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How this stock market rally differs from past cycles

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The writer is chief global equity strategist at Goldman Sachs and author of ‘The Long Good Buy’

This year has seen one of the deepest economic recessions in decades and for some countries, such as the UK, the biggest annual downturn in economic activity since the early 1700s.

It has also been the second “once-in-a-generation” significant economic shock to hit the global economy in just over 12 years. But while the current recession is deeper than the one that followed the financial crisis of 2008, it is very different.

This recession resulted from a health crisis with an impact on output that was huge and sudden but quickly reversible. It is likely to be over sooner and will probably cause less structural damage as mobility recovers with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

In this sense, it can be described as event driven. Most bear markets are what we would describe as cyclical, mainly driven by rising interest rates and inflation. Others can be described as structural, caused by an unwinding of economic imbalances and asset bubbles following years of excesses and often associated with a banking and/or real estate crisis.

Historically, cyclical bear markets are usually similar in depth to the event-driven ones like the 1987 stockmarket crash, but take roughly twice as long to recover. Structural bear markets, like the financial crisis of 2008 or the bursting of the Japanese bubble in the late 1980s, are much deeper still, taking even longer to repair.

Whatever the triggers for bear markets, however, most equity recoveries start during a recession when corporate profits are still falling. This initial first phase of a new bull market, or what we call the hope phase, tends to be very strong and led by rising valuations as investors start to price in a future recovery, just as we have seen since March this year.

Once that recovery starts to emerge we move into the longer growth phase, when most of the earnings and dividend growth is generated. Equity returns then tend to slow. We would expect to transition into this phase next year as global earnings per share rise by about 35 per cent.

MSCI World index around bear markets since 1970

Nevertheless, there are some differences between the current hope phase and most that have come before. The US MSCI World equity market has now recovered 65 per cent since the March low and in November alone, following the positive vaccine news, the global equity market rose 13 per cent — the biggest monthly increase since 1975.

Global equity market capitalisation has grown to $100tn, roughly 115 per cent of global GDP — the highest level since the pre-financial crisis peak in 2007.

But this scale of recovery is not unprecedented and bears a remarkable resemblance to the period after the trough in 2009 that followed the financial crisis, when the MSCI World index rose 68 per cent over a similar period.

Conditions at the time of the 2009 trough were, however, very different from today. Although the recession this time has been deeper, the falls in equity prices during the financial crisis were sharper, averaging about 60 per cent (in line with the average of historical structural bear markets), compared with falls of about 30 per cent this year (in line with the average for event-driven bear markets).

Consequently, at its trough in the financial crisis, the total value of S&P 500 companies was roughly eight times forward earnings. The valuation trough this March was 13 times and the current ratio is 22 times.

Moreover, when the financial crisis hit, 10-year bond yields in the US and Germany were 3.9 per cent, whereas they are now just 0.9 per cent in the US and 0.60 per cent in Germany, and one-third of all government debt and a quarter of all investment grade debt has a negative yield. Furthermore, US debt to GDP was 60 per cent before the global financial crisis and is now above 100 per cent.

The speed and pace of the current rebound from the trough in March has a lot to do with the policy support, both in terms of monetary and fiscal policy. In addition to higher fiscal spending, central banks have pushed interest rates back down to zero (with some in negative territory).

Strong guidance from the central banks suggests that most of them will keep rates unchanged, perhaps until early 2025. With stronger growth pushing up inflation expectations from a record low, the real level of interest rates — the nominal rate minus inflation — has moved deeply negative.

But, ultimately, the higher starting valuations in this bear market, the lack of room for interest rates and bond yields to fall and a much higher debt burden compared with the decade after the financial crisis, suggest that over the medium term, returns will be lower. The real opportunity will be in the so-called “alpha” — picking the relative winners and losers within each market and industry, rather than “beta” of the index.



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Wall Street stocks follow European and Asian bourses lower

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Equities updates

Wall Street stocks followed European and Asian bourses lower on Friday after markets were buffeted this week by jitters over slowing global growth and Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on tech businesses.

