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Investing in the 2020's

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

With a new decade coming up, this is a good time to consider how the investment environment could change in the 2020s, especially in a downturn. We’ve seen all kinds of factors roil investment markets over the last couple of years, but the factors that will have the greatest effect on markets in the 2020’s are likely to be very different.

When the next recession hits, whether it's next year or five years from now, the US Federal Reserve won’t have much room for easing. Historically, the Fed has cut an average of 5.5% during recessions[i]. However, the federal funds rate is at 175 basis points, so that sort of step is mathematically impossible. Instead of monetary policy, we expect the focus to shift to our elected leaders, who will have to implement aggressive fiscal stimulus like middle class tax cuts along with infrastructure and other spending. Significant fiscal stimulus could finally boost nominal GDP and potentially yields.

The question is what will central banks do as GDP rises? Will they continue to keep interest rates suppressed, or will they let some repricing happen as inflation begins to rise? The markets are going to have to deal with this interaction between monetary and fiscal policies. If successful, this would be positive for environment for more cyclical economies and markets, positive for inflation-linked assets and negative for longer duration bonds. That would represent a big change from the previous decade, where sovereign bonds performed incredibly well. A replay of their performance over coming years seems unlikely given that some ex-US central banks already have negative policy rates.

A large number of Wall Street economists have recently revised their expectations for the next few years, and there’s agreement between firms like UBS and Goldman Sachs that the slowdown in global growth will reverse itself next year. For investors, that implies that risk assets have that have benefited from the steady decline in discount rates may not do as well as value investments in the coming years. It’s also why we’d expect international markets to outperform the U.S. Europe is far more cyclical than the U.S., so we’d look there for outperformance with that shift in cyclicality.

Oh, and surprising nobody, we expect elections to likely be the single biggest event for financial markets in 2020. (We foresee this coming year as similar to 2008, although it may work out with an inverse result. Back in 2008, there was an Irish website that allowed traders to buy and sell options on political events, like who would be the next President of the United States. (I always thought Intrade was a far better predictor of these sorts of things than any given poll because it forced participants to put their money where their mouth is.) At the end of August, John McCain and Obama were running neck and neck, but in the first week of September, Obama surged and never looked back. It just so happens that was the very week that the worst sell-off in the history of the stock market began, with the S&P500 falling a whopping 39%, from 1200 the first week of September to just 734 by Election Day.

The reality is that the stock market is very likely to sell any of the current potential Democrat nominees. If one of the four frontrunners for the Democratic nomination wins the general election (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren), Goldman Sachs expects the federal corporate income tax rate would most likely be upped from 21% back toward 35%, and they predict that would reduce S&P 500 earnings in 2021 by 11%. That would be huge. So, we’d look closely for any changes to the likelihood of any given candidate getting elected over the course of this coming summer and on through the party conventions.

On the other hand, love him or hate him, Donald Trump has been viewed as very good for our economy, and he’s likely to have a few things working in his favor this coming year. The drag from the trade war is likely to fade, and we’re in the camp that the December 15 tariffs with China will be removed. We foresee a year of above-trend growth, and that should mean another year of solid job creation. We also agree with the numerous economists who believe that consumer spending will outlast a relatively weak business investment environment; healthy consumer confidence and solid growth in disposable income and household wealth should keep consumption growing.

Therefore, we believe investors want to position their portfolios toward greater percentage allocations to value stocks and particularly European stocks. While we expect growth to continue here in the United States, positioning in Europe is how we feel one can best take advantage of global cyclicality. Granted, Brexit makes our domestic politics look downright civil, so it may not be without volatility. We’re also compelled to recommend lower allocations to bonds with the realization that retirees may need to utilize alternative vehicles to generate income.

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