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Equity markets could be stuck in ‘fat and flat’ range, Goldman Sachs says

Traders wear masks as they work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues New York, May 27, 2020.

Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Equity markets could be stuck in a “fat and flat” range characterized by weaker returns and greater volatility, according to Goldman Sachs Head of Asset Allocation Christian Mueller-Glissmann.

Stock markets have broadly returned to the levels seen before the late-March crash, when the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world. This was preceded by a decade of historically strong equity returns with below-average volatility.

However, speaking to CNBC Tuesday, Mueller-Glissmann suggested that in recent months, declining bond yields and real yields (bond yields minus inflation) had boosted equity valuations, meaning flatter returns for investors.

“At the same time, you still have very high uncertainty on the growth outlook, both in the near term but also in the long term. And on top of that you have increasing uncertainty on inflation, so in all, that makes us, in the medium term, a bit less excited about risk-adjusted returns for equities,” Mueller-Glissmann told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe.”

‘Window of opportunity’

Growth and defensive stocks have generally appreciated more over recent months than their value counterparts, such as autos and banks.

Growth stocks are those of companies with significant and sustainable positive cash flow with greater future earnings and revenue expected to grow faster than that of industry peers, whereas defensive names typically offer stable cash flow and consistent dividends to shareholders regardless of overall market conditions. A value stock is a company trading at a discount relative to the strength of its fundamentals, whether that be a strong balance sheet, sales or dividends.

However Mueller-Glissmann highlighted that the key driver of markets in recent months had not been optimism on growth, but rather optimism on inflation. As such, he said there was a “tactical opportunity” for investors in certain sectors.

“You have breakeven inflation at incredibly depressed levels, to some extent giving a pretty high probability of deflation in the near term. But even over a 10-year horizon, inflation expectations were low, and those have gotten repriced,” he said.

Breakeven inflation is a measure of inflation expectations based on the difference between the yield of a fixed-rate bond and an inflation-linked bond at the same stage of maturity; the assumption is that it is in investors’ interests to price inflation accurately.

“Together with the kind of aggressive central bank anchoring, you are pushed on real rates, and at the margin that is more supportive of growth stocks, because growth stocks have a lot of their cash flow in the future of course, you discount it less, valuations go up,” he added. “Anything that has a stable or reliable growth cash flow has benefitted.”

Goldman strategists are seeing signs that a recovery for growth stocks is underway, with earnings season still surprising to the upside thus far. However, Mueller-Glissmann suggested that a more important driver was the fact that forward-looking macroeconomic data, such as purchasing managers’ index (PMI) and ISM (Institute for Supply Management) index readings, was generally pointing upwards.

For instance, euro zone manufacturing PMI readings surprised to the upside on Monday, boosting stock markets, while U.S. and Chinese manufacturing data has also offered support to risk assets in recent days.

“There is a window here, I think, for the market to probably get a bit more positive on cyclical assets,” he concluded.

Cyclical stocks are those which generally perform in alignment with macroeconomic cycles.

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