In our last Market Commentary our delight with 2019’s first quarter returns was somewhat tempered by the view that widespread geo-political risks could send markets crashing down and undermine investor confidence. In so far as April was concerned, we were grossly out of step – April saw the S&P 500 end at its all time high 2,945.83 and up 4.05% for the month. Developed Market Equities (DMEs) were up 2.91% in April as measured by the MSCI EAFE; Emerging Market Equities (EMEs) followed suit, up 2.12% as measured by the MSCI EM Index. Unfortunately, as things stand at the time of writing this commentary, the early days of May have so far managed to wipe off April’s gains, leaving investors filled with uncertainty about the immediate future.However, it’s important to look at the longer view. Year-to-date most of the relevant indices have exhibited strong returns: the DMEs as measured by the MSCI EAFE are up 11.72%, the MSCI EM Index is up 11.75%, while certain regions have defied gravity and posted exceptional returns like the MSCI BRIC Index up 15.54% year-to-date and Chinese Large Caps, which have particularly defied the odds, posting a 22.6% year-to-date return.
All is relatively quiet on the Brexit front. Of course, that does not mean that markets are responding positively as a consequence of the calm or that an economy- and market-friendly resolution is in the pipeline. It does, however, mean that Britain and the Europe Union (EU) are caught in limbo and are blind to what kind of future relationship they might have with each other. While EU leaders are apparently desperate to avoid a damaging no-deal Brexit, if we take them at their word they are unwilling to offer UK Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May any more flexibility to make her much maligned deal more appealing to UK Members of Parliament. As result, the PM has been engaged in inter-party negotiations with the opposition Labour Party; but these do not appear to be going anywhere and both sides are calling on their respective leaders to abandon the talks. It is likely that May will bring her EU approved Brexit deal back to Parliament for a fourth vote, which might just offer equities the certainty they require to thrive if it were passed; and yet investors should not get too excited as Parliament’s first rejection of the deal was a record worst defeat for any PM in the UK’s long history. Of course, the second and third rejections were almost as decisive and equally humiliating for May. The topic du jour in the UK is the European Parliamentary elections; i.e. the elections that were never meant to come to pass which will see Britons and their fellow EU citizens visit the ballot box to elect their future Members of European Parliament. While nothing certain can really be determined or effected by the results of who wins the UK seats, it is easy to see how and why many view this election as either an unofficial referendum on Brexit and/or an opportunity to voice Brexit-related frustration.
It was only a matter of weeks ago when markets spiked on the back of the news that President Donald Trump would indefinitely suspend the promised tariff hike from 10% to 25% on over $200bn of Chinese goods and that a trade war seemed all but avoided. Yet suddenly – though, to be fair, not completely unexpectedly – in the week commencing May 5th Trump put his 25% tariff increase back on the table, which he said he would enact should significant progress in US-China trade talks fail to be achieved by Friday May 10th. Good on his word, The US President ordered the new tariffs, which were met by China’s own retaliatory tariffs on $60bn on US goods. Of course, American consumers will feel the brunt of this, but investors were hardly unscathed as on the first business day since the trade war spectacularly reignited, Monday May 13, 2019, that is, we saw the biggest sell-offs since the depressing days of December 2018 and January 2019: the Dow closed down 617 points, the S&P 500 fell 2.4% and the Nasdaq dropped a whopping 2.4%.
As the American consumer will likely feel the result of the US-China trade war almost as a sales tax, Trump has urged the US Federal Reserve to lower interest rates to balance things out for consumers and help stimulate US business. Citing that ‘China will be pumping money into their system and probably reducing interest rates to make up for business they are losing (as a result of the trade war),’ Trump has suggested that the Fed following suit would put America at a huge advantage over China. ‘It would be game over, we win,’ said the US President. While as investors we like the sound of lowering interest rates, not only are we ethically uncomfortable with a government’s executive branch blurring political boundaries, we are wary of Trump trying to make economics work for him and his policies – much like how Turkey’s President Erdoğan has done to great damaging effect in his own country – by turning the Fed into a puppet institution.
South of the border in Mexico, things are not going so well as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is under significant pressure since first quarter economic data shows a 0.2% shrinkage. This is problematic for AMLO not only because his first quarter results are woefully short of the 4% annual growth he has promised, it is also worse than 21 of the fiscal quarters over which his predecessor President Enrique Pena Nieto – of whom AMLO has been so critical – presided. It will be a tall – perhaps impossible – order for AMLO to fulfil his economic ambitions as not only does Mexico suffer from widespread crime and weak rule of law, but he also committed the own goals of suspending oil contracts and cancelling a $13bn airport, which does not create the atmosphere of certainty private companies will desire to invest in Mexico.
As we travel down to South America, Venezuela exists in a hellish state with an increasing unemployment rate (currently over 35%) and astronomical inflation rates. Maduro remains in the Presidential Palace despite his country crumbling around him. Why and how is the question that the US-backed (amongst others countries, too) Interim President Juan Guaido must be wondering; and the answer likely has something to do with Maduro’s Russian backing, a sinister influence of drug money as well Venezuelans blind faith in so called Chavismo, or the way in which everyday Venezuelans once improved both their wealth and station under their former leader Hugo Chávez, in whose political tradition Maduro follows. Guaido is continuing in his protesting and campaigning in a steadfast fashion, but the look of weariness on his face is unmistakeable. In the meantime Venezuela’s oil production could be cut to zero by the end of 2019 as the US tries to oust Maduro, and despite fears of a tightened oil market, US reserve inventories appear more than capable of filling in for the shortfall left by the world-leading South American oil giant and by Iran, who have been forced to the oil market’s side lines through robust US foreign policy measures.
