Market Resilience: Strength in Numbers

Our CIOs see favorable fundamentals and a return to normal volatility ahead.

Concerns about where the financial markets are heading are at the forefront of many investors’ minds. The risks of a US or global recession this year continue to persist amid slowing global growth, trade tensions and worries about potential geopolitical shocks. Recognizing uncertainties, central banks globally—including the US Federal Reserve—have turned a bit more dovish, causing markets to price out US interest-rate hikes in 2019.

Our senior investment leaders see a different story unfolding. In this roundtable discussion, they outline why they think some market observers are misguided and where they see opportunities today.

Discussion topics within:

  • Top market risks
  • Global growth expectations
  • Trade conflicts
  • Preparing for volatile shocks ahead
 
 

Q: Market risks are top of mind for many. What are your biggest concerns today?

Let me start with what I’m most concerned about—it’s complacency. There is an enormous amount of complacency. Within days of US Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell’s turnaround in thinking earlier this year, markets not only priced out all interest-rate hikes in 2019, but see the next move as a rate cut next year. There is an idea that the Fed is going to be propping up the stock market on an ongoing basis. For me, that is very frightening. We saw an increase in market volatility at the end of last year, but clearly that is not enough if the markets are still not pricing in what I think is a very real possibility of additional rate hikes on the back of what’s happening in the economy. That’s where my greatest concern would be.

Contributors

  • Chief Investment Officer, Franklin Templeton Fixed Income
  • Head of Equities
  • Chief Investment Officer,Templeton Global Macro
  • Chief Investment Officer,Franklin Templeton Multi-Asset Solutions

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I completely share that view. US Treasury yields should go higher for many reasons: growing fiscal deficits, rising inflationary pressures, strong US growth and fewer foreign buyers. When that happens, we will likely get another interest-rate-led shock to broad assets. We think investors need to prepare for that risk. One way to do it is through assets that are negatively correlated to rate rising, and the other way is through idiosyncratic opportunities, which in our case take the form of a select group of emerging market countries. Ironically, there is a negative feeling about some of the state of the world, but for active managers, this is actually very fertile ground to take advantage of.

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I think equity investors have been thinking a bit too much about the Fed and looking at this as sort of a Fed “put,” to use an options-related term, meaning the Fed is providing a type of insurance on the market going down. Traditionally, equity investors would look at earnings and the ratio of those earnings to stock prices. I think the last 10 years of monetary policy has made a lot of investors more macro-oriented rather than micro-oriented. They are not really looking at the differences in stocks.

In regard to emerging markets, I agree that they are so different and there are many different opportunities. The one thing I would look at in equities is China. I think there are some opportunities there, not just because of the economy and the growth story, but because of how the market is being looked at really has changed.

The multi-asset portfolios really blend a lot of these themes. One statement I can make that reflects how we are thinking about our portfolios today is how do we prepare for what’s next? We do have a lot of transition happening in the markets, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that we can react to opportunities that markets are inevitably going to give us as volatility increases.

There have been some recent signals that might suggest US economic activity has been bottoming and that we are starting to see some normalization. I think there has been too much bearishness, and this view that the United States is about enter a recession is overstated. However, I do think there are some growing concerns fundamentally about long-term sustainability—particularly the massive, reckless deficit spending, and the populist politics that can lead to uncoordinated and often-volatile economic agendas. But in the short term, a strong labor market and supportive consumption drive US economic activity, which gives us some comfort.

US GDP Growth Driven by Consumption Growth GDP Rate and Consumption Growth Rate (December 31, 2008–December 31, 2018)

US GDP Growth Driven by Consumption Growth

Source: Franklin Templeton Capital Market Insights Group, FactSet and US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

It seems like currently there is near-complete consensus that the United States is going to hit a recession by the end of this year or in 18 months. But I find it difficult to determine what is going to cause it within this timeframe. We do have a strong labor market, and we don’t have—by any means— a hawkish Federal Reserve. The Fed is actually very dovish. Our team is also looking at energy prices, financial stability and asset price bubbles, and we don’t see conditions setting up for a recession in the near term.

Very Healthy Labor Market Total Private Job Openings, Hires and Quits (December 2003–December 2018)

Total Private Job Openings, Hires and Quits (December 2003–December 2018)

Source: Franklin Templeton Capital Market Insights Group and US Department of Labor.

I don’t think the equity markets are pricing in a recession this year; I think they are pricing in the eventual recession in two years.

If you look back six months or so to fourth-quarter 2018—both in the equity and credit markets—we saw a pretty big dislocation. I would argue there may have been a point last year where risk assets were pricing in a near-term recession, but I’m not sure that’s actually the case today. I think the recovery since then has a lot to do with the pivot that the Fed made this year in moving to a more dovish tilt. The markets took a reprieve from that thinking, and we have seen a rally so far in 2019.