The S&P 500 closed down 0.5 per cent, although the blue-chip index still notched its sixth consecutive month of gains, boosted by strong corporate earnings and record-low interest rates.

The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite slid 0.7 per cent, after the quarterly results of online bellwether Amazon missed analysts’ forecasts. The tech conglomerate’s stock finished the day 7.6 per cent lower, its biggest one-day drop since May 2020.

According to Scott Ruesterholz, portfolio manager at Insight Investment, companies which saw significant growth during the pandemic may see shifts in revenue as consumers move away from online to in-person services.

“[Consumers are] going to start spending more on services, and so those businesses and industries which have benefited in the last year, companies like Amazon, will be talking about decelerating sales growth for several quarters,” Ruesterholz said.

The sell-off on Wall Street comes after the continent-wide Stoxx Europe 600 index ended the session 0.5 per cent lower, having hit a high a day earlier, lifted by a bumper crop of upbeat earnings results.

For the second quarter, companies on the Stoxx 600 have reported earnings per share growth of 159 per cent year on year, according to Citigroup. Those on the S&P 500 have increased profits by 97 per cent.

But “this is likely the top”, said Arun Sai, senior multi-asset strategist at Pictet, referring to the pace of earnings increases after economic activity rebounded from the pandemic-triggered contractions last year. Financial markets, he said, “have formed a narrative of peak economic growth and peak momentum”.

Column chart of S&P 500 index, monthly % change showing Wall Street stocks rise for six consecutive months

Data released on Thursday showed the US economy grew at a weaker than expected annualised rate of 6.5 per cent in the three months to June, as labour shortages and supply chain disruptions caused by coronavirus persisted.

Meanwhile, China’s regulatory assault on large tech businesses has sparked fears of a broader crackdown on privately owned companies.

“It underlines the leadership’s ambivalence towards markets,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics. “We think this will take a toll on economic growth over the medium term.”

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed 1.4 per cent down on Friday, while mainland China’s CSI 300 dropped 0.8 per cent, after precipitous slides earlier in the week moderated.

Japan’s Topix closed 1.4 per cent lower, after the daily tally of Covid cases in Tokyo surpassed 3,000 for three consecutive days. South Korea’s Kospi 200 dropped 1.2 per cent.

The more cautious investor mood on Friday spurred a modest rally in safe haven assets such as US government debt, which took the yield on the 10-year Treasury, which moves inversely to its price, down 0.04 percentage points to 1.23 per cent.

The Federal Reserve, which has bought about $120bn of bonds each month throughout the pandemic to pin down borrowing costs for households and businesses, said this week that the economy was making “progress” but it remained too early to tighten monetary policy.

“Tapering [of the bond purchases] could be delayed, which in many ways is not bad news for the market,” said Anthony Collard, head of investments for the UK and Ireland at JPMorgan Private Bank.

The dollar, also considered a haven in times of stress, climbed 0.3 per cent against a basket of leading currencies.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, rose 0.4 per cent to $76.33 a barrel.

Unhedged — Markets, finance and strong opinion

Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday



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US regulators launch crackdown on Chinese listings

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US financial regulation updates

China-based companies will have to disclose more about their structure and contacts with the Chinese government before listing in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the US corporate and markets regulator, has asked staff to ensure greater transparency from Chinese companies following the controversy surrounding the public offering by the Chinese ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

“I have asked staff to seek certain disclosures from offshore issuers associated with China-based operating companies before their registration statements will be declared effective,” Gensler said in a statement.

He added: “I believe these changes will enhance the overall quality of disclosure in registration statements of offshore issuers that have affiliations with China-based operating companies.”

The SEC’s new rules were triggered by Beijing’s announcement earlier this month that it would tighten restrictions on overseas listings, including stricter rules on what happens to the data held by those companies.

The Chinese internet regulator specifically accused Didi, which had raised $4bn with a New York flotation just days earlier, of violating personal data laws, and ordered for its app to be removed from the Chinese app store.

Beijing’s crackdown spooked US investors, sending the company’s shares tumbling almost 50 per cent in recent weeks. They have rallied slightly in the past week, however, jumping 15 per cent in the past two days based on reports that the company is considering going private again just weeks after listing.

