Last updated: 13:51 / Monday, 18 August 2014
UBS Global AM

The Recent Sell-off: A Brief Summer Thunderstorm or Should We Get Ready for A Cyclone?

The Recent Sell-off: A Brief Summer Thunderstorm or Should We Get Ready for A Cyclone?
  • The recent correction is primarily a market readjustment driven by repositioning and the usual lower volumes during summertime
  • "We don’t think that we have seen the equity peak for this cycle"
  • While we still think the valuation case for European over US equities is very supportive, they are re-examining the macro and earning gaps

After a modest start to the year, equity markets – especially in the Eurozone – registered painful losses over the last few weeks. While the Eurostoxx 50 has lost 9.3% since its highest level in June, the Italian FTSE MIB tumbled almost 15% over the same period of time. Once more we got confirmation that while market participants can swallow one or two pieces of negative news – in this case the Ukraine crisis and the conflict in Gaza – they tend to reduce risks once a third one occurs. The recent catalyst was certainly the better than expected news from the US economy, which led investors to believe that the US Federal Reserve could increase its leading interest rate sooner rather than later. This fear coupled with, among other things, the aggressive positioning of market participants and deterioration of issuance quality, had already led to a widening of high yield bond spreads ahead of the equity market correction.

But should we really be afraid of a possible earlier Fed intervention? According to UBS Global AM, some wage indicators have certainly reached their lowest points – especially when it comes to smaller companies – but the general inflationary pressure in terms of CPI and PCE remains under control. Also, rate expectations have barely moved in the US.

Two year yields are lower now than at the start of the quarter, even though this could be, up to a certain point, also due to risk aversion rather than a shift in rate expectations. Taking another measure, US primary dealers continue to take a dovish view of Fed actions. In a Reuters survey conducted after the Non-Farm Payrolls released on 1 August, 12 of 18 respondents forecast that the first hike wouldn't be before the second half of next year. Out of these, half thought the Fed would opt for a 25-50bp target range. So the sell-off has not been driven by a broad based change in market expectations for the Fed. Finally, history might not repeat itself, but usually equity markets are not really affected by rises in interest rates in general, particularly if announced well in advance by the Fed, which is the case presently.

Actually, has this really been a risk sell-off? Emerging market equity has held up well, as have Emerging Market currencies. Investment grade bonds have continued to experience inflows. Spreads on Italian and Spanish government bonds have widened versus German bunds but haven’t moved a huge degree in absolute terms (Italian 10yr started the quarter at 2.844% and is now 2.829%, as of 11 August). It would be wrong to think of this as a return to the risk on/risk off world of 2008-2013. Generally, those areas that were over-owned have experienced the worst of the correction, says UBS Global AM.

So what will happen next? “We believe that the recent correction is primarily a market readjustment driven by repositioning and the usual lower volumes during summertime. We don’t think that we have seen the equity peak for this cycle, even though we expect higher volatility and lower yearly equity market returns than we have seen in the past few years. In our view, valuations are not over-extended, particularly outside of the US, and relative to other asset classes offers more value. In particular, the recovery in the US economy should sustain global growth and allow for higher sales numbers in the coming quarters which will compensate for either higher wage growth (in the US) or modest economic growth numbers (in Europe)”.

“Do we have any worries? Yes, we are always retesting our investment views! While we still think the valuation case for European over US equities is very supportive, we are re-examining the macro and earning gaps, particularly in light of the Russian sanctions and growth data in the Eurozone. We are also looking at global saving/borrowing imbalances as we think this is a meaningful longer-term risk for the global economy. Finally, we are also concerned that, as the US economy strengthens ahead of the rest of the world, changes to Fed policy could be inappropriate for certain European and Asian economies still dependent on US monetary policy. In this regard we hope that the Fed has learnt its lessons from the correction of spring 2013. All of this leads us to expect a world of higher volatility for risk assets in the foreseeable future”.

What about geo-political risks? While many of the geo-political events of the last few months have led to significant human misery, in terms of macro-economics or earnings the effects have been rather limited. The possible exception to this may be the Russian sanction on EU food imports. While Russia had already been on a path of limiting European food imports for some time (for example, all EU pork was already banned in Russia due to an outbreak of African Swine Fever in the Baltic states), the latest sanctions increase the breadth. “Our initial assessment is that the consequences will mainly affect citizens of Russia's larger cities, who will be confronted with higher food prices, leading to a 1 to 2 percentage point rise in inflation rates down the line. This could become quite an issue for the Russian Central Bank which was already forced to raise its leading interest rate to slow down capital outflows and the weakening of the ruble. Of course, any ban on flights using Russian air space would clearly have more significant earnings and potential macro implications”.

Are there upside risks? Yes. If the European economy continues to disappoint the ECB might take firmer steps towards unconventional measures and possibly asset purchases but this is unlikely to happen in the next few months and the Comprehensive Assessment remains the ECB's focus for 2014. "We could increasingly have to deal with a situation comparable to the one we have had in the US over the last few years: every time the economic landscape deteriorates, the ECB will be tempted to come back with new measures which, in turn, will be positive for risky assets. Furthermore, we shouldn't forget that outside of the weaker Eurozone data, the global recovery has gained further traction with signs of acceleration in the US and stabilization in China".

At this stage the company feels that is too late in the correction to sell further equities and we are looking to the following signposts to potentially add an overweight in client portfolios: A reduction in geo-political tension between Russia and the EU (and to a lesser extent the US)
 o Positive price momentum or at least stabilization, indicating that the positioning rotation has played out o Supportive policy action, especially from the ECB”.