Investment Outlook for 2020

2019 was an exceptional year. After finishing 2018 on a decidedly gloomy note, equity markets roared ahead in 2019 posting exceptional gains for the year. The major catalyst for the turnaround was the about-face on monetary policy by the US Federal Reserve that cut interest rates on three separate occasions by 0.25%, largely reversing their stance in 2018. This allayed concerns that the US and by extension the world economy, would spiral into recession in 2019.

Paradoxically, the strongest markets for the year were China +36.1% and the US +31.5% despite the fact that the two countries were engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war that is estimated to have shaved 1% off US growth. Healthy gains were also recorded around the world with Australia advancing 23.4%, Japan 18.2%, Europe 24.8% with the UK still up 17.3% despite being dogged by Brexit uncertainty.

While not performing as well as equities, bond markets benefited from the easy monetary conditions posting creditable returns, with Australian bonds returning 7.3% and international bonds 7.2%. These instruments also served to provide a safe haven and liquidity reserve, as low interest rates subdued cash returns to just 1.3% for the year.

A positive tone to start 2020

As we enter a new decade in 2020, markets have kicked off the year in a positive mood. In 2019, the global economy suffered from a contraction in trade largely due to the dispute between the US and China. There are three reasons to expect an improvement in global trade in 2020.

Firstly, the US and China have agreed to a “Phase One” trade deal that at a minimum will prevent further tariff escalation and provide for increased US agricultural exports to China. There is also an undertaking from China to be more cognisant of patent breaches and IP theft with a mediation mechanism established to resolve disputes.

Secondly, the US Congress finally approved the USMCA trade deal between the US, Mexico and Canada after a one-year delay in the House of Representatives. This is much more favourable to the US than the previous NAFTA trade agreement struck in the 1980’s which saw a mass migration of US manufacturing to Mexico to take advantage of lower labour costs.

Finally, the Brexit impasse is likely to be resolved by the end of January with the UK Parliament almost certain to approve the terms of departure negotiated with the EU. This opens the way for trade negotiations between the UK and the EU with a deal expected to be implemented before the end of the year.

Against this there has also been some negatives. Most notably in Australia, the devastating bushfires that continue to ravage the East Coast have left a trail of property and wildlife destruction not to mention loss of human life, primarily across NSW and Victoria. In economic terms, this will likely reduce GDP by 0.4-0.5% in the March quarter due to the impact on agriculture, tourism and consumer activity. The rebuilding efforts will stimulate growth in the June quarter but a rebound in confidence levels is hard to predict.

In the Middle East, tensions have flared between the US and Iran following the assassination of Qaesem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader allegedly responsible for terrorist activities in the region including the recent attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. Iran responded with an ineffective missile attack on Iraqi military bases that housed US soldiers, which appeared to be orchestrated to avoid inflicting major damage or loss of life so as to de-escalate the situation. While the temperature of the conflict has simmered for now, this has the potential to ignite at any time and threaten the supply and price of oil.


Investment Outlook

While it is not realistic to expect markets to replicate their performance in 2019, we still believe returns will be solid in 2020 and well above the rate of inflation. For the past 10 years, financial markets have been driven by liquidity conditions and interest rate policy and this will continue to be the case in 2020. While there are signs of a gradually improving global economy, it will not be sufficiently strong to provoke inflation meaning interest rates will remain benign for the year.

In this environment, there is simply no justification for any major central bank to tighten policy, the US Fed will likely be held for much of 2020, especially as the November Presidential election approaches. They are also likely to leave rates lower for longer given growing acceptance within the Fed that they moved much too aggressively in 2018. In Australia, there is likely to be two 25bp rate cuts by the RBA which will bring the cash rate to 0.25% by years end.

The strong price gains in 2019 has pushed equity valuation measures to around 18 times forward estimates which is above long term averages but not unreasonable given low inflation and bond yields. The missing link in the market equation however is profit growth. For example in the US, despite a strong economy, Q4 2019 profits are expected to decline for the 4th consecutive quarter. While these are backward looking measures, we need to see tangible evidence of positive earnings revisions and optimistic outlook statements from company CEO’s before we are willing to commit further to shares in multi-asset portfolios. Overall, the environment looks reasonable but as always, we will maintain a prudent level of diversification to achieve the appropriate balance between risk and opportunity.