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Investment Viewpoint

Fourth Quarter 2017

Asset Allocation Committee Viewpoints

Explore the themes and thinking behind our decisions.

THEMES
Global
  • Global growth continues to improve andbroaden across developed and emerging markets
  • Developed markets growth supported by stable, albeit modest, growth in the U.S. while developed markets outside the U.S. are showing continued signs of sustained strength, including Japan and Europe, which are more exposed to the improvement in global trade
  • Emerging markets have been supported by a return to positive growth by the large commodity-related economies of Brazil and Russia and stabilization of growth in China
  • Global monetary policies have begun to diverge further with the U.S. Fed nearing two years in advancing with interest rate normalization and now beginning to reduce their balance sheet. Outside the U.S., the European Central Bank (ECB) continues to look for confirmation of sustained inflation before reducing its quantitative easing measures while the Bank of Japan (BoJ) remains fully committed to current policies
  • Political divisiveness in the U.S. continues to weigh on progress toward policy reforms, including taxes, health care and fiscal stimulus, while the political environment in Europe has become more stable following the French election in May and recent reelection of Chancellor Merkel in Germany, although the election saw a notable gain for the anti-EU party
  • Global equity markets remain resilient despite increased geopolitical tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Global equity markets have been supported by further signs of improving global growth and stronger earnings, discounting concerns that ultra-easy global monetary policy is abating
  • Global bond yields rise from lowest levels of the year in reaction to signs of bipartisan compromise in the U.S., the unveiling of the Trump administration’s tax policies as well as more hawkish tone from the U.S. Fed on their commitment to raising interest rates
  • Key risks to global markets include the negative impacts from monetary policy missteps, political discord within the U.S., Europe and the U.K., protectionist trade policies, the sustainability of energy prices and instability in the Middle East and Korean Peninsula
 

U.S.

  • U.S. economic growth revised higher to a 3.1% annualized rate in the 2nd quarter of 2017 supported by stronger than previously reported inventory building and non-residential construction spending, resulting in an annualized growth rate of 2.1% for the first half of the year. The impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma are likely to weigh on 3rd quarter growth; however, spending on rebuilding may begin supporting growth by the 4th quarter
  • Bipartisan compromise on delaying the debt ceiling vote to December has raised speculation that the Administration is more willing to compromise to advance their agenda, including recently announced tax policy
  • Inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), turns higher on rising gasoline prices and rents after having been in steady decline since peaking at 2.7% in February
  • Markets anticipate the U.S. Fed will raise rates again in December, marking the fourth increase over a 12 month period, amidst conflicting data as inflation remains low despite still rising employment
  • The U.S. Fed will also begin drawing down their balance sheet starting in October, with sales of $6 billion in U.S. Treasury and $4 billion in mortgage-backed securities, increasing every three months until it reaches $30 billion and $20 billion per month, respectively. They have not committed to a timeframe for ending the sales or a terminal value for the balance sheet
  • While corporate leverage has increased, balance sheets remain broadly healthy and cash flows still provide the corporate sector flexibility for increased capital spending, M&A activity and to return capital to shareholders
  • Returning capital to shareholders in the form of dividend increases and buybacks has slowed over recent quarters, but may see a pickup from the banking sector after receiving regulatory approval to distribute capital to shareholders following relief from restrictions resulting from the financial crises. Tax repatriation could also provide a catalyst if it were included in any tax policy changes
  • After reporting strong, low-double digit profit growth in the 2nd quarter of 2017, U.S. companies are expected to see more modest growth in the 3rd quarter beforere bounding in the 4th quarter of this year with expectations of low-double digit growth returning

