Crispin Murray: the key factors influencing Aussie equities

Pendal's head of equities Crispin Murray


Here’s what’s impacting Aussie stocks at the moment, according to Pendal’s head of equities Crispin Murray (pictured above). Reported by portfolio specialist Chris Adams.

The S&P/ASX 300 gained 1.3% last week, driven largely by resources (+4.9%) while uncertainty over the impact of the Victorian lockdown weighed on the banks (-1.3%). The key near-term factors were on balance neutral to slightly positive, which helped support the broader market: Key short term issues

  • US Covid trends: Continue to improve, with falling hospitalisations.
  • US earnings season: Continues to surprise on the upside, albeit off a very low base of expectations.
  • Vaccine & other therapeutics: Novavax trial reports positive, raising possibility of an alternative vaccine platform.
  • US policy: A continued stalemate on fiscal package. Progress is expected this week; if not the market will start to worry.
  • NSW and Victoria’s Covid trends: Victoria is showing early signs of stabilisation while NSW holds the line. Broadly in-line with expectations.
  • Australian Policy: Federal government will make payments to support self-isolating Victorians unable to earn an income. Emphasises approach of policy plugging economic gaps.
  • Australian earnings season: Mixed results, but too early for discernible trends. ResMed (RMD, -11.4%) was negative; REA Group (REA, +4.6%) was positive; Insurance Australia Group (IAG, -1.2%) was in-line.

Covid-19 update There was no material change in trends in Australia last week. While it’s too early to make a call, it’s reasonable to assume the Victorian lockdown will work based on previous experience. NSW case numbers need to be watched. However we note that swift identification of clusters and contact tracing means the numbers are better than many had feared. Signs that NSW continues to hold the line — and that the Victorian lockdown is yielding results — should be well received. Any signs of an acceleration in NSW would hurt sentiment. US trends are generally positive. Test numbers are falling — but not as much as case numbers, so the ratio of positive results is falling. There is some evidence that base levels of immunity are helping in the worst-hit states. More importantly hospitalisations are falling. This is helped by a younger age skew, better adherence to safety protocols and possibly the weather. Even in the hotspot states hospitals have been coping and pressure is now being relieved. Bookmark Pendal's News Centre for the latest market insights from some of Australia's top fund managers. This has fed through to a much better outcome in terms of mortality. Deaths reached half the rate of the April peak and are now falling. This is likely due to age skew and protocols. But it’s also due to a wider geographic spread of cases, allowing the healthcare system to cope better — with more experience and better treatments. At this point we are likely to see a Sweden-like model in the US, where cases remain persistently high. If the community believes a third major surge can be avoided under this model — and acute cases are better managed — activity will start ramping up again, supporting markets. This is a very different situation to Australia. Here we are prepared to accept more short-term economic damage in exchange for effective elimination. The key risk in the US is children returning to school at the end of August. This will be a key swing factor moving into September. The US reporting season has so far yielded the largest ever quarterly decline in earnings and the largest upside surprise to expectations. US earnings are down 35%. This is far better than consensus expectations, which have obviously re-based too low. This has helped the market offset the negative effects of the Covid second wave and stalled fiscal negotiations. Economic update The US remains in a holding pattern. Mobility data and outlook surveys are all trending sideways. Employment data was better than expected, but still a material step down from improvements in June. Elsewhere around the world ISM survey data suggests good momentum on improving growth from June, albeit off a low base. Vaccine update The development of a viable vaccine remains the most important medium-term issue for the economy and markets. The result of the Novavax trial was encouraging, but not a silver bullet. Its platform is based on introducing a protein rather than the current approach of using a genetic message to prompt the immune system to produce the required protein. This is important because it offers an alternative route for vaccine development and increases the overall chances of success. The method of vaccination also has a better history of success. Consensus expectations among experts about the likelihood of developing a vaccine for delivery in material amounts next year have increased markedly in recent weeks. Gold Gold has run hard in recent weeks and become the hot topic in financial commentary. Traditional measures of sentiment suggest it may have over-heated near term. The RSI, for example, has reached its highest point in over a decade. This suggests near-term consolidation may be likely, particularly if we see more positive news on the vaccine front. Nevertheless, we continue to see this as a buying opportunity. In our view gold plays an important role in the portfolio, protecting against two key issues (outlined below) and risks facing investors:

1. The decline in real rates

As we’ve noted before, the Fed has clearly signalled it will allow inflation to rise through the target range rather than pre-emptively tightening. They are taking the view that avoiding structural economic deterioration and potential social consequences is paramount. So we are likely to see the use of their balance sheet and other tools to hold nominal yields, even as inflation expectations rise. This should support economic growth. But there is also an imperative to hold rates down given the explosion in debt — much of it short duration — with which the US treasury has been funding itself. Even a small increase in rates could see a massive increase in interest expenses, which the US budget would struggle to accommodate. The outcome is likely to be long-term suppression of real rates, which in turn is driving a lower USD, lower credit spreads, lower equity risk premiums — and a higher gold price. It also has a significant effect on performance within the market, as referenced last week. It is more nuanced than a simple rotation to value. Value does not necessarily outperform, given this could be a headwind for financials. But it will help certain industrials. Growth stocks are okay in this environment, but they lose the tail wind they have had for 10 years. Outside of equities, low real rates are beneficial for other real assets. This has constructive implications for housing. Mortgage affordability in the US is rising and history suggests low real rates are good for house prices. It is worth putting some perspective around moves in the USD, given its relationship to this issue and to gold. It, too, looks oversold in the near term. Some are pointing to the fact that it is back to a reasonable historical range when measured by the DXY (US Dollar Index). However the latter is dominated by value versus the Euro (58% of the measure). On a trade-weighted basis (TWI) the USD remains very strong compared to history. It has room to fall further once the near-term move has consolidated.

2. US-China relations

The second driver of a gold position is the deterioration in US China relations, which is unlikely to look any better ahead of the election. While the tension remains largely rhetorical at this point, there have been material moves that elevated risks and risk premiums in the market. The US has acted against Chinese companies such as Tik Tok and WeChat. It has also sanctioned politicians, increased carrier group activity in the South China Sea and sent the US health secretary on a visit to Taiwan. China has responded via moves in Hong Kong, increased activity in the disputed regions of the South China Sea and dragging its feet on a phase one trade deal. With the US and China using this friction for domestic purposes, this situation is unlikely to disappear in the near term. Heightened tension is prompting investors to allocate more to gold for portfolio insurance.   Crispin Murray is Pendal’s Head of Equities. He has more than 27 years of investment experience and a strong track record leading Australian and European equities funds. He manages a number of our flagship funds along with one of the largest equities teams in Australia. Pendal is an independent, global investment management business focused on delivering superior investment returns for our clients through active management. Find out more about our investment capabilities: Contact a Pendal key account manager:  

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