-

In Focus

Weekly market insights

Our weekly investment publication

Welcome to the latest edition of In Focus

In Focus is our weekly investment publication where we try and look beyond the noise of the present, and provide context for the longer term investor.

The publication includes a market report covering the week’s developments along with the latest perspectives from our Chief Investment Office.

The main articles focus on engaging topical issues with contributions from across our investments team including Behavioural Finance, Asset Allocation, Portfolio Management, and Manager Selection.

  • From the Chief Investment Office

    Should investors pay much attention to today’s news?

    This was a week that offered up a little red meat for the optimists, even if some of it looked a funny colour. Data on US inflation played ball, as did similar statistics in the UK. Meanwhile, election results from India, Mexico, South Africa, and the EU Parliament mostly stopped short of the dystopia fantasised by many commentators.

    Snap elections in France are certainly a new tactical risk for investors to contemplate. Nonetheless, the outlook for the world economy and the capital markets that roughly reflect her prospects remain better than feared. This week, we look at all of this and our latest positioning.

    Inflation

    Benign US inflation data (CPI) was welcomed with open arms by investors. A little more confidence was restored to the potential for interest rate cuts in the second half of the year and stock markets muscled on. Both the headline and anatomy of the CPI data were encouraging. Signs that some of the lagging price stress, left over from various pandemic era supply snarl-ups, are finally relaxing helped restore a bit of confidence in the outlook for disinflation (and interest rate cuts).

    In the UK, different data had a similar if less pronounced effect. Signs of a softer tone to the labour market, with unemployment rising and wages softening, helped reinforce the potential for a summer start to the interest rate cutting cycle. The fact that wages cooled even as the step-up in the national living wage registered in the data should help soothe central banker nerves.

    Democracy on trial

    2024 is well known as a year of elections, from free and fair to performative and everything in between. The latest batch contained plenty for the political analysts to pour over. Detailed analysis of the outcomes is best found elsewhere. However, there were a couple of points that we would highlight for investors.

    First, India’s giant democracy has spoken, and the message is a little unexpected in some ways. Despite a sustained crackdown of civic and democratic space by the incumbent, the opposition fared a lot better than expected. There are still ways to get the necessary structural reform1 agenda through, but it will require coalition support.

    For the EU Parliamentary elections, the story is also more nuanced than feared. There has been a tilt to the right, with the Greens and others suffering. However, importantly the centre held. The agenda will shift a little as a result, but not deleteriously.

    President Macron’s decision to call a snap election certainly surprised most. There are, as always, a range of potential outcomes. France’s two round system has so far proved successful in keeping more disruptive political forces at bay. The most likely scenario remains that it will perform the same trick again. However, the point for investors to take note of is the insertion of a little extra compensation in French assets in the immediate aftermath.

    This hints at a point we have made many times on politics and investing. It goes back to the idea that there is some relationship between risk and return. To that extent, in order to incentivise an investor to own an asset or lend to an entity, there should be some compensation2 in the expected return for the associated risks.

    This is precisely what we saw in the aftermath of President Macron’s shock announcement. Whether this extra compensation in French and France-adjacent assets is sufficient is another matter of course. There is plenty of art in here and risk premia are not observable. However, the extra expected return is not only trying to wrestle with both the likelihood of a Le Pen Presidency, but also what support such a Presidency would enjoy in the National Assembly, and ultimately what of the agenda would make it through to policy.

    It is likely mistaken to simply transpose a strong showing for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) in the European Parliamentary elections straight onto the French Parliamentary equivalent. National elections are approached very differently by the populace.3

    Investment conclusion

    There continues to be plenty for investors to get their heads around. We would continue to argue that much can be ignored. The politics of the moment likely reflects the prolonged stagnation of the post Global Financial Crisis period. Flatlining productivity growth has certainly made the division of the economic pie more challenging and adversarial.

    Happily, there are multiplying signals that many economies are beginning to wake up from that decade-plus slumber. In such a context, the key for investors is to worry about the right things – allowing jarring, short-term political headlines to bludgeon you into investment hiding is likely a mistake as the world economy continues to prove worthy of the innocent-until-proven-guilty tag.

  • Quarterly deep dive

    Article 1: Asian opportunities

    In this short article, we summarise the insights of Will Hobbs (Will), Samson Olasoji (Samson), and Rob Mansell (Rob) as they reflect on the investor opportunities and challenges coming out of Asia.

    Samson: Global economic warmth would appear to be spreading. The early warning indicators for the manufacturing and trade cycles are showing uneven signs of life (Figure 1).

    Figure 1: Trade and manufacturing cycles turning

    Trade and PMI heat map suggests an improvement in the trend in the last few months.

