During the second quarter of the year asset prices rallied strongly following the sharp COVID-19 related declines witnessed during the first quarter. Policy makers have been impressively swift to announce innovative measures to support economies which have experienced a hard stop. Measures range from the fiscal (furlough schemes, top ups to unemployment benefits, emergency lending/grants to corporates, business rate reductions and the like) to the monetary (interest rate cuts, printing of money to finance the purchase of government debt and, to a lesser extent, corporate debt).
These measures (which have driven down the cost of government and corporate debt financing) allied with tangible successes in suppressing the spread of the virus in developed economies have, in aggregate, improved the confidence of company management teams concerning the outlook for economic growth. They have also galvanised investors’ risk-taking appetite and have led to a strong bounce in regional equity market indices. News concerning the unprecedented drive to find successful treatments and vaccines has also helped improve sentiment.
However, looking a little more deeply into the components of the market rally calls into question the improving confidence expressed by rising asset prices in general. Those companies most exposed to the economic cycle have lagged index returns appreciably. Some sectors (such as banks, energy and travel) remain close to their lows relative to index returns. The companies that have driven index levels higher include those which have seen a sharp acceleration in demand due to their web-based propositions and those which have little sensitivity to the economic cycle.
The question that needs to be answered therefore, is whether the sugar rush of extraordinary policy measures, both fiscal and monetary, will give way to a more sober assessment of the outlook for economies, and thereby profits. We believe this is likely, albeit with caveats.
The first thing to note that the real scale of ‘post COVID-19’ unemployment has yet to reveal itself. With companies embracing higher debt levels to remain in business in the short term, the hangover could be material, particularly as the unfettered release from lockdown will only be assured after a successful vaccine is found and manufactured at scale. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this condition will be satisfied in 2020. In a realistic best-case scenario, we may receive increasingly positive news concerning the development of a vaccine through the rest of the year, however populations will still have to suppress the spread of the infection until vaccines can be deployed in early 2021.
Barring the possibilities that the virus may lose some of its potency, or that specific populations are able to eliminate the virus completely from their midst, one has to assume that the rate of virus spread will correlate with the pace that economies open up (notwithstanding any seasonal effects). If correct, this means that the ‘V’ shaped recovery that is hoped for may well disappoint as rolling localised lockdowns are introduced which will ensure heightened public awareness of the need to continue to socially distance, etc. This may well sustain higher levels of unemployment, and therefore result in consumers hoarding cash after the first flush of spending driven by pent up demand.
This means that companies are likely to continue to operate in an environment of reduced demand and increased costs for the rest of 2020. Given these dynamics we expect the rate of company bankruptcies to accelerate, which may undermine banks’ confidence to lend to corporates. The withdrawal of this financial lubricant from the engine of economic activity will further exacerbate the issues described.
It is also worth noting that over the past month or so the Federal Reserve has stopped the net printing of money and this slowdown in the rate of monetary stimulus could become a headwind to further asset price appreciation.
Nonetheless, central banks around the world have continued to demonstrate a desire to manipulate asset prices higher during times of economic crisis which reduces the perception of downside risk. This doctrine has not only resulted in all-time low interest rates, but also threatens the adoption more widely of negative interest rates. Given the enormous amount of cash currently sitting on the side-lines waiting to be deployed in this low (or no) interest rate environment, the pressure to put this money ‘to work’ is high and only small incrementally positive developments could be enough to see this happen. Therefore, given these factors, it is prudent not to be positioned too defensively.