Eastspring’s 2017 Mid-Year Investment Outlook

Asia

Prudential’s asset manager in Asia, Eastspring Investments, considers the outlook for the remainder of 2017.

Scale the wall of risk

The rush into risk assets that characterised early 2017 looks poised to extend into the second half of the year.

Although markets have rallied, the exuberance normally associated with a peak is noticeably absent1. Indeed, given the first half’s relative outperformance of growth and momentum over value stocks, one could conclude that risk fervour has intensified.

Hear from the expert

Watch the videos as Robert Rountree, our Global Strategist, shares his insights of the drivers behind the rallies and the value opportunities in equities.

Rally drivers still intact

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Finding values in equity

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Both equities and higher-yielding bonds have been key beneficiaries (Fig.1), each being prodded forward by an unrelenting weight of money.

Emerging and Asian market equities have, additionally, been aided and abetted by earnings upgrades, firmer commodity prices and a US dollar that has noticeably cooled2.

With many equity markets having risen significantly, it is possible that markets will see some consolidation as investors not only “rest” but also succumb to the temptation to lock in a few profits. Abundant liquidity and many “fair” valuations suggest that most markets should be able to absorb any such selling.

Overall, the drivers behind the rallies look to be intact.

Fig 1: Asia (ex. Japan) heads the 2017 charge

Yield gap pendulum swings in equity’s favour

Taking the strategic view, low redemption yields and the much-reduced prospects of bond capital gains have swung the investment pendulum firmly in favour of equities (Fig.2).

This yield gap will close, but will it close due to either an equity rally or a bond sell-off? The former seems more likely given the sustained growth in global liquidity, which should not only drive equities higher but also support expensive bonds. The investment pendulum favours equities both tactically and strategically.

Fig 2: Equity rallies will likely close the yield gap

The money wall spurs on investors 

The higher markets move, and the higher valuations rise, the greater the significance of the underlying liquidity. Indeed, high liquidity probably accounts for much of the resilience in the volatility index despite rising geopolitical risks.

The liquidity injections seem set to continue. Although the US Federal Reserve Board (Fed) has ended its quantitative easing program, other central banks3 have continued injecting liquidity, which has inevitably “leaked” into the wider world. Global liquidity “free” to invest in financial assets is growing at a steady clip4. It is difficult to over-estimate the impact of this historically high level of liquidity. It played a major role in stabilising 2013’s “Taper Tantrums” as it cushioned, then reversed, investor fears that retreating liquidity would undermine the markets.

The situation is changing; liquidity fears could re-emerge. The US Fed has already announced plans for shrinking its balance sheet. The European Central Bank and the Bank of England have hinted at following suit, at some point.

Investor reaction to the US Fed move has been limited probably because the Fed’s balance sheet as a percentage of GDP will shrink from only 26 per cent as of the fourth quarter of 2017 to a projected 23 per cent by end of 20185.

Being in uncharted territory, central banks are moving cautiously. The resulting picture is that global liquidity will remain supportive. The situation should be monitored.

Investors, however, have already discounted in good measure the 2017 potential rise in US rates6. The Fed has less room to manoeuvre than many expect despite its declared intention to hike rates once more this year.

Overlooked in the much-lauded US jobs data, for example, is the strong bias towards the over 55-year olds7; rising jobs and wage bills may not feed retail sales to the extent of the past (which may explain the recent sharp fall in the Citi US Economic Surprise index8).

The underlying picture is that the volume of money, not its price, is in the driver’s seat.

Emerging and Asian markets lead earnings upgrades 

High global liquidity is not the only factor driving financial markets onwards. As the world economies move into a cyclical upswing, profit forecasts are rising in tandem. The omens are that declared profits could well surprise on the upside, a reversal of the past two years (Fig.3).

Fig 3: The global earnings cycle swings upwards

Such positive “surprises” have already manifested themselves in Japan where investors, focused on the economy rather than companies, have underestimated the profit rebound9.

Sceptics may argue that many equities are fairly valued10 only because of the strong earnings upgrades seen over the past six months.

That many results outstripped their forecasts blunts this argument. But there is little leeway for disappointment in the US given stretched valuations there.

Asia beckons 

Globally, fairly valued opportunities abound, despite the strong rallies year to date. Indeed, there are many attractive opportunities, especially within Asia and some emerging markets.

Fig 4: Asia looks attractive…even after this year’s rallies

Valuations for Hong Kong’s “H” shares, for example, are still well below their 10-year average, which is probably an over-discounting of China’s banking/ property/currency concerns.

Asia’s high-dividend stocks, too, have been ignored as investors have swung towards growth and momentum.

