The strong start to the year for global equity markets hit its first bump in the road in February. While most countries are still delivering a positive return for the year, markets have retreated from their highs to varying degrees.
Asian stocks gained in February as investors upheld optimism about a vaccine-led regional economic recovery. The MSCI AC Asia ex Japan Index rose 1.2% in US dollar (USD) terms over the month.
The potential return of long-muted inflation sparked a meaningful jump in US Treasury (UST) yields in February. Fears of rising price pressures were prompted by the combination of robust domestic data, positive development on the COVID-19 vaccine front and an anticipated increase in US federal spending. Overall, 2-year and 10-year yields ended the month at 0.13% and 1.41%, respectively, about 1.9 basis points (bps) and 34 bps higher compared to end-January.
For corporate bond investors one of the most important points of discussion is spreads. Spreads are the industry term for the risk premium an investor aims to earn in the corporate bond market. It is the difference between the yield a bond is promising and the risk-free rate. If spreads are narrowing it is positive for investors as the price of the corporate bond will increase; likewise, a widening leads to a lower bond price.
The Australian bond market (as measured by the Bloomberg AusBond Composite 0+ Yr Index) returned -3.58% over the month. The yield curve steepened dramatically as 3-year government bond yields ended the month 1 basis point (bp) higher at 0.12%, while 10-year government bond yields spiked by 79 basis points (bps) to 1.92%. Short-term bank bill rates were marginally higher.
The S&P/ASX 200 Accumulation Index returned 1.5% during the month. Australian equities underperformed key offshore markets as a strong reporting season was offset by a surge in 10-year bond yields late in the month on the back of inflationary expectations. The global roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines and US fiscal stimulus saw the reflation trade take hold.
We assess the factors that enabled the Nikkei to rise above the 30,000 threshold for the first time since 1990; we also view the recent Robinhood frenzy from a Japanese market perspective.
The introduction of the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation in March 2021 will see significant changes to the way asset management is conducted. It includes new disclosure requirements for investment firms to address environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns and we welcome it with open arms.
The investment industry is constantly searching for ways to improve its decision-making processes. Some firms increase their research teams while others move into quantitative fields such as machine learning. Amid this constant search, we focus on an alternative way to enhance the quality of our decisions; mindfulness can make the difference between a rushed, emotional decision and a thoughtful, rational conclusion.
Markets have become choppy, particularly toward month-end, and we expect more of the same given the nearly unrelenting strong run in risk assets since late March 2020 that gained fresh momentum early in November following the US elections.