The impact of COVID-19 on world markets and investors has been unprecedented. Challenges have arisen on numerous fronts, including oil price wars and geopolitical anxieties—all in addition to difficult questions about the progression of the virus and assessments of the associated economic fallout. As a result, investors are operating in an environment characterized by multidimensional uncertainty.
Such uncertainty is fueling huge swings in asset prices, both in terms of absolute magnitude and speed. As markets try to determine the impacts of COVID-19, fundamentals are lagging behind and analysts are struggling to pinpoint the effects on different industries and companies, as evidenced by the record-high dispersion around earnings estimates.1
Confidence is key—where will it come from? In the face of such uncertainty, confidence becomes key. For confidence to emerge, three key elements must come together:
Progress in treating the health crisis – This includes scaled-up testing solutions and contact-tracing programs in the near term, followed by therapeutic treatments and ultimately, a successful vaccine.
An appropriate level of policy response – It’s time to dust off the global financial crisis playbook. Policy response is critical, and in the midst of a crisis, it’s better to have too much than too little. Worldwide, we have already seen a large amount of monetary and fiscal stimulus, but it’s too soon to know if it will be effective. Results won’t be immediately apparent, so patience is required.
Clarity around the economic situation – Growth figures for Q2 2020 are widely expected to be weak, and many economies around the world are poised to enter recessions. Our economics team expects the US to contract at a 15% annualized rate in Q2—but that isn’t as dire as it sounds. If our efforts to limit the health crisis to a peak of three to four months are successful, the US economy may be able to begin gradually reopening in mid-May. This would allow growth to return in Q3 and Q4, setting the stage for above-average growth in 2021. The reasonable strength of the economy heading into the crisis combined with the amount of stimulus and deferred demand gives us confidence that this clarity will come.
Implications for tactical active asset allocation We entered March with an overweight to risk assets, including US large-cap, European, emerging market, and REIT equities along with high yield bonds and broad commodities. As part of our investment process, we utilize the Market Regime Indicator (MRI), which seeks to measure investor risk sentiment, which has an impact on driving the market environments. The MRI is composed of three forward-looking market inputs: equity-implied volatility, currency-implied volatility, and credit spreads on risky debt. Taken together, these forward-looking factors help us to correctly identify the prevailing market risk environment, which helps us to adopt the best asset mix to protect and build portfolio returns. The MRI has five regime classifications, ranging from euphoria (extreme risk appetite, i.e., greed and complacency) to crisis (extreme risk aversion, i.e., fear and panic).
In late February, the MRI crossed into the crisis regime, where it remains today. Being in a crisis regime is a contrarian indicator; however, in the current environment, we recognize that the issues facing the markets are not related to a typical economic slowdown. Taking the MRI reading into account alongside our investment team’s judgment, we remained overweight to growth assets but did reposition for March by de-risking the overall portfolio. Exposures to European equities, high yield bonds and commodities were reduced, while exposures to investment-grade bonds, cash and gold were increased. Our rationale for these moves was based on our prediction that, while Q2 will be painful, a recovery will materialize in Q3 and Q4. In addition, we believe that the recovery will be supported by significant monetary and fiscal policy. We felt a modest de-risking was prudent but did not want to sell en masse into weakness. We maintained this positioning over the course of March and rebalanced at month-end by selling bonds and repositioning into equities.
When our team met again in early April, it was interesting to observe that, despite all the interim volatility, the S&P 500® Index had declined just 0.44% since our March meeting.2 At the April meeting, we decided to maintain our position in growth assets, favoring US large caps and emerging market equities. We also looked to add a modest increase in risk by purchasing intermediate-term investment-grade corporate bonds. To fund this, we sold REITs, broad exposure to US investment-grade bonds (“Agg” exposure) and cash.
Our rationale has several components. First, the MRI continues to indicate that we are in a crisis regime, although to a lesser extreme than before. This contrarian signal would suggest that adding risk and purchasing intermediate-term investment-grade credit was our first step in that direction. Bond valuations look attractive, given our view that Q3 and Q4 will deliver a rebound in economic growth. Additionally, our models are forecasting spread tightening after credit spreads recently widened significantly to levels not seen since the global financial crisis.3 Lastly, the Federal Reserve is acting as a supportive force, directing quantitative measures to this segment.
