Saturday, 22 December 2018

Biggest Global Macro Misses of 2018

As another year comes to a close, it is time to review how the macro consensus forecasts for 2018 that were made a year ago fared. Each December, I compile consensus economic and financial market forecasts for the year ahead. When the year comes to a close, I take a look back at the forecasts and compare them with what we now know actually occurred. I do this because markets generally do a good job of pricing in consensus views, but then move --  sometimes dramatically --  when a different outcomes transpire. When we look back, with 20/20 hindsight, we can see what the macro surprises were and interpret the market movements the surprises generated. It's not only interesting to look back at the notable global macro misses and the biggest forecast errors of the past year, it also helps us to understand the macro drivers of 2018 investment returns and to assess whether they are sustainable.

Real GDP

In 2018, forecasters accurately forecast global real GDP growth. Weighted average real GDP growth for the twelve countries we monitor is now expected to be 3.7%, exactly matching the consensus forecast of 3.7% made a year ago. While the global growth forecast was bang on, the individual country GDP forecasts were not. In the twelve economies, real GDP growth exceeded forecasters' expectations in just three and fell short of expectations in nine. The weighted mean absolute forecast error for the twelve countries was 0.4 percentage points, about the same as the 2017 error.

Based on current estimates, 2018 real GDP growth for the US exceeded the December 2017 consensus forecast by 0.5 percentage points (pct pts). Growth also slightly exceeded consensus expectations in Australia and China. The biggest downside misses on growth for 2018 were for Brazil (-1.5 pct pts), Japan (-0.7), Russia (-0.6), the Eurozone (-0.3), and India (-0.3). On balance, a big upside miss on US growth was offset by downside misses in other economies.

CPI Inflation

Just as for global growth, the consensus forecast for global inflation for 2018 was very accurate. Average inflation for the twelve countries is now expected to be 2.4% compared with a consensus forecast of 2.4%. And just as for growth, upside misses just offset downside misses. Six of the twelve economies are on track for higher inflation than forecast, while inflation was lower than expected in six countries. The weighted mean absolute forecast error for 2018 for the 12 countries was 0.4 percentage points, down from a 0.6% average miss last year.

The biggest downside misses on inflation were in India (-1.9 pct pts), and the UK (-0.3). The biggest upside miss on inflation were in Mexico (+1.1 pct pts) and the Eurozone (+0.6%).

Central Bank Policy Rates

In 2018, economists' forecasts of central bank policy rates were, on balance, slightly too high. Four central banks hiked their policy rate by more than expected while six central banks hiked less than expected.

In the DM, the Fed hiked the Fed Funds rate four times, one more than the consensus expected. The ECB and the BoJ met expectations by leaving their policy rates unchanged. The Bank of Canada and the Bank of England hiked slightly less than the consensus expectation. The Reserve Bank of Australia remained on hold instead of hiking once as the consensus expected. In the EM, as usual, the picture was more mixed. Brazil's central bank was able to cut its policy rate more than expected. Russia was expected to cut its policy rate but was unable to do so. In China, the PBoC stayed on hold, as expected, but did cut reserve requirements as the economy struggled to meet the government's growth target. India's RBI was expected to remain on hold in 2018, but had to raise its' policy rate. Mexico extended the trend of late 2016-17, tightening more than expected as inflation rose in response to the weakening of the Mexican Peso. 

10-year Bond Yields

In nine of the twelve economies, 10-year bond yield forecasts made one year ago were too high. 

In all six DM economies that we track, 10-year bond yields surprised strategists to the downside. The weighted average DM forecast error was -0.30 percentage points, the same as for 2017. The biggest misses were in Australia (-0.74 pct pts), Canada (-0.57), the Eurozone (proxied by Germany, -0.55), the UK (-0.35 pct. pt.). In the EM, the picture was mixed as bond yields were lower than forecast in Brazil (-1.78 pct pts) and Korea (-0.75). However, bond yields rose more than expected in Russia (+1.91), Mexico (+1.20) and India (0.36).

Exchange Rates

All of the major currencies were weaker than expected against the US dollar. The weighted mean absolute forecast error for the 11 currencies versus the USD was 7.5%.

