Category Archives: GFC2.0

22/12/18: Millennials and Buffetts: It’s a VUCA Investment World

My August 2018 Economic Outlook for Manning Financial:


What unites Warren Buffett, Apple and the financially distressed generation of the Millennials? In one word: cash and preferences for safe haven assets. Consider three facts.

Financial Markets

One: at the start of August, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. gave Buffett more room to engage in stock buybacks, just as company cash holdings rose to USD111 billion at the end of 2Q 2018, marking the second highest quarterly cash reserves in history of the firm. This comes on foot of Buffett's recent statements that current stock markets valuations price Berkshire out of "virtually all deals", just as the company took its holdings of Apple stock from USD40.7 billion in 1Q 2018 filings to USD47.2 billion in 2Q filings. Historically, Berkshire and Buffett are known for their high risk, nearly contrarian, but fundamentals-anchored investments: a strategy for selecting companies that offer long term value and growth potential and going long big. Today, Buffett simply can’t find enough such companies in the markets. His call is to return earnings to shareholders instead of investing them in buying more shares.

Two: on August 2nd, Apple became the first private company in history to top USD1 trillion market valuation mark when company stock closed at above USD207.05 per share. Company's path to this achievement was based on far more than just a portfolio of great products. In fact, two key financial engineering factors in recent years have contributed to its phenomenal success: aggressive tax optimisation, and extremely active shares buybacks programme. In May 2018, the company pledged USD100 billion of its USD285 billion cash stash (accumulated primarily off-shore, in low tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Jersey and in the Caribbean) for shares buybacks. As of end of July, it was already half way to that target. Apple is an industry leader in buybacks, accounting for close to 15 percent of all shares buybacks planned for 2018. But Apple is not alone. A study by the Roosevelt Institute released in August shows that U.S.-listed companies spent 60 percent of their net profits on stock buybacks between 2015-2017. And on foot of the USD1.5 trillion tax cuts bill passed by Congress in December 2017, buybacks are expected to top USD 800 billion this year alone, beating the previous historical record of USD 587 billion set in 2007. Whichever way you take the arguments, accumulation of tax optimisation-linked cash reserves, and aggressive use of shares buybacks have contributed significantly to the FAANGS (Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX), and Alphabet (GOOG)) dominance over the global financial markets.


The Squeezed Generation

And this brings us to the third fact: the lure of cash in today's world of retail investment. If cash is where Warren Buffetts and Apples of the financial and corporate worlds are, it is quite rational that cash is where the new generation of retail investors will be. Per Bankrate.com July 2018 survey data, 1 in 3 American Millennials are favouring cash instruments (e.g. savings accounts and certificates of deposit) for investing their longer-term savings. In comparison, only 21 percent of Generation X investors who prefer cash instruments, and 16 percent for the Baby Boomers. American retail investors are predominantly focused on low-yielding, higher safety investment allocations. For example, recent surveys indicate that only 18 percent of all American investment portfolios earn non-negative real returns on their savings, and that these households are dominated by the Baby Boomers generation and the top 10 percent of earners. Amongst the Millennials, the percentage is even lower at 7.4 percent.

The conventional wisdom suggests that the reasons why Millennials are so keen on holding their investments in highly secure assets is the fear of market crashes inherited by their generation from witnessing the Global Financial Crisis. But the conventional wisdom is false, and this falsehood is too dangerous to ignore for all investors - small and large alike.

In reality, the Millennials scepticism about the risk-adjusted returns promised by the traditional asset classes - equities and bonds - is not misplaced, and dovetails neatly with what both the largest American corporates and the biggest global investors are doing. Namely, they are pivoting away from yield-focused investments, and toward safe havens. The reason we are not seeing this pivot reflected in depressed asset prices, yet is because there is a growing gap between strategic positioning of the Wall Street trading houses (all-in risky assets) and those investors who are, like Buffett, focusing on longer-term investment returns.


Overvalued Investment

In simple terms, the U.S. asset markets are grossly overvalued in terms of both current pricing (including short term forward projections), and longer term valuations (over 5 years duration).

The former is not difficult to illustrate. As recent markets research shows, all of the eight major market valuations ratios are signalling some extent of excessive optimism: the current S&P500 ratio to historical average, household equity allocation ratio, price/sales ratio, price/book value ratio, Tobin's Q ratio, the so-called Buffett Indicator or the total market cap of all U.S. stocks relative to the U.S. GDP, the dividend yield, the CAPE ratio and the unadjusted P/E ratio. Take Buffett's Indicator: normally, the markets are rationally bullish when the indicator is in the 70-80 percent range, and investors pivot away from equities, when the indicator hits 100 percent. Today, the indicator is close to 140 percent - a historical record.