    Source: Bloomberg, Barclays. Chart data from February 2022 to March 2024

    Meanwhile, there is plenty going on in Asia even without the global cycle’s turn. From corporate governance reform to precarious property, I know this has been on your team’s radar for a while, Will. So, what gets you and the team most excited about Asia at the moment?

    Will: An economist called Julian Simon controversially argued back in the 1980s that the most routinely underestimated resource on this planet is us – humans. At the heart of a series of rebuttals to the prominent Malthusians of the day was his revolutionary idea that "Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air.”4

    Buttressed by reams of statistics (and outcomes5), he credibly flipped worries about overpopulation on their head. Given humankind’s innate creativity, our problem-solving capacity, the truth of economic growth is that the more of us there are, the better life gets.

    The fact that well over half of the world’s population lives in Asia, a part of the world where educational attainment6 and wider opportunity are soaring, argues for strategic investors to be excited and invested almost come what may.

    Samson: Nonetheless, investors in the region have to grapple with several major themes, from the slow-motion implosion of China’s real estate sector to varying demographic headwinds?

    Will: Correct, this is certainly one of the areas where we feel our due diligence and research clout can really set us apart. Our best-thinking funds and portfolios have quite surgical exposure to the various parts of Asia, both emerging and developed.

    There are, as you say, some huge forces, both positive and negative, to factor in for the investors we handpick on clients’ behalf. Chinese policymakers have an extremely delicate tightrope to walk, with lower trend growth surely at the end of it. However, the opportunities for careful, well-informed investors are still considerable.

    Samson: Rob, you are part of the team that finds those best-in-class investors for us, and keeps them on their toes. Give us a sense of some of the views from on the ground as such.

    Rob: Well, as Will says, in spite of some of the worries, there is still plenty for investors to get their teeth into in the region. Whether you look at the reforms gathering momentum in Japanese, Korean, or other such markets, or the continuing emergence of a truly massive consumer market, Asia should be impossible to ignore for diversified investors.

    That said, this isn’t a blanket endorsement and we see considerable value in being active and selective. As an example, if you take the corporate governance reforms across the region, in many cases, there is good reason for scepticism.

    There are considerable (corporate) cultural and other barriers to action, and progress can take years. In such cases, we feel that our clients really benefit from our ability to have investors in the region, holding management feet to the fire, assessing the likelihood and level of change relative to the market’s pricing.

    With regards to China, I think we need to remember that whatever the narrative for the economy as a whole, there is a lot going on under the hood. If you just look at how far certain consumer goods have penetrated into households, from fridges to cars, you can see that there may be some way to go.

    The Chinese market is significantly larger and more diverse than any other market in Asia outside of Japan, with thousands of listed companies for investors to choose from, spanning more than 60 industries. Again, this is a market where we feel we benefit from having experts on the ground.

    Article 2: Europe’s moment?

    The economic outlook is brightening noticeably for the Europe. Both lead and ‘hard’ indicators are showing important signs of life in the manufacturing sector (Figure 1).

    Figure 1: Signs of life in Europe

    There are signs of life in global manufacturing, reflected in Europe’s manufacturing PMI.

    Source: Barclays, Bloomberg, Factset. Chart data from April 2021 to March 2024.

    Meanwhile, as this latest inflationary hump passes, we expect some swagger to return to the region’s consumers. Positive real income growth, allied to balance sheet strength and a central bank on target to begin cutting interest rates in the summer, should all help. Could it finally be time for the region’s equity markets to make up some lost ground? (Figure 2)

    Figure 2: US stocks have trounced Europe

    Discrete years' US stocks versus European stocks shows how dominant the former have been in the period since the Great Financial Crisis.

    Source: Barclays, Factset. Chart data from December 2010 to December 2023.

    The relevance of the (distant) past

    There are many reasons for this relative shortfall. One important one has been persistent doubts about the life expectancy of the euro project. For much of the period since the great financial crisis, the region has been assailed by crises that would threaten to shatter it and inflict redenomination risk on would-be investors. To that extent, the weight of history has perhaps been underestimated throughout this period.

    It would be a mistake to assume that the European project was dreamt up a couple of decades ago by some grey-faced bureaucrats. It can be plausibly argued that the unfinished union you see today can date its origins easily back to the 18th century. Then, as now, there were myriad motivations behind the uniting of a diverse group of cultures and languages.

    Some of these early integrationist instincts can be seen as a response to a then revitalised Russia, unleashed by the reforms of Peter the Great. However, much can also be chalked up to attempts to build ‘perpetual peace’7 on a continent that was then ravaged by seemingly perpetual war. Interestingly, many contemporary texts and sources talk of the commercial benefits of such a union. But efforts to forge one struggled to gain traction.

