Reflation, Rotation and Rebalancing

by | March 15, 2021

Last week witnessed the return of the ‘reflation’ trade in financial markets, with global bond yields challenging twelve-month highs and rotation into more cyclical sectors underpinning equity market gains. Gold spluttered against the backdrop of higher yields and a stronger US dollar, while cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin advanced. Other commodity prices were mixed. Emerging currencies were mostly weaker ahead of central bank meetings this coming week in Brazil and Turkey, where investors expect to see the first interest rate hikes of this cycle in response to building inflation pressures.

Investors have much information to digest in the weeks ahead. As US stimulus checks arrive, online retail analysts will report on first signs of fresh spending. The lifting of Covid restrictions in US states, such as Texas, will be watched for signs of resurgent economic activity as well as for rising Covid infection rates. Chinese data on industrial production and retail sales will be scrutinized for evidence of improving domestic demand.

For investors, reflation remains the dominant theme. This weekend, Treasury Secretary Yellen offered reassurance that inflation risks are ‘small’ and ‘manageable’. She may be correct, but her words will carry less weight with investors, given her partisan position in the Biden Administration and her distance from the tools of the Federal Reserve, which must ultimately decide how ‘small’ and ‘manageable’ inflation risks are. So far, Yellen has a like-minded Fed Chairman down the Mall from her, but that could change.

Following the signing of the Covid relief package, US domestic politics will increasingly constrain fresh Democratic legislative initiatives in Congress. Voting rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform and hiking the Federal minimum wage, among others, are unlikely to survive Senate filibusters. President Biden will probably resort to the tactics of his two predecessors, using executive orders to make changes to regulations and laws, where permissible. Before long, he will also turn his attention to foreign affairs, highlighted by difficult tariff negotiations with China and the shifting politics of the Middle East, which pose obstacles to a renewed nuclear deal with Iran.

The Biden honeymoon may not be over, but things will get more difficult and contentious, domestically and internationally, in the weeks ahead.

Covid also remains a ‘known-unknown’ risk for investors. Slow immunization in Europe, Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia creates opportunity for viral mutation, which could yet upset the hopeful narrative of global immunization based economic re-opening. Election setbacks to moderate European parties, including Germany’s CDU, could change perceptions about the ability of centrists to provide strong leadership in Europe. 

Still, these risks and obstacles are unlikely to soon challenge the markets’ fascination with reflation and rotation. The pace of immunization in the US is accelerating. Europe probably will get its act together and improve rates of vaccination. Central banks in developed economies will remain accommodative. US fiscal stimulus will be powerful. 

Hence, the base case remains for growth and earnings recoveries to support global equity and credit markets, accompanied by rotation to more cyclically sensitive sectors, styles and regions. Beaten up ‘value’ stocks will garner more attention.

Yet even as market participants pivot to new favorites, wizened hands express disquiet. Returns can be bolstered in the short run by fortuitous market timing, but just as often chasing the ‘shiny new object’ turns out to be unsatisfactory, or worse. Long-term wealth preservation is underpinned by robust diversification, not tactical re-allocation. 

But in a world where the traditional mainstay of diversification—government bonds—are hopelessly overvalued, what are long-term investors to do? Logic and evidence overwhelmingly suggest that bonds will diminish, not enhance, portfolio stability. Look no further than Warren Buffet on that point. 

The fundamental challenge for portfolio construction and risk management in the years to come, therefore, is not about extracting extra returns via well-timed rotation. Rather, it is finding an appropriate substitute for bonds to provide proper long-term portfolio balance. 

Do we know what will replace bonds? 

Yes and no. 

We understand the attributes a bond substitute must have. It should be weakly correlated with, and less volatile than, global equities, particularly if it also offers lower expected returns.

But the precise substitutes are difficult to identify. Candidates include inflation hedges (such as inflation-linked bonds or liquid exposures to real estate), as well as long/short baskets of securities that don’t rise and fall with stock market performance. Alternative risk premium strategies based on relative factor returns are also worth considering. But all of this is virgin financial territory, accompanied by more sales hype than established, compelling performance.

In short, navigating markets in 2021 will have its challenges. But the skills required to tactically dip in and out of what works are modest in comparison to what’s required to offer durable solutions for wealth preservation in the decade to come. 

Fundamental rebalancing, not short-term rotation, is what really ought to matter to investors.

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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