Markets there are fighting back but the outlook is not great. For one, growing numbers of global indices have notched up the 20 percent peak-to-trough drop denoting a bear market. U.S. stocks, which seemed invincible until mid-year, have posted the worst December performance since the Great Depression. Second, the world economic outlook is steadily darkening and upcoming PMI data should confirm that.
Sure, the U.S. economy is still expanding nicely. But when high-growth, investor-darling tech stocks fall prey, it shows optimism about growth is fizzling. And segments such as the Russell 2000 <.RUT> small-cap benchmark are stuck deep in the bears' lair. Small firms often carry higher debt loads than larger peers so falling share prices highlight credit risks.
In Europe, Germany's DAX fell to the bears in early December and the euro zone bank and auto sectors are down a whopping 40 percent and 36 percent respectively from this year's peaks. This week, the leading pan-European equity index confirmed it too had entered bear territory, following Wall Street's Christmas Eve shakeout.
For graphic on Bear markets, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2GsaHd2
For graphic on Down Decembers for the S&P 500 png, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2QCzyvm
2/ PART OF THE JOB
U.S. President Donald Trump had several things going in his favour as he headed into 2018, and the two he most frequently trumpeted were the roaring stock market and booming jobs market. As we leave the year, the picture has changed somewhat, with U.S. stocks enduring their worst month since the financial crisis. But ... he still has that strong jobs market. December's non-farm payrolls data is due on Friday (it will be reported despite the government shutdown) and the 178,000 new jobs estimated to have been created will push total U.S. employment over the 150 million mark for the first time ever.
And as employment expansions go, this one is starting to rival some of the biggest in the past 40 years or so. Since hitting a post-crisis low in February 2010, more than 20 million jobs have been created. Under Trump's watch, more than 4 million have been added. Assuming this pace is maintained, the current run will, by this time next year, surpass the 21.1 million jobs created between December 1982 and June 1990 under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.
It will still take some time to catch up with the 1990s, however. Between May 1991 and February 2001, more than 24.5 million jobs were created, most of that under Bill Clinton's presidency.
For graphic on Total U.S. nonfarm employment. Click https://tmsnrt.rs/2AiHmw8
3/A YEN FOR SAFETY
As 2018 fades, Japanese policymakers' hearts must be sinking. The yen has zoomed to eight-month highs versus the dollar, stocks sank into bear territory and 10-year bond yields sank below zero for the first time since Sept 2017.
All the data, from price growth to industrial output and retail sales, shows disinflationary clouds gathering -- yet again. By all accounts, Japanese funds are retreating from U.S. equity and bond investments, driven out by prohibitive hedging costs. That, along with an inflow of safety-seeking foreign cash, could lift the yen further. So any dreams the BOJ might harbour of ending stimulus are receding further into the future.
Here's a thought though. Could the yen's safe-haven status come into question? After all, Japan's export-focused economy is vulnerable to a trade war, and an upcoming sales tax hike rekindles memories of 2014, when a similar measure hurt the economy. And notwithstanding dovish BOJ signals, officials privately acknowledge the demerits of prolonged easing, notably the hit to financial institutions from negative interest rates.
For graphic on Japan's yen, stocks set for some turbulence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2S8LwOk
4/ SENTENDO L'AMORE
Investors are back in love with Italy, where a budget deal with the EU has put 10-year bond yields on track for their biggest monthly fall since July 2015. They affirmed their love at this year's last bond auction, agreeing to lend 10-year cash to the government at 2.70 percent -- in November they held out for 3.24 percent.
But Italy will test the relationship again next month, when it sells 27 billion euros' worth of new bonds.
January will be Italy's heaviest month for bond sales in 2019. Sales are typically heavy at the start of a year, but the difference this time is that the European Central Bank will not be buying. After ending its asset purchase programme, it will reinvest the proceeds of maturing debt but has allocated a smaller share of the pie to Rome next year.
In total next year, Italy hopes to sell bonds worth 250-260 billion euros. So will private creditors step into the breach? Perhaps not -- local retail investors gave the cold shoulder to a specially targeted bond last month. With the ECB backstop fading, a weak economy and still-high political risk, Italy may find it still needs to woo its investors if it is to stay afloat next year.
For graphic on Euro zone bond supply in 2019, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2R5PrxY
5/ DOLLAR DARLING
As bears maul equities, where does one hide? The answer seemingly is: the dollar. Bank of America Merrill Lynch's monthly investor survey showed the greenback regaining the "most crowded trade" crown, snatching it back from the FAANG/BAT tech stocks group. The dollar dash is unsurprising -- it's liquid, U.S. yields are high and the U.S. economy is growing faster than other developed countries.
A word of caution though. Investors following the "most crowded trade" bandwagon have fallen flat on their faces in recent years. They went into 2017 loaded up with dollars but the greenback fell relentlessly after that, ending the year with a near-10 percent loss.
In December 2017, the most crowded trade, according to the BAML survey, was Bitcoin -- a 70 percent rout ensued in 2018. We can rule out a fall of that kind for the dollar. But the U.S. yield curve suggests an economic slowdown is ahead, if not recession. So notwithstanding the robust labour market, the Fed may struggle to raise interest rates much more. An investor exodus from U.S. stocks and bonds would not be good news for the dollar.
For graphic on Most crowded trade, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2R9NaSj