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Defensive Assets: Gold, a precious ally in the fight against equity drawdown

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WisdomTree
WisdomTree

In the previous instalments of this blog series, we highlighted the defensive behaviour of quality and high dividend equities, long duration government bonds and safe haven currencies as an asset, as well as an overlay to other asset classes. The last few weeks really  put investors’ portfolio to the test and the least we can say is that those defensive assets did very well. While Global Equities (MSCI World net TR) lost 17.91% from the most recent tops on 12th February up to 9th March, Long Duration Treasuries (proxied by the Bloomberg Barclays US Treasury 10+) have return an incredible +21.99%. In the same period, Japanese Yen was up 7.54% versus the US Dollar and Quality stocks (proxied by the WisdomTree Global Quality Dividend Growth net TR) did cushion the fall, losing 15.73% and therefore outperforming the market by 2.27%1

This week, our journey takes us to a fourth asset class, Commodities. Using our defensive framework, we will assess how single commodities or commodity sectors react to equity downturn. In particular, we will highlight how:

  • precious metals such as Gold can bring potential diversification and defensiveness to a portfolio as well as act as inflation hedge on the upside. Gold was up 6.96% from 12th February to 9th March 2020;
  • Broad commodities could act as a diversifier in a multi asset portfolio.

In the following, we analyse traditional Commodity benchmarks that use front month futures to invest in the different commodities in the universe (being commodities in general or sectors). The only exception are precious metals, were physical investments are considered (physical bullions in vaults for Gold for example). Enhanced commodities are meant to represent “smart beta” in commodities where the strategy can invest further along the curve (i.e. not always in the front month future) to improve the roll yield available to the investor while delivering similar spot and collateral returns. More information on this topic is available on our website. Those strategies have historically delivered strong outperformance over time while keeping the correlation with the benchmark very high.

Precious Metals stands out in Commodities

Our framework focuses on 4 characteristics, risk reduction, asymmetry of returns, diversification and valuation. Starting with drawdown protection in Figure 1, it is pretty clear that broad commodities and most commodities sectors are cyclical in nature. Enhanced Commodities fare better than traditional benchmark overall, but the standout defensive asset is precious metals and in particular Gold. In 5 out of the 6 drawdown periods, Gold performed positively, delivering 14.4% per year on average. To put this result in perspective, over those 6 periods, European equities have delivered -35.2%, Min Volatility equities -17.8%, Cash +2.8%, EUR Treasury AAA 8.4% and USD Treasury 11.3%2.

It is worth noting, however, that Energy can also deliver some downside protection when the equity downturn is the result of external shocks such as geopolitical uncertainties. In such, cases Energy and Oil, in particular, tend to react on the upside providing some protection aligned with Gold.

Performance in periods of equity drawdown
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. In EUR. Enhanced Commodities Data starts only in May 2001 so it is not represented in the period of the Tech Bubble. More details on the indices used in the figure are available at the end of the blog. The 6 well known equity drawdown periods used in this graph are the Tech Burst (September 2000 to March 2003), the Financial Crisis(July 2007 to March 2009), the Euro Crisis I (April 2010 to July 2010), the Euro Crisis II (My 2011 to October 2011), the China Crisis (April 2015 to February 2016) and Q4 2018.

Looking further at the performance of Precious Metals in periods of drawdown we observe in figure 2 that over the 10 worst quarters for European equities in the last 20 years, Gold has 7 quarters of positive performance – a rate of 70%. On average gold outperformed equities by 19% in those quarters. Silver provides results that are more mixed despite outperforming equities by 14% on average. While over the full period commodities didn’t provide a positive return, in 8 of the 10 periods they outperformed equity markets by 8% on average proving that they are still a powerful diversifier. Enhanced Commodities fared even better outperforming equities by 9.6% on average per quarter.

10 worst equity quarters since july 2000
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. In EUR. More details on the indices used in the figure are available at the end of the blog.

Commodities a chief diversifier

In fact, the rolling 3Y correlation between commodities and equities remains consistently below 50% with long periods where it is nil or even negative. From a pure portfolio construction point of view, this is very exciting as it hands us a diversifying asset that can help reduce the overall volatility of the portfolio.

