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Playing the Powell Put

Much of the bullish buoyancy of last year faded in the darkest December for markets since the depths of the Great Depression. The key catalyst? Worries that economic expansion was coming to an end. 

The Fed may just have pushed back the next recession

Jay Powell’s January “put” signalled a rate hike hiatus and formalised a frankly remarkable six-week volte face on the Fed’s policy path. Having previously spoken of operating almost on “autopilot”, the bank lowered its forward guidance and stands ready to lessen the pace of its balance sheet reductions.

The Fed seems willing to sustain the ongoing recovery rather than try to cool a possible overheating. An inflation flare-up is a distinct possibility. The trade-off? Greater support today for greater volatility tomorrow. Once again, good news is good news and so is bad news. Powell’s doves should keep equities flying high for now.

Goldilocks is back 

So where are we seeing opportunities? Our first instinct is to look for the more oversold parts of the market both in the US (small-caps and energy stocks) and internationally (Chinese and German equities). There is a caveat: despite the euphoria of more easy money, small-cap gains could still be gated by any renewal of the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Broad, larger-cap indices like the S&P 500 may also enjoy the conditions, especially in the first half of the year. Any US-China trade deal could clinch the argument and catalyse a roaring Spring comeback. Value strategies – long the whipping boys – may come into focus over the medium term, especially as they tend to perform well post “peak” monetary tightening. 

The opposite is true for growth stocks. If, as now seems likely, we are past the tightening peak, we expect to see them show some performance weakness. Tech is the dominant growth sector and some highly leveraged tech titans face some additional challenges of their own in the form of much greater regulatory scrutiny and the possibility of government intervention.

At such a late stage of the economic cycle, demand for cyclical sectors is likely to wane. The focus should progressively turn to more defensive sectors such as Healthcare, Utilities and Communication Services. As the economy matures, energy stocks should gain more support from inflationary pressures and solid demand. 

The Fed’s dovishness, the trade truce and the cessation of the latest shutdown may have eclipsed worries over a sharp deceleration in US corporate profits, but the end of the cycle is still in sight. The first signs of a loss of momentum were felt earlier this year, with a sharp decline in the ISM manufacturing survey in January and dismal retail sales. The 35-day shutdown could have cost 0.1% of annualised growth per week. The effects of the fiscal push are fading. Greater downside pressure is inevitable towards the end of the year. Risk reducers may yet provide some more comfort – as they did prior to the Fed’s handbrake turn.

When pessimism trumps reality 

In fixed income, the markets have become excessively pessimistic about the outlook and have now almost ruled out a hike in 2019. We’re not buying that just yet - US payrolls and inflation figures continue to suggest growth is strong and underlying inflation pressures are building. The case for a mid-year hike still stands for now in our eyes at least. Regardless, a patient Fed helps the energy sector, weakens the dollar and should keep rates broadly stable. This is supportive of TIPS and breakevens, and we expect inflation-linked assets to outperform nominal bonds, at least over the first half of the year.

Among treasuries, we still favour short-dated assets because their yields are similar to their longer-dated counterparts and they come with much less interest rate risk.  Meanwhile, January’s credit rally may peter out. If the Fed does hike, it would tighten financial conditions and weigh on growth in the second half.  Either way, the fundamentals for credit look far better in Europe – even with the political risk – than they do in the US.

Inflation is likely to peak later this year but prior to that trade tariffs, high capacity utilisation rates, and higher labour cost pressures in developed markets will add some impetus, as will some form of recovery in oil prices. There’s more upside than downside risk at the current stage of the cycle, especially with the Fed seemingly content with its trade-off. 

Longer-term, inflation expectations are vulnerable to a worsening of financial conditions, especially in an environment of slowing growth. As late cycle assets, commodities can act as a hedge against higher inflation and downside pressures on the dollar. High-yield bonds also offer an attractive yield pickup should oil prices consolidate. The economic weakness we expect to see in 2020 casts a cloud over their medium-term horizon however.

