February Market Commentary

Market Overview

Despite January having been a month rife with political turmoil and economic anxieties, for many investors the panic of Christmas Eve will have likely abated considerably as markets have so far rebounded nicely in 2019. The S&P 500 – which was among the standard bearers leading 2018’s 4th quarter nose dive – enjoyed its best January since 1987 thanks to positive contributions of over 8.5% growth from the energy, industrials and financials sector. Developed Market (DM) equities followed suit by gathering a head of steam in their own right, up 6.59% as measured by the MSCI EAFE. Emerging Market equities were also lifted in the momentum, up 8.78% as measured by the MSCI EM Index after having been battered in 2018.

 Despite January market performance putting a spring back in many investors’ steps, headwinds to economic and market growth abound. Among the more notable is the United States’ inauspicious start to 2019 that saw its government in the midst of a shut down that lasted 35 days – a record, but likely not the kind with which anyone would have wanted to have been associated. Having been triggered by President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats wrestling over the former’s polemical border wall with Mexico – the shut down is estimated by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to have cost about $11bn and to have wiped 0.2% off its 2019 annual growth forecast. Of course, when the shut down ended on January 25 much of the lost money was recaptured, but it is estimated that around $3bn is gone forever and that the full effects of the shutdown may be far greater than what initial figures might suggest as over 800,000 workers were affected and federal spending on goods and services were significantly delayed. While investors can take comfort in knowing that the shut down is over, there remains palpable risk of another one on the horizon if lawmakers cannot agree on a solution for enhanced security along the US-Mexican border.

Across the pond the world’s 5th biggest economy, Britain, is a matter of weeks away from crashing out of the European Union (EU) without a deal. Aside from crippling the UK economy, mainstream pundits, policy makers and business leaders have indicated that Britain will be susceptible to widespread food and medical supply shortages. While this self-inflicted wound is bad for the UK, a no-deal Brexit would radiate shock waves throughout the rest of the world and would ravage global markets. In 2010 the world was afraid of the possible contagion from Greece’s debt crisis, and yet Britain’s economy is more than 10 times larger, which raises the stakes considerably. We believe no one would be safe in a no deal Brexit and we will be hoping that Prime Minister Theresa May will be able to acquire further concessions from the European Union (EU) and secure an orderly and structured (hopefully soft) Brexit.

Henry James International's February Market Commentary
If the US and China do not agree a new trade deal by March 2 over $200bn of Chinese goods will see their existing 10% tariff more than doubled to 25%.

While Britain and the EU scurry to work out a last minute deal, the top brass of China and US have been knuckling down to avoid their own cliff-edge: if a new trade deal is not agreed by March 2 over $200bn of Chinese goods will see their existing 10% tariff more than doubled to 25%. China has promised retaliatory measures, which would likely result in a ‘gloves-off’ trade war, which would hit both the American and Chinese economies and reverberate catastrophically throughout the rest of the world. At the heart of the deal is correcting an imbalance in trade between the nations, as well as the more serious White House accusations that US tech companies doing business in China are coerced to hand over their intellectual property, which the Chinese vehemently deny. Talks began two days after the US charged Telecoms company Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with conspiring to violate US Iranian sanctions; US officials insisted Meng’s arrest in Canada had nothing to do with the trade talks. Despite ample scope for disaster, the Chinese hailed the talks as a great success and promised to help correct the trade imbalance through buying more American soybeans; and both parties nebulously agreed progress had been achieved on the intellectual property front. While there does appear to be a positive glow about the meeting, the clock is ticking and the stakes really could not be higher.

US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is apparently feeling the heat of a less rosy outlook for the US economy, the record-breaking shutdown, trade impasses and global headwinds to growth as he has done a near complete about-face with his monetary policy in a matter of weeks. On January 30, 2019 Powell signaled a possible end to incremental interest rate increases, saying that despite neither inflation nor financial stability being particular risks, ‘cross-currents’ of slowing global growth – including China having its weakest economic output in 2018 for nearly 3 decades – and a less certain US outlook required changes to the Fed’s monetary policy. While we welcome a pausing of rate hikes, it must be said that with interest rates between 2.25% and 2.5% there will be little wiggle room to combat any future downturn with rates cutes alone.

Brazil is the clear bright spot for international investors as its Bovespa index managed to build on its stellar 15% 2018 growth by hitting its all-time high after surging up more than 8.5% in January. The benchmark stock index is clearly enthusiastic about the presidency of the far right Jair Bolsonaro who began his premiership on January 1, 2019 and comes with the promise of a range of business-friendly reforms, including changes to the Brazil’s pension system. And yet, in the midst of the Brazilian buzz the Vale Dam tragedy literally burst onto the scene, incurring for the mining giant a combined $1.7bn of blocked funds and government fines. Over 300 people are believe to have died in this ecological disaster, and Vale confirmed that it will decommission other dams similar to the one that collapsed, which will reduce its production of iron ore by as much as 10% in the next 3 years. Besides providing an element of headwinds to Brazil’s thriving equity prices, China and Vale’s mining rivals BHP Group and Rio Tinto may profit by having to pick up the slack.