Europe

  • European growth continues to improve, supported by increasing business investment, stronger loan growth, declining unemployment and stronger global trade, although the recent strength in the euro could begin to weigh on exporters
  • Economic growth in the 2nd quarter of 2017 expanded by a 0.6% quarterly rate (+2.3% year-over-year), with growth supported by stronger consumer spending and exports
  • In September, ECB President Draghi acknowledged progress on economic growth and voiced cautious optimism on inflation, noting the need to be patient before moving too quickly on unwinding current policies. The ECB removed its bias toward easy policy in June, acknowledging improving economic growth and downplaying concerns about still low inflation at that time
  • The significant strength in the euro this year could begin to impact policy as import inflation declines and the stronger currency weighs on the attractiveness of European export prices
  • While political risks across Europe have abated since the mid-year election in France and recent reelection of Chancellor Merkel in Germany, anti-EU sentiment continues to gain influence, the independence vote by Catalonia poses a major risk to Spain and the impacts of Brexit on the U.K. remain uncertain

Japan

  • Japanese economic growth expanded for a sixth consecutive quarter - the longest streak in more than a decade - growing by a 0.6% quarterly rate (+2.5% annualized) in the 2nd quarter of 2017 supported by stronger domestic consumption and business spending
  • While the recent growth streak may provide evidence that “Abenomics” is finally working after more than four years, tepid wage growth and low inflation suggests success remains elusive. The improving growth trend also faces headwinds when the temporary boost from pre-Olympic spending rolls off and the oft-delayed increase in the consumption tax comes in 2019
  • Prime Minister Abe announces plans for a snap election this October to consolidate power in support of his stance against North Korea and plans to reform social security, which included directing the upcoming 2019 consumption tax revenues to support child care, rather than pay down debt
  • Bank of Japan keeps policy unchanged in September after having to again lower its inflation target for 2017 in July. The BoJ has pledged to keep policies in place as inflation remains well below their 2% target, including actively employing quantitative measures to target a 0% yield on the 10 year JGB
  • Despite Japan’s mixed progress economically, Japanese companies are showing positive trends toward improving corporate governance and shareholder value, including returning capital to shareholders, emphasis on profitability measures and increasing the presence of independent directors. Additionally, further improvement in global growth should be supportive for Japanese exporters

Emerging Markets

  • Broad emerging market growth has been supported by the large commodity-related economies of Russia and Brazil returning to positive growth and a stabilization of growth in China. The strengthening in emerging markets growth seen this year has helped stabilize the multi-year decline in the relative growth advantage versus developed markets
  • Emerging markets have broadly seen their currencies strengthen since the start of the year helping to keep inflation low, which has provided flexibility for some central banks to provide policy support. India’s central bank lowered rates in early August to stimulate growth as inflation has fallen to a five-year low
  • Although concerns over protectionist trade policies, higher developed market interest rates and stronger U.S. dollar have abated recently, they remain potential risks
  • Chinese growth showed signs of stabilization, expanding by a 6.9% annualized rate for a second consecutive quarter in the 2nd quarter of 2017, despite expectations that a pullback in stimulus measure would weigh on growth. Growth in the quarter was supported bystronger consumption, investment and manufacturing spending
  • Markets will be looking for guidance from China’s central government on its expectations for economic growth and reform policies for dealing with excessive debt, non-bank lending (i.e. “shadowbanking”), and industrial overcapacity when the National People’s Congress 19th meeting occurs this October

ASSET ALLOCATION

Favor Bonds Over Stocks

We are underweight to stocks relative to bonds as equity valuations appear extended against a backdrop of continued modest economic growth and uncertainty surrounding the likelihood and magnitude of pro-growth policies providing a catalyst for further upside. We continue to expect only modest returns from bonds as yields offer little room for upside. While remaining broadly accommodative, global monetary authorities are expected to begin to reign in ultra-loose accommodation, which could put upward pressure on yields. However, we expect any rise in U.S. interest rates to be limited as economic growth remains subdued and external demand for U.S. bonds persists, given U.S. yields are among the highest across developed markets.

