Kevin Lilley from Old Mutual European Equities argues that equity markets reaching new highs should be considered a normal event.

Instead of obsessing on the unpredictable, investors should look to the positive environment they see in front of them.

In 1970 Marc Bolan wrote the lyrics to Ride a White Swan, the song that would become the first hit for his glam rock band, T. Rex. It might be pertinent to today’s equity markets.

Today, we live in an environment where investors are constantly looking for ‘black swans’, the name famously given by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to events that could not possibly have been foreseen. But such events are by definition extremely rare. It is normal to be in a white swan environment and, while not ignoring the risk of setback, this is surely the path for which we should plan.

Market commentators are also fixated on the term ‘bubble’, using it to describe equity indices hitting new highs. I would argue that equity markets reaching new highs is a fairly normal event. It is the last 13 years that has not been normal, with markets remaining below peak due to the extreme overvaluation at the beginning of the millennium, the height of the dot-com boom.

If markets traded on a constant fair multiple of profits or cash-flow, the norm would be for new market highs more often than not. Profits and cash-flows will normally follow the direction of nominal economic growth, which incidentally has risen in most of the past 13 years.

Due to the specific impact of the successive eurozone crises since 2010, there appears to be substantial potential for European equities to catch up with other equity markets. Not only is the European economy emerging from recession, the impact of self-imposed austerity measures is diminishing, removing a significant economic drag.

Unlike their global peers, European company profits and stock markets remain well below peak. With attractive multiples, a recovering economy, a return of international investors and an unlimited European Central Bank (ECB) backstop in place, Europe would appear to have significant potential for 2014. We don’t expect plain sailing, but in my experience of over 20 years, this has never been the case, even in the big up years.

There remains a strong political will for the eurozone to keep together, supported both by the ECB and Germany, so long as measures continue to be taken to make peripheral Europe more competitive. This appears to be slowly working, with many of these nations returning to current account surplus and having achieved lower and more flexible unit labour costs, which is leading to some examples of inward investment.

The threat of a Eurozone breakup now seems unlikely, apart from in the eyes of the loudest Europhobes, and the euro has returned to trend versus the US dollar. Political resolve remains strong, as the alternative of a fragmented Europe would mean a significantly reduced influence in global political affairs, encompassing both trade and security and defence issues, particularly as the Chinese and other faster growing economies demand more influence.

With market multiples of current year profits not looking stretched, and nominal economic growth forecast to rise over the next two years at least, surely we should be embracing these markets and ‘riding the white swan’, anticipating returns at least in line with profit growth plus dividends?

Posted by root

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