Where are equity markets headed?

Equity markets have been bullish for almost five years – despite the negative news, fears and uncertainty that have prevailed during this period. Last year, which started with uncertainty, ended as a good year for stock markets overall. The Dow Jones industrial average, for example, had its best annual performance since 1995 (up 27 percent) and the rise in optimism pushed major stock markets to fresh highs at year-end.

In contrast to equities, other markets – such as bonds, precious metals and commodities – have been declining. The bond market had a poor performance last year as concerns the US Federal Reserve would start tapering its “quantitative easing” (QE) programme caused investment-grade bonds to suffer their worst year since 1994. This also represented the second-worst year for investment-grade debt since 1980, the first loss since 1999, and only the third time in 34 years that the asset class finished the year in the red. US treasury yields spiked 78 percent, causing a lot of pain in this market.

Commodity and precious metals markets also experienced a dismal year. For example, gold was down by 28 percent (about 37 percent since its peak), its worst annual decline since 1981. This begs the question whether or not the equity market will follow suit. Indeed, it is at a mature stage in light of historical experience. The median bull market has historically lasted 50 months and on average 67 months (“Bull Markets Since 1871: Duration and Magnitude” by Tobias Carlisle, greenbackd.com).

So has the market already discounted the best ahead and does it risk turning down despite improving economic conditions? Prevailing sentiment suggests otherwise. Since late last year and into the start of this year, optimism towards stocks and the global economy (especially the US) is running high across the board.

The tailwinds put forward for equity markets include the preference for equities over bonds backed by the so-called “great unwind”, with the secular bull market for bonds having ended last year, and the fact that equity valuations are generally not deemed expensive and earnings are expected to grow on the back of an improving economy.

Furthermore, it is argued that liquidity remains abundant and there is still too much cash sitting on the sidelines. Equities are also seen as relatively more attractive than other asset classes, while the wealth effect (rise in stock markets and home prices) engenders rising confidence.

There is an ongoing need for accommodative monetary policies to ensure a virtuous economic growth cycle. Leading economic indicators are pointing up, soft or contained commodity prices underpin economic growth and inflation remains subdued – all implying an accommodating and low interest rate environment for longer, and thus a low cost of capital.

The levels of market optimism and confidence over last year were reflected in the bullish headlines:

  • “The probability of a rerun of what happened in the past decade is low. Should we be worried? Not really. This time really is different.” December 29, Bloomberg.
  • The market “does not have the characteristics, as far as I’m concerned, of a stock market bubble”. Alan Greenspan, November, Bloomberg TV.
  • “In Silicon Valley. Partying like it’s 1999 once more” – November 26, New York Times.
  • “The market is hitting new highs every day, and even the sceptics are going for the ride.” November 27, theguardian.com.
  • “QE tapering or not, expect markets to rally in 2014: Mark Mobius, Templeton Emerging Markets Group” – December 18, The Economic Times.

And now? With the bears seemingly having gone into hibernation, the bulls are upping their forecasts. Most of the top market and investment strategists expect equities to end higher this year, predicting the Standard & Poor’s 500 index for example to finish higher this year by around 10 percent.

Could the current levels of optimism be a contrarian signal for equity markets? Bulls tend to disagree. Here are some of their major themes:

  • Investors must become totally euphoric before the market can turn down.
  • The weak recovery is keeping investors from being bullish enough for a top.
  • Markets are only due for a correction (about 5 percent to 10 percent) before they resume their uptrend.
  • A correction would present a good buying opportunity.
  • You should not wait for a correction, because you may miss the boat.
  • Economies are through the worst and are on an improving trajectory.
  • Tapering won’t hurt the market… as the economy is growing stronger and will soon expand meaningfully.
  • Interest rates won’t rise much in all likelihood, and especially given the Fed’s forward guidance.
  • If interest rates rise, it won’t jeopardise the equity market rally.

On the flip side, the issues and concerns raised by the bearish camp include:

– Increasing role of debt and leverage: New York Stock Exchange margin debt, for example, registered an all-time high of $423 billion (R5 trillion) in November. That is a 10 percent increase from its 2007 high, and a 52 percent rise from its 2000 high.

– Sentiment and confidence indicators are reaching extreme or near-extreme levels, in contrast to the deep pessimism that prevailed in March 2009 (the onset of bullish equity markets).

