Just one piece of encouraging economic news – the December US jobs report – was all it took to change the market’s mood and send stocks higher in the first few days of the New Year; but this recovery could easily prove a brief respite.
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It would be easy to imagine that the US/China trade war and the US Federal Reserve’s resolve to tighten monetary policy, which have been the two big fears hanging over the US stock market throughout 2018, are reaching some sort of stasis. The market certainly rejoiced when Fed chairman Jay Powell made the dovish comment that interest rates are “just below” the range of rates considered neutral. The Dow Jones Industrial Average index shot up by 600 points in one session, its best single-day gain since March.
This article was written in early November for the December 2018 print edition of Money Observer. Market data and share prices are likely to have since changed.
The big news this month has been the climb in US 10-year Treasury bond yields to 3.2%, their highest level since July 2011. Bond yields had been rising gently (and their prices falling), reflecting confidence that the US economy was robust enough to weather trade wars and other setbacks. However, the rise has spooked markets, forcing a reassessment of risk-free assets compared with equities.
US equities defied logic in August by climbing 3 per cent, despite the rise in the federal funds rate. The S&P 500 index has now risen by 230 per cent since 2009 – the longest bull run in history – and has a price/earnings ratio more than 50 per cent higher than its historic average.
Far from a quiet summer lull, volatility and risk-aversion intensified over the holiday season. At various times the FTSE 100 index tumbled over 100 points in a day, as markets became nervous about the Turkey crisis and deepening trade wars. US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin is warning of further sanctions to hamper Turkish competitiveness, unless pastor Andrew Brunson is released from house arrest on espionage charges. It is a row that could easily escalate.
Trade war is the talking point this month, particularly after 51 US trade groups got together to warn US president Donald Trump of the ‘serious negative impacts’ of his tariffs. Some of the US’s most influential trade bodies – many focused on retail, car manufacture and agriculture – want a bill to curb the president’s powers by requiring the US Congress to approve any new tariff s.
The calm of May has given way to a big spike in stock market volatility. June kicked off with a crisis in Italy, further Brexit setbacks and sinister political antics from Donald Trump. Markets on both sides of the Atlantic are swinging sharply day by day, sometimes on the flimsiest of rationales.
Stock markets can be perverse. Having been braced for the fallout from the US administration’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal and impose severe sanctions, the S&P 500 index has surprised everyone by surging ahead. In fact, while the market plummeted during president Trump’s speech announcing the move, it finished the session higher.
Investor sentiment for developed markets has weakened, with some major indices displaying the dreaded ‘death cross.