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Portfolio > Economy & Markets > Stocks

Quarter Begins as Investors Ask One Thing: Is Nowhere Safe?

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Confusion (Image: Thinkstock)

The question facing investors as they enter the new quarter probably isn’t where to find the biggest gains. It’s more likely how to avoid the worst losses.

Both the American benchmark stock gauge and the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. aggregate bond index just posted a three-month loss for the first time since mid 2016. Emerging-market dollar debt slid, as did an index of commodities. Of major global assets, developing-nation stocks stood out as gaining — but even they fell in both February and March.

The gloomy outlook is a sea change from recent years, when stocks, bonds and other assets rallied in unison against the backdrop of easy money and synchronized global growth. But markets have been roiled in recent weeks by concerns over tighter monetary policy, talk of a potential trade war and a sell-off in technology stocks.

“There isn’t always somewhere to hide,” David Schawel, chief investment officer at advisory firm Family Management Corp., wrote in a blog post. “To some degree, investors have become accustomed to a heuristic of ‘if stocks sell off, then bonds go up.’ While the flight-to-quality narrative does play out from time to time, it’s clearly not always true.”

Here’s a look at how seemingly all the biggest assets disappointed in the first quarter:

Sorry Stocks

No matter where you put your money as a developed-market stock investor in the first three months of 2018, chances are you probably took a loss. In dollar terms, U.S. and German equities were particularly hard hit. A small gain in Japanese shares helped the main Asian gauge, but not enough to stop it from also finishing in the red.

Credit Clouds

Investors pulled about $9.7 billion out of exchange-traded funds that track global corporate bonds in the first quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. For the biggest U.S. investment-grade ETF, that meant the worst quarter of outflows on record.

Those outflows showed up in returns data, with a Bloomberg Barclay’s Index of U.S. corporate bonds posting a 2.3 percent loss for the first three months of the year.

Base Metals Weigh

The risk-off mood was good for gold, which climbed 1.7 percent in the three months through March. West Texas oil also also advanced, rising for the third quarter in a row on a combination of output cuts and robust demand.

But even with those gains, commodities couldn’t put in a positive performance in the period. Bloomberg’s index of raw materials finished the quarter 0.8 percent lower, weighed down by base metals in particular.

The commodity declines underscore the lack of places for investors to hide, according to Schawel.

“Going back the last 30 years, during the time periods where stocks and bonds both fell, commodities were positive five out of eight times, while gold was positive half of the time,” he wrote.

Silver Linings

Alongside gold, the Japanese yen — another traditional safe-haven asset — handed investors decent returns in the turbulent first three months of the year. Perhaps more surprisingly, some of the riskiest assets did as well.

Emerging-market local currency bonds returned almost 3 percent, while equities from developing nations also clung onto gains.

Investors, strategists and traders remain bullish on emerging assets for the rest of 2018 amid healthy economic conditions, a Bloomberg survey shows. Still, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist moves heating up, even this corner of global markets could face headwinds.

“From a tactical perspective, times like these typically cause the average investor to question their holdings and ask what should be done,” Schawel said. “Very few investors, even professional investors, have long-term success in timing the market over the short term.”


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