October 2023 Economic & Market Review – Geopolitical Tensions and Economic Resilience

Talking points

  1. Geopolitical Tensions Impact Markets: A surprise attack by Hamas in Israel on October 7 led to the outbreak of war in the Middle East. Elevated geopolitical tensions contributed to further uncertainty in an environment where fast-rising bond yields already besieged financial markets. 
  2. Investment Markets Fall: It was a case of more of the same in October as investors endured further losses across most asset classes. Excluding dividends, the benchmark US S&P 500 was down 2.2% in October, the Dow Jones Industrial Average decreased 1.4%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite fell 2.8%. This weakness was also seen in various global indices across developed and emerging markets. In local shares, the ASX 200 lost 2.8% after accounting for dividends. Small caps and listed property were thumped once again as rising risk-free rates dented valuations and increased funding costs. Gold and Bitcoin were noteworthy positive performers as investors sought safety and diversification.
  3. Weak Australian Dollar Benefits Australian Investors: The Australian dollar traded lower throughout October, again insulating unhedged domestic investors holding international investments. 
  4. Fixed Interest and Bond Market Turbulence: The rout in fixed interest returns continued, where the US 10-year Treasury yield briefly touched 5% for the first time since 2007. The sell-off permeated the global government bond market (including Australia) and in credit, with wider spreads seen in investment grade and high-yield bonds.
  5. Economic Resilience and Data Trends: On the economic front, the United States saw strong data, including impressive job creation, resilient wage growth, and robust economic growth. In contrast, Australia’s economic indicators were mixed, with a declining unemployment rate but concerns about inflation. European economies showed mixed results, while China’s industrial production, GDP, and retail sales performed positively despite challenges in the real estate sector and potential export restrictions.


Market Commentary

Investor tensions were further heightened in October as war broke out between Hamas and Israel. Despite the conflict, oil prices declined by around 10% during the month, with most of the damage coming in the final trading week. Meanwhile, European gas prices rose on fears of global supply chain disruptions. Commodity prices were a relatively bright spot in October, particularly where safe-haven gold was concerned.

Impaired sentiment continued to impact major indices, including the infrastructure and REIT sectors. Higher real yields have continued to detract from property and infrastructure returns, with small-cap returns experiencing a similar fate. The weaker Australian dollar (AUD) was again welcomed by domestic investors with foreign asset exposures. Indeed, the depreciation of the AUD over the last decade has strongly benefited unhedged domestic investors, particularly in developed market equities, where the depreciation has been more pronounced. For example, the annualised return for the MSCI ACWI-ex Australia has been boosted by more than three percentage points compared to its performance in local currency terms (11.9% vs 8.8%).

In fixed interest, government bond returns were negative in most developed markets as yields rose to multi-year highs in October. In Australia, heightened concerns around the path of inflation and interest rates saw 10-year government bonds briefly touch 5% later in the month. Japanese government bonds were not spared from the sell-off, as investors questioned the sustainability of the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) yield curve control policy. During its October meeting, the BoJ redefined the 1% upper limit on yields from a strict boundary to a more flexible “reference” point.


Economic Commentary

On the economic front, US data regularly printed stronger than expected. The September nonfarm payrolls report stunned economists with the creation of more than 300,000 jobs (double the consensus estimate). Wage growth remained resilient, and inflation data, while trending lower, remained too sticky in the minds of market analysts. The advance estimate for Q3 US economic growth also shot the lights out, with activity surging at an annualised rate of 4.9%. Consumer spending drove the increase, while residential investment rose for the first time in nearly two years.

In Australia, the September unemployment rate fell to a three-month low of 3.6%, driven by a decline in workforce participation. Meanwhile, the RBA paused official interest rates for the fourth consecutive month in October while retaining a hawkish stance in its commentary. Finally, the CPI inflation data for the September quarter delivered an upside surprise that left economists scrambling to raise estimates. A much stronger-than-expected retail sales print (triple the consensus estimate) added further impetus to the view that the cash rate would be hiked at the November meeting.

Elsewhere, European activity was mixed, with soft German data prints pointing to further weakness. In contrast, the UK economy showed signs of moderate improvement. Turning to China, industrial production, GDP, and retail sales were positive surprises. However, continued weakness in the real estate sector and reports of further US restrictions on AI chip exports dampened investor sentiment.


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