Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Graham Secker, Head of Morgan Stanley's European Equity Strategy Team. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the tricky outlook for European stocks for the second half of the year, and where we think the best opportunities lie. It's Monday, May the 16th at 2 p.m. in London.
Although the global macro backdrop feels particularly complicated just here, we think the outlook for European equities is relatively straightforward... and, unfortunately, still negative. Over the last month or so our European economists have revised their GDP forecast lower, their inflation forecast higher, and brought forward the timing of ECB interest rate hikes - an unappealing combination for risk assets, even before we consider elevated geopolitical risks. Looking into the second half of the year, we think this backdrop will persist, with European economic growth slowing considerably, but with inflation remaining sticky at around 7% and putting considerable pressure on consumer finances.
As well as the consumer, we think corporates are also going to feel the squeeze from this backdrop of slowing growth and rising prices. So far, Europe's corporate earnings trend has held up remarkably well this year. However, we think this is about to change and that a new downgrade cycle is likely to start in the coming months. This cycle is likely to reflect two drivers. First, weaker top line demand as new orders slows. And second, a squeeze on corporate margins as companies struggle to pass on their own input costs to customers. If we look at the gap between real GDP growth, which is low, and inflation, which is high, then the decline in margins could be really quite severe.
Historically, the impact on equity performance from a period of weaker earnings is often offset by a rise in the price-to-earnings ratio, as it usually coincides with more dovish central bank policy. However, this is unlikely to be the case this time, given that inflation is so high and central banks were relatively late to start their hiking cycle. Hence now the pace of rate hikes starts to accelerate as earnings starts to slow.
Of course, some of this difficult backdrop is already priced into markets, given that investor sentiment appears to be low. However, we do not believe that all of the bad news is yet discounted. European equity valuations are now down to a price-to-earnings ratio of 12.5, which is below the long run average. However, equity markets rarely trough on valuation grounds alone, and a further drop down towards 10-11x looks plausible to us over the summer. While we remain cautious on European equities at the headline level, we do see some interesting opportunities for investors to make money within the markets.
First, at the country level, we continue to like the UK equity market and specifically the FTSE 100, which is the cheapest major global stock market. And it also benefits from having high defensive characteristics, which means it tends to outperform when global stocks are falling.
Second, from a sector perspective, we prefer defensive names such as healthcare, telecoms, tobacco and utilities. We do expect to turn more positive on cyclicals later in 2022, but for now it is too early. On average, the best time to buy cyclicals is one month before economic leading indicators trough. The problem now is that these indices haven't started to fall yet.
Lastly, we continue to favor value stocks over growth stocks. While the latter have underperformed quite significantly so far this year, we think valuations and positioning still remain too high and that a broader reset of expectations is needed before they become attractive again. One value strategy we particularly like here is buying stocks with attractive dividends, as we think these stocks offer an appealing alternative to bonds and provide some protection from higher rates and inflation.
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