Three issues worth paying close attention to
Mark Burgess is CIO EMEA and global head of Equities at Columbia Threadneedle Investments.
Growth and expectations have been reined in during the last month as the short-lived Chinese stimulus – which briefly led to improved economic data – came to an end and Europe slowed, not least because of Brexit fears in the run-up to the EU referendum on 23 June.
Leading indicators across the globe are all showing soft GDP growth and the global growth slowdown is leading to expectations of rates being lower for longer, which in turn is providing support for risk assets.
In Europe the mediocre economic and company data we are seeing would usually be alarming, but with low levels of productivity this level of economic activity still represents above-trend growth.
So we’ve seen equity markets rally off their lows at the first part of the year, not because the news flow is improving but rather on the expectation that interest rates will stay low as a result of the low growth environment.
Core bond yields have rallied and that discount rate has provided support to long-duration assets and risk assets more broadly.
But this fragile rally has not made for a robust investing environment. Nevertheless, it is the environment that we have.
Clearly, in a low-growth world we are always closer to the fear of recession, which we saw earlier this year. Corporates are navigating through the terrain relatively well, although this is against significantly revised earnings expectations.
Our equity strategy has been to favour the UK, Europe and Asia ex-Japan and, while we are well-positioned for a low growth, low return environment, we have recently decided to take some risk off the table by paring back our overweight position with regard to Asia ex-Japan.
China is an ongoing theme. Clearly, markets became concerned by the absolute levels of Chinese debt and China’s ability to both sustain its growth and engineer a soft landing without prompting a credit crisis.
It has taken on more debt to keep growth growing and markets have perversely accepted this – perhaps this is another case of extraordinary fiscal and monetary policy becoming ‘the new normal’.
It is difficult to call when China’s credit issue will become more immediate, though recent rhetoric indicates there is an increasing clamour for the People’s Bank of China to address the ‘credit binge’.
Not least with the publication of an article in People’s Daily citing an ‘authoritative source’ that was critical of the debt-driven growth strategy employed by the Chinese authorities.
Any departure from a strategy of growth through credit issuance would have significant implications for markets.
It would focus the spotlight on the number of bad loans in the Chinese banking system and lead to rising corporate defaults.
This could bring to an abrupt end the change of fortunes that has lifted commodity prices.
Though I don’t believe we are yet at the point where the People’s Bank of China will turn off the credit taps, we are keeping a close eye on it and I am not hugely confident about China’s ability to get through this without doing too much damage to itself or the global economy.
It is not only China that has a debt issue – net debt to GDP is near or at all-time highs in most countries.
This has not been an issue for corporates due to massive monetary stimulus and low interest rates, but the underlying macro backdrop is not one that suggests rampant market returns.
There are huge amounts of fiscal debt in the system and generally three ways to tackle it.