Roling correlation of commodities with european equities.
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Period July 2000 to December 2019. Calculations are based on monthly returns in EUR. European Equities is proxied by STOXX Europe 600 net total return index.

Gold, a precious tool to build defensive portfolios

From a more macroeconomic perspective and looking at Commodities performance across business cycles, it is again very clear that Precious Metals offer a protection in economic slowdown or recession. In Figure 3, we have split the last 20 years in 4 types of periods using the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”) Composite Leading indicator (“CLI”). The CLI has been designed to decrease a few months before economy start to slow down or increase before the economy restarts. So, a strong decline in CLI tends to indicate a probable downturn in equity markets for example.

Average performance
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Period July 2000 to December 2019. Calculations are based on monthly returns in EUR. More details on the indices used in the figure are available at the end of the blog.

Enhanced Commodities behaved very well compared to front month commodities, cutting significantly the downside in negative economic environments and doing better in positive ones. It is worth noting as well the extent to which commodities and enhanced commodities perform when the economic signals are strong. This is linked to the well documented properties of commodities as an inflation hedge. Precious Metals exhibit a very strong and versatile profile driven mainly by gold.

It is interesting to note that Gold has outperformed very strongly in very negative or negative economic scenarios but also has done very well in periods of strong economic rebound, buoyed by its inflation hedge proprieties. This makes Gold a pretty asymmetric asset with strong positive performance in difficult economic periods but also good performance in strong rebound and when yields are expected to increase. Silver, similarly to palladium and platinum, offers also an interesting payoff, behaving part like a precious metal and part like an industrial metal. In periods where the economy is strong, it benefits from being used in the industry and behave more pro cyclically than gold. However, in economic downturn, it benefits from its status as a precious metal and delivers some protection. 

This brings us to our fourth pillar in our framework: valuation. WisdomTree issued its quarterly outlook for Gold in January 2020, offering a number of scenarios fo the metal this year. In “Gold: how we value the precious metal”, we explain how we characterise gold’s past behaviour. Unlike other commodities where the balance of physical supply and demand influence the price, gold behaves more like a pseudo currency, driven by more macroeconomic variables like the interest rate environment, inflation, exchange rates and sentiment. Characterising gold’s past behaviour allows us to project where gold could go in the future (assuming it maintains consistent behaviour) using an internal model. In recent weeks, given the sharp rise in volatility of many asset markets and decisive action by a number of central banks across the globe, we are treading a path that looks like the bull case scenario presented our January 2020 outlooks. That scenario would see gold prices head over US$2000/oz by the end of the year. In that scenario, the Federal Reserve of the US embarks on policy easing (which has already started), that drives Treasury yields lower than where they were in December 2019 (Treasury yields have already broken new all-time lows of 0.35% on March 10th 2020). Inflation in that scenario is at an elevated 2.5% (which is in line with the January 2020 actual reading). Lastly, speculative positioning in gold futures markets remains elevated throughout the course of the year (at 350k contracts net long). In February 2020, we saw speculative positioning hit fresh highs (388k) and at the time of writing (10th March 2020), it remains above the 350k. We caution that if the current shock we are experiencing is temporary, we could get the recent interest rate cuts reversed, Treasury yields could rise to 2% and positing in gold futures could head back to more normal levels (closer to 120k). That was what we presented as a base case in January, where gold would end the year at US$1640/oz. So the downside from the levels ate the time of writing is somewhat limited (with gold trading at US$1650/oz at the time of writing) even if we end up in what was the base case.

This concludes our 6 weeks grand tour of the “natural” defensive assets among the main 4 asset classes. Next week we will start focusing on portfolio construction and on different ideas to design defensive and versatile portfolios.