At the end of last year the market was saying, “We are likely to go into recession, the Fed’s going to raise rates, we are worried about China and trade.” Algorithms were unwinding with all this hedge fund activity, and then we have had this big bounce back in early 2019. From an equity-market point of view, I actually think things seemed to be a little bit too pessimistic a quarter or so ago, and perhaps now it’s a little bit too optimistic.

Q: What are you expecting for global growth?

I think a catalyst would be needed to push the United States off its current growth path. I wouldn’t anticipate gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 3.5% or 4%—it seems likely to be less than that—but we would need some trigger or shock to precipitate a recession, a bursting of a bubble.

Recessions don’t happen from old age alone.

They really don’t. I just don’t see what the triggering mechanism for a recession would be right now. It’s very odd right now to find such continued consensus about a near-term collapse of the US economy.

Looking globally, we do see moderation in China’s growth, but the government has such incredible control over the economy and over its capital flows, that a domestically led collapse seems pretty unlikely. Growth in Europe has been slowing down a bit, and some emerging markets outside of China may be a little weaker, but we don’t see a massive downgrade of global growth as long as the United States can remain an anchor.

We don’t see a massive downgrade of global growth as long as the United States can remain an anchor.

- Michael Hasenstab

China has been the fastest-growing major economy over the last 20 or 30 years, but not the best-performing stock market. That’s particularly true today because there are other factors going on in China that are driving the market. One of those is that China’s market is now being included in global equity benchmark indexes, and it’s going to be included to such a degree that Chinese equities will represent upwards of half of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index1. So, if I were to look at a place of opportunity on the equity side right now, I would look at China and some of the changes that are going on and separate that from the economic news that China is slowing down a bit.

Turning our eyes to Europe for a bit, there’s been a lot of noise about the European slowdown. GDP growth in the eurozone is likely slowing to around 1.5% this year, but this is still substantially above European GDP growth potential. So it’s certainly not a European-led global slowdown. Very rarely, apart from when we saw the eurozone debt crisis, has Europe really been at the forefront of the global move in any direction, so to speak.

Some of the slowdown in Europe is tied to Germany—and Germany is very much tied to China’s growth. When there is some clarity on tariffs, that could help Germany in particular, and European growth overall.

China is a Key Export Partner for GermanyGermany’s Top 5 Export Partners (January 2009–January 2018)

Germany’s Top 5 Export Partners (January 2009–January 2018)

Source: Franklin Templeton Capital Market Insights Group and International Trade Centre. Most recent data available.

Also, for equity investors there’s a lot of concern about Brexit and what’s happening in the United Kingdom. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think some clarity will help the markets.

Q: Let’s talk about trade and politics. Specifically, could the trade conflict between the United States and China threaten growth in either of those countries?

If you add up all the tariffs that could potentially happen and you carry that through to GDP, it’s not trivial, but it is manageable. To me, the bigger concern is what drove these trade conflicts. It’s a frustration of populations that don’t want globalization and want to turn inward. Trade conflict is just one of the symptoms of a very difficult political dynamic in the United States and other countries that will also manifest itself in fiscal deficits and, in some places, authoritarian control. So this is just the beginning of what I think is a decade-long shift toward very unorthodox economic policies.

Populism is a huge global issue. I find it amazing that Argentina is the only country that has passed a bipartisan budget of meaningful change that will run a surplus over the next couple of years. The only country that will embark upon landmark social security pension reform is Brazil.

There’s been a lot more talk than action on trade. Since President Trump came into power, we have been hearing about a trade war, but the war actually never took place. It’s been fought out in the press, but, in fact, there has been very little outcome. I think it’s far more important to actually consider those other areas of populism where trade is just one small piece of anti-globalization: its across-the-board immigration policy. Every policy you look at, there is this inward-looking nature to what’s going on and not just in the United States. It’s also happening in Europe.

How the US and China Trade Deficit Has GrownUS Imports, Exports and Trade Balance with China (30 year period ending December 31, 2018)

US Imports, Exports and Trade Balance with China (30 year period ending December 31, 2018)

Source: Franklin Templeton Capital Market Insights Group and US Census Bureau.

The issue with China, I think, is really a geopolitical issue that trade is a part of. My view is that as investors—particularly equity investors—really have to look at China in a way that, in the past, maybe you looked at Europe. Not as part of emerging markets, but as its own area that probably will make some sense to look at and be invested in over the longer period of time. But there is this dichotomy with the trade talks.

The United States wants to reduce the trade deficit, but at the same time it’s increasing the fiscal deficit. So as a country, if the US is going to lever itself—if it is going to borrow all this money—it is borrowing from other countries. That means the US is likely going to have trade deficits as the stimulus leads to increased spending. Putting tariffs on might reallocate the trade deficit, but it’s not going to stop the trade deficit, in our view. For the fourth quarter of last year, the US had the highest trade deficit ever.

ENDNOTES

  1. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot directly invest in them. They do not include fees, expenses or sales charges. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index captures large- and mid-cap representation across 24 emerging market countries.