Investment Returns at 31 March 2023
This latest quarter saw better returns than last year when interest rates rose (both bond and shares prices fell). The first quarter of this year began with positive sentiment on the growth outlook as energy costs fell and China’s economy reopened.
Due to swift action by the regulatory authorities, the global banking sector now appears less of a concern. However, those actions may result in slower credit creation, which could lead to slower growth (e.g. tighter lending standards as banks become more cautious).
The banking concerns in March dwarfed concerns around inflation. As markets reacted to fears of a banking crisis, government bond markets went from pricing in rate hikes (i.e. falling bond prices) to pricing in rate falls later this year (i.e. where bond prices rise).
Global equities also gained in the quarter, buoyed by declining recession worries in developed markets.
Locally the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) surprised the market in February 2023 with a 50 basis points increase in the Official Cash Rate (OCR), thereby lifting the OCR to 5.25%. The concern is that the domestic economy may already be slowing. The RBNZ is expected to increase the OCR by another 25 basis points (to 5.50%) in May 2023. The market’s attention could then increasingly focus on the timing and extent of the next easing cycle.
Despite the banking sector concerns, Central Banks continued to fight inflation with tighter monetary policy (via official cash rate increases).
While there were signs that hiking cycles were already biting (particularly in housing markets), we think the full spill-over effects to the broader economy are yet to come.
In our view, the inflation outlook is mixed. Whilst inflation appears to be reducing (largely on the back of lower oil prices), we remain concerned that demand still appears to be strong, for example, food and rental prices. Wage growth in this tight labour market is also keenly observed.
In April 2023, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that the recent turmoil in global banking systems would slow global economic growth. In their latest Global Financial Stability Report, the IMF said the financial markets remain fragile and stressed. Whether the measures taken so far have been sufficient to fully restore confidence in markets and institutions remains to be seen. The IMF expects global economies will grow 2.8% in 2023 and 3% in 2024. Each of these forecasts has been revised down by 0.1% since January. In 2022 global economies grew by 3.4%. IMF expects global inflation of 7% in 2023, slightly down from the 8.7% achieved in 2022. Growth predicted by the IMF is the lowest in 20 years.
We remain cautious about the outlook because the rapid increase in interest rates will have a long and variable lag effect on the economy. Higher rates are still to impact the real economy fully. In addition, any tightening of credit standards (reduced lending) and increased capital costs for banks will weigh on the economy. We see risks to both bond prices (interest rates) and earnings growth (share prices).
In this environment, we remain cautiously invested and diversified and continue to hold higher-than-normal amounts in cash.