PORTFOLIO POINT: The US quantitative easing program announced last week creates several avenues for potential growth, and Australian investors can also ride the recovery wave.
This is a watershed moment for markets.
The third slug of monetary stimulus from the US Federal Reserve Bank came just days after the European Central Bank (ECB) delivered on its promise in July to do ‘whatever it takes’ and after outgoing Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, turned on the infrastructure spending taps again.
A lifetime’s study of the Great Depression has convinced Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke of the need for monetary policy at times of financial crisis to be both massive and long-lasting. The latest quantitative easing (QE3) from the Fed is different from its forerunners in two key ways: It is open-ended as to size and duration. There is no ceiling to the stimulus, which will continue ‘for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.
It is clear which element of the Fed’s dual mandate matters now – growth is the target and if the price is inflation, well, so be it.
Even if you believe that the long-term impact of all this shock and awe must be negative, it would be a bold call in the short run to stand in front of the central bank juggernaut.
There are five ways in which investors might ride the QE wave.
1 – First, they should have exposure to equities. According to Credit Suisse, US shares rallied by 10-15% in the first few weeks of previous bouts of quantitative easing, but rolled over again within a few weeks of the end of the stimulus.
The open-ended nature of the latest round offers the prospect of the rise without the fear of the imminent peak. Shares have tended to rise in an environment of rising inflation expectations until they reach 4% or so. We are some way off that point yet.
Rising inflation expectations will also increase investors’ appetite for cheap real assets, the most obvious example of which is US property. The fact that the Fed is pouring money directly into mortgage-backed securities at a time when the US housing market has already turned the corner is a very bullish signal for the sector. US funds are the best way of playing this for investors, although some companies in Australia, such as building materials groups, could benefit too.
2 – Favouring the US market, my second strategy, is not just about backing a recovering housing market though.
The Fed’s move last week is a clear indication that it will do what it must to offset any tightening in tax and spend as the US belatedly addresses the fiscal cliff after the presidential election.
3 – Thirdly, investors should continue to favour income-generating investments. The whole point of QE is to suppress bond yields and to keep the real, inflation-adjusted cost of servicing government debt low, and preferably negative, for as many years as it takes to get the ship back on an even keel.
This so-called “financial repression” endured for a decade or more after the Second World War and it was many years then before the chickens came home to roost in the form of 1970s stagflation.
Sustainability of dividend is the key because there are plenty of high-yield ‘traps’ waiting for the unwary investor, but there is no shortage of blue-chips offering reliably high and growing dividend streams.
4 – Fourth, I think there is more to go for with gold. After a disappointing year or so – even more so for gold producers, which have underperformed the metal itself – the response of the gold price to expectations for and the reality of more quantitative easing points to further strength.
With no income stream, I don’t really view gold as an investment but, as an insurance policy against dollar debasement and inflation, it is worth its place in anyone’s portfolio.
5 – Finally, I think the inflationary endgame looks ever more likely as the Fed’s determination to re-kindle growth hardens. Inflation-linked bonds are an obvious hedge and, within the equity market, I would look at shares in companies whose returns have a regulatory link with rising prices such as utilities and some infrastructure companies.
Investors’ tendency to buy the rumour and sell the news might suggest that markets could consolidate after the announcements of the past couple of weeks. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Tom Stevenson is Investment Director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment.