The major themes driving markets in Q1 were all negative: disappointing economic and corporate data, recurrent problems in emerging markets, and the political crisis in Crimea. Still, the resilience of markets (global equities +1.4%; emerging markets -0.4%) against such a challenging backdrop suggests underlying market strength and the promise of better returns in the months ahead if the news flow does improve.
While we have some sympathy for this theme, we’d be wary of getting carried away with it. One reason is that market resilience in recent months seems partly due to the fact that our positive outlook for growth in the major economies has now become a consensus view. Investors have probably disregarded weak data because they expect a rebound in the next few months. If that’s right, then risk assets might need good data just to validate current expectations. Also, it’s possible that any positive growth news in the UK and the US will shift investors to a more bearish view on monetary policy.
Monetary policy really matters – it has been the key driver of financial markets in the post-crisis era. Q2 2013 was a high point for investor confidence in central bank liquidity provision. Since then, markets have begun to accept that US quantitative easing is ending and have begun to focus on the timing of the first interest rate hike. The imprint of this theme on markets is clear. While global equities and high-yield bonds have recently made new highs, every other asset class is still trading below its 2013 peak.
The broader theme here is that markets are in the midst of a transition away from a world in which central bank liquidity boosted all assets, to a world of more limited policy support. In the major economies, the expansion of central bank balance sheets has peaked. In China, policymakers are now focused on restraining the credit boom. In other emerging markets there has been more policy tightening than easing. As markets confront the limits to policy support, the growth outlook becomes increasingly important. In gloomy emerging markets, positive growth surprises would be unambiguously welcomed. In the UK and the US, market reaction to positive growth surprises will be somewhat tempered by concerns about the impact on monetary policy.
Liquidity-driven markets are powerful and straightforward: everything goes up. We are now in transition to a more complex environment in which market reaction to news will be more nuanced and less predictable. That’s a world in which we’d expect asset performance to remain quite widely dispersed. A world with more volatility, more challenges and more opportunities.