fbpx
3 Reasons to Look at Investing Internationally in 2022

3 Reasons to Look at Investing Internationally in 2022

In 2021, the U.S. stock markets hit record highs almost 70 times, and the consensus is that the U.S. market is largely “expensive.” Such a snap view is confirmed by a variety of valuation metrics: price-to-earnings ratios (P/E) and forward P/E being chief among them. Moreover, the bond market is poised to face a rough 2022 because there is a growing consensus that the United States Federal Reserve Board (also known as the “Fed”) will also increase interest rates, which historically has caused bond prices to fall. Between this seeming domestic “rock and a hard place,” there are some areas that continue to look like good deals: one of which is international equities.

In this article, I will cite three key reasons why investing now in international markets might be a good long-term investment: or, in other words, explain why the U.S. is expensive and the rest of the world is not.

Currency and the Almighty Dollar

The U.S. dollar is relatively strong right now – and indeed might get stronger in the near future because the U.S. may raise interest rates as soon as March. Indeed, the dollar posted its best year since 2015 in 2021, and the U.S. dollar index (DXY) was up 6.5% in 2021

However, overall a stronger U.S. dollar will make international goods and services more competitive (or allow manufacturers to make more money) in the longer run. How does that work? In short, a stronger U.S. dollar means it is less expensive to buy foreign goods and services. If the dollar is weak versus the euro (let’s say $1 equals 0.8€), for example, a purchase of an automobile that costs 30,000€ would equal $36,000, and the automobile will be compared to those similarly costing $36,000. If, however, the dollar is strong (let’s say $1 equals 0.9€) a 30,000€ automobile would only cost $33,000. A manufacturer can deal with this in a variety of ways– it can aim to sell more cars at less price (instead of 10,000 cars at $36,000 try to sell 15,000 at $33,000) or the same number of cars at the original $36,000 price, booking the currency gain of $3,000. In either case, the firm will be helped by the stronger U.S. dollar.

The U.S. dollar being strong also has the effect of meaning that just as the foreign currency could theoretically buy more car for less– a stock originally priced in euro can also be bought for less. Indeed, foreign market returns for U.S. investors were hindered by approximately 5.2% by currency headwinds last year due to the strengthening U.S. dollar according to JP Morgan.

An additional tailwind of a strong dollar for international markets is that it frequently promotes international travel, improving many economies that depend on tourism for a large chunk of their GDP. However, the ongoing pandemic may lead to this effect being muted. Should COVID progress to an “endemic” rather than a pandemic, we’ll likely see an increase in travel to foreign countries buoyed by pent-up demand for travel and the ability to buy more with less.

(For those who prefer a video explainer from the perspective of U.S. companies, look here for an overview from the WSJ

Rest of the world GDP growth 

One of the ongoing beliefs is that the U.S. economy (and accordingly its stock market) is doing better because the U.S. economy is doing better than the rest of the world. This is not necessarily the case.

In fact, between 2012 and 2019 the GDP growth rate of the rest of the world surpassed that of the United States by 0.5% per year – though this was admittedly a cooling down as the rest of the world grew at a rate exceeding the U.S. by 1.2% from 2001-2011 according to the JP Morgan Guide to the Markets. In fact, the last time the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world in GDP growth was from 1992 until 2000. Despite this growth advantage, U.S. large-cap stocks have outpaced the rest of the world (the MSCI EAFE index) by roughly 275% over the last 14 years. (JPM)

Valuations

This might be the most compelling case for looking at non-U.S. equities going forward – an international note we’ve hit on in our Gimme Some Truth podcast before in this episode. As I noted in the introduction, the U.S. (particularly U.S. large-cap stocks) is trading very high relative to its longer-term P/E measures. There are several reasons for this, but a key one is the low-interest rates in the United States and a very strong run for U.S. technology over the last 10 years. On the other hand, despite negative interest rates, valuations of non-U.S. stocks have not soared. 