We expect the broadening of global growth seen since the end of last year to continue over the next several quarters, albeit at still modest levels, as improving global trade provides a boost for more export-oriented economies. U.S. economic activity could benefit from lower taxes, fiscal spending and deregulation; however, the likelihood and scale of each remain uncertain. Japanese growth, although still tepid, should see support from improving global trade and still very accommodative monetary policies. European growth continues to improve amidst less political uncertainty and stronger global trade. Broad emerging markets growth continues showing signs of improvement, as concerns over lower energy prices have faded and risks of a hard landing in China appear less likely as growth has stabilized. U.S. corporate earnings are expected to grow by a more modest low-single digitrate in the 3rd quarter of 2017. However, they are expected to reaccelerate in the 4th quarter to the low-double digits supported by a positive contribution from the energy sector and broader strength in revenues. While corporate leverage has increased, corporate credit fundamentals remain broadly supportive.

EQUITIES

Favor International Over U.S.

We increased our overweight to international stocks relative to U.S. stocks based on improving economic fundamentals, diminished political risk and upside to corporate earnings outside the U.S., notably within the Eurozone. Major international developed market countries are in earlier stages of the economic cycle than the U.S. and remain supported by aggressive quantitative easing measures and relatively more attractive valuations, although disparate across countries and sectors. Currencies have been a significant contributor to U.S. based investor returns as the euro and yen have appreciated against the U.S. dollar, which may be less supportive going forward.

Europe is supported by diminished political uncertainty following President Macron’s and Chancellor Merkel’s victories, strengthening economic and earnings growth and still supportive monetary policies. Japanese equity valuations are the most attractive amongst developed markets and economic growth is showing signs of stabilization, albeit at low levels and with stubbornly low inflation. Japanese corporations are also advancing shareholder friendly policies, including increasing dividends and focusing on improving profitability and corporate governance.

Emerging markets economic growth continues to improve along with corporate earnings and, while still vulnerable to commodity prices, showed resilience to the latest decline in energy prices.

Neutral Between Developed and Emerging Markets

We moved from an underweight position to neutral emerging markets stocks relative to developed market stocks. Economic and earnings growth trends amongst emerging markets have improved and near-term risk of restrictive trade policies being implemented has diminished, such as the Border Adjustment Tax originally suggested by the Trump Administration. While emerging markets valuations are modestly above their historical averages, they are at more reasonable levels as compared to those of most developed markets. Low inflation across these economies has also contributed to higher real yields and provides flexibility for their central banks to employ growth-oriented policies.

While emerging markets remain at risk from a stronger U.S. dollar and higher interest rates, expectations for the pace of further Fed tightening are less pronounced following a series of low U.S. inflation reports, making these elements less of a headwind. Similarly, while protectionist trade policies remain a risk, the impact is likely to be more targeted by countries and industry than broad brush measures such as the Border Adjustment Tax.

Favor Global Equity Over Real Assets

We increased our underweight to real assets equities as we remain cautious on the prospects for energy and commodity prices, given continued concerns over supply and demand imbalances. Despite OPEC’s (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) continued efforts to limit production, oil prices have been challenged by additional supply as U.S. producers respond to even modest price increases with increased production. U.S. shale producers have become a larger contributor to global oil supply and, with their increased efficiency, can now operate profitably at lower price levels. While lower energy prices weigh on energy producing companies, other segments of the commodity complex may benefit from lower input and production costs.

While the potential for U.S. infrastructure spending increased post-election, the impact on industrial-related commodities remains uncertain as to the probability, timing and scope of the spending. Global demand for industrial metals is expected to remain subdued as China continues on a slower growth path.

Fundamentals for developed market REITs remain broadly positive, supported by modestly improving economic environments and limited supply outside the U.S. U.S. REITs seeing modest slowdown in rental income growth as the economy moves laterin the cycle. While REITs remain sensitive to rising interest rates, they should be supported near-term if U.S. Fed interest rate policy normalization proceeds at its current modest pace.

Inflation expectations rise from low levels seen over the summer on a bounce in inflation data, higher energy prices and expectations for tax policy.

Favor Small Cap Over Large-Cap

We increased our overweight to U.S. small capstocks relative to large-caps. Following a period of underperformance, relative valuations have moved in-line with history, with some measures such as free cash flow yields suggesting a more constructive environment for small caps. Small-cap stocks have lagged large-caps since the start of this year as expectations for pro-growth policies have faded, including lower corporate taxes. The potential for lower personal and corporate taxes could provide catalysts for small-caps to outperform given their higher sensitivity to the domestic economy and higher marginal tax rates. While large caps have outperformed, they have been narrowly led by a few technology and consumer-related companies.

