Note: This article originally appeared in The Straits Times on Dec 24, 2017 titled, “How 2017 has set the scene for an eventful 2018”
A lot has happened in 2017, and yet it feels as though we’re still waiting for events to unfold. Whether it’s the passage of President Donald Trump’s policies or the impact of Brexit, many things are still uncertain.
This creates a challenging climate for investors, but one which will make for an interesting 2018 – and throw up some opportunities along the way, if you know where to look.
An obvious place to start any review of the year is the United States equities market. Here, the “Trump effect” has been sustained, and its continued upside has been a surprise to many.
It would be dangerous to get on the wrong side of this as we go into 2018, though: With no let-up in his calls for less regulation, lower corporate tax and a proactive reassessment of trade policies, Mr Trump continues to be pro-business. And economically speaking, you can’t argue with the numbers.
Potentially tempering the ongoing rally is that US inflation has been consistently below US Federal Reserve (Fed) targets. Employment is strong, and if this trend continues and unemployment gets low enough, then wage pressure must push up inflation perhaps explosively.
I’ve certainly never seen a situation quite like this in my lifetime, and how the Fed guides the markets will be fascinating to watch – and crucial for the US economy.
Something you couldn’t ignore in 2017 has been the escalation of events on the Korean peninsula. Again, much of this drama is yet to play out, meaning 2018 will be a critical year.
China has stepped up its diplomatic involvement, but the North continues to test intercontinental ballistic missiles even as three US carrier strike groups patrol the Pacific – a rare occurrence and a sign of just how serious things are becoming.
One side-effect of this has been a rally in the Japanese stock market, in part driven by an expectation of increased spending on defence.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected this year with a pledge to strengthen Japan’s military – something in itself which may have wider geopolitical consequences over the next 12 months.
Turning to commodities, 2018 may also see the full effect of events from this year. Opec’s ability to control markets has been severely hampered by the US supply of shale oil.
According to figures from the International Energy Agency, the US will account for 80 per cent of the increase in global oil supply to 2025, maintaining downward pressure on prices at least in the short term. Through much of this year, however, US refining capacity has actually been kept low because of hurricane damage, propping prices up. With those refining plants back online, we could see further downward movement in the oil price.
Gold has managed to hold on to its nearly 11 per cent gain this year – in this case as investors seek a traditional safe haven away from the uncertainties of events in Turkey and Korea, as well as around Brexit.
One other factor that moves the gold price is the wedding season in India, where it’s traditional for gold jewellery to be bought and displayed – and with up to 20 million weddings taking place in India every year that can have a significant effect on the price. The season is almost over, however, and March next year should be a good time to buy as demand from the subcontinent drops.
Staying in developing markets, China will continue to offer potential – depending on how far its economic reforms really go.
The Chinese domestic bond market is a good example of this. Having been hit by a sell-off since October there are now signs of a recovery. However, of the US$3.4 trillion (S$4.6 trillion) worth of Chinese corporate debt, US$1 trillion is set to mature in 2018-2019.
Borrowing costs will be higher this time around, and the central bank may again have to allow for bankruptcies if it wants to create a legitimate domestic market.
Next year should show us how far it is prepared to go in that, and how much of an opportunity for investors the opening up of China’s bond markets really represents.
One other area of Chinese financial services that will be worth watching is the wealth management industry. It’s really only been in place for the last 10 years and observers will be keen to see along what lines it develops.
The Swiss are usually thought to have evolved the ultimate model of private banking, but they are so distracted now by regulatory change that it is not clear how much they actually have for the Chinese to emulate. A uniquely Chinese private banking system could, therefore, continue to emerge in 2018.
Outside of China, Thailand will be a country to watch next year. Recent deregulation measures have opened up its capital markets for the first time in 20 years, and the local initial public offering market is experiencing a revival.
This part of South-east Asia holds great potential for investors, and is well worth paying attention to.
We should also keep a close eye on Singapore as South-east Asia’s lead economy continues its transition from trading hub to a technology and innovation centre.
Staying with innovation, the debate around cryptocurrencies has been a hard one to avoid this year. Whether or not we are in the midst of a bubble about to burst, there is no arguing the fact that blockchain technology has begun to revolutionise the way we do business – and will continue to do so throughout next year.
All in all, it’s been quite a year – and 2018 is set to be no less eventful. Regulation, geopolitics and innovation have all played their part in shaping events this year, but more than that, they have laid foundations for a very interesting 12 months to come.
The writer is a partner at Crossbridge Capital.