The U.S. Aggregate Bond Index lost 3.8% in April, bringing its year-to-date return to an agonizing -9.5%. The realization that bonds can lose big money, combined with the outlook for stubbornly high inflation and continued rate increases, is nudging bond investors to consider a wider scope of alternatives.
If there is one thing sure to make equity investors swoon, it is the prospect of buying into a credible, long-lived secular growth story at a relatively modest valuation. Over the past three decades, Emerging Markets (EM) have proffered just such an opportunity. EM’s economic growth rates have far surpassed those of developed nations, and the valuations attached to EM stocks have often been at a discount to other markets.
However, this combination of secular growth and attractive valuations has not always paid off for investors. The MSCI Index has underperformed the U.S., Europe, and even Japan over the last ten years in local currencies. Furthermore, EPS growth for the EM Index has come in far below its economic growth rate, creating an exasperating drag on Index performance as it tries to keep up with other regions.
Investors view Emerging Markets (EM) as the best source of economic growth across global equity markets, and rightly so. Annualized EM GDP growth of 8.6% since 2001 is more than double that of the U.S. and Europe. However, investors have not captured this extraordinary advance because earnings per share for the MSCI EM Index have lagged far behind EM economic growth rates.
Small cap stocks are often seen as a bullish, risk-on, pro-cyclical asset class. They benefit from economic growth, rising inflation, widening margins, and the willingness of investors to move out on the risk spectrum. The pandemic recovery has created these very conditions, and small caps responded right on cue by posting a blockbuster price gain of 130% since the COVID-19 bear market low of March 23, 2020. Because the pandemic was a global economic and health care catastrophe, we were curious to see if small caps behaved similarly in other regions.
In recent months, we’ve highlighted some reasons to buy or add to Emerging Market equities, and at year-end received a formal endorsement from our monthly Emerging Market Allocation Model. The signal triggered after a 30-month period in which the model recommended the relative “safety” of the S&P 500—in retrospect, a good call.
Driven by massive government stimulus, an imminent vaccine rollout, and the expectation of record earnings in 2021, investors seem to be on the verge of embracing a move away from Large Cap Growth stocks in earnest. The leading candidates offered as broad-based alternatives to Large Growth (LG) include Value, Small Caps, and Emerging Markets.
Our Very Long Term (VLT) Momentum algorithm has been a very good “confirmatory” market tool over the years, especially at the onset of a new cyclical bull market. But VLT has proven to be of little to no value in navigating this year’s gyrations. VLT’s latest flip-flops reinforce our view that the market leaderboard is set to be rearranged.
The most likely catalysts for improved relative performance of foreign stocks would be: (1) a bear market; (2) a recession; and, (3) a major downturn in the U.S. dollar. This year has supplied all three, yet the relative strength ratios of most foreign equity composites continue to grind lower as if it’s “business as usual.”
How can an equity manager possibly keep up with the QQQ—an ETF that’s almost 50% invested in the six largest U.S. companies?
Easy! Own the vehicle that benefits the most from a collapse in global trade volume and an escalating cold war between the U.S. and China—the EEM (iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF)!
A dramatic shift of country weights within EM indexes has become an inadvertent challenge for a country rotation strategy. Due to this, we tested the integration of a momentum-based sector rotation model to attain exposure to the top-rated sectors to represent the markets of the largest country components instead of seeking to obtain “whole market” exposure.
The Major Trend Index has remained in neutral territory during the last several weeks of upside action, suggesting there remain significant fundamental and technical shortcomings beneath it all. But this precarious MTI stance didn’t preclude us from acting on a new bullish reading for Emerging Market equities at the end of April.
Last month we assessed the effectiveness of using valuation factors as a basis for country allocation. Using 20 years of data, our results showed that they work quite well specifically for Emerging Market (EM) country-rotation, however, the same valuation-based strategy does not appear to be value-added for Developed Market (DM) allocation/rotation.
We have mentioned a number of times that China had experienced a very unpleasant “second-hand” tightening due to its peg to the dollar. Its trade competitiveness has suffered tremendously. With a weaker dollar the Chinese Yuan can re-gain some of its competitiveness while maintaining its peg to the dollar. A rare win-win in today’s convoluted world of finance.