– The Fed’s leverage sits at about 73:1 (the average hedge fund is around 2.48:1, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s November survey), that is, the Fed’s stated capital of about $55bn compared with its total assets of about $4 trillion shows the extent of US dollar, and thus credit, creation (in fact a significant amount ended up as excess reserves in the banking system). This illustrates the unprecedented scale of intervention. A continued rise in bond yields will undermine the Fed’s efforts to keep a lid on yields and will risk unravelling what has been achieved thus far. Furthermore, a modest rise in interest rates will sharply deflate the value of the Fed’s assets.

  • Towards the end of a bull market, when optimism blooms, most observers tend to dismiss the possibility of an impending crunch, just as in 2000 and 2007.
  • Furthermore, investors tend to revise their positive forecasts upward.
  • China’s domestic credit since 2008 is up 2.5 times, from $9 trillion to $23 trillion. It has been noted that China’s growth in credit is faster than Japan’s before 1990 and that of the US before 2008, with half that growth in the shadow banking sector.
  • China’s reforms could inhibit growth.
  • The euro zone risks a relapse into deflationary recession and underlying tensions could surge again.
  • There is a possibility of another European sovereign debt and banking crisis in a world where risky leverage is once again mounting in the quest for elusive yield.
  • Stock markets have been losing upside momentum; some early indicators are diverging.
  • One main reason put forward by precious metals bulls in 2011 for a continued rise in prices was the belief of indefinite Fed QE. But precious metal prices still collapsed (well before tapering started).
  • Endless QE – This was one key argument by bond bulls in 2012 why bond yields would not rise. Yields are presently sitting near 18-month highs.
  • In both of the above cases, the majority of investors believed a reversal was unlikely as optimism about the trend prevailed. This is what is prevalent in the stock market today.

Many top market pundits have put forward some good arguments for a continued equity market rise. The relative upside case for equities, which underperformed bonds in major developed markets like the US over the last decade, is regarded as a compelling secular tailwind. Add supportive monetary policy with interest rates at low levels and improving economic growth prospects, and you have a cocktail of factors that underpins market optimism. However, it would be prudent not to ignore the cautionary signals or alerts flashed at this stage of the bull market in equities.

The tapering of QE liquidity commenced by the Fed coupled with ongoing deleverage and more restrictive monetary policies in developing economies will not be without market and economic impact. The reality is that these developments reduce global liquidity and with it support for equity markets. Furthermore, reflating economies via QE and creating and maintaining artificial monetary conditions (which some regard as market manipulation) cannot continue indefinitely. Taking the patient (economy, markets) off “life support” or sustenance (QE) eventually may cause withdrawal symptoms at best and a relapse at worst.

Alternatively, if reflationary efforts succeed above expectations and high inflation ensues, the need to normalise interest rates and unwind QE earlier will become pressing. This scenario will also be negative for equity markets.

The extent of prevailing market optimism does not guarantee a lasting equity bull market, nor does a better economy. However, being overly defensive too early could hurt in the interim as growing market confidence and bullishness build their own momentum. But it would be prudent not to ignore the bearish signs surfacing while the market continues on its path. Caution is advised.

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Chief Risk Officer

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Director: Institutional Sales, Mergence Group

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Independent Non-Executive Director

BA (Political Science)

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Nyonga Fofang, Independent Non-Executive Director at Mergence, has 25+ years of capital markets experience, specialising in private equity, M&A, leveraged finance, and general management. He co-founded and leads Bambili Group Investment Pty Ltd, a pan-African investment holding company. Nyonga also serves as a director at SourceTrace LLC in Boston. He began as a closed-end fund Equity Analyst at PaineWebber Inc. and holds degrees from Harvard University and UC Louvain.

Sholto Dolamo

Managing Director, Mergence Investment Managers

BSc (Chemistry)

BTech (Ceramic Science) 

MSc (Engineering)

MBA (Administration)

Sholto joined Mergence in July 2022. He has more than 15 years’ experience in financial services with a focus on strategic leadership, product innovation, and research across all asset classes in Public and Private markets. He held various senior roles at the Public Investment Corporation including Acting Chief Investment Officer. Before entering the financial services sector, Sholto pursued a specialised career in resources and precious metals.

