Contributed By : Navneet Munot, CFA , CIO, SBI Funds Management Pvt Ltd and Chairman, CFA Society India
The toughest month for humanity in recent times turned out to be one of the best for stock markets. Even as Covid-19 infections multiplied and economic activity plunged, stocks rejoiced perhaps reflecting faith in human ingenuity on one hand, and reacting to unprecedented liquidity amid low valuations on the other. Not all assets shared the optimism though with front-month crude contract plunging below zero for the first time ever, and US treasuries and dollar staying well supported suggesting that the deflationary pulse is still alive. As major economies begin to reopen, markets will keenly watch how successful they are, with a second wave of virus spread being the key risk.
Public discourse may start moving from avoiding the virus completely towards better managing it while allowing economic activity to continue. While antibody tests show promise, effective treatment may take several months and a successful vaccine even longer. The new normal may involve innovative precautionary measures, increasing testing infrastructure and letting people return to work, with adequate distancing, protective gear and frequent testing. A critical aspect remains the protection of old and vulnerable people. With that, the focus is likely to shift from survival to revival.
Back home, India appears to have done a decent job at controlling the virus so far. The economic fallout is real and a matter of concern though. It is important that we stand ready to shift gears as needed. We have strong foreign currency reserves and must leverage them now including for securing long term oil supply. Global geopolitics will change meaningfully post this crisis and therein lies our opportunity. Global firms will look to diversify supply chains as they weigh reliability against efficiency, at the same time as distrust for China continues to grow. We must present ourselves as a strong alternative. This will need a strong growth focus and mindset for pro-business policies. The window of opportunity may not be too wide as several countries vie for the same pie.
It is also important to note that the easy global liquidity will not last forever. The current recession will ensure unprecedented monetary accommodation over the next several quarters. Yet, as we have argued in the past, monetary policy is reaching its limits in effectively reviving the economy globally and is leading to rising wealth inequality as an unwelcome side effect. To top it all, the current crisis has hit the bottom strata the most. The stage therefore is set for massive fiscal stimuli globally to complement the monetary effort. This could set the stage for an end of the 40-year-old bull market in bonds. When inflation perks up and global rates begin to rise in years to come, capital may not stay as abundant and become much more discerning. We are a country deficient in risk capital and must therefore act quickly and decisively.
At a transformational juncture as this, one thing that’s critical in a nation’s success is its social capital. That 1.3 billion have complied to the lockdown in a rather peaceful manner is a testimony to our social capital. Several mass-focused measures of the past years such as the Ujjwala scheme for LPG connections, the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan bank accounts, Aadhar cards and Mobile connections) and focus on sanitation and cleanliness through Swachh Bharat have helped us better tide this health crisis as also help build social capital. We must be mindful that a prolonged economic disruption may erode some of these gains.
While the government is addressing the first order impact on the poor, a lot more needs to be done to help businesses and avoid second order impacts. Social agenda needs resources that can only be generated by reviving growth and expanding the pie. Versus most countries, we have been high on stringency of the lockdown and low on fiscal support. While our fiscal room may be limited, we must be cautious of the “paradox of thrift”. Given the environment, both corporate sector and households may remain thrifty and risk-averse, the onus is on government to lever up and spend.
With tax collections expected to fall, non-tax sources will need to be explored ranging from asset monetization to perhaps government backed municipal bonds (Pandemic bonds just like War bonds?). While direct support to poor was critical during the lockdown, as the economy opens fiscal multiplier should be the driving force in prioritizing expenditure. Infrastructure projects such as rural roads, urban infrastructure, slum redevelopment, and the likes should be prioritised to create immediate employment (support consumption) as well as build productive assets. Fortunately, rural economy is in decent shape and must be shielded from supply chain disruptions as well as from the virus that returning migrant workers may bring along.
The RBI on its part has been aggressive in policy response so far. And is doing an even better job at communicating that it stands ready to do whatever it takes to revive the economy. Yet it has only met with partial success in achieving the desired outcomes. The big disconnect between macro and micro level liquidity stays. The yield curve has continued to steepen, and corporate spreads stay elevated. Muted growth and high nominal rates can lead to debt ratios spiraling out of control. The tepid response to TLTRO 2.0 suggests lack of risk appetite and therefore the real economy stays starved for funds. Government providing first loss guarantee, further relaxation in prudential norms, and RBI capping absorption through the reverse repo window along with aggressive OMOs are some measures that should help transmission.
This month credit markets witnessed an unprecedented event when a US$ 3 billion bond portfolio was left wanting for liquidity in a US$ 3 trillion economy. This should be our moment to bring about next generation financial system reforms such as deepening of corporate bond markets, securitization market, channelizing patient capital through the AIF route and creating lenders of last resort, to name a few. Banks’ lending behaviour is largely pro-cyclical and therefore we need a strong institutional framework to facilitate access to capital across the credit spectrum when the cycle is at its worst and its need to sustain the economy is the highest. If access to formal capital stays blocked, there is a risk of return to informal money lenders and in turn reverse the gains of formalization.
One positive rub-off of the Covid-19 crisis has been an explosion in digital adoption. The recent rally in US stocks has once again been driven by Tech stocks. A marquee deal announced recently is testimony to the potential in India. With the right ecosystem, ensuring net neutrality and cyber security, India has the potential to become a digital powerhouse from e-governance and e-payments to e-health and e-education. Can we, for example, move to e-judiciary and leverage data for dispute resolution which currently takes several years? Data, they say, is the new oil and as India transforms from being data poor to data rich, the possibilities are immense for governance, businesses and society at large. If we can incentivize Indian talent abroad to return to the country it will be a big boost in this direction.
Amidst the recent challenges in the debt market, our fund house’s conservatism and prudent credit assessment has helped. Given the growth-inflation-external account dynamic, we stay long duration. On equities, we had argued that several valuation measures were in the vicinity of GFC lows in late March. However, the run-up since has been too sharp given the challenging economic backdrop, and therefore further bouts of volatility shouldn’t be ruled out.
The world will change meaningfully post this crisis and the next few decades will be very different from the past few. Consumer behavior will be materially altered. Businesses will have to keep reinventing themselves. Evaluating businesses on size- large caps versus small caps- may become less relevant as agility and nimbleness become the key success traits. Another Zoom could zoom out of nowhere to become a fancied business. While all other costs will have to be reimagined, innovation will be critical, and R&D should remain the only indispensable cost head. This will also be a test of firms’ ESG commitments. The way businesses treat various stakeholders in these times will determine their long term outcomes.
There will be significant implications for investors from pricing tail risks to dealing with unpredictability, from enhanced ESG focus to asset allocation choices. The fundamental tenets of investing will always remain unaltered; however, investors will have to adapt to the changing paradigm and evolve.