Geopolitics, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!
In January, Robert Kahn of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Global Economics Monthly:
“Markets showed impressive resilience in the face of a range of geopolitical shocks in 2016, but recent market moves suggest this year could be different…It should be the year that global geopolitical risks provide the volatility in markets that I, and many other economists, have been predicting for some time.”
Kahn may share the bemusement of bond market prognosticators who have anticipated the end of the bull market in bonds for years and have yet to see their predictions prove out.
So far in 2017, investor confidence has remained impervious to geopolitical threats. Bloomberg reported, while diplomats at the United Nations stress over North Korea’s threat to drop a hydrogen bomb, Russia’s provocations along the borders of Eastern Europe, rising Middle East tensions, and conflict between the United States and China in the South China Sea, investors remain relatively sanguine.
The CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX, which measures market expectations for near-term volatility in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500), finished below 10 on Friday. Historically, the VIX has finished below 10 on just a few days in its history. While the very low level of the VIX doesn’t tell us much about the future, Barron’s reports it indicates investors are not too concerned about “what’s happening now and what has happened.”
That contention appears to be supported by U.S. stock market performance. Despite hostile rhetoric between the United States and North Korea last week, the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average both finished slightly higher.
“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.”
Yogi Berra was talking about baseball, but the concept also applies to diversification, according to the GMO White Paper, The S&P 500: Just Say No. From the title, you might think the authors – Matt Kadnar and James Montier – don’t like U.S. stocks. They do:
“Being a U.S. equity investor over the past several years has felt glorious. The S&P 500 has trounced the competition provided by other major developed and emerging equity markets. Over the last 7 years, the S&P is up 173 percent (15 percent annualized in nominal terms) versus MSCI EAFE (in USD terms), which is up 71 percent (8 percent annualized), and poor MSCI Emerging, which is up only 30 percent (4 percent annualized). Every dollar invested in the S&P has compounded into $2.72 versus MSCI EAFE’s $1.70 and MSCI Emerging’s $1.30.”
The authors’ concern is U.S. markets have performed so well, investors may be tempted to abandon diversification and concentrate their portfolios in indexed U.S. stocks. Kadnar and Montier wrote, “Human nature is to extrapolate the recent past. It is easy to see, given the strong performance of U.S. equities in both absolute and relative terms, why many are suggesting they are the only asset you need to own.”
Focusing assets in the United States, according to GMO, ignores the most important determinant of long-term returns: valuation. “From our perspective, one has to make some fairly heroic assumptions to believe that the S&P is even remotely close to fair value.”
High valuations haven’t dulled the appeal of U.S. stocks for investors, though. Last week, the S&P 500 closed at a record high, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted its biggest gain since last December, reported CNBC.com.
Last week, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and potency of Hurricane Irma dominated hearts and minds, but there were some diversions and some welcome news, too.
The NFL kicked off its 2017 season with the Chiefs’ win over the Patriots. The men’s U.S. soccer team tied Honduras to stay in the running for a World Cup spot. And, Sloane Stephens made the jump from 957th best on the women’s tennis tour to U.S. Open Champion.
Also, last week, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill authorizing relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The damage from Harvey has been estimated at about $50 billion, reported Yahoo! Finance, and the damage from Hurricane Irma may be even greater.
The signed bill also raised the debt ceiling, avoided a U.S. Treasury default, and funded the government for three months. These aspects of the legislation may have been more important to stock markets, according to a source cited by Barron’s:
“Dubravko Lakos-Bujas, head of U.S. equity strategy and global quantitative research at JPMorgan, observes that the S&P 500 has dropped about 2 percent when hurricanes make landfall, as sectors that get slammed – think insurance companies, hotels, and cruise lines – are offset by ones that benefit, like autos, energy and equipment services, and basic materials for construction. A failure to raise the debt ceiling or pass a budget, though, has typically caused the market to drop 3 percent to 5 percent. ‘In essence, the market risk associated with the failure of passing the budget and addressing the debt ceiling has been pushed out for now…’”
Major U.S. stock markets finished the week slightly lower. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index remains less than 1 percent below its all-time high.
When it comes to economic growth, the government doesn’t measure twice. It measures three times.
Last week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised its initial estimate that the gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value of all goods and services produced by a country or region, grew by 2.6 percent during the second quarter of 2017. The second estimate indicated the economy grew by 3.0 percent from April through June. The third and final GDP estimate for the second quarter will become available near the end of September.
The New York Times reported:
“If the economy were to sustain the current pace of expansion, it would be a significant uptick from the 2 percent annual growth rate that has mostly prevailed since the recovery began. A difference of a single percentage point may not sound like much, but the stakes are huge in a $19 trillion economy. The acceleration could also help lift wage growth, which has been frustratingly slow for years despite steady hiring, a surging stock market, and rising home prices.”
While second quarter’s growth spurt was welcome news, it was overshadowed by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and across a swath of the Gulf Coast. Initial estimates of the property damage inflicted by the storm stand between $30 and $40 billion, reported Yahoo! Finance.
Historically, hurricanes have impacted U.S. economic growth and Harvey is likely to be no different. An economist from Goldman Sachs explained the usual progression of economic consequences to Yahoo! Finance:
“…major hurricanes in the past have been associated with a temporary slowdown in retail sales, construction spending, and industrial production, as well as a pickup in jobless claims…However, GDP effects are ambiguous, as the level of economic activity typically returns to its previous trend – or even somewhat above – reflecting a boost from rebuilding efforts and a catch-up in economic activity displaced during the hurricane.”
We send our thoughts and prayers to all of those affected by Hurricane Harvey.