Inflation remains a major concern and continues to exert pressure on markets. At least inflation is declining in most economies. In the US, inflation is declining since July 2022 due to the most aggressive measures taken by the Fed in comparison to other economies. Inflation fell from over 9% to now below 5%. The EU’s inflation kept rising until September 2022 when it surpassed the 11% mark. The more hesitant central bank interventions and higher exposure to the war led to a substantially slower decrease. As of April 2023, inflation still remains slightly above 8%. Toward the end of 2022, the UK behaved similarly to the EU, but could not maintain this trend. As of March, inflation in the UK remained above 10%. The continued struggle of the UK – in comparison to the EU – is largely attributable to a combination of its higher food price inflation, high reliability on gas, and worker shortages as well as wage rises. The latest data revealed that the UK could substantially reduce its inflation in April to below 9%. China and Switzerland were able to keep their inflation below 4% throughout this period and have achieved decreasing inflation similar to the previously discussed economies, albeit for different reasons. Japan followed this development but saw a spike in inflation in April 2023, which stems from a surge in food prices. Figure 1 summarizes the inflation rate development from the beginning of 2022. Figure 2 shows the corresponding interest rate measures the various central banks undertook. The Fed took the most aggressive measures with the current range being between 5% and 5.25%. Market participants widely expected rate hikes to stop earlier in 2023, and it seems now that during the June meeting, there will be a break. However, officials stated that the fight against inflation is not over, and further hikes are still reasonably likely. This dampened the optimism of market participants, especially considering views at the beginning of the year with fewer increases and possible cuts as early as autumn. Such a development seems highly unlikely at this stage. The BoE followed the Fed’s development most closely. Unfortunately, it did not achieve the same results, as the substantial discrepancy in inflation data shows. The ECB took almost half a year longer to implement such measures. As of May 2023, central bank rates in the EU are still 1.25% lower than compared to the US. It is also reasonable to assume that the ECB will continue hiking to offset its currently substantially higher inflation. This can be attributed to the later reaction of the ECB in comparison to the Fed. Switzerland, which had fewer problems with inflation, required less severe interventions. In total, the SNB increased its core interest rate by 2.25% since May 2022. In contrast to other Western economies, its core interest rate sits at a moderate 1.5%. Asian countries, such as China and Japan have struggled little with inflation and needed no or only minor central bank interventions. Nonetheless, the countries still did not go through the aftermath of Covid unscathed.
Figure 1: Inflation Rate in Percentages in the US, UK, EU, Switzerland, Japan, and China from January 2022 to April 2023, Sources: Stone Mountain Capital Research, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Eurostat, Office for National Statistics (UK), Swiss Federal Statistics Office, Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communication (JP), National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 2023
Figure 2: Interest Rates by the Central Banks of the US, EU, UK, Switzerland, Japan, and China from January 2022 to May 2023, Source: Stone Mountain Capital Research, Federal Reserve, ECB, BoE, SNB, BoJ, PBoC, May 2023
Recession fears and interest rates keep holding investors on high alert. The ECB and the Fed both raised interest rates in their last meeting in May 2023. While the Fed hinted at a decent likelihood that interest rate hikes will stop, it is not the case for the ECB which emphasized that there is still more work to be done to get inflation under control. In particular in the US, this is a positive development, as the premise of no further hikes might be realistic for the time since the recent hikes started. Despite this outlook, the situation is still highly uncertain. A large contributor is the banking crisis, which already includes the second-largest insolvency of a bank. The pressure on the industry is continuing with the collapse of First Republic and subsequent acquisition by JPMorgan. The uncertainty is further increased by the debate on the debt ceiling of the US. So far, there has been little progress but there needs to be a solution fast, as according to some sources, the US could go bankrupt as early as June 2023. This development also led to the largest aggregate short position of US Treasuries in history. In the EU, officials of the ECB highlight that further measures are necessary, as inflation is not low enough yet and it has been staying at such high levels for too long. On the opposite end, there are more and more concerns arising from high rates. Many expect the banking crisis to keep continuing and lower growth rates, which is evident by the GDP growth of the EU in Q1 2023 of only 0.1%. In this rather critical state, gold has seen a resurgence over the past months. Gold reclaimed the $2k mark in early April 2023 and has maintained there ever since. The increased uncertainty also manifested itself in substantial inflows in gold ETFs in recent weeks. Thus far, hedge funds have done well in this challenging ecosystem. The industry mostly managed the initial drawdowns well. It also led to a more promising perception of hedge funds themselves, as the number of launches is comparable to pre-Covid levels for the first time. The industry also reached a new milestone of $5tn AuM according to Barclay. Fundraising remains an issue for all alternative asset classes with the exception of very large hedge funds. The fundraising problem is especially dire in private equity and venture capital funds. The private equity industry is starting to feel the pain from its delay from public markets and their drawdown a few months ago. Not only have valuations dropped by almost a third, but private equity-backed IPOs are virtually inexistent. Investments also have become more scarce. In particular venture capital has been hit hard, as quarterly investments have dropped by 50% YoY.