But the longer run valuations are harder to pin down using markets-linked indices, because no one has a crystal ball as to where the markets and the listed companies might be in years to come. Which means that any analyst worth their salt should look at the macro-drivers for signals as to the future markets pressure points and upside opportunities.

Here, there are worrying signs.

In the last three decades, bankruptcy rates for older households have increased almost three-fold, according to the recent study, from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3226574). This suggests that not all is well amongst the wealthiest retired generation, the Baby Boomers, who are currently holding the vastly disproportionate share of all risky assets in the economy. For example, 80 percent of Baby Boomers own property, accounting for roughly 65 percent of the overall housing markets available assets. All in, Baby Boomers have over 50.2 percent share of net household wealth. As they age, and as their healthcare costs rise, they will be divesting out of these assets at an increasing rate. This effect is expected to lead to a 3-3.5 percent reduction in the expected nominal returns to the pensions funds for the Generation X and the Millennials, per 2016 study by the U.S. Federal Reserve (https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/feds/2016/files/2016080pap.pdf). The latter is, in part, the legacy of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, which has resulted in an unprecedented collapse in wealth held by the American middle classes. Based on the report from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve (https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/the-region/race-and-the-race-between-stocks-and-homes), current household wealth for the bottom 50 percent of U.S. households is at the lowest levels since the mid-1950s, while household wealth of the middle 40 percent of the U.S. households is comparable to where it was in 2001. In other words, nine out of ten U.S. households have not seen any growth in their wealth for at least 18 years now.

Over the same period of time, wages and incomes of those currently in middle and early stages of their careers, aka the Generation X and the Millennials, have stagnated, while their career prospects for the near future remain severely depressed by the longer in-the-job tenures of the previous generations.

June 2018 paper from the Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, titled “Income and Wealth Inequality in America, 1949-2016” (https://www.minneapolisfed.org/institute/working-papers-institute/iwp9.pdf) documented the dramatic reallocation of purchasing power in the U.S. income across generations, from 1970 to 2015, with the share of total income earned by the bottom 50 percent dropping from 21.6 percent to 14.5 percent, while the top 10 percent share climbed from 30.7 percent to 47.6 percent. Share of wealth held in housing assets for the top 1 percent of earners currently stands at around 8.7 percent, with the remained held in financial assets and cash. For top 20 percent of income distribution, the numbers are more even at 28 percent of wealth in housing. Middle class distribution of wealth is completely reversed, with 62.5 percent held in the form of housing.

The problem is made worse by the fact that following the financial crash of 2007-2008, the U.S. Government failed to provide any meaningful support to struggling homeowners, focusing, just as European authorities did, on repairing the banks instead of households.


Markets Forward

What all of this means for the asset values going forward is that demographically, the economy is divided into the older and wealthier generation that is starting to aggressively consume their wealth, looking to sell their financial assets and leverage their housing stocks, and those who cannot afford to purchase these assets, facing lower incomes and no tradable equity. This is hardly a prescription for the bull markets in the long run.

In this environment, on a 5-10 years time horizon, holding cash and money markets instruments makes a lot more sense not because these instruments offer significant current returns, but because the expected upcoming asset price deflation will make cash and safe haven assets the new market king.

The same is apparent in the corporate decisions to use tax and regulatory changes to beef up their cash holdings and equity prices, as opposed to investing in new growth activities. Even inclusive of buybacks, and Mergers & Acquisitions in the corporate sector, aggregate investment as a share of GDP continues to slide decade after decade, as highlighted in the chart below.

CHART

What makes matters even worse is that until mid-2000s, the data for investment did not include R&D activities, normally classed as expenditure in years prior. Adjusting for M&As, buybacks and R&D allocations, aggregate investment in G7 economies has declined from 24.9 percent of GDP in the 1980s to around 16-17 percent in 2010-2018. In simple terms, neither the public nor the private sector in the largest advanced economies in the world are planning for investment-driven growth in the near future, out into 2025.

