Old Bulls

by | September 13, 2021

As bull markets go, the present one has been robust. Major equity indices have soared, in some cases at unprecedented rates, since the Covid-19 sell-off in Q2 2020. And before the pandemic shock, global equity markets had been on a central-bank driven roll since mid-2009.

Bull markets rarely end because of old age. Fatigue may result in a pause or even a minor correction, but not much more. Similarly, soaring valuations, alone, don’t end market advances. History suggests that even ageing bull markets need a catalyst to morph into bears.

Today, global equity markets are priced to perfection. But that isn’t really the fault of complacent investors. Given the alternatives, who can blame them? Yields across the spectrum of fixed income assets are paltry, in many cases below rates of inflation. Precious metals have done little this year. Other commodities initially advanced, only to fall back. Cryptocurrencies have been great, and then awful. More than anything, they are volatile. Adjusted for price movements, equities stand out as attractive. 

Simply put, financial markets have not offered compelling alternatives to equities for a long time.

Nevertheless, this past week saw global equity markets drift lower. The declines, while not large, were nevertheless the biggest in several months. Is the ageing bull about to collapse?

Probably not, for reasons we outline below.

To begin, not much news prompted or accompanied the sell-off. The Delta-Covid-19 variant remains highly contagious, but areas hit earliest and hardest are beginning to see declines in infections. That is like what happened following earlier outbreaks in the UK or India. 

Last week, the ECB also announced a tapering (of sorts), but stock and bond markets took the news in stride. Equity markets were already dipping before Friday’s surprisingly high US producer price inflation data. 

Something else seems to be going on. Rather than reacting to poor data or news, investors appear to be pausing for reassessment. At the margin, active investors may simply be making minor adjustments to temper risk or take profits after an 18-month surge in share prices. 

The underling narrative in markets has not changed. The consensus of observers is that inflation will be transitory, even if rising prices may persist for longer than central bankers have been indicating. Automaker production cutbacks, persistent reports of shipping delays at major ports, and Friday’s US inflation numbers provide more evidence that supply-chain bottlenecks and disruptions are not going to be as short-lived as earlier thought.

Yet at the same time, labor market tightness might ease. Declines in US weekly unemployment claims could indicate that expiring unemployment benefits will nudge reluctant workers back to the job market. But it is too early to say for sure. The last few employment reports offered mixed readings. 

This week, investors will get a chance to pour over fresh data on the state of the global economy and inflation. China reports data on foreign direct investment, total social financing, retail sales and industrial production. The mainland data will say a lot about how domestic activity is unfolding in the world’s second largest national economy, as well as how Covid-19 related softness in global consumer spending and in shipping may be impacting Chinese economic activity. Capacity utilization, the Reuters Tankan survey and machine tool orders data will provide similar insights into the health of the Japanese economy. 

In the US, industrial production, retail sales and Fed indices highlight the activity releases this week, but arguably core and headline consumer inflation (Tuesday) and the University of Michigan inflation expectations survey (Friday) will be most closely watched. Those reports will provide further information on the breadth and duration of US inflation outcomes and clues as to when Fed tapering might begin.

Returning to theme, equity markets are priced for benign outcomes. Investors believe that growth will not falter due to the pandemic. They may be right. As bad as the Delta variant is, it’s spread may soon peak. Moreover, the public health response to Covid-19 no longer includes damaging economic shutdowns. Investors expect that inflation, while running above central bank long-term targets, will not be so high (or persistent) to prompt aggressive monetary policy responses.

Those growth and inflation expectations are more likely to be right than wrong. The risks to the recovery from pandemic or monetary policy do not look more outsized today than they did a few weeks, or even a few months, ago.

It is undeniable that this bull market has been extraordinarily rapid and large. Given the absence of compelling investment alternatives, the size of consensus positioning is almost certainly extreme. 

While bull markets don’t die of old age, they are vulnerable to exuberance, complacency, and positioning. Recent price action suggest that investors are growing more wary of technical, rather than fundamental, factors. That caution is worth heeding.

About the Authors

Larry Hatheway

Larry Hatheway has over 25 years experience as an economist and multi-asset investment professional. He is co-founder, with Alexander Friedman, of Jackson Hole Economics, LLC, which offers commentary and analysis on the global economy, policy & politics, and their broad implications for capital markets. Prior to co-founding Jackson Hole Economics, LLC Larry worked at GAM Investments from 2015-2019 as Group Chief Economist and Global Head of Investment Solutions, where he was responsible for a team of 50 investment professionals managing over $10bn in assets. While at GAM, Larry authored numerous articles on the world economy, policy-making and multi-asset investment strategy. Larry was also the lead investment manager for various mandates, funds and an actively managed multi-asset index. Larry also served on the GAM Group Management Board, was Chairman of the GAM London Limited Board and served as member of the GAM Investment Management Limited Board. Larry was also Chairman of the GAM Diversity & Inclusion Committee. During his tenure at GAM, Larry was based in London, UK and Zurich, Switzerland. From 1992 until 2015 Larry worked at UBS Investment Bank as UBS Chief Economist (2005-2015), Head of Global Asset Allocation (2001-2012), Global Head of Fixed Income and Currency Strategy (1998-2001), Chief Economist, Asia (1995-1998) and Senior International Economist (1992-1995). During his tenure at UBS, Larry was also a standing member of the UBS Wealth Management Investment Committee. While at UBS, Larry worked in Zurich, Switzerland, London, UK (various occasions), Singapore and Stamford, CT. At both GAM Investments and UBS Investment Bank Larry was widely recognized for his appearances on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, the BBC, CNN and other media outlets. He frequently published articles and opinion pieces for Bloomberg, CNBC, Project Syndicate, and The Financial Times, among others. Before joining UBS in 1992, Larry held roles at the Federal Reserve (Board of Governors), Citibank and Manufacturers Hanover Trust. Larry Hatheway holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas, an MA in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, and a BA in History and German from Whitman College. Larry is married with four grown children and a loving Cairn Terrier, and resides in Wilson, WY.

Alex Friedman

Alex Friedman is the co-founder of Jackson Hole Economics, LLC, a private research organization which provides analysis on economics, politics, the environment and finance, and develops actionable ideas for how sustainable growth can be achieved. Friedman is a senior leader with two decades of experience growing and transforming organizations in the financial and non-profit industry. He was the CEO of GAM Investments in London and chairman of the firm’s executive board. Previously, he was the Global Chief Investment Officer of UBS Wealth Management in Zurich, chairman of the UBS global investment committee, and a member of the executive board of the private bank. Before moving to UBS, Alex Friedman served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He was a member of the foundation’s management committee, oversaw strategic planning, and managed a range of the day-to-day operating functions of the world’s largest philanthropic organization. Friedman also created the foundation’s program-related investments group, the largest impact investing philanthropic fund in the world. He started his career in corporate finance at Lazard. Friedman served as a White House Fellow in the Clinton administration and as an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the board of directors of Franklin Resources, Inc. (Franklin Templeton), a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Project Syndicate and a board member of the American Alpine Club. Friedman is a regular contributor to a range of newspapers and thought leadership groups and is also the author of Babu’s Bindi, and The Big Thing, both children’s books. He is an avid mountaineer and rock climber and led the first major climb to raise money for charity through an ascent of Mt. McKinley. Friedman holds a JD from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and a BA from Princeton University.

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