As traders head back to their desks after the summer break, thoughts turn to the prospects for markets over the remainder of the year. What is apparent is that the conditions this Autumn appear to be calmer than one year ago. It is perhaps easy to forget that almost 12 months ago, then Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng had just delivered a controversial budget that spooked markets. At the same time, inflation was climbing month on month and Equities and Bond investors took flight to safety, amidst high levels of volatility.
Looking back, it is no understatement that 2022 will be remembered as a tough year for investors. It was also highly unusual, as the impact was felt across all asset classes. Indeed, according to a study carried out by Blackrock, last year was one of only three years in history where both Equities and Bond markets returned a negative performance in the same calendar year. It is important to remember that markets always look forward, and whilst we can ruminate on the difficult conditions of last year, the future prospects for corporate earnings and government and monetary policy will shape the performance of markets in the months ahead – and the prospects are certainly looking brighter.
The end of the cycle?
Much of the market’s attention since early last year has been focused on the actions of central banks in their attempts to curb inflation. As expected, inflation is now falling quite quickly in some parts of the World (i.e. the US) and a little more slowly in others (i.e. the UK). As inflationary pressure eases, so does the rationale for central banks to continue to raise rates. In addition to the fall in inflation, other important economic measures are adding weight to the suggestion that we are close to the peak of the cycle. Unemployment data, which has been resilient over the course of the last year, has softened over recent weeks in both the US and UK, and the outlook for the UK housing market is gloomy. These trends are likely to continue and as a result, economic growth may well slow in the next few months.
We have long argued that central banks may have been too aggressive in raising interest rates, given the lag between policy decisions being made, and the time taken for these decisions to impact on the economy. As a result, as inflationary pressure eases further, we feel markets will focus on the timing and speed of rate cuts as we head through 2024.
Both Bonds and Equities should benefit from easier monetary conditions. High inflation and rising interest rates work against Bonds and Fixed Income investments as they make the yield offered by the Bond less attractive when compared to cash rates. As expectations rise that monetary policy will pivot, Bonds should gain more attention, and many are currently priced attractively. Lower borrowing costs over time should also help ease the pressure on corporate borrowing, and help companies finance their operations.
As ever, risks remain. It is possible that inflation doesn’t fall as quickly as expected, which could lead to central banks delaying their expected pivot to lower rates. The recent jump in Crude Oil prices, for example, is one of a number of external shocks that could sway the course of interest rates. China’s debt-laden property market and slow recovery post-Covid could also have an impact. We do, however, feel markets have, to some extent, already priced in the “higher for longer” narrative.
Corporate Earnings remain positive
One of the key drivers of the improving outlook has been the strength of corporate earnings. The recent US reporting season saw over three quarters of companies announce profits ahead of expectations, confounding some predictions that earnings reports could be lower. Whilst there have been a handful of notable companies where earnings disappointed, many others have seen estimates for their future earnings increase.
Equities performance in the first half of 2023 was dominated by what we would identify as “growth” investments, which are often involved in technology and new industries. As the landscape changes, we would expect to see the focus shift in favour of companies with good levels of dividend yield and more value-based characteristics. Corporate balance sheets largely remain healthy and dividends are generally well covered. The contribution to overall investment returns achieved by dividends over time should not be underestimated.
Political risks and opportunities
As we move forward to next year, investors will need to consider the impact politics can have on market sentiment. There are, of course, key Elections in both the UK and US next year and the sitting administrations will be keen to see their economies in reasonable shape, as the electorate’s personal financial position is usually one of the key drivers of voter intention. History would suggest that election years tend to be broadly positive for markets; however, we need to be alert to the potential risks that a scenario such as that seen in the US in 2020/21, where no clear winner was apparent for some time, is not repeated, as this has the potential to cause a spike in volatility.
Brighter skies ahead?
Investors have had to negotiate rough seas over the last 18 months, but the end of the rate hiking cycle could well be in sight. A shift in monetary policy may well see calmer waters return over coming months, and evidence is building that 2024 will see us move to less volatile market conditions.
If your portfolio is not regularly reviewed, now is an opportune moment to consider your existing assets to see whether they are well positioned for the expected market conditions. Speak to one of our experienced advisers here to start a conversation.