None of which should come as a surprise to those following my writings in recent years, including in these pages. Over the years, I have written extensively about the Twin Secular Stagnations Hypothesis - a proposition that the global economy has entered a structurally slower period of economic growth, driven by adverse demographics and shallower returns to technological innovation. What is new is that we are now witnessing the beginning of the demographics-driven investors' rotation out of risky assets and toward higher safety instruments. With time, this process is only likely to accelerate, leading to the structural reversal of the bull markets in risky assets and real estate.

22/12/18: Millennials and Buffetts: It’s a VUCA Investment World

My August 2018 Economic Outlook for Manning Financial:


What unites Warren Buffett, Apple and the financially distressed generation of the Millennials? In one word: cash and preferences for safe haven assets. Consider three facts.

Financial Markets

One: at the start of August, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. gave Buffett more room to engage in stock buybacks, just as company cash holdings rose to USD111 billion at the end of 2Q 2018, marking the second highest quarterly cash reserves in history of the firm. This comes on foot of Buffett's recent statements that current stock markets valuations price Berkshire out of "virtually all deals", just as the company took its holdings of Apple stock from USD40.7 billion in 1Q 2018 filings to USD47.2 billion in 2Q filings. Historically, Berkshire and Buffett are known for their high risk, nearly contrarian, but fundamentals-anchored investments: a strategy for selecting companies that offer long term value and growth potential and going long big. Today, Buffett simply can’t find enough such companies in the markets. His call is to return earnings to shareholders instead of investing them in buying more shares.

Two: on August 2nd, Apple became the first private company in history to top USD1 trillion market valuation mark when company stock closed at above USD207.05 per share. Company's path to this achievement was based on far more than just a portfolio of great products. In fact, two key financial engineering factors in recent years have contributed to its phenomenal success: aggressive tax optimisation, and extremely active shares buybacks programme. In May 2018, the company pledged USD100 billion of its USD285 billion cash stash (accumulated primarily off-shore, in low tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Jersey and in the Caribbean) for shares buybacks. As of end of July, it was already half way to that target. Apple is an industry leader in buybacks, accounting for close to 15 percent of all shares buybacks planned for 2018. But Apple is not alone. A study by the Roosevelt Institute released in August shows that U.S.-listed companies spent 60 percent of their net profits on stock buybacks between 2015-2017. And on foot of the USD1.5 trillion tax cuts bill passed by Congress in December 2017, buybacks are expected to top USD 800 billion this year alone, beating the previous historical record of USD 587 billion set in 2007. Whichever way you take the arguments, accumulation of tax optimisation-linked cash reserves, and aggressive use of shares buybacks have contributed significantly to the FAANGS (Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX), and Alphabet (GOOG)) dominance over the global financial markets.


The Squeezed Generation

And this brings us to the third fact: the lure of cash in today's world of retail investment. If cash is where Warren Buffetts and Apples of the financial and corporate worlds are, it is quite rational that cash is where the new generation of retail investors will be. Per Bankrate.com July 2018 survey data, 1 in 3 American Millennials are favouring cash instruments (e.g. savings accounts and certificates of deposit) for investing their longer-term savings. In comparison, only 21 percent of Generation X investors who prefer cash instruments, and 16 percent for the Baby Boomers. American retail investors are predominantly focused on low-yielding, higher safety investment allocations. For example, recent surveys indicate that only 18 percent of all American investment portfolios earn non-negative real returns on their savings, and that these households are dominated by the Baby Boomers generation and the top 10 percent of earners. Amongst the Millennials, the percentage is even lower at 7.4 percent.

The conventional wisdom suggests that the reasons why Millennials are so keen on holding their investments in highly secure assets is the fear of market crashes inherited by their generation from witnessing the Global Financial Crisis. But the conventional wisdom is false, and this falsehood is too dangerous to ignore for all investors - small and large alike.

In reality, the Millennials scepticism about the risk-adjusted returns promised by the traditional asset classes - equities and bonds - is not misplaced, and dovetails neatly with what both the largest American corporates and the biggest global investors are doing. Namely, they are pivoting away from yield-focused investments, and toward safe havens. The reason we are not seeing this pivot reflected in depressed asset prices, yet is because there is a growing gap between strategic positioning of the Wall Street trading houses (all-in risky assets) and those investors who are, like Buffett, focusing on longer-term investment returns.


Overvalued Investment

In simple terms, the U.S. asset markets are grossly overvalued in terms of both current pricing (including short term forward projections), and longer term valuations (over 5 years duration).

