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06 Jun 2019

Heading for safer havens

Government bond yields have retreated since the world’s major central banks began their retreat from policy normalisation at the beginning of this year. Equity markets meanwhile have notched up near double-digit performance, but could it all be about to change?

Resurgent policy uncertainty, mainly relating to global trade conflicts, has amplified market concerns over the risks of a global slowdown just when cyclical downside risks are materialising. We may finally have reached the beginning of the end of the cycle.


The end is nigh

The economic backdrop today is one of moderating growth and low inflation. This has helped keep nominal interest rates near historic lows despite a decade of economic expansion. The current cycle’s longevity matches the best on record. Fundamentals still look relatively strong for now, with growth of between 2.0% and 2.5% likely for this year and strong employment figures so far. However, persistently low inflation prints and the escalation of the trade war between the US and China increase the chances of the cycle coming to an end.

Many market commentators have been using the slope of the treasuries yield curve as a leading indicator of recession in the US. History tells us that yield curve inversions have preceded each of the last seven recessions. There have only been two exceptions to this rule since the 60s. While such inversions do not in themselves cause recessions, they do serve to reveal any uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of GDP growth. The Federal Reserve of Cleveland publishes updates of such analysis and recently reported that the probability of a US recession materialising in the next year has increased to almost 35%. It was just above 15% in September last year.  

US Yield curve and Real GDP growth

Chart 1

Source: Bloomberg, Bureau of Economic Analysis, data as at 06/06/2019. Past results are not a reliable indicator of future results.

On top of all of the disruptive policy uncertainty, the US is set to reverse its expansive fiscal policy. A compromise between the Republican White House and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives looks distant – especially as we are already in the early stages of the next presidential election campaign

Fed impact falls

The future shape of the yield curve largely depends on the Fed’s outlook for economic activity and how it assesses progress towards employment and inflation goals. The data-dependent nature of its policymaking prompted a pause in policy normalisation (rate hikes) at the start of the year. And, when looking back at its policy actions during the latter stages of the previous two lengthy expansions, you can see a real sensitivity to any moderation of growth while inflation posed little upside risks. The FOMC dot-plot still holds the option of another hike in 2020, but the bond futures market is strongly pricing a rate cut by year-end. There could even be one as early as September. Recent comments from Fed officials on how closely they are monitoring trade dispute developments have also comforted the markets.  


Market implied probabilities on Fed Funds move – FOMC September meeting 

chart2

Source: Bloomberg, data as at 06/06/2019. Calculations are using Fed Funds futures data. 

Should the Fed start cutting interest rates or even implement some form of quantitative easing on early signs of a recession, it will certainly have an impact. However, it may not be enough to hold back the tide. Any policy change will have a lesser effect as the central bank’s balance sheet is much, much bigger than it was, and interest rates are already at historical lows. There’s little doubt the Fed will refrain from acting too strongly, too fast at the risk of disappointing markets.

More than a Sino-American problem

The greater uncertainty and the lesser confidence that have come with the US/China trade war go beyond the bilateral relationship. In fact, they’ve been magnified by other governments’ worries about what could happen to their own trading relationships with the US – especially the EU and Japan – which are both currently trying to negotiate trade terms.

Aside from having the capacity to depress international trade directly, these ongoing uncertainties have already weighed on general business sentiment and are likely to weigh on investment activity. A rebound in the broader macro picture looks unlikely should this environment persist.


Seeking shelter

Risk assets may continue to struggle in the coming weeks and asset allocations could need to change. Augmenting safer haven exposures like treasuries and smart beta strategies like quality income (see our latest update on this strategy) and low volatility at the expense of riskier strategies makes sense while the clouds of uncertainty linger.  

In these conditions, protecting more of what you already have may be front of mind. Our 50+ problem-solvers help you rise to any challenge, simply and cost-effectively. Whether you’re looking to find shelter against global markets volatility or guard against currency moves, we offer a range of unique and ground-breaking solutions.

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