Risk on or risk off?
The coronavirus appears to have inspired two distinct schools of thought among investors. Some investors currently favor opportunities that are considered lower risk, like Treasury bonds and gold, because they’re concerned about the potential impact of the coronavirus on the global economy. Others are piling into higher risk assets, like stocks, that could benefit if central banks (like the United States Federal Reserve) take steps to stimulate economic growth, reported Randall Forsyth of Barron’s.
Currently, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is holding interest rates steady. The minutes of the January Federal Open Market Committee meeting indicated the Fed, “…generally saw the distribution of risks to the outlook for economic activity as somewhat more favorable than at the previous meeting,” reported Lindsay Dunsmuir of Reuters.
Last week, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said it was too soon to know whether the economic effects of the coronavirus on the U.S. economy would warrant a change in monetary policy.
During periods of uncertainty, like this one, the benefits of holding well-allocated, well-diversified portfolios become clear:
Choosing a well-allocated and diversified portfolio that aligns with your goals, objectives, and risk tolerance can provide peace-of-mind when markets are volatile.
Last week, major U.S. stock indices moved lower. Al Root of Barron’s reported, “The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1.4 percent this past week, snapping two weeks of solid gains…The S&P 500 index dropped 1.2 percent for the week…The Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.6 percent on the week…”
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), known as Wall Street’s fear gauge, moved higher.
Many stock markets around the world moved higher last week.
Investors’ optimism in the face of economic headwinds has confounded some in the financial services industry. Laurence Fletcher and Jennifer Ablan of Financial Times cited several money managers who believe investors have become complacent. One theory is investors’ buy-the-dip mentality has become so firmly ingrained that any price drop is seen as a buying opportunity, regardless of share price valuation.
Another theory is investors remain confident in the face of declining economic growth expectations because they expect central bankers to save the day:
“Key stock markets are hovering close to record highs even while the death count from the China-centered virus rises and travel in, out, and around the country remains heavily restricted, hurting the outlook for domestic and international companies. Regardless, stumbles in stocks are quickly reversed. To some traders, this is proof that investors believe major central banks will pump more stimulus into the financial system.”
Ben Levisohn of Barron’s doesn’t think investors in U.S. stocks are complacent. He wrote:
“Yes, [investors have] decided to stay invested in U.S. stocks, but compare it with the other options. Emerging market stocks near the epicenter of the outbreak? Treasury notes with yields of just 1.59 percent? Cash? But, they haven’t sat idly by, either. They’ve dumped the stocks most exposed to coronavirus and to a slowing economy – things like energy, cruise lines, airlines, steel.”
Treasury bond markets are telling a less optimistic story than stock markets. The U.S. treasury bond yield curve has flattened in recent weeks. On Friday, 3-month treasuries were yielding 1.58 percent while 10-year treasuries yielded 1.59 percent. When there is little difference between yields for short- and long-term maturities, the yield curve is considered to be flat.
Historically, the slope of the yield curve – a line that shows yields for Treasuries of different maturities – is believed to provide insight to what may be ahead for economic growth. Normal yield curves may indicate expansion ahead, while inverted yield curves suggest recession may be looming. Flat yield curves suggest a transition is underway.
Guidance Wealth will be closed Monday, February 17th to observe
George Washington’s Birthday
(aka Presidents Day)
Last week, major U.S. indices posted strong gains. That’s welcome news, but the drivers behind share price appreciation appear to have little to do with company fundamentals.
Fourth quarter earnings season is underway. During earnings season, companies let investors know how profitable they were during the previous quarter. With 45 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index reporting, earnings are slightly down. If the trend continues, this will be the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year earnings declines, according to FactSet.
Falling company profits, in tandem with rising share prices, have made U.S. stocks relatively expensive. The price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 Index was 25.04 on Friday. That’s significantly higher than its long-term average of 15.78.
Expectations for economic growth may have been behind last week’s gains. Axios reported, “U.S. economic data had been strengthening ahead of the [coronavirus] outbreak – last month the all-important services sector notched its best reading since September, a private payrolls survey showed the highest job growth in five years, and consumer confidence held at historically high levels.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) estimates U.S. economic growth will be 1.7 percent in 2020, although the coronavirus could create issues that slow growth.
Economic growth also could be inhibited by the national debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed U.S. debt at about 105 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of the third quarter of 2019 (GDP is the value of all goods and services produced by the United States). According to the Council on Foreign Relations, high levels of debt can slow economic growth and divert investment from infrastructure, education, and research.
Ben Levisohn of Barron’s suggested last week’s gains might have been the result of limited supply and high demand for U.S. stocks, “…because the world’s problems might actually make U.S. markets more attractive.” Stock market gains may also owe something to supportive central bank policies.
During the next few weeks, stay calm and expect some volatility.
Prepare yourself. There is a good chance markets will be volatile in the coming weeks.
Precautions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus may also slow Chinese economic growth and, by extension, global economic growth.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be an international health emergency. The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for China, and major U.S. airlines suspended flights to the nation, reported Forbes.
In six Chinese provinces, factories and businesses are shuttered until at least February 10. The closures have created issues for global supply chains, and Financial Times reported, “Companies from luxury retailers to airlines and banks are reeling as the disease accelerates.”
Events sparked a bond rally as investors shifted assets into safe haven investments. The Economist wrote that previous viruses have not had lasting effects on economic growth. “Other recent epidemics have reinforced the impression that economists should not be overly worried, so long as good doctors are on the job. Neither avian flu in 2006 nor swine flu in 2009 dimmed the global outlook. Yet even flint-hearted investors are wondering whether the new epidemic might be worse. Stocks in Hong Kong have fallen by nearly 10 percent as reported infections have steadily increased. Tremors have also rippled through global markets.”
China’s government is prepared to step into the breach. On Saturday, Reuters reported, “Chinese authorities have pledged to use various monetary policy tools to ensure liquidity remains reasonably ample and to support firms affected by the virus epidemic…” The Chinese central bank is expected to begin offering support on February 3 before the Chinese stock market reopens for the first time since January 23.
The European Union may also be in need of economic stimulus. Financial Times reported the Eurozone economy came to a virtual standstill (up 0.1 percent) in the fourth quarter and grew just 1.2 percent during 2019. Economies in France and Italy, the second and third largest in the region, both contracted during the fourth quarter.
Major U.S. stock indices moved lower last week.