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BlackRock Commentary: Staying invested amid new virus strain

Jean Boivin, Head of BlackRock Investment Institute together with Wei Li, Global Chief Investment Strategist, Vivek Paul, Senior Portfolio Strategist and Elga Bartsch, Head of Macro Research, all forming 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.

A new, highly contagious, virus strain could trigger growth downgrades, worsen risk sentiment and have significant sectoral impact. We are concerned about the human toll and expect renewed restrictions on activity. We still favor equities for now, but would change our stance if vaccines or were to prove futile. If they are effective, the strain only delays the restart oftreatments economic activity, and we would lean against any stock market pullbacks. Less growth now means more later.

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Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, with data from Refinitiv Datastream, November 2021. Notes: charts show the yield on U.S. and German 10-year benchmark inflation-linked government bonds.


News of a contagious new virus strain called Omicron and an ongoing COVID surge in Europe have hurt risk sentiment. We see this affecting services dependent on economic activity, but are less concerned about the broad macro picture for now. Vaccine campaigns so far have proven effective and versatile. It would be a game changer if the new strain were to significantly compromise vaccine effectiveness and question the restart, but there is no evidence of this yet. Government restrictions will be lighter and more targeted than previous lockdowns, we believe, and their effect on economic activity has been waning as the world has adapted. See our COVID-19 tracker for the latest trends. Most importantly, we still see negative real, or inflation-adjusted, yields supporting equities. Real yields had edged up before the virus news but are still hovering near record lows, as the chart shows. The reason is a more muted response to inflation, thanks to fiscal–monetary coordination to bridge the virus shock and central bank policies of letting inflation run a bit hot. We expect real yields to rise from here, but stay at historically low levels in the inflationary environment. This makes equities valuations look better than they otherwise would, and challenges cash and nominal bonds.

The emergence of Omicron caused government bond yields to fall sharply late last week, but we believe the direction of travel is still up. We see the Fed starting to gradually raise rates in 2022 as the economy no longer requires stimulus – assuming the virus strain does not derail the economic restart. This would push yields higher across the spectrum, keeping the outlook challenging for nominal bonds. We believe equities offer higher risk-adjusted returns and a potential buffer against inflation risks – especially as we see rates rising less than in previous hiking cycles – and less than markets expect.

We recently stress-tested this thesis as risks have risen that policymakers or markets misread the current spike in inflation. Inflation expectations could spiral upward or, conversely, central banks could tighten prematurely. Both scenarios would suggest higher policy rates than our base case, and spell trouble for both stocks and bonds. If the Fed were to react to inflation just like it has done in the past, it would start raising rates much faster and to a higher level than markets currently expect. This would abruptly end the monetary and fiscal policy revolution that has brought about massive debt levels and a higher tolerance for inflation – and turn us neutral on equities on a strategic horizon, as we explain in our latest Portfolio perspectives publication for professional investors.

We don’t think such a scenario is likely, as it would require the Fed to abandon or completely reinterpret its new policy framework. What really matters for long-term investors is the sum total of growth and rate increases, we believe, rather than the individual parts or timing. This applies to both COVID-related risks that slow the restart and to the Fed’s rate trajectory. It’s why our core strategic asset views – a broad preference for equities over nominal government bonds and credit – have remained stable through the noisy restart. Importantly, we see government bonds offering less portfolio diversification against equity selloffs than in the past at their historically low yield levels. 

The bottom line: Omicron could trigger growth downgrades, worsen risk sentiment and hit services sectors, especially in the near term. It could even question the restart if vaccines or treatments were to prove ineffective. If they are effective, the new strain only delays the restart, and we don’t see it changing the otherwise solid picture for equities: a powerful restart and the prospect of continued low real rates. We are leaning against COVID-related stock pullbacks for now as a result. 

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Past performance is not a reliable indicator of current or future results. Indexes are unmanaged and do not account for fees. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, with data from Refinitiv Datastream as of Nov. 25, 2021. Notes: The two ends of the bars show the lowest and highest returns at any point this year to date, and the dots represent current year-to-date returns. Emerging market (EM), high yield and global corporate investment grade (IG) returns are denominated in U.S. dollars, and the rest in local currencies. Indexes or prices used are, in descending order: spot Brent crude, MSCI USA Index, MSCI Europe Index, ICE U.S. Dollar Index (DXY), MSCI Emerging Markets Index, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index, J.P. Morgan EMBI Index, spot gold, Refinitiv Datastream Italy 10-year benchmark government bond index, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Broad Corporate Index, Refinitiv Datastream Germany 10-year benchmark government bond index and Refinitiv Datastream U.S. 10-year benchmark government bond index.


Market backdrop

Stocks and bond yields fell on news of the new virus strain late last week. Earlier in the week, yields had risen after Jerome Powell was nominated to a second term as Fed chair and Fed board member Lael Brainard as vice chair. This prompted the market to price out more dovish policy under a Brainard Fed. We expect the Fed’s interpretation of its employment objective to determine the timing of the kick-off on rates and their pace. We see inflation dropping from current levels and settling at a level higher than pre-COVID in 2022, as we expect a historically muted policy response to inflation.

Week Ahead

  • Nov 30:  China manufacturing PMI, euro area HICP flash, U.S. consumer confidence
  • Dec 1: U.S. ISM manufacturing PMI
  • Dec 3: U.S. unemployment rate and non- farm payrolls

U.S. payroll and unemployment data will be in focus this week, given the labor market’s relevance for the Fed’s rate decisions going forward. The Fed’s inflation target has been met, so now the key is how the Fed will interpret the other side of its mandate – full employment. The timing and trajectory of rate increases will depends on this. We see the Fed raising rates only in the middle of 2022 and expect a shallower rate path than in the past as part of a more muted response to inflation.

BlackRock’s Key risks & Disclaimers:

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of November 29th, 2021 and may change. The information and opinions are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This material may contain ’forward looking’ information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader.

The information provided here is neither tax nor legal advice. Investors should speak to their tax professional for specific information regarding their tax situation. Investment involves risk including possible loss of principal. International investing involves risks, including risks related to foreign currency, limited liquidity, less government regulation, and the possibility of substantial volatility due to adverse political, economic or other developments. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging/developing markets or smaller capital markets. 

Issued by BlackRock Investment Management (UK) Limited, authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered office: 12 Throgmorton Avenue, London, EC2N 2DL.

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BlackRock Commentary: Staying dynamic in our strategic views

BlackRock anticipates that the new macroeconomic environment, characterized by increased volatility, will lead to more frequent valuation changes across asset classes. While short-term outcomes may not always be influenced by valuations, they remain significant in the long run.

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