What's Ahead for Growth and Rates

Q1 Market Outlook

What's Ahead for Growth and Rates

The Fed's willingness to ease if inflation disappoints — even if growth remains above trend — now appears stronger.


Key Takeaways

  • Global growth optimism—which had been picking up steam on the back of positive developments around both Brexit and the US-China trade conflict—has been severely dampened by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Emerging Market (EM) valuations have been significantly battered across the board, while DM equities have remained remarkably resilient.
  • Even considering the obstacles, we believe global growth rates will continue to improve.
  • We’ve revised our outlook for the possibility of central bank easing, thinking the Fed’s continued emphasis on below-target inflation may make further cuts more likely.
  • Given the precipitous drop in valuations that belie the underlying positive fundamentals, we continue to believe that EM is the most attractive sector in fixed-income.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
Lao Tzu

The global economy just doesn’t seem able to catch a break. Right as trade tensions and Brexit uncertainty declined, the coronavirus and the challenging efforts to contain it threaten to derail or at least postpone any pick-up in the global recovery. This has been challenging for market participants as the early economic data this year suggested the possibility that the recovery was improving. Markets quickly repriced to a more positive global outlook, even without decisive evidence that the global manufacturing weakness was ending. With China’s growth rate now being revised sharply lower in the first quarter and thereby meaningfully lower for the full year, the diminished global growth outlook has caught investors offside. US Treasury and developed government bond markets around the world have rallied sharply. Emerging market (EM) currencies, stocks and bonds have been pummeled. Devel­oped market (DM) equities have held up surprisingly well, buoyed by even lower interest rates and perhaps the prospect of further central bank stimulus.

Even if the global recovery has been merely retarded rather than derailed, the weaker outlook and shallower recovery put a particular focus on two elements of our investment strategy. The first is the prospect for EM debt, a sector we have been championing. The second is the heightened difficulty central banks will face in putting a floor under inflation and inflation expectations, an issue we have highlighted for the length of the post financial crisis recovery period.

“With China’s growth rate now being revised sharply lower in the first quarter and thereby meaningfully lower for the full year, the diminished global growth outlook has caught investors offside.”
Western Asset

We have been constructive on all three forms of EM debt: USD-denominated sovereign, USD-denominated cor­porate and local currency bonds. The most volatile segment has been local currency debt. Exhibit 1 shows the price performance of the J.P. Morgan GBI-EM Global Diversified Price Index (GBI-EM) since 2010. Note that in a period when DM spread products have done extremely well, leading to yield-spread levels that are at post-crisis tights, the GBI-EM Index is down nearly 40% from the level that prevailed earlier in the decade. It is this extremely low price that helps inform our view that EM is the most attractive sector in fixed-income. 
 

Exhibit 1: Higher EM Yields Combined With Weak Currency Presents Buying Opportunity

Source: J.P. Morgan, Bloomberg. As of 31 Jan 2020. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indexes are unmanaged, and not available for direct investment. Index returns do not include fees or sales charges. This information is provided for illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of an actual investment.

 

EM local currency debt was beaten up by the 2013 taper tantrum. After a minor recovery in 2014, it was mauled by the 2015-2016 global growth fear that saw oil drop to $25 a barrel. At that time, our view was that the substantial cheapness of the sector combined with a prospective global growth improvement would usher in an extended period of outperformance. After a good start in 2017, the worst of all worlds hit in 2018. Not only did EM suffer from the taper-tantrum-like effects of higher interest rates as the Federal Reserve (Fed) tightened policy four times and the dollar rose, but concurrently EM suffered from the fears of a global slowdown as economic growth outside the US was increasingly revised downward. Then in 2019, the reasonable prospect of a bounce from diminished levels was held in check by the risk of a protracted trade war.

“Our view is that the path of global growth will not only continue to be positive—we believe ultimately that it will turn up.”
Western Asset

This year, EM has turned down again as the result of global growth caution. It is also being challenged by the renewal of the concept of US exceptionalism—that growth in the US will be persistently higher than in other DM economies. These concerns also auger for a higher dollar, creating additional currency pressure. So for those who are sticking with this position, is it simply a stubborn example of hope over experience?

