Maybe the US share market isn’t as expensive as you think

Maybe the US share market isn’t as expensive as you think

The US share market has just hit a new all-time high and its returns have smashed the rest of the world for the past 15 years. But US shares also trade on valuation multiples that are much higher than the rest of the world, leaving investors who already own US companies wondering if they should lighten off, and those who don’t wondering if they should wait for prices to fall before buying in. But maybe the US market isn’t as outrageously expensive as most commentators would have us think.

America: home of the best companies, land of innovation

America is uniquely positioned, making it very difficult to bet against in the long run. Goldman Sachs points out that not only is it the biggest economy in the world, accounting for 26 per cent of global GDP, it is bestowed with an abundance of natural resources. It has the most arable land of any country and is now the world’s largest exporter of agricultural commodities, and, at 20 million barrels per day, it is also the world’s biggest oil and gas producer and exporter, with daylight to Saudi Arabia at number two with 12 million.

It also has the most favourable demographics of any developed country, the most productive labour force, and boasts the deepest capital markets, more than seven times the next biggest.

Since the late nineteenth century, the US has been at the forefront of technical innovation, boosted by some of the best universities in the world. In 2022, it was the global leader in R&D, spending US$879 billion, more than the next five countries combined.

And with exports accounting for only 12 per cent of GDP, the US economy is more resilient than most large economies because it’s less affected by cyclical downturns in its trading partners. By comparison, exports are 21 per cent of China’s GDP, 26 per cent of Australia’s and 51 per cent of Germany’s.

This is not to say the US doesn’t have its problems: it practices a brutal form of capitalism that results in a more limited social safety net, its health outcomes are an embarrassment, and its sclerotic, highly partisan political system is heavily influenced by wealthy lobby groups. Ironically, all of those problems are the result of prioritising making money.

World beating returns

It’s no coincidence that most of the best companies in the past 100 years came out of the US, culminating in today’s mega cap tech monsters.

If a smart investor had sunk $100,000 into the US’s S&P 500 index at the trough of the GFC in March 2009, and reinvested the dividends, it would have grown to be worth $946,000 by the end of 2023. The same investment in the ASX 200 would have been worth $524,000, even after including franking credits. That’s a difference of more than 80 per cent.

However, that incredible run has left the US share market looking expensive compared to the rest of the world. Using the most common valuation measure for shares, the price to earnings (PE) ratio, the S&P 500 trades at 19.5x 2024 forecast earnings, compared to Australia’s 16.4x, Europe’s 12.8x and the emerging markets’ 11.9x – see chart 1.

Chart showing bond yields trended down, resulting in a 40-year bull market, which went into reverse in mid-2020

Understandably, on that basis, almost every analyst and strategist recommends an underweight position in US shares.

However, a simple comparison of PE ratios fails to account for the huge differences in the structure of the US market compared to others. For example, the tech sector has a 29 per cent weighting in the S&P 500, and is on a forward PE ratio of 31x, which looks very pricey, but the index has had compounded annual returns of more than 21 per cent for the past 10 years. The two biggest companies, Apple and Microsoft, have both returned 26 per cent for those 10 years, and the third biggest, Nvidia, an eye popping 63 per cent per year. It’s also worth noting that the technology index doesn’t include other mega caps such as Google, Amazon, Netflix or Meta.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher 
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

By contrast, the biggest sector in the ASX 200 is the financials, at 27 per cent of the index. Its 10-year return has been 8 per cent per year, and it’s on a forward PE of 15x. So that’s 60 per cent lower returns but only a 50 per cent lower PE. If the Australian index had the same sector weightings as the S&P 500, its PE ratio would almost double.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher 
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

J.P. Morgan also argues that because free cash flow margins are 30 per cent higher than they were only 10 years ago, a higher PE is justified, and fund manager, GMO, points out that since 1997, US profits, as measured by the average return on sales, have increased by 40 per cent.

