Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Feb 21, 2023

Are European Equities Still Providing Safety?


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Graham Secker, Head of Morgan Stanley's European Equity Strategy Team. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the deflating safety cushion for European equities. It's Tuesday, February the 21st at 3 p.m. in London.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's relatively easy to justify the European equity rally since the start of October, given that we've seen an improvement in the macro news flow against a backdrop of low valuation and depressed investor sentiment and positioning. While the macro outlook could continue to improve from here, we think the safety cushion that low valuation and depressed sentiment had previously provided has deflated considerably as investors have been drawn back into the market by rising price momentum. On valuation, the MSCI Europe Index still looks quite inexpensive on a next 12 month forward PE of 13, however the same ratio for Europe's median stock has risen to 16, which is at the upper end of its historic range. Admittedly, a less padded safety cushion is not necessarily a problem if the fundamental economic and earnings trends continue to improve. However, there is now considerably less margin for any disappointment going forward.

This rebound in European equities has been led primarily by cyclical sectors who have outperformed their defensive peers by nearly 20% over the last six months. Historically, this pace of outperformance has tended to be a good sign, suggesting that we had started a new economic cycle with further upside for cyclical stocks ahead. However, while this sounds encouraging, we see three caveats that warrant caution rather than optimism at this point.

First, we have seen no deterioration in cyclicals’ profitability yet, and the lack of any downturn now makes it harder to envisage an EPS upturn required to drive share prices higher going forward.

Second, we get a very different message from the yield curve, which has consistently proved to be one of the best economic leading indicators over many cycles. Today's inverted yield curve is usually followed by a period of cyclical underperformance and not outperformance.

And thirdly, cyclicals. Valuations look elevated, with the group trading in a similar price to book value as defensives. When this has happened previously, it usually signals cyclicals’ underperformance ahead.

Given our cautious view on cyclicals, we prefer small and mid-cap stocks as a way to gain exposure to a European recovery. Having underperformed both large caps and cyclicals significantly over the last year, relative valuations for smaller stocks looks much more appealing, and relative performance looks like it is breaking out of its prior downtrend. In addition, we see two specific macro catalysts that should help smaller stocks in 2023, namely falling inflation and a rising euro. Historically, both these trends have tended to favor smaller companies over larger companies, and we expect the same to happen this year.

At the country level we think the case for small and mid-cap stocks looks most compelling in Germany, where the relative index, the MDAX, has significantly lagged its larger equivalent, the DAX, such that relative valuations are close to a record low.

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While the causes of the European equity rally have become more clear over time, so have the caveats that warrant caution over optimism for cyclical stocks.