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Please see below for Legal & General’s latest Asset Allocation Team Key Beliefs Article, received by us yesterday afternoon 22/02/2021:

The consumer economy

Tim Drayson, our head of economics, often warns us not to bet against the US consumer. Last week, the US retail sales numbers for January smashed forecasts and once again showed that stimulus works, especially direct cash payments to households. Around 25% of the $600 received by individuals earning $75,000 or less was immediately spent, generating a $30 billion bounce in retail sales across all categories. Perhaps as a sign that economic optimism is already well priced in, equity markets chopped around last week although Treasury yields have been drifting higher.

The price of everything…

Clients are asking whether stock markets are getting ahead of themselves. We push back on this. If equity prices move up in lockstep with your view of the future improving, you should become neither more nor less optimistic. Given we believe we are early in the cycle, the mantra should remain unchanged: stay long, buy the dips.

Price is no determinant of value or valuations; it is only useful in relation to what you get for what you’ve paid. Is $100,000 a lot for a car? It depends if it’s for a Golf or a Ferrari. This is one reason we use multiples to think about valuations. Multiples that have historically exhibited mean-reverting properties over the long run have had some predictive power for longer-term returns. Prices, though, are not mean reverting and tell you nothing about future returns.

We pay particular attention to relative valuation. The yield gap is one representative measure; it hasn’t moved much recently but is still high by historical standards. Moreover, early in the cycle it’s quite normal for valuations to shoot up. This rebound has, so far, looked quite similar to the one in 2009 in magnitude.

Our baseline is that this bull market will last until the next recession. There’s a lot of runway left before then, in our view, and we expect the S&P 500 to be materially higher before the bull market ends.

Real talk

Investors are becoming more worried about the rise in bond yields and the possible impact on equity markets. The recent choppiness in equities while yields have drifted up adds to their nervousness. Although we believe nominal and real yields will rise further (and by more than currently priced in the forwards), we think this should be well digested by equity markets. We note that the 2013 taper tantrum saw a 75 basis point spike in bond yields but ‘only’ a 6% correction in the S&P. (Tim recently discussed the possibility of new US tapering.)

Empirically, there’s not much evidence that rising real yields are particularly bad news for equities, especially from these very low levels. In fact, rising real yields have mostly been associated with higher equities. Historically, the correlation between real yields and equity markets has turned negative at much higher real yields.

It’s crucial to understand what is driving yield moves. As long as rising yields reflect a combination of higher inflation and better growth prospects, this should be positive for markets. Only when policymakers become worried should we be ready for change. Equity markets may panic when they see either a de-anchoring of inflation expectations or they need to bring forward the timing of policy normalisation. In our view, it is far too early for either of these, but clearly both need to be monitored very closely.

All about that base effect

The next round of stimulus is still being debated by Congress. Last week, Treasury Secretary Yellen commented that “the risk of doing too little is greater than of doing too much”. If such an approach is adopted, the direct uplift to household incomes will potentially be at least three times larger than included in the COVID relief bill at the end of 2020. This money should hit people’s accounts just as the US begins to re-open more fully. Alongside the excess household savings accumulated during the pandemic, this could fuel a surge in demand.

This makes us think about the implications of the money supply glut. None of us have seen money supply grow on the current scale, the only precedent being during the Second World War. Half of the increase in broad money supply sits directly in household accounts, and cash as a share of financial assets for non-financial corporates is at its highest levels since 1969. We believe that a significant amount of this cash will be spent, boosting growth, corporate profitability, and possibly inflation.

On inflation, we know there will be a pronounced base effect around the spring as prices fell sharply while the economy was locked down last year. This, plus later boosts from CPI components that were depressed by restrictions like airfares and hotel prices, could temporarily raise inflation above target-consistent levels.

The Federal Reserve has highlighted this potential outcome, with January’s minutes containing a discussion on why it would be prudent to look through this increase. This makes sense in our view as it is equally likely that inflation will fall back in the summer. Base effects reverse, and there are also some aspects of inflation that have been lifted by the pandemic but are likely to weaken once the economy reopens. Used-car prices are an example.

Further out, the inflation picture becomes much murkier. How much slack will be left in the economy? Does the jump in money supply matter? Are some of the structural disinflationary forces of the past decade, like technology, beginning to shift? How well anchored are inflation expectations?

We believe that inflation becoming high enough to constrain monetary policy is still a way off. But if we get there, central banks in developed markets might be surprised by how much they have to raise rates to reduce inflationary pressure. Money doesn’t play a role in their models, despite monetary aggregates generally being excellent predictors of economic aggregates, and they aren’t able to directly undo the monetary and fiscal one-two that’s been so effective at putting cash in consumers’ pockets.

Please continue to utilise these blogs and expert insights to keep your own holistic view of the market up to date.

Keep safe and well

Paul Green DipFA

23/02/2021