Surveying the Investing Landscape in 2020 | Lord Abbett
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Market View

Our special three-part series ends with our experts’ opinions on what may be the most important trends in equity, fixed income, and currency markets in the New Year.

 

In Brief

  • After surveying the global and U.S. economic outlooks for 2020, our panel of investment leaders turned their attention to major asset classes.
  • In the U.S. equity market, our director of innovation investing strategies expects the rapid pace of innovation to provide select opportunities in the consumer, health care, and technology sectors.
  • In U.S. fixed income, our structured product specialist highlighted a multi-sector approach, including asset-backed securities and commercial mortgage-backed securities.   
  • Our director of U.S. municipal bonds identified what he considered attractive segments of the municipal yield curve, based on investor time horizons and risk preferences.
  • Finally, our experts discussed how global economic and currency developments could influence investment in emerging markets.

 

We recently gathered six Lord Abbett investment leaders for a wide-ranging discussion of the current market and economic environment and to elicit their views on key investment themes for 2020. 

 

Watch the replay of our January 8, 2020 webinar to hear our investment leaders discuss these issues!

 

In this third and final installment of a special three-part Market View, our experts discuss the outlook for key asset classes in the coming year.

Our panel featured Lord Abbett Partners Thomas O’Halloran, Portfolio Manager for innovation growth  strategies; Giulio Martini, Director of Strategic Asset Allocation; Daniel Solender, Director of U.S. Municipal Bonds; Leah Traub, a currency expert and Portfolio Manager for Fixed Income; and Kewjin Yuoh, Portfolio Manager for Fixed Income.  Tim Paulson, Investment Strategist, moderated the discussion.

The roundtable participants previously explored the global macroeconomic environment and developments to watch in the U.S. economy in 2020. Now, the talk turned to specific asset classes.

U.S. Equities
Paulson noted that after 2018 ended with a “risk off” tone in the markets, “2019 surprised an awful lot of investors,” with a sharp move higher in U.S. equities prompted by easier policy from the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed).  O’Halloran, Lord Abbett’s director of innovation investment strategies, believes the markets can continue along that path, declaring: “I'm bullish on equities going into 2020.”

One reason for that view, he said, is that the ongoing technology revolution “is working its magic.” He identified three stock-market sectors that he believes are poised to benefit:

  • Consumer goods and services: O’Halloran noted a “great push to spending” from e-commerce, social networks, and “the rising value of services and experiences.” He cited the example of media streaming services, and the potential opportunities in both subscription fees and advertising sales for these rapidly growing platforms.
  • Health care: Today’s biotech drugs “are much better than the ones [developed] 20 years ago,” according to O’Halloran. The devices for treating conditions like diabetes are also “much better,” he added, while tech-driven diagnosis of disease “is vastly enhanced.”
  • Technology: In the tech sector, cloud computing is still growing 20% a year, said O’Halloran, citing data from IT services provider IDC (see Chart 1). He expects that 5G networks “will be growing faster than that,” and artificial intelligence technologies and applications will advance at an even more rapid pace.

 

Chart 1. Spending on Cloud Computing Has Soared
Worldwide spending on public cloud computing, 2015-2020 (estimates for 2019 and 2020; billion US$)

Source: IDC. Data as of November 1, 2019.

 

“There are a tremendous amount of good things happening with the tech revolution, which is providing a tailwind for consumer spending—and, at the same time, suppressing the rate of inflation,” O’Halloran said. “So the outlook for innovation has never been better,” he added, with low inflation and interest rates in the United States presenting “an ideal market opportunity,” in his view, providing “abundant” financing for new technologies so “they can realize their potential.”

“So I'm very optimistic,” he concluded. He expects that “we will, of course, have the normal volatility” in 2020, and even amid what he sees as a positive environment, “there are a lot of things to worry about.” Still, he reiterated his earlier assertion: “On balance, I think the outlook for innovation is really terrific.”

U.S. Fixed Income
The focus shifted to fixed income. Yuoh noted that spreads on investment-grade debt and upper-tier high-yield securities “are very similar to each other” in the United States and Europe. He was struck by that development, given that the European Central Bank has launched into a $20 billion a month bond-purchase program because of weaker economic fundamentals, while the backdrop for the U.S. economy remains “relatively robust” because of solid consumer spending.

“So in that light you would suggest that U.S. fundamentals make more sense,“ he said. Still, Yuoh noted that valuations in U.S. fixed income markets are “already priced for a kind of domestic nirvana.”  Given this state of affairs, he asked, “within investment grade corporate credit, high-yield corporate credit, are there better opportunities within specific sectors?”

Yuoh suggested one possible path: “Taking a multi-sector approach and thinking about adding value” through allocation to sectors with a strong risk-adjusted return profile and selecting securities which offer yield and return advantages because of complexity and a need for deep fundamental research. He cited securitized products such as asset-backed securities and commercial mortgage-backed securities where “you can pick up yield and improve in [credit] quality” from lower-rated vehicles.

