Demand For Safe Assets Surged Last Week

The safe-haven trade dominated last week’s market activity. Investment-grade bonds in foreign and US markets delivered the only gains for the five trading days through Dec. 11, based on a set of ETFs representing the major asset classes. Leading the way: foreign corporate bonds, which gained 1.2% last week via the PowerShares International Corp Bond ETF (PICB).

The overwhelming trend, however, was negative for most markets. The big loser last week: emerging market equities, which tumbled a hefty 7.0% for five days through Dec. 11 (Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO).


Expectations that the Federal Reserve may start to raise interest rates this week are weighing on emerging markets. As the Financial Times notes: “Much of the concern centers on China. Chinese officials and independent economists say a rise in US rates would probably bolster the dollar against the renminbi, leading to capital outflows from China and sucking EM currencies into new phase of turbulence.”

Meanwhile, the longer-term trend for markets generally is looking weak across the board. Save for investment-grade US bonds and a fractional gain for US equities, all the major asset classes via ETF proxies are posting losses for the trailing one-year period through Dec. 11. The suffering, however, currently comes in an assortment of negative comparisons.


The broadly defined commodities group remains the red-ink leader. The iPath Bloomberg Commodity ETN (DJP) has fallen by a third for the 12 months as of Friday. The latest bearish signal for the battered commodity arena: the US crude oil benchmark—West Texas Intermediate—fell below $38 a barrel last week for the first time since Dec. 2008.

Key factors driving the latest downturn in oil: Opec’s decision to focus on holding onto market share rather than cutting production and the warm spell in the northeastern US, which has trimmed demand for heating.

“The fact that you can almost go swimming in New York City right now is horrible,” says Jay Hatfield, portfolio manager of the InfraCap Active MLP exchange-traded fund. “Absolutely horrible [for heating oil demand]. To me, that’s the straw that is breaking the camel’s back. We’re ground zero for fuel oil demand.”

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