Valuation discounts for the UK and Europe ex-UK relative to the US stand close to their widest levels in over 30 years, and cannot be explained by index composition alone.

Stock market concentration is increasingly under scrutiny. Since the start of 2023, 60% of S&P 500 returns can be attributed to just three companies and the magnificent seven stocks (Microsoft, Nvidia, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Meta and Tesla) now account for a mammoth 32% of the index. At a regional level, US companies now make up a near-record 64% of the global equity market.

These leadership dynamics are clearly not new: macroeconomic factors have been working in favour of the US for most of the past 15 years. While Japan battled deflation, Europe grappled with a sovereign debt crisis and subsequent austerity. Emerging markets, meanwhile, dealt first with the 2013 taper tantrum and then a series of China-related shocks. In contrast, the US economy enjoyed a long and steady expansion. With tax cuts in 2017 providing an additional tailwind, the earnings growth of US companies far outstripped their regional counterparts, thanks to both faster margin expansion and stronger revenue growth.

Sector performance has also played a part. Declining bond yields and weaker commodity prices helped global growth stocks outperform their value counterparts by 160% points from 2010 to 2023, creating challenges for regional indices, such as Europe, where sector composition results in a value tilt.

This combination of macroeconomic outperformance and growth sector leadership has made it hard for investors to look past recent winners. The magnificent seven — and many US stocks, more generally —boast strong margins and impressive returns on equity. Yet while these structural factors are unlikely to change any time soon, we see several reasons why stock market returns are likely to broaden out going forward.

First, valuation dispersion in today’s stock markets appears extreme. In the S&P 500, the top 10 stocks trade on a 12-month forward earnings multiple of 28x, compared to 19x for the rest of the market. Yet if the US megacap ‘AI architects’ are going to continually benefit from strong demand, a growing number of ‘AI consumers’ elsewhere in the index will need to be identifying AI-related benefits — suggesting earnings upgrades should be in order for other sectors. If AI-related hype instead turns out to be unfounded, a “catch down” scenario for the megacaps relative to other names is more likely. Either way, we expect US equity returns to become far less dependent on just a handful of names.

At a regional level, the supportive economic outlook we anticipate is much less obviously priced into equity markets outside of the US. Valuation discounts for the UK and Europe ex-UK relative to the US now stand close to multi-decade record levels, and cannot be explained by index composition alone, with larger than average discounts vs. US counterparts present in almost every sector.

With economic momentum now turning in Europe’s favour, valuation gaps appear too wide. This is particularly true in European small caps, which stand to benefit disproportionately from earlier European Central Bank (ECB) rate cuts given their dependency on floating rate debt and where the usual valuation premium vs. large caps has been eroded. Any euro weakness stemming from a relatively more dovish ECB is another potential catalyst for European exporters. We are a little more cautious on the prospects for outperformance of Asian markets, with China’s economy still sluggish, Indian markets looking expensive, and Japanese stocks already having re-rated substantially, as we explain in our recent On the Minds of Investors publication.

The global interest rate environment is also likely to support broadening returns across sectors. Negative rates hurt European bank profitability during the 2010s, with European financial sector earnings growing by just 68% from 2010 to 2023, compared to 680% in the US. 

A return to ultra-low interest rates appears highly unlikely, even if rates are set to drift lower over the coming year. Market participants appear to agree with this view as medium-term rate expectations have shifted upwards everywhere, especially in Europe. While higher interest rates boost net interest margins, this benefit can sometimes be offset by larger loss provisions if households prove unable to meet repayments. In today’s environment, however, economic and labour market resilience in the face of higher interest rates reduces the risk of losses, implying that higher-for-longer rates should support the earnings outlook for global financials.

It is not just banks that should benefit from higher-for-longer rates. If interest rates are higher due to stronger levels of nominal growth, cyclical sectors — such as industrials and materials, which are more closely connected to the performance of the economy — should also fare better. 

Another issue well worthy of attention is the likelihood of a less reliably negative stock-bond correlation. If economic shocks are more often caused by inflation spikes and not just growth slumps going forward, the case for a less interest-rate sensitive portfolio becomes stronger to avoid both stock and bond allocations being hit hard simultaneously. Take 2022 as an example, when commodity-heavy UK equities were one of the few assets to deliver positive total returns.

The potential impact of the US election is one key uncertainty. The 2017 tax cuts were cheered by equity investors, with S&P 500 earnings upgraded by 10% in the three months after the bill was passed into law. We do not believe that the experience of 2017–18 is the right template this time round. The US fiscal situation is far weaker today, and, while it’s possible that news of further stimulus could initially be taken positively, the potential for a disorderly bond market reaction that puts broad pressure on risk assets should not be dismissed lightly.

With valuations having risen across all markets over recent quarters, investors need to be humble about the outlook for medium-term returns. The US growth rally has been built on firm foundations, but valuations, interest rates and stock-bond correlations all support a rotation in leadership. Now is a good time to revisit equity allocations to ensure they are suitably set up to thrive in the conditions of the future, not the past.

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