Investment conclusions: baseline outlook
As we laid out in the October 2020 Secular Outlook, “Escalating Disruption,” we expect a fairly range-bound environment for government bond yields over the coming few years. Central banks across the board have signaled that it will be a very long time before we see policy rate tightening, including in the event that our baseline recovery outlook over the next year to 18 months is confirmed. Markets have priced in to a large extent the outlook of recovery but anchored yield curves, with equity markets and credit markets similarly pricing in the return to post-pandemic normality over the cyclical horizon.
We see both upside and downside risks to government bond yields in the near term, reflecting the push and pull between lockdowns and reduced activity and vaccine rollout. In most of our portfolios, we anticipate being fairly neutral on overall duration. U.S. duration continues to offer greater potential capital gains in the event of an economic or financial market downturn – but a less pronounced advantage after the outperformance of U.S. Treasuries over the course of 2020.
While fairly neutral overall on duration, we expect to have curve-steepening positions in our core bond portfolios, given the expectation that while central banks will anchor front ends, over time markets will price greater reflation into the longer ends of curves. We see little inflation upside risk over the cyclical horizon, but greater uncertainty over inflation outcomes over longer time frames, given the extent of monetary and fiscal policy experimentation. We continue to see U.S. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) offering a reasonably priced hedge against higher inflation over the secular horizon.
Given our baseline outlook and market pricing, we anticipate having overweight spread positions in our portfolios, coming from non-agency mortgages and other structured product positions, carefully selected corporate credit overweights, and hard-currency-denominated emerging market sovereign credit exposures. We will be careful to avoid generic tight corporate credit positions, preferring to rely on the picks of our credit teams and otherwise the liquid credit default swap indices for beta exposure.
We continue to favor agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS), balancing still attractive carry in the lower coupon mortgages and solid Fed support versus valuations that we believe are now fair rather than cheap.
On emerging markets (EM), in addition to EM external positons, we expect to have select EM local positioning where appropriate, with careful scaling given liquidity considerations and a medium-term orientation in these markets.
On currency positioning, we expect to maintain a modest U.S. dollar underweight versus the basket of G-10 currencies and select EM currency exposures in our more globally orientated portfolios. This reflects valuations and the potential for currencies of countries more exposed to the global economic cycle, and hence likely to benefit during the recovery period we envisage, to outperform versus the U.S. dollar.
Risks to the outlook: #1 is fiscal fatigue
Of course, there are risks to our economic outlook, and further investment implications related to those risks.
To begin with, while our base case assumes continued fiscal policy support aided by loose monetary policy, an onset of fiscal fatigue would be a significant risk to the expected economic recovery, particularly in the second half of this year and more so in 2022. In the U.S., while additional fiscal support this year looks likely after the Democrats secured a slim majority in the Senate with the Georgia runoff, later this year the focus may well shift to potential increases in corporate and top personal income taxes to be enacted in 2022.
In Europe, fiscal stimulus is largely baked in the cake for 2021 via already agreed national budgets and the coming disbursements from the EU Next Generation Fund. However, the reality of large deficits could start to affect policymakers’ willingness to stay the course and add additional stimulus if needed. The budget season for the following year traditionally starts after the summer in Europe, and a change in the fiscal policy course for 2022 could thus come into view by the second half of this year. This will be aggravated by the debt brake in the German constitution, which was temporarily waived for 2020 and 2021 but will require budget cuts in 2022 and beyond. Expectations of future fiscal belt-tightening via spending cuts and tax hikes may well start to affect consumer and corporate spending plans in the course of this year.
Risk #2: China refocusing on deleveraging
With China’s economy having rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 recession a year ago and exhibiting strong growth momentum coming into 2021, we expect policymakers to refocus on deleveraging in the course of this year with a view to avoiding bubbles and ensuring long-term growth sustainability. Our China team therefore expects overall credit growth to decelerate this year, resulting in a swing from a recently positive to a negative credit impulse. (Loosely speaking, the credit impulse measures the change in credit growth and typically leads GDP growth.) Calibrating just the right amount of credit easing or tightening in a highly leveraged $14 trillion economy is fraught with difficulties, which implies a real risk of overtightening causing a sharper-than-expected growth slowdown with negative global repercussions in economies and sectors heavily dependent on demand from China.
Risk #3: Economic scarring
The greatest uncertainty in the economic outlook stems from potential scarring effects that could inhibit or even prevent a swift return to pre-pandemic levels of consumer spending as well as corporate investment and hiring decisions. Given the unprecedented nature and size of the COVID-19 shock, it is hard to gauge the behavioral changes of households and firms. While our baseline view assumes that significant pent-up demand will be unleashed this year as the rollout of vaccines allows a rollback of voluntary and government-mandated restrictions on economic activity, there is a significant risk that private households and firms remain more cautious in their spending and investment patterns for longer. Also, labor force participation, which declined in many countries last year, may not recover quickly. Lasting damage to corporate balance sheets and business models could only become apparent during the recovery as government support expires over time.
Investment conclusions: risk factors
While risk markets can continue to perform well over the coming months in response to broadening vaccine rollout and policy stimulus, investors may have become too complacent as reflected by the bullish consensus positioning. As these risk factors underline, we see this as a time for careful portfolio positioning and not for excessive optimism or risk-taking. Given the overall low level of yields, tight spreads, and low volatility, we plan to place significant emphasis on capital preservation and careful liquidity management. We will look to be patient and flexible, to guard against a rise in market volatility, and seek to add alpha in more difficult market conditions. Fiscal fatigue could contribute to a subpar recovery, offsetting other risks to the overall level of global yields. China’s deleveraging underlines the downside risks to overall global growth as well as sector-based risks and risks to individual countries most exposed to China’s cycle. The risk of economic scarring underlines the point that while there are good opportunities in leisure and travel-related sectors, what is needed is carefully managed exposures and not an across-the-board effort to buy securities at low U.S. dollar prices. We believe private credit strategies provide an attractive vehicle for taking long-term positions in the most opportunistic and high risk sectors.
As outlined in the Secular Outlook, in addition to these cyclical sources of risk, a set of secular disruptors leads us to expect that the post-pandemic recovery will not kick-start another decade-long bull market. Rather, once the easy pandemic recovery trades have played themselves out, we expect a difficult market environment. As active managers, we will look to add value with security selection across credit sectors, with a focus on high quality sources of income, and seek to find the best global opportunities.