Europe Equities is proxied by the STOXX Europe 600 net total return index. Broad Commodities (Commo) is proxied by the Bloomberg Commodity Total Return Index. Enhanced Commodities is proxied by Optimized Roll Commodity Total Return Index. Energy is proxied by the Bloomberg Energy subindex Total Return Index. Precious Metals is proxied by the Bloomberg Precious Metals subindex Total Return Index. Industrial Metals is proxied by the Bloomberg Industrial Metals subindex Total Return Index. Livestock is proxied by the Bloomberg Livestock subindex Total Return Index. Softs is proxied by the Bloomberg Softs subindex Total Return Index. Grains is proxied by the Bloomberg Grains subindex Total Return Index. Gold is proxied by the LBMA Gold Price PM Index. Silver is proxied by the LBMA Silver Price index.

By: Pierre Debru, Director, Research

Source

WisdomTree, Bloomberg. In EUR.

WisdomTree, Bloomberg. In EUR. Europe Equities is proxied by the STOXX Europe 600 net total return index. Min Vol is proxied by MSCI World Min Volatility net total return index. Cash Euro is proxied by a series of daily compounded Eonia. EUR Treasury AAA is proxied by the Bloomberg Barclays EUR Aggregate Treasury AAA total return index. USD Treasury is proxied by the Bloomberg Barclays USD Treasury total return index. 

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Analys

Fundamentals trump geopolitical tensions

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

Throughout this week, the Brent Crude price has experienced a decline of USD 3 per barrel, despite ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Price fluctuations have ranged from highs of USD 91 per barrel at the beginning of the week to lows of USD 87 per barrel as of yesterday evening.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

Following the release of yesterday’s US inventory report, Brent Crude once again demonstrated resilience against broader macroeconomic concerns, instead focusing on underlying market fundamentals.

Nevertheless, the recent drop in prices may come as somewhat surprising given the array of conflicting signals observed. Despite an increase in US inventories—a typically bearish indicator—we’ve also witnessed escalating tensions in the Middle East, coupled with the reinstatement of US sanctions on Venezuela. Furthermore, there are indications of impending sanctions on Iran in response to the recent attack on Israel.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has indicated that new sanctions targeting Iran, particularly aimed at restricting its oil exports, could be announced as early as this week. As previously highlighted, we maintain the view that Iran’s oil exports remain vulnerable even without further escalation of the conflict. It appears that Israel is exerting pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran, an action that is unfolding before our eyes.

Iran’s current oil production stands at close to 3.2 million barrels per day. Considering additional condensate production of about 0.8 million barrels per day and subtracting domestic demand of roughly 1.8 million barrels per day, the net export of Iranian crude and condensate is approximately 2.2 million barrels per day.

However, the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of such sanctions casts doubt on the likelihood of a complete ending of Iranian exports. Approximately 80% of Iran’s exports are directed to independent refineries in China, suggesting that US sanctions may have limited efficacy unless China complies. The prospect of China resisting US pressure on its oil imports from Iran poses a significant challenge to US sanctions enforcement efforts.

Furthermore, any shortfall resulting from sanctions could potentially be offset by other OPEC nations with spare capacity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, can collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day, although this remains a contingency measure.

In addition to developments related to Iran, the Biden administration has re-imposed restrictions on Venezuelan oil, marking the end of a six-month reprieve. This move is expected to impact flows from the South American nation.

Meanwhile, US crude inventories (excluding SPR holdings) surged by 2.7 million barrels last week (page 11 attached), reaching their highest level since June of last year. This increase coincided with a decline in measures of fuel demand (page 14 attached), underscoring a slightly weaker US market.

In summary, while geopolitical tensions persist and new rounds of sanctions are imposed, our market outlook remains intact. We maintain our forecast of an average Brent Crude price of USD 85 per barrel for the year 2024. In the short term, however, prices are expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark as they navigate through geopolitical uncertainties and fundamental factors.

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Analys

Brace for Covert Conflict

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

In the past two trading days, Brent Crude prices have fluctuated between highs of USD 92.2 per barrel and lows of USD 88.7 per barrel. Despite escalation tensions in the Middle East, oil prices have remained relatively stable over the past 24 hours. The recent barrage of rockets and drones in the region hasn’t significantly affected market sentiment regarding potential disruptions to oil supply. The key concern now is how Israel will respond: will it choose a strong retaliation to assert deterrence, risking wider regional instability, or will it revert to targeted strikes on Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq? While it’s too early to predict, one thing is clear: brace for increased volatility, uncertainty, and speculation.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

Amidst these developments, the market continues to focus on current fundamentals rather than unfolding geopolitical risks. Despite Iran’s recent attack on Israel, oil prices have slid, reflecting a sideways or slightly bearish sentiment. This morning, oil prices stand at USD 90 per barrel, down 2.5% from Friday’s highs.