Semoli Mokhanoi

Director: SADC, Head: Business Development & Marketing

BCom (Accounting)

BCom Hons (Financial Planning)

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CFP®

General Tax Professional (GTP-SA)

Semoli joined Mergence in 2017 as Regional Investments Strategist. He has 20 years’ experience, including as a fund accountant, investment consultant and business development executive. With a strong network of contacts throughout the Southern African Development Community (SADC), he is also a non-executive director on several company boards.

Brad Preston

Chief Investment Officer

BSc (Mathematics & Statistics)

MSc (Financial Mathematics)

Brad joined Mergence soon after its inception in 2006. As an investment analyst, portfolio manager and former Joint MD at Mergence, he has experience in derivatives, absolute return, and specialist equities, as well as leadership. In 2021 he was appointed as Chief Investment Officer.

Karen Wagner

HR Executive

Diploma (HR Management & Training)

Karen joined Mergence in February 2014 as Office Manager. In February 2023, she was promoted to HR Manager. Karen has 27 years of experience in office management and finance, having worked at several large corporates before joining Mergence. In acknowledgement of the importance of our people, Karen was appointed to the executive committee of Mergence Investment Managers in October 2022.

John Afordofe

Chief Financial Officer

BCom (Accounting)

PGDip (Accounting)

CA(SA)

John joined Mergence in November 2018 as General Manager: Operations. He was promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2019. In September 2021 his role at Mergence was specialised into Chief Financial Officer as part of high-level changes to the Mergence executive leadership team to meet the company’s strong growth.

Peter Takaendesa

Head: Equities

BCom Hons (Economics)

MCom (Economics)

MCom (Finance & Econometrics)

Peter joined Mergence in 2014 as a Senior Equity Investment Analyst specialising in the TMT sector. He became a portfolio manager in 2016 and head of the listed equities team in 2019. Peter has over 15 years’ experience in the financial services industry, having worked for several global investment banks. He won ABSIP equity analyst of the year in 2011 and has worked as a university lecturer in economics.

Izak Van Niekerk

Portfolio Manager

BAcc Hons

CA(SA)

Izak brings over 15 years of financial services experience to his role as Portfolio Manager at Mergence. He co-managed portfolios from November 2019 to December 2022, having joined the team in 2011 as an equity research analyst and dealer. His current focus encompasses resources, beverages, luxury goods, and healthcare. His background extends to being an investment committee member in private markets and an audit manager at PwC prior to joining Mergence.

Salome Maruma

Senior Investment Analyst

BCom Hons (Financial Management)

In 2023, Salome re-joined Mergence as a Senior Investment Analyst, having worked in the company in a trainee capacity before. With a focus on the retail and industrial sectors, Salome brings valuable experience from previous roles at local asset managers and a global investment bank over an eight-year career in the financial services industry.

Malose Mamashela

Investment Analyst

BCom (Financial Analysis & Portfolio Management)

MSc (Chemical Engineering)

Malose joined Mergence in 2022 as an Investment Analyst. With 20 years of experience, she has a solid background in chemical engineering and financial analysis. Malose previously worked as a process engineer at Sasol, Project Services Group, and Chevron. She also served as a sell-side equity research analyst at Primaresearch. Additionally, she has lectured in her field at the CPUT and provided consultation to 4th-year Design Course students at UCT.

Radebe Sipamla

Investment Analyst

BCom (Economics Science & Business Finance)

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Keagan Martin

Investment Analyst

BCom Hons (Finance/Investments), BCom (Economics and Finance) 

Keagan Martin joined Mergence in 2021 as a Client Relationship Manager, following his experience at Prudential Investment Managers. In 2023, he transitioned into an Investment Analyst role in the public markets’ investment team, where he now specialises in small to mid-cap industrials and food producers. 

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Head: Fixed Income

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Portfolio Manager

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Unathi Hewana

Investment Analyst

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BSc Hons (Biotechnology)

Unathi joined the Mergence Public Markets Investment team in July 2020 as an Investment Analyst in the Multi-Asset team. She has ten years of asset management experience and is completing her BCom Master’s degree in Applied Finance at UCT. Her primary focus at Mergence is a top-down and bottom-up analysis of the South African property sector.

