Market Insights Podcast – 16 MAY 2022
The Fed can provide liquidity directly or indirectly, which is a key factor in determining market volatility. Don’t fight the Fed, which usually means that when the Fed provides liquidity, don’t fight it. The Fed’s liquidity may reassure investors and reduce market risk. The Fed’s liquidity encourages investors and increases liquidity, even when valuations are very high. On the contrary, today, when the Fed withdraws liquidity, it is very important not to act with them. Anxiety increases, leading to a decrease in market depth and an increase in volatility. There is no sign that the Fed’s current move to eliminate liquidity is coming to an end. Liquidity is weakening due to the influence of the Federal Reserve so volatility is rising. Illiquid and volatile markets are better for short term traders but not conducive to long-term wealth creation.
Economic worries are soaring. Global stocks, corporate bonds, gold, forex, cryptos markets all fell while U.S. dollar index and USD bonds rose. The U.S. dollar index touched 105, the highest level since November 2002. The primary factors supporting a strong dollar in the face of high inflation are still the Fed’s interest rate hikes and expectations of rate hikes. The consumer price index in the United States has been rising since 4.9% in May 2021 and hit a nearly 40-year high of 8.5% in March. Although the consumer price index of 8.3% fell slightly in April, it still exceeded market expectations.
The U.S. stocks have experienced a roller coaster from soaring to plummeting post the May FOMC meeting. Before the April inflation data were released, investors were generally looking forward to a lower inflation data, which led to a rebound in U.S. stocks and a fall in U.S. bond interest rates. Yet, the released data seemed to disappoint the market. In the short term, while April inflation data may not lead to another big sell-off in U.S. stocks and Treasuries, more reasons may be needed to achieve a sweltering “bear market rally”.
When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine triggered a global commodity boom in early March, Wall Street warned that the global economy was facing a growing risk of stagflation. Now, more and more analysts believe that stagflation may become the number one risk in the market and traders are constantly looking for hedging tools. The key to the performance of financial markets over the next year is whether the Fed and other central banks can kill inflation without killing economic growth. This is not impossible. But the risk that aggressive tightening of monetary policy triggers a recession – or at best a sharp slowdown – is high. We remain optimistic on the economy, at least for the short term—consumer and business balance sheets as well as consumer spending remain at healthy levels but we can see significant geopolitical and economic challenges ahead. The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, high inflation and the Fed’s hawkish stance on monetary policy could combine to significantly increase the chances of a recession. Those are very powerful forces and those things are going to collide at one point. No one knows what is going to turn out. Investors should therefore maintain relatively low-risk portfolio positioning.
According to Bank of America Corporation’s survey, fund managers have been reconfiguring their portfolios. They poured into crude oil and other commodities and took long positions in resources and health care stocks. In the face of the increased risk of stagflation, the standard 60/40 portfolio (60% of stocks and 40% of bonds) may not be an effective strategy. Commodities are still the best hedging tool. In addition, the food crisis is approaching. India, the world’s second largest wheat producer, announced a ban on wheat exports on Friday night. The world’s second-largest wheat producer is trying to quell rising local prices. India will immediately ban Indian wheat exports, although exports that have previously been issued by letters of credit can continue.
In this round of sell-off, investors wanted to hold almost nothing but cash. The Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index, which has outperformed all other asset classes this month, gained 0.6% while stocks and bonds tumbled. All of this suggests that investors are now concerned with only one thing which is capital preservation. Slowing economic growth, persistently high inflation and anti-epidemic measures have created an unfavorable environment for investment. Even commodities, which benefit from the inflation theme, were not immune to the global sell-off last week.
Not only is the Fed determined to raise borrowing costs but some European Central Bank (ECB) policy makers have expressed their willingness to raise central bank deposit rates above zero by the end of the year. ECB President Christine Lagarde hinted that she would prepare to raise interest rates for the first time since July 2011, marking a shift in the ECB, which has long been seen as slow. Money market pricing shows that the market expects the ECB to raise interest rates three times by 25 basis points each by the end of the year. The outlook for interest rates is pushing the U.S. dollar higher and hitting a 20-year high.
