- Due to an atypical stop-start dynamic in 2020-21, macro-economic uncertainty hit its highest level in recent history, exceeding the levels it reached in the disinflation period in the 1980s and the 2008 global crisis
- Robeco expects investors to incorporate climate risk factors into their asset allocation decisions more and more in the next five years
- With excess liquidity still sloshing around and implied equity risk premiums still attractive, alternatives for equities are hard to find
- Robeco expects low-double-digit growth in earnings per share for the global equity markets to make up for sizable multiple compression
Robeco has published its eleventh annual Expected Returns report (2022-2026), a look at what investors can expect over the next five years for all major asset classes, along with post-pandemic economic predictions. The asset manager shows a "tempered optimism" and expects an improvement of US labor productivity, a supply-side boost for the global economy and important technological growth for the next decade.
Specifically, the report anticipates an investment-led pick-up in productivity that will beat the subdued GDP-per-capita growth during the 2009-19 great expansion. "The fact remains that due to an atypical stop-start dynamic in 2020-21, macro-economic uncertainty hit its highest level in recent history, exceeding the levels it reached in the disinflation period in the 1980s and the 2008 global financial crisis. The question of whether inflation will be transitory or longer-term means that investors should keep an open mind as to how the economic landscape could unfurl over the coming five years", says Robeco. In this sense, it believes that productivity boosts "are not a luxury", but a necessity to deal with climate risks, ageing societies, and economic inequalities.
In its base case scenario -called the Roasting Twenties inspired by the Roaring Twenties of the previous century-, the firm expects the world to transition towards a more durable economic expansion after a very early-cycle peak in growth momentum in 2021. In its view, there is still "no clear exit" from the Covid-19 pandemic, although governments, consumers and producers have adopted an effective way of dealing with what has become "a known enemy".
In this context, Robeco highlights that negative real interest rates drive above-trend consumption and investment growth in developed economies, while the link between corporate and public capex and the productivity growth that ensues remains intact, with positive real returns on capex benefitting real wages and consumption growth. "Workers’ bargaining power increases due to more early retirements by members of the baby boomer generation after the pandemic – not only in developed economies, but also in China. Central banks want their economies to grow, but not too much, and in this scenario they have luck on their side", says the report.
Meanwhile, regarding the debate about whether inflation is transitory or on a secular uptrend, it remains largely unresolved, reflecting a stalemate between rising cyclical and falling non-cyclical inflation forces. This creates leeway for the Fed and other developed market central banks to gradually tighten monetary conditions, with a first Fed rate hike of 25 bps in 2023 followed by another 175 bps of tightening over the following three years.
According to Robeco, another reason to temper optimism is the growing awareness of the severity of the climate crisis. Global temperatures will rise to at least 1.5˚C above pre-industrial level by 2040, leading to more extreme weather events and increased physical climate risks in developed economies. The firm expects investors to incorporate climate risk factors into their asset allocation decisions more and more in the next five years. To help them do so, this years’ Expected Returns framework introduces an in-depth analysis of how climate factors could affect asset class valuations in addition to macroeconomic factors.
This analysis is based in a couple of considerations. The first one is that the composition of asset classes may be impacted more by climate change than expected returns, as it anticipates more issuance of shares and bonds from green companies going forward. Also, it considers that emerging equity markets and high yield bond markets are much more carbon intense than developed equity markets and investment grade bond markets, which will put pressure on their prices over the next five years.
Lastly, it highlights that active investors can add value by integrating their view of climate change and how policies, regulations, and consumer behavior will affect a company’s profits; and that massive divestment from fossil fuel companies may lead to a carbon risk premium.
“A year and a half after the initial Covid-19 outbreak, the world is at a crossroads. Amid the paradox of recovering economies and technological growth on the one hand and macroeconomic uncertainty and climate risk on the other, we believe the world will transition towards a more durable economic expansion, the ‘Roasting Twenties’. Negative real interest rates drive above-trend consumption and investment growth in developed economies, while the link between corporate and public capex and the productivity growth that ensues remains intact, with positive real returns on capex benefiting real wages and consumption growth", comments Peter van der Welle, Strategist Multi Asset at Robeco.
Meanwhile, Laurens Swinkels, researcher at the firm, says that although 86% of investors from the survey believe climate risk will be a key theme in their portfolio’s by 2023, regional valuations do not yet reflect the different climate risks to which the various regions are exposed. "Therefore, this year’s Expected Returns publication takes into account, for the first time since its launch in 2011, the impact of climate change risk on returns", he adds.
Frigid bond markets, torrid equity markets
Regarding expected returns for the 2022-2026 period, the report shows that current asset valuations, especially those of risky assets, appear out of sync with the business cycle, and are more akin to where they should be late in the cycle. "The dominant role central banks have taken on in the fixed income markets has forced yields well below the levels warranted by the macroeconomic and inflation outlook. Torrid valuations are suggestive of below-average returns in the medium term across asset classes, and especially for US equities. This is reason enough to keep an eye on downside risk at a time that many investors have a fear-of-missing-out, buy-the-dip mentality", the document wars.
Ex-ante valuations have historically typically only explained around 25% of subsequent variations in returns. The remaining 75% has been generated by other, mainly macro-related, factors: "From a macro point of view, the lack of synchronicity between the business cycle and valuations should not be a problem given our expectations for above-trend medium-term growth, which bode well for margins and top-line growth. In our base case, we expect low-double-digit growth in earnings per share for the global equity markets to make up for sizable multiple compression". According to Robeco, previous regimes in which inflation has mildly overshot its target – something else it expects in its base case – have historically seen equities outperform bonds by 4.4 percentage points per year. A world in which inflation is below 3% should also see the bond-equity correlation remain negative.
The report also considers that even though they expect real rates to become less negative towards 2026, negative real interest rates are here to stay for longer, which implies that some parts of the multi-asset universe could heat up further: "With 24% of the world’s outstanding debt providing a negative yield in nominal terms, investing in the bond markets is a frigid proposition from a return perspective as it is hard to find ways of generating a positive return. Sources of carry within fixed income are becoming scarcer, and are only to be found in the riskier segments of the market, such as high yield credit and emerging market debt".
Lastly, Robeco believes that with excess liquidity still sloshing around and implied equity risk premiums still attractive, the TINA (There is No Alternative) phenomenon persists as alternatives for equities are hard to find: "Overall, we expect risk-taking to be rewarded in the next five years, but judge the risk-return distribution to have a diminishing upside skew. The possibility of outsized gains for the equity markets is still there, but the window of opportunity is shrinking".