Wednesday, May 12, 2010

International Stock Markets: Searching for Goldilocks

Heading into 2010, we shared the view of a majority of international investors that the best performing stock markets this year would be China, India and Brazil. This expectation was based on the consensus forecast of economists polled in December by The Economist that these 3 countries would enjoy 2010 GDP growth of 8.6%, 6.3% and 3.8% respectively. In contrast, the major developed economies of the U.S., Europe and Japan were projected to experience anemic, subpar growth ranging from 0.6% to 2.4%. Since then, the economic performance of each of these leading emerging economies has exceeded expectations, and growth estimates in the latest poll of The Economist have been raised to 9.9%, 7.7% and 5.5% respectively. Nevertheless, the stock markets in these countries have been disappointing: for 2010 through May 10, the Shanghai Index (CSEX) has retreated -17.6%, the India Sensex (IBSI) is off -0.8% and the Brazil Bovespa (BSPI) has fallen -8.3%. In the much slower growth U.S., where 2010 GDP growth is currently pegged at 3.1%, the S&P 500 Index is down only -0.4%.
Why is this happening?
The problem with the stock markets of China, India and Brazil is that their economies are too hot. That is, accelerating growth is giving rise to fears of excessive inflation and asset bubbles. In China, for example, the government recently announced that April year-over-year consumer prices rose a more-than-expected 2.8%, producer prices jumped 6.8%, and property prices soared 12.8%. Consumer prices in Brazil are projected to rise 5.2% in 2010, and India inflation could top 12%. In response, the central banks in these countries have initiated policies designed to cool their economies. Some observers think the steps taken by the policy makers are too little and too late, and the result will be the dreaded inflation and asset bubbles. A contrary opinion is that the central bankers will be excessively restrictive and cripple economic growth. It is normal in the economic cycle for governments and central banks to reverse stimulative polices in the aftermath of recessions as recoveries gain strength. It is also normal for investors to question the outcome of a change in policy, and there is ample historical precedent in the U.S. and abroad of investors pulling back to wait and see if the policy makers are able to pilot a soft landing.
At the opposite extreme are the economies of Europe and Japan, which are too cold. Growth outlooks for these countries were weak at the beginning of the year, and the future now appears to be even bleaker. The highly publicized debt problems of Greece, Portugal and Spain will surely lead to austerity measures that will further retard growth, and quite possibly push the countries back into recession. Italy, Ireland and even Great Britain also have severe deficits that will require government action. The massive holdings of these countries sovereign bonds held by the leading banks of Germany, France, and Switzerland could spark a further crisis if the debt laden countries are unsuccessful in implementing adequate austerity programs. The consensus foresees 2010 Euro and GDP growth of only 1.1%, and we suspect that this gloomy assessment may be revised downward. It thus comes as no surprise that for 2010 through May 5 the Euro Area (FTSE Euro 100) stock index suffered a -9.6% decline. As for Japan, we expect another year of very modest growth (2.0%) and debilitating deflation (-1.0%).
Positioned comfortably between the too-hot Asian economies and the too-cold Euro Area and Japan, the U.S. economy is providing a propitious environment for common stocks. Favorable employment, consumer spending and manufacturing data indicates that the recovery is picking up steam, and the 2010 GDP growth outlook is now above 3%. Corporate profits have been above Wall Street expectations, and research analysts are raising significantly their 2010 earning estimates. On the other hand, growth has not been so strong that inflation forecasts have become ominous and, of great importance to investors, the Federal Reserve has repeatedly expressed its intention to keep interest rates at a historically low level “for an extended period.” To be sure, the major headwinds buffeting the U.S. stock markets thus far in 2010 have emanated from Asia, South America and Europe.
What lies ahead? Can investors anticipate a change?
We think the policy makers in China, India and Brazil will successfully guide their economies to a soft landing, and will then halt their restrictive measures in order to usher in long-term sustainable economic growth with controlled inflation. The Economist’s latest poll supports this view: consensus 2011 GDP forecasts for China, India and Brazil are 8.1%, 8.0% and 4.5% respectively. We expect the governments and central banks to complete their braking activities some time in the next 6 months, and investors will likely anticipate this green light and restore bull markets for the duration of a multiyear expansion. It makes sense that investors will migrate back to these geographic areas where growth is greatest once government and central bank policies are no longer threatening.
We are less positive regarding the stock market prospects of the developed countries over the next year. Japan and the Euro area will simply not have sufficient growth to attract investors. On the other hand, some of Europe’s leading export-oriented companies, aided by the weak euro, deserve investors’ attention. We expect the U.S. stock market, which has rallied for 14 months without a 10% correction, to stall, or possibly retreat, when the Federal Reserve signals its decision to gradually restore long-term norm interest rates from the current recession lows. There is much debate as to when this might occur, but most Fed watchers believe it will be within the next 9 months. We think the Fed may wait until after the November election, by which time job growth and a stabilized housing market will put the recovery on firmer footing. We further expect the Fed to alert investors of a new tightening policy several months in advance by eliminating the “extended period” language in statements regarding their interest-rate deliberations. Worth noting is that 1-2 years into the past 2 recoveries from recession, in 1994 and again in 2004, the Fed commenced to hike rates, and on each occasion stock market rallies abruptly halted as investors turned more cautious.
We remain convinced that investors who take a global perspective will be amply rewarded.
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