ETF Trends
ETF Trends

By Rod Smyth, RiverFront Investment Group

North Korea fires another missile over Japan and the Japanese and South Korean stock markets make new highs in dollar terms. The US endures two of the biggest hurricanes in recent history and US indexes are close to all-time highs.  We get lots of feedback that our clients are struggling to understand how to reconcile what they see on the news with strong gains for risk assets –  2017 has been a year of solid returns from US stocks (the S&P 500 is up 13%) and even better returns from stocks outside the US (MSCI World ex US +21%). We think the answer lies in a very positive economic landscape with accelerating global growth and stable low inflation.

Storms, political and real:  The US has a long history with major hurricanes, and so investors have been conditioned to regard the effects they have on short-term economic data and oil/commodity prices as temporary. We should ask ourselves if there is too much investor complacency regarding climate change, but so far the markets don’t seem to be asking those questions. At a future date, we will attempt to grapple with this issue, but first we seek to explain our understanding of why stocks are doing well, and why, on balance, we expect this to continue.

We think the answer to what some might see as a paradox lies in the synchronized global growth that began a year ago (see vertical red line on chart of Euro zone industrial production below) and which continues to drive both overseas and US earnings expectations higher as we wrote about in our September 5th weekly “Global Synchronicity: Positive Earnings mirroring Positive Economic Trends”.

Global recovery well illustrated by re-acceleration in Eurozone manufacturing.

Euro Zone Industrial Production Ex Construction

Assessing the risks of War: Investors have chosen to put a relatively low probability on a nuclear war with N. Korea.  Within markets, the focus has been on business fundamentals and the prospect of continued-growth-accompanied-by-low-inflation (a “goldilocks” outcome, “not too hot, not too cold…just right.”). We think this is a logical response to a now-known outcome – growth; versus an unknowable outcome – N. Korea. Many investors, ourselves included, believe neither the N. Koreans, the US nor the Chinese benefit from, or seek a military confrontation. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but we give it a low probability. The details of our view on the N. Korean situation can be found in our Weekly View: “Fire and Fury’ from August 14th.

What if we are wrong?  Should conflict occur, our risk management team will assess the situation and if necessary reduce portfolio risk, but our tactical work is not flashing warnings signs and so our portfolios have not changed much recently and continue to prefer stocks to bonds/cash. We also continue to prefer non-US stock markets. The rationale for overseas stock market outperformance is relatively straightforward. Investor caution was high regarding Europe (ahead of the French Election) and Emerging Markets (ahead of the Trump presidency). Macron’s victory in France produced investor relief and Euro strength against most global currencies, which has been coupled with accelerating economic and earnings data. Emerging Market economies have also been accelerating with the recovery in the global economy, and their stock markets usually outperform when the dollar is weak and commodity prices are rising. Both have been the case. The weakness in the dollar has been broad based and largely unpredicted, but a new down-trend in the dollar has been established which has greatly benefitted investors in overseas currencies:

United States Dollar Indexes

The chart above measures the dollar against other major currencies, dominated by those in Europe (the blue line) and against a broad basket of currencies weightings based on US trade (which gives a much bigger weight to the Canadian dollar and Mexican Peso). The message is the same: An apparent up-trend in 2016 which has reversed, breaking to a three-year low on both measures. The decisive break below the 102 level was a warning signal that the old uptrend was in danger and we think it would now take a break above that level to signal a technical reversal. We believe our portfolios are positioned to benefit from dollar weakness, given our overweight to non US markets both developed and emerging.

Rod Smyth is the Chief Investment Strategist at RiverFront Investment Group, a participant in the ETF Strategist Channel.