The controversy has prompted questions over whether Didi had told investors enough either about the regulatory risks it faced in China, and specifically about its frequent contacts with Chinese regulators in the run-up to the New York offering.

Several US law firms have now filed class action lawsuits against the company on behalf of shareholders, while two members of the Senate banking committee have called for the SEC to investigate the company.

The SEC has not said whether it is undertaking an investigation or intends to do so. However, its new rules unveiled on Friday would require companies to be clearer about the way in which their offerings are structured. Many China-based companies, including Didi, avoid Chinese restrictions on foreign listings by selling their shares via an offshore shell company.

Gensler said on Friday such companies should clearly distinguish what the shell company does from what the China-based operating company does, as well as the exact financial relationship between the two.

“I worry that average investors may not realise that they hold stock in a shell company rather than a China-based operating company,” he said.

He added that companies should say whether they had received or were denied permission from Chinese authorities to list in the US, including whether any initial approval had then be rescinded.

And they will also have to spell out that they could be delisted if they do not allow the US Public Companies Accounting Oversight Board to inspect their accountants three years after listing.



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Wall Street stocks climb as traders look past weak growth data

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Equities updates

Stocks on Wall Street rose on Thursday despite weaker than expected US growth data that cemented expectations that the Federal Reserve would maintain its pandemic-era stimulus that has supported financial markets for a year and a half.

The moves followed data showing US gross domestic product grew at an annualised rate of 6.5 per cent in the second quarter, missing the 8.5 per cent rise expected by economists polled by Reuters.

The S&P 500, the blue-chip US share index, closed 0.4 per cent higher after hitting a high on Monday. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite index climbed 0.1 per cent, rebounding slightly after notching its worst day in two and a half months earlier in the week.

The dollar index, which measures the US currency against those of peers, fell 0.4 per cent to its weakest level since late June after the GDP numbers.

“Sentiment about the economy has become less optimistic, but that is good for equities, strangely enough,” said Nadège Dufossé, head of cross-asset strategy at fund manager Candriam. “It makes central banks less likely to withdraw support.”

Jay Powell, the Fed chair, said on Wednesday that despite “progress” towards the bank’s goals of full employment and 2 per cent average inflation, there was more “ground to cover” ahead of any tapering of its vast bond-buying programme.

“Last night’s [announcement] was pretty unambiguously hawkish,” said Blake Gwinn, rates strategist at RBC, adding that Powell’s upbeat tone on labour market figures signalled that the Fed could begin tapering its $120bn a month of debt purchases as early as the end of this year.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which moves inversely to its price, traded flat at 1.26 per cent.

Line chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index showing European stocks close at another record high

Looking beyond the headline GDP number, some analysts said the health of the US economy was stronger than it first appeared.

Growth numbers below the surface showed that consumer spending had surged, “while the negatives in the report were from inventory drawdown, presumably from supply shortages”, said Matt Peron, director of research and portfolio manager at Janus Henderson Investors.

“This implies that the economy, and hence earnings which have also been very strong so far for Q2, will continue for some time,” he added. “The economy is back above pre-pandemic levels, and earnings are sure to follow, which should continue to support equity prices.”

Those upbeat earnings helped propel European stocks to another high on Thursday, with results from Switzerland-based chipmaker STMicroelectronics and the French manufacturer Société Bic helping lift bourses.

The region-wide Stoxx Europe 600 benchmark closed up 0.5 per cent to a new record, while London’s FTSE 100 gained 0.9 per cent and Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax ended the session 0.5 per cent higher.

In Asia, market sentiment was also boosted by a move from Chinese officials to soothe nerves over regulatory clampdowns on the nation’s tech and education sectors.

Beijing officials held a call with global investors, Wall Street banks and Chinese financial groups on Wednesday night in an attempt to calm nerves, as fears spread of a more far-reaching clampdown. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 3.3 per cent on Thursday, although it was still down more than 8 per cent so far this month. The CSI 300 index of mainland Chinese stocks rose 1.9 per cent.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, gained 1.4 per cent to $76.09 a barrel.



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