As value investors, we are informed primarily by valuation. The 40% decline in EM prices stands in sharp contrast to the 10-year highs in DM fixed-income sectors. The optimism underlying DM valuations relies upon a sustained global expansion. A global downturn would cause spread-widening stress that would be hardly isolated to EM. Conversely, if the trajectory of global growth once again turns up, the potential outperformance for this sector would be substantial. In the meantime, as the global crosscurrents are being sorted out, the carry advantage of this sector is meaningful. The GBI-EM Index yields 4.77% compared with the Barclays Global Government Index yield of 0.84%.

The decline in EM inflation rates combined with the reversal of Fed policy in 2018-2019 from tightening to easing has given EM economies scope for meaningful monetary stimulus. Our view is that the path of global growth will not only continue to be positive—we believe ultimately that it will turn up.

In light of the possibility of a weaker global growth outlook, DM inflation expectations have fallen further below targets. The long-term fall in inflation breakevens and surveys of inflation expectations further underscore the deepening skepticism that trend inflation can ever be achieved.

In our last note, we highlighted and welcomed the major central banks’ efforts to directly target inflation outcomes. We felt that while the bar to raise short rates in the US was extremely high, the Fed was also unlikely to cut rates without a material shortfall in growth. Recent developments have changed our mind. Particularly instructive are the most recent quotes of Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who has more strongly articulated his determination not to let inflation expectations decline further as the Fed fights to attain its 2% inflation target.

“We have seen this dynamic play out in other economies around the world, and we are determined to avoid it here in the United States.” “... we’re not satisfied with inflation running below 2% …”
Jerome Powell, January 2020

We now think the Fed’s willingness to ease if inflation disappoints—even if like last year growth remains above trend and financial conditions remain elevated—is much stronger. New York Fed president John Williams suggested as much when he said, “But expectations depend on deeds, not just words …“

We have long maintained that the road to inflation normalization would be protracted and would demand sub­stantial policy support. Over the last 10 years, policymaker and market participant declarations that policy was unduly supportive of accelerating inflation have proved continually mistaken. Finally, the major central banks seem unified in committing to directly take on this heretofore underappreciated challenge.

From our perspective, if words continue to be followed by deeds, the prospects for putting a floor under DM inflation are actually getting better.


Definitions:

Developed markets (DM) refers to countries that have sound, well-established economies and are therefore thought to offer safer, more stable investment opportunities than developing markets.

Emerging markets (EM) are nations with social or business activity in the process of rapid growth and industrialization. These nations are sometimes also referred to as developing or less developed countries.

"Brexit" is a shorthand term referring to the UK vote to exit the European Union.

The Federal Reserve Board ("Fed") is responsible for the formulation of U.S. policies designed to promote economic growth, full employment, stable prices, and a sustainable pattern of international trade and payments.

U.S. Treasuries are direct debt obligations issued and backed by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government. The U.S. government guarantees the principal and interest payments on U.S. Treasuries when the securities are held to maturity. Unlike U.S. Treasury securities, debt securities issued by the federal agencies and instrumentalities and related investments may or may not be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Even when the U.S. government guarantees principal and interest payments on securities, this guarantee does not apply to losses resulting from declines in the market value of these securities.

The JPMorgan Government Bond Index-Emerging Markets (GBI-EM) indices are comprehensive emerging market debt benchmarks that track local currency bonds issued by Emerging Market governments.

A spread is the difference in yield between two different types of fixed income securities with similar maturities; usually between a Treasury or sovereign security and a non-Treasury or non-sovereign security.

“Taper tantrum” refers to the financial markets’ reactions, in May-August 2013, to the announcement by the Federal Reserve that it was planning to decrease, or “taper” its $70 bn per month bond buying program.

Carry refers to a bond market tactic where you borrow and pay interest in order to buy something else that has higher interest.

The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Government Index is a measure of investment-grade rated debt from 25 local currency markets. This multi-currency benchmark includes treasury and government-related fixed-rate bonds from both developed and emerging markets issuers.

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