How much further can the US business cycle be extended? After seven years of economic expansion, profitability and leverage, data suggest that the end of this cycle is nearing. The question is whether we are on the eve of a recession or if the cycle can be stretched for a few more years.
In addition to economic worries, we see an increase in political risk, not only in emerging markets, but certainly also in developed markets. Brexit, Donald Trump, the rise of nationalist parties in Europe are all a reflection of the same thing: an angry population. As the middle class feels insecure due to high unemployment, the absence of wage growth, immigration and threat of terror, it is susceptible to populist politicians.
“The future isn’t as bright as it used to be”
The ECB, The PBOC, the BOJ and even the Fed have all become more dovish in the last quarter. Disappointing inflation numbers and financial market turmoil are apparently enough to trigger a strong response. Central banks seem obsessed to keep the economy growing. This is a risky obsession as it causes moral hazard. In the first place it takes away the pressure on governments to implement structural changes. Secondly, although overall capital spending levels are low, it causes overinvestment and overleverage in parts of the private sector. Debt funded excess investment in several Chinese industries but also in the US energy sector is a direct result of overly loose monetary policy. Similar to the run-up to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 this leads to imbalances in the economy. The recession is delayed but ultimately the damage will be bigger.
We have come to a point were confidence of market participants in central banks is being hampered, which is reducing the effectiveness of monetary policy itself. The drug is losing its effect and markets respond to fundamental deterioration regardless of monetary stimulus.
The US financial market is still by far the most important market in the world. All other markets are in fact a derivative of the US. It is therefore very relevant to have a good assessment of the US business cycle. The business cycle in the US is in the mature stage. Profitability is under pressure and in order to hide that, companies are falling back to all kinds of financial engineering. We see increasing corporate leverage in the US. Debt is being raised to fund Mergers & Acquisitions and share buy-backs. These are typical characteristics of the final stage of the economic expansion.
‘Angry voters are attracted to populist politicians, posing a threat to stability’
A US recession sometime in the next three years seems unavoidable although we can be sure that monetary authorities will do anything to try to delay it as long as possible. As an investor it is important to closely monitor how much recession risk is being discounted for in credit spreads. Early February, US credit spreads had risen to levels at which a recession was fully priced in; sentiment was extremely negative and recession was the consensus expectation. We saw that as a perfect moment to increase risk in portfolios. In the last six weeks we have seen a strong reversal and spreads have tightened significantly. We believe that this was a bear market rally and that the current strong markets provide a good opportunity to clean up portfolios and reduce risk again.
We can see several exogenous risks that could disturb financial markets later this year. Brexit in Europe, elections in the US and the permanent threat of terrorism are all events that could lead to a risk-off stance in markets. With credit markets that are still fairly illiquid this can lead to violent price action, similar to what we have seen in the first quarter of this year. Central banks will also continue to be a dominant force and are prepared to intervene when markets drop too fast. We advocate a contrarian investment style. Sell when markets are positive and add risk when sentiment is at the bottom.
The content displayed on this website is exclusively directed at qualified investors, as defined in the swiss collective investment schemes act of 23 june 2006 ("cisa") and its implementing ordinance, or at “independent asset managers” which meet additional requirements as set out below. Qualified investors are in particular regulated financial intermediaries such as banks, securities dealers, fund management companies and asset managers of collective investment schemes and central banks, regulated insurance companies, public entities and retirement benefits institutions with professional treasury or companies with professional treasury.
The contents, however, are not intended for non-qualified investors. By clicking "I agree" below, you confirm and acknowledge that you act in your capacity as qualified investor pursuant to CISA or as an “independent asset manager” who meets the additional requirements set out hereafter. In the event that you are an "independent asset manager" who meets all the requirements set out in Art. 3 para. 2 let. c) CISA in conjunction with Art. 3 CISO, by clicking "I Agree" below you confirm that you will use the content of this website only for those of your clients which are qualified investors pursuant to CISA.
Representative in Switzerland of the foreign funds registered with the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority ("FINMA") for distribution in or from Switzerland to non-qualified investors is Robeco Switzerland AG, Josefstrasse 218, 8005 Zürich, and the paying agent is UBS Switzerland AG, Bahnhofstrasse 45, 8001 Zürich. Please consult www.finma.ch for a list of FINMA registered funds.
Neither information nor any opinion expressed on the website constitutes a solicitation, an offer or a recommendation to buy, sell or dispose of any investment, to engage in any other transaction or to provide any investment advice or service. An investment in a Robeco/Robeco Switzerland product should only be made after reading the related legal documents such as management regulations, articles of association, prospectuses, key investor information documents and annual and semi-annual reports, which can be all be obtained free of charge at this website, at the registered seat of the representative in Switzerland, as well as at the Robeco/Robeco Switzerland offices in each country where Robeco has a presence. In respect of the funds distributed in Switzerland, the place of performance and jurisdiction is the registered office of the representative in Switzerland.
This website is not directed to any person in any jurisdiction where, by reason of that person's nationality, residence or otherwise, the publication or availability of this website is prohibited. Persons in respect of whom such prohibitions apply must not access this website.