As the year begins, I’ve taken a survey of the global environment in my weekly commentary. A quick accounting of economic and market conditions shows that various regions of the world are starting 2015 in very different positions.
U.S. better than the rest. The U.S. economy ended last year on a high note, with the third-quarter gross domestic product growth revised up to five percent, the fastest pace in 11 years. Forward-looking indicators suggest that the strong growth could continue, as evidenced by The Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) registering its best reading in eight years.
Stronger growth buoys corporate earnings and generally should support stocks, but it may put pressure on defensive stocks. Particularly, this rings true for utility stocks. Although the sector benefited from an unexpected drop in interest rates and outperformed in 2014, yields are likely to rise this year. Higher rates do not bode well for dividend stocks and pose an even bigger problem for the already pricey utility stocks.
Political risks get in the way for Europe. The situation is very different in Europe. On one hand, investors are increasingly worried about Greece, where three rounds of parliamentary votes failed to elect a new president and led to an early election that could put the far-left Syriza party in power. The potential for fiscal instability has sent Greek stocks and bonds tumbling. On the other hand, possible expansion of the European Central Bank’s asset purchases creates an upside potential, and in many ways it limits Greek contagion to other eurozone markets.
More stimulus and reforms in Asia. The focus is on supporting growth through whatever means necessary and available. In China, this is taking the form of more central bank easing, which has helped push stocks to their best level since early 2010. In Japan, the emphasis has shifted to structural reforms as the Bank of Japan’s extraordinary stimulus program continues. Plans to split up and effectively privatize Japan Post Holdings Co., the country’s largest bank, will mark an important milestone of the government’s efforts in structural reforms.