The expression ‘even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut’ was given reinvigorated meaning when Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro succeeded in getting his essential pension reform bill past the first legislative hurdle. Bolsonaro managed to refrain from Twitter ‘war or words’ with Brazil’s most senior law maker, lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia, just long enough to get the Lower House Constitution and Justice Committee to approve the bill so it can proceed to congress. Getting to this point involved more than eight hours of tense debate, as well as Bolsonaro having to submit to several bill alterations demanded by Brazil’s centrist party. Brazil’s President welcomed the success by paying tribute to Maia: ‘The government continues to count on the patriotic spirit of lawmakers.’ Of course, getting the necessary pension reform over the line is anything but a done deal – months of debate and at least another six votes in both houses of Congress must be endured before the bill can become a law.
In other news, South Africans recently went to the polls for their general election. As in all elections in Africa’s largest economy since the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) won decisively, and yet it managed to reduce its majority. This is will be a worrying sign for party leader and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa as it suggests that his citizens are utterly fed up of the widespread corruption and economic impotence that marked the multi-term presidency of his predecessor Jacob Zuma. Despite this and South Africa’s dire economic situation marked by high inflation and unemployment, the majority of South African’s see Ramaphosa – one of South Africa’s richest persons as well as being famed for being an adept business leader – as someone capable of digging his country out of its current hole and putting it on the right track toward prosperity.
India is in the midst of the world’s largest ever democratic election – a more-than 5 week exercise for which there are over 900 million registered voters. While much of Indian politics is local, the two national protagonists are incumbent Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist BJP party and Rahul Gandhi of the so-called Congress Party of which Mahatma Gandhi was once a leading member. Which way it will go is not particularly clear at this point, particularly as Modi failed to enact the full range of the promises and reforms that saw him elected in 2014 after the Indian electorate was fed up of the failings and corruption of the Congress Party.
For many of the reasons mentioned above, and more, EMEs have recently taken a beating. Among the most at risk have been countries with USD denominated debt whose own local currencies have been battered either through political miscalculations or geo-political risks and/or threats.
So far, 2019 has exhibited a great deal of market volatility. Although recent market reactions to the escalating trade war and bellicose US-Iran posturing have been severe, it bears noting that most major indices generated strong returns for investors this year through the end of April. 2019 remains a difficult year to forecast, with many reasons for continued optimism tempered by caution. If anything personifies this, it is Brexit. Britain will almost certainly kick the can down the road until October 31, 2019, the new Brexit deadline, which will cast an ominous and uncertain shadow over British and European equities for virtually all of the fiscal year. What will happen after this deadline is most unclear and all options remain palpable realties including a new Prime Minister of a hard Brexit pedigree (e.g. Boris Johnson) taking over from May to crash the UK out of the EU without a deal; equally possible is a scenario that would see a Britain cancelling Brexit on the back of a second ‘People’s Vote’ referendum. If these are both viable and realistic outcomes, so is the veritable infinity of options in between. Of course, there is a way out of this – at least a couple actually. May’s deal remains an option, but – as it satisfies neither Brexiteer nor Remainer – it is unlikely it will be passed. A second option is Parliament getting its act together to come up with a compromised, mutually agreeable solution, but that would involve a degree of cooperation, communication and understanding that has so far proved illusive. If the two sides find reasonable compromise it would likely generate a great deal more investor confidence in the EU. Of course, even with the UK making a nice and cosy home in the liminality that is neither in nor out of the EU, the likely result is still positive economic growth for Britain, but below that of the EU, hovering at or just above 1% for the rest of 2019 and 2020. Of course, if the UK does Brexit without a deal, all bets are off.
As far as a positive outcome for the US-China trade war is concerned, we can only hope that Trump knows what he is doing and that his game of high-stakes poker will result in China coming back to the table, willing to offer the necessary concessions. But if Trump needs the Fed to commit the unorthodox and even inappropriate step of bending to his wishes just to attempt to shield Americans from the trade war’s negative impact, it would seem that the President may have lost control of the situation. We said a trade war would be a disaster for both the US and Chinese economies and that the negative effects would send tidal waves to other world economies; today we stand by that view and hope that cooler heads prevail to see it averted through a mutually beneficial bilateral trade deal. Agreement on a trade deal would likely contribute a major boost to investor confidence and drive the broad markets higher.
Given the recent poor performance of EMEs (the first two weeks of May saw the MSCI EM Index down a dramatic 5.86%) it seems there would be very little to be optimistic about in the emerging market (EM) sector. Despite many EM countries being faced with the challenges created by the range of economic and politics crises in which they find themselves, we are still feeling (relatively) bullish. If there was any doubt, the US-China trade war has made it unofficially official that interest rates will be frozen at 2.5% in 2019; indeed, independent of Trump’s urgings, we believe the Fed will decide to lower rates by 25 basis points in 2019 to counteract the damage the trade war will likely inflict on US consumers. Of course, lower US interest rates tend to bode well for EMEs. Furthermore, due to China’s economic slow down and the way in which it will suffer from the trade war, it will continue its policy of monetary and fiscal easing which will continue to help drive the EM Asia sector. There’s more good news: despite India’s state of political flux from its difficult-to-predict general election, its economy is predicted by the International Monetary Fund to grow by over 7% through 2020. Other Asian EM countries are poised to join India in the ‘7%’ club, including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines due – in part – to an influx of manufacturing output that may be in a position to fill in for US supply chains gaps created by the US-China trade war.
In conclusion, we are faced with a volatile world economy filled with a range of geopolitical crises, including the behemoths of the US-China trade war and the potential for disaster in Brexit. Despite this, we still believe that EMEs may present excellent opportunities for investors over the long run.
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