Indeed, relatively speaking, valuations for non-U.S. stocks are deeply discounted compared to the U.S. Again, according to the JP Morgan Guide to the Markets, the rest of the world’s forward price-to-earnings ratio (FPE) was at 14.1 versus the S&P 500’s 21.2 FPE. This is compared to a 20-year average of 13.3 FPE versus 15.5 FPE for the U.S. In other words, the rest of the world is trading at a 32.7% discount versus U.S. FPE, which is significantly off of its 20-year discount of 13.2% discount. Moreover, the rest of the world is yielding higher than the U.S. right now. On average, the U.S. has dividend yields about 1.6% less than the rest of the world (compared with a 1.1% average difference over the past 20 years).

Such data also apply as we look from region to region. For instance, Japan, despite macroeconomic forecasts of 3.2% growth next year, is currently trading below its 25-year forward P/E ratio. 

In short, even if we take into account that the rest of the world tends to trade at lower valuations historically, the rest of the world is trading at a discount in terms of price to earnings. 

There is an old saying in investing that the market can stay wrong longer than you can stay solvent. While we don’t go that far in our risk-taking, the 14-year ongoing out-performance of U.S. large caps has exceeded the longest previous period of out-performance by approximately 6.5 years and growing (the rest of the world outperformed the U.S. for 7.3 years from approximately 2001-2008; the longest period of U.S. out-performance was a little over six years during the 1990’s dot com boom). It is impossible to predict when the shift will occur, but from a long-term perspective, the rest of the world is looking like a better and better deal.

Keith Poniewaz, Ph.D.

The Year of Impossible Choices: 2022 Market Outlook and 2021 Review

The Year of Impossible Choices: 2022 Market Outlook and 2021 Review

In last year’s market outlook, I described the current state of global monetary policy as a giant exercise in price control, specifically, control of the cost of capital. An environment in which perpetually falling rates and equity premiums favor longer duration growth stocks, but hardly resulted in what might be described as widespread prosperity. 

The (short-lived) revenge of the bottom half

During the grand re-opening of 2021, for a brief moment, dare I say it, things seemed to be going well. Bolstered by massive government stimulus and a strong job market, something remarkable happened to the average American household: they got richer.

While household wealth rising is not surprising given equity, real estate, and cryptocurrency gains, what was truly remarkable was the relative gain attributable to the bottom 50% of American households, whose share of total wealth rose above 2.5% in Q3. While the percentage remains low in absolute terms, we had not seen this metric rise above 2% since the 2008 crisis, and 2.5% was last witnessed in the early 2000s.

A tight labor market, marked by the “great resignation” (an unusual number of people quitting their jobs), has certainly contributed to the slight, but noticeable, narrowing of inequalities. For the first time in years, the labor market appears to have shifted in favor of workers, who may be in a much stronger position to secure higher wages, strengthening their ability to accumulate wealth. Direct COVID relief payments and expended child credits also contributed to this continued improvement in household wealth.

Unfortunately, before anyone could celebrate a resurgence of the American middle class, a much bigger story would steal the headline: the return of inflation. In the short term, moderate levels of inflation can have a beneficial effect on the job market, support asset prices, ease debt burden, and even reduce income inequality. In the long term, however, the upside risk to inflation makes me less than enthusiastic about the potential for a continued trend in narrowing wealth inequalities. 

While higher inflation means that everyone, in aggregate, gets poorer, some might get hurt more than others. Over time, cost pressures are likely to favor owners of productive assets at the expense of small savers and wage earners. A recent analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model already highlights the increasing burden on middle-income family budgets, who spent about 7% more in 2021 for the same products they bought in 2020 or in 2019. (3)

The era of low inflation never started, now it may be ending

The return of higher inflation, in the form of her CPI numbers, was heralded as a momentous shift in the economic environment in 2021. After all, inflation has not been a major concern in most of the developed world in the last decade, some have even suggested that we lived in the era of low inflation, and central bank action certainly focused on fighting the perceived threat of deflation first and foremost.

