical averages and far lower than earlier this year. At the same time, large, high-quality corporations' financial sheets remain healthy. While we are encouraged by more attractive prices, we are aware that pricing is vulnerable to earnings downgrades. We believe that a US-China trade agreement and clarification from the Federal Reserve on the future path of rate hikes would support stocks and other risky assets, but both are difficult to anticipate at this time.
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