- The risks of a slowdown are higher than the upside.
- Fundamental trends are negative in advanced economies while emerging markets show higher growth rates and are cheaper.
- It is important to create a diversified portfolio with uncorrelated assets.
In an environment where it seems maximum potential for the U.S. economy has been reached, the St. Louis FED chief, James Bullard, has said in his most recent report that he favors only one interest rate increase through 2018, which would at best keep things stable. His view is further supported by the fact that the unemployment rate is sitting at below 5%, and the Personal Consumption Expenditures PCE inflation—measured by the Dallas FED—is at 1.84%, both of which signal that the economy has reached its maximum potential.
Figure 1: Trimmed mean PCE inflation. Source: FRED.
The scary part of the report is where Mr. Bullard describes how forecasts are made based on the current situation, which will most definitely change. What is difficult to predict is the direction of the change therefore, forecasts are bound to be incorrect and under the influence of various risks like a return to the normal Phillips curve influence where low unemployment triggers inflation, or a recession even if no current data indicates the possibility of one. Thus only an extremely positive scenario would trigger interest rate increases if fundamentals like inflation or productivity stay stable.
Figure 2: St. Louis FED’s U.S. macroeconomic outlook. Source: St. Louis FED.
The conclusion is that practically anything can happen, and the FED has absolutely no idea as to where the economy will be in a year or two. Even FED Chairwoman Yellen admits that the 2013 expected interest rates of 4% for 2016 were too high and that an aging society and a slump in productivity growth will keep the subdued economic indicators persistent.
In such an uncertain environment, an investor should look at the best ways to protect his downside and maximize his upside.
Let us start with bonds where interest rates have been declining since the start of this century.
Figure 3: 10-year government bonds yields. Source: Wall Street Journal.
As bond prices are inverse to bond yields, any increase in yields would precipitate bond prices, thus bonds are currently low yield and high risk. Usually considered safe havens in recession times, bonds currently do not provide such protection as it is better to keep cash than bonds with negative interest rates. There is the option of further bond price increases, but that is a highly unlikely scenario as bond yields are at historical lows.
The Stock Market
The S&P 500 is still holding well, but does not manage to break the previous highs despite having come close several times.
Figure 4: S&P 500 in the last 12 months. Source: Bloomberg.
The S&P 500 dividend yield is 2.12% which might look tempting when compared to the extremely low bond yields, but it is meagre when compared to the historical mean of 4.39%. A return to the mean would result in a drop of 50% or more of the S&P 500 index. The conclusion here is the same as with bonds: High risk, low returns.
But there is an option with stocks that should limit the downside. Dividend stocks that will not see their cash flows affected by a slowing down in the economy are always assets toward which investors run when trouble comes. Examples can be found in telecommunication, consumer staples and healthcare.
If the reason for economic stagnation in the developed world is an aging society, slow productivity growth and emerging markets competition, a contrarian thesis would be to invest into emerging markets.
Emerging markets have a relatively young population and are currently shunned by investors as too risky amidst a commodity price slump. But no matter the current issues, the World Bank expects emerging markets and developing economies to grow at rates north of 4% in the long term, while advanced economies are expected to grow below 2%.
Currently, advanced economies are preferred by investors as they regard them as secure, but long term structural trends are strong in place even if we do not choose to see them. What China has done in the last 15 years could be the same as India is about to do. Brazil will probably also return to growth someday.
The following figure will show that the current developed world impression of asset security is mostly funded by debt which is unsustainable in the long term.
Figure 5: U.S. net international investment position. Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.
On top of that, emerging markets are much cheaper than developed ones according to the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings (CAPE) ratio which takes into account earnings from the past 10 years.
Figure 6: Global CAPE map. Source: Star Capital.
For long term investors, the less risky option might be to dig for good investments in emerging markets with positive demographics and a strong growth outlook. Currently those investments are out of favor, but this is exactly the environment where investments give the best returns.
Gold is a doomsday investment, it protects you against inflation and is the metal that surges in difficult times. Typically as the economy does well, stocks grow and gold declines because gold has no yield. The opposite happens in turmoil.
Figure 7: Gold and stocks cycle. Source: Guardian Precious Metals.
You can invest in gold by buying it physically, through ETFs or by buying gold miner stocks.
As always, good diversification should provide sufficient downside protection but a portfolio has to be diversified with uncorrelated assets.
If you have Ford in your portfolio and then you add some Caterpillar, that is not real diversification. Gold, emerging markets, cash, and quality stocks should enable a portfolio to weather economic hardships.
Don’t forget that after every recession comes a recovery, so be ready to increase your exposure to stocks when assets are cheap, even if everyone will be thinking that there is no tomorrow.