What Might Scare the Markets?

What Might Scare the Markets?

November 02, 2016
Here are the key takeaways from this week's market commentary:
  • Many measures of investor sentiment indicate widespread uncertainty about the direction of markets.
  • The age of the bull market, U.S. elections, the possibility of a mistake by central banks, U.S. dollar strength, Brexit, and China’s debt problems all seem to have the potential to scare markets.
  • Looked at in context, the current “wall of worry” is not unusual, and we believe the bull market will continue into 2017.
It’s a day after Halloween, so what else could we do but write about what might scare the markets? We know from the financial media, measures of investor sentiment, and mutual fund outflows from equities and into bonds that investor nervousness is widespread. Some concerns are related to the presidential election, now just eight days away. Other concerns are related to the age of the bull market, discomfort with central bank actions, Brexit, and China’s debt problems; and there are certainly others. This week, in the spirit of Halloween, we discuss what might scare markets.


The bull market and the current economic expansion are now seven-and-a-half years old, and are as long as any post-WWII cycles besides the 1990s. Some market participants believe this alone means that the U.S. economy will likely head into recession next year, ending the current bull market. But bull markets don’t die of old age; they die of economic excesses. Essentially, the gradual trajectory of the economic recovery from the Great Recession increases the chances that the expansion lasts longer.

We continue to follow a variety of leading economic indicators and are closely watching for signs of overheating in the economy that might suggest a recession is forthcoming. The latest reading on gross domestic product (GDP) for the third quarter of 2016 increases the odds that the expansion continues. The categories of excesses that have ended prior economic expansions and bull markets (overspending, overborrowing, overconfidence) remain contained. Bottom line, based on the indicators we watch, we see a low probability of recession in the next 12 to 18 months (perhaps 20%), although there is always the chance of an exogenous shock or policy mistake.


Although we list the election second, it is probably the first scare that pops into people’s minds when discussing market risks at this point. We noted in last week’s Weekly Market Commentary that there are some investments that might be hurt by a Donald Trump presidency, and others than might be hurt by a Hillary Clinton presidency. There are risks of trade protectionism, higher taxes, political gridlock (which could lead to another debt ceiling debacle), and others. Regardless of the outcome, we do not expect a major election-related market disruption for several reasons:
  1. The stock market historically has performed well around elections as policy uncertainty is resolved (with 2008 a notable exception, but the worsening global financial crisis was the prominent force for financial markets in late 2008, not the election).
  2. The adaptability of corporate America over time.
  3. Checks and balances in Washington (we expect split government to continue after the election).
  4. Our belief that the U.S. economy is on pretty firm footing.
A bearish story that has popped up recently related to the election is that recessions tend to happen after two-term presidents leave office. Going back to 1900 and President Theodore Roosevelt, only twice did the economy not slip into a recession within one year of new leadership after one president was in office for two or more terms. The two exceptions were President Ford (recession came three years later) and President Reagan, who left office 19 months before a recession began in 1990.

Here’s the good news—as surprising as this might be, we believe this will be the strongest economy a new president will inherit since President Bill Clinton in 1993. The reality is multiple presidents inherited rapidly deteriorating economies or recessions. With the strongest gross domestic product (GDP) reading in two years in the third quarter of 2016 (reported on Friday, October 28, 2016), consumer confidence high, and earnings growth resuming, the macroeconomic picture appears to be in good shape.


The U.S. dollar has made a big move in October 2016, hitting its highest level since early February 2016 and gaining 3.1% month to date. Improving economic growth and inflation expectations, higher interest rates, and a likely Federal Reserve (Fed) rate hike in December 2016 are among the reasons for the strength. Should dollar strength continue, earnings growth for multinationals may be impaired as it was in 2015, when the dollar rallied to a peak of roughly 20% year-over-year gains, which contributed to the earnings recession.

A strong dollar and related weaker profit growth do not necessarily mean stocks will fare poorly. During the 1950s and 1980s, huge bull markets were accompanied by a strong dollar. If the dollar goes higher for the right reasons, it can be a positive. Based on our macroeconomic view, should dollar strength continue, we think it would be for the right reasons. Further, we do not currently expect a major move higher with the dollar having been range bound since early 2014.


Many of the bears out there are concerned that Fed rate hikes will disrupt global markets. We believe the Fed’s transparency will enable the market to successfully digest the next hike, and probably several subsequent hikes, without a significant spike in volatility. The market believes that a rate hike in December is very likely, while a firming growth outlook gives the Fed comfort with the move. Some are worried about the emerging world’s dependence on U.S. dollar funding in a rate hike cycle—a valid concern in previous crises, though less so today given improved trade situations and greater financial flexibility that comes with unpegged currencies for most of these economies.

Also note that historically, stocks have fared well during the early stages of rate hike cycles due to the economy’s progress. The next hike will only be the second of this cycle and, we believe, will likely be followed by several more (at least) before the next recession. Inflation is picking up gradually, but low interest rates overseas and sub-par global growth continue to cap the move higher in interest rates in the United States.  

The Fed could move too fast, certainly a risk to markets (it happened in 1994, and we all remember the “taper tantrum” of 2013). Conversely, the Fed could wait too long, inadvertently allowing inflation to surge. We do not see either of these scenarios as significant risks to markets in the coming months, though they could become worrisome down the road. Finally, at this point the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, another widespread concern, is not particularly worrisome given the central bank’s ability to hold the bonds until maturity.


The outlook for international investments changed significantly following the United Kingdom’s June 2016 vote to the leave the European Union. This vote not only created near-term market uncertainty, leading to a 6% pullback in the S&P 500, but has also raised legitimate fears about the future of the European Union and the euro, its primary currency. Two immediate consequences of this vote have been a stronger dollar and increased likelihood of further central bank easing (the Bank of England subsequently lowered its target interest rate). This increased uncertainty and higher than anticipated currency volatility have made investments in the developed international markets less attractive, although the recent resilience of the British economy is encouraging as the weaker British pound has helped drive exports. The health of European banks is a related concern, as capital levels are generally not as strong as U.S. peers.


China’s economic growth since the 1990s was driven in large part by capital investments—building roads, factories, even entire cities. In the process, Chinese government entities, banks, and companies built up large debts. As the global economy slowed, Chinese leaders increased infrastructure investments to maintain employment, adding to the problem.

China’s debt problems are not insurmountable for several reasons. First, most of the debt is owed internally, that is, within China. China’s external debt-to-GDP ratio is under 10%, limiting external pressure and potential contagion. Further, in many instances, the Chinese government owes money to itself, because banks and borrowers are often both state-owned enterprises, making the debt levels more manageable.

The other bit of positive news is the steady growth in household banking deposits in China. The Chinese people save a lot, approximately 30% of their income, providing Chinese companies and government entities with the ability to finance their expansion without looking overseas.

The concern, assuming the debt level is manageable, is that fixing the problem could cause civil unrest. Most of the impact of these changes would be felt within China, and we believe the government would intervene in a way that would limit the global impact. Still, the numbers are scary: Chinese entities, its government, companies, and households now owe approximately $30 trillion.


The bears are using other arguments to scare investors to make their case, including elevated stock valuations, high margin debt, wars, terrorism, China’s currency, etc. But stock markets have climbed a wall of worry throughout their history, and we expect them to do so over the rest of 2016 and into 2017. So don’t be scared off of your long-term plan. Happy Halloween everyone!

Please feel free to send me an email or give me a call.  (415) 944-6470

Thank you,

Scott Stanley
Pharos Wealth Management