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As central banks around the world were busy reasserting their authority and credibility as the guardians of monetary stability, the previous week’s stock market wobble turned into a fully-fledged rout last week. The growth concerns that preoccupied investors morphed into fears that central banks have become so determined to stop inflation from embedding itself that they are prepared to accept that proceeding with monetary tightening countermeasures may indeed lead to a global recession.
After the resurging positive sentiment of past weeks, markets were this week once again showing signs of fragility – the mood was decidely ‘risk off’. We could characterise this as growth scepticism, or more wariness that inflation will require even stronger and swifter central bank policy tightening before it is effectively squeezed out. Last week’s move towards monetary tightening from the European Central Bank (ECB) – even though long anticipated – provided the necessary headlines.
It has been another rocky ride week for capital markets, with inflation talk increasingly turning into chatter of an ‘inevitable’ recession, prompting the most recent cohort of DIY retail investors to throw in the towel. However, the thin trading volumes, plus the fact there’s no clear directional trend within stock markets, tells us institutional investors are staying put.
To some investors it will seem the old investor adage of ‘Sell in May and go away’ has once again proven correct, especially when the US S&P500 fell within touching distance of that bear market threshold of -20% last week. However, what makes this particular market correction different to others experienced since the pandemic is that it has disproportionally affected those risk assets considered safe havens when economic growth prospects faltered – namely US tech mega caps and other tech names quoted on the NASDAQ.
Equity markets have been range-bound through the past few weeks, but it does not feel like it. Volatility is at its highest since the nasty period in March 2020, which always raises our perceptions of potential downside. But the volatility is not too surprising given the overall mix of news and economic data updates.
The annual rate of inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI) was reported at 7% in the UK, 8.5% in the US and even Germany recorded 7.3%. These are heights not seen for 40 years and were unsurprisingly front and centre of this week’s news flow. While equity market investments have historically demonstrated their inflation-hedging characteristics, the fact that investors appeared to shrug off these new peaks may well point to the belief that this is about as high as inflation is likely to get.
In aggregate, global markets have managed a decent enough bounce since the onset of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the awfulness of the news from the area has ceased to impact markets greatly. We have returned to worrying about the resurgence of COVID-19 in China, along with its impacts on the global supply chain and on overall global growth, and worrying about the US Federal Reserve (Fed) and its plans for tightening US monetary policy.
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Budget announcements are inherently political affairs. Even so, Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement was a particularly political broadcast. The Chancellor talked up the 5p per litre cut to fuel duty with the fervour of a vegetable market stallholder (By contrast, Germany just slashed a litre of petrol by 30 cents), as he did with the rise in the National Insurance Contributions threshold. Reminding MPs of his avowed fiscal responsibility, he noted the fuel tax cut would last for only one year.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, delivered his 2022 Spring Statement on 23 March, confirming implementation of the politically contentious 1.25 percentage-point rise in most National Insurance contributions, though with revised thresholds to mitigate the impact. He declared that his overall plan “builds a stronger, more secure economy for the United Kingdom.” The fiscal update included a number of specific measures and a new ‘Tax Plan’ which the Chancellor said would help families with the cost-of-living squeeze. Mr Sunak said, “People should know that we will stand by them, as we have throughout the last two years.”
Last time we reminded portfolio investors of the importance of making sure that long-term investment decision-making is not overly influenced by short-term market fluctuations. At Vizion Wealth, we aim to ensure portfolios remain positioned appropriately, and are fine-tuned when medium-term changes in the economic and market outlook either necessitate adjustments or indeed present new opportunities.
As this week’s title suggests, for some of us it invokes memories of the cold war era of the West vs the USSR in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It is even more remarkable then, that at the time of writing, stock markets have rallied back to roughly where they stood this time last week. The same cannot be said about Russian asset prices, which have roughly halved since last autumn as the chart below illustrates. Perhaps this indicates who markets believe will ultimately pay for Putin’s megalomania.
Given the devastating news today, we would like to express our utmost concern for the people of Ukraine and of course, our thoughts and wishes are with them. It is our duty as advisers to comment on the economic and financial impact of geopolitical news, but we do so with the utmost respect for the broader context and the devastating impact the current situation is having on people’s lives.
Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine reached a new level this week after Russia’s president Putin officially recognised the two self-proclaimed separatist ‘republics’ in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Most importantly, he ordered official troops to move in for what he declared to be ‘peacekeeping operations’. This has triggered the West to announce a stepping up of sanctions. Meanwhile Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Putin had merely "legalised" troops already present in the republics.
We made the case last month that we disagree with the market maxim that “How January goes, so goes the year”, at least for 2022. After a disappointing January for investors, February made a promising start, only to revert to last month’s wild down and up trading pattern towards the end of the week. This was despite the week not having been dominated by the US Federal Reserve (Fed) or Russian manoeuvres (admittedly Boris Johnson was still big news – but only in the UK).
It has been an all-action year so far. Global equity markets have been in a downward trend since the end of 2021, led by US stocks. America’s mega-cap tech companies that were so loved throughout the pandemic have taken the biggest hit – with the tech-heavy Nasdaq falling nearly 10% in January.
Although 2021 did not close with another ‘Santa rally’, December – and the year as a whole – generated some pleasing returns for diversified investment portfolios. Compared to 2020 (another strong year in performance terms), equity investors fared considerably better than bond investors. Overall, and across asset classes, investors have experienced a notably better pandemic than so many other aspects of society.
Looking back, the year has exceeded some expectations and underdelivered on others. In terms of our expectations for the economic recovery and capital market performance, 2021 has been better for investors than we dared to hope and forecast at this time last year. On the other hand, I am surely not alone in having hoped the vaccination drives that began one year ago would have ensured further progress in putting the pandemic behind us than where we are now.
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