February 25, 2018, 10:01 am
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Goldilocks markets show 2017 was no year to be a bear

By Jamie McGeever

LONDON- A year ago, the consensus view of the world economy and markets coming into 2017 was for a Goldilocks mix of strong growth, decent corporate profits, low volatility, a gradual drift higher in bond yields, and a continued “melt up” in stocks.

If anything, 2017 has proved even more resilient than many had hoped for. World stocks rose 20 percent, global growth was its strongest since 2010, market volatility fell to its lowest on record and “junk” bond yields hit all-time lows.

It didn’t pay to be a contrarian in 2017.

Just ask Scottish hedge fund manager Hugh Hendry, who closed his fund Eclectica Asset Management after losing 9.4 percent in the first eight months of 2017 and 4 percent loss in 2016. He had sold Italian government bonds as part of a wider bet on the break-up of the European Union.

Equity hedge funds with a short-selling bias have been the worst-performing hedge funds this year, down 9.22 percent January-October, according to data from industry tracker Hedge Fund Research. The wider equity hedge fund total index is up around 11 percent and the S&P 500 is up 18 percent.

At the start of the year, “secular stagnation”, “political risk” and “weak recovery” were the Cassandras’ popular tropes, but they quietly faded from the wider market discourse as, frankly, global growth and markets boomed.

Continued central bank largesse and a surprisingly rosy economic backdrop, particularly in Europe, anchored market volatility, which provided the springboard for the global and cross-asset rally.

A year ago, Reuters outlined some of the most contrarian market predictions for the year ahead, covering specific trades and broader political and economic risks that could throw markets a curve ball.

Unsurprisingly, most of them failed to materialize. But a few did come up trumps.

One was the UBS call for the euro to rise. At the time, the politics didn’t auger well - Europe’s electoral calendar was loaded, populism was on the rise and there was widespread concern that anti-euro parties such as France’s Front National would gain power.

The euro opened the year only a few cents above parity with the dollar and the consensus was that it would struggle to rebound much, if at all.

Swiss bank UBS predicted a rise to $1.20, a level that was breached in August. Right now, the euro is up 13 percent on the dollar this year, well on course for its best year since 2003.

Another was HSBC rate strategist Steven Major’s prediction that 10-year US bond yields would rise to 2.5 percent in the first quarter, then fall as low as 1.35 percent. Well, sort of.

The yield rose to what turned out to be a high for the year of 2.6 percent in March then came close to breaking below 2 percent in September.

The following chart from Deutsche Bank’s Torsten Slok shows how consistently wrong analysts have got their US bond yield forecasts down the years. Major’s 1.35 percent call (which would have been a new low) proved a stretch, but he got closer than most.

Tighter Fed policy was expected to deliver a stronger dollar and higher US bond yields, an unpalatable cocktail for emerging markets. Unsurprisingly, most analysts were bearish on emerging markets at the start of the year.

That’s not how it played out. With the dollar on track for its worst year since 2003 and the US yield curve its flattest in a decade, emerging markets have boomed. - Reuters
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