US equity valuations, in contrast, leave little room for disappointment. They will likely remain supported, however, by a prospective earnings yield of around 5.5 per cent11, earnings forecast upgrades and on going liquidity. While the economic cycle is in its upswing, much of the good news appears discounted.

Eurozone equity valuations look stretched on similar grounds. Nevertheless, they too should find support, not least because of their discount of more than 40 per cent to US equities, the largest gap since 1989. Eurozone equities should also benefit from rising US rates given their higher exposure to the banks and cyclical sectors. Growth and profits have already materially improved on a forward-looking basis.

Relative to the other developed markets, Japan’s lower valuation looks very attractive (albeit in line with its 10-year average). Investors may remain cool to this fact, being influenced by the on going tug-of-war between the success (or otherwise) of “Abenomics” and the fruits of corporate restructuring. The extent to which declared profits exceeded their forecasts in the recent announcements season has accelerated the upgrade momentum in the profit forecasts, which could yet reflect in higher valuations.

Despite these positives, it is difficult to ignore Asia’s and emerging markets’ attractive valuations. The omens look good for both, not least because they are benefiting from a hitherto-unexpected tailwind.

The US dollar: From headwind to tailwind 

One major reason for both Asia (ex Japan) and the emerging markets being badly hit prior to 2016 was the impact of the strong US dollar; investors exaggerated US dollar debt fears12.

Since end 2016, the US dollar has fallen over 5 per cent13. Asian and emerging markets have rallied strongly.

The issue is whether US dollar weakness will continue. Bearing in mind the heavy discounting of future US rate rises, the answer to the US dollar’s direction probably lies in the supply. With the Fed’s QE program ended, one must look to the relative size of the combined US budget and current account balances for the answer. These “Twin Deficits” exert a powerful influence on the US dollar, albeit with a variable lag.

Based on the consensus forecasts for 2017 and 201814, the “Twin Deficits” are rolling over15. The message is that the dollar has peaked; any dollar strength on US rate hikes could well be short-lived. Should President Trump push through significantly larger budget deficits, as many fear, the US dollar could fall further.

Whatever the outcome, a major impediment to Asia’s and the emerging markets’ rising appears to have been removed: good news for equities and local currency bonds.

Earnings. Liquidity. Valuations. Pulling it together 

Asian and emerging market equities, in particular, stand out as being attractive. Despite this year’s rallies, the massive over-discounting of the preceding years has only been clawed back (partially in some instances) with little premia attached to the higher earnings forecasts.

While investment cases can be made for both the US and Eurozone equities, a fair measure of the good news has been discounted. Earnings yields, while low, have been lower, but there is little room for slippage in earnings delivery. Of the two, the Eurozone looks relatively better value.

Amongst the developed markets, however, the strategic case for Japan remains the more compelling. Corporate restructuring and profits outstripping forecasts both support higher equity valuations16. Valuations are in line with the 10-year average.

The outlook for bonds remains little changed from the start of the year. Liquidity should support the expensive, “safer” end of the curve, while, at the same time, prodding investors (in search of yield) towards the higher end of the risk spectrum.

Within this dynamic, Asian bonds in general offer yield premia over their US (and most global) equivalents. Asian investment-grade credits, in particular, still offer a premium in line with their 10-year average. This income pickup looks attractive, particularly given that interest rates will unlikely rise sufficiently to dilute bonds' coupon appeal. A peaking dollar makes many emerging market local currency bonds look attractive.

With high liquidity underpinning markets, we reiterate our January mantra, “The Biggest Risk is No Risk”.

Footnotes 

1 As measured by the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility index (VIX) from Datastream, as at 27 June 2017. The index, at 11.06, is hovering around record 20 year lows. The last time it was this low was in early 2016; many commentators point out that it preceded one of history’s biggest market sell-offs in 1997.

2 The “Trump” rally, which saw the US dollar trade weighted index rise some 4.75 per cent to its early 2017 peak (and rising some 7.5 per cent from its mid-2016 low), has since fallen as investors digest the implications of a possible higher “Trump“ budget deficit. Source: The US Federal Reserve Board from Datastream, as at 27 June 2017.

3 The European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Peoples Bank of China.

4 Global M1 growth has exceeded global nominal GDP growth, these excess funds are “free” to invest in global assets.

5 Based on the Fed’s projections and the consensus economic forecasts, this ratio is forecast to fall to 19 per cent by end 2019 and 15 per cent by end 2020.

6 The 30 day Fed Funds Futures have discounted two of the Fed’s three anticipated hikes this year (and project rates to be only around 1.75 per cent in early 2020). Source: Bloomberg, as at 27 June 2017.

