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.
Equity markets continued to rise in October, with several indices hitting all-time highs. The MSCI AC World Index has now risen for twelve consecutive months, taking 12 month returns to 23.2%. Volatility, typically measured by the VIX index, also reached alltime lows. The global economic backdrop remained supportive for equities with the synchronised global recovery continuing, as many economies, irrespective of geography, continue to expand.
The global economic backdrop was particularly beneficial to emerging market equities which continued to outperform developed markets, posting a 3.5% return in US Dollar terms, versus 1.9% for developed markets. Japanese stocks also outperformed, posting a 5.4% return in Yen terms, with investors reacting positively to the re-election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which should ensure continuation of stimulative policies. US equities rose 2.3% during the month, following better-than-expected GDP growth in Q3 of 3.0% annualised versus a 2.5% consensus, robust earnings data and unemployment falling to 4.2%. Given the backdrop of low inflation and the disruption from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, the US economy and equity markets remained resilient.