The attack

Iran’s launch of over 300 rockets and drones toward Israel marks the first direct assault from Iranian territory since 1991. However, the attack, announced well in advance, resulted in minimal damage as Israeli and allied forces intercepted nearly all projectiles. Hence, the damage inflicted was limited. The incident has prompted US President Joe Biden to urge Israel to exercise restraint, as part of broader efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Israel’s response remains uncertain as its war cabinet deliberates on potential courses of action. While the necessity of a response is acknowledged, the timing and magnitude remain undecided.

The attack was allegedly in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, resulting in significant casualties, including a senior leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. It’s notable that this marks the first direct targeting of Israel from Iranian territory, setting the stage for heightened tensions between the two nations.

Despite the scale of the attack, the vast majority of Iranian projectiles were intercepted before reaching Israeli territory. However, a small number did land, causing minor damage to a military base in the southern region.

President Biden swiftly condemned Iran’s actions and pledged to coordinate a diplomatic response with leaders from the G7 nations. The US military’s rapid repositioning of assets in the region underscores the seriousness of the situation.

Iran’s willingness to escalate tensions further depends on Israel’s response, as indicated by General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. Meanwhile, speculation about a retaliatory attack from Israel persists.

Looking ahead, key questions remain unanswered. Will Iran launch additional attacks? How will Israel respond, and what implications will it have for the region? Moreover, how will Iran’s allies react to the escalating tensions?

Given the potential for a full-scale war between Iran and Israel, concerns about its impact on global energy markets are growing. Both the United States and China have strong incentives to reduce tensions in the region, given the destabilizing effects of a regional conflict.

Our view in conclusion

The recent escalation between Iran and Israel underscores the delicate balance of power in the volatile Middle East. With tensions reaching unprecedented levels and the specter of further escalation looming, the potential for a full-blown conflict cannot be understated. The ramifications of such a scenario would be far-reaching and could have significant implications for regional stability and global security.

Turning to the oil market, there has been much speculation about the possibility of a full-scale blockade of the Strait of Hormuz in the event of further escalation. However, at present, such a scenario remains highly speculative. Nonetheless, it is crucial to note that Iran’s oil production and exports remain at risk even without further escalation. Currently producing close to 3.2 million barrels per day, Iran has significantly increased its production from mid-2020 levels of 1.9 million barrels per day.

In response to the recent attack, Israel may exert pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran. The enforcement of such sanctions, particularly on Iranian oil exports, could result in a loss of anywhere between 0.5 million to 1 million barrels per day of oil supply. This would likely keep the oil market in deficit for the remainder of the year, contradicting the Biden administration’s wish to maintain oil and gasoline prices at sustainable levels ahead of the election. While other OPEC nations have spare capacity, utilizing it would tighten the global oil market even further. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, could collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day if necessary.

Furthermore, both Iran and the US have expressed a desire to prevent further escalation. However, much depends on Israel’s response to the recent barrage of rockets. While Israel has historically refrained from responding violently to attacks (1991), the situation remains fluid. If Israel chooses not to respond forcefully, the US may be compelled to promise stronger enforcement of sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Consequently, Iranian oil exports are at risk, regardless of whether a wider confrontation ensues in the Middle East.

Analyzing the potential impact, approximately 2.2 million barrels per day of net Iranian crude and condensate exports could be at risk, factoring in Iranian domestic demand and condensate production. The effectiveness of US sanctions enforcement, however, remains uncertain, especially considering China’s stance on Iranian oil imports.

