For the first time since the recession, all OECD-tracked countries are growing at the same time. And that presents opportunities.
By Bryan Borzykowski | 01-11-18 | 05:00 AM | Email Article

Investors had a lot to be thankful for in 2017, including strong stock market returns--the S&P 500 was up more than 20% last year. But something else happened that was even more remarkable than a ninth straight year of stock market gains.

Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based business and investments writer. He’s contributed to the New York Times, CNBC, BBC Capital, CNNMoney and several other publications. Bryan’s also written three personal finance books and appears regularly on CTV News.

For the first time since the recession, all 45 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development enjoyed GDP growth. That includes Brazil and Russia, which had, until recently, been in a recession.

Investors and financial experts have been waiting for this moment for years. While U.S. GDP growth has been in positive territory since 2009, other parts of the world haven't been able to recover nearly as quickly. Just five years ago, the Eurozone was battling its own recession.

Now, though, it appears as if the world economy is firing on all cylinders. In November, the OECD said it expected the global economy to grow by 3.6% in 2017, up from 3.1% in 2016. This year should be another good one for global growth: The OECD expects the world's economy to expand by 3.7%, while all countries will continue experiencing GDP growth.

That's good news for investors. While economic growth doesn't always result in stock market growth, over the long term there is usually a positive correlation between them. Growing economies often make people feel better about their lots in life, which can lead to increased spending and higher stock prices.

"There's a greater confidence in this growth," says Michael Fredericks, head of income investing for the BlackRock Multi-Asset Strategies Team and lead manager of BlackRock Multi-Asset Income , which earns a Bronze analyst rating from Morningstar.

This kind of environment presents different opportunities than buying after a recession or in times of middling growth. When the world is growing, like it is now, economically sensitive sectors and companies tend to experience the greatest gains. For instance, the S&P 500 Consumer Discretionary subsector was up 20% last year, while the Consumer Staples subsector (an industry that tends to well in less robust economic environments) rose just 10%.

Firing on All Cylinders
Synchronized global growth has been a long time coming. Since the recession, most developed nations have engaged in some sort of stimulus program, such as quantitative easing, interest-rate cuts, or both. Borrowing rates around the world eventually dropped to such low levels that consumers and some corporations started spending again and, as a result, helped boost economic growth.

However, central banks didn't act all at the same time--the United States started its QE program in 2009, while Japan began buying government bonds in 2011--so it took a while before all this easing worked its way through the global economy. And it's not finished yet, says Fredericks. In Europe, for instance, consumers are taking a slow and steady approach to spending, and many companies haven't yet taken advantage of still ultralow rates, he says. Some countries, like Sweden, continue to have negative interest rates.

"There's still a lot of easy money out there," says Fredericks. "In some economies, there continues to be pent up demand. There hasn’t been a lot of investment or consumption, so we're a long way from the former highs in some economies, like Europe. There's a long way for them to grow and get back to where they were."

The U.S. economy may be in the later stages of the cycle than its overseas peers, but even it should continue experiencing strong growth in 2018. Whatever one thinks of the recent tax cuts, a 21% corporate tax rate is certainly good for business, says Tim Parton, manager of JPMorgan Growth Advantage , which earns a Bronze rating from Morningstar.

"Small business confidence is off the charts and it had been so low for so long," he says. "Large companies are also starting to have confidence and may start thinking about spending more."

He thinks we could see more mergers this year, while less regulation could be a boon for some sectors and help increase corporate spending.

Pay Attention to Cyclicals
Those who think global economic growth will continue will want to keep an eye on the more cyclical sectors, such as industrials, consumer discretionary, some technology operations and other parts of the market that are more sensitive to capital expenditures and business spending, says Parton.

Financials, which historically has been a defensive sector, is also highly sensitive to economic growth and interest rate movements; as a result, these stocks should do well as the economy expands and rates rise.

"Financials had been out of favor for a long period of time, but they're starting to do better and they have quite a lot of headroom," says Parton.

As much as continued economic expansion may benefit companies in these sectors, many stocks have already experienced big price gains. According to Morningstar, consumer cyclical stocks are about 9% overvalued as of this writing. Industrials are  trading 17% above their fair value estimates, while the financial services sector is trading right around fair value.

Still, there are opportunities, especially for investors who may not be put off by rich valuations. Paul Gordon, comanager of the Silver-rated MFS Growth , looks for companies that can grow faster than their industries--and he's finding those companies in the industrials, financials, and consumer sectors, he says.

Goldman Sachs and Intercontinental Exchange , a clearinghouse for financial and commodity markets, are two businesses he likes today. The latter has high margins, is in an oligopolistic business, and should see increasing activity and volatility on its exchanges in 2018--good things for this company--as a result of improving economic growth, he says. The company is currently trading in 3-star range according to Morningstar, suggesting it's fairly valued. Sector director Michael Wong writes in his latest note that the company has a wide economic moat, and boasts scale-related advantages and a solid business model.

Morningstar's favorite undervalued ideas today in the consumer cyclical sector include Mattel , Hanesbrands , and Advance Auto Parts ; among industrials,  top underpriced picks include General Electric and Stericycle . The key is to look for fundamentally sound companies that haven't yet soared or have had a pullback, says Fredericks. That's what he's doing in the technology sector, which he includes  in the more cyclical part of his portfolio.

"We've been backing away from some of the highest-flying names in that sector and focusing more on stocks that haven't participated as much in terms of price appreciation," he says. "We still want double digit earnings growth, but with valuations that are roughly in line with the market."

Unless there's some major unforeseen setback in 2018, global economies will likely continue to forge ahead.

"The growth backdrop does look really supportive," says Fredericks. "And that's (good) for markets."

Bryan Borzykowski is a freelance columnist for Morningstar.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.

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