Perhaps August will go down as the month when the vulnerabilities to a US monetary tightening cycle and trade wars became abundantly clear. Although emerging markets have been under pressure since the peak in late January there was a marked deterioration during August, led by the most vulnerable countries, Turkey and Argentina. A toxic combination of factors in the current macroeconomic environment has resulted in contagion spreading. While some of the problems were self-inflicted a common theme as contagion spread was the high levels of offshore debt, built up in the era of very low interest rates and the majority being in US Dollar. Countries exposure to global trade has made them vulnerable to trade wars, and having high fiscal and current account deficits has raised uncertainty over their economic sustainability. In August, the Emerging Market Currency Index fell by 6.2%, notably the Turkish lira and Argentinian peso both fell by 25% (Figure 1). The Venezuelan bolivar devalued by 95%, however, Venezuela is known for being a basket case due to their low international debt and hardly having any impact on the financial stability of the global economy. However, the collapse of oil production has played a key role in putting upward pressure on Brent Crude. This volatility has dragged down emerging market bonds, with local currency bonds down 6%. Hard currency emerging market debt has fallen 3.1%, and subsequently resulted in a 7.3% fall YTD. Emerging equity markets fell sharply, the fall of 2.7% in the global index masking much bigger falls in Latin America, Russia, South Africa and Turkey. From the January peak emerging equity markets are down 16% and several are in bear market territory with falls of over 20%.
After a difficult few months risk assets generally performed well, with most equity and credit markets producing positive returns. The MSCI World advanced 3.1% in July, with Continental European equities producing the strongest returns of 4.1%, closely followed by the US up 3.7%. Emerging markets were up 2.2%, recovering some ground from the losses experienced in June. Developed markets continue to outperform emerging markets; with the flat Asian market returns partly explaining this underperformance by emerging markets.
The current risk-on environment has resulted in US Treasuries falling 0.5% in July, and notably falling 1.6% year-to-date. In July, the 2-year US Treasury yield rose 14 basis points to 2.67% and 10-year US Treasury yields rose 10 basis points to 2.96%.
It was a flat month for developed equities and safe-haven government bonds, with the MSCI World index and US Treasuries returning zero in June. Notably, the market action came in emerging markets; where the MSCI Global Emerging Market equities declined 4.2%, EM bond yields fell by 1% and EM currencies came under pressure. Emerging market currencies vulnerable to a strong dollar and rising interest rates were put under considerable pressure. The Shanghai market fell by 8% in June, taking its fall from the peak in January into bear market territory, down over 20%.
Underlying these moves in the emerging market asset classes was a more hawkish tone from the Federal Reserve and escalating trade tensions. The Federal Reserve hiked rates by 0.25% in June which was widely expected by the market, following strong macroeconomic data. However, the Federal Reserve changed their forward guidance to include two additional rate rises in 2018 and then another three next year. If implemented this would take rates up from the current 2.0% to 3.25%, this would be the first time for a decade that US dollar cash would offer a positive real return.
The stand-out event during the month was the fall-out from the indecisive Italian election in March. An unlikely coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star movement and the far right League was finally able to form a government in May, only to have their nomination for Finance Minister overturned by the President on the grounds of the anti-euro views of the proposed minister and the perceived risk to stability. Investors, increasingly nervous about the populist, anti-euro views of the coalition parties and their policies of radical economic reform, took fright as it seemed the coalition would use this as an opportunity to push for another election, in which the populists could substantially increase their voting share, potentially increasing the risks of
Italy exiting the euro. Eventually a compromise was reached and, with a different finance minister, the coalition formed a new government. However, the damage to Italy’s bond markets and perceived credit worthiness was still apparent. With a government debt to GDP ratio of 130%, one of the highest in the world, Italy remains vulnerable, despite the better performance of its economy in the past year, while many Italians reject the budgetary constraints imposed by what is seen by some as an over reaching Brussels bureaucracy. The conundrum for the Eurozone remains; a single currency without full banking and fiscal unification is inherently unstable and prone to bouts of stress, leading to recent calls for reform.
While geopolitics dominated the headlines in April, it was economic factors that primarily drove markets during the month and underpinned the recovery in most risk assets after sharp falls in previous weeks. Developed market equities rose 1.1% while fixed income markets witnessed declines in credit spreads with gains in high yield bonds despite weakness in government bond markets. However, the most notable and important moves came in an acceleration in the recovery of the US Dollar and a rally in oil prices.
