As growth slows, markets seek comfort in old friends

By Russ Koesterich, BlackRock’s Global Chief Investment Strategist

A week of stock swings

It was another volatile week, but stocks managed to end this one slightly higher. Evidencing the extent of last week’s gyrations was a powerful swing that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average from a 250-point loss to a 200-point gain on Friday. For the week overall, the Dow rose 0.97% to 16,472, the S&P 500 Index moved up 1.04% to 1,951 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index lagged, adding just 0.45% to close at 4,707. Meanwhile, the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell from 2.16% to 1.99%, as its price correspondingly rose.

Despite the flourish in the final week, stocks ended the third quarter with their worst performance since 2011. But the key takeaway is this: Amid scarce evidence of global growth, equity investors are once again beginning to look to central banks for largesse and monetary stimulus to help push stocks higher.

Indicators of financial stress widen

After struggling through a particularly bad third quarter, which saw stock declines amounting to a $10trn loss in global equity market capitalization, investors were faced with the unpleasant task of digesting another set of soft economic data last week. The US employment report was unambiguously weak, while evidence continues to suggest that the US manufacturing sector is struggling under the weight of a strong dollar and feeble overseas demand.

Growing concerns over the health of the global economy are manifesting in several ways. First, a broad measure of financial stress, the Global Financial Stress Index, recently hit its highest level since the summer of 2012. With investor risk aversion climbing, so-called high-beta, momentum names that are more volatile continue to suffer. For example, at the lows last week, the Nasdaq Biotech Index was down nearly 30% from its July high. Moreover, the returns derived from merger-and-acquisition deals have been falling recently.

As stocks struggled, bond yields tumbled and prices rose. For most of the past few weeks, yields have been grinding lower on the back of a sharp drop in US inflation expectations. At the lows last week, a key measure of inflation, 10-year breakevens, was down below 1.40%, its lowest level since 2009.

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