Wednesday, January 14, 2009

2009: A year of two halves

AS unprecedented stress struck the core of the global financial system last year, it was clear to many observers that a worldwide recession was on the way. Citi analysts expect major industrial economies to contract well into 2009 as adjustments occur to raise the level of savings in these economies. And while the pace of contraction in global growth is expected to ease moving into the second half of the year, next year's expected economic recovery is forecast to be modest, with growth likely to remain below trends seen before the current crisis.

From a market perspective, this backdrop suggests investors should continue to expect 2008-style volatility in the early part of this year. Looking further ahead, though, downside risks to economic growth are expected to dissipate as global fiscal stimulus efforts gather speed and de-leveraging pressures ease. When this happens, the extreme valuations in equity and credit markets seen today should provide attractive opportunities for investors. For more tactically oriented investors, as we observed in our December column, a global recession does not preclude bear market rallies, even as markets continue on an underlying trend of decline. Such rallies, as seen in previous downturns, may be big, providing opportunities for more trading-oriented investors.

The Japanese experience of the 1990s has served us well so far in navigating the current crisis, and our experience with the latest global equity rally has been no different. During the 1990s when the Japanese market declined to below 1.5x book value, sizeable fiscal stimulus proposals tended to coincide with bear market rallies. On three occasions, prices rose as much as 45 per cent.

Likewise, after global equities fell to 1.2x book value in mid-November last year, and sizeable fiscal stimulus plans were announced around the same time, global markets rallied 25 per cent at their peaks last week. Fiscal stimulus proposals to date have come up relatively short of the stimulus delivered by Japan in the 1990s, which came up to 4-10 per cent of GDP. As a result, it is no surprise then that the recent rally was less robust.

Looking forward and with this sizeable rally behind us, investment returns are expected to shift from a focus on valuation and fiscal stimulus back towards the trends of economic contraction and earnings risk, as seen last September to October. Once again, drawing on Japan's experience in the 1990s, investors should find that, just as signs signalling the start of bear market rallies existed, a similar set of signs signalling their end existed. In particular, the Japanese bear market rallies of the 1990s tended to end near valuation peaks before the start of the valuation bubble years, or near 2.3x book value. Going back to the 1970s, Japanese equities tended to trade in a relatively stable range between 1.5x and 2.3x book value before they were dramatically re-rated during the Japanese asset bubble in the late-1980s. So, coincidentally or not, as the Japanese asset bubble burst, valuations proceeded to return to their pre-bubble valuation ranges of 1.5x to 2.3x book value. Putting the Japanese framework into the context of global equities, the equivalent pre-bubble range was about 1.0x to 1.6x book value. At last week's highs, global valuations, as measured through the MSCI World index, stood at near 1.5x to 1.6x book value, close to the high end of their pre-bubble range. This suggests that the supportive backdrop for a bear market rally, prospective fiscal stimulus notwithstanding, has eroded with the market rally.

For longer-term investors, Citi analysts believe further progress in the current downcycle is needed to create attractive opportunities to enter the accumulation phase for long-term equity exposure. In particular, moderation in expectations for global equity markets, such as 14 per cent year-on-year consensus earnings growth for global equities in 2010, is likely necessary before markets begin to bottom out in coming quarters.

Driving this troughing process, we anticipate, should be an easing of de-leveraging pressures in the global financial system. While large-scale capital raisings took place among global financials in the fourth quarter of 2008, to a large extent these fund-raisings have served only to stabilise balance sheets following losses earlier in the year. In 2009, we anticipate further capital-raisings and asset sales to drive the needed de-leveraging. Only as these catalysts emerge do we expect to see an increase in the historically extreme valuations and a sustained rally in equity and credit markets.

Norman Villamin is head of investment analysis & advice, global wealth management & global consumer group, Citi, Asia Pacific.

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