December ended a rough year for investors with S&P 500 flirting with bear market territory on Christmas Eve. The S&P 500 was up almost 9% for the year until the sell-off began in October as investors became deeply concerned over global economic weakness, increasing trade tensions, geopolitical instability and rising interest rates. The S&P 500 dropped precipitously in the 4th quarter finishing down -13.97%. Globally speaking, virtually no regional markets provided a positive return for the year. The MSCI EAFE Index was down -16.14% for the year with most of the damage coming in during the 4th quarter when the index slid by almost 13%. Emerging markets, as measured by the MSCI EM Index, fell -7.85% during the quarter and were down -16.64% for the year. Essentially, there was no where to hide for equity investors during 2018.
Investors were not in a festive spirit during the month of December, exhibiting more angst over Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell controversial decision to raise interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.5%. This was the fourth time the Fed raised rates during the year and at its most recent meeting it signaled that there are likely two more rate hikes coming in 2019. President Donald Trump added his own holiday touch by attacking the Fed Chief further and deflating the markets’ Christmas spirit by failing to sign off Congress’ proposed government budget and demanding that it include the required $5bn to build his polemical wall on the US-Mexican border. As the President and House and Senate Democrats could not agree on this key aspect of the budget, the government was sent into a partial shutdown on December 21st which, when coupled with the December 19th Fed rate hike, made it a near certainty that markets would plummet as evidenced by the week before Christmas, with the Dow Jones losing 653 points on December 24th which not only capped the worst week in a decade but made for the worst ever Christmas Eve trading.
Unfortunately the Trump administration appeared rather ham-fisted in its efforts to quell market turmoil. Despite the fact that many investors agreed with President Trump in his palpable distaste for raising interest rates, one wonders how committing the unusual step to criticize the Fed’s Chairman – on Twitter, no less – and failing to quash speculations that Powell was on the ‘hot seat’ could have possibly helped restore investor confidence and mitigate market volatility? Furthermore, one wonders what strategy was behind Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s memo announcing that none of the six largest US banks had experienced any clearance or margin issues? Arguably, this announcement only created greater doubts in the minds of investors.
Looking beyond the US economy and interest rate hikes, global equity markets fell, as disappointing economic data from Japan, China and Europe ignited global growth slowdown fears, and concerns around trade frictions and European politics added to investor uncertainty. China’s November retail sales and industrial production came in lower than expected. China’s stock market suffered a nearly 25% loss in 2018. The on-going Brexit saga remains distressingly far from a resolution. Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May successfully avoided a leadership challenge within the UK’s Conservative Party, ensuring she won’t face a similar no-confidence vote for another year. However, she failed to win concessions from the EU that could have made the UK Parliament more likely to pass her Brexit withdrawal-agreement proposal. Furthermore, even casual observers will admit that Brexit has snowballed into a disaster which might end well but has caused unnecessary uncertainty for the 2nd largest economy by GDP in the EU, the world’s 5th largest economy in Great Britain and the rest of the world whose economies are faced with the direct and indirect consequences of this mammoth tussle. Brexit weighed heavily on the FTSE as it dropped by 12.5% in 2018. Somewhat unexpectedly, Brazil’s Bovespa index surged by 15% during the year, as Brazilian investors welcomed far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to the Brazilian presidency and made the Bovespa the best performing major index globally. Overall, the world stock markets were almost all in negative territory as evidenced by the MSCI World ex-USA index sinking by -13.12% during the 4th quarter and finishing the year down -16.40%.
Despite the raising interest rates punching the mirth out of investors’ Christmas spirit and the effects of the partial government shutdown, the fact remains that on balance, 2018 was a good year for the US economy outside of stock market performance. In the Fed Chairman’s own words: ‘Over the past year, the economy has been growing at a strong pace, the unemployment rate has been near record lows and inflation has been low and stable. All of those things remain true today.’We share the Fed’s view that both the US and certain global economies have strong fundamentals and with the prospect for another positive year of expanding. While there remains cause for optimism in 2019, we view the risk of further market underperformance as significant. We believe The U.S. remains a relatively strong anchor for the global economy, and we see emerging market equities potentially offering exceptionally positive returns after being beaten down to attractive prices given the associated risk. Emerging market (EM) assets have cheapened dramatically this past year offering better compensation for risk in 2019 compared to the more developed markets. Country-specific risks, such as a series of EM elections and currency crises in Turkey and Argentina are mostly behind us. China is easing policy to stabilize its economy, marking a sea change from 2018’s clampdown on credit growth. EMs are set to maintain double-digit earnings growth, led by China as its tech sector recovers and a pivot toward economic stimulus supports its economy. Ultimately, investors will focus on earnings growth as a positive indicator while remaining guarded against macro-economic headwinds. U.S. earnings growth estimates look set to normalize from an impressive 24% in 2018 to 9% in 2019, consensus estimates from Thomson Reuters data show. This is still above the global average. EMs are set to maintain double-digit earnings growth, led by China as its tech sector recovers and pivots toward economic stimulus to support its economy. Globally, dramatically slowing earnings growth and the impact of tariffs make for more cautious market expectations.
While we believe recession is unlikely (and Trump’s impeachment even less likely than that), it is more likely now than it was a year ago. US-China trade frictions ominously hang over markets and it does not appear that they will go away anytime soon while these two economic behemoths duke it out for tech supremacy. And despite our faith in the Fed’s wisdom, it is absolutely the case that 5 straight quarters of interest rate hikes have created economic volatility, which have had perilous effects on developed world economies and most notably on emerging market economies.
Despite this somewhat bleak picture, one should be reminded that 2018’s growth was assailed by a range of threats – indeed, many of the same with which 2019 is faced, and it still exhibited solid economic fundamentals.
To sum up our 2019 outlook, we are cautiously optimistic that we will see modest positive returns for both the US and many global economies; however, we expect continued market volatility, geopolitical risks, increasing costs of capital and trade tensions to continue to weigh down expectations. We also believe that while 2019 will see additional rate increases, we will expect to see the Fed slow down its cycle to assess the effects of abating economic growth and tighter financial conditions, which should result in easing the pressure on asset valuations.
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