I was never a huge believer in the idea of a “low-inflation era.” To be sure, we may have had moderate levels of inflation on average, but more importantly, we’ve had an era of uneven, patchy inflation, where falling prices in some areas were offset but rapid increases in others. 

What charts like the one above highlight, is that the supposed low-inflation era has, in fact, been an era of selective inflation. An era in which, broadly speaking, the price of things we don’t really need, like toys and electronics, has collapsed, but the price of things we need (say, food, housing, and healthcare…) has continued to rise. 

In this environment, it is perhaps no surprise that middle-class households hardly seemed to reap the benefits of low prices. All else being equal, and despite the prevailing inflationist narrative: no inflation is good, deflation is even better (how often have you complained about prices at the store being too low?). For two decades deflation has been limited to a relatively small segment of largely discretionary expenses, while higher costs in other products may have actually reinforced inequalities. 

Regardless of how the Consumer Price Index is composed, it is also important to recognize the limitation of the CPI (our policy makers’ main tool in measuring inflation). CPI is a complex set of data maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the years, its methodology has been revised multiple times, and most recent adjustments have tended, in my opinion, to make monetary policy look better. Some of the most convenient CPI adjustments include: substitutions (the idea that if something is too expensive, we’ll just buy something else, say lemons instead of bananas…) or, even better: hedonics (an adjustment made when a price increase isn’t actually deemed to be a price increase, but just a reflection of improved product features). Not to mention the fact that shelter, one of the largest components of CPI, is for the most part not collected using a market-based mechanism. Instead, most of the CPI’s shelter data comes from something called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER). OER is basically a survey of homeowners, who get asked a simple question about how much they think their property could be rented for (imagine calling your parents who’ve lived in their house since 1976, and asking them what they think the rent is). 

Regardless of how much I doubt inflation numbers, what became obvious in 2021 is that no amount of adjustments could make inflation look benign. Since March 2021, CPI inflation started exceeding the Federal Reserve’s 2% target and has continued to rise ever since.

In August 2020, the Federal Reserve implemented a new flexible approach to inflation, effectively warning the market that it may allow inflation to “run hot” for a while if it deemed necessary. We are now in our ninth month of excess inflation, and just how much more of these inflation numbers will be tolerated is unclear. 

Over the last few years, central bank officials have often felt the subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to keep their policy stance accommodative (remember Donald Trump praising Janet Yellen for being a “low-interest person?). But politicians and the general public can be fickle, and the pressure to remain accommodative can just as easily morph into a pressure to tighten. If inflation continues to take hold, being a low-interest rate kind of person may not look so flattering anymore.

The trillion-dollar checking account

I have long been telling clients that the pandemic could, somewhat counterintuitively, be the catalyst for higher inflation. By pushing governments and central banks to implement a combination of both extremely loose monetary and fiscal policy, they may just have poured fuel on a fire that had been simmering for years underneath the low CPI numbers. While 2020 saw unprecedented levels of new debt issuance and stimulus, a lot of promises only reached full implementation in 2021, which may explain the sudden, but somewhat delayed, change in inflation dynamics. 

The U.S. Department of Treasury’s general account with the Federal Reserve (effectively, the government’s checking account) spent most of 2020 swelling up to unprecedented levels: normally fairly steady at a balance of around $300 billion, it reached a balance of $1.8 trillion in mid-2020 at the height of the pandemic.

In contrast, 2021 was truly the year of the great spending spree, when checks were finally cashed, even as treasury bill issuance slowed. $1.6 trillion was promptly spent in a matter of months between February and July 2021. As Citi’s market strategist Matt King highlighted back in February 2021: the flood of cash created by the drawdown in the treasury’s general account (TGA) risked tripling the amount of bank reserves, and pushing rates even further towards zero or negative territory: “surfeit of liquidity and a lack of places to put it – hence the rally in short-rates to almost zero, with the risk of their going negative.” As King further notes, “if relative ‘real’, inflation-adjusted Treasury yields fall, it could weaken the dollar sharply (…) at the global level the TGA effect will indeed prove highly significant.

