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Navigating Financial Markets Amid the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Markets continue to gyrate as the Coronavirus (COVID-19) makes headlines, with the initial Wuhan, China outbreak now having been followed by significant regional outbreaks in the Western world, driving fears of more widespread impact of the illness. As certain global markets face selling pressure, our investment and research teams seek to provide clients context in times of heightened volatility such as these. This note will examine both key economic considerations and how Louisbourg’s investment strategies are positioned to weather the environment.

Economy Health authorities generally believe that the global impact of the virus has not yet reached a peak. As such, the extent of the damage to economic activity and global growth is difficult to estimate with certainty. What is known at this point is that there has been a major disruption to Chinese demand and production as well as significant economic disruptions in Western European countries, the United States, Canada, and other areas. Though unquestionably economic growth will be impaired in these areas, these impacts are still considered to be temporary in nature. A sharp recession that is relatively short-term in nature is now being considered a base case. A post-COVID-19 economic rebound is expected, with 2020 expected global economic growth currently being forecasted at 1.5 per cent as per Capital Economics, with 2021 growth a more robust 3.5 per cent. This is compared to 2018 full-year growth of 3.6 per cent and a final 2019 expected figure of 2.9 per cent.

The U.S. 10-year yield has declined to 0.73 per cent as of March 16 amid swift reductions in the Federal Reserve’s policy rate. Canadian yields have followed this decline roughly in lockstep, with the 10-year also registering at 0.73 per cent. The Canadian and U.S. yield curves are now at historically low levels but are showing steepening with longer-term yields providing modest premiums. Investors continue to shed risk assets including equities and credit spreads have widened significantly.

Amid this volatility and potential significant impairments to near-term economic growth, it is important to remember that economic fundamentals prior to COVID-19 were sound. Central bank stimulus via liquidity injections and reductions in policy rates have continued to provide support to fundamentals. The potential for increasingly accommodative fiscal policy provides another tool to support economic growth. A strong consumer, housing market, and labour market also support the thesis for a strong global economy despite the temporary challenges presented by COVID-19. We expect a continued proactive, coordinated stance by central banks globally as well as targeted fiscal stimulus measures to protect businesses and people affected by the slowdown.

Positioning Asset allocation will continue to be a key driver of returns. Even amid heightened equity market volatility the risk-reward proposition of stocks remains attractive for the long-term investor. We continue to hold moderate cash balances in order to seize on opportunities presented by market dislocations. The positive optionality offered by cash and severely depressed bond yields lead us to favour liquid, short-term securities over longer-term fixed income.

Fixed Income Louisbourg’s positioning within fixed income favours liquidity as well as defensiveness from a duration, sector and issuer perspective. Corporate fixed income exposure has been lowered over the last year as the risk-reward proposition of investing in corporate credit relative to risk-free government debt has become less compelling. The overall credit quality of the issuers held within our fixed income strategies has increased. Our duration targets within Canadian fixed income remain short relative to benchmarks as interest rate risk remains a significant concern due to the degree of intervention by major central banks.

Equity Equity markets have delivered extremely strong returns in recent years. In fact, the period from 2010 to 2020 was widely viewed as a golden age for investors, with the U.S. stock market returning in excess of 340 per cent in Canadian dollars for the decade and a remarkable 16 per cent per annum. Given this, some level of profit taking by investors can be expected. We believe selling in certain more richly- valued pockets of global equity markets is justified. Our equity portfolios are positioned defensively, with less exposure to mega-cap technology companies and an increased exposure to companies involved in precious metals. Our broad defensive sector positioning also includes increased tilts to sectors such as consumer staples, telecommunications, and utilities, with reductions in cyclical industries such as industrials. This more defensive positioning was progressively undertaken throughout 2019 and we expect it to be constructive in a prolonged period of volatility.

We continue to closely monitor markets amid this increased volatility. Broad defensive positioning across our strategies is critical in protecting client assets during periods such as these. We intend to keep clients informed as markets progress through this more challenging period.

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