We are modestly overweight small-cap stocks outside the U.S. as they provide select opportunities within domestic economies that are in earlier stages of recovery than the U.S. Economic growth in Europe is improving, borrowing costs are low, credit is expanding and employment is rising, which should be supportive for domestically-oriented, smaller companies. Monetary policy also remains a substantial force to support growth in Europe and Japan in contrast to the U.S. where the Fed has been tightening policy.

Favor U.S. Growth over U.S. Value

We reduced our overweight to growth stocks relative to value stocks following a period of significant outperformance. While relative valuations continue to favor growth stocks, they have become less pronounced following a period of recent outperformance, which has been led by a narrow group of technology and consumer-related companies.

While increased spending, tax cuts and deregulation should provide support for cyclical sectors, like financials and energy, the scope and prospects for these measures receiving congressional approval remain uncertain. Value stocks may find support from the financials sector following the announcement of positive results from the banking sector stress tests, which will allow banks to increase buybacks and dividends, although the sector remains dependent on the direction and term structure of U.S. yields.

Favor International Value Over International Growth

We increased our overweight to international value stocks relative to growth stocks based upon more attractive valuations and potential for improving economic growth, lessened political risk and higher interest rates to provide support for more cyclical sector, including European banks.

FIXED INCOME

Favor U.S. Investment Grade Over High Yield

We moved to an underweight to high yield bonds relative to U.S. investment grade bonds as valuations are trending above historical averages following a period of strong high yield sector performance. While high yield bonds continue to have a yield advantage over investment grade bonds, current valuations provide less downside protection to a potential rise in market-event risk or sector specific risk, such as energy.

Neutral Between Emerging Markets and U.S. Investment Grade

We are neutral emerging markets bonds relative to U.S. investment grade bonds as valuations for emerging markets bonds have become less compelling following this year’s strong performance.

Emerging market economies are broadly in better fiscal positions than they were during the taper-tantrum sell-off in 2013 and any increase in developed market fiscal spending could be supportive for emerging markets exports. Considerable disparity exists amongst emerging markets countries in their fiscal positions, exposure to commodity prices, political stability and progress toward reforms. The flexibility for emerging markets countries to use fiscal and monetary policy to offset weak growth or defend their currencies varies.

Favor U.S. Investment Grade over Nondollar

We remain underweight to nondollar bonds relative to U.S. investment grade bonds as low bond yields and extended duration profiles outside the U.S. continue to offer an unattractive risk-to-return trade-off.

The U.S. dollar may find support as the Fed advances on its path to tighter policy and begins to wind down its balance sheet later this year ahead of other central banks. The euro appears fairly valued after a significant rally this year in response to improving domestic growth and rising expectations for the ECB to announce tapering of bond purchases.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

This report represents the views of the T. Rowe Price Asset Allocation Committee only and are subject to change without notice; these views may not reflect the opinion of all T. Rowe Price portfolio managers. This material is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be investment advice or a recommendation to take any particular investment action. The views contained herein are as of September 30, 2017 and may have changed since that time. There are inherent risks associated with investing in the stock market, including possible loss of principal, and investors must be willing to accept them. The stocks of larger companies generally have lower risk and potential return than the stocks of smaller companies. Since small companies often have limited product lines, markets, or financial resources, investing in them involves more risk than investments primarily in large, established companies. The value approach carries the risk that a stock judged to be undervalued is actually appropriately priced. International investing involves unique risks, including currency fluctuation. Bond yields and prices will vary with interest rate changes. Investments in emerging markets are subject to abrupt and severe price declines, and should be regarded as speculative. High yield, lower-rated bonds generally involve greater risk to principal than investments in higher-rated securities.

T. Rowe Price Investment Services, Inc.

201710-273308

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