With European utilities shares outperforming of late, investors are revealing a preference for the reduced volatility typical of such sectors in the months ahead.
On Monday, London’s FTSE, Amsterdam’s AEX and the Bel-20 in Brussels were among the few bourses operating in Europe. Their mild-to-moderate declines signify no let-up in gloomy sentiment in the week ahead and beyond. True, liquidity is compromised as year-end approaches, but broad expectations engendered in asset performances over the last few months project a clear expectation about how the new year will begin. A spate of 20%-35% falls from highs to lows by equity indices in pivotal regions has been followed more recently by a 40-basis point tumble of 10-year Treasury yields over just six weeks. In turn, the Treasury yield curve, which global markets have been equally sensitive too of late, remains close to most definitions of flatness. This is convincing investors that a U.S. recession is probable in just over a year, if the economy declines in step with patterns typical with that traditional market signal. Demand for gold, the yen and franc also book ended the mood on Monday. Prices of these safe havens are retaining a bid that re-emerged when the Federal Reserve modified its tightening programme less moderately than expected last week.
In many ways then, forecasting how the first month of 2019 could go for stock markets is relatively straightforward. The depth of pessimism on show is such that it’s unlikely markets can shrug off downward momentum quickly. As the normalised chart below shows, equity markets in most principal economic regions have tumbled.
Source: Refinitiv/City Index
European shares at lowest in two years
The way this has played out in European stock markets, is that investors are now positioned in a direction that anticipates further geopolitical uncertainty. Everything from Washington’s stance on trade through to White House turmoil, and then more specific to the region, months of trepidation over Italy and of course Brexit, have handed the STOXX index its worst performance in two years. One way of illustrating the impact on Europe’s stock market sectors in more detail and of illuminating which sectors could be favoured in the near term is to use a charting system called Relative Rotation Graph (RRG). The system uses proprietary calculations, but its aim and internal validity are easy to recognise and understand. Asset values are first normalised, as in the re-based chart above. Secondly though, they are plotted over four quadrants as shown in the RRG below. It contains all twenty industrial sub-indices compiled by STOXX. By utilising labels ‘Improving’ ‘Leading’, ‘Weakening’ and ‘Lagging’, RRG portrays the performance of assets relative to a benchmark. In this case the benchmark is the broad STOXX Europe 600 gauge. Note that each triangular point on the chart represents a one-week interval and 12 were charted in total. More background on the technique can be found here.
Source: Refinitiv/City Index
Tell-tale demand for utilities and telecoms
It is immediately apparent that the sectors in the ‘leading’ quadrant –Telecoms and Utilities – are the stock market’s traditional ‘value’ or bond-like proxies. They are typically unloved under normal circumstances. Their position at the front of investors’ preferences right now suggests a powerful impulse for safe-havens is well established and should colour the next few months at least. It should also be little surprise that Energy (including crude oil shares) crossed from the ‘Weakening’ segment into ‘Lagging’ last week, confirming that investors are fleeing such industries but also implying that it they are just at the beginning of declines. If the graphic is any indication of what happens next, it’s unlikely to be pointing to a quick rebound for oil shares.
Tech troubles just beginning
Moving deeper into laggard territory, to the right, another standout is the technology sector. Europe’s version of such industries is more heavily weighted towards hardware than software, particularly semiconductors. The main semiconductor stock index, was, like many market indices, hitting new multi-month lows on Monday, as broader pressures damped hopes that one of the sector’s frequent cyclical downturns that began earlier this year could lift soon. Two surprises at first look are the appearance of STOXX’s Banks and Autos & Parts indices in the ‘Improving’ quadrant. Whilst this gels with their relatively protracted time among underperforming segments that may now be attracting interest from investors using rotation strategies, guidance about RRG interpretations is cautionary. The spatial position of assets in the chart is important. Typically, the clearest indications are meant to be provided when prices are as far away from the intersection of the X and Y axis as possible. Since the central area represents performance in line with the benchmark, prices that have not unequivocally pulled away from the centre of the axis portray a more ambiguous picture of investors’ preferences. Hence it may be too early to say whether Europe’s car sector, close to the epicentre of the trade dispute is set for unmistakeable outperformance any time soon. Similar can be said about the banks.