Affluent investors have done well sticking to the tried-and-true when allocating capital over the past few years. But their low-risk comfort zone is about to shrink, amid signs that major equity, debt and property markets are nearing and in some cases even past their peaks.
Mix in worries about the economic and market fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s truculent trade tactics, tightening monetary policies, slowing global growth and political instability in some key European markets, and you have a recipe for rising volatility and deepening uncertainty.
Future investors “will likely look back at this period as easy, with accommodative central bank policy, low volatility, strong equity returns and declining interest rates all working in investors’ favour,” Morgan Stanley said of its mid-year outlook, bearing the sobering title, The End of Easy.
“All of this now appears to be changing, and all at once,” warned Andrew Sheets, Morgan Stanley’s chief cross-asset strategist. “This is what we call the tricky handoff, and it suggests not just a harder environment, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the market.”
The typical response in such circumstances is to flock to the safest of government bonds, blue chips and cash. But for wealthy investors with some appetite for risk and plenty of patience, this might be a good time to leave the stumbling herd behind and take a closer look at unloved segments of the global market.
Here are some overlooked options that could turn out to be better bets down the road than overhyped cannabis stocks or hack-prone cryptocurrencies.
President Vladimir Putin’s home turf, which justifiably ranks high on the list of most distrusted markets, will be in the spotlight for the next month as host to soccer’s World Cup, the world’s most watched sports event (average TV audience: 3.5 billion). The Kremlin reckons its US$11-billion investment will translate into a major boost for the domestic economy. Western analysts see any gains as limited and likely short-lived.
But even without much of a jolt from footie fanatics, the Russian economy has managed to shrug off the impact of continuing Western sanctions. The key drivers: stronger oil prices, increased domestic consumption and a pickup in investment and manufacturing. Monetary policy, in the hands of competent technocrats, is sound and inflation sits at a record low.
“People hate Russia, although the internal economy is improving rapidly, and the greatest of all natural resources, which is human talent, is amazing,” says Rick Rule, chief executive of Sprott U.S. Holdings Inc. in San Diego.
Investors “need to look at Russia during periods of time when the press is all bad,” Mr. Rule says. “If you are a resource investor and you ignore Russia, it’s sort of the equivalent of a boxer fighting with only one hand.”
His advice? Stick to the biggest global equity names, including gold heavyweight Polyus, state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom and Norilsk Nickel, which counts Oleg Deripaska, one of the oligarchs hit by individual U.S. sanctions in April, as a key minority shareholder.
As a play on the Russian economy as a whole, try dividend-paying Sberbank, which, like the others, trades in the U.S. as an American depositary receipt (ADR). The state-owned bank has been hurt by the sanctions targeting key clients and restricting its access to foreign capital. But it has become a domestic financial powerhouse, holding half of all Russian retail deposits. Being close to Mr. Putin “may not be the moral thing, but it’s certainly the practical thing,” Mr. Rule says.
So much investment capital has poured into cobalt, lithium and a handful of other metals used in high-tech gear and powerful batteries that they’ve acquired their own group acronym – MIFTs, or Metals In Future Technologies. But investors making a big bet on the future of electric vehicles, bitcoin or other power-sucking technologies may want to consider adding long-neglected uranium to that group.
“Those electric vehicles we hear so much about as being the main source of transportation of the future will need to be recharged by an electric grid that at the moment couldn’t cope with the strain put on it by all those recharging batteries.” says Phil Hopwood, head of Deloitte’s global mining group.
Wind and solar power sources will help close the gap, “but they won’t be the full story. A clean power source like a micro-nuclear power plant could well be the answer,” Mr. Hopwood says. “This argument seems to be especially gaining traction in places like China and India where they are building a number of nuclear power generators.”
Meanwhile, major producers have embraced market discipline, slashing output while waiting for weak prices to recover as demand picks up. Spot prices have been edging upward, but most uranium shipments are governed by long-term contracts.
If prices don’t rise to at least the cost of production, “we won’t have any uranium, which would shut in 15 per cent of world base load power demand. Which means you’ll hit the switch and the lights won’t go on,” says Mr. Rule, who sees Cameco – “the dominant producer in a politically stable terrain” – as an ideal contrarian play for patient investors.
“I can’t tell you when the price will go up. That’s to be determined. But I can tell you that the price will rise.”
The entire pharmaceutical sector has been short on enthusiasm. But no segment has drawn more investor disdain than the generic manufacturers. Gone are the golden years when a handful of generics raked in fat profits for turning out what are essentially commodified products. Fierce competition, increased buying clout exerted by drug middlemen and governments as well as political pressure stemming from exorbitant prices for certain treatments have shredded their licence-to-print-money business model.
But more efficient operators like Mylan, which took a big hit from its EpiPen pricing scandal in 2016, have emerged in better position to take advantage of increasing demand and new approvals for generic versions of high-cost biologic drugs made from living cells. “Pricing is still weak, but volumes are growing, and they have a lot of products in the pipeline,” says value investor Vitaliy Katsenelson, chief executive of Investment Management Associates in Denver.
Despite his assessment of Russia as an ideal contrarian target, Mr. Rule wants no part of the currency. “My currency hedging and trading record is unblemished by success.” But others like what they see.
Like other Russian assets, the ruble has taken a drubbing over worries about the impact of the latest batch of U.S. sanctions. But currency watchers regard the currency as undervalued, given its normal link to the world oil price, the country’s stable inflation outlook and the government’s relatively sound finances.
The currency “has rarely been this cheap during the past two decades,” MRB Partners said in a report last month, noting that it’s already pricing in “massive geopolitical risk.”
MRB regarded the ruble’s “stark divergence” from oil as a key attraction, because this was bound to change. Indeed, the currency spiked Friday in response to a jump in oil prices after an agreement among key OPEC members and Russia to boost production by a small enough amount to keep the market stable.
Along with the currency’s renewed sensitivity to the oil market, “there is plenty of upside should tensions ease (even mildly) or if the economic recovery proves resilient, as we expect,” MRB said.