As shown above, real yield would indeed fall throughout 2021, to levels unprecedented in modern history, and one of the side effects of negative real yield may have been to propel the now-familiar “risk on” investment theme to new heights. We all thought money was cheap at -1% real rates in February, how about -6.5% In November? 

The treasury department wasn’t the only one spending. As it turns out, American households too were fast and loose with their checkbooks. Individual savings rates had risen during the pandemic and remained relatively elevated well into the beginning of 2021. Since March 2021 however, saving rates have fallen back to their pre-COVID levels.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps no surprise that the “buy everything” ethos, long limited only to financial assets, now seems to have spread into housing, commodities, energy, various consumption goods, and even used cars.

With gains of nearly 50% since December 2020, the Manheim Used Vehicle index outperformed both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones in 2021.

Impossible choices

Over the last decade, central bankers have been almost entirely focused on supporting the economy. With the threat of inflation only a distant concern, there has been basically no downside to perpetually flooding markets with free money. To be sure, central bankers have been fairly successful in averting deflationary fears and consistently driving down real (inflation-adjusted) rates. With short-term rates at zero and longer-dated bonds at historic lows, many observers felt that yields had nowhere else to go. Real, inflation-adjusted rates have no such lower bound. And as much of what the recent spike in inflation will be heralded as a change of regime, in many ways, it can also be seen as the culmination of a broader trend in lower real rates that started many years ago – and arguably as far back as the mid-80s.

With real yield deeply negative, and central bank balance sheets at all-time highs, 2021 brought the scale of global monetary policy to yet another record-breaking year. However, for the first time in over a decade, inflation may truly force central banking officials to tighten policy this time. So far, policy response in the U.S. has been mainly limited to tougher talk and a planned reduction of the pace of asset purchases (the now-famous “tapering”). While FOMC guidance does indicate an expectation of multiple rate hikes in 2022, the Federal Reserve will be walking a very fine line as it looks to change course.

One of the paradoxes of the current environment is the continued flattening of the yield curve. A flood of bank liquidity may have contributed to the collapse in real short-term rates but has not resulted in any real upward shift in long-dated bond yields. This could be interpreted in numerous ways. Perhaps the bond market is simply not buying the idea of long-term inflation or may think it raises the probability of a policy mistake (excessive tightening leading to a deflationary crisis), or perhaps the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program has simply distorted bond prices to such a degree that rates no longer reflect any realistic growth and inflation expectations. Whatever the case may be, hiking rates in this environment would mean running the risk of yield curve inversion: a situation where short-term rates would exceed long-term rates. While not always predictive of a crisis, an inverted yield curve generally sends a very negative signal and isn’t consistent with a healthy economy, in which opportunity cost should correlate positively with time.

Central banking officials are very aware of the risk, and the issue of curve flatness was explicitly brought up by members of the FOMC in their December meeting. There is a certain common-sense logic to the idea that, before resorting to traditional monetary tightening policies (raising short-term rates) the Federal Reserve should first get rid of the more exotic, experimental, crisis-time measures, such as quantitative easing. Doing so may allow long-term interest rates to rise, resulting in a more constructive environment in which to hike short-term rates. After all, if the economy is strong, to the point of raising rates, why have QE at all? That does not seem to be what committee members are thinking. In fact, according to their latest minutes, they seem intent on doing the exact opposite: begin to raise rates as early as March 2022, and then tackle balance sheet reduction. Even so, balance sheet reduction would not resemble a complete termination of their bond-buying program, but would probably involve a monthly cap on the amounts of “runoffs” (treasury bonds allowed to mature without being reinvested). Assuming that the monthly cap on runoffs does not exceed monthly maturities, the net effect of this policy may be that the Federal Reserve will be continuing to buy billions of dollars worth of bonds every month for the foreseeable future. Presumably with the hope that slowing the pace of balance sheet reduction will act as a buffer against the possible negative effects of rate hikes. 