7 The media focus on the increase in civilians employed from the 2009 low resulting from the 2008 financial crisis. This number is an apparently impressive 15.5 million. The number of additional civilians in jobs since the start of the crisis, however, is only 6.75 million. Of this number, the number of civilians aged 55 and over accounted for 8.75 million. In other words, for those in the 25 ~ 54 age group, there are still 1.5 million fewer in jobs than was the case when the crisis hit.

8 The US Citigroup Economic Surprise index fell from a peak of 58 per cent in mid-March 2017 to a low of -78.6 per cent, as at 16 June 2017. Source: Citigroup, Bloomberg, as at 27 June 2017.

9 “With the earnings season almost complete, Topix companies beat Q4 F3/17 consensus net income estimates by 10.8 per cent. Operating income & revenues are also topped consensus estimates by 3.2 per cent and 0.2 per cent respectively. Reported F3/17 EPS and DPS have reached new all-time highs”. Source: Morgan Stanley MUFG, as at 18 May 2017.

10 As measured by the “Z” score in (Fig.4).

11 This figure contrasts with the 30-year average of 6.75 per cent and a negative one standard deviation of 5.5 per cent. In contrast, the prospective earnings yield for Eurozone equities is 6.75 per cent, Japan seven per cent and Asia (ex Japan) 7.5 per cent. Based on the IBES Consensus Forecasts from Datastream, as at 27 June 2017.

12 According to Institute of International Finance, EM Debt Monitor March 2016, the bulk of the rise was in local currencies with foreign debt, particularly US debt being repaid. Bank of America Merrill Lynch (January 2016) estimated that only 28 per cent of Asian debt was in US dollar. They further estimated that around 23 per cent of Asian sales were in US Dollar. In other words, companies were generating sufficient dollars to service their dollar debt. According to Worldscope (from Datastream as at 31 May 2017) emerging market net debt rose some 400 per cent between 2006 and 2014 (it has since stabilised); the net debt to equity ratio, however, rose from a low 27 per cent to an acceptable 46 per cent and has since fallen to 41 per cent. It is a similar story in Asia (ex Japan). Debt fears are exaggerated.

13 US Federal Reserve Board from Datastream, as at 27 June 2017. Fig.4. Eastspring Investments, MSCI and IBES from Datastream, as at 22 June 2017.

14 Using the consensus forecasts for US budget and current account deficits from Consensus Economics Inc., as at 10 April 2017.

15 As at May 2017, the ratio is projected to ease from -5.8 per cent to -6.3 per cent by end 2018.

16 Tactically, they could retreat if investors persist in tying a strengthening yen (if our peaking dollar analysis is correct) with weaker equities. While this yen/equity link was relevant in the past, it is much weaker today. Whereas, for example, overseas production account for only two per cent of total production in the early 1980s, it now accounts for around 22 per cent. Source: Cabinet Office, Japan from Datastream as at 31 May 2017.

Fig.1. MSCI, Barclays Capital, JP Morgan, London Bullion Market and the Commodity Research Bureau from Datastream, as at 22 June 2017. All indices are total returns in local currencies (unless indicated otherwise). Note that past performance is not indicator of either present or future performance. 1In local currencies unless otherwise indicated. 2In US dollars.

Fig.2. Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Government Bond index and the Thomson Reuters’ Asia (ex Japan) Equity index from Datastream, as at 22 June 2017. Both series are in US dollar. Any opinion or forecast is subject to change without prior notice. Note that past performance is no indicator of present or future performance.

Fig.3. IBES consensus 12-months forward earnings per share forecasts from Datastream, as at 22 June 2017.

Fig.4. Eastspring Investments, MSCI and IBES from Datastream, as at 22 June 2017. 1The “Z” valuation is a composite measure giving equal weighting to the variation of the historical price to book ratio from its long-term trend and the variation of the prospective price earnings multiple from its long-term trend over a 10-year period. The two outer dotted lines represent the limits within which around 70 per cent of all world values lie. 2Asia Pacific (ex Japan). 3Based on nine years data.

 

Important information 

This foreword is solely for information purposes and does not constitute an offer or solicitation to anyone to invest in investment products. Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance. Any view, opinion, projection, or forecast on the economy, securities markets or the economic trends of the markets is not necessarily indicative of the future performance of Eastspring Investments or any funds managed by Eastspring Investments. An investment is subject to investment risks, including the possible loss of the principal amount invested. Whilst we have taken all reasonable care to ensure that the information contained here is not untrue or misleading at the time of publication, we cannot guarantee its accuracy or completeness. Any opinion or estimate contained here is subject to change without notice.