As 2023 draws to a close, we can reflect on a year when relative calm returned to investment markets after an extended period of market turbulence due to the pandemic, war in Ukraine and global inflationary spike. The level of volatility – that is to say the amount markets move up and down over time – has fallen as the year progressed and has recently touched record low levels not seen since 2020.
There have, however, been moments when market volatility has spiked. The failure of Credit Suisse and Silicon Valley Bank in March briefly threatened another banking crisis, although regulators stepped in and took appropriate action to avoid contagion spreading. The start of hostilities between Gaza and Israel also temporarily put markets on the back foot. Market direction has, however, largely been dictated by expectations that central banks would look to change tack, and begin to cut rates after a rapid series of hikes. Economic data – particularly in the US – has been stronger than expected throughout the year, which has led to the Federal Reserve and others raising rates further than many market participants had expected.
Recent comments by central bankers, particularly in the US, have suggested that the long awaited “pivot” is finally here. Investors have been eagerly anticipating the point at which central banks call time on the hiking cycle which has dominated sentiment since early 2022. This has led to a strong return over recent weeks as markets end the year in an optimistic mood, with the expectation that rates will be cut next year.
Technology dominates returns
The so-called “Magnificent Seven” technology stocks have been responsible for a good proportion of the gains achieved by markets during 2023. The performance of Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon, Alphabet, Nvidia and Tesla have not only driven US market returns, but also global markets, due to their combined market capitalisation. Our portfolio strategies have continued to hold good exposure to these tech giants, despite challenging valuations in one or two cases.
Inflation back under control
Inflation, which was the major cause of the market gyrations last year, appears to be back under control. As we entered 2023, inflation stood at 10.5% in the UK and 6.5% in the US. Partly due to actions taken by central banks, inflation has more than halved in both the US and UK. Whilst the current rates of inflation continue to run at elevated levels when compared to the target rate of 2%, the trend is firmly lower, and we feel that central bankers run the risk of inflation undershooting medium term targets if they maintain restrictive monetary policies for too long.
Bonds fight back
2022 will be recorded as being one of the worst performing years for fixed interest investors since records began. The rapid series of rate hikes and inflationary spike led to yields rising substantially over the course of the year. Whilst the early stages of this year saw Bonds move sideways, recent performance has been more encouraging, as markets look to a change in direction from the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and European Central Bank in 2024.
London loses its’ lustre
The London stock exchange appears to be losing its’ appeal for companies who wish to list on public exchanges. Chip designer ARM holdings made the decision to list on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year and other significant moves overseas have included Irish building materials company CRH. In our opinion, this only reinforces the importance of taking a global approach to investment and to avoid investment strategies that are too concentrated in domestic Equity funds.
Geopolitical events have continued to have an influence on markets over the course of the year. The conflict in Israel and Gaza, which commenced in October has, to date, had a limited impact on market sentiment. Naturally, any escalation in the conflict could have a significant impact on oil prices, which in turn would increase volatility in global markets.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, although it is becoming more evident that the economic damage was caused last year, and investment markets have paid less attention to events in central Europe over the course of the year. Another possible area of concern is the potential for China to invade Taiwan. This threat should not be ignored, and again, this would have a significant impact on market sentiment in the event of increased tensions between China and the US.
Whilst external events have had less of an impact this year than say in 2020 or 2022, investors always need to be mindful that events beyond the control of markets can influence sentiment and momentum. For this reason, we recommend that investment strategies are reviewed regularly so that they remain appropriately invested in response to global events.
What is in store for 2024?
Unless we see a significant turnaround over the remaining trading days this year, global markets will end the year higher and investors will be able to reflect on a more representative market performance, after a difficult period of volatility in recent years. Compared to the tentative mood twelve months ago, markets are showing a degree of confidence that the worst may be behind us.
We will take a look at our thoughts for the year ahead in the first edition of Wealth Matters in 2024. We take this opportunity of wishing all of our readers a pleasant Christmas break and good health and happiness in 2024.