Will the Reflation Theme Continue in 2020?
- Economic rebound still fragile as hard data continues to be soft.
- Dispersion in performance of credit markets likely to continue.
- Environment for emerging market countries supportive, but headline risks remain.
What’s in store for fixed income markets in 2020? If the market consensus is anything to go by, the reflation theme looks set to continue. This was a key discussion point during our latest policy meetings, where the investment team took a deep‑dive look into the macro environment to assess whether the conditions will continue to benefit risk assets this year—or whether investors should exercise some caution.
Don’t Get Carried Away Yet With the Recovery
The improvement in global growth over the last few months has not gone unnoticed by central banks—several, including the Federal Reserve, have acknowledged the stabilization in economic conditions. This has resulted in gains for risk assets, such as equity and credit markets, while core bonds have struggled.
“Markets are full of optimism over the outlook for growth—a lot has been priced in,” said Arif Husain, portfolio manager and head of International Fixed Income. However, he added: “Although it’s certainly true that the global economy is on firmer footing right now, not all indicators have turned green yet, and hard data continues to be on the soft side.”
(Fig. 1) Is CCC Rated High Yield Sending a Warning?
Option‑adjusted spreads (%) for the CCC rated segment of the U.S. high yield market and the U.S. high yield market as a whole.
As of December 31, 2019
Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield Bond Index.
Source for Bloomberg Barclays index data: Bloomberg Index Services Ltd. Copyright© 2020. Bloomberg Index Services Ltd. Used with permission.
The investment team noted that, although the worst may be over, the recovery remains tentative. In the eurozone, for example, growth remains tepid across most countries. “It may feel like a victory to see European PMIs rise again, but it’s only been a modest improvement so far, which means that investors probably shouldn’t get ahead of themselves,” said Mr. Husain.
The geopolitical environment also poses risks. Even though the environment has improved over the past few months, supporting investors’ risk appetite, circumstances can change quickly. “There are lots of events in 2020 that could cause the geopolitical pendulum to shift in the opposite direction,” Mr. Husain said. He cited the recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East, the implementation of Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, and ongoing U.S. tariff negotiations not only with China, but also potentially with Europe.
Further Dispersion in Performance of Credit Markets Likely
Turning attention to credit markets, there have been some mixed signals recently. For example, while corporate bonds performed well in the second half of last year, the cost of short‑term insurance on U.S. investment‑grade companies started to rise. Furthermore, while high yield spreads have tightened overall, spreads on energy companies and the riskier C rated segment of the market have significantly lagged the tightening of non‑energy companies and higher‑rated bonds in the BB and B categories. “The trend of bifurcation in high yield could continue in 2020,” Mr. Husain said. “Investors are being more selective in the way they want to take risk at this late stage of the cycle.”
In emerging markets, the environment is broadly supportive, although there are a number of idiosyncratic challenges that both local currency and hard currency bonds could face this year. Mr. Husain said: “There is a lot of uncertainty out there—and potential for significant headline risks in 2020.”
Within frontier emerging markets, the situation is even more critical because access to liquidity can often be strained, resulting in rapid, large price dislocations when there’s a risk event. Last year, the most extreme example of this was Lebanon, where protests triggered a significant sell‑off in domestic government bonds. “It will be important for countries like Sri Lanka, Zambia, and Ecuador to avoid a similar negative spiral in 2020,” Mr. Husain said.
Solid Growth Needed for Risk Rally to Continue
For the rally in risk assets to continue, the reflationary scenario needs to turn into a solid growth story. But it is clear that there are lots of hurdles to overcome before that can play out. Against this backdrop, investors should take a cautious approach when considering adding risk into portfolios so late in the economic cycle. “The ability to dial risk up and down at different times during the year will be key in making 2020 a successful year for fixed income investing,” said Mr. Husain.
This material is being furnished for general informational and/or marketing purposes only. The material does not constitute or undertake to give advice of any nature, including fiduciary investment advice, nor is it intended to serve as the primary basis for an investment decision. Prospective investors are recommended to seek independent legal, financial and tax advice before making any investment decision. T. Rowe Price group of companies including T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and/or its affiliates receive revenue from T. Rowe Price investment products and services. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. The value of an investment and any income from it can go down as well as up. Investors may get back less than the amount invested.
The material does not constitute a distribution, an offer, an invitation, a personal or general recommendation or solicitation to sell or buy any securities in any jurisdiction or to conduct any particular investment activity. The material has not been reviewed by any regulatory authority in any jurisdiction.
Information and opinions presented have been obtained or derived from sources believed to be reliable and current; however, we cannot guarantee the sources' accuracy or completeness. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. The views contained herein are as of the date noted on the material and are subject to change without notice; these views may differ from those of other T. Rowe Price group companies and/or associates. Under no circumstances should the material, in whole or in part, be copied or redistributed without consent from T. Rowe Price.
The material is not intended for use by persons in jurisdictions which prohibit or restrict the distribution of the material and in certain countries the material is provided upon specific request.
It is not intended for distribution to retail investors in any jurisdiction.