Jean Boivin, Head of the BlackkRock investment institute, together with Mike Pyle, Global Chief Investment Strategist, Elsa Bartsch, Head of Macro Research, and Scott Thiel, Chief Fixed Income Strategist, also all part of the BlackRock Investment Institute, share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.
The COVID-19 shock is accelerating structural trends in inequality, globalization, macro policy and sustainability. This is fundamentally reshaping the investment landscape and will be key to investor outcomes. Our Midyear outlook explains why the most important action investors need to take today is to review their strategic asset allocation to ensure portfolios are resilient to these trends.
The pandemic has supercharged a shift toward sustainability. Assets under management at environmental, social and governance (ESG)-mandated funds in the U.S. exceeded last year’s record levels at the end of May, even as markets had sold off. See the chart above. Sustainable flows are in their early stages, in our view, and the sustainability wave will likely unfold over years and decades. We also believe markets still under-appreciate the potential economic damage caused by climate change, as well as related opportunities such as the long-term rise in renewable energy. The pandemic has brought some setbacks in sustainability-related trends. For example, some governments have paused efforts to curb plastic use. Yet we believe these setbacks are temporary, and the pandemic has thrown spotlight on the “S” in ESG, as issues such as employee safety and social purpose of companies come to the fore. We see sustainability rising above the mere labels of environment, social and governance. A focus on sustainability can help portfolios achieve greater resilience to shocks, in our view.
The focus of the BlackRock Investment Institute’s virtual – but no-less real – Midyear Outlook Forum in early June was decisively on longer-term trends. The COVID-19 shock has pushed the world harder against four key limits we identified at our November forum: inequality, globalization, macro policy and sustainability. We have revamped our three investment themes to reflect the changes. Our new macro view is captured by the “Activity restart” theme as economies reopen at different speeds. A “Policy revolution” is taking place to cushion the pandemic’s shock, making this our second theme. Our third theme is “Real resilience,” as countries and sectors look set to make a comeback as diversifiers in a more fragmented world, offering resilience to real economy trends.
We highlight the importance of the “Real resilience” theme in particular. The structural shifts accelerated by the pandemic shock are already challenging the resilience of portfolios here and now. The chart on the previous page illustrated one such trend – a shift toward sustainable investing. Others include the intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry across multiple dimensions. In this increasingly bipolar world, investors need to balance the investment case for gaining exposure to both these engines of global growth, with possible investment restrictions on each side. We see structural portfolio resilience as much more than just relying on broad asset class correlations in public markets. It’s making sure portfolios are well positioned at regional, country and company level to underlying themes.
We believe what is needed today is a reassessment of the whole portfolio, not just a tweaking at the edges. On a strategic horizon, we highlight the fading role of nominal government bonds as their expected long-term returns fall into negative territory in developed markets. We instead prefer inflation-protected bonds as inflation risk builds up in coming years. We also view portfolio diversification as key, as return dispersion grows across regions, and within asset classes. On a tactical basis we maintain a modest pro-risk stance overall, and prefer credit to equities, favoring up-in-quality assets that have policy backstops and are higher up the corporate capital structure. We upgrade European equities to overweight, as we see the region as offering the most attractive exposure to any cyclical uptick due to its public health measures and ramped-up policy response.
Measures to contain the virus are gradually being eased in many developed economies. May’s data suggested the worst of the contraction may be behind us, but we see a bumpy restart in coming months. We are tracking the interplay of containment measures and mobility changes on activity as economies have started to reopen. The unprecedented policy response has boosted markets, leaving a potential resurgence of infections and policy implementation as key risks. U.S. Congress is headed for a fiscal cliff as jobless benefits, state support and payroll protection measures are expiring soon.
The U.S. job market data will be in focus. Consensus estimates point toward modest pickup in U.S. employment, yet there is a risk of a sizable decline. Markets will closely watch the U.S. COVID-19 case count trend this week and next, to gauge the development of the outbreak and its implication on the restart process of the economy.
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