The former is not difficult to illustrate. As recent markets research shows, all of the eight major market valuations ratios are signalling some extent of excessive optimism: the current S&P500 ratio to historical average, household equity allocation ratio, price/sales ratio, price/book value ratio, Tobin's Q ratio, the so-called Buffett Indicator or the total market cap of all U.S. stocks relative to the U.S. GDP, the dividend yield, the CAPE ratio and the unadjusted P/E ratio. Take Buffett's Indicator: normally, the markets are rationally bullish when the indicator is in the 70-80 percent range, and investors pivot away from equities, when the indicator hits 100 percent. Today, the indicator is close to 140 percent - a historical record.

But the longer run valuations are harder to pin down using markets-linked indices, because no one has a crystal ball as to where the markets and the listed companies might be in years to come. Which means that any analyst worth their salt should look at the macro-drivers for signals as to the future markets pressure points and upside opportunities.

Here, there are worrying signs.

In the last three decades, bankruptcy rates for older households have increased almost three-fold, according to the recent study, from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3226574). This suggests that not all is well amongst the wealthiest retired generation, the Baby Boomers, who are currently holding the vastly disproportionate share of all risky assets in the economy. For example, 80 percent of Baby Boomers own property, accounting for roughly 65 percent of the overall housing markets available assets. All in, Baby Boomers have over 50.2 percent share of net household wealth. As they age, and as their healthcare costs rise, they will be divesting out of these assets at an increasing rate. This effect is expected to lead to a 3-3.5 percent reduction in the expected nominal returns to the pensions funds for the Generation X and the Millennials, per 2016 study by the U.S. Federal Reserve (https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/feds/2016/files/2016080pap.pdf). The latter is, in part, the legacy of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, which has resulted in an unprecedented collapse in wealth held by the American middle classes. Based on the report from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve (https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/the-region/race-and-the-race-between-stocks-and-homes), current household wealth for the bottom 50 percent of U.S. households is at the lowest levels since the mid-1950s, while household wealth of the middle 40 percent of the U.S. households is comparable to where it was in 2001. In other words, nine out of ten U.S. households have not seen any growth in their wealth for at least 18 years now.

Over the same period of time, wages and incomes of those currently in middle and early stages of their careers, aka the Generation X and the Millennials, have stagnated, while their career prospects for the near future remain severely depressed by the longer in-the-job tenures of the previous generations.

June 2018 paper from the Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, titled “Income and Wealth Inequality in America, 1949-2016” (https://www.minneapolisfed.org/institute/working-papers-institute/iwp9.pdf) documented the dramatic reallocation of purchasing power in the U.S. income across generations, from 1970 to 2015, with the share of total income earned by the bottom 50 percent dropping from 21.6 percent to 14.5 percent, while the top 10 percent share climbed from 30.7 percent to 47.6 percent. Share of wealth held in housing assets for the top 1 percent of earners currently stands at around 8.7 percent, with the remained held in financial assets and cash. For top 20 percent of income distribution, the numbers are more even at 28 percent of wealth in housing. Middle class distribution of wealth is completely reversed, with 62.5 percent held in the form of housing.

The problem is made worse by the fact that following the financial crash of 2007-2008, the U.S. Government failed to provide any meaningful support to struggling homeowners, focusing, just as European authorities did, on repairing the banks instead of households.


Markets Forward

What all of this means for the asset values going forward is that demographically, the economy is divided into the older and wealthier generation that is starting to aggressively consume their wealth, looking to sell their financial assets and leverage their housing stocks, and those who cannot afford to purchase these assets, facing lower incomes and no tradable equity. This is hardly a prescription for the bull markets in the long run.

In this environment, on a 5-10 years time horizon, holding cash and money markets instruments makes a lot more sense not because these instruments offer significant current returns, but because the expected upcoming asset price deflation will make cash and safe haven assets the new market king.

The same is apparent in the corporate decisions to use tax and regulatory changes to beef up their cash holdings and equity prices, as opposed to investing in new growth activities. Even inclusive of buybacks, and Mergers & Acquisitions in the corporate sector, aggregate investment as a share of GDP continues to slide decade after decade, as highlighted in the chart below.

