Key takeaways From PIMCO's Secular Outlook: Rude Awakenings

clock • 9 min read

Key points

At a glance

  • The global economy and financial markets could be entering a new era of potentially radical change
  • The next recession is expected to be shallower, but also longer and riskier than in the past
  • Low equilibrium policy rates should anchor global fixed income markets

Joachim Fels, Andrew Balls and Dan Ivascyn discuss why, ten years after the financial crisis, the global economy and financial markets look set to enter a new era of potentially radical change.

In case you missed it - which was easy given the recent gyrations in Italy and financial markets - we published our Secular Outlook in May. Argentina, Italy and most recently President Trump's imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the EU, Canada and Mexico, among others, are some recent examples of rude awakenings for complacent financial markets. However, as we lay out in more detail in the outlook, these events may only be a small taste of things to come over the secular horizon. Here are the key takeaways.

Following the three-day Secular Forum with distinguished external speakers and our Global Advisory Board as well as our subsequent internal discussions, we concluded that we may be witnessing an important turning point: Ten years after the financial crisis, the global economy and financial markets look set to enter a new era of potentially radical change that will make the future look very different from the past. 

The post-crisis environment has been characterized by financial repression through regulation and dominant central banks, mostly passive or restrictive fiscal policies, largely uninhibited trade and capital flows, subdued growth and inflation, and low volatility in the macro economy and markets. To be fair, the past decade had its fair share of rude awakenings, but whenever they came along, central banks were quick to step in and prop up markets and economies.

A more difficult environment ahead

We expect a very different macro landscape to emerge over the next five years, for better or worse. Already there are important shifts underway: The monetary-fiscal policy mix has been changing with central banks retreating and fiscal policy becoming more expansionary; the regulatory discussion is moving from the financial to the tech sector, and economic nationalism and protectionism are on the rise. However, bigger disruptions may lie ahead; here is a list of five potential sources of major rude awakenings for investors over the secular horizon:

  • Recession returns. Our baseline continues to include a recession in the US over our secular horizon, which is likely to affect large parts of the world. Such a downturn would most likely result in a wok- or saucer-shaped recession/recovery - one that is shallower but longer - rather than the traditional V-shape, but also riskier.

    • Shallower, because so far we haven't seen the spending excesses in the private sector or the leverage excesses in the financial sector that preceded past recessions. 

    • Longer, because there is less monetary and fiscal policy space than in the past. 

    • And riskier, because inflation expectations are already very low, the structural weaknesses in the eurozone will be exposed, and a recession may give rise to much more radical variants of economic nationalism and populism.

  • Productivity pop-up. While not our base case, there is a reasonable chance of a significant acceleration in productivity growth due to a broader diffusion of new technologies through new business investment. While higher productivity is good news from a long-term, economic perspective, investors should be careful what they wish for: Technological unemployment could increase, many companies could be disrupted and real interest rates could rise, which would likely hurt many investors.

  • Fiscal follies. A global fiscal expansion that is large enough to offset some or all of the global excess of desired saving over desired investment in the private sector would challenge the status quo of low inflation and low interest rates. Piling on more public debt at a time when central banks phase out net asset purchases or are already running down their balance sheets could increase term premia and steepen yield curves. Higher interest rates and/or the next recession will likely expose the weak links among profligate borrowers.

  • Thucydides trap. Geopolitics could be another source of rude awakenings. At the forum, we discussed the Thucydides trap, which results in (sometimes armed) conflict when a rising power like China challenges the established superpower, like the US, on multiple fronts - economically, technologically and geo-strategically. To be sure, the trap is not inevitable. However, the likely tensions caused by China becoming a global economic and military superpower while the US tries to more assertively defend its status in the areas of trade, intellectual property and defense create uncertainty and could be a source of accidents over the secular horizon. 

  • Radical populism. Fifth but not least, there is a significant risk of a more extreme populist backlash than the one we have seen so far, especially if and when we hit another recession. This could come in different flavors: large-scale income and wealth redistribution through taxes and universal basic income, more aggressive protectionism, nationalization of key industries and/or the breakup of tech monopolies, attacks on central bank independence and more sizeable debt monetization, etc.