In this balancing act between tapering and rate hikes, one might perhaps perceive a subtle acknowledgment that central bank officials have made themselves into de-facto custodians of stock prices. After all, their previous attempts at an interest rate hike cycle in 2018 ended in a 20% market sell-off and had to be promptly reversed. At today’s valuations, a similar sell-off would wipe out nearly 10 trillion dollars of value from the S&P 500 alone. Ultimately, the message buried in the complex mix of central banking rhetoric may simply be that the Federal Reserve intends to stay behind the curve in its attempts to tackle inflation. That it intends to tighten policy slowly, while remaining accommodative and relying on the magic of negative real rates to support asset prices and the economy, tightening without tightening. Exactly how long they can get away with this in the face of higher inflation is anyone’s guess. Given the huge political stakes around issues of wealth inequalities, and with midterm elections around the corner, I expect pressure on the Federal Reserve to ramp up over the coming months. Backed into a corner, central banking officials may just have to pick between continuing to support market valuations and curbing cost pressures. However things turn out, 2022 may very well be the year when investors and US households alike realize that free money does have a cost after all.

Syl Michelin, CFA

2022 Investment & Market Outlook Guide

Syl Michelin’s piece is part of Walkner Condon’s 2022 Investment & Market Outlook Guide, a comprehensive reflection of 2021 and glimpse at the factors impacting the year ahead in 2022.

2022 Investment and Market Outlook Guide

2022 Investment and Market Outlook Guide

Walkner Condon’s team of experienced financial advisors explores key topics that are top-of-mind as we transition out of 2021 and into a new calendar year, featuring the market outlook and review from Syl Michelin, a Chartered Financial Analyst™. Other topics include index funds, sector & factor performance, a pair of U.S. expat-focused pieces, and more.

Below you can find a breakdown of the individual pieces in this year’s outlook. 

1. The Year of Impossible Choices: 2021 Market Recap & 2022 Outlook
Syl Michelin, Chartered Financial Analyst™

Through a lens of current and historical data, Walkner Condon’s resident CFA® – and one of our U.S. expat advisors – explores the last year in the markets, with an eye on factors that may impact 2022. 

2. It Only Gets Harder from Here: Valuations, Bond Environment & Wage Growth
Clint Walkner

With a multitude of market highs throughout 2021 and a long stretch of gains post-2008 financial crisis, it would appear the “easy” money, if we can call it that, has been made. In this piece, Clint dives into the three main challenges as we move forward into 2022.

3. Reviewing 2021 Sector and Factor Performance and Positioning in 2022
Mitch DeWitt, CFP®, MBA

The markets were up routinely throughout 2021, but that doesn’t mean the gains were shared equally. Mitch discusses the sector winners (and losers) of the last year, along with what factors – things like high beta, value, and quality – had their day in the sun. He also goes into what might be on the horizon this year.  

4. Exploring Index Funds: History, Construction, Weightings & Factors
Nate Condon

The goal of this piece from Nate is to provide a general overview of indexes, the differences in how indexes are constructed, including equal-weighted indexes versus market capitalization-weighted indexes, and passive and factor indexing strategies.

5. Three Reasons to Look at Investing Internationally in 2022
Keith Poniewaz, Ph.D.

Though the U.S. dollar had its best year since 2015 in 2021, Keith – another of our expat advisors – explains several reasons to think about international investments in 2022, including the very strength of that U.S. dollar, valuations, and the rest of the world’s growth in GDP.  

6. Top Five International Destinations for U.S. Expats in 2022
Stan Farmer, CFP®, J.D.

One of our U.S. expat experts, Stan jumps headfirst into possible locations for Americans to consider in 2022 if they’re thinking about a move abroad – or even if they’re just wanting to dream a little bit. Stan covers ground in South America, Europe, and Asia in this thorough piece, perhaps his first crack at being a travel journalist in his spare time.

