2018 investment outlook: Mid-year update - J.P. Morgan Asset Management

2018 investment outlook: Mid-year update

Contributors Karen Ward, Global Markets Insights Strategy Team

In brief

  • Our investment outlook for 2018 was titled, “It ain’t over till the central banks sing”. We argued that although the cycle was relatively old, there were still not convincing signs that the global economy was at full capacity. Until inflation reared its ugly head, the central banks were likely to keep global monetary conditions loose, which would continue to support risk assets.
  • With unemployment now sub-4% in the US, the Federal Reserve (Fed) has started humming. But the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BoJ) are yet to break out a tune. Such loose monetary policy outside of the US continues to weigh on global monetary conditions and the US 10-year government bond yield has not managed to sustain a break much above 3%.
  • What we perhaps hadn’t bargained for was an increasing amount of background noise from governments-the US administration in particular. The threat of a global “trade war” is dampening corporate spirits in the major export hubs of Europe and Asia.
  • There are no such signs of weakness in the US and growth and interest rate differentials have contributed to a sizeable upward squeeze on the dollar which in turn has created challenges for some emerging market (EM) economies.
  • Over the second half of the year we expect some reacceleration in growth outside of the US as the underlying drivers of the synchronised recovery– employment growth and increased availability of cheap credit–reassert themselves.
  • The combination of robust earnings and subdued prices leaves equity valuations less stretched than they appeared earlier in the year. We expect modest gains in equity prices by year end as government bond prices drift lower.


The synchronised recovery, which proved so fertile for assets markets last year, is still ongoing, with growth in the major economies-the US, the eurozone, Japan and China-still above trend.

This is translating into robust corporate earnings. First-quarter earnings beat expectations across the board. US bourses were the star performer as the sizeable tax cut helped earnings per share jump 25% in the first quarter. But earnings were also comfortably above expectations in Europe and Japan. European companies reported earnings growth of 10% and the Labour shortages suggest firms will need to raise productivity

In Q1, earnings beat expectations in all major markets

% change year on year

Source: J.P. Morgan Securities Research, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Q1 earnings per share growth for European companies, TOPIX companies and S&P 500 companies. Data as of 12 June 2018.

Growth has been broadening from consumer spending to corporate investment. The memories of the great recession took a long time to fade, and for many years corporates lacked the confidence to expand business investment. Although this has been a long recovery it has been a very shallow one, largely due to this hesitancy among corporates to invest.

Index level (LHS); 3-year % change annualised (RHS)

Source: Bloomberg, BLS, NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), Thomson Reuters Datastream, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Data as of 12 June 2018.

Firms are being forced to spend more on capital as labour is becoming increasingly scarce–particularly in the US. Going forward, firms will have to squeeze more out of their existing employees—in other words, they will need to raise productivity. Evidence of rising productivity would be a very positive development for markets because it has the potential to extend the cycle, keep inflation low (by reducing unit labour costs), support corporate profitability and limit the need for much higher interest rates.


Left alone, there is potential for this virtuous cycle of growing confidence, growing investment and growing productivity to flourish. But policy coming out of Washington is creating risks around the benign outlook.

The prospect of a global trade war is the most concerning. The US administration believes the large current account deficit in non-energy goods is a reflection of lopsided trade deals. So far, the only concrete action has been the introduction of tariffs on steel and aluminium entering the US. These alone will have very little impact on either US or global activity. But the risk is these relatively minor actions escalate in a “tit-for-tat” manner to other products.

Trade concerns are a near-term drag on eurozone activity

% change year on year (LHS); index level (RHS)

Source: Eurostat, Markit, Thomson Reuters Datastream, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. PMI is Purchasing Managers’ Index where a score of 50 indicates that economic activity is neither expanding nor contracting, above 50 indicates expansion. PMI data is shown with quarterly frequency. Data as of 12 June 2018.

Our central expectation is that these skirmishes do not escalate into a full trade war. Although “cheap” imports challenge some sectors and workers in the US, the vast majority of US households benefit from these lower prices. Much does depend on how these policies are received domestically as the midterm elections approach. It is unclear at this stage whether the US administration has a political incentive to dial it up or dial it down before voters go to the ballot box. This uncertainty alone argues for a more cautious approach to risk.


The US administration has also pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which has helped push oil prices towards USD 80/barrel. The combination of trade concerns and higher oil prices is weighing on European sentiment. The composite purchasing managers’ index-the main survey of business sentiment-now suggests the eurozone is growing at around 2%, rather than a level closer to 3% at the end of last year. We have seen a similar downturn in the sentiment of Japanese companies, which are similarly trade and oil sensitive.

We expect global trade concerns to recede and the underlying drivers of the European recovery to reassert themselves through the second half of the year. European banks are now on a much firmer footing and competition is seeing interest rates fall and lending standards loosen. The labour market is also healing. Employment is growing as fast in Europe as in the US, which is helping push consumer confidence towards record highs.

Falling unemployment is supporting consumer confidence and spending

Index level

Source: European Commission, MSCI, Thomson Reuters Datastream, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Light grey columns indicate recession. Data as of 12 June 2018.


The Italian election created considerable volatility over the course of May as the market digested the implications of a government led by the two main populist parties (Five Star Movement and Northern League).1 We still have a lot to learn about the new Italian coalition’s economic and political priorities. However, many of the more extreme policies that each party included in early manifestos—such as a referendum on the euro--have been abandoned.

1A populist shift in Italy but not a systemic risk, Maria Paola Toschi, J.P. Morgan Asset Management, 24 May 2018.

Fiscal spending is likely to extend the cycle, but does carry inflation risks

% (LHS); % of nominal GDP (RHS)

Source: BEA, J.P. Morgan, Thomson Reuters Datastream, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Unemployment rate is a yearly average. Fiscal balance and unemployment for 2018 and 2019 are using J.P. Morgan Securities Research forecasts. Light grey columns indicate recessions determined by NBER. Data as of 12 June 2018.

The main features of the programme at this stage are tax cuts and a universal income for Italy’s poorest households. This could serve to boost Italian activity in the near term, but such fiscal largesse may also trouble the European Commission given that Italy’s government debt to GDP already stands at 130%.

After an alleged corruption scandal, Spain’s prime minister was also forced to leave office. We don’t believe either of these political developments will destabilise the region politically or economically in the short term. However, it will likely make Germany more reluctant to engage in the risk-sharing that is required for further integration. Progress on the banking union is looking less likely, which does increase the vulnerabilities of the region in the next downturn. This has served to weigh on the prospects for European equity benchmarks, given their high weighting to financials.


By the 18-19 October summit, we expect a Brexit deal to be agreed-one that preserves trade in both goods and services.2 Such a positive outcome may not seem obvious in the coming weeks, given the concessions that will need to be accepted by certain factions of the UK Conservative Party. The headlines will likely get worse before they get better.

If our expectations are proved to be correct, there could be considerable implications for UK markets. We would expect to see a broad-based increase in sterling, which would in turn lower UK inflation at a time when real wages are rising. The outlook for the UK consumer could improve significantly into next year. Given that unemployment stands at a multi-decade low, it is likely to be increasingly clear that the economy does not need such accommodative monetary policy. We expect the Bank of England to raise the base rate of interest by 25 basis points (bps) in November and to hike twice more next year.

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