Secular investment conclusions

Rather than suffering in the event of rude awakenings, investors should be prepared for a more difficult environment and be in a position to play offense when these rude awakenings arise. This may mean giving up some yield potential in exchange for this flexibility, for example by holding more highly liquid short-term investments.

We continue to expect The New Neutral framework of low equilibrium policy rates anchoring global fixed income markets to be a useful guide. Thus, we expect to maintain durations that are close to benchmark, given our expectation of fairly range-bound global fixed income markets and that we see fairly balanced upside and downside risks to the forward curves.

Other highlights:

  • We anticipate a rise in volatility and, as a result, we expect to place less emphasis on volatility sales, which in a more normal volatility environment would be a key part of our portfolio construction, and we may find targeted opportunities where buying volatility will present attractive risk/reward.

  • We expect the re-establishment of higher term premia and risk spreads, leading to steeper curves. The shorter end of the curve tends to offer better yield or income per unit of duration. Higher inflation risks, perceived or realized, could also contribute to curve steepening. 

  • We view US Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as offering reasonably priced hedging against the possibility of upside US inflation risks. As well as TIPS, commodities and other hard assets also offer reasonable mitigation of inflation risk.

  • We believe it will pay to be much more selective on credit and to reduce corporate credit risk overall as we approach the end of the post-crisis secular recovery. We are emphasizing short-dated exposures and "bend but don't break" positions in corporate debt and structured products with a low likelihood of default.

  • With central banks more uncertain actors, we will seek to focus on investments that offer robust risk/return profiles and that do not rely excessively on central bank support. In that context we expect to be careful in particular on eurozone peripheral risk.

  • We have a broadly balanced view on the US dollar versus other G-10 currencies, reflecting limited valuation anomalies across markets and, in the case of the US, the balance between upward pressure on the US dollar from rates and growth differentials and the downside pressure exerted by the twin current account and fiscal deficits.

  • We expect to find good opportunities in emerging markets, across countries and sectors, guided by our EM specialist team. Idiosyncratic risk as well as the path for US policy rates and the US dollar and the related cyclical uncertainly will - as always - be important in navigating emerging market investments. But we also expect that over time the continuation of The New Neutral environment and overall low policy rates and developed market yields will be supportive for EM assets. 

For detailed insights into the longer-term trends shaping the global economy and market environment, please read PIMCO's latest Secular Outlook, 'Rude Awakenings'.

Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.

All investments contain risk and may lose value. Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The value of most bonds and bond strategies are impacted by changes in interest rates. Bonds and bond strategies with longer durations tend to be more sensitive and volatile than those with shorter durations; bond prices generally fall as interest rates rise, and the current low interest rate environment increases this risk. Current reductions in bond counterparty capacity may contribute to decreased market liquidity and increased price volatility. Bond investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. Corporate debt securities are subject to the risk of the issuer's inability to meet principal and interest payments on the obligation and may also be subject to price volatility due to factors such as interest rate sensitivity, market perception of the creditworthiness of the issuer and general market liquidity. Inflation-linked bonds (ILBs) issued by a government are fixed income securities whose principal value is periodically adjusted according to the rate of inflation; ILBs decline in value when real interest rates rise. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are ILBs issued by the US government. Investing in foreign-denominated and/or -domiciled securities may involve heightened risk due to currency fluctuations, and economic and political risks, which may be enhanced in emerging markets. Currency rates may fluctuate significantly over short periods of time and may reduce the returns of a portfolio. Commodities contain heightened risk, including market, political, regulatory and natural conditions, and may not be suitable for all investors. Diversification does not ensure against loss.

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Key points

At a glance

  • The global economy and financial markets could be entering a new era of potentially radical change
  • The next recession is expected to be shallower, but also longer and riskier than in the past
  • Low equilibrium policy rates should anchor global fixed income markets

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