It’s very difficult to mount a case that US shares are cheap, but it helps to have context around why they’ve enjoyed an outstanding 10 years of returns. There’s no way of telling if those returns will continue to be anywhere near as high over the next 10 years, but it’s hard to argue against American exceptionalism when it comes to making a buck.

2024: What just happened and what lies ahead

2024: What just happened and what lies ahead

2023 – the scorecard

2023 started off with all kinds of dire forecasts, there had never been such an overwhelming consensus that the US economy would slump into recession and take share markets with it. But not only did the economy power through, so did share markets, and despite a choppy start to the year, they finished with a powerful rally that saw respectable returns across the board – see chart 1.

As well as a strong performance out of the US, Japan had a storming year on the back of solid earnings growth, finishing at the highest since its legendary boom of the 1980s, and Germany, where the economy continues to flirt with recession, is also trading at all-time highs, as is India.

Chart showing bond yields trended down, resulting in a 40-year bull market, which went into reverse in mid-2020

The story of last year was pretty much the mirror image of the previous year: 2022 saw markets fall because of negative sentiment, known as “PE compression”, whereas 2023 was largely about PE expansion, or positive sentiment. What that means is that theoretically share prices should go up (or down) by the same amount as earnings growth + dividends, and anything more or less than that is attributable to sentiment, that is, whether investors are feeling bullish or bearish, which is measured by changes in the price to earnings (PE) ratio that people are willing to pay. The grey bars in chart 2 show just how much of a contribution that positive change in sentiment added to returns in 2023.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

It was all about inflation

The positive change in sentiment was all driven by changes in the outlook for inflation and interest rates, or more specifically, the market’s perception of whether central banks have finished increasing rates and, if so, when will they start cutting them?

Inflation rates across the world have indeed fallen considerably, but how much of that is attributable to central banks increasing interest rates is unclear. It’s pretty conspicuous that, despite the variability in when and how different central banks responded, the cycle we’ve just experienced has played out similarly across the developed world: inflation rates started rising sharply in 2020, peaked for most countries around the middle of 2022, and have been falling at a pretty similar pace since – see chart 3.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

There’s a school of thought that disruptions to the supply chain were a significant contributor to inflationary pressures. The New York Federal Reserve Bank compiles an index that tracks pressure across global supply chains, see chart 4, and it traces a similar path to the inflation chart above. For a little context, the COVID-induced bottlenecks in the supply chain saw the index peak at almost 4.5 standard deviations above the average, which puts it so far out of the norm that the theoretical likelihood of it happening is close to zero. That kind of event is inevitably going to have serious consequences.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

Likewise, raising interest rates aims to control inflation by reducing demand, but in the US, demand has remained very strong, indeed, GDP growth was 5.1% in the September quarter! So with demand going up, it’s hard to argue inflation coming down is because of higher interest rates.

Critically, in its last meeting for 2023, the US Federal Reserve acknowledged they think rates have peaked and the next move will be down. That lit a fire under financial markets, with both share and bond prices jumping, and kicking off furious speculation as to when the first cuts will come and how deep they’ll be.

Here in Australia, speculation is rife as to whether the Reserve Bank has also finished with rate rises, with some economists forecasting rate cuts before the end of 2024.

Lessons from 2023

As always, there are lessons to be learned (and perhaps relearned) from what happened in financial markets last year.

Macroeconomic forecasting is really hard (if not useless): at the end of 2022, there had never been such an overwhelming consensus among economic forecasters, and central bankers, that economies across the developed world were headed for recession. Forecasts for inflation were uniformly high, and for GDP growth, uniformly low. They weren’t even close.

There were dark mutterings from economists and central bankers reaching for the orthodox textbooks that unemployment rates were way too low for inflation to fall, and our new RBA Governor, Michelle Bullock, suggested Australia would need a jobless rate of 4.5% to relieve inflationary pressures, or a lazy 140,000 workers losing their job. Yet inflation rates have come down and unemployment rates remain at multi-decade lows.

The takeaway: the US Fed has hundreds of PhD economists and still can’t guess where inflation, unemployment or GDP growth will be less than a year out, but they continue to dominate headlines. You’re better off ignoring them, and certainly don’t let them influence your financial decisions.

It’s also worth bearing in mind, given markets have rallied on speculation of rate cuts, for that to happen implies not only that central banks believe inflation is under control, but that economic growth is softening to the extent it needs a boost from lower interest costs. There’s no guarantee on that.

Geopolitics is noise: there has been no shortage of geopolitical headwinds for financial markets to negotiate over the past couple of years. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was supposed to crush economic growth because of higher commodity prices, tension between the US and China had the media in a froth, and then another war in the middle east threatens to escalate. Yet markets have gone onwards and upwards.

The fact is, while wars are tragic and terrible and sabre rattling might keep us up at night, markets will only suffer enduring effects if corporate earnings take a hit.

Market concentration is not necessarily a bad thing: by the middle of last year, the US market had risen about 20%, but it had come entirely from the top 10 stocks. Bearish commentators were warning that investors in the US market were taking bigger and bigger risks because the weighting of the top 10 companies in the S&P 500 had never been so high, hitting 32%. By the end of the year, those 10 stocks had risen 62%, while the bottom 490 had gone up by a far more pedestrian 8%.

Australian investors should have no concerns about market concentration, given the top 10 companies in the ASX 200 account for more than 46% of the index.

It’s entirely possible the top 10 companies in an index could underperform or even fall, but if the rest of the rest of the companies in the index perform strongly, it will generate a good return. If a portfolio was comprised of nothing but the top 10 companies, obviously the risks are different, but some simple diversification can address those problems.

Bonds can be just as volatile as shares: traditional portfolio construction includes an allocation to bonds based on the theory that they reduce portfolio volatility and can act as a counter-correlated airbag to share markets.

While 2023 was nowhere near as bad for bonds as the record losses of 2022, they were still far more volatile over the year than shares, indeed, as chart 5 shows, the intra-year drawdown for US, German and UK 10-year bonds was around 40%, more than four times the drawdown of the S&P 500 and ASX 200 at their worst.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

The outlook for 2024

While there are still a few bears growling about potential recessions, most forecasts are for equity markets to rise in 2024, and it’s even easier to find bond market bulls (though a lot of them are bond fund managers, so you have to be wary).


Australian company earnings dropped by more than 8% in 2023, having gone up by 16% the year before. One of our asset allocation consultants, farrelly’s, estimates long-term trend earnings growth for Australian companies at 3% per year, so given the recent fluctuations, it’s hardly surprising the current forecast is for about 1.2% earnings growth for 2024.

Of course, Australian shares typically pay a generous dividend by international standards, of about 4.4%, add 1.2% to that and you’d get a 6.6% return, which compares to a 30-year average annual return of 9.2%. We could reach that higher number if the PE ratio continues to expand, or if earnings are better then forecast. Of course, for those who benefit from franking credits, you can add an extra 1.4% to those numbers.

The ASX 200 finished 2023 on a forward PE ratio of 16.4x – see chart 6, which compares to a 20-year average of 14.6x. On that basis, it looks a little expensive, but it could simply be the market factoring in an earnings recovery.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

United States

This is where things get really interesting. As noted above, in 2023 the US market was dominated by a handful of mega-cap tech companies, while the ‘bottom’ 490 stocks were pretty pedestrian by comparison.

The S&P 500 finished 2023 on a PE ratio of 19.5x, a hefty 17% premium to the 30-year average of 16.6x – see chart 7. However, if you break that down, the top 10 companies were on a PE of 27x, while the rest were on 17x. In other words, the ‘rest’ of the market is not expensive by historical standards.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

J.P. Morgan argues the market is not especially expensive given companies reported free cash flow margins 30% higher than they were only 10 years ago, with a lot of that growth coming from the big tech companies. US funds management group, GMO, also points out that US corporate profitability, as measured by return on sales, has averaged 7% since 1997, compared to 5% before that – that’s a whopping 40% higher.

