The second quarter saw broad financial markets rebound strongly, erasing nearly all losses experienced during the March meltdown. Markets were buoyant on the back of unprecedented fiscal and monetary support from policy makers around the world as well as early signs that COVID infection rates appear to be levelling off and may be past peak in some countries.
The economy has been receiving palliative care since it was forced to take a back seat to the medical crisis that is still unfolding around the world. A flattening infection curve in many places and talk of “reopening” the economy have lifted markets from March lows, in a bounce almost as violent as the initial selloff itself. But it is far too early to assess the economic damage caused by efforts to contain the spread of Coronavirus.
The Federal Reserve charged to the rescue in a big way in 2019. In the face of increasing trade tensions and recessionary forces bearing down on the economy, US central bankers reversed course and reduced short-term rates three times starting in late July and in October, took steps to increase liquidity in short-term lending markets. By December, investors began embracing the idea that the worst of the US-China trade war was behind us.
Equity and bond markets can’t agree on one basic question this year: is the economy headed toward recession or not? US equities, which were up more than 20% through the end of Q3, seem to be brushing off signals that the economy may be slowing while bonds, up more than 8% (corporate bonds more than twice that) through the same period – far better than their stellar performance during the 2008 credit crisis – seem to be pricing in a sharp recession.
The current economic expansion entered its 11th year in July (the longest in recorded history) and there are currently enough early warning indicators of recession to justify a quick look at what that means for markets and your portfolio. What is a recession and why do they happen?
After the brutal flogging the market took late last year, few expected such a strong start to 2019, with world equity returns registering one of the best first halves in more than 20 years. Also notable, however, was the backdrop of deteriorating economic growth and softening earnings data during the period.
As we discussed in our last letter, the sudden plunge in equity markets in Q4 seemed to be at odds with the solid economic fundamentals in the US at the time. Since then, the soft patch in data we witnessed in January and February – data that seemed to confirm the recessionista’s worst fears - has turned out to be a passing phenomenon, largely attributable to severe winter weather and the prolonged government shutdown. The soft data have been replaced by robust economic numbers in retail sales, employment, industrial production, and wage growth, while inflation remains tame.
When the market plunges, investors immediately begin searching for a new narrative to replace the old one. In Q4, the narrative of solid economic growth and earnings, low inflation, a robust job market and improving wages quickly gave way to one of too much Fed tightening, slowing global growth, escalating trade frictions with China, a strong dollar, stretched valuations and an impending recession. All off this in the course of less than one week. This sudden change in storyline belies the fact that large, open economies – unlike financial markets - simply don’t roll over that quickly.