From its low point in mid-February, the US Dollar had already been recovering, but the trend accelerated in April with the Dollar rising by 2.1% on a trade-weighted basis. The trend has been supported by continuing optimism around the US economy, despite a relatively subdued Q1 GDP growth reading of 2.3% and increasing evidence of an upturn in inflation. In response to the uptick in inflation, the Federal Reserve appeared mildly dovish in its April meeting, indicating it was prepared to tolerate a period of overshoot in inflation above its 2.0% target, however investors are anticipating a further rate increase in June and another before year end. This pushed the yield on two-year Treasuries to 2.49% by month end, its highest level since mid-2008.
After a broad sell-off across many asset classes in February, volatility continued into March, with equity markets declining and government bonds rallying. Risk markets were impacted by the prospects of a US-China trade war with President Trump continuing to push his ‘America First’ philosophy. Emerging market and developed market equities fell, with emerging markets marginally outperforming. US equities fell 2.6% during the month, taking Q1 2018 returns to -0.9%. A key contributing factor seemed to be President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on imports of Chinese steel and aluminium and proposals for further tariffs on a wide range of goods.
China immediately responded, imposing tariffs on several US imports, including wine. This led to worldwide concerns of a potential trade war, which could have implications for global growth. In addition to this, tech stocks, among the strongest performers in 2017, suffered sharp share price declines. This followed a serious data breach at Facebook which led to a series of governments seeking to tighten the loose regulation of companies in the sector, while tax authorities are seeking to impose more effective taxes.
Financial markets had a turbulent and more volatile month in February, with almost every asset class falling while the US Dollar rose on a trade weighted basis. Notably, after a record streak of fifteen consecutive monthly gains, the S&P 500 fell 3.7% in February. After a particularly strong January, global emerging market equities underperformed developed markets, although emerging market equities continue to outperform developed markets year to date. Global bonds suffered with yields generally rising amidst a better than expected jobs report in the US.
US markets fell sharply early in the month, with the S&P 500 falling 6.2% in the first three days of trading. This followed a strong jobs report, with wage growth beating expectations at 2.9%. With the tightness in the labour market yet to feed into wage growth and subsequently headline inflation, investors have been focusing on wage growth figures in anticipation of the trend reversing. The better than expected data indicated this may finally be the case and investors adjusted their inflation expectations and subsequently their forecast for the timing of future US rate hikes. This initially put bond markets under pressure, before concerns spread to equity markets.
The pattern in market performance during 2017 of strong equities, rising bond yields and a weakening US Dollar continued into January. Notably the S&P 500 produced its fifteenth consecutive monthly gain, with a rise of 5.7%. Global emerging markets continued to perform solidly, returning 8.3%, supported by the strength of the global economy and a weak US Dollar. Global bonds had a more turbulent month, with yields generally rising.
However, as the month progressed there was a distinct change in markets. Indications of continuing global economic growth, particularly in the US following tax reform progress, began to weigh more heavily on bonds with US Treasuries notably affected. 10 year US Treasury yields had already risen from 2.0% in early September 2017 to 2.4% by year-end, but rose quicker during January to end the month at 2.7%, the highest level for nearly four years. Signs of an inflation pickup, especially in the US where wage growth is rising amidst a tight labour market, heightened concerns that bonds were increasingly vulnerable. Towards the end of the month the sell-off in bonds, which spread from US Treasuries through to the UK, Europe, and somewhat to Japan, began to have an impact on equity markets, which retracted some of their earlier gains.
In December, markets continued to climb upwards, capping off a year of strong returns across asset classes. Risk assets benefitted from accelerating global economic growth and strong corporate earnings. Commodities, followed by equities posted the largest returns during the month. Global equities advanced 1.4% during the month, with emerging markets outperforming developed markets, posting a 3.6% return versus a 1.4% return for developed markets. 2017 was the best year for emerging markets relative to developed markets since 2009, returning 37.3% versus 22.4% for developed markets. US equities rose 1.1%, taking returns in 2017 to 21.1%. 2017 was the first year in history US equity markets posted positive returns for every month during the year. Within developed markets, the UK was one of the strongest performers posting a 5.0% return, while continental Europe underperformed returning 0.2% and declining 0.6% in Euro terms. In emerging markets, emerging Europe outperformed returning 5.3%.
In November the global economic backdrop continued to be supportive for markets, with a majority of asset classes posting positive, moderate returns. Developed market equities mostly performed strong, but were led by the US, while emerging markets underperformed for the second time in three months. In fixed income, November was a slightly risk-off month, with high-yield bond indices posting small losses due to credit spreads increasing.