For 2024, the average forecast for the US market across 20 different international financial groups is a gain of 10.2% – for what that’s worth (which isn’t much). Of more relevance, corporate earnings are forecast to grow by 11.5%, plus the S&P typically pays a dividend yield of around 1.5%, which comes to 13%, roughly in line with the last 15 years average return of 13.8%, but comfortably above the 30-year average of 10.1%.

Something that plays on every asset allocator’s mind is chart 8 – which shows how extreme the US’s outperformance compared to the rest of the world has been since the GFC. Not surprisingly, most allocators look at that chart and immediately reduce the weighting to US shares. There are many explanations for the outperformance, not the least of which is that areas like Europe have been mired in an austerity mindset since 2009. There are, of course, two ways the gap could close: the US could fall heavily, or the rest of the world could make huge gains – or the trend could keep going. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

Notably, in terms of valuations, the rest of the world (ex the US), is trading on a PE ratio of 12.9x, compared to a 20-year average of 13.1x, so fractionally on the cheap side. However, that’s a 34% discount to the US, which is the highest in at least 20 years.

Here are a few interesting observations, based on historical return for the US:

  • In late November last year, the S&P 500 made a new high since January 2022, i.e. it had been more than a year, and on the 14 previous occasions that’s happened, the market rose by an average of 14% over the following year and was positive 93% of those times
  • Since 1928, when the S&P has gone up by more than 20% in a calendar year, the average gain the following year was 11.4%, and it was positive 65% of the time
  • Since 1933, the fourth year of the presidential cycle has seen an average return of 6.7%, and is positive around 70% of the time
  • Deposits into money market funds last year were 13x more than what went into equities, taking total deposits to a record US$6 trillion, which on their own are expected to generate US$300 billion in interest income

Emerging markets

With a forward PE ratio of only 11.9x, the emerging markets look cheap compared to developed markets, however, that number is bang on the 25-year average and they’ve looked cheap for years and have underperformed the developed markets badly since the end of the GFC – see chart 9.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

At a 26% weighting in the EM index, China is the 600-pound gorilla in the asset class, and it had a miserable 2023, falling almost 13%. Much of that is because the government refused to inject COVID stimulus at the household level, unlike western governments, forcing families to draw on their savings to get through extended lockdowns, and leaving consumers reluctant to spend once restrictions were lifted.

On top of that, the property sector, which was estimated to have contributed as much as 20% to GDP growth, is in disarray. The government has actively supported the rapid development of the electric vehicle industry, and now China makes more EVs than the rest of the world combined. It is possible that will be a strong new source of growth for the economy over the coming years.

By contrast, India, which is 17% of the index, is shooting the lights out, returning 20.3% in 2023 and hitting a new all-time high, and 15.8% per annum for the last three years. A combination of favourable demographics and a booming tech sector has proven to be a terrific tailwind.

Emerging markets returns tend to go in long cycles and appear to be linked to long-term trends in the US$, and trying to guess where currencies are going is even harder than share markets. The bottom line is that when an asset class is as cheap as EM is at the moment, it makes sense to have at least some weighting.

Real assets

Traditionally one of the more interest rate sensitive sectors, real assets, like property and infrastructure, have been beaten up badly over the course of the current interest rate cycle, but they turned sharply at the first hint that rates have peaked. In late October last year, the VanEck Global REIT ETF (REIT) was down by almost 40% from its peak, but then rallied more than 40% by the end of the year.

