x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A worldly view of stocks

This year was a surprisingly good one for the world's stock markets. But the markets tend not to repeat themselves, which raises the question: where it is best to invest next year?

If America averts the fiscal cliff then the economy could be off to a flying start next year. Above, an image of the world released by the Nasa Earth Observatory. Nasa Earth Observatory / AFP
If America averts the fiscal cliff then the economy could be off to a flying start next year. Above, an image of the world released by the Nasa Earth Observatory. Nasa Earth Observatory / AFP

Many experts expected 2012 to be a disaster for stock markets, but the meltdown never happened.

Instead, share prices rose around the world, fuelled by rock-bottom interest rates and easy monetary policy. Astonishingly, crisis-stricken Europe beat every other global region to rise 17 per cent, according to MSCI figures.

So can the recovery continue in 2013, and which market is set to surprise us this time round?

 

The United States

The Federal Reserve is attempting to kick-start the country's economy with US$45 billion (Dh165.2bn) a month of quantitative easing (QE), and a pledge of no monetary tightening while inflation is below 2.5 per cent and unemployment above 6.5 per cent.

Is it working? Up to a point. Unemployment is falling, house prices are recovering and GDP is growing at 2 per cent a year. The S&P 500 rose around 13 per cent in 2012.

Everything now rests on whether the US can avoid the fiscal cliff, a raft of tax increases and government-spending cuts that are set to kick in on January 1.

By the time you read this, Democrat and Republican politicians may have struck a last-minute compromise to avert disaster. But the longer they take to reach a deal, says Paul Chew, the head of investments at Brown Advisory, "the more the US economy is likely to suffer, as businesses curtail spending and hiring until they are feeling more optimistic."

If the cliff is averted, America could fly out of the blocks in 2013. "US companies are in good shape, with cash on their balance sheets at an all-time high. Valuations are reasonable and the US offers an attractive long-term opportunity for patient investors," Mr Chew says.

The US should also benefit from its discovery of huge shale gas reserves, which pushed gas prices to a 10-year low this spring and could drive an industrial renaissance.

The drawback is that the US market is no longer cheap, says Neil Veitch, co-fund manager of SVM World Equity.

Verdict: The global economy's best hope of growth, unless it falls off that cliff.

 

China

Investors have been fretting about a hard landing for years, but so far China has defied gravity.

The government has been pumping money into the economy to boost trade, industrial production and retail sales, Mr Veitch says. "Policy easing and the recent change of leadership should support the economy. China may not avoid a hard landing in the long run, but on a short-term view of three to six months, the outlook is positive."

China has plenty of problems but it has the financial firepower to tackle them, says Anthony Bolton, the manager of the mutual fund Fidelity China Special Situations. "Equity valuations generally remain very depressed and sentiment is negative. However, the Chinese market can turn on a sixpence and I would be very surprised if 2013 isn't a much better year."

John Greenwood, the chief economist at Invesco, warns that China has built an export-dependent economy that requires high rates of capital investment. "If those exports slow, that could trigger a precipitate decline."

Verdict: China really could go either way.

 

Europe

The euro-zone crisis pushed stock markets to such low levels that a snapback was almost inevitable.

Yet the continent's currency and economic problems are far from resolved, Mr Greenwood says. He says peripheral nations such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece suffer from crippling debt, plunging property prices and rising unemployment, and are now starting to contaminate the core European countries.

Europe still boasts massive global names that will thrive whatever happens to the single currency, such as the luxury brands PPR (which owns Gucci) and LVMH, the pharmaceutical giants Bayer, Novartis and Roche, and the car makers BMW and Volkswagen. David Kuo at the stocks website Motley Fool also tips BASF, which has increased its sales by 30 per cent over five years, and Nestlé, which is expanding rapidly in emerging markets.

Verdict: Europe is unlikely to outperform two years in a row.

 

Japan

Western nations used to fear export powerhouse Japan for all the right reasons. Now they fear it for the wrong reasons. Japan has endured two "lost decades" of shrinking stock markets and spiralling public debt, and the West is terrified the same thing will happen to it.

But is Japan about to discover a new lease of life? The Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide this month, and its leader Shinzo Abe has pledged to encourage quantitative easing to stimulate the economy and generate inflation of around 2 per cent (the rate was most recently measured at negative 0.4 per cent).

The market expects Mr Abe to hit his inflation target, says Simon Somerville, manager of the Jupiter Japan Select Fund. "That has already weakened the Japanese yen, benefiting Japanese exporters by making their products cheaper. We believe Japanese equities will improve further in 2013."

Investors can be forgiven their scepticism. Over the past 20 years, the Nikkei 225 index has dwindled from a peak of more than 38,000 to around 10,000.

Japan also has the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratio of a mighty 233 per cent.

Watch out, we've been here before, says Nick Mottram, head of global equities at Dalton Strategic Review. "It is usual at this time of year for old Japan hands to get excited by its 'cheapness', undaunted by perennial disappointment. Maybe this time they'll be right. We'll see."

Verdict: After 20 years of stagnation, it is hard to get excited.

 

Middle East and North Africa

Stock markets in the Mena region defied turmoil in Syria and Egypt to grow around 4 per cent in 2012, according to the MSCI Arabian Markets ex-Saudi Arabia index.

The region is a risky place to invest but the rewards can be great, says Ghadir Abu Leil-Cooper, investment manager for the Baring Mena fund. "Mena countries have a youthful demographic profile, with around one-third of people under the age of 15, and this should underpin long-term demand for housing, health care and consumer goods."

The high oil price has allowed countries to invest heavily in infrastructure and boost growth. "This is gathering momentum, with most countries in the region announcing plans to build new hospitals, airports and desalination and electricity plants."

Mena is home to a number of global companies, such as the Dubai-based port operator DP World.

"These firms continue to gain recognition on the global stage, grow market share and deliver impressive operational results," Ms Leil-Cooper says. "We believe the investment case remains attractive and any periods of volatility are an opportunity to acquire companies with good long-term growth prospects at reasonable valuations."

Verdict: Worth considering for investors happy to take on extra risk.

 

pf@thenational.ae