All strategies rose in the first quarter of the year as markets recovered robustly from December’s sharp falls. As prices fell at the end of the year, it became apparent that the sell-off was overdone and valuations became more attractive – leading investors back to the market.
The gains of this quarter have made back the losses of 2018, and on a 12-month view to the end of March 2019 all strategies have delivered above-inflation returns, protecting the real value of clients’ money.
A key factor behind the shift in market mood was the US Federal Reserve adopting a more patient approach to raising interest rates in January. The central bank signalled it would ease off monetary tightening for now, and this more accommodative stance was echoed by many of its peers across the globe. Less pressure on monetary policy is positive for markets as it reduces the cost of borrowing, making it easier for companies to develop and expand, and to service existing debts. Increasingly positive signs that a US-China trade deal could be reached also bolstered markets.
Global economic growth has continued to slow. The manager saw this slowdown coming and, while remaining cautiously positive, tilted funds away from riskier markets and towards more defensive areas. This move has benefitted performance as the funds have had less exposure to areas that are underperforming, particularly Europe and Japan.
After a rough end to 2018, markets have staged an equally dramatic rebound. Changes in sentiment were driven by three factors that we believe still have the capacity to influence markets.
The major catalyst for the rally was the change in the US Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) monetary policy outlook. While this more dovish approach is good news for markets, the Fed has been clear that it will continue to be driven by data, and interest rates could start rising again should the economic backdrop change.
Positive news on trade negotiations between China and the US also provided relief to investors. Further moves towards an agreement would be positive for investor sentiment not only in Asia, but also in Europe’s export countries, like Germany.
The perceived instability of the US government at the end of 2018 – exacerbated by the US government shutdown – made investors cautious. While concern over the political mood in Washington still has the potential to knock investor confidence, the risk has receded somewhat since the end of the investigation into the 2016 presidential election.
Markets have reacted calmly to Brexit uncertainty, with UK equities recovering substantially, although perhaps with less confidence than elsewhere, and sterling remaining steady within a relatively narrow range. A longer extension has been priced-in and there is potential for UK-focussed midcaps to benefit from the eventual resolution.
Overall, the environment for risk assets now looks fairly balanced. The economic slowdown that our in-house indicators identified last year is still ongoing, but growth remains positive for the time being.
Over this quarter the manager has trimmed equity exposure in favour of cash. In the highly mobile markets seen over the last six months, a higher cash allocation provides flexibility to take advantage of any opportunities that arise.
The manager reduced exposure to Japanese and European equity last year. Europe and Japan are key exporters so their markets have been hit by the trade tensions of previous months and a slowing Chinese economy – both of which dented demand for their goods. Resolution of trade tensions is likely to benefit these markets, however, and so the funds retain a neutral allocation.
All funds increased exposure to longer duration gilts – except for PPF5 which doesn’t hold bonds – and subsequently benefitted from recent gains. The manager also added some exposure to dollar-denominated emerging market government bonds based on attractive yields, while turning negative on UK corporate debt and adding the proceeds to cash.
These moves have left the funds with a slightly higher overall allocation to bonds than at the start of the year, although still marginally below benchmark and neutral on equities.
All funds fell in the fourth quarter. Markets continued to be challenged by increased friction between the US and China, concerns about US interest rates, the direction of the US dollar, Brexit and the Italian budget crisis. But despite the global slowdown a range of measures show continued, above-trend growth. This suggests the broader economic environment is sound.
To reflect slowing economic conditions, the Investment Manager for NatWest Invest decided to increase the amount of cash they hold. This was done in December by reducing their investment in European equity, reflecting their softer view on the opportunities in Europe. Also, holding more cash helps them stay nimble and ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arise in 2019.
All major equity markets suffered losses over the quarter. There were particularly heavy losses in the US, with the S&P 500 returning -11.5% in sterling terms. The FTSE 100 also fell, although it offered a marginally better return than US or European equity. While these results are alarming for investors, we believe that positive economic data could see investors re-focus on fundamentals and return to risk assets.