CHART

What makes matters even worse is that until mid-2000s, the data for investment did not include R&D activities, normally classed as expenditure in years prior. Adjusting for M&As, buybacks and R&D allocations, aggregate investment in G7 economies has declined from 24.9 percent of GDP in the 1980s to around 16-17 percent in 2010-2018. In simple terms, neither the public nor the private sector in the largest advanced economies in the world are planning for investment-driven growth in the near future, out into 2025.

None of which should come as a surprise to those following my writings in recent years, including in these pages. Over the years, I have written extensively about the Twin Secular Stagnations Hypothesis - a proposition that the global economy has entered a structurally slower period of economic growth, driven by adverse demographics and shallower returns to technological innovation. What is new is that we are now witnessing the beginning of the demographics-driven investors' rotation out of risky assets and toward higher safety instruments. With time, this process is only likely to accelerate, leading to the structural reversal of the bull markets in risky assets and real estate.

19/12/18: From Goldilocks to Humpty-Dumpty Markets


As noted in the post above, I am covering the recent volatility and uncertainty in the financial markets for the Sunday Business Post : https://www.businesspost.ie/business/goldilocks-humpty-dumpty-markets-2018-433053.


Below is the un-edited version of the article:

2018 has been a tough year for investors. Based on the data compiled by the Deutsche Bank AG research team, as of November 2018, 65.7 percent of all globally-traded assets were posting annual losses in gross (non-risk adjusted) terms. This marks 2018 as the third worst year on record since 1901, after 1920 (67.6 percent) and 1994 (67.2 percent), as Chart 1 below illustrates. Adjusting Deutsche Bank’s data for the last thirty days, by mid-December 2018, 66.3 percent of all assets traded in the markets are now in the red on the annual returns basis.

CHART 1: Percentage of Assets with Negative Total Returns in Local Currency

Source: Deutsche Bank AG
Note: The estimates are based on a varying number of assets, with 30 assets included in 1901, rising to 70 assets in 2018

Of the 24 major asset classes across the Advanced Economies and Emerging Markets, only three, the U.S. Treasury Bills (+19.5% YTD through November 15), the U.S. Leveraged Loans (+7.45%), and the U.S. Dollar (+0.78%) offer positive risk-adjusted returns, based on the data from Bloomberg. S&P 500 equities are effectively unchanged on 2017. Twenty other asset classes are in the red, as shown in the second chart below, victims of either negative gross returns, high degree of volatility in prices (high risk), or both.


CHART 2: Risk-Adjusted Returns, YTD through mid-December 2018, percent

Source: Data from Bloomberg, TradingView, and author own calculations
Note: Risk-adjusted returns take into account volatility in prices. IG = Investment Grade, HY = High Yield, EM = Emerging Markets

The causes of this abysmal performance are both structural and cyclical.


Cyclical Worries

The cyclical side of the markets is easier to deal with. Here, concerns are that the U.S., European and global economies have entered the last leg of the current expansion cycle that the world economy has enjoyed since 2009 (the U.S. since 2010, and the Eurozone since 2014). Although the latest forecasts from the likes of the IMF and the World Bank indicate only a gradual slowdown in the economic activity across the world in 2019-2023, majority of the private sector analysts are expecting a U.S. recession in the first half of 2020, following a slowdown in growth in 2019. For the Euro area, many analysts are forecasting a recession as early as late-2019.

The key cyclical driver for these expectations is tightening of monetary policies that sustained the recovery post-Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession. And the main forward-looking indicators for cyclical pressures to be watched by investors is the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the 10-year yield and the money velocity.

The yield curve is currently at a risk of inverting (a situation when the long-term interest rates fall below short-term interest rates). The 10-year yields are trading at below 3 percent marker – a sign of the financial markets losing optimism over the sustainability of the U.S. growth rates. Money velocity is falling across the Advanced Economies – a dynamic only partially accounted for by the more recent monetary policies.

CHART 3: 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Rate, January 2011-present, percent

Source: FRED database, Federal reserve bank of St. Louis. 


Structural Pains

While cyclical pressures can be treated as priceable risks, investors’ concerns over structural problems in the global economy are harder to assess and hedge.

The key concerns so far have been the extreme uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the impact of the U.S. Presidential Administration policies on trade, geopolitical risks, and fiscal expansionism. Compounding factor has been a broader rise in political opportunism and the accompanying decline in the liberal post-Cold War world order.