    As the 19th century aged, fresh impetus for union came from a somewhat surprising source – North America. By the end of the century, the rise of America was becoming increasingly impossible for Europeans to ignore. Its rise provided two kinds of stimulus for the Europeans: first, its booming economic clout and geopolitical swagger were of course seen as a threat, to which the logical response would be to pool European resources. However, America also provided a successful template for the benefits of the clubbing together of a diverse group of states. It was George Washington, in a letter to the (French) American revolutionary war hero Lafayette, who is thought to have first coined the phrase ‘United States of Europe’. That language did not become prominent in Europe until the middle of the 19th century, but it still illustrates that the idea is far from a new one.

    Nonetheless, plans for union again stumbled. This time it was the mutual antipathy between the French and Germans that proved the major stumbling block, particularly over the contested region of Alsace Lorraine.It took the horrors of two world wars to apply the final push for Europe to start the process of integration in a more meaningful fashion. The treaties of Paris and Rome in the 1950s were the first real building blocks towards the incomplete union we see today.

    Back to present day

    There are many unfinished aspects to the European project as noted. One of the most important from an investment perspective is the Capital Markets Union. Fragmented capital markets in the region have resulted in a continuing reliance on overseas investors. As an example of the divide, a little over 10% of household wealth in Europe is unevenly in equities versus around a third in the US.8 So far reforms in this area have been slow moving, however progress is happening9 all the same.

    The politics of the region remain complicated of course, and a rash of regional and super regional elections in the coming quarters will no doubt provide plenty for the headline writers. However, there are positive developments here too, from the victory of centrist forces in Poland despite much reduced civic space, to a so far more-moderate-than-feared Italian approach.

    Investment conclusion

    Investment in European equities comes with baggage. The region’s stocks, like the underlying economy, are highly sensitive to the cyclical and other vagaries of global trade. War continues to rage on its Eastern edge. The political conversation moves slowly, sometimes imperceptibly. However, much of this is well-known and in the price as such.

    However, in the context of that prolonged relative slumber, investors may be only slowly waking up to some of the more positive trends. Alongside a more helpful tailwind from the global manufacturing cycle, and the resilient underlying health of consumers, you are starting to see company bosses in the region buying back stock like rarely seen before. Could it be time for other investors to follow their lead?

    Article 3: A long way to fall?

    “Come on Cohaagen… give these people air” (Total Recall)

    As US stock markets again loiter around all-time highs, it is hard to escape the sense that a juddering return to earth, wherever that may be, is a step closer.

    The idea of putting one’s hard-earned money to work in an index (price or total return) that sits at all-time highs is surely counterintuitive, a perversion of the time-honoured advice to ‘buy low, sell high’? That is, of course, even more the case when the world around continues to appear so inconsistent with a buoyant stock market.

    Where is earth?

    That stock markets are often at the mercy of alternating cycles of extrapolative euphoria and pessimism is accurate. However, as we’ve noted many times before, timing these mood swings is easier said than done, whilst even not attempting to do so can be less costly than imagined. The fact that ‘the ground’ – represented by corporate profits for stock markets – tends to rise over time, provides a forgiving context for investors.

    As the world economy grows, so too do corporate profits. The relationship between the two is not as precise as forecasters would like, but there is no fixed limit for either. The world economy is now 77% larger than it was at the end of 2007 (47% in per capita terms) and 24% bigger since the end of 2019 (18% in per capita terms).

    That growth means a larger marketplace for the various companies that constitute the world’s stock market indices (Figure 1).

    Figure 1: GDP, corporate profits, and stock prices

    Plotting GDP, corporate profits, and share prices shows the relationship between the three.

    Source: Barclays, Factset. Chart data from March 1950 to March 2024.

    In theory, in a growing economy, stock markets should be reaching all-time highs every day, because corporate profits will be too (Figure 2).

    Figure 2: All time highs are common 

    Stock markets should reach all-time highs regularly in a growing economy because corporate profits will be.

    Source: Barclays, Factset. Chart data from October 2006 to April 2024.

    What about valuations?

    Not a week passes without one commentator or other telling us how dangerously expensive stocks are – the monetary experiments of the post-crisis era are perceived to have loosened gravity’s grip on equities, particularly in the US. There is much to say on this debate, but probably the most important point to reiterate for investors looking to the next 12 months, and even a little beyond, is that valuations are simply not a very good predictor of returns over this time frame. The last 12 months of stellar returns, amidst apparently asphyxiate valuations, pays ready testament to that fact.

    It is also worth keeping in mind that we are always investing in a slightly different index as well. This perhaps also goes some way to illustrating the difficulties in looking to history for precise answers on valuation multiples – when does the comparison cease to be relevant due to changes in accounting standards, index composition, and wider economic context?

