Natasha Doff and Todd White
The half that began with “melt-up” euphoria ended with melt-down fear.
Investors breezed into 2018 expecting to pick up easy returns from steadily rising asset prices. Instead, they’re nursing losses on bets that had delivered the biggest gains from a decade’s worth of buoyant liquidity.
Emerging economies began the year as a market darling only to be toppled by a surge in the dollar and rising political risks. A brewing trade war has dashed expectations synchronised global growth would keep pumping up equities.
China, long seen as the world’s growth engine, slipped into a bear market.
The sea change stemmed more or less from the snap stock selloff of early February, which was blamed on traders unwinding huge short-volatility positions.
Since then, markets have become more vulnerable to mounting political risks as investors caught unawares grow increasingly risk-averse.
“We’ve gone from an extreme of market psychology where all risks could be ignored to one that is hyper-sensitive,” said James Athey, a senior investment manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments in London.
“The February turn, when equities suddenly started selling off, that was the moment when shock waves rippled across financial markets and people woke up to a different world,” he said.
Developing-nation stocks are the biggest losers of the year so far, handing investors a loss of 6.8%, once dividend payments have been taken into account.
Emerging-market and euro-denominated debt are close runners-up, with losses of more than 4%.
Oil was the standout winner as investors bet on tightening supply against the backdrop of the collapse of Venezuelan output and the increased isolation of Iran.
The turbulent first half may be just the beginning, as markets adjust to central banks paring stimulus that had propped up asset prices with liquidity and low rates for the past decade.
Anyone trying to gauge how markets will fare in the second half of the year may want to start with the outlook for the dollar.
Mr Athey pinpoints the ascendant dollar as the biggest contributor to the decline in global financial health this quarter.
“Six months ago, you had a lot of people with a high conviction that global growth would be spectacular in 2018,” said Max Kettner, a cross-asset strategist at Commerzbank in London.
“Much of that had to do with two themes: Global synchronised growth and a flat dollar. They both turned out to be completely wrong,” he said.