Chart 10 shows the relative earnings multiple that global REITs is trading on compared to equities puts them very much on the cheap side relative to the long-term average. The level of EBITDA hasn’t changed significantly, but the multiple it’s trading on has been derated to levels similar to the GFC and the COVID sell off, which is all sentiment-driven.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment
Small cap companies

Small cap companies is another asset class that has been brutalised over the past couple of years, both in Australia and internationally, to the point where they are now trading at multi-decade lows relative to large caps – see chart 11.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher<br />
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

Notably, the US small cap index, the Russell 2000, jumped 26% from its lows at the end of October. Once again, since the index’s inception in 1979, there have been 21 previous occasions where it has rallied more than 20% in 50 days, and the average increase one year later was 16.5%, and it has never been lower. That compares to the average 12 month return of 10.5%.

Again, given how relatively cheap small caps are, it makes sense to have at least some allocation.

Fixed income

One of most popular sayings in financial markets recently has been, “Bonds are back!” The argument is that investors are now receiving a yield to invest in government bonds, unlike a few years ago where yields were approaching zero and, in many cases, actually went negative!

The prospects for bonds depends entirely on what happens with interest rates and inflation. Being paid to hold them is a start, but bond prices can be quite volatile – as discussed above.

Private credit continues to grow its share of the commercial lending market in the US, Europe and Australia. We remain strong supporters of well managed private credit backed by strong levels of security and low LVRs, with returns comfortably above those offered by bonds and, typically, zero volatility in the underlying unit price.


Financial markets have a knack for surprising, and 2023 was a great example of that. The headwinds that caused mayhem a couple of years ago have dissipated, but whether they become the tailwinds the market is hoping for is yet to be seen.

After what turned out to be a year of good returns in 2023, there are sound fundamental arguments to support a positive view on share markets for 2024, and there are certainly asset classes and sub-sectors that look relatively cheap.

Interview with Partners Group co-founder Urs Wietlisbach

Interview with Partners Group co-founder Urs Wietlisbach

Urs Wietlisbach is one of the three founders of Swiss private equity firm, Partners Group, which has grown to manage more than US$130 billion. James Weir interviewed Urs on the outlook for private equity and whether higher interest rates changes the outlook for returns. Watch until the end to get Urs’s view on the prospects for the Global Value Fund as it prepares to sell more than 20 mature assets.

What’s the best way to take advantage of the multi-year selloff in bonds?

What’s the best way to take advantage of the multi-year selloff in bonds?

It’s never happened before: bonds are about to deliver a third year of negative returns. The BofA Merrill Lynch 10+ Year Treasury Total Return Index in the US was recently more than 40% off its highs – more than double its previous worst drawdown. 

It’s left a lot of shell-shocked investors scratching their heads wondering how what’s supposed to be the defensive part of a portfolio could perform so badly, and a whole lot of other investors wondering if there are bargains to be had.

Why were bond returns negative?

The first thing to know about bonds is that inflation is like kryptonite for them. If investors believe inflation is going up, they will demand higher compensation in the form of a higher yield.

The second thing to know is if you hold a government bond to maturity you are assured of getting the principal back, which is always a face value of $100 per bond.

When a plain old government bond is first issued, the interest rate it will pay the holder (which in bond speak is called a ‘coupon’) is fixed and doesn’t change over the life of the bond.

If you bought a newly issued Australian 10-year government bond today you’d receive a yield of about 4.6 per cent per year, and after 10 years you’d get $100 back for each bond. So the annual return is dead easy to calculate: 4.6 per cent.

However, if you wanted to sell that bond and inflation expectations have gone up since it was issued, any potential buyer will insist on a higher yield. Because the coupon is fixed, the only way to compensate the buyer is to reduce the price of the bond. Then, if the buyer hangs on to it until maturity, they’ll get the $100 back but on a lower entry price, thus compensating them.

Since the inflationary outbreak of the late 1970s and early 1980s, inflation has trended downwards over the medium to longer-term, which has been fantastic for bond investors, because the price of those bonds has risen over that medium to longer-term – see chart 1.

