Asset Allocation: 'Scenic Route' For Fed Should Lend Support To Risk Assets

by: Neuberger Berman

As we move into 2016, investors are anticipating a period of sustained interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve - not an aggressive climb as sometimes seen in the past, but a mild, steady stroll to modest heights. Meanwhile, Europe and Japan remain on level policy ground, as they look to quantitative easing to maintain recovery and avert further contraction, respectively.

Potential turbulence in the form of slowing Chinese growth could make the journey a bit uncomfortable, given that country's central role in global economic health. Putting all this together, the Neuberger Berman Asset Allocation Committee believes that still-friendly monetary conditions and gradual economic improvement should lend support to risk assets and underscore our preference for stocks over bonds in the coming year.

Global Equities: Leaning into Europe

We are positive on global equities, particularly in Europe, where stocks stand to benefit from continued quantitative easing and a weaker euro. While we had an overweight view on U.S. stocks just a few months ago in light of reasonable valuations and potential for earnings improvement in 2016, that positioning has moved to neutral given the sharp price recovery in October. However, we see opportunity in master limited partnerships, which, despite near-term concerns around energy prices and the sustainability of distributions, still appear to offer attractive valuations and yields. We are relatively cautious on Japan's market. Although stocks are benefiting from the weak yen and reallocation of pension fund assets, the country faces slow or negative growth and is vulnerable to a slower Chinese economy.

Elsewhere, we have a neutral view of emerging markets, where China volatility, commodity weakness and dollar strength are creating economic headwinds, while corporate profitability remains under pressure. In our view, selectivity from a country and company perspective remains paramount.

Fixed Income: Appeal of Spreads

We are underweight global fixed income for the coming year given our low return outlook for the large, developed-country sovereign bond markets in light of a trend toward higher rates in the U.S. and easy policy in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., we believe the Fed's rate normalization will be a dovish process relative to past tightening cycles. A meaningful spike in long-term rates appears unlikely to us, but investors should be prepared for periods of heightened volatility. We maintain a preference for credit based on our outlook for modest economic growth and current attractive spread levels. In particular, we see appeal in high yield, where spreads remain at wide levels due to commodity-related weakness. In our view, credit quality among issues in the rest of the high yield universe remains quite good.

Credit fundamentals in emerging markets debt remain relatively strong, in large part due to higher reserve levels and much-improved policymaking over the last two decades. Recent troubles, however, have exacerbated weak growth stemming from soft domestic demand in the major emerging markets. We are neutral on a one-year horizon, but are more constructive further out, as we believe the developed market recovery should lend support to emerging markets' growth and credit fundamentals.

Alternatives: Directional Hedge Funds Could Benefit from Volatility

Within alternatives, we now have a slightly overweight stance on directional hedge funds, as increased volatility is creating more opportunities for astute traders and active managers to add value. Within this group, distressed managers have suffered in 2015 from exposure to Puerto Rico, Greece and the energy sector, but we believe there are ample opportunities over a 12-month time horizon. We have a modest overweight view on lower-volatility hedge funds and believe that they continue to play an important role in asset allocations, particularly in an environment of higher volatility and likely rising rates in the U.S. Our view on private equity continues to be neutral in light of its long cycle of growth and more elevated valuations.

Elsewhere, we are neutral on commodities - an improvement from six months ago - believing that these markets have come under so much pressure that they are not likely to deteriorate much further. China growth concerns may lend support to precious metal prices, while the drought in many parts of the U.S. should help soft and agriculture commodities. We believe oil is likely to be range-bound, but we anticipate better supply/demand dynamics on the margin. For the broader commodity complex, the potential for higher interest rates and the resulting stress on certain commodity producers may lead to production cuts and more balance across markets.

Uncertain Journey

We believe elevated uncertainty is likely to accompany investors for much of 2016, whether around future monetary policy, geopolitical events, the price of oil or the extent of slowing growth in China. We will continue to monitor developments as we seek to provide guideposts for the current challenging environment.

Market Views

Based on 1-Year Outlook for Each Asset Class

Regional Focus

Fixed Income, Equities and Currency

* The currency forecasts are not against the U.S. dollar, but stated against the other major currencies. As such, the forecasts should be seen as relative value forecasts and not directional U.S. dollar pair forecasts. Currency forecasts are shorter-term in nature, with a duration of 1-3 months. Regional equity and fixed income views reflect a 1-year outlook. The Committee members are polled on the asset classes listed above, and these discretionary views are representative of an Asset Allocation Committee consensus.

As of fourth-quarter 2015. Views expressed herein are generally those of the Neuberger Berman Asset Allocation Committee and do not reflect the views of the firm as a whole. Neuberger Berman advisors and portfolio managers may make recommendations or take positions contrary to the views expressed. Nothing herein constitutes a prediction or projection of future events or future market behavior. Due to a variety of factors, actual events or market behavior may differ significantly from any views expressed.

About the Asset Allocation Committee

Neuberger Berman's Asset Allocation Committee meets every quarter to poll its members on their outlook for the next 12 months on each of the asset classes noted. The committee covers the gamut of investments and markets, bringing together diverse industry knowledge, with an average of 24 years of experience.

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