The USD was expected to strengthen following the election of Donald Trump as President. In 2017, however, USD unexpectedly weakened reflecting early delays in implementation of Trump's promised tax cuts, hesitation to tighten by the Fed, unexpected tightening by some other central banks and ebbing political uncertainties in emerging economies. In 2018, as Trump's tax cuts took effect, the Fed hiked four times and shrank its' balance sheet, and Trump began his strategy of raising tariffs to pressure trading partners into more advantageous trade arrangements, the USD outperformed all expectations.

The biggest FX forecast misses for the DM economies were for the Canadian Dollar (which was 11.4% weaker than expected), the UK Pound (-9.3%), the Australian Dollar (-8.5%) and the Euro (-8.0%). EM currencies also weakened sharply against USD, led by the Russian Ruble (-17.2%), Brazilian Real (-15.5%) and Indian Rupee (-6.7%). 

Equity Markets

News outlets gather equity market forecasts from high profile US strategists and Canadian bank-owned dealers. A year ago, equity strategists were optimistic that North American stock markets would turn in a modest, if unspectacular, positive performance in 2018. This call was far off the mark. As shown below, those forecasts called for 2018 gains of 5.7% for the S&P500 and 4.9% for the S&PTSX Composite.

As of December 21, 2018, the S&P500, was down 9.2% year-to-date (not including dividends) for an error of -14.9 percentage points. The S&PTSX300 was down 14.0% for an error of -18.9 percentage points.

Although global real GDP growth, global inflation and major central bank actions were close to consensus forecasts, the divergences from consensus expectations across countries proved a toxic mix for equities. Stronger than expected US growth and a slight uptick of inflation were met with a slightly quicker normalization of the US policy rate and a steady reduction in the size of the Fed's balance sheet. As the Fed persisted with plans to continue tightening amid slowing growth in Europe, Japan and Emerging Markets, equity markets fell like dominoes. Declines began in EM, spread to Europe and Japan, and finally reached US equity markets in the final two months of 2018. 

Globally, stock market performance (in local currency terms) was horrible.  The Eurozone and Canada led declines in DM equity markets. China, Korea and Mexico led decliners in EM markets. Brazil and India, bucking the global trend, posted gains.  

Investment Implications

In 2018 global macro forecast misses were once again quite different from those of recent years. The accuracy of global growth and inflation forecasts masked unexpected divergences in growth and inflation from expectations for individual countries. Stronger than expected US growth, faster than expected Fed tightening and Trump's tariff increases saw the USD strengthen against all of the major currencies. This mix was particularly difficult for EM economies, including China, with large amounts of USD-denominated debt. As EM economies slowed, crude oil and other commodity prices fell sharply, dimming prospects for countries like Canada and Australia. 

Stronger than expected growth had US stocks outperforming bonds for most of the year. Market concerns that the Fed would continue tightening even as growth outside the US was faltering contributed to the sharp fall in global equity prices in 4Q18. By year end, both US equity and bond prices had fallen, but bonds outperformed as risk aversion took hold.

For Canadian investors, the depreciation of CAD against the USD meant that returns (in CAD terms) on government bonds denominated in US dollars were boosted if the USD currency exposure was left unhedged. The only slight positive returns for Canadian investors came in Canadian and unhedged foreign bonds. The outperformance of globally diversified portfolios over stay-at-home Canadian portfolios continued in 2018. 

As 2019 economic and financial market forecasts are rolled out, it is worth reflecting that, for a variety of reasons, such forecasts have been a poor guide to investment decisions for several years running. While forecasters' optimism about global growth remains in place, cracks are now forming. 2019 will undoubtedly once again see some large consensus forecast misses, as new surprises arise. 

Last year in this space, I said: 
The 2017 macro surprises, higher than expected growth and lower than expected inflation, are now being built in to 2018 views. This actually increases the chances of disappointments that are negative for equities and other risk assets. 
Although it took until late in the year, those disappointments did arrive in 2018. This has left the global economy and financial markets in an uncertain and somewhat precarious position heading into 2019. With central banks focussed on "normalizing" monetary policy, the buoyant financial market performance that accompanied massive expansion of central bank balance sheets is increasingly looking like it's going into reverse.