On the sale side, REITs have become less attractive because of leverage and financing concerns along with uncertainty around the implications of long-term social distancing. Broad exposure to US investment-grade bonds has become less attractive due to valuations of government bonds, and with interest rates near 0%, cash is also less attractive.
Looking ahead with cautious optimism Getting more clarity around the health crisis—in terms of reaching a plateau in the number of cases and fatalities—and making progress toward medical solutions are critical steps in moving forward. Investors need to be able to confidently assess value, which will be driven by more clarity on earnings and improvements in sentiment readings, such as the MRI. Finally, investors need confidence in the ability to transact. Central banks have taken steps to shore up this confidence, and we expect these actions to continue. As difficult-to-digest data from Q2 begins to roll out, markets will potentially feel further pressure, making confidence in the ability to transact increasingly important.
This is a challenging time for investors, as uncertainty is not well received by markets. There will be tough days and weeks as the world navigates this crisis, but we are cautiously optimistic. According to the old adage, in times of crisis, markets often take a “fire, ready, aim” approach. Investors who avoid this temptation and take the time to aim will be positioned to navigate uncertainty.
1Evercore ISI, as of 4/23/2020 2 Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/10/20-4/9/20 3 Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/31/20
Market Regime Indicator (MRI) A proprietary macro indicator developed by the SSGA Investment Solutions Group. The MRI is designed to identify a level of forward-looking, implied volatility. Factors utilized to generate the signal include implied equity and currency volatility as well as spreads on fixed income.
S&P 500 Index The S&P 500, or the Standard & Poor's 500, is an index based on the market capitalizations of 500 large companies having common stock listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ. The S&P 500 index components and their weightings are determined by S&P Dow Jones Indices.
Diversification does not ensure a profit or guarantee against loss.
Equity securities may fluctuate in value in response to the activities of individual companies and general market and economic conditions.
Investing in foreign domiciled securities may involve risk of capital loss from unfavorable fluctuation in currency values, withholding taxes, from differences in generally accepted accounting principles or from economic orpolitical instability in other nations. Investments in emerging or developing markets may be more volatile and less liquid than investing in developed markets and may involve exposure to economic structures that are generally less diverse and mature and to political systems which have less stability than those of more developed countries.
Bonds generally present less short-term risk and volatility than stocks, but contain interest rate risk (as interest rates raise, bond prices usually fall); issuer default risk; issuer credit risk; liquidity risk; and inflation risk. These effects are usually pronounced for longer-term securities. Any fixed income security sold or redeemed prior to maturity may be subject to a substantial gain or loss.Investing in high yield fixed income securities, otherwise known as "junk bonds", is considered speculative and involves greater risk of loss of principal and interest than investing in investment grade fixed income securities. These Lower-quality debt securities involve greater risk of default or price changes due to potential changes in the credit quality of the issuer.
Investing in REITs involves certain distinct risks in addition to those risks associated with investing in the real estate industry in general. Equity REITs may be affected by changes in the value of the underlying property owned by the REITs, while mortgage REITs may be affected by the quality of credit extended. REITs are subject to heavy cash flow dependency, default by borrowers and self-liquidation. REITs, especially mortgage REITs, are also subject to interest rate risk (i.e., as interest rates rise, the value of the REIT may decline).
There are risks associated with investing in Real Assets and the Real Assets sector, including real estate, precious metals and natural resources. Investments can be significantly affected by events relating to these industries.
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Standard & Poor's®, S&P® and SPDR® are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC (S&P); Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC (Dow Jones); and these trademarks have been licensed for use by S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC (SPDJI) and sublicensed for certain purposes by State Street Corporation. State Street Corporation's financial products are not sponsored, endorsed, sold or promoted by SPDJI, Dow Jones, S&P, their respective affiliates and third party licensors and none of such parties make any representation regarding the advisability of investing in such product(s) nor do they have any liability in relation thereto, including for any errors, omissions, or interruptions of any index.
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