Many investors now prefer dividend stocks, especially when the market is shaky, high-yield stocks have become a safe haven because they can earn stable cash flow and do not require high CAPEX (capital expenditure). Therefore, the key to investing in high-interest stocks depends on the long-term dividend record. Such high-dividend stocks are naturally more attractive if a company continues to increase dividends over the years. To select such high-quality dividend-paying stocks, investors can use the ‘Dividend Aristocrats’ standard as a reference, which is about the stocks that can continue to pay dividends and increase dividends every year. If companies can increase dividends continuously that tend to be of higher quality than the broader market in terms of earnings quality and leverage. In fact, if a company can reliably increase its dividend for years or even decades, then that is a sign of its strong financial position.
Saudi Arabia lowered its official selling June price for Asian customers to a premium of USD 4.4 per barrel over the Oman/Dubai benchmark from a USD 9.35 premium in May. The drop comes as Covid-19 quarantines in Shanghai and other regions cuts into Chinese demand and as cheap Russian oil flows to Asian markets. Why Saudi Arabia is willing to make such high price concessions to its Asian consumers? One reason for this is that the country may concern about a loss of market shares. Russian Urals type oil is still trading at a very substantial discount of USD 24.5 vs Brent, which makes it attractive to those Asian consumers who have not signed up to the West’s sanctions against Russia. A move away from risky assets is also pushing oil lower. Stock markets are lower globally on interest-rate fears and weak China demand. The S&P 500 is having its worst three-day streak since September 2020. That kind of slump is a negative demand indicator. Every once in a while, the commodity gets sucked into the general meltdown that we witnessed in high volatile market lately.
Munger, “oil is a very precious resource.”
Buffett, “buy as much as you can.”
If a comprehensive and immediate EU ban on all Russian oil imports, it could replace the supply of more than 4 million barrels a day, which would push the price of Brent crude to a much higher level. Higher oil prices help improve the performance of oil companies and generate considerable free cash flow, which can be used for regular dividends, special dividends and share buybacks. Many multinational oil companies are reluctant to increase capital expenditure because this year’s new energy policy is bad for traditional energy. They are only willing to pay dividends and buy back shares. This is also one of the reasons why oil stocks have become popular.
Saudi Aramco has a market capitalization of just under USD 2.43 trillion. Apple’s current market value is USD 2.38 trillion. Saudi Aramco shares have risen over 27% since the start of the year, while Apple Inc. shares have fallen in line with the S&P 500, was down about 17%. Energy stocks currently account for only a small portion of the market, which is about 4.4% of the S&P 500. Although technology stocks have tumbled recently, they still account for about 28% of the index. The oil industry still has a long way to go to catch up. While the change of ownership of the world’s most valuable companies may be short-lived, the change can be seen as a microcosm of the market this year. With the continuous hawkish stance of the Federal Reserve, climate change, supply chain disruption and energy crisis superimposed inflationary pressure, U.S. technology stocks have been generally sold off this year while energy stocks have been unique and rising. Wall Street institutions even shouted that oil and gas stocks are the new FAANG. The gap should be further narrowed. Investors should not rule out the possibility of energy stocks regaining greater leadership in the market. After the collapse of technology stocks in 2000, energy stocks finally had the same weight as technology stocks until 2008.
January through March of this year was the best quarter for the sector since 1970. While the S&P 500 is down roughly 13% year to date, the energy sector is up almost 50%. That follows a year when energy stocks beat the broader index by 21 percentage points. Passive index investors did not get a huge lift from energy’s shining moment. Energy accounted for just 2.7% of the S&P 500 at the end of last year, a far cry from the 11% weighting the sector commanded a decade ago, and active funds were significantly underexposed to the energy sector in the first quarter. Today, the weighting is at roughly 4.5%.