Brazil’s northern neighbor Venezuela wishes it could steal even a pinch of the magic that is propelling Brazilian equities as the ‘Bolivarian Republic’ is in a particularly bad place right now. In addition to the usual poverty, mass-food shortages, unemployment, hyperinflation and ruined economy, January brought forth fresh political crisis through the emergence of the leader of the opposition Juan Guaidó. Based on the widespread view that Nicolàs Maduro won Venezuela’s 2018 General Election through fraud, on January 23 Guaidó took an oath to serve as the Interim President of Venezuela. Since then the US, EU and range of European countries including the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark all recognise Guaidó as the interim president; meanwhile, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran and North Korea still back Maduro. Despite fervent backing for Guaidó among Venezuelans and world leaders, Maduro remains in charge of a country on the verge of collapse, particularly after the US divvied out new punishing sanctions on its oil. While this is devastating blow for Venezuela and the Maduro’s reign, it has only had a positive effect on the price of oil which, along with OPEC-led production cuts – has helped to push US crude oil up by more than 20% to over $55 a barrel, which represents its best January on record.

Investment Outlook

Even before the US government shutdown, we predicted more tempered economic growth; and only 1 month into 2019 the CBO has already wiped 0.2% off its forecast. Of course, the full extent of the shutdown’s damage remains unclear but it is likely that it will be far greater than what initial estimates have suggested as – according to the CBO – they have yet to incorporate the indirect negative effects such as businesses not able to acquire federal permits and certifications, reduced access to federal loans and the overall uncertainty that has compelled firms to postpone important business, investment and hiring decisions. As distressing as this “own-goal” has been to the American economy and its workers, it is possible that another shutdown is imminent if Trump and House Democrats cannot come to a resolution on the budget for the Mexican border wall.

Markets are hoping for a soft-Brexit – or even a scenario in which Brexit is entirely averted – however, if nothing changes between now and March 29, 2019 Britain will leave the EU without a deal. Were this to happen, middle-of-the-road estimates suggest a 9% drop in GDP, which would make the 2009 financial crisis look insignificant by comparison. This would increase unemployment, the cost of borrowing and could crush the value of the pound which could combine to set the UK economy back a decade and would drag other economies and markets with it.

While a possible US-China trade war has hung ominously over markets for several months, we are encouraged that the January trade talks ended positively and we are hopeful that President Trump will visit Chinese President Xi Jinping this February to shore up a preliminary deal and extend the deadline to work through the thornier issues. While it will hardly be adequate for Trump and his team, it is a good sign that China agreed to increase its purchase of American soy. However, until a final deal is agreed, markets will live in fear of a Sword of Damocles in the form of a devastating trade war dangling perilously by a single thread from above.

We believe there is excellent value to be found in EM equities based on their valuations relative to profitability: they are trading at prices lower than their 10-year average but are still posting returns near 13%, which is similar to their DM counterparts. This view is fortified by the Fed’s recent decision to pause the interest rate hikes that caused so much harm to EM equities in the first place; our optimism is also based on a relative calming of geopolitical tensions, particularly on a peaceful resolution to US and Chinese trade.

February Market Commentary
While Bolsonaro has so far been hitting all the right notes with markets, his volatile disposition seems to make him a risk both to himself and to the lofty ambitions on which Brazilian equities and Brazil’s economy are counting.

We expect the Brazilian economy to remain the darling of EM equities and continue its excellent 2019 run; Brazilian stocks should also get a boost from the Fed’s slow down in interest rate hikes. However, Brazilian equities have performed so well recently not because of anything that has been done as much as the potential of President Bolsonaro’s campaign promises – chiefly pension reform. Brazil’s current pension system – that sees men retire at age 60 and women at 55 – and has led to massive government debt: more than 75% GDP according to the Brazilian central bank. Bolsonaro plans to raise retirement age to 62 for men and 57 for women as well as roll back some benefits; yet, failure to enact these changes, and to do so immediately, will push Brazil further into an unsustainable debt profile. Furthermore, while Bolsonaro has so far been hitting all the right notes with markets, his volatile disposition seems to make him a risk both to himself and to the lofty ambitions on which Brazilian equities and the Brazilian economy are counting.

