On January 16, 2019, a profound reflection on economic policy, politics’ influence on it, and the US economic outlook took place at the Standard Club in Chicago. The discussion was moderated by CFA Society Chicago’s very own Lotta Moberg, CFA,—with William Blair’s Dynamic Allocation Strategies team—and featured David Lafferty, senior vice president and chief market strategist at Natixis Investment Managers; Nicholas Sargen, chief investment officer for the Western & Southern Financial Group and chief economist of its affiliate, Fort Washington Investment Advisors Inc.; and Jas Thandi, associate partner of Aon Hewitt’s Global Asset Allocation Team. The discussion began with setting up the big picture of the world economy with the US as the focus and then progressed to cover the panelists’ outlook on how central bank policies and deregulation will play out in the US. Finally, the panelists shared their perspectives on the future of globalization before offering some concluding remarks. After the panel discussion was completed, Moberg opened the panel to Q&A.
Sargen kicked off the discussion by encouraging the attendees to “not focus on the tweets”—referring to the President’s activity on Twitter—or even the Federal Reserve. Instead, he encouraged people to focus on economic policy. He walked through the story of Trump’s economic policy since he took office citing the corporate tax cuts and deregulation in 2017. Sargen explained his view that these policies carried the markets through 2017 and by 2018 most of this positive news was already priced in to the market. The realization that these policies were already priced in combined with the new developments in the China Trade War led to 2018 falling flat by the end of the year. He closed his opening remarks citing political gridlock in America and a global economic slowdown as the continuing risks for markets. Lafferty continued the conversation agreeing with Sargen on all counts and expanding with his views on the global economic slowdown. He laid out a view of global deceleration across all major asset classes stating that some of the pessimism is already priced in. Lafferty even conjectured that he believed most broad asset classes were not far from fair value. However, none of these broad asset classes are currently priced for recession. Thandi rounded out the opening remarks by emphasizing politics’ growing role in markets and bringing focus back to the U.S.-China trade war and its implications on global assets—especially in Europe. He expounded on his European focus by pointing to the ECB and the need for investors to be wary of their policy actions as well. He wrapped up the opening remarks by touching on the increase in supply of treasuries due to the runoff of the Federal reserve balance sheet and the impact we should expect to be seen in the credit markets. This final point set up Moberg’s next point of discussion: how will the U.S. markets react to recent U.S. government and FED policies?
Thandi picked up by stating his belief that the U.S. economy would experience a soft landing due to some growth from the tax stimulus. However, he has been surprised by the way capital expenditures by corporations has “fallen off a cliff.” Lafferty followed Thandi’s comments regarding low capital expenditures by explaining that the execution of economic policy can have an outsized impact. Lafferty explained to attendees that the corporate tax cuts should have incentivized companies to spend more on capital expenditures, however, due to recent protectionist rhetoric from the President many companies became cautious to make capital expenditures due to political uncertainty. Lafferty also stated that the current political gridlock in the U.S. government could be dangerous for markets should any major problems arise. Despite these warnings, Lafferty too expressed some optimism stating his belief that we are merely experiencing a slowdown. However, he cautioned that Federal Reserve adjustments could have already killed the expansion. Sargen agreed with Lafferty regarding Fed policy and shared his view that the Fed’s communication regarding policy has been poor. He also revisited Thandi’s point of the tax cut stating his belief that the resulting stimulus would run its course by mid-2019. However, Sargen also supported the view of a soft landing stating that the U.S. would not experience a recession this year—but a recession beyond that short horizon is likely.
The next topic for the panel was deregulation in the US. Before this topic was kicked off Lafferty offered thoughts by first stating that there has been a surprising focus on regulating new forms of systemic risk and investor protection. He cited the growth of the ETF market as a point of concern for regulators. After making this point he explained that deregulation has been positive for smaller shops as it has eased their regulatory burden. Sargen expounded on this point by saying that executives overwhelmingly prefer less regulation—no matter the size of the company. He pointed to the current political landscape saying it is no longer as supportive of deregulation due to the democratic party’s representation in the House of Representatives. Thandi offered the final thoughts on this topic by stating that deregulation has only had a small impact. He explained that there were short term gains from deregulation but they were muted due to tariffs resulting from the U.S.-China trade war.
After the deep dive into recent developments in the US the panel transitioned to discuss the future of globalization, both in the US and across the globe. Thandi started off by discussing the recent protectionist rhetoric not only in the U.S. but across the globe citing Brexit as a major example. He explained that such policies will lead to consolidation in equities as large companies seek growth through acquisition instead of organically. Ultimately, Thandi believes these policies will lead to a lower growth environment. Lafferty agreed that protectionist policies appear to be growing in developed markets and will lead to a lower growth environment. Further, this lower growth environment will lead to stunted performance in passive investment strategies. He also expects these protectionist policies to cause more volatility in markets. Lafferty’s final point on the matter was that with the combination of low growth and higher volatility investors will allocate more capital to active investment strategies.
Finally, the panelists concluded the evening with their final thoughts:
- The trade war is not about prices but about national policy, specifically the U.S. is targeting the “Made in China 2025” effort.
- Regarding monetary policy, backtracking on Quantitative Tightening is actually bad for equities because it signals the Federal Reserve doesn’t have faith in markets’ strength.
- The dollar will be stable or bearish in 2019.
- Reforms and policy decisions in Europe will be more influential than the media is portraying.
- Assuming a soft landing for the U.S., emerging markets already had their correction and are due for a rebound.
- Alternatives such as private equity are an attractive investment.
- Passive investment strategies generally outperform hedge funds in the long run.
After the discussion was concluded Moberg opened the panel to Q&A:
Does it matter who Trump’s Economic Advisor is?
- Sargen: No.
- Lafferty: No.
- Thandi: No.
Is international diversification out of date?
- Thandi: No, however correlations have lowered with globalization. Currency risk still plays a big role.
- Lafferty: No, however Emerging Markets are no longer as attractive in the long run because growth has slowed. Low correlations have become much rarer due to an interconnected global economy.
- Sargen: No, but benefits of international diversification are not as attractive. Additionally, investors should be wary of diversification into bonds as the Federal Deficit continues to grow.
What is the big thing the general consensus is missing?
- Lafferty: Bubbles in the capital markets.
- Sargen: Global leaders are running out of policy ammunition to deal with crises.
What will volatility be in the next 6 months?
- Sargen: Choppy.
- Lafferty: Low 20s as opposed to low teens (referring to the VIX Index level).
- Thandi: Choppy.