Trade Is A Key Geopolitical Risk In 2018

Key points

  • Geopolitical risks are on the rise. They are not automatically bad news for risk assets, but we believe a new U.S. approach to trade bears watching.

  • Markets' risk-on tone extended into 2018. Economic data confirmed a sustained global expansion, and the U.S. dollar weakened.

  • Inflation data this week could provide clues about further central bank action. The fourth-quarter earnings season kicks off in the U.S.

The economy is expanding, equities are at new highs and markets appear calm. What is there to worry about? Geopolitical risks are ticking up, according to our BlackRock Geopolitical Risk Indicator (BGRI). But this isn't automatically bad news for markets.

BlackRock Geopolitical Risk Indicator (BGRI) and global equity performance, 2005-2017

BlackRock Geopolitical Risk Indicator (BGRI) and global equity performance, 2005-2017

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.
Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, with data from Thomson Reuters and Dow Jones, January 2018.
Notes: The BGRI tracks the relative frequency of terms associated with geopolitical risks within the Dow Jones Global Newswire database and Thomson Reuters Broker Report database, adjusting the score for positive or negative sentiment in the text of articles. A positive BGRI score means markets' concern about geopolitical risk is elevated compared with recent history, a negative score indicates historically muted market concern and zero represents approximately neutral concern relative to recent history. The indicator is still under development and is meant for illustrative purposes only. The Global equities line represents the performance of the MSCI All-Country World (ACWI) Index.

The BGRI gauges the degree of financial market concern about geopolitical risk. It tracks the frequency of geopolitical risk mentions in media and brokerage reports, adjusting for sentiment reflected in the text. A positive score indicates markets appear more concerned about geopolitical risks relative to recent history, whereas a negative score implies less concern.

The BGRI is now at the highest level since March 2015, and well above early 2017 levels, when markets were digesting Donald Trump's election win, worrying about the French election outcome and fearing the potential for a hard Brexit. How worried should we be about the recent BGRI uptick? The indicator is still well below its longer-term peak, as the chart above shows. But we believe risks such as a more muscular U.S. approach on trade bear watching.

The economic backdrop matters

Sudden geopolitical shocks tend to hurt global risk assets only briefly if the economic backdrop is sound, according to our analysis of asset performance following shocks since 1962. U.S. Treasuries can be an effective hedge during such episodes, we find. This perceived safe haven also tends to rally ahead of "known unknowns" such as elections with binary outcomes, then lag after the event as the lifting of uncertainty boosts risk assets.

Market effects of localized geopolitical shocks tend to linger longer where the events occur. A longer-lasting and more acute negative global market reaction is more likely if multiple shocks occur simultaneously or if the economy is weak, we find.

Many of the risks markets worried about at the start of last year did not materialize, spurring very strong stock market performance. We are starting 2018 with geopolitics clearly on the radar screen, as our BGRI shows. Yet the economic backdrop is solid; our BlackRock Growth GPS shows sustained economic expansion ahead. We do not expect geopolitics to disrupt this trend.

What could upset the applecart? We are most worried about the potential for a protectionist U.S. approach to trade. This is a risk that could shake up global growth and earnings prospects - and call into question our economic outlook. Any breakdown in North America Free Trade Agreement talks would be an ominous sign for global trade, we believe, and hit emerging market (EM) stocks in the short term. Increasing trade tensions with China are another worry.

We are closely watching next steps in the ongoing U.S. reviews of China's trade practices in industries such as technology, steel and aluminum. We do not expect a trade war, but investors should beware trade-induced volatility in 2018. We are maintaining our preference for EM and non-U.S. developed market stocks, and favor a diversifying allocation to U.S. Treasuries. Our base case: Geopolitics do not disrupt markets' risk-on tone in 2018 other than briefly.

  • The risk-on tone of 2017 extended, with U.S. indexes hitting new highs and EM equities outperforming. Global energy stocks were the best-performing sector as oil prices hit a three-year high. The VIX fell back near all-time lows.
  • Global manufacturing PMIs came in strong and consistent with a sustained global economic expansion. December U.S. non-farm payroll growth missed expectations, but wages grew in line with consensus views. Eurozone inflation fell as expected. The U.S. dollar slid versus most currencies, with the euro touching a three-year high versus the USD.
  • Fed December minutes showed tension between persistent below-target inflation and rising growth expectations, with new tax legislation expected to provide fiscal stimulus. The short-term policy rate path was unchanged.

Global snapshot

Weekly and 12-month performance of selected assets

Equities Week YTD 12 Months Div. Yield
U.S. Large Caps 2.6% 2.6% 20.9% 1.9%
U.S. Small Caps 1.6% 1.6% 15.2% 1.1%
Non-U.S. World 2.7% 2.7% 27.7% 3.0%
Non-U.S. Developed 2.4% 2.4% 25.3% 3.1%
Japan 3.2% 3.2% 23.7% 1.9%
Emerging 3.7% 3.7% 39.2% 2.8%
Asia ex-Japan 3.5% 3.5% 43.0% 2.4%
Bonds Week YTD 12 Months Yield
U.S. Treasuries -0.4% -0.4% 1.4% 2.5%
U.S. TIPS -0.2% -0.2% 2.2% 2.4%
U.S. Investment Grade -0.4% -0.4% 5.3% 3.3%
U.S. High Yield 0.7% 0.7% 7.4% 5.5%
U.S. Municipals 0.0% 0.0% 4.9% 2.4%
Non-U.S. Developed 0.1% 0.1% 10.2% 0.8%
Emerging Market $ Bonds 0.5% 0.5% 9.4% 5.2%
Commodities Week YTD 12 Months Level
Brent Crude Oil 1.1% 1.1% 18.9% $67.62
Gold 1.3% 1.3% 11.8% $1,320
Copper -1.7% -1.7% 27.6% $7,121
Currencies Week YTD 12 Months Level
Euro/USD 0.2% 0.2% 13.4% 1.20
USD/Yen 0.3% 0.3% -2.0% 113.05
Pound/USD 0.4% 0.4% 9.3% 1.36

Source: Bloomberg. As of January. 5, 2018.
Notes: Weekly data through Friday. Equity and bond performance are measured in total index returns in U.S. dollars. U.S. large caps are represented by the S&P 500 Index; U.S. small caps are represented by the Russell 2000 Index; Non-U.S. world equity by the MSCI ACWI ex U.S.; non-U.S. developed equity by the MSCI EAFE Index; Japan, Emerging and Asia ex-Japan by their respective MSCI Indexes; U.S. Treasuries by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Treasury Index; U.S. TIPS by the U.S. Treasury Inflation Notes Total Return Index; U.S. investment grade by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Index; U.S. high yield by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield 2% Issuer Capped Index; U.S. municipals by the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index; non-U.S. developed bonds by the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate ex USD; and emerging market $ bonds by the JP Morgan EMBI Global Diversified Index. Brent crude oil prices are in U.S. dollars per barrel, gold prices are in U.S. dollar per troy ounce and copper prices are in U.S. dollar per metric ton. The Euro/USD level is represented by U.S. dollar per euro, USD/JPY by yen per U.S. dollar and Pound/USD by U.S. dollar per pound. Index performance is shown for illustrative purposes only. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

Asset class views

Views from a U.S. dollar perspective over a three-month horizon

This post originally appeared on the BlackRock Blog.