'Stoned on free money': Wall Street is cautioning investors to beware of late-cycle risks around the world
Reuters / John Gress
- Market strategists and economists are advising clients on how to invest at a late stage in the economic cycle as recession concerns loom.
- Bank of America Merrill Lynch's latest survey of global credit investors showed worries about a global recession have the strongest consensus for any concern in nearly two years.
- A Société Générale market strategist said in a colorful report this week that investors ought to "beware the economic cycle," likening US investors to "stoned" pedestrians stepping into traffic.
The conversation around global economic growth has morphed into not if, but when, a severe downturn will take hold.
From the US and Latin America to the eurozone and Asia, strategists, economists, and money managers are trying to square the shift from healthy to disappointing global growth - and advise clients on how to position at a late stage in the business cycle.
Market strategist Albert Edwards of Société Générale told clients this week investors in the US are emerging from an era of historically low interest rates that's rendered them unprepared for higher borrowing costs: "Stoned on free money, investors need to beware the economic cycle."
Edwards invoked an oft-used parallel between central banks' lax monetary policy acting as a drug of sorts for investors. He said every major central bank has "done its bit to inject another dose of euphoria into its market patch," with the Federal Reserve's recent about-face - which saw it shift from a relatively aggressive monetary policy to a more "patient" approach - leading the way.
The S&P 500 has staged a 19% rally off the December lows, and is now 5% away from recapturing its all-time high.
"Where investors could easily be caught out is in dismissing recent weak US economic data as due to one-off factors such as the very cold weather or the government shutdown," he wrote. "Investors need to be doubly cautious at this late stage of the cycle."
The strategist's warning underscores a dominant theme coming from Wall Street in recent weeks as central banks around the world edge away from monetary-policy tightening, geopolitical uncertainty and recession concerns loom, and growth has either softened, slumped, or stalled almost everywhere.
At the same time, corporate America just booked the most disappointing earnings season in seven years, the impact of fiscal stimulus borne from the Trump administration's tax reform package has all but faded, and US-China trade relations remain rocky.
Just consider insight from the BlackRock Investment Institute - part of the world's largest asset manager - which set the stage in January when it told investors the "key question" right now was how long the current late-cycle phase might last.
"This year's macro story is more about a synchronised global slowdown - with growth rates converging towards long-term trend levels - than actual recession risks, in our view," wrote the report's authors, led by BlackRock Vice Chairman Philipp Hildebrand.
Meanwhile, economists at HSBC echoed BlackRock's sentiment in a comprehensive macro-focused report out this week that highlighted just how quickly investor sentiment has shifted.
"This time two years ago the commonly-used description for the global economy was 'synchronised expansion': all of the world's major regions not only expanding, but accelerating, simultaneously," HSBC economists Janet Henry and James Pomeroy told clients.
"How quickly the narrative has switched to one of 'synchronised sinking' with growing concerns about the global slowdown and outright fears among many that the Eurozone, not just Italy, may be on the verge of recession."
As far as where people ought to park their money, Deutsche Bank equity strategists have come up with a basket for investments best-fit for the current environment: "late cycle," as opposed to "end cycle," by the firm's classifications.
That means "prudent, quality companies cheap on cash flow," a team of strategists led by Binky Chadha wrote. "In the late cycle phase, growth is still strong but cost pressures and risks are rising."
They added: "In addition, with investors starting to worry about a potential end to the cycle, there is a premium for prudence, and companies with low leverage and low debt growth outperform, as do momentum stocks."
Here's a deeper look at how experts are classifying the current late-cycle condition and what they see:
"A big end-of-cycle fear"
The "global industrial downturn"
Evaluating recession odds
Data in the US
US becoming a "drag rather than a driver"
An "irreversible path to an economic downturn"
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