Preparing Your Finances and Budget for a Post-COVID Landscape

Preparing Your Finances and Budget for a Post-COVID Landscape

We have all heard the overused phrase “new normal” too often. Pundits and media types love to tell us that this is a different time, situation, or environment than we have ever seen before. I tend to look skeptically at these prognostications because history has a way of repeating itself. All of that said, we are all finding our footing in the soon-to-be post-Covid lockdown period. It will feel strange to eat in a restaurant or shop in a store without wearing a mask. This will not, however, be a new normal as much as a move toward “back to normal,” not only in our personal and social lives but also in our financial lives. 

Savings Rates on the Rise

We all were forced to adjust our lives and adapt to a Covid world. We all stayed at home more and limited our exposure to populated situations. A silver lining emerged from this very difficult period in our lives by way of our personal savings rates. Personal savings rates in the United States skyrocketed in 2020. The savings rate in 2020 was almost double that of 2019 and more than doubled the respective rates of 2016 and 2017. This was the direct result of our travel and discretionary spending being greatly restricted; therefore, most people changed their spending habits without necessarily trying to change their spending habits. We didn’t intentionally tighten our budgets. More so, our budgets were tightened for us. For this reason, we need to be cognizant of how our budgets are likely to change again in the post-Covid world. 

In the chart above, 2020 became one of only two years since 2000 that Americans’ personal savings rate eclipsed 10%. Click here for the interactive chart. Source: Statista.com

Pitfalls on the Move Back To Normal

Our economy is emerging from the past 15 months and the US consumer appears ready to spend again. The travel statistics in the U.S., while still low, are strongly rebounding, with nearly nine in 10 Americans preparing to travel in the next six months. Bars and restaurants are also seeing foot traffic slowing moving back to pre-Covid levels. All of this means one thing for our finances – plan or deal with the consequences. We will likely experience myriad influences over the coming months, including the lack of a spending budget and the desire to do everything we couldn’t during Covid – all at once. These can cause major problems to our monthly budget. We should anticipate an increase in our discretionary spending and plan for it. Make a conscious decision to set a monthly budget for spending on dining out, entertainment, and travel.

We should also be aware of the desire to make up for the lost time. For many of us, we haven’t seen a concert, attended a live event, or traveled on vacation in roughly a year and a half. We should fight the urge to make up for that in the next six months. Spread out those more costly, splurge-type purchases over the next year or two. It is important to establish a dedicated travel line item into our budget. This will make it much easier to control those costs. 

Assess Your Financial Situation 

Your financial life is in a different place than it was at the beginning of 2020. Many people have experienced a job change or an increased balance in their cash reserves. Now is the time to re-examine your financial goals and meet with your financial advisor. You may have a former 401k to roll over or room in your existing employer-sponsored retirement plan for additional contributions. The investment markets are in a significantly different place than they were 15 months ago, as well. Have you rebalanced your investment allocation since the pandemic started? Investors should determine if their risk profile has changed. Life events that are the size, depth, and breadth of Covid-19 change us individually and can easily have an impact on our view of risk. For all of these reasons and many more, you should book an appointment with your financial advisor and update your financial plan. If you do not have a financial plan, feel free to reach out to Walkner Condon.

Nate Condon, Financial Advisor

2021 Investment and Market Outlook Guide for U.S. Expats

2021 Investment and Market Outlook Guide for U.S. Expats

Our In-Depth Look at Markets & Investment Trends

Whether you’re craving analysis of the impact of quantitative easing on the markets in 2020 and how that may continue to unfold in 2021, or you’re curious about the trend that is Electric Vehicles, our experienced team of advisors has authored a breadth of content for U.S. Expats, which is curated in our first-ever comprehensive investment guide. Covering topics like sustainable investing and the trends in the S&P 500, this interactive PDF is meant to be a tool in your arsenal as you approach 2021.