Chart showing bond yields trended down, resulting in a 40-year bull market, which went into reverse in mid-2020

However, the inflationary outbreak of the past few years has thrown that into reverse, and as expectations of higher inflation and interest rates has grown, so the price of bonds has fallen.

Is it time to hunt for a bargain?

It’s hardly surprising that any investor accustomed to market cycles would look at an asset that’s dropped 40 per cent and presume there’s a bargain to be had, and there are bond fund managers banging the table insisting now is the time to be buying bonds. But, as with anything in financial markets, unfortunately it’s not that easy.

Government bonds are issued with different lifespans, from 90 days to 30-plus years. The most popular bond yield that gets quoted is the 10-year bond.

The longer-dated the bond, so the more life it has until it matures, the more volatile it will be. The fancy name for that is ‘duration risk’, and it’s something that can be worked out for every bond. Australian 10-year government bonds currently have a duration risk of 8.7, which means if the yield increases by 1 per cent, the price of those bonds will fall by 8.7 per cent, and vice versa.

It’s that duration risk, and the volatility it causes, that’s the trickiest part about investing in bonds, even after they’ve copped a beating.

For a real world example, you can buy an Australian government bond through the ASX. A quick Google of “ASX listed bonds” should take you to the page that lists them. There’s one with the ticker GSBG33, which was originally a 20-year bond issued in 2013, so it has 10 years left until maturity. As you’d expect, its current yield is pretty much bang in line with the quoted 10-year yield, so about 4.5 per cent, and its last traded price was around $100. In other words, what you’d expect from a 10-year bond.

However, in August 2019, that same bond was trading at a price of $147, and at the start of November it was $97, so its price had dropped by 34 per cent – see chart 2. That’s some serious volatility for a supposedly defensive asset; clearly, it’s only defensive if you are certain you’ll hold onto it until maturity, in which case you’ll receive a return of 4.5 per cent, which compares to the September inflation rate of 5.4 per cent.

Chart showing the Australian government bond, GSBG33, has experienced higher 
volatility than what many would associate with a defensive investment

For a long-dated bond to provide a better return than 4.5 per cent will require inflation expectations to fall, which is likely to happen if the economy slows down or goes into recession, and importantly, that extra return will effectively come from the price going up, so capital growth.

There are shorter-term bonds, that have lower duration risk and are therefore not as volatile, but the yield is lower. Alternatively, for investors purely interested in locking in a yield, term deposits are now paying as much as 5.25 per cent for 12 months and come with a capital guarantee. The risk you run there is it’s only good for 12 months.

You can also buy bond ETFs, however, they never mature. The ETF will always have some duration risk in it, meaning it will always be potentially volatile.

Another option is to invest through a fixed income fund manager and leave it to their expertise. There are some that specialise only in government bonds and others that operate under a more flexible mandate and can invest in corporate bonds as well. Andrew Papageorgiou, a portfolio manager at Realm Investment House, argues credit spreads on corporate bonds are historically far less volatile than interest rates. Also, good managers can employ fancy strategies to minimise the effect of volatility by using derivatives.

It’s possible those arguing it’s a great time to buy bonds are affected by recency bias: it wasn’t so long ago bond yields were negative, how can they possibly stay above 4.5 per cent? But bond yields don’t necessarily mean revert, the recent downward trend went for 40 years. There are legendary bond commentators, like Jim Grant and Barry Eichengreen, warning of a multi-decade bond bear market.

What’s more, investing in bonds to back a view that yields will decline is effectively targeting a capital return, which rings of a growth investment, whereas bonds are normally part of the defensive fixed income part of a portfolio.

On the bearish side of the fence are the many economists arguing rates will stay “higher for longer”. It really depends on what happens to inflation, and if smart investors have learned nothing else over the past couple of years, it should be that trying to guess where inflation will be years from now is a mug’s game.

If you would like to discuss your investment options, please get in touch.

