Michael Roberge, MFS’ CIO and co-CEO, was recently in Miami where he met with more than 120 investors in two events organized by Jose Corena, Managing Director for the aforementioned management company, together with Paul Britto, Regional Director, and Natalia Rodriguez, Internal Wholesaler.
Roberge, who has been working with the company for the past 20 years, began his review of the global macroeconomic and business landscape by emphasizing the huge disconnect between what markets are discounting and the realities of the economy. The current environment is much more favorable than a year ago, because, according to MFS’ co-CEO, market downturns have led to more attractive entry prices. “It is undeniable that there are risks. A year ago the markets were calm and everyone was buying, even though all asset classes were overvalued,” he pointed out.
But the fear factor currently extending through the market is not so much a concern over valuations, but is more focused on the possibility of a recession on the horizon. For Roberge, even if the market discount rate reflects a scenario of great pessimism, the United States will not fall into recession in 2016.
“Consumption accounts for seventy percent of US GDP, and its health is enviable. The unemployment rate is declining and heading towards 4%; real wages are rising by about 2-2.5%; and the price of energy has fallen considerably in the last 18 months -- which for the consumer’s disposable income is comparable to a tax cut” he claimed.
“US manufacturing, which accounts for about 10% of the overall economy, is underperforming the consumer-oriented sectors of the US economy,” he said. "This is due to both a stronger dollar, which hurts exports, as well as a clean-up of accumulated inventories during the past year. Once these inventories have been depleted, it is likely that the manufacturing sector will not continue to be a drag on GDP growth.”
Finally, Roberge said that the public sector, which in recent years has either been neutral or has had a negative contribution, will contribute between 0.6% and 0.7% to GDP growth in 2016 through a combination of tax cuts and increased spending. “In short, the US economy is in good shape. Doing the math, it seems highly unlikely that the US goes into recession unless an exogenous factor which significantly affects consumer confidence takes place,” he explained to attendees. The factors which could affect consumption are gasoline prices and interest rates, neither of which appears to be going up this year.
With respect to global growth, a stronger US dollar helps Europe, as it favors exporters, and ultimately its manufacturing sector. The MFS executive believes this will last throughout 2016. He also believes the Old Continent is benefiting greatly from low energy prices. For its part, Japan is not likely to contribute in any great measure to global growth this year. Finally, emerging markets are expected to be the part of the world that will continue to deteriorate in 2016. “Continued pressure from China means they will grow, but less than last year. If we look at the world as a whole, I think there is a very low probability of falling into recession. It is the market which is mistaken and not the fundamentals of the economy,” he said.
With all of this on the table, MFS’ advice for investors is to consider equities over high quality bonds. The reason, he said, is very simple. The average dividend yield currently stands at 2.4%, while the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury is 2%. So unless the economy falls into recession, “which is something we do not believe will happen, it is better to have an emphasis on equities, given the current lack of profitability in the bond market.”
Limited Opportunities in Fixed Income
Among the few opportunities currently offered by fixed income securities, Roberge mentioned the high yield bond market, where the average yield is around 9%. “It will probably beat equities this year,” therefore, he believes it's a good idea to include this asset in a portfolio. “We believe that the market is being a lot more pessimistic about high yield market conditions than our own vision of what will really happen. The key factors here are volatility and liquidity, two factors which are of great concern, but the market has already discounted both of those risks. This year, high yield should perform much better than US Treasuries and, in our opinion, also much better than stocks.”
MFS’ co-CEO also opts for dollar-denominated emerging market debt, and explains that “during the last five or six years, we have seen a flattening in the debt curve of developed countries, due to the slowdown in growth and the monetary policies of central banks, and we believe that the next debt cycle will favor emerging markets. We prefer debt issued in dollars because local currencies are still exposed to risk from China, to the price risk of raw materials, and to what the Fed does throughout the year,” he added.
The market is expecting the Fed to raise interest rates again in March, but MFS does not believe that will be the case. Roberge ventures that the board headed by Janet Yellen will go easy. “It is likely that this time it may be the Fed which moves the market and not vice versa. It will be difficult for the board to raise interest rates since the major central banks in the developed world continue easing monetary policy due to global deflationary pressures. Therefore, we do not see the Fed raising rates four times this year, and have positioned our portfolios accordingly,” he said.
In his analysis of Latin American countries, MFS’ co-CEO explained that there is dollar-denominated Mexican debt in their portfolios, and Argentine debt has recently been added as a result of the political changes brought about by recent elections. With respect to Venezuela, given political circumstances and the price of oil, the Boston-based firm believes that at some point it will have to restructure its debt because its current levels are unsustainable.
“Brazil has a lot of challenges,” he said. “The economy is stagnant, inflation is high, and the central bank has little room for maneuver; added to all this is the political turmoil as a result of corruption exposed during the last year. These factors make it almost impossible to implement the reforms which the country needs.”