A bumpy road ahead for US assets (& what to do about it)
One of our key calls in our Q2 outlook was that the road ahead may not be as smooth as it was for US assets. For all that, economic growth still looks firm – consumption remains the strongest driver, backed by continued consumer optimism and substantial wage gains. The current expansionary phase will soon become the joint second-longest in the country’s history. Should it endure to next spring, it would be the longest ever. However, it is now showing signs of wear and tear.
Inflation is on the rise, so real consumption is outstripping income. The household savings rate has halved over the last couple of years, while rising delinquency rates for auto loans suggest early signs of consumer stress. Slower job growth and lower rates of savings means the recent tax cuts could be crucial – without them Trump’s bid to keep growth on trend may be doomed to failure. The question is whether they have gone far enough.
Fiscal push or fiscal nudge?
Last December’s tax reforms included a new corporate tax rate of 21%, the repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax and full expensing of equipment for the next five years. The recent budget deal added further stimulus through federal spending. The amount likely to be injected into the US economy should exceed 1% of GDP each year. Yet, at this late stage of the cycle, the measures may not be entirely reflected in real activity. Overall, the fiscal push should add around 0.5% to growth this year – meaning a rate of around 2.75% by year end.
Whatever its real effects, it’s still an unprecedentedly large stimulus package at such a late stage of the cycle and it will, in our view, undoubtedly spur on inflation in all its forms. A tight labour market should push wage inflation past the 3% mark within months. This would eventually pass through inflation prints and benefit US breakevens.
Equities are often viewed as being capable of hedging inflation – which has proven true, especially over longer timeframes and periods of moderate inflation. The view doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny over shorter periods of time however, especially when inflation is at extreme levels – our analysis shows equities don’t in fact outperform in these conditions.
Should investors dig deeper, they may find equity sectors like gold miners, oil, materials and financials, along with factors like value and yield are more correlated to inflation expectations and CPI and therefore more capable of riding the rise. Be more wary of their utilities, telecoms and consumer staples counterparts.
5-yr correlations: equity sectors and inflation expectations
Source: Bloomberg, Macrobond, Lyxor Cross Asset Research, 11 April 2018. Methodology: we consider the 5Y correlation of monthly changes in equity sector indices (total return in %) and 10Y inflation breakevens on the other hand (monthly value change). For commodities we use total return indices and correlation is versus EMU inflation breakevens.
The fear of four
The exceptional conditions that have artificially suppressed yields since the Global Financial Crisis should continue to fade. We’ve long expected at least three hikes from the Fed in 2018, and now believe the possibility of four 25 basis point hikes is greater. Tighter policy normalisation cannot be ruled out. We suspect ten-year Treasury yields will push some way past 3%, so we are underweight over the long term. Shorter-term however, they retain their safe haven appeal should risk aversion spike.
How far from here?
The firmer wage growth at this late stage of the expansion is likely to dent corporate profitability. Margins could compress by about 0.5% per year, although the positive effects of tax reform will help to mitigate this to some degree. All told we expect solid earnings-per-share growth of around 9% this year but rather more sedate results next year as the cycle totters into its dotage. There may therefore only be limited upside for the mainstream indices like the S&P 500 Index from here – only products offering the lowest cost access, or the very best performance, merit consideration.
Trading insults, rather than ideas
Greater consumer spending may encourage more imports as the US is hitting its capacity constraints. Any widening of the trade deficit could add further political pressure to Trump’s tightwire trade agenda. The heady rhetoric and recent bout of brinkmanship seem more of negotiating tactic than they are a declaration of trade war or a U-turn on globalisation, not least because of looming mid-term elections.
So we still expect US equities to outperform bonds in Q2, albeit by a lesser margin than before. That said, the President’s taste for battle may rattle some of the country’s more risk-averse trading partners. Expect outward-looking international firms to suffer more than their domestic-focused counterparts. As a result, we’re neutral on the outlook for the broader indices and our preference for selected themes, like favouring growth over value, and sectors.
Take capex for example; tax reform should help accelerate spending on non-residential investments and in technology, a sector representing 30% of current capex and around 35% of the S&P 500 Growth Index. Despite all the talk of a new tech bubble, valuations look merely stretched in places rather than speculative or bubbly.
Our one value-based call remains banks because of the sector’s cyclicality. Commercial and industrial loans look likely to rebound, which will boost profitability. Higher inflation expectations also tend to translate into better prospects. The Fed’s continued willingness to simplify regulation is the last of a powerful trio of clearly positive catalysts.
S&P 500 margins look vulnerable as the cycle matures
S&P500 Growth versus Value
Source: Lyxor International AM/ Investment Strategy, Macrobond as at 16 March 2018
In fixed income, away from our views on breakevens and treasuries, we’ve yet to really touch on credit. In our view, the picture is fairly bleak – especially for high yield because valuations appear high and the sector appears to be pricing in a growth rate far in excess of what’s likely to eventuate in 2018. Leverage levels and inherent illiquidity are also a concern.
Why choose Lyxor for US assets?
Whatever you’re seeking to do in your US-related portfolio, we believe we can help. We offer 15+ routes to the market including Europe’s lowest-cost Core US equity ETF at just 0.04%, as well as the best-performing S&P 500 ETF your money can buy. So if the upside is limited, you get to make the most of the opportunity. You can also generate income with the cheapest quality income ETF on the European market or take out some insurance against the possibility of renewed volatility with our minimum variance product – which has reduced risk by nearly 18% since its inception. It’s also the most diverse of its kind.
We’re not just equity experts though. We also offer the cheapest US Treasuries, US corporate bond and US HY bond ETFs on the market – among them some of the best-performing and most efficient you’ll find. You’ll also be able to adjust to the changing inflation picture with our US TIPS ETF and our unique US inflation expectations product.*
For more information visit www.lyxoretf.com
All data & opinion: Lyxor Cross Asset Research & Equity ETF teams, as at 11 April 2018 unless otherwise stated. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. * All product data as at 31 January 2018 unless otherwise stated. All efficiency data is based on the efficiency indicator created by Lyxor’s ETF Research department in 2013. It examines 3 components of performance: tracking error, liquidity and spread purchase/sale. Each peer group includes the relevant Lyxor ETF share-class and the 4 largest ETF share-classes issued by other providers, representing market-share of at least 5% on the relative index. ETF sizes are considered as an average of AUM levels observed over the relevant time period. Detailed methodology may be found in the paper ‘Measuring Performance of Exchange Traded Funds’ by Marlène Hassine and Thierry Roncalli. Statements refer to European ETF market.
This communication is intended for investors categorised either as “Eligible Counterparties” or “Professional Clients” within the meaning of Markets In Financial Instruments Directive 2004/39/EC.