All views & opinions: Lyxor ETF Equity and Fixed Income strategy teams, as at 20 February 2019 unless otherwise stated. These teams are part of Lyxor International Asset Management.

Risk Warning​

This document is for the exclusive use of investors acting on their own account and categorised either as “Eligible Counterparties” or “Professional Clients” within the meaning of Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2014/65/EU. These products comply with the UCITS Directive (2009/65/EC). Société Générale and Lyxor International Asset Management (LIAM) recommend that investors read carefully the “investment risks” section of the product’s documentation (prospectus and KIID). The prospectus and KIID are available free of charge on www.lyxoretf.com, and upon request to client-services-etf@lyxor.com.

Except for the United-Kingdom, where this communication is issued in the UK by Lyxor Asset Management UK LLP, which is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK under Registration Number 435658, this communication is issued by Lyxor International Asset Management (LIAM), a French management company authorized by the Autorité des marchés financiers and placed under the regulations of the UCITS (2014/91/EU) and AIFM (2011/61/EU) Directives. Société Générale is a French credit institution (bank) authorised by the Autorité de contrôle prudentiel et de résolution (the French Prudential Control Authority).

The products mentioned are the object of market-making contracts, the purpose of which is to ensure the liquidity of the products on the London Stock Exchange, assuming normal market conditions and normally functioning computer systems. Units of a specific UCITS ETF managed by an asset manager and purchased on the secondary market cannot usually be sold directly back to the asset manager itself. Investors must buy and sell units on a secondary market with the assistance of an intermediary (e.g. a stockbroker) and may incur fees for doing so. In addition, investors may pay more than the current net asset value when buying units and may receive less than the current net asset value when selling them. Updated composition of the product’s investment portfolio is available on www.lyxoretf.com. In addition, the indicative net asset value is published on the Reuters and Bloomberg pages of the product, and might also be mentioned on the websites of the stock exchanges where the product is listed.

Prior to investing in the product, investors should seek independent financial, tax, accounting and legal advice. It is each investor’s responsibility to ascertain that it is authorised to subscribe, or invest into this product. This document is of a commercial nature and not of a regulatory nature. This material is of a commercial nature and not a regulatory nature. This document does not constitute an offer, or an invitation to make an offer, from Société Générale, Lyxor Asset Management (together with its affiliates, Lyxor AM) or any of their respective subsidiaries to purchase or sell the product referred to herein.

Research disclaimer

Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) or its employees may have or maintain business relationships with companies covered in its research reports. As a result, investors should be aware that LIAM and its employees may have a conflict of interest that could affect the objectivity of this report. Investors should consider this report as only a single factor in making their investment decision. Please see appendix at the end of this report for the analyst(s) certification(s), important disclosures and disclaimers. Alternatively, visit our global research disclosure website www.lyxoretf.com/compliance.

Conflicts of interest 

This research contains the views, opinions and recommendations of Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists. To the extent that this research contains trade ideas based on macro views of economic market conditions or relative value, it may differ from the fundamental Cross Asset and ETF Research opinions and recommendations contained in Cross Asset and ETF Research sector or company research reports and from the views and opinions of other departments of LIAM and its affiliates. Lyxor Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists routinely consult with LIAM sales and portfolio management personnel regarding market information including, but not limited to, pricing, spread levels and trading activity of ETFs tracking equity, fixed income and commodity indices. Trading desks may trade, or have traded, as principal on the basis of the research analyst(s) views and reports. Lyxor has mandatory research policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to (i) ensure that purported facts in research reports are based on reliable information and (ii) to prevent improper selective or tiered dissemination of research reports. In addition, research analysts receive compensation based, in part, on the quality and accuracy of their analysis, client feedback, competitive factors and LIAM’s total revenues including revenues from management fees and investment advisory fees and distribution fees.

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