Market headwinds: No let-up in 2016

Few investors lament the passing of 2015, but not many have greeted 2016 enthusiastically either.

Historically low oil prices and the prospect of more expensive credit have dented the performance of even the smartest investors - and the worry is the stock market may suffer even more of the same pain before it gets some relief.

For value investors, 2015 was a year to forget. Even Mr Warren Buffett, the investment guru whose stellar performance most of them would like to emulate, saw his fortune shrink by US$11.3 billion (S$16 billion) last year as the share price of his flagship Berkshire Hathaway tanked about 11 per cent. It was Berkshire's worst performance since 2008, as some of its biggest investments - IBM, American Express, Walmart, Procter & Gamble - suffered price plunges.

Those of us who have sunk our cash into Singapore blue chips have not fared any better.

The benchmark Straits Times Index tanked about 14 per cent last year. Fears of slowing economic growth and rising bad debt took their toll on the local banks which make up a big part of the index of 30 major stocks while a rout in oil prices spooked rig-builders Keppel Corp and Sembcorp Marine.

Market strategists do not see a rosy 2016. Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for example, notes the lack of global investors' interest in regional equities in its latest emerging market and Asia fund manager survey. It says international fund managers' positions in regional equities are at "near record low levels".

For local investors, the search for high-yielding safe investments is likely to be an arduous task.

Falling oil prices and rising US interest rates may put the dampener on the performance of blue chips and cause them to scale back on their dividend payouts if their earnings falter.

Even adopting a contrarian investment approach may backfire.

Whenever a stock registers a big fall, there is the temptation to consider it a bargain and load up on it. But last year, the market was littered with examples of contrarian investors being badly burnt by instances of so-called "cheap" stocks in the offshore and commodities sectors becoming even cheaper, following an extended drop in oil prices.

So timing an investment, even in blue chips badly bruised by a sudden sell-off, may be crucial if an investor does not want to suffer.

External events will likely shape how the local stock market performs, and that will accentuate the difficulties of making informed investment decisions.

While Wall Street will continue to be a key indicator on market direction, investors will also have to take events in China into account.

The Chinese central bank's sudden move last August to allow the yuan to weaken is still fresh in many fund managers' minds. This makes them wary of being caught out by any further policy moves by Beijing as it attempts to make the transition from being an export-led manufacturing economy to one which focuses on services and domestic consumption.

Observers are worried about any further downward lurches in oil and commodity prices and the impact this may have on the global economy - a worry compounded by the weakness in China, and its waning appetite for raw materials.

On the upside, cheaper prices reduce inflation. But the losses from lower oil prices seem more concentrated than the gains, as we see the immediate impact on the losers - the oil majors and their services providers slashing capital expenditure and workforce to preserve their cash resources.

That means each new phase of oil price weakness is likely to trigger a fresh bout of sell-off, especially on the commodity-heavy South-east Asian bourses.

There is also the usual concern over the impact which the policies pursued by the various major central banks will have on the financial markets. For most of last year, investors agonised over when the US central bank would start hiking interest rates. Now that it has done so - the first hike in nearly a decade last month - the big question is how frequent and by how much future increases will be.

Of course, if the hikes come regularly the cost of borrowing for everyone - from home buyers to businesses - will rise.

It does not help that 2016 is a presidential election year in the US; vitriol from the campaigning may add further uncertainties to what already looks like a difficult stock-market year ahead. But one definite result of the Federal Reserve's tightening monetary policy is the strengthening of the US dollar - and this will make the cost of borrowing in greenback dearer.

Another consequence may be a further sell-off in regional equities as hedge funds repay huge US dollar loans taken to bet on emerging stock markets and commodities.

There is one further concern to highlight - the bond market. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of bonds offering an attractive yield which were snapped up by investors even though these bonds are un-rated by credit agencies.

But with borrowing costs on the rise, the credit quality of these bond issuers will become an issue, with investors belatedly demanding even higher yields to compensate for the heightened risks of holding their bonds. Worse, most bonds are thinly traded. Their holders may be hard-pressed to find buyers unless they are willing to take a big hair-cut on their investments.

The consolation for value investors with powerful cashflows is that if they look beyond this year, any bad news that may erupt could be a chance to buy blue chips.

Last year, the sharp decline in the value of some of Berkshire's largest holdings did not stop Mr Buffett from expanding his business empire; he snapped up aircraft components maker Precision Castparts for US$32 billion and backed the merger between Kraft and Heinz to form the world's fifth-largest food company.

Mr Buffett once said that an investor should buy a stock only if he is perfectly happy to hold it even if the market were to shut down for 10 years. That is one piece of advice worth bearing in mind. Happy New Year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Market headwinds: No let-up in 2016'. Print Edition | Subscribe