The U.S. Federal deficit have ballooned to USD780 billion in the fiscal 2018, the highest since 2012. It is now on schedule to exceed USD1 trillion this year. Across the Atlantic, since mid-2018, a new factor has been adding to growing global uncertainty: the structural weaknesses in the Euro area financial services sector (primarily in the German, Italian and French banking sectors), and the deterioration in fiscal positions in Italy (since Summer 2018) and France (following November-December events). The European Central Bank’s pivot toward unwinding excessively accommodating monetary policies of the recent past, signaled in Summer 2018, and re-confirmed in December, is adding volatility to structural worries amongst the investors.

Other long-term worries that are playing out in the investment markets relate to the ongoing investors’ unease about the nature of economic expansion during 2010-2018 period. As evident in longer term financial markets dynamics, the current growth cycle has been dominated by one driver: loose monetary policies of quantitative easing. This driver fuelled unprecedented bubbles across a range of financial assets, from real estate to equities, from corporate debt to Government bonds, as noted earlier.

However, the same driver also weakened corporate balance sheets in Europe and the U.S. As the result, key corporate risk metrics, such as the degree of total leverage, the cyclically-adjusted price to earnings ratios, and the ratio of credit growth to value added growth in the private economy have been flashing red for a good part of two decades. Not surprisingly, U.S. velocity of money has been on a continuous downward trend from 1998, with Eurozone velocity falling since 2007. Year on year monetary base in China, Euro Area, Japan and United States grew at 2.8 percent in October 2018, second lowest reading since January 2016, according to the data from Yardeni Research.

Meanwhile, monetary, fiscal and economic policies of the first two decades of this century have failed to support to the upside both the labour and technological capital productivity growth. In other words, the much-feared spectre of the broad secular stagnation (the hypothesis that long-term changes in both demand and supply factors are leading to a structural long-term slowdown in global economic growth) remains a serious concern for investors. The key leading indicator that investors should be watching with respect to this risk is the aggregate rate of investment growth in non-financial private sector, net of M&As and shares repurchases – the rate that virtually collapsed in post-2008 period and have not recovered to its 1990s levels since.

The second half of 2018 has been the antithesis to the so-called ‘Goldolocks markets’ of 2014-2017, when all investment asset classes across the Advanced Economies were rising in valuations. At the end of 3Q 2018, U.S. stock markets valuations relative to GDP have topped the levels previously seen only in 1929 and 2000. Since the start of October, however, we have entered a harmonised ‘Humpty-Dumpty market’, characterised by spiking volatility, rising uncertainty surrounding the key drivers of markets dynamics. Adding to this high degree of coupling across various asset classes, the recent developments in global markets suggest a more structural rebalancing in investors’ attitudes to risk that is likely to persist into 2019.

19/12/18: From Goldilocks to Humpty-Dumpty Markets


As noted in the post above, I am covering the recent volatility and uncertainty in the financial markets for the Sunday Business Post : https://www.businesspost.ie/business/goldilocks-humpty-dumpty-markets-2018-433053.


Below is the un-edited version of the article:

2018 has been a tough year for investors. Based on the data compiled by the Deutsche Bank AG research team, as of November 2018, 65.7 percent of all globally-traded assets were posting annual losses in gross (non-risk adjusted) terms. This marks 2018 as the third worst year on record since 1901, after 1920 (67.6 percent) and 1994 (67.2 percent), as Chart 1 below illustrates. Adjusting Deutsche Bank’s data for the last thirty days, by mid-December 2018, 66.3 percent of all assets traded in the markets are now in the red on the annual returns basis.

CHART 1: Percentage of Assets with Negative Total Returns in Local Currency

Source: Deutsche Bank AG
Note: The estimates are based on a varying number of assets, with 30 assets included in 1901, rising to 70 assets in 2018

Of the 24 major asset classes across the Advanced Economies and Emerging Markets, only three, the U.S. Treasury Bills (+19.5% YTD through November 15), the U.S. Leveraged Loans (+7.45%), and the U.S. Dollar (+0.78%) offer positive risk-adjusted returns, based on the data from Bloomberg. S&P 500 equities are effectively unchanged on 2017. Twenty other asset classes are in the red, as shown in the second chart below, victims of either negative gross returns, high degree of volatility in prices (high risk), or both.


CHART 2: Risk-Adjusted Returns, YTD through mid-December 2018, percent

Source: Data from Bloomberg, TradingView, and author own calculations
Note: Risk-adjusted returns take into account volatility in prices. IG = Investment Grade, HY = High Yield, EM = Emerging Markets

The causes of this abysmal performance are both structural and cyclical.


