Stock Investors Are Getting Smarter as the Threats Stack Up
(Bloomberg) -- This year’s global stock rally has flown in the face of billions of dollars of outflows, mounting fears for economic growth, and most recently a bombardment of geopolitical shocks.
But it might not be as defiant -- or as crazy -- as it seems.
As a gauge of global shares looks to extend two weeks of gains, there’s mounting evidence that beneath the surface equity investors have been getting smart. Far from ignoring brewing risks, they’re increasingly positioned for bad news, bidding up defensive and quality companies at the expense of those more exposed to the economic cycle.
It all challenges the narrative that the stock markets have paid no heed to the warnings screamed by global bonds, or that they are simply counting on accommodative central bankers to juice asset prices.
“People are bracing for a bear market,” said Brian Jacobsen, a senior investment strategist of multi-asset solutions at Wells Fargo Asset Management, which oversees $476 billion. “Not predicting it. Just trying to be prepared.”
As traders favor firms that can weather a potential downturn, the valuation discount of value to growth stocks has surged to the widest since 2001. The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. gauge of high quality shares is outperforming the S&P 500 Index this month. And the Russell 2000 Index of small caps is trading near the biggest discount versus the Russell 3000 Index since at least 2006.
The extremity of this push into safer equities has seen the likes of Morgan Stanley warn about a “big unwind’’ if their performance stumbles. Riskier shares attempted a comeback last month, with weak balance sheet stocks in the U.S. outperforming peers with strong balance sheets.
But the trend didn’t last. In June, investors are once again rewarding companies flush with cash and low debt, lifting their premium over those with less attractive financial profiles to near a record high.
“Valuations don’t matter too much until they get to eye-watering extremes,” said Jacobsen. “I don’t think that they’re at eye-watering extremes” for defensive shares, he said.
Momentum stocks have been another winner from the search for a place to hide, with the investing style outperforming value shares by a near-record 17% in May. They have continued beating cheaper stocks this month due to a strong overlap with quality and low-volatility equities, according to Morgan Stanley.
At essence, stock investors appear to be trying to hedge their bets between two major outcomes. On the one hand, they’re staying invested on the prospect of an extension of the business and economic cycle, perhaps prolonged by a trade war breakthrough or central bank largess. On the other, they’re opting for safe shares in case the U.S.-China protectionist battle drags out or escalates, derailing global growth.
“The correct positioning is not obvious and it’s a tough call,” said Edward J. Perkin, chief equity investment officer at Eaton Vance Management. “With the equity market near all-time highs, do you take economic risk by owning cyclicals, or valuation and interest rate risk by buying defensive sectors at high prices?”
Perkin favors a middle ground: He likes companies with solid financials, though he’s focused on economically sensitive sectors that can outperform if growth remains strong. And he cautions that not all defensive sectors are attractive, warning against expensive yield-sensitive sectors and consumer staples due to their financial leverage and muted revenue growth.
Meanwhile major asset managers like Wells Fargo Asset Management and Legal & General Investment Management say they now prefer a neutral stance, allowing them to easily maneuver depending on whether the U.S. strikes a trade deal with China or global growth falters.
One thing the money managers all agree on: Despite seeing a need for caution, they’re not yet ready to call the end of this bull market.
“It still may be too early to call the peak,” said Nick Alonso, director of the multi-asset group at PanAgora Asset Management. “I believe that, especially in uncertain times like these, focusing on portfolio construction as a means of achieving diversification through proper risk balancing can be a very powerful tool.”
--With assistance from Justina Lee.
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