The big spending that could keep the US out of recession

The big spending that could keep the US out of recession

In September last year, Bloomberg reported that 100 per cent of surveyed economists expected the US economy to recess in early 2023, and strategists were warning of calamitous markets ahead. Of course, that didn’t happen, and whilst GDP growth of a smidge above 2 per cent per year isn’t going to knock anybody’s socks off, it’s far from going backwards, and the US share market rose 20 per cent to the middle of 2023.

Economists tend to follow an approach where they try to fit today’s circumstances into a historical analogy, saying “I think what’s happening with inflation and interest rate rates today is not dissimilar to the 1970s/1980s/whatever period”, and base their forecasts on what transpired back then.

The thing is, none of those past rising interest rate episodes were preceded by the federal government shoving 25 per cent of GDP into household bank accounts, which was what happened with the COVID stimulus cheques. That massive fiscal injection had two effects: first, it set the economy on fire, sending unemployment levels to 50-year lows; and second, households had never enjoyed such a large savings buffer to cushion against rising prices. As a result, the US economy’s resilience took orthodox economists and strategists by surprise.

Once again, we are seeing a growing consensus that the US economy is going to recess next year, which brings with it the usual talk of America sneezing and the rest of the world wrestling with swine flu.

Concerns that the Federal Reserve is going to increase interest rates again, that rising bond yields will make shares increasingly less attractive, that the now long-standing inverted yield curve will somehow work its voodoo, that consumer confidence is falling, and households are running out of those excess savings, combine to paint a grim picture. Throw on top of all that a dysfunctional US congress and an approaching election plus the ongoing problems China is experiencing and it’s clear why the bears are once again on the prowl.

However, if you look hard enough, just like last year, there are some signs pointing in the other direction; signs that tend not to feature in most forecasts. And, again just like last year, they revolve around some significant fiscal injections and consumers that might be in a better spot than economists give them credit for.

The first of those fiscal injections is the interest the US government is paying on the more than USD33 trillion of bonds that are on issue, which has risen over the past three years from USD500 billion per year to more than USD900 billion. That may not be going into the pockets of the people who would spend it all, but it’s still going into the economy.

The second is the three signature pieces of legislation that have been dubbed ‘Bidenomics’, the CHIPS Act, the Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which between them earmark more than USD2.25 trillion of government spending.

Between them, that amounts to more than 12 per cent of the US economy being injected through government spending programs, which are on top of the usual budget items. What’s more, the IRA, which basically invites any company with a decarbonisation project to apply for tax deductions, rebates or subsidies, is open ended, and Goldman Sachs estimates the amount being spent has increased from the original projection of USD780 billion to more like USD1.2 trillion.

When you add them up, it’s a ton of money being thrown into the economy, and those three government policies have catalysed a tsunami of corporate spending, with data from the US Treasury showing real manufacturing construction spending doubling to USD1.9 trillion over the year since they were passed – see the chart below – and non-residential construction spending in general is up 15% since the infrastructure bill. Overall, private sector spending has gone up three times more than public spending. In other words, the government’s policies are crowding in private sector spending.

Table showing the 2022 share market returns in local currencies

Regrettably, Australia is in the opposite position, with the federal government boasting of a surplus, which is sucking money out of the economy at a time when households spending is coming under a lot of pressure.

As for US consumers, while it’s true they’ve almost run out of excess savings from COVID, there’s still a base level of savings, plus household bank deposits are more than four-fold higher than pre-COVID at USD4 trillion. Then there’s the 50 per cent rise in money market fund balances to around USD6 trillion and a similar rise in home equity to almost USD32 trillion.

In other words, American consumers have a lot left in the tank to maintain that legendary appetite for spending.

It’s still entirely possible the US economy will hit a recession-sized bump in the road, but it’s far from a certainty. Smart investors will know better than to put their faith in economists and strategists who get things wrong as much as they get them right.

Emerging markets: good value or value trap?

Emerging markets: good value or value trap?

