May was the worst month for the major asset classes since the dark days of February 2009. Virtually everything suffered with more than trivial losses. Treasuries were the exception, thanks to the revived rush to safety. In turn, that helped prop up broad investment-grade bond indices. Otherwise, the red ink last month is a sign that the big, easy gains in everything is over.
Stocks around the world led the decline, with foreign developed markets posting the biggest loss among the major asset classes. What changed the sentiment so sharply in May? A renewed fear of deflation was one catalyst. Investors are increasingly focusing on the growing burden of debt that weighs on the global economy, particularly in the mature countries of Europe, Japan and the U.S.
Making matters worse is the perception in some circles that the European Central Bank is still focused exclusively on fighting inflation. One pundit charges that the ECB’s emphasis on inflation is fighting the “wrong war.” As The New York Times reported over the weekend:
The central bank’s doubters grew louder after it made a big show of taking measures to cancel out the supposed inflationary impact of the government bond purchases it began on May 10 to help keep Greece and several other euro zone countries from defaulting on their debts.
“It’s nuts: how can they be concerned about the inflationary impact of this?” said Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y. “If I were the head of the E.C.B., I would be printing money to avert the decline in the money supply.”
It was inevitable that the surge in asset prices across the board would come to an end. That doesn’t mean that expected risk premiums are nil or negative. But the investment landscape ahead is set to become more complicated. In the spring of 2009, as it became clear that the global economy wasn’t going to implode after all, the markets repriced assets accordingly. Markets are no longer trading in anticipation of another Great Depression. But in some respects the world has traded the acute for the chronic, and it’s unclear how that will play out and what it means for pricing.
The simplicity of the past year is giving way to complication and nuance. That creates opportunity for tactical asset allocation maneuvers, but it also comes packaged with higher risk. Phase II of the post-Great Recession period is here.