Not the time to take a side in the market crossfire

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By Clyde Rossouw*

Markets are caught in a crossfire, and it is not the time to take a side. The investment environment calls for identifying best-in-class businesses rather than proactively positioning global equity portfolios for one specific market outcome. Now, more than ever, it is important to ensure that any investment in a business is purely on the basis of strong fundamentals, and not an attempt to lock in potential benefits of specific macro regimes that appear to be firing across markets.

Understanding and making some sense of what is driving global financial markets, and the resultant behaviour of different asset classes, is becoming a difficult task.

Clyde Rossouw

The most significant change and driving force in financial markets year-to-date has been the withdrawal of liquidity. Major Central Banks have been shrinking their assets, and the weaker asset classes have suffered, the most notable being emerging markets.

However, hanging one’s hat on tightening liquidity as the ultimate determinant of one’s opportunities and returns is not enough. There are also numerous crossfires impacting the way individual stocks and sectors are behaving. Investors need to understand what these are if they want to come out of 2018 and beyond with their capital and portfolios intact.

An issue like tariffs and possible trade wars has been developing for the last six to nine months, and if you believe there is growing momentum around countries policing cross-border trade movements, it will definitely produce winners and losers on the investment front.

At the same time, it has been well documented that governments around the world are experiencing populist pressure against globalisation, because of growing global inequalities. The policies that are put in place by governments to resolve the inequalities will either cause further distortions or impact the way that capital is allocated, in the form of higher deficits and/or less private sector investment. These impacts should be seen against the existing trend of liquidity leaving the financial system. It then becomes clearer that the economic cycle is starting to show some signs of a downturn.

Declining commodity prices is yet another stray bullet flying through the air. Commodity prices have had a set-back and with liquidity tightening there has been a lot of money going into yield-bearing strategies. Investment grade credit, for example, has attracted significant institutional pension fund dollars, costs are rising and capital is no longer as freely available, which is a very clear sign of financial markets tightening.

However, the outlook is not all negative. Consider the positive disinflation disruptions coming from technology, which is not showing any signs of abating. The wealth accruing to large-cap technology businesses is significant. We have seen some very strong earnings numbers from businesses like Google this year as it garners more and more at the margin from advertising dollars. One has to be very aware of how businesses like Google and other technology businesses will impact traditional business models, because when you aggregate their effect across the board they are a very strong disinflationary force that is acting in the opposite direction to tariffs and populist policies, which are inflationary.

As a general rule, we continue to believe that the case for offshore investment is stronger than the case for investing within South Africa, particularly if you believe there is potentially further rand weakness to come. However, it is not all about owning global technology shares in high-growth jurisdictions as part of your offshore allocation. Because if you look, for example, at Tencent, it has been a poor performer so far this year, particularly from May onwards.

In simple terms, we think the case for offshore is strong, particularly when investing in businesses that are able to minimise the risks on tariffs, trade wars, and declining commodity prices. The offshore investment environment is complex; we have simplified our offshore investment strategy by investing in a handful of businesses that make fundamental sense and have the ability to compound because their inherent growth rate is strong. They tend to be masters of their own destiny and are less economically sensitive.

Investors have to be very sensible and strategic as to how they go about investing offshore. While markets were awash with liquidity a few years ago, so far this year we have seen a 10-15% decline in market liquidity. This is an important development. When liquidity dries up, there is no longer excess money available to chase any and all investment opportunities, resulting in downward pressure on asset prices across the world. Weak companies are feeling the pinch. If a company has too much debt and it is not winning market share against its peers, it is likely to come under pressure.

While there are still enough investment opportunities, we are at that stage of the cycle where the risks are rising. Investors have to be extremely selective and identify best-in-class businesses, because the aggregate conditions are not conducive to investing across the board.