Emerging markets are cheap. The problem is, they’ve been cheap for most of the last decade, and have failed to deliver on their promise.

Over the past 10 years, the disparate collection of 24 countries bundled into “EM”, which range across Southeast Asia to South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, has returned a fairly pedestrian 5 per cent per year. Over the same period, Australian shares have returned 8 per cent and global developed markets (ex-Australia) 13 per cent – see chart 1. 

Table showing the 2022 share market returns in local currencies


Not only that, but investors in emerging markets had to strap in for a bumpier ride. The range of the best to worst performing countries in the index averaged an 88 per cent gap over the past 11 years, way more than double the gap in the developed markets.

However, there have been times in the past when the emerging markets have trounced their developed counterparts: between 2000-2010, they notched up returns of 19 per cent per year, while the developed markets could barely scrape 5 per cent. So when they’re good, they’re very, very good.

How do the emerging markets shape up now? The typical long-term arguments for investing in the emerging markets revolve around demographics and GDP growth.

They are home to 87 per cent of the world’s population, including 77 per cent of the “Gen Z” contingent, with the fastest growing middle class, presumably all hankering for the usual consumer goods that go with it. Plus, they’ve driven 67 per cent of global GDP growth over the past decade and are forecast to account for about 60 per cent of total GDP by 2026, yet their combined share markets only represent 13 per cent of the market capitalization of international equities. You can almost see the blue sky.

The problem comes back to a financial truism: share markets are not necessarily representative of economies, in other words, strong economic growth does not necessarily result in strong share market returns. For example, Aoris Investment Management calculated that while the “BRICS” economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – once the hottest market grouping in the world) boasted exceptionally high annual average real GDP growth over the 10 years to 2018, average real corporate earnings growth actually fell by a whopping 9 per cent per year. So while the economies were almost doubling in size over those 10 years, earnings per share fell by more than 60 percent.

In the near term, the emerging markets do look cheap, especially compared to the United States. According to Refinitiv, the emerging markets are trading on a forward price to earnings ratio (so looking at the next 12 months) of 12x, which is a chunky 37 per cent discount to the US’s 19x. However, over the past 35 years the EM index has traded at an average discount of 20 per cent to the developed markets, and while it’s currently around 30 per cent, that’s where it’s hovered for more than a decade – see chart 2.


Bar graph showing the main negative influence of share prices was sentiment based on source of return 2022 AUD


Why the discount? First, there’s the inability of emerging markets companies to leverage high GDP growth into high earnings growth. Second, there’s the historical volatility compared to the developed markets. Third, the financial, energy and materials sectors make up 35 per cent of the EM index, and they normally trade on low PE ratios. To be fair, IT makes up 20 per cent of the index and includes some household names like Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor, Tencent and Alibaba.

Zenith Investment Partners expect the emerging markets to deliver 11 per cent returns over the next 12 months based on a ‘soft landing’ scenario, that is, no recession. That compares to the US’s 7 per cent, the developed markets ex the US at 8 per cent, and Australia at 7. A lot of that premium is due to the relatively low PE ratio.

One factor that is always prominent for the emerging markets is the US dollar. When the USD is strong, like it has been over the last couple of years, the EM index struggles. Good luck trying to guess if the USD is going to get stronger or weaker over the next year or two.

Finally, the 600 pound gorilla in the emerging markets is, of course, China, which currently has a weighting of 31 per cent in the index, but accounts for 49 per cent of both EM GDP and stock market capitalization. At the moment, the index includes only one-fifth of China’s A shares, but it’s been rising over time.

It’s easy to argue what happens to China has an outsized influence on the EM index, and for now it’s a guessing game whether the government will step in to support the economy in a more meaningful way. There are many reasons to avoid China right now, but with a forward PE of only 11x, maybe they’re all priced in.

There’s no doubt emerging markets look cheap and have a role to play in a diversified portfolio, but smart investors need to be aware of the risks and shape their portfolio allocation accordingly.