It was an exciting end to the year with most markets moving in diametrically opposite directions from earlier in the year. The December dramatic drop in 10-year U.S. Treasury yields and pricing out of all U.S. rate hikes in 2019 was driven in large part by the poor performance of risky assets: high-yield and leveraged loans, the previous darlings of the bond market; and equities which saw their largest monthly drop in many years. It was not one specific event driving this shift—it was a plethora of problems: disappointing macro data across developed economies; political troubles (U.S./China trade, government shutdowns); poor sentiment; market mispositioning; and of course, poor liquidity, enhanced by end-of-year balance sheet constraints. It is a struggle to find good news; which of course may mean it cannot get worse! We will have to see. We do know that despite the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) raising rates eight times in the past two years, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield has only moved up 24 basis points (bps) (post dramatic Q4 rally). A flattening of the yield curve of historic proportions certainly belies confidence that the U.S. economy can sustain growth much above levels prevalent post the global financial crisis. The risk of a more dramatic economic slowdown from tightening too quickly remains remote, in our opinion. We think that moderate growth, stable inflation, and a patient Fed is an excellent recipe for engineering a soft landing for the U.S. and global economy, and good performance of risky assets.
Fixed Income Outlook
Investors hoping for a “Santa Claus rally” in December were disappointed, with developed market (DM) equities experiencing their worst month since September 2011, while investment-grade credit spreads sold off to their widest levels since the first half of 2016. On the face of it, one might have thought value-minded investors would be encouraged by the sell-off and the opportunity to buy equities at lower valuation multiples and be paid more to take on corporate default risk, but the situation is more complex than that. Economic data, especially in developed economies, generally surprised to the downside in the fourth quarter of 2018, and while company earnings generally held up well through the year, expectations for 2019 have been revised steadily lower. In addition, many of the main macro risks—trade tensions between the U.S. and China, populist politics in Europe, concerns about the slowing Chinese economy—remain unresolved.
However, the other significant development over the last month is the policy response to the weakening growth data and financial markets performance. The trend toward monetary policy normalization, which was firmly on track in the first half of the year, appears to be stuttering to a halt, and, in some cases, reversing. Inflation everywhere remains subdued, so central banks can take their time with normalizing policy, reducing the risks of a policy accident from tightening too much, too soon.
The Fed delivered more rate hikes in 2018 than the market had initially expected—four rather than three—but now finds itself in the situation where policy rates are approaching neutral, the risks to tightening much further seem greater, and the need to do so not particularly pressing. Inflationary pressures did recover through 2018, but U.S. core inflation measures have at most returned to the target level, rather than over-shooting. U.S. job creation surged far more than expected in December, but the unemployment rate rose at the same time, as discouraged workers rejoined the workforce, suggesting there is still slack in the U.S. labor market, which will moderate inflationary pressures.
In Europe, the European Central Bank (ECB) ended its quantitative easing (QE) program, but the path and pace of raising interest rates is expected to be an extraordinarily slow one. While the ECB is sticking with its view that the weakness in the eurozone economy is transitory and that tighter and more rigid labor markets will lead to rising underlying inflationary pressures, there is very little evidence of this translating into higher consumer prices, with core CPI unchanged at 1 percent year over year in December. As in the past, the ECB may have to push out the timing of its policy normalization.
Possibly the most significant change in monetary policy came from the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), as the required reserve ratios (RRR) were cut to support the slowing Chinese economy. Interestingly, though, while emerging markets (EM) were a major source of market volatility in the first half of 2018, they managed to outperform DM in the second half of 2018. This improved resilience makes sense to us given most emerging economies are in better shape than many investors feared; those with imbalances took corrective actions to address them; and, with valuations undemanding, there are attractive investment opportunities. A slower pace of Fed rate hikes, which may lead to a weaker U.S. dollar, could add further support to the asset class.
Despite these rather large changes in asset prices, analysts’, including our own, macro and corporate forecasts for 2019 have not changed nearly as dramatically. Yes, growth will moderate in 2019. But will it collapse? No, in our opinion. And, for the U.S. in particular, this is a good thing. If U.S. growth continues at the third quarter pace, there is no doubt in our minds that this would lead to higher inflation and possibly more aggressive Fed rate hikes and a higher probability of recession in 2020 and beyond. So the silver lining of the market’s reappraisal of U.S. and global growth and inflation dynamics is that there is substantially less pressure for central banks to either normalize policy (eurozone, Japan, China) or continue to raise rates (U.S.). The risk of a more dramatic economic slowdown from a too-quick pace of tightening or a collapse in household or corporate confidence remains remote, in our opinion. We think that moderate growth, stable inflation and a patient Fed is an excellent recipe for engineering a soft landing for the U.S. and global economy and good performance of risky assets. The notable resilience of EM in the second half of the year (dramatically so in December) is further supportive of the global economy and of the EM asset class. Risky asset prices have overshot their fundamental values.
Developed Market (DM) Rate/Foreign Currency (FX)
Monthly Review: Safe-haven yields fell in December, following the initial euphoria after the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, falling inflation expectations, and a continuation of the flight-to-quality from mid-November. During the month, the U.S. and China agreed on a truce for the next 90 days wherein the U.S. would push back increasing tariffs on more than $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent as had been planned in January, and China committed to purchase a “very substantial” amount of farm, energy and industrial goods in order to reduce the trade gap with the U.S. The market reaction was short-lived as news shortly emerged that Huawei’s CFO was arrested in Canada at the request of the U.S. government for alleged violations of Iranian sanctions.