In this challenging ecosystem, alternative assets showed resilience to the drawdowns in public markets. While some hedge funds have struggled in recent times, the industry is managing the current situation well. For the first time since the pandemic, hedge fund launches have reached pre-pandemic levels again. Regarding performance, in particular large hedge funds have managed the drawdowns well. Figure 2 shows a comparison of public equities and bond indices relative to equity and fixed income hedge funds. For equity strategies, hedge funds were able to mitigate the largest drawdowns of public equities, while also benefitting from the recovery periods (although not to the degree as public equities have). For fixed income strategies, the results are even better. Not only were the funds able to mitigate the drawdowns in fixed income significantly, but they also posted stronger gains in the recovery periods, at least in most instances. Private debt and private equity funds achieved similar results, although it is unknown as of yet how they did in the very short-term. Throughout 2022, private debt funds managed to return a positive performance in each quarter and enhance the stability of a portfolio substantially. Private equity strategies functioned similarly to equity hedge funds, as they mitigated most of the drawdowns of public equity, even for the riskiest sub-strategy in venture capital. Figure 3 shows a comparison of direct lending, private equity, and venture capital benchmark indices versus public equities. While these results are promising, the private equity industry has not been unfazed by the recent crisis. Fundraising became a substantial issue in Q1 2023 as well as more and more downrounds. This leads private equity funds to search for alternatives. One of which seems to be buying back its own debt, which has been more prominent in recent months. Especially in the fundraising department, private debt also saw a substantial shortage, such that pension funds and endowments make up almost 50% of the capital raised. While higher interest rates also lead to higher yields in the private debt markets, it comes at an increased risk with rising loan default rates.
Despite the recent bank crashes and the increased recession fears they caused, markets have stabilized and performed well in the latter half of March and the beginning of April. Over the past months, the S&P 500 gained almost 7% and holds its position above 4,100. Similar developments occurred for gold and oil prices, with gold being up nearly 7% too, and oil close to 8%. While the gains from the equity markets can be largely attributed to a sign of relief that the banking crisis did not amount to a full crisis and a real possibility of the rate hikes stopping. The strong performance of gold can be largely attributed to the same factors. Within the recent bull run, gold reclaimed the $2000 per ounce mark. While oil plummeted for most of the year, its increase is caused by OPEC+’s last meeting when they announced a sharp production cut.
The crypto industry has been quiet in 2023 thus far. Despite the banking crisis and recession fears, the industry has done. Bitcoin (BTC), the most important coin is almost 80% in 2023 as of the time of writing. While Ethereum (ETH) has been less successful, it is still up 60%. Solana (SOL), a cryptocurrency that has been heralded as Ethereum-killer in 2021 completely collapsed in 2022 when it turned out the chain has substantial security issues. To address these issues the coin has been shut down multiple times which made investors lose confidence in the chain. On 12th April 2023, ETH will implement its Shanghai upgrade which led cryptos rally. The Shanghai upgrade will allow validators and stakers to withdraw their assets from the Beacon chain (the original sub-chain which allowed for the proof-of-stake consensus algorithm), which has not been possible since 2020. In total, more than 16 million ETH were locked on the Beacon chain so far. Although it is another upgrade to the chain, many see this update as “price”-neutral. While it makes staking and validating more attractive now, a lot of capital was locked and will be free for the first time in more than two years. However, most people think that not much will be withdrawn, given the dominance of ETH in DeFi and the relatively high staking yield. Additionally, ETH was worth a lot more and people will want to chase similar highs. While most cryptos rallied ahead of the upgrade, ETH was outpaced by both BTC and SOL. BTC additionally surpassed the $30k mark for the first time in a year ahead of the upgrade. Figure 1 shows the YTD of the three coins mentioned above.
The most notable development over the past two weeks was the collapse and subsequent acquisition of Credit Suisse by UBS. After the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank as well as Silvergate and Signature Bank, the banking sector faced substantial drawdowns. Credit Suisse had been under pressure for a while, largely due to prior scandals in which the bank was involved. It started with a spying scandal involving the prior CEO Tidjane Thiam and more importantly being involved in the Archegos Capital and Greensill Capital collapse. This led to substantial losses to the bank. This is especially notable, as the company struggled with its profitability for a while. In 2022 and in early 2023, the bank was already signaling distress as its largest shareholder, Harris Associates, which held nearly 10% sold its entire stake. The Saudi National Bank stepped in and acquired a stake of around 10% in Credit Suisse. The collapse of SVB and the subsequent announcement of the now ex-CEO of Saudi National Bank that they will not further give capital to the bank. While this is not surprising as a larger stake leads to a lot more regulatory issues. Yet, this announcement was interpreted as a lack of confidence in the bank, which led to a bank run. This started the collapse of the bank. The Swiss government then stepped in and looked for a way to save the bank with the goal of keeping the bank in Swiss hands. The final outcome was that UBS will buy Credit Suisse for 3bn CHF and a substantial involvement by the Swiss National Bank that provides liquidity if necessary and alleviate some of the losses UBS may incur following the acquisition. With the challenging integration ahead, UBS also decided to appoint Ermotti as CEO of UBS who led the company from 2011 to 2020 already.
With the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank early in March 2023, markets are experiencing increased volatility. Especially, the banking sector was hurt substantially. It also led to the collapse of other banks, such as Silvergate and Signature Bank. With the recent shock in the stock market following the collapse of SVB, other banks are feeling the pressure and there may be more defaults on the horizon. Even established banks such as Credit Suisse are now in a very dangerous situation. While the stock market started strong in the year 2023, the most recent shock almost evaporated all the gains of the beginning of the year. The S&P 500 is now only up 2% from the beginning of 2023. The SVB collapse also induced further volatility in the Treasuries market, which was quite volatile even before due to discussion on continuously increased rates by the Fed. The 10-years US Treasuries were close to hitting the 4% mark again, but fell by almost 50bps after the SVB collapse. The impact on 1-year Treasuries was even more severe, resulting in a drop of almost 80bps. Within two days, the 2-year yields dropped almost 50bps, which only happened in five prior crises before. Figure 1 shows the historical drops in 2-year yields after the Black Monday in 1987. Cryptocurrencies also experienced a similar volatility increase. Bitcoin was steadily trading around the $23k and $24k mark in the past month. After the initial announcement, it dropped to $22k and later on shortly below the $20k mark. Nonetheless, it seems that Bitcoin already recovered this shock and surged above the $26k mark.