It's time to hedge - the bear is here
Watermark Funds Management
The Australian share market saw a significant contraction in May with the All-Ordinaries Index down 3.0%, its worst month since January. The sell-off was once again led by Technology stocks with the sector down 8.7%. The Real Estate sector also performed poorly, down 8.9%, led by concerns of more aggressive interest rate tightening and associated impacts on demand.
After a soft April, the Materials sector resumed its outperformance in May, aided by expectations of more stimulus in China. In terms of factor leadership, value resumed its leadership over growth. The value factor has now outperformed growth by 20% over the last 6 months.
The secular bull market that ended for Australian shares last August emerged from the financial crisis and was a product of successive waves of liquidity led asset reflation, as central banks pushed real interest rates lower and lower and asset values higher and higher (Fig1).
Figure 1: Successive waves of asset inflation
Source: Bloomberg, S&P 500 Chart
Asset inflation, of course, created excess demand, leaving product and labour markets acutely tight. Unemployment in Australia is now at its lowest in 40 years and with little immigration, the services sector is scrambling to find workers. Fair Work Commission awarded a 5.2% increase in the minimum wage, well above expectations.
This policy led bonanza for asset owners was a consequence of systemic deflation. No one has a complete explanation for the root cause of this deflation which you can see clearly in the value of bonds which have pushed higher for decades (long term interest rates have been falling).
The first phase took place in the 1980's with back-to-back global recessions that killed the inflation of that era. Then in the early 1990's with the collapse of the Soviet Union we had a rapid expansion of western democracies, a deepening of capital markets and the globalisation of trade. This spread of the neo-liberal 'rules based' order (capitalism) was deflationary allowing interest rates to fall and debt balances to accumulate.
The spoils of this period where not spread evenly however, laying the seeds of its demise. Asset owners captured all the gains while labour's share of GDP has fallen sharply. We now have the first generation of citizens in the west who are worse off than their parents in real terms.
The emergence of popularism and de-globalisation were the first phase of its descent. A new cold war between the East and West has manifested the next phase. With this reversal in these deflationary forces, the good times of ample liquidity and asset reflation have passed.
Even before the health crisis, we were approaching the limits of these policies in driving asset values higher as bond yields in many western countries were already negative. On a hold to maturity basis, investors were guaranteed a loss, which of course is nonsensical. Then with the health crisis, policy makers doubled down on these same policies. The excess demand created from emergency stimulus and the associated supply chain disruptions have unleashed inflation which will be with us for years to come.
Investors need to ask two important questions: Are the deflationary forces that persisted for so long still around or has their demise contributed to the inflation we are seeing today? Secondly, what has caused this inflation, is it established or transitory?
How these inflationary pressures play out will determine the duration of this bear market. If the inflation hangs around for years to come as expected then we are in a secular bear, if it is transitory and the deflationary forces resume/return then potentially shares can make new highs in the years ahead.
We are still early in this bear market. Until inflation moderates and central banks back away from hiking rates further, shares will move lower in the medium term. In the short term at least, share markets globally are oversold and sentiment is extremely bearish. In the weeks and potentially months ahead, we should see a decent bear market rally which investors should sell into as the big drawdown is still ahead in the second half of the year.
Australian shares have proven remarkably resilient through this first phase of the drawdown given our economy's exposure to commodities which are the driving force behind the inflation we are seeing. In simple terms, the Australian economy is a good inflation hedge. The 'quarry and farm' may once again avoid another global recession.
As we get into the 3rd quarter of the year however, around the US mid-term elections, western economies will be slowing quickly and the 'street' will be slashing profit estimates, pushing shares lower.
This becomes a pivotal moment for investors as the policy response will determine the next move for shares. If the inflation data improves as everyone expects, Central Banks may 'pause' on any further policy tightening. Under this scenario economies slow but avoid recession and shares can stage a significant rally early into next year. However, an early pause only ensures inflation lingers for longer, leaving us with 'stagflation'.
Alternately, Central Banks look to overshoot in tightening financial conditions further to kill inflation, only to push western economies into recession. Under this scenario shares obviously fall further into the first half of next year.
The policy response as the economy slows, asset values fall, and inflation moderates will determine which path the market follows. Either way the medium-term outcome is much the same, shares will be lower.
The emerging data is less than encouraging, with the May CPI report showing further deterioration, Central Banks are once again losing credibility as they were guiding to a moderation in the data. It seems they still have a lot more to do evident in the FOMC decision to increase the target interest rate by a full 75bpts (3 hikes in 1), which is unprecedented.
With the broader offshore indexes down more than 20% we are now officially in a bear market for shares with investors seemingly still pricing in a soft-landing scenario (green line below in Fig 2). They have never tightened once shares have fallen into a bear market before (down >20%), a further demonstration of just how far behind the curve they find themselves.
Given inflation has never been tamed once it gets above 5% without a recession, a recession more than likely beckons and we move lower (the red line in Fig 2).
Figure 2: Market drawdowns with and without recessions
While we have seen some contraction in valuations (P/E's) already as financial conditions have tightened, we are yet to see any move lower in profit expectations. With the demand shock from the COVID stimulus, many public companies are over earning, profits have moved well above trend. In a garden variety recession earnings typically fall by a least one third Fig 3 below.
Figure 3: S&P 500 Profit (EPS) drawdowns from prior peaks