All funds delivered positive returns in the third quarter of the year. Markets are supported by solid, albeit slowing, global growth which is being led by a strong US economy.
Over the quarter, UK equities have been flat. However, they have made a positive contribution to performance so far this year. The manager opportunistically increased their investment in a FTSE 100 fund in February following a sell-off, and it benefited from a subsequent rebound.
Continued strength in US equities means the funds have benefitted from the manager’s decision earlier in the year to move money to America from emerging markets and Europe. In local currency terms, US equities outperformed their European and emerging market counterparts respectively over the quarter.
The funds’ holdings in emerging markets have been a drag on performance this quarter. The manager’s decision to reduce holdings in emerging market equities earlier in 2018 has reduced the negative impact. However, they continue to favour emerging market debt as high yields provide some cover for poor price performance.
All funds saw strong gains over the second quarter of the year as markets recovered some of their composure after a weak start to 2018. The Investment Manager for NatWest Invest’s preference for equities over bonds helped performance as shares bounced back from the lows experienced in the first three months of the year.
UK stocks were the biggest contributor, as the FTSE 100 recovered all of its losses from the previous quarter, and more. The manager had previously taken advantage of price falls in February to add to FTSE 100 holdings in the funds, and so the recovery this month provided an extra boost to performance. US equities also made a positive contribution. European and Japanese equities have been weaker this quarter, and in the year so far.
Performance of the funds’ bond allocation has been weaker this quarter than last. However, bonds continue to provide diversification benefits. Negative returns from government bonds in April and May, for example, were offset by a positive showing in June when equity markets wobbled and investors sought out their relative safety. As a result, bonds provided an overall flat return for the three-month period.
Fund returns, net of the ongoing charges figure which includes management and administration fees (platform fees not included).
Stock market volatility continued during the three months to the end of December, with a substantial fall at the start of the quarter. Investors were concerned about rising interest rates in the US as well as persistent trade tensions. Meanwhile fears over the impact of the strong dollar on emerging markets remained.
In the UK, consumer price inflation fell from 2.4% in October to 2.3% in November, led by lower energy prices. The Bank of England kept interest rates at 0.75% in December. However governor Mark Carney suggested there could be a faster pace of rate increases if the UK managed a smooth exit from the European Union (EU).
In Europe, the political landscape looked uncertain. Reacting to rising fuel prices, French gilets jaunes protesters called for President Emmanuel Macron to resign, while Angela Merkel announced she would stand down as German Chancellor in 2021. Meanwhile, Italy’s long-running budget dispute with the EU came to an end, with the populist government postponing some of its planned spending.
The US Federal Reserve (Fed) raised interest rates to a range of 2.25% to 2.5% in December – the fourth hike in 2018. However, due to concerns about global growth, Fed officials intimated that future increases could come at a slower pace. Elsewhere, the European Central Bank confirmed it is ending its bond-buying scheme, despite a slowdown in the region’s recovery. Although the scheme is worth €30 billion a month, making this a significant move, the bank kept interest rates on hold. In the manager’s view, the possibility of a rate rise in the near future is slim.
In the third quarter of 2018, strong US economic growth and markets, backed by soaring tech stocks, continued to underpin a healthy environment for investors. Brexit uncertainty, trade war tension and emerging market woes did nothing to derail global growth and global equities made a positive return overall.
The manager believes the global economic backdrop remains sound and will continue to support investment markets, despite some turbulence in October triggered by rising US borrowing costs. Higher borrowing costs have the potential to hurt company profits, which is a concern for investors. Markets are likely to remain choppy over the coming weeks as the correction plays out, but the manager’s long-term view remains positive.
Currently, world growth is a tale of two economies. On the one hand, the US has continued to grow robustly thanks to some strong sectors such as tech, and President Trump’s tax reforms putting extra money into the economy. Growth outside America continues but is slowing after last year’s very positive expansion. This saw US equities significantly outperform other markets in the last quarter, continuing the pattern of the year so far.
