“Risk on” for the long term

“Risk on” for the long term

Taking a long-term bet against credit and equities now would be akin to betting against medicine, science, human ingenuity, and the direction of monetary policy. That’s not a bet we’re willing to take.

Market leadership will likely come down to which businesses are the disruptors and which businesses are being disrupted.

Brian Levitt, Global Market Strategist and Talley Leger, Investment Strategist

Investors should expect volatility along the way, particularly if concerns about re-opening the economy persist, but we believe that betting long-term against credit and equities now would be akin to betting against medicine, science, human ingenuity, and the direction of monetary policy.  That is not a bet that we would be willing to make.   

In order to assess whether a prolonged “risk-on” environment has emerged, it is important to focus on what we know about market cycles. While no two market cycles are identical, they tend to follow similar patterns. 

This time has been no different, the global pandemic notwithstanding. In the following commentary, we articulate what we know about the early stages of elongated market and business cycles and liken those trends to the current market and economic environment. The inevitable near-term potential for increased volatility aside, our conclusion is that a new cycle has emerged and is providing the fundamental catalyst for a sustainable long-term rally in risk assets. 

Bear markets typically portend economic recessions, rather than persist through the early and middle stages of the recovery. In the US, there have been six instances since 1930 when stocks experienced market declines of greater than 30%. In every instance, stocks were meaningfully higher 1 and 3 years off the trough, the inevitable volatility and market corrections along the way notwithstanding. 

This time, global stocks experienced a full-blown recessionary bear market in roughly twenty trading days. The market trough, as is typically the case, coincided with extreme volatility, lopsided investor positioning, and dire sentiment globally. By early May, investors had largely capitulated with trillions of dollars seeking the relative safety of government bonds and cash-like assets.

Policy responses emerge and financial conditions ease. If the adage for investors has historically been “don’t fight the Fed,” we can now likely expand that to include almost every other central bank in the world, as well as the European Commission and the US Congress. As always, the beginning of cycles can be terminated with bad policy mixes. 

In this instance, the likelihood of a policy mistake appears low. Expansionary monetary policy is already having its intended effect. Inflation expectations have largely recovered from albeit depressed levels, the US dollar is weakening against a broad basket of other currencies, industrial commodity prices have stabilized, and credit spreads have compressed. On the fiscal side, policymakers, including the US Congress and the European Commission appear poised to provide ample support to economies.

“Risk-on” periods can emerge even as broad economies remain challenged. Remember, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it took many years for mortgage default rates to peak, households to de-lever their balance sheets, and for full employment to emerge.  Nonetheless, stocks staged a sound advance. 

While there are signs of sound recoveries in certain segments of the global economy (China manufacturing as well as US housing and retail sales), other segments of the global economy remain challenged.  Economic conditions could potentially worsen in the near term as rising COVID-19 cases in many US states and select cities of the world could lead to renewed shutdowns and decreased human mobility. 

Importantly, however, we would not expect the same shut-down measures as witnessed earlier in the year. We know far more about this virus now than we did in March 2020 (benefits of masks, social distancing, lower risk of outdoor gatherings) that should support the compression of cases and enable a gradual continuation of the economic recovery. 

Also, we would expect weak and intermittent recoveries to be consistent with extended and even advanced monetary and fiscal policy accommodation globally. As always, investors should be focused in the coming quarters not on whether economic conditions are good or bad, but rather on whether conditions are likely to get modestly better.

Finally, global equity valuations, although not necessarily cheap on an absolute basis, remain attractive to many alternatives, including developed market government-related securities. The discount rates used to determine the present value of future cash flows is near zero in much of the developed world, suggesting that investors will likely be willing to pay higher multiples of earnings over time.

Equity investors should, however, be mindful of the types of businesses they want to own for the long term. Market leadership will likely come down to which businesses are the disruptors and which businesses are being disrupted.

The high-flying winners in this market are disrupting the way the economy, business, and society operates. We may end up paying higher equity multiples on those businesses than for the broader market but would also expect their earnings to grow faster than the broader market.

Ultimately, we expect this new emerging market and business cycle to be among the longest on record, perhaps even surpassing that of the post-2008 period.  A prolonged period of slow growth, low inflation, low interest rates and massive policy accommodations will likely be a period that is conducive to sound performance from credit and equities.  

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Important information

  • Where individuals or the business have expressed opinions, they are based on current market conditions, they may differ from those of other investment professionals and are subject to change without notice.