“We also think that in terms of the leveraged credit market, bank loans represent an opportunity because they have significantly underperformed relative to high yield in 2019, and are thus poised for more favorable valuations in the New Year.” He added that in his view, “CLOs [collateralized loan obligations], being related to bank loans, represent a similar opportunity.”

Yuoh wondered, however, that given the 2020 U.S. presidential election and other potential geopolitical developments in the coming year, if investors are “not pricing in event risk, for the unknown and the unexpected right now. That uncertainty could be a potential headwind to valuations, at least in the coming year.”

Yuoh summed up his investment team’s view: “We're very much focused on being long risk,” because there are asset classes within various sectors that still present attractive valuation opportunities.

U.S. Municipal Bonds
Turning to U.S. tax-free bonds, Solender emphasized one feature of the market that has stood in contrast to the taxable side of fixed income. “In the summer of 2018, when the U.S. Treasury curve was inverting, we had to spend a tremendous amount of time educating people that [the municipal yield curve] was not inverting.” He noted that the ‘AAA’-rated muni bond curve was actually steepening in 2018 as Treasuries were inverting.

And while the muni curve has flattened somewhat in 2019, it is still steeper than its taxable counterpart (see Chart 2). Solender posits that muni-bond investors have grown more comfortable with the current interest-rate environment, “but we're still upward-sloping.”
 

Chart 2. Unlike U.S. Treasuries, Municipal Bond Yields Have Kept Their Upward Slope
Yield curves for indicated categories as of December 13, 2019

Source: Bloomberg. Data as of December 13, 2019. The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent the performance of any specific portfolio managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results. Investors may experience different results.
Past performance is not a reliable indicator or guarantee of future results.

 

Why? Solender cited a few potential reasons. First, “when you're buying a longer-term bond, you don't know what's going to happen to tax rates over a long time period, so there's more uncertainty there.” Second, many municipal bond investors are risk-averse, not seeking to maximize returns, resulting in very strong demand for shorter-dated munis, “but not as much supply” of available bonds with those maturities. Conversely, there has been more supply at the longer end of the curve, but often less demand, though he notes that retail investors have grown “very comfortable” with longer-dated bonds this year. Since retail demand for long muni bonds historically has been more in line with the available supply of those securities, “there hasn’t been the same imbalance that there has been with shorter maturity bonds, and that has kept the yield curve steeper.” 

Under those conditions, where might the best opportunities lie among muni-bond maturities? For those investors with a longer time horizon, Solender said that “going out longer, 20-25 years, could be beneficial because the yield curve is relatively steep, if you can take the volatility” that typically comes with those maturities. “If you're a little more risk-averse, then the 10-year range is probably a better place to be” with the potential for a more favorable risk/return trade-off.

Currencies and Emerging Markets
Martini, whose macroeconomic analysis featured in the first and second parts of this series, recommended turning the conversation to opportunities outside the United States. Traub agreed: “I think that going into 2020 we're going to care a lot less about what's going on with major central banks and really focus on the growth in [global economic] indicators. That's definitely an interesting change to what we spent a lot of 2019 talking about.”

“So I think that we might start seeing signs of life as some of these trade tensions start mitigating … I think we're starting to see that a little bit now,” she said. “But we really do need to see the hard data start picking up, especially in Germany.” Given its economy’s heavy dependence on manufacturing, Germany has been “a big casualty” of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, she said. Traub believes “any improvement there will help the euro.”

That led her to consider some key dependencies in global markets: “If the euro does better, a lot of the emerging market (EM) currencies [tend to] do better as well.” And with some potentially positive developments for China arising from an easing of trade tensions, “I would expect that the yuan would be relatively stable, especially if growth picks up a little bit.”

Those two currencies “are key bellwethers for how a lot of the other currency markets do, which, of course leads into EM,” Traub said. Positive economic news for Europe and China “means that growth can maybe start picking up a little bit in the emerging market space as well.”

“I do think that if we can get increasing world trade volumes, [U.S.-China] trade tensions start to ease, and if we do get a little better growth in China next year, then all that should help benefit EM economies, Traub added. “So if they can get a little bit of growth and a little better global economic backdrop”—especially consumer demand for their manufactured goods—“then I am actually much more optimistic on the emerging markets into 2020 overall,” she concluded.

How might that translate into investment opportunity? Drawing on Traub’s analysis, Yuoh noted that Lord Abbett investment teams are “looking at” EM sovereign risk and EM corporate credit risk. “I think that as you have this growth compression between the U.S. and other economies maybe slowing down a little bit, and EM economies picking up, there may be some value” in those asset classes.

Summing Up
Winding up the day’s roundtable, Paulson gave a brief recap. “We’ve heard a lot of different narratives: some potential upside surprise outside the Unites States, and a fairly benign outlook for the U.S. economy, given a steady consumer sector and a strong labor market. Central banks are accommodative and likely to remain so.”

Paulson expressed the view that 2020 should be a “generally positive” year for risk assets, “but we expect some volatility as we go through the rest of the year,” especially with uncertainty related to the U.S. elections and other geopolitical events. “We look forward to having everyone share ideas once again” at Lord Abbett’s 2020 midyear roundtable next summer, he concluded, “as we navigate these uncharted waters.”

 

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