Emerging markets continued to struggle. Recent turbulence in Turkey and Argentina appear to be isolated events, but there is ongoing concern among investors about the risk of contagion to other emerging markets.
UK government bonds fell slightly over the quarter as investors generally continued to prefer shares in the current growth environment. Prospects for the UK economy continue to be overshadowed by Brexit uncertainty, but UK equities should be supported by the solid global backdrop.
Global equity markets bounced back from largely negative returns in the first quarter of the year as investors regained confidence. Most of the performance came in April and May, as the return of worries over global trade at the end of June caused renewed market turbulence. The US and UK led the fight back; returns from other developed markets were more muted, but still ahead of the first quarter.
A weaker pound helped the large, internationally-focused companies that dominate the FTSE 100, and the index saw a strong return of 9.6%. Higher earnings increase the dividends companies pay to shareholders while also making the companies more attractive. This drives up share prices, a combination that can be good news for investors.
The environment for bonds was less positive, particularly in April and May. Government bonds saw some gains towards the end of June, however, and as a result ended the quarter flat. Other bond sectors also saw flat or negative returns on the whole.
A stronger US dollar has been tough for emerging market (EM) economies. As a result, EM equities and debt saw negative returns in the quarter.
Global economic growth is slowing but still above trend, particularly in the US. Economic indicators are showing healthy labour markets, wage growth and robust corporate profits – all of which should support markets in the near future.
Following the strong economic growth seen in 2017, the outlook for Europe has softened over the year. As a result, the manager reduced the allocation to European shares and added to US equities earlier in the year.
The manager increased exposure to a FTSE 100 fund in February after sharp falls made the index look like good value. While the effects of Brexit on the UK economy remain uncertain, the manager sees these internationally focused, large-cap companies still benefitting from the supportive global economic environment.
In December the manager reduced their exposure to European equity and high yield bonds in favour of cash and emerging market hard currency debt. Holding more cash helps ensure they can take advantage of opportunities as they arise in 2019.
Within bonds, the manager favours corporate debt over government bonds generally, but sees diversification benefits in both. This is particularly true when equity markets are more uncertain.
The manager sees a global economy that’s in good shape, which should be positive for equities despite growth moderating outside the US. The funds remain positioned accordingly, with a modest preference for equities and other risk assets.
The outlook for Europe has softened over the year following the strong economic growth seen in 2017. As a result, the manager reduced the allocation to European shares and added to US equities earlier in the year, but maintains a positive position on Europe. At the same time, US equity prices have continued to rise and the US economy is experiencing continued, strong economic growth that the manager believes will continue to provide support.
The manager increased exposure to a FTSE 100 fund in February after sharp falls made the index look like good value. While the effects of Brexit on the UK economy remain uncertain, the manager sees these internationally focussed, large-cap companies benefitting from the supportive global economic environment.
Within bonds, the manager favours corporate debt over government bonds. Investment grade corporate credit offers a better yield than government bonds and a similar diversification benefit for only a marginal increase in risk.
Equity markets continue to be more volatile than in 2017. We see a global economy that’s in good shape, which should be positive for equities despite signs of growth moderating outside of the US. This environment should continue to favour equities over bonds and the funds remain positioned accordingly.
The outlook for Europe has softened following the strong economic growth seen in 2017. As a result the manager reduced the allocation to European equities and added to US equities. While US equity prices have continued to rise, the US economy is experiencing continued strong economic growth that the manager believes will continue to provide support.
The manager increased exposure to the FTSE 100 in February after sharp falls made the index look like good value. While the effects of Brexit on the UK economy remain uncertain, the manager sees these internationally-focused large-cap companies benefitting from the supportive global economic environment.
Within bonds, the manager favours corporate debt over government bonds. Investment grade corporate credit offers a better yield than government bonds and a similar diversification benefit, for only a marginal increase in risk.
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