Cyclical Worries

The cyclical side of the markets is easier to deal with. Here, concerns are that the U.S., European and global economies have entered the last leg of the current expansion cycle that the world economy has enjoyed since 2009 (the U.S. since 2010, and the Eurozone since 2014). Although the latest forecasts from the likes of the IMF and the World Bank indicate only a gradual slowdown in the economic activity across the world in 2019-2023, majority of the private sector analysts are expecting a U.S. recession in the first half of 2020, following a slowdown in growth in 2019. For the Euro area, many analysts are forecasting a recession as early as late-2019.

The key cyclical driver for these expectations is tightening of monetary policies that sustained the recovery post-Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession. And the main forward-looking indicators for cyclical pressures to be watched by investors is the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the 10-year yield and the money velocity.

The yield curve is currently at a risk of inverting (a situation when the long-term interest rates fall below short-term interest rates). The 10-year yields are trading at below 3 percent marker – a sign of the financial markets losing optimism over the sustainability of the U.S. growth rates. Money velocity is falling across the Advanced Economies – a dynamic only partially accounted for by the more recent monetary policies.

CHART 3: 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Rate, January 2011-present, percent

Source: FRED database, Federal reserve bank of St. Louis. 


Structural Pains

While cyclical pressures can be treated as priceable risks, investors’ concerns over structural problems in the global economy are harder to assess and hedge.

The key concerns so far have been the extreme uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the impact of the U.S. Presidential Administration policies on trade, geopolitical risks, and fiscal expansionism. Compounding factor has been a broader rise in political opportunism and the accompanying decline in the liberal post-Cold War world order.

The U.S. Federal deficit have ballooned to USD780 billion in the fiscal 2018, the highest since 2012. It is now on schedule to exceed USD1 trillion this year. Across the Atlantic, since mid-2018, a new factor has been adding to growing global uncertainty: the structural weaknesses in the Euro area financial services sector (primarily in the German, Italian and French banking sectors), and the deterioration in fiscal positions in Italy (since Summer 2018) and France (following November-December events). The European Central Bank’s pivot toward unwinding excessively accommodating monetary policies of the recent past, signaled in Summer 2018, and re-confirmed in December, is adding volatility to structural worries amongst the investors.

Other long-term worries that are playing out in the investment markets relate to the ongoing investors’ unease about the nature of economic expansion during 2010-2018 period. As evident in longer term financial markets dynamics, the current growth cycle has been dominated by one driver: loose monetary policies of quantitative easing. This driver fuelled unprecedented bubbles across a range of financial assets, from real estate to equities, from corporate debt to Government bonds, as noted earlier.

However, the same driver also weakened corporate balance sheets in Europe and the U.S. As the result, key corporate risk metrics, such as the degree of total leverage, the cyclically-adjusted price to earnings ratios, and the ratio of credit growth to value added growth in the private economy have been flashing red for a good part of two decades. Not surprisingly, U.S. velocity of money has been on a continuous downward trend from 1998, with Eurozone velocity falling since 2007. Year on year monetary base in China, Euro Area, Japan and United States grew at 2.8 percent in October 2018, second lowest reading since January 2016, according to the data from Yardeni Research.

Meanwhile, monetary, fiscal and economic policies of the first two decades of this century have failed to support to the upside both the labour and technological capital productivity growth. In other words, the much-feared spectre of the broad secular stagnation (the hypothesis that long-term changes in both demand and supply factors are leading to a structural long-term slowdown in global economic growth) remains a serious concern for investors. The key leading indicator that investors should be watching with respect to this risk is the aggregate rate of investment growth in non-financial private sector, net of M&As and shares repurchases – the rate that virtually collapsed in post-2008 period and have not recovered to its 1990s levels since.

The second half of 2018 has been the antithesis to the so-called ‘Goldolocks markets’ of 2014-2017, when all investment asset classes across the Advanced Economies were rising in valuations. At the end of 3Q 2018, U.S. stock markets valuations relative to GDP have topped the levels previously seen only in 1929 and 2000. Since the start of October, however, we have entered a harmonised ‘Humpty-Dumpty market’, characterised by spiking volatility, rising uncertainty surrounding the key drivers of markets dynamics. Adding to this high degree of coupling across various asset classes, the recent developments in global markets suggest a more structural rebalancing in investors’ attitudes to risk that is likely to persist into 2019.