2019 is undoubtedly a year in which not just economic threats abound, but extremely serious ones. If there is another US government shut down, Britain falls out of the European Union without a new trade deal and the US and China breakout into an all-out trade war, the global situation would be dire. Indeed, it would be bad news if only one of these items were to happen. And yet, beyond just blind optimism, one has to be cognizant that world leaders – no matter how seemingly brazen – are unlikely to shoot themselves in the foot in a permanently debilitating way. Both President Trump and Democrats are all too aware of the 2020 Election barrelling towards them and neither will want any part in knocking the wind out of the economy, beyond the damage that has already been inflicted. Regarding Brexit, Prime Minister May will not want to be the premier who cripples the world’s 5th largest economy and while she cannot single-handedly get the Parliament to agree to her deal or coerce the EU to accept her demands, she does have the authority to either extend or cancel Article 50, which would give the UK and EU more time to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. It must also be said that the EU – despite its draconian stance during the negotiations – stands to be damaged by a no-deal Brexit almost as badly as Britain does, for which reason there will be plenty of incentive on their side to see that a deal is reached. To complete the trifecta, neither the US nor China will benefit from a trade war, which suggests that cooler heads shall prevail, as it seems was the case at the January summit. Therefore, despite the ample threats to markets, we believe that the global economy will make it to the other side relatively unscathed; however, while there will be growth, current conditions and looming threats will make for subdued 2019 growth at best.


This material is prepared by Henry James International Management and is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The information and opinions contained in this material are obtained from proprietary and nonproprietary sources believed by Henry James International Management, to be reliable, are not necessarily comprehensive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. No warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions is accepted by Henry James International Management, its officers, employees or agents. This material is based on information as of the specified date and may be stale thereafter. We have no obligation to tell you when information herein may change. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader. Certain information contained herein may constitute forward-looking statements. Estimates of future performance are based on assumptions that may not be realized.

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Italy’s Harlequin Performance

The laughable situation in Italy in which the traditional political parties struggle for majority votes at the behest of the populist movement “5 Star” (MS5) is somewhat remnant of the Renaissance theatre style commedia dell’arte. MS5, the ambiguous and enigmatic harlequin-esque populist movement, has danced its way into mainstream politics taking a large slice of votes from the Right-Wing parties, who are now screaming “encore” as they attempt to scramble enough power to encourage a second election. But why have these events had a tumultuous effect on the rest of the world?


The political drama began when the MS5 seized power through their refusal to bow down to political elites. This is not the typical Left vs. Right epidemic we see in most Western countries, but more of a working class vs. elite struggle like the Catalonians against Franco or British Labour reforms in the 60s. At this stage, MS5’s aim seems drastic – this is not just about a reform, this is about a revolution with a focus on domestic empowerment, immigration issues and the European Union alongside a strong hatred of the mafia. But nothing is set in stone, and due to this, Italy are currently proving real tricksters to label which is a massive turn-off for international investors.


Geo-political issues and rapid social change tend to not bolster share prices, and since the beginning of this new chapter, Italy’s stocks have gone on sale. Rocky prices like we have seen it Italy do however tend to draw in the braver investors who hedge their bets on the dangerous side. Unfortunately, the sale prices don’t match the level of volatility in political stability, and therefore don’t seem to be a great bargain. This of course puts off even the high-risk investors. JP Morgan strategist Mislav Matejka noted recently that there is a poor risk-reward going forward giving the strong run and the political overhang.” It seems that nearby German equities have been the preferred route for most investors after taking profits on Italian stocks.

This mass sell-off of Italian stocks was originally triggered by fears of a second election and investors fear of Italy ditching the Euro, which currently seems highly likely. Investors have decided to keep their money in their pockets for now until the situation cools down with SocGen trio warning that buying could remain weak for several months.

Italy’s performance hasn’t just affected Europe, it managed to dance its way across to the Atlantic and cause the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 391 points. Although the Dow Jones made a huge recovery, making back most of the May dip, it is still undeniable that Italy’s Euroscepticism and quick social change managed to scare even the Americans.

No one can predict the ending of this drama, and although for now it seems that Italy have put forward a government, we don’t know if we are at the beginning or end of this unbridled saga which will likely continue to tighten the strings on investors’ wallets.


Oil Prices – Who Wins and Who Loses?

Due to Trump’s recently announced Iran trade sanctions and OPEC led geopolitical shifts, oil prices have soared to a three and a half year high since March 2018. Saudi Arabia are set to benefit greatly from this if they look to use the opportunity to diversify their economy, but consumers will be left footing the bill all around the world as companies pass on their new oil expenses.

Donald Trump is reinstating sanctions on Iran, one of the world’s major oil suppliers, claiming the deal was a “horrible agreement” and “an embarrassment” during his speech on Tuesday, May 8th. In restricting trade with Iran, he inadvertently increases the price of oil by reducing supply to the market. This has happened at a point in which crude oil prices were already estimated to breach the $80 mark due to other geopolitical factors.