    Valuation is, nonetheless, an important input into longer term returns. Today’s levels, although not as alarming as the caricature in our opinion, certainly suggest that we should temper our expectations for the next 10 years a little.

    Investment conclusion

    We do not yet see stock markets as disconnected from an increasingly vibrant economic reality. Neither do we yet see the signs of economic hubris or excess demand that herald the end of some economic cycles.

    This suggests that the all-time highs recently rung in by various stock markets around the world are another staging post to be ignored. Corporate profits should continue to grow and so with them shareholder returns.

    Analysts are no doubt expecting too much earnings growth – they usually do. Higher interest rates should crimp valuations a little too. However, even taking these into account, stock markets still look the best game in town for investors, both for the short and long term. Continue to invest accordingly. 

    Appendix: Annual discrete returns (%)

    S&P 500

    2019

    28.9

    2020

    16.3

    2021

    26.9

    2022

    -19.4

    2023

    24.2

    Source: Bloomberg, Barclays

Legal disclaimer

This document has been prepared by Barclays, for information purposes only. Barclays does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of information which is contained in this document and which is stated to have been obtained from or is based upon trade and statistical services or other third party sources. Any data on past performance, modelling or back-testing contained herein is no indication as to future performance. No representation is made as to the reasonableness of the assumptions made within or the accuracy or completeness of any modelling or back-testing. All opinions and estimates are given as of the date hereof and are subject to change. The value of any investment may fluctuate as a result of market changes. The information in this document is not intended to predict actual results and no assurances are given with respect thereto.

The information contained herein is intended for general circulation. It does not take into account the specific investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any particular person. The investments discussed in this publication may not be suitable for all investors. Advice should be sought from a financial adviser regarding the suitability of the investment products mentioned herein, taking into account your specific objectives, financial situation and particular needs before you make any commitment to purchase any such investment products. Barclays and its affiliates do not provide tax advice and nothing herein should be construed as such. Accordingly, you should seek advice based on your particular circumstances from an independent tax adviser. Neither Barclays, nor any affiliate, nor any of their respective officers, directors, partners, or employees accepts any liability whatsoever for any direct or consequential loss arising from any use of or reliance upon this publication or its contents, or for any omission. Past performance does not guarantee or predict future performance.

The products mentioned in this document may not be eligible for sale in some states or countries, nor suitable for all types of investors. This document shall not constitute an underwriting commitment, an offer of financing, an offer to sell, or the solicitation of an offer to buy any securities described herein, which shall be subject to Barclays’ internal approvals. No transaction or services related thereto is contemplated without Barclays’ subsequent formal agreement. Unless expressly stated, products mentioned herein are not guaranteed by Barclays or its affiliates or any government entity.

This document is not directed to, nor intended for distribution or use by, any person or entity in any jurisdiction or country where the publication or availability of this document or such distribution or use would be contrary to local law or regulation, including, for the avoidance of doubt, the United States of America. It may not be reproduced or disclosed (in whole or in part) to any other person without prior written permission. You should not take notice of this document if you know that your access would contravene applicable local, national or international laws. The contents of this publication have not been reviewed or approved by any regulatory authority.

Barclays offers investment products and services to its clients through Barclays Bank PLC and its subsidiary companies. Barclays Bank PLC is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority and is a member of the London Stock Exchange and Aquis. Registered in England. Registered No. 1026167. Registered Office: 1 Churchill Place, London E14 5HP

Barclays Investment Solutions Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is a member of the London Stock Exchange and Aquis. Registered in England. Registered No. 02752982. Registered Office: 1 Churchill Place, London E14 5HP

Barclays offers banking and credit products to its clients through Barclays Bank UK Plc. Barclays Bank UK PLC is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Registered in England. Registered No. 9740322. Registered Office: 1 Churchill Place, London E14 5HP

You may also be interested in

Listen to our podcasts

Our podcasts offer something for all types of investors. Our weekly Word on the Street podcasts feature experts who can help make sense of the latest financial news and events impacting stock markets all over the world.

Regular Word on the Street - Money Plan podcasts aim to help people who want to learn more about managing their money, including how to begin investing. Experts explore a range of topics in an easy-to-understand and jargon-free manner.

Views on the News

A weekly round-up of the leading business, personal finance, investment, savings and pensions stories in the press from the past week, including analysis and opinion from our experts.

The value of investments can fall as well as rise. You may get back less than you originally invested.

What would you like to do next?

Read more articles

Learn more about the latest economic issues, gain market insights and discover some of the trends shaping the world today.

Explore investments

A diverse range of investment solutions – there to help you preserve and grow your wealth.