Following the unexpected invasion of Ukraine by Russia last week, we believe investors must now guard their portfolios against more unforeseen events and further inflation. There is a range of defensive investments available to investors, including China and short-duration bond exposures, less-affected equities, sectors, and emerging market Dividend Aristocrats.
Assessing the severity of the disruption
For investors, there are several key considerations when any unexpected news breaks:
Does the news radically change investor risk appetite? The market is becoming increasingly risk averse as the prospects for a drawn-out conflict and sanctions increase.
Has the growth outlook changed in a material way? Yes. Sanctions will increase supply chain frictions, while high energy prices will act as a drag on growth.
Are there inflationary implications? Again, yes. High energy prices and supply chain disruptions will sustain higher levels of inflation.
Is there a liquidity impact? So far, only slightly. US LIBOR-SOFR spreads have widened, hinting at some stresses in the money markets, and Russian assets are impaired. More widely, however, markets have continued to function well.
All of these factors play into central bank policy decision-making. Recently, we have seen the Federal Reserve suggest that it will press ahead with raising rates, although there seems to be less consensus around how aggressively it needs to run down the balance sheet. The ECB is altogether more cautious. If liquidity is seen as a possible point of stress in markets, then it is likely that the balance sheet size reduction will be delayed.
Against this backdrop, we see four areas where investors can find defensive exposures or take shelter from a potential storm.
1. Fixed Income: Consider China and short-duration strategies
It looks like the initial shockwave has played out but investors are likely to remain wary of risk assets given the uncertainty of how things develop from here. So there may be some caution around credit in general and high yield in particular. Likewise, broad emerging market local currency debt exposures may struggle not only if they encompass eastern Europe but also because the USD typically rallies in this sort of environment. However, more targeted exposures, such as China treasury bonds, have held up well.
Short-duration strategies remain the most defensive. There is still a high degree of central bank tightening priced into the money markets, which should provide a buffer. If the war drags on, it is likely that central banks will take a more data-dependent path for raising rates. The front end of the curve is also less at risk from a sudden rebound in risk appetite and the pass-through of higher inflation pressures.
US and Japanese equities could provide a degree of protection given their lower proximity to the epicenter of the Russian invasion. In addition, the US and Japan have lower dependency on Russian commodities.
Within the US, we believe the S&P MidCap 400 is best positioned in the current environment given its more domestic profile relative to large caps. Furthermore, valuations of mid cap companies offer a cushion, trading at a 12-month forward P/E of 14.6x while the S&P 500 trades at a P/E of 18.8x (Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of the 24 February 2022 market close).
Japan could be less affected by the consequences of the invasion and, similar to US mid caps, multiples for MSCI Japan are not stretched, with the 12-month forward P/E at 12.3x. Undemanding valuations may be an important factor in both cases as exposures with elevated P/E multiples are now challenged not only by expected policy tightening but also deteriorating sentiment. Both the USD and JPY could serve as preferred safe-haven currencies and thus see stronger demand.
3. Sectors: Energy is top of mind while health care offers shelter
We have seen consistent inflows into energy ETFs over the past week, which is not a surprise given the intense focus already given to oil and gas pricing in this conflict. The new seven-year-high crude oil price clearly contains a risk premium, but it could be sustained given the significant supply/demand imbalance.
This imbalance looks set to grow, with post-pandemic activity rebounding at the same time as possible supply disruption from Russia. $100 per barrel for Brent crude oil may become the new floor. Energy share prices have lagged the oil price for months and the gap widened last week. Gas prices are also rising given Russia’s dominant position in European gas supply and the stopping of Nord Stream 2. Despite strong performance for more than a year, energy sector valuation is still below its long-term average.
The health care sector offers defensiveness, not least because of the sustainable, non-discretionary nature of its products and services demand. The sector has been largely ignored despite delivering solutions during the COVID pandemic and it has relatively attractive valuations (both on a historic and relative basis). The current reporting season has seen a majority of positive surprises to earnings and subsequent small upgrades.
We see from State Street custody data that institutional investors have been buying health care second only to energy. However, health care is still extremely underweight, on average, across portfolios. A major investor concern has been the introduction of pricing limits on prescription drugs in the US, but with this crisis further adding to Biden’s political agenda, it has become a less likely outcome in the current administration.
4. Dividend Stability: Go to emerging markets amid geopolitical instability
Seeking out dividend stability in emerging market equities could provide a degree of protection against the emergence of geopolitical instability. Prior to the escalating conflict in eastern Europe, global equity markets were already considering the impact that a transitioning interest rate regime would have on pro-growth compared to opportunistic value. The convergence of geopolitical instability with a less attractive pro-growth environment makes an interesting case for investors getting defensive with their emerging market equity exposure.
The Dividend Aristocrats approach is to find companies that have a prolonged track record of delivering dividend stability. The SPDR® S&P® Emerging Markets Dividend Aristocrats UCITS ETF seeks to replicate the S&P Emerging Markets High Yield Dividend Aristocrats® Index, which is comprised of the stocks that have increased or maintained dividends every year for at least five consecutive years. These stocks have both capital growth and dividend income characteristics, as opposed to stocks that are pure yield or pure capital oriented.
1 Prior to 1 February 2022, the Fund was known as SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Year U.S. Treasury Bond UCITS ETF (Dist), tracking the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. 1-3 Year Treasury Bond Index.
2 Prior to 1 February 2022, the Fund was known as SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Year Euro Government Bond UCITS ETF (Dist), tracking the Bloomberg Barclays Euro 1-3 Year Treasury Bond Index.
3 Prior to 1 February 2022, the Fund was known as SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 0-3 Year Euro Corporate Bond UCITS ETF (Dist), tracking the Bloomberg Barclays Euro 0-3 Year Corporate Bond Index.
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