Aside from Trump’s involvement, OPEC has rallied its efforts to reduce exports, curtailing the quantity supply to the demand, therefore erasing a global surplus. Consequentially, we could soon see a global shortage of crude oils – theoretically increasing the value of crude oil for years to come. Other factors include a 0.6 million barrel per day reduction in supply from Venezuela due to domestic issues, aging wells naturally depleting all over the world, and exhausted supplies from China and Angola.

Saudi Arabia, who can use the money from oil to diversify its economy from this single commodity propping up its market, are set to benefit from this opportunity greatly. These circumstances fuel its long-term “2030 vision” which seeks to lessen domestic reliance on oil. Unsurprisingly, this OPEC member has led the way in curbing supplies by 0.7 million barrels a day since 2016.


Although OPEC countries will thrive in this economy, airlines may experience some turbulence as they pass on surmounting costs to the consumer. They will inevitably have to dump the pain of expensive fuel unevenly to jetsetters meaning flights prices might increase above inflation. Airline analyst Savanthi Syth claims this will mainly affect leisure travel lines – whose consumers are highly price sensitive – and are more loyal to price than to brand. This is opposed to business travel airlines, who will not suffer much grief in passing the costs along.

Despite this, budget airlines could use these incidents to push their brand as being the cheapest – taking a short term hit to profit and hoping for long term loyalty after the oil hype dies down – if it ever does.


What South Korea Learnt from Sochi’s Winter Games

Hosting the Olympic Games brings with it a recipe for prosperity – and opportunities for disaster.   past, trends have dictated that countries overspend and rarely see returns in the long term. South Korea has decided to take an innovative approach. They cut heavily on spending and infrastructure that usually lies derelict for years after the Games. Maybe they learnt something from recent events in Russia?




The Sochi Olympic Games in 2014 cost Russia a staggering $51bn. During the run-up to the Games, it was made clear that Sochi was to be the most extravagant Olympics ever. The 40’000-mile torch run from Kaliningrad to Chukotka which passed through all 83 regions of the country set the tone for a month of excessive and unnecessary folly. $30bn of the money went into embezzlements to Putin’s close associates while the rest was pumped into ensuring that Russia was portrayed affluently on the world stage. The absence of fair competition in building, strict censorship and clan politics led to sharp increases in prices and low quality of work. Only weeks after the event, Sochi began to fall apart with deserted buildings, empty streets and inhabited almost exclusively by stray dogs. Russia’s taxpayers are footing the bill and seeing very little return.


South Korea has learnt from these mistakes. Pyeongchang cut costs by saying no to unnecessary infrastructure and have to build low-cost temporary stadiums in lieu of behemoths that would later sit unused and decay. The stadium cost just over $109m and is set to be used 4 times before demolition. Currently, their frugality is bringing Pyeongchang bad press as blankets were handed out during the opening ceremony as opposed to intense heating. However, this decision is symbolic of their plan to cut costs. Although (like all Olympic Games) South Korea will break their budget of $12.9bn it is still a fraction of what was spent in Russia.




DISCLAIMER: This message is provided for informational purposes and should not be construed as a solicitation or offer to buy or sell any securities. Past investment performance may not be indicative of future investment performance. 


What are South Korea Gaining from the Winter Olympics?

The world’s eye is on Pyeongchang this February as they set the stage for the Winter Olympics. After winning the bid for the Games, South Korea is set to splash out large sums of money to attract positive attention to their country. There have already been huge political breakthroughs throughout the peninsula.




Bidding for the Olympic Games is not an open auction – getting through the application process is not a “survival of the richest”. There is a myriad of factors that are considered when the panel votes for the next host – including infrastructure, financial support, and even human rights records. Amongst all the applicants, three stood out: South Korea, Germany, and France. France was deemed unsuitable almost unanimously receiving only six votes, Germany took in 25 votes and was the closest, but nowhere near close to the winners: South Korea who took home the gold with 63 votes.


Hosting the Games is a financial burden. What is South Korea looking to gain out of this? Firstly, we don’t yet know how much the Games will cost, but generally, countries will be expected to dish out no less than $5.2bn. Their profits are most likely going to be indirectly obtained through tourism and stock market attention in subsequent years. Although financial profits are likely – there are more important political and cultural changes that have already occurred.




The Korean Peninsula has been divided since the 1950-1953 war. There was no post-war peace treaty signed, and South Korea boycotted the North in 1988. The Games have seen a diplomatic breakthrough with Kim-Yo-Jong visiting alongside her “army of beauties” – a group of women hand-picked for their good looks, talent, and loyalty to the regime. This is after Kim-Jung-un himself raised the prospect of North Korea’s attendance in his New Year’s speech.


It also gives South Korea a platform to show off their world-leading technology. Samsung, South Korea’s biggest company, will use this opportunity to expand their market share which will have positive ramifications for their domestic market.


DISCLAIMER: This message is provided for informational purposes and should not be construed as a solicitation or offer to buy or sell any securities. Past investment performance may not be indicative of future investment performance.