The actual level of interest rates of 0%-0.25% are key to understanding the outlook for markets in 2015. The Federal Reserve has kept rates so low because it frets that a premature tightening of policy may damage an economy that is still bearing the scars of the financial crisis of 2007-08. Perhaps 2015 will see the first rate increase, but unless there is a surge in inflation the Fed will proceed very cautiously. Elsewhere, it seems highly unlikely that either the European Central Bank or the Bank of Japan will tighten policy in the next 12 months.
Investors are entering the new year in optimistic mood. A poll of British fund managers by the Association of Investment Companies found that 91% expected equity markets to rise in 2015. A poll of global fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that a net 60 percentage points of investors expect the global economy to strengthen in the coming year.
Investors were pretty optimistic at the start of 2014 as well. Although the bulls were eventually right about the American stockmarket—after a few wobbles—the same was not true for emerging markets (see chart below). Of the four BRICs, Russia is heading for recession, Brazil is barely growing and Chinese growth has slowed; only in India are prospects perceived to have improved. The fall in commodity prices in 2014, most notably in oil, was linked to the weakness of growth in developing countries.
Commodity-price declines have brought down headline inflation and raise a question about the perennial bearishness of commentators towards the government bond markets. At the start of 2013, there was much talk of a “great rotation” out of bonds and into equities; as 2014 loomed, the sentiment was exactly the same. Despite that, the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond fell during the year while the German 10-year yield even reached a record low.
Once again, yields are expected to rise in 2015, with the median forecast of 74 strategists polled by Bloomberg predicting that the 10-year will hit 3% by the end of the year, compared with 2.21% on December 29th. But it is quite possible that the consensus will be proved wrong again.
Political risk was one factor that supported bond markets in 2014, and it has not disappeared. The calling of a snap general election in Greece has brought the prospect of further turmoil in the euro zone. If the left-wing Syriza party is elected (and it has a small lead in the latest polls), there would be some awkward negotiations over debt owed to EU institutions and further reforms to the Greek economy. The result could conceivably be that Greece is forced out of the euro. (Ladbrokes, a British bookmaker, has this outcome as an even-money bet.) While most commentators seem to feel that the fallout will be more contained than it would have been in 2011 and 2012, they cannot be certain.
The euro was supposed to be a currency without an exit mechanism. Allowing Greece to leave might set a disastrous precedent. It could even be the euro zone’s Lehman moment—regulators thought that the fallout from the investment bank’s failure in 2008 could be contained, but the bankruptcy triggered a crisis of confidence. Meanwhile, the Greek worries bolster another consensus bet: that the dollar will gain against the euro.
Greece is not the only political problem. Britain has a general election in May which seems likely to result in another hung Parliament; Spain must hold an election by 2015, with Podemos, a Syriza-like party, expected to do well. There is also the possibility that Russia will lash out in the face of Western sanctions, a falling oil price and a shrinking economy.
The most likely outcome is that the equity markets will muddle through for another 12 months, with a few wobbles along the way. A big bull run would probably require economic strength to be more broadly spread around the world, while a crash would require either the loss of American economic momentum or a sudden tightening of monetary policy.