Despite these uncertainties, the market outlook remains cautiously optimistic for now, with Brent Crude expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark in the near term. Navigating through geopolitical tensions and fundamental factors, the oil market continues to adapt to evolving conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

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Analys

OPEC+ won’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

Lots of talk about an increasingly tight oil market. And yes, the oil price will move higher as a result of this and most likely move towards USD 100/b. Tensions and flareups in the Middle East is little threat to oil supply and will be more like catalysts driving the oil price higher on the back of a fundamentally bullish market. I.e. flareups will be more like releasing factors. But OPEC+ will for sure produce more if needed as it has no interest in killing the goose (global economy) that lays the golden egg (oil demand growth). We’ll probably get verbal intervention by OPEC+ with ”.. more supply in H2” quite quickly when oil price moves closer to USD 100/b and that will likely subdue the bullishness. OPEC+ in full control of the oil market probably means an oil price ranging from USD 70/b to USD 100/b with an average of around USD 85/b. Just like last year.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Brent crude continues to trade around USD 90/b awaiting catalysts like further inventory declines or Mid East flareups. Brent crude ydy traded in a range of USD 88.78 – 91.1/b before settling at USD 90.38/b. Trading activity ydy seems like it was much about getting comfortable with 90-level. Is it too high? Is there still more upside etc. But in the end it settled above the 90-line. This morning it has traded consistently above the line without making any kind of great leap higher.

Netanyahu made it clear that Rafah will be attacked. Israel ydy pulled some troops out of Khan Younis in Gaza and that calmed nerves in the region a tiny bit. But it seems to be all about tactical preparations rather than an indication of a defuse of the situation. Ydy evening Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel made it clear that a date for an assault on Rafah indeed has been set despite Biden’s efforts to prevent him doing so. Article in FT on this today. So tension in Israel/Gaza looks set to rise in not too long. The market is also still awaiting Iran’s response to the bombing of its consulate in Damascus one week ago. There is of course no oil production in Israel/Gaza and not much in Syria, Lebanon or Yemen either. The effects on the oil market from tensions and flareups in these countries are first and foremost that they work as catalysts for the oil price to move higher in an oil market which is fundamentally bullish. Deficit and falling oil inventories is the fundamental reason for why the oil price is moving higher and for why it is at USD 90/b today. There is also the long connecting string of:

[Iran-Iraq-Syria/Yemen/Lebanon/Gaza – Israel – US]

which creates a remote risk that oil supply in the Middle East potentially could be at risk in the end when turmoil is flaring in the middle of this connecting string. This always creates discomfort in the oil market. But we see little risk premium for a scenario where oil supply is really hurt in the end as neither Iran nor the US wants to end up in such a situation.

Tight market but OPEC+ will for sure produce more if needed to prevent global economy getting hurt. There  is increasing talk about the oil market getting very tight in H2-24 and that the oil price could shoot higher unless OPEC+ is producing more. But of course OPEC+ will indeed produce more. The health of the global economy is essential for OPEC+. Healthy oil demand growth is like the goose that lays the golden egg for them. In no way do they want to kill it with too high oil prices. Brent crude averaged USD 82.2/b last year with a high of USD 98/b. So far this year it has averaged USD 82.6/b. SEB’s forecast is USD 85/b for the average year with a high of USD 100/b. We think that a repetition of last year with respect to oil prices is great for OPEC+ and fully acceptable for the global economy and thus will not hinder a solid oil demand growth which OPEC+ needs. Nothing would make OPEC+ more happy than to produce at a normal level and still being able to get USD 85/b. Brent crude will head yet higher because OPEC+ continues to hold back supply Q2-24 resulting in declining inventories and thus higher prices. But when the oil price is nearing USD 100/b we expect verbal intervention from the group with statements like ”… more supply in H2-24” and that will probably dampen bullish prices.

Not only does OPEC+ want to produce at a normal level. It also needs to produce at a normal level. Because at some point in time in the future there will be a situation sooner or later where they will have to cut again. And unless they are back to normal production at that time they won’t be in a position to cut again.

So OPEC+ won’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. They won’t allow the oil price to stay too high for too long. I.e. USD 100/b or higher. They will produce more in H2-24 if needed to prevent too high oil prices and they have the reserve capacity to do it.

Data today: US monthly oil market report (STEO) with forecast for US crude and liquids production at 18:00 CET

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