While the change of ownership of the world’s most valuable companies may be short-lived, it does highlight changes in major forces in the global economy where weakness in technology stocks is driven by global inflationary pressures and concerns about global economic expectations. It may take some time to regain dominance. Everything is cyclical and technology stocks are no exception. Apple Inc.’s market capitalization surpassed Exxon Mobil Corp. Oil Company for the first time to become the world’s largest company by market capitalization. Since then, Apple Inc. has had few rivals in terms of valuation increases, only being briefly overtaken by Microsoft Corp., who is also a technology stock, in 2018 and 2021. In August 2018, Apple Inc.’s market capitalization exceeded USD 1 trillion for the first time; Apple Inc.’s market capitalization exceeded USD 2 trillion in August 2020 and Apple Inc.’s market capitalization exceeded USD 3 trillion in January 2022. Apple Inc. will remain one of the most profitable companies in the world until at least 2021. In fiscal year 2021, Apple Inc. achieved operating income of USD 366 billion, an increase of 33% over the same period last year and net profit of USD 94.68 billion, an increase of 66% over the same period last year. However, in terms of profits alone, Saudi Aramco made a profit of USD 110 billion in 2021, up 124% from a year earlier.
At present, it seems that Apple Inc. does not have an imminent fatal crisis, including the Federal Reserve raising interest rates will not hurt Apple Inc.’s foundation, after all, the Federal Reserve will not keep raising interest rates. For Apple Inc., the real threat is that the international environment is no longer as friendly as it was in previous decades when the company begins to take a political stand (such as Apple Inc. withdrawing from Russian business). Then, its international business will inevitably encounter a backlash.
As a result of the overall narrow consolidation of the overseas Chinese stock market last week, although the fluctuations in the peripheral markets continued or even more intense last week, overseas Chinese stocks showed some resilience, at least relative to last week. It is too early to tell whether the Hong Kong stock market will be ‘immune’ to external volatility but the lower valuation is expected to provide some support for the market. In addition, the appreciation of the U.S. dollar has led to a new round of rapid depreciation of the renminbi and the Hong Kong dollar, allowing the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) to inject liquidity into the market to maintain exchange rate stability. Although it is entirely normal for the HKMA to intervene in the market under the linked exchange rate system, it still shows that the Fed’s entry into an accelerated tightening phase will inevitably lead to a strain on global dollar liquidity.
On the positive side, southward capital inflows provide some support for the Hong Kong market. The pace of the capital inflows accelerated significantly last week. Considering the overall loose domestic liquidity and the comparative advantage of Hong Kong stock market valuations, we believe that the southbound capital inflow trend will remain unchanged since December last year. Looking forward, we believe that the market may still need some time to digest external uncertainty, not to mention that the impact of the epidemic on the real economy will continue in the short term. However, lower valuations and policy support will provide downside protection, as exemplified by the recent acceleration of southward capital inflows.
Although we have noted a series of ‘soft’ economic turning points in China, the concern is that the absence of stabilizers will mean an amplification of stress in segments of the economy already challenged in terms of liquidity (cash-on-hand and ability to meet short-term debt) and solvency (longer-term debt sustainability) such as residential real estate. In this regard, offshore China high-yield credit is again deteriorating and has shown little response to the micro-support measures introduced year to date. The news that a large Chinese real estate developer had defaulted on a USD 750 million bond last week and that reveals the difficulty in restructuring debt as capital markets close off for refinancing at a time when the economy is decelerating. Forward confidence measures for the Chinese property sector are near all-time lows on some measures. Credit quality should be watched assiduously.
Variable situation worthy-noting in the future include: 1) epidemic turmoil and its impact on the supply chain; 2) follow-up policy landing; 3) fluctuations in the U.S. stock market, U.S. rate of return and U.S. dollar exchange rate; 4) Sino-U.S. relations. In terms of sectors, high-dividend yield target and high-quality growth stocks will provide more protection for investors in the current market volatility. If more policies are introduced in the future, the benefits of stable growth are also worthy the attention.
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