In looking at the current market climate, something that I find particularly striking is the dichotomy between investor sentiment and the changing global risk environment.
Across the board, measures of investor sentiment—whether fund flows or investor surveys—have recently reflected real skepticism about market prospects. According to the American Association of Individual Investors, for example, neutral or bearish sentiment stands at about 70%; that’s a bit better than it was but is higher than the historical average of roughly 60%. Lipper has reported continued flows out of U.S. equity mutual funds. And a few weeks ago, a BofA Merrill Lynch survey found that global fund managers were positioning themselves for an array of potential shocks in the coming months.
Litany of Fears
It’s easy to understand all the skittishness.
Negative headlines have been everywhere. The U.S. presidential election is one of the most inflammatory in recent memory, revealing a disturbing reservoir of economic resentment and creating an aura of unpredictability that is never good for markets in the near term. Politicians driven by nativist and socialist ideas have been gaining traction globally, with an extreme right party nearly gaining power in Austria. More immediately concerning, investors continue to assess the diminished, but still real, risk of a Brexit vote on June 23, and mull the political and economic crisis in Brazil. Meanwhile, fears over China’s growth have persisted, while recent statements by Janet Yellen have raised the specter of a Fed that could raise rates too fast in a climate where corporate earnings remains challenged.
A Shortened Tail
Still, for the most part, many of the drivers of tail risk that we’ve identified in this space have actually improved in the last few months. For example, the expensive dollar that has pressured earnings among large-cap U.S. companies has eased by about 5% (U.S. Dollar Index) since the end of January; oil is up, and at close to $50 (Brent) appears to be approaching a sweet spot that reduces strains on the oil patch but keeps fuel relatively affordable for consumers. More broadly, commodity prices generally have steadied, to a large degree based on a perception of stabilization in China, which itself has been a key driver of uncertainty.
Over the past few months, we’ve highlighted positives that have been peeking through the prevailing cloudy views on the markets. In Europe, for example, the perception of perpetual crisis obscures economic improvements and the strong positioning of some companies, offering up a long-term value opportunity. Emerging markets, although not yet in recovery, are benefiting from a shift to more market-friendly leadership, as well as the general stabilization of oil and the U.S. dollar. The latter trend, combined with a still accommodative Fed, could support wage and profit growth in the U.S.
Mixing Realism and Return
This is not to say that we are effusive about the current climate, but we believe assets are more apt to perform in line with the fundamental picture—both positive and negative. So, in our view, sovereign bonds have a low to negative return outlook, equities a modest return outlook, and credit falls somewhere in the middle. In other words, the balance of risk and reward across assets could lead to more normalized long-term relative return relationships.
That’s not to say that recently dominant risks couldn’t reassert themselves. Energy prices could experience another drawdown, Brexit could cause heightened angst in coming weeks, China could again disappoint. But overall we favor putting aside near-term distractions and maintaining consistent exposures across a diversified portfolio.
Neuberger Berman's CIO insight by Erik L. Knutzen
Erik L. Knutzen, CFA, CAIA and Managing Director, joined the firm in May 2014 as Multi-Asset Class Chief Investment Officer. Erik will drive the asset allocation process on a firm-wide level, as well as engage with clients on strategic partnerships and multi-asset class solutions. Previously, Erik was with NEPC, LLC where he served as chief investment officer since 2008. He has 29 years of experience in the financial services industry, including nine years at Putnam Investments. Erik holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Williams College.