A balanced investment profile aims to offset various influencing factors and stabilize the return. An investor in bonds provides debt capital to companies and is usually compensated with a fixed interest rate. An investor in equities is a co-owner and thus participates in the profits or losses of a company. If the economy grows, corporate profits tend to rise and equities yield a higher return than fixed-interest bonds. In uncertain times, on the other hand, investors seek the safe returns of bonds. Typically, bonds gain in value when stocks perform badly.
Not so this year. Balanced investment portfolios had one of the worst years on record. The reason for this was that the market’s perception changed within a very short period from persistently too low inflation to fear of lasting high inflation. In this context, the very low interest rates of the recent past lost their justification, which caused a strong correction of fixed-interest bonds. Consequently, equities also faltered, because their valuation or earnings yields, are in direct competition with bond yields.
The trend of falling interest rates lasted 40 years, peaked with negative nominal yields in some currencies last year and now experienced a dramatic reversal. Accordingly, previous beneficiaries of this trend suffered the most, especially long-dated bonds, expensively valued defensive quality and growth stocks.
Now that the U.S. Federal Reserve has raised interest rates at an unprecedented pace, and other central banks around the world have followed suit, the question is how well this interest rate level can be absorbed by consumers, companies and governments. On the one hand, higher interest rates and the increased prices of many goods are straining the budget. On the other hand, the labor market continues to be very robust, wage negotiations are promising, and demand is stagnating at a high level. With China now also easing covid measures, the full impact on demand is difficult to assess at present.
In case the economy weakens, interest rates should stabilize, which would have a supportive effect on equity valuations. However, the development of corporate profits is then likely to be less positive. The various interdependencies between growth, inflation, interest rates and valuations make the current situation challenging. In contrast to the starting position one year ago, bond yields are once again contributing to portfolio returns. The valuation of the stock market reflects the higher interest rate level and, at least partially, the economic slowdown expected by most economists next year.
It is advisable to be prepared for various scenarios and to take a long-term perspective. Current interest rates offer a stable source of income, which is why we have increased the bond allocation and extended our maturities slightly. Due to the sharp rise in interest rates and the resulting changes and risks for the market and the economy, we consider a neutral equity weight to be appropriate at present. Nevertheless, valuations are less demanding and offer good entry points for long-term investors. We expect uncertainties to persist and market developments to remain challenging. However, times like these always offer good opportunities to identify new investments that are at a valuation discount due to the current environment. The resilience of our portfolios remains the upmost priority.
Zurich, end of December 2022
Record-low interest rates coupled with record-high inflation are leading to deeply negative real interest rates. To correct this situation, either interest rates must rise or inflation rates must fall. Since inflation has turned out to be less “transitory” than central banks had hoped, they now see themselves forced to raise interest rates substantially.
Whereas valuations in recent years were justified by low, and in some cases negative, interest rates, this valuation correction based on sharply rising interest rates is also justified. Capital is always looking for the most attractive return in relation to the given risks. Thus, if the yields of reliable and steady bonds increase, this also requires an increase in the yield of equities in order to keep the risk premium over bonds constant. This can be done either by increasing the yields or by correcting the valuation.
The current problem is that interest rates have risen very quickly and corporate earnings growth has not kept pace. There is also the problem of the base effect. Because of low interest rates, small increases in interest rates are large increases in percentage terms. The same applies to company valuations: the more expensive a company is, the higher the earnings growth must be to compensate for the rise in interest rates and maintain the risk premium compared with fixed-interest investments. As higher interest rates also have a slowing effect on economic development, companies’ earnings growth tends to slow down. Ongoing cost pressure due to strained supply chains and labor shortages further exacerbates this problem.
The risk premium on equities is therefore under pressure on both sides. Higher interest rates combined with presumably lower earnings. Particularly hard hit by this situation are companies with demanding valuations, which have to grow disproportionately in order to correct their own valuation. These are precisely the companies that have benefited in recent years from steadily lower interest rates and positive economic development and have received a lot of attention from the media and trend investors.
Whereas historically central banks could be relied upon to counter an economic slowdown with interest rate cuts, this time the starting position is reversed. Central banks are forced to raise interest rates due to high inflation rates and to accept an economic slowdown. Depending on the intensity of the growth slowdown, the current high inflation rates should fall and bring about a stabilization of interest rates. It cannot be ruled out that the current investments by companies to eliminate the supply shortage could even lead to a supply surplus and renewed deflationary tendencies as the economy weakens.
Much depends on the further development of inflation rates and the resulting interest rates. On the positive side, after a long wait, investors in fixed-income investments are once again receiving a return, even if this is not yet keeping pace with inflation. In the event of a return to lower inflation rates, the current interest rates could prove to be an attractive opportunity. The money in the account, on the other hand, is fully exposed to the high inflation rates, but allows at least temporarily to benefit from better opportunities to buy assets.
The challenging initial situation makes it necessary to focus on proven features in the stocks, which help to survive a more difficult situation. A leading market positioning secures earnings despite rising costs. Structural growth areas cushion the economic cycle somewhat, and an attractive valuation makes it easier to compensate for any interest rate rises. Temporary profiteers such as commodity companies do not meet our quality requirements in the long term any more than overpriced growth companies did before the correction began this year. Short- to medium-term market dislocations, on the other hand, are a part of investing and offer attractive opportunities to profit from valuation deviations in the long run.
Zurich, end of June 2022