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Sell in May and go away?

24 May 2019

Philip Saunders and Lindsay Williams delve into the established adage while reviewing global markets and major geo-political issues, with US/China trade tensions and Iran dominating the headlines.



Disclaimer: This podcast is provided for general information only and assumes a certain level of knowledge of financial markets.  It is not an invitation to make an investment and should not be construed as advice.  The views in this podcast are those of the contributors at the time of publication and do not necessarily reflect those of Investec Asset Management.  The value of investments can fall as well as rise and losses may be made.  In South Africa, Investec Asset Management is an authorised financial services provider.

Moderator: It is mid-May and the phrase “sell in May and go away” is front of mind for many people.  There have been a few sell-offs in the month of May for various risky equity classes like the S&P 500, New York Stock Exchange listed entities, etc., but there has always been this bounce-back ability.

Here to discuss the matter is Philip Saunders, who is the Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London.  I love the way that people talk about this “sell in May and go away” thing just because it sounds pretty but it never really works and it certainly hasn’t worked yet this year, Philip.

Philip Saunders: Yes, that is true.  In a way basically it’s one of these sort of standard expressions and when you actually sort of really test it against history, actually the results are fairly variable.  The logic is that when things were sort of less complicated and the clear seasonality, basically sort of people went to have long holidays and so forth and markets basically lacked news and they lacked liquidity so, therefore, basically if they were going to sort of have a bit of relapse, it was a good time for them to have that relapse.

This time around, obviously we have had a pretty punchy start to the year in terms of equity markets.  I think they probably got way ahead of events simply because investors were so short at the end of last year, so sure that we were sort of finally heading into a sort of recession and bear market but in a way they have jumped the gun and we are sort of somewhat extended.  Obviously, the expectations that the US and China were close to a trade deal and everything was moving in the right direction on the right front, which was in line with the noises that had been coming out, all of a sudden the turn changed significantly at a time when equity markets were extended.

So we have had something of a correction as a result of that and then throw in on top of that a laundry list of rather worrying things, like the Iran/America sort of stand-off and tankers having holes blown in them in the Persian Gulf and some economic data that has been left imperfect and your nerves are frazzled again and so there’s lots of talk of basically we are all doomed again.

Moderator: I remember round about a year ago you said the risk to the US equity market was not a meltdown because I was being perennially bearish and said look what has happened now, what’s happening with Facebook.  I think it was actually February or March of last year.  I thought this is the end of it.  You said no, I think the greater risk is for the melt-up.  Do you think the December to now rally is the melt-up that you were talking about and we could be risking now the prospect of a melt-down?

Philip Saunders: Yeah, I am less convinced by that.  Last year, in fact coming into last year, yes, I was worried about melt-up and we have seen those episodes in the late part of market cycles in the past.  The most celebrated occasion obviously was 1987, also the sort of Dotcom thing in late 1990’s and that, at least you know where you are in the sense you get one of those sort of exponential moves.  On balance, basically that tends to happen towards the end.

So we saw an attempt at it in the early part of last year and then, before it could really get going, it faded away again and there were obviously these rolling sell-offs in various markets and eventually the US market succumbed in the autumn.  Also, the FANG stocks, they recovered very well from the sell-off early last year and the market was pretty narrow.  They were just about the only thing in equity markets that were going up during the year and that felt as if it had a sort of tinge of the mania about it but that pressure was sort of lanced, if you like, towards the end of the year.

So I think ultimately conditions could come together to cause a melt-up and so there you need basically obviously sort of liquidity fuel, you need basically a lack of nervousness, you know actually this thing can go on for a long time and you need a reasonable fundamental story and those conditions can come together again.  This time around, okay, the Fed has stopped raising interest rates and it has a significant rethink of what its policy is going to be but it hasn’t turned around and actually loosened policy.  It is continuing to shrink its balance sheet, rates are being kept on hold and then you have got obviously patchy QE going on in various other places and zero rates.

So we haven’t got basically lots of liquidity flooding into the system again and, in addition to that, there is an economic deceleration going on, particularly in the US, and therefore earnings dynamics, if anything they are basically moving down and, in order to get a real melt-up, you want them at least sort of improving.

Moderator: Sorry to interrupt you but you say an economic deceleration when you have got a 50-year low in unemployment, as Mr Trump likes to trumpet about, and also GDP doing rather well as well.  So where does the economic deceleration come from?  Is it some forward-looking model that you have developed?

Philip Saunders: Well, I think it is just a simple observation that growth in the US, in particular, was juiced by a lot of fiscal stimulus last year in particular and that that was a sort of one-off kind of impulse and the impact of that fades.  So unless growth elsewhere in the economy picks up to compensate – I mean the US economy was running at a GDP rate of sort of 4% per annum at various points last year.  Its sustainable growth rate on a longer-term basis is probably barely 2%, whatever President Trump would like it to be.