Outlook: U.S. growth is likely to be lower in 2019 as the fiscal impulse wears off and the lagged effect of higher rates bite, but it will not collapse. Recent speeches from Fed policymakers give us further confidence that they are cognizant of the risk of overtightening and the need to move (at some point in the near future) to a more data-dependent policy. The Fed wants to contain inflation risk; it does not want to cause a hard landing/recession. In the shorter term, despite the dip lower toward the end of December, we believe that the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield is likely to spend a majority of the time between 2.75 and 3.25 percent for the next several months. Fed tightening is on hiatus.
Emerging Market (EM) Rate/FX
Monthly Review: EM fixed income assets posted positive performance in the final month of the year, partially offsetting losses incurred throughout the year. During the month of December, falling U.S. Treasury yields aided longer-duration, higher-quality bonds in the dollar-denominated sovereign and corporate market, while local bond performance drove domestic debt returns. Over the month, energy and base metal prices continued to fall as Brent oil ended at almost $54/barrel and copper and aluminum prices weakened over 3 percent. Soft commodities returns were mixed, with corn and wheat prices rising versus losses for coffee, sugar and cotton. While base metal prices fell, prices for gold, silver and palladium rose in the period. Investors continued to withdraw investments from the EM debt asset class in December, primarily from hard-currency strategies. The year ended with institutional investors adding roughly $20 billion to the asset class,1 while retail investments were roughly flat.
Outlook: After a challenging year for EM fixed income, we hold a constructive outlook for 2019, driven by attractive valuations, a potentially benign global backdrop of moderate growth/subdued inflation, and a Fed that is likely approaching the end of its tightening cycle. We believe these factors and growing twin deficits in the U.S. limit the scope for material USD appreciation which would be beneficial to EM borrowers. Our historical analysis indicates that EM fixed income tends to outperform when EM economies are closing negative output gaps and converging toward potential growth, as they are currently doing.
Monthly Review: Global investment-grade spreads widened in December, ending the worst year for investment-grade spreads since the 2011 European sovereign crisis. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Index widened by 16 bps in December to end the year at 153 bps over government bonds, with BBB credits leading the market lower. For the year, spreads closed 60 bps wider with lower quality credit like subordinated financials and BBB nonfinancials underperforming. As measured by excess returns, the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Investment Grade Index’s -3.15 percent annual return was the second worst since 2008. As in prior months, the drivers of credit remained macroeconomic concerns and worries about how slowing economic growth would impact company fundamentals (especially leverage in BBB credit). Compounding these worries were poor technicals headed into year-end, the most notable symptom being limited risk appetite in the dealer community.
Outlook: Entering 2019, our outlook remains broadly unchanged. With the additional widening in December, spreads are now back to early to mid-2016 levels and pricing in an elevated risk of a material economic slowdown or recession. We believe an awful lot is currently baked into valuations, and hence we see value in both investment-grade and high-yield credit spreads. While December’s underperformance adds ammunition to some commentators’ view that credit markets are in “crisis,” we see known dangers that are already priced into the market. We believe this creates opportunities for carry and limited capital gains through active positioning.
Monthly Review: Widening securitized credit spreads and rallying interest rates continued in December. Securitized credit spreads have now widened for three consecutive months and finished wider for 2018 across most sectors. Fundamental securitized credit conditions remain sound, with low default rates, healthy consumer balance sheets and stable housing markets, but increasing volatility, greater concerns over the future health of the U.S. economy, and widening spreads in other credit sectors are combining to put pressure on securitized credit spreads. Agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) performed well again in December with spreads tightening and rates rallying, and agency MBS returns moved into positive territory for 2018 for the first time all year.
Outlook: We enter 2019 with a positive outlook on the securitized markets. With LIBOR and U.S. Treasury yields higher across the curve in 2018, and with securitized spreads wider on everything from agency MBS to credit sensitive asset-backed securities (ABS), we begin 2019 with materially higher securitized investment yields and a still-positive fundamental credit environment. Market volatility has increased and could still increase further, but, ultimately, we expect fundamental value and credit performance to dominate returns for 2019.
Fixed income securities are subject to the ability of an issuer to make timely principal and interest payments (credit risk), changes in interest rates (interest rate risk), the creditworthiness of the issuer and general market liquidity (market risk). In the current rising interest rate environment, bond prices may fall and may result in periods of volatility and increased portfolio redemptions. Longer-term securities may be more sensitive to interest rate changes. In a declining interest rate environment, the portfolio may generate less income. Certain U.S. government securities purchased by the strategy, such as those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. It is possible that these issuers will not have the funds to meet their payment obligations in the future. Public bank loans are subject to liquidity risk and the credit risks of lower-rated securities. High-yield securities (junk bonds) are lower-rated securities that may have a higher degree of credit and liquidity risk. Sovereign debt securities are subject to default risk. Mortgage- and asset-backed securities are sensitive to early prepayment risk and a higher risk of default, and may be hard to value and difficult to sell (liquidity risk). They are also subject to credit, market and interest rate risks. The currency market is highly volatile. Prices in these markets are influenced by, among other things, changing supply and demand for a particular currency; trade; fiscal, money and domestic or foreign exchange control programs and policies; and changes in domestic and foreign interest rates. Investments in foreign markets entail special risks such as currency, political, economic and market risks. The risks of investing in emerging market countries are greater than the risks generally associated with foreign investments. Derivative instruments may disproportionately increase losses and have a significant impact on performance. They also may be subject to counterparty, liquidity, valuation, correlation, and market risks. Restricted and illiquid securities may be more difficult to sell and value than publicly traded securities (liquidity risk). Due to the possibility that prepayments will alter the cash flows on collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), it is not possible to determine in advance their final maturity date or average life. In addition, if the collateral securing the CMOs or any third-party guarantees are insufficient to make payments, the portfolio could sustain a loss.
Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the funds carefully before investing. The prospectuses contain this and other information about the funds. To obtain a prospectus please download one at morganstanley.com/im or call 1-800-548-7786. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.