So, yes, we have an economic deceleration in the cards.  The global growth rate peaked about this time last year and has been in decline since then.  The US basically has been diverged, which is obviously very supportive for the dollar, and we saw US interest rates marching up for a period but that now is converging at a lower level.  So I am not saying we are headed into recession.  We are certainly heading into a sort of softer patch from a growth perspective.

Moderator: Do you think the ongoing trade wars between China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies by some measures anyway, and also the Iran situation are merely sideshows at the end of a long-in-the-tooth bull market in equities?

Philip Saunders: Yes, I think on balance they probably are.  In this particular cycle (and we have talked many times), there have always been quite a lot of very crunchy things to become fairly angst-ridden about.  We really have climbed the wall of worry and that seems to be continuing now.  Yes, I think the US-China relationship is a very serious thing and things are not going particularly well at the moment.  It looks as if the sort of backroom guys had sort of cobbled together a truce at any rate on the trade front and then, when President Xi saw it, he crossed out quite a lot of it apparently and, of course, that then caused the reaction, the sort of frantic tweeting from the good President Trump.

So I think that literally the Chinese are not about to agree to what they regard as an unequal deal and the American hawks are basically pushing pretty hard to get China to agree to something that is frankly quite humiliating for them and, surprise-surprise, they backed off.  I think they will eventually come to some kind of accommodation but there will continue to be this face-off, at least on the technology front, but this is a known unknown, effectively to use the Rumsfeld term, and so therefore the fact that people are focussing on it a lot means that probably we should expect it to be substantially discounted in the market.

The Iran thing is a bit more rogue and there is room for accidents and so forth and demand/supply in the oil market is pretty tight and so therefore actually we are probably rather more concerned about that as a risk.  So you have got a sort of weaker growth type environment, the Chinese economy seems to have stabilised but it hasn’t got much traction and equity earnings have turned into basically sort of moderate.  So we have got this sort of loss of traction so I think we are in a corrective environment.  Are we going to see a panic attack as serious as the one we saw towards the end of last year?  I really don’t think that is on the cards but that might be famous last words.

Moderator: Okay, famous last words and my famous last words to you in the form of this question is: do you have a feeling of déjà vu when you see companies or entities like Pinterest coming to the market and Uber, which has openly admitted that it is not going to make any money for a while but the prospects are there for it to diversify its portfolio of investments in tech and do something in the future?  When they come to the market and when cannabis companies come to the market and have these extraordinary valuations and now synthetic meat companies come to the market, do you not think of 1999/2000, Philip Saunders?

Philip Saunders: Yes.  I think that there are – and it’s the whole unicorn thing as well and I think there is probably sort of a bit too much of that going on.  I think it is basically there is a thirst for growth and so therefore I think that in this particular cycle basically we have had another – the lure of tech companies is proving to be quite attractive but, if you look at the valuations on the more serious businesses, like Alphabet and the like, ratings are not outrageous.  Investor positioning might be a bit long but basically, unless they are going to suffer a fairly significant loss of momentum on the earnings front, actually they are not in bubble territory.

So you have got some sort of mini-bubbles but, in the greater scheme of things, basically mini-bubbles can bubble away and you need some sort of maxi-bubbles going pop to really change things.  I think we are not there yet and you could tell me that, you know, aren’t prices a bit [nuts] at the moment?  So we are clearly in a late cycle environment but late cycles can continue for quite a while.  Late cycles are normally characterised by inflation going up but we are flat; interest rates going up – not much sign of that actually now.  So again basically the brakes are not being slammed on particularly hard anywhere; in fact, actually probably quite the reverse.

Moderator: What is your late cycle positioning as Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London?  What are you up to?

Philip Saunders: We are being pretty dull because we basically felt that markets were too weak at the end of last year so we added quite significantly – we got quite defensive.  We then felt that basically valuations had corrected quite significantly and we didn’t see a looming recession and so therefore we felt that was a good opportunity to add back exposure, which we did, and we have nudged that down a bit and we continue to run with quite significant defensive offsets in the form of long-dated US Treasury bonds, which are actually performing pretty well at the moment, we have got some yen and we have got some options.

So balanced position and it is not that exciting but we think that is probably the right place to be for the time-being.  So if we see earnings traction picking up again, then we might basically tactically sort of nudge that exposure up.  If we think that the fundamental economic environment basically, there really is a more material risk of recession, then equity risk premia, particularly in the US, don’t really compensate us enough for that kind of scenario.  So I think it’s [each way] bet at the moment.

Moderator: Philip, thank you so much for your analysis.  That is Philip Saunders and Philip is the Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London.


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