Thabiso Mgwambane

Investment Graduate

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Morgan Mlambo

Head: Investment Risk & Analytics

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Financial Risk Manager (FRM)

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Morgan joined Mergence in 2018. He has over 15 years of experience in the financial services industry. At Mergence, he has oversight on the generation and monitoring of investment risk metrics for Mergence portfolios including performance metrics, market risk, etc. In addition, he also has oversight on the compliance function pertaining to the Public Markets portfolios.

Jeandre van Jaarsveldt

Investment Analyst: Investment Risk & Analytics

BCom (Economics, Risk, and Investment Management)

Jeandre joined Mergence in 2023 as an Investment Risk & Analytics analyst, bringing three years of industry experience. Notably, he honed his analytical skills and became the youngest team leader at Burgiss during his tenure as a Private Equity Data Analyst. His strength lies in working with databases and excelling at identifying errors and outliers through data manipulation.

Nicolai De Greef

Trader

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Nicolai joined Mergence 2019 as a Trader. He has 14 years of experience in financial services, both in London and Cape Town, including in equity dealing, client relationship management, hedge fund administration, and fund accounting. At Mergence, Nicolai is responsible for executing equity trades for the Public Markets team as well as managing broker relationships.

Kasief Isaacs

Head: Private Markets

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Chito Siame

Investment Principal

BSc Hons

MCom (Financial Management)

ACCA

Chito joined Mergence in 2011 as Equity Analyst in the Public Markets team focused on FMCG, hospitality, financial services, and telecommunications before transitioning to the Private Markets investment team in 2015. As Investment Principal, Chito focuses on Private Market investment opportunities within SADC. He has led transactions in the aquaculture and microfinancing sectors and serves on the boards of several investee companies.

Mosa Molebatsi

Senior Investment Associate

BCom (Actuarial Science, Quantitative Finance)

BCom Hons (Finance)

MPhil (Development Finance)

CFA® Charterholder

Mosa joined Mergence in 2023 as a Senior Investment Associate in the Private Markets team. Previously, she worked at the International Finance Corporation, the Public Investment Corporation,and Momentum Metropolitan Holdings in various investment roles. She is also involved in lecturing and foundation trustee work.

Tshepiso Appie

Investment Associate

BBusSci Hons

Tshepiso is an Investment Associate at Mergence Investment Managers. He joined the Johannesburg team in 2018 after a 3-year tenure in the middle-markets private equity team of a listed, blue-chip asset manager. With a diverse range of expertise, Tshepiso has successfully facilitated deals across multiple sectors at Mergence, including affordable housing, medicinal cannabis, primary healthcare, agri-finance, specialised healthcare, waste management, secondary mining, student accommodation, financial inclusion, and fintech.

Rizaan Samuels

Investment Associate

BSc (Finance & Accounts)

PGDip (Accounting)

CA(SA)

Rizaan joined Mergence in 2022 as an Investment Associate. He is a trained investment professional with extensive post-qualification experience in investment banking, asset management, and renewable energy debt investment. He is responsible for the origination and execution of deals in the SADC region for Mergence’s Equity and Debt funds, with a focus on infrastructure finance, renewable energy, and other clean energy investment opportunities.

Piwokuhle Sotshonanda

Investment Analyst

BCom Hons

Piwokuhle joined the Mergence Graduate Trainee Programme in July 2018. In 2020, she was appointed as Investment Analyst in the Private Markets investment team. She is involved in deal origination, due diligence, and post-investment monitoring. Piwokuhle has five years of experience in numerous industries in South Africa.  

Hileni Nghinaunye

Portfolio Manager

BBusSc

PGDip (Investment & Portfolio Management)

Hileni joined Mergence Unlisted Investment Managers (Namibia) as a Portfolio Manager in 2017. She has 15 years of experience in financial services. At Mergence she has transacted on and overseen infrastructure and impact investments on behalf of Namibia’s largest retirement fund, including three renewable energy projects, and a bulk infrastructure/land servicing project.

Veripi Ngapurue

Senior Investment Analyst

BCom (Economics & Finance)

BCom Hons (Financial Analysis & Portfolio Management)

CAIA Candidate

Veripi joined Mergence Unlisted Investment Managers (Namibia) as a Senior Investment Analyst in 2022. Prior to that, she gained experience as an unlisted Analyst at Temo Capital and held intern and trainee positions at EOS Capital and Simonis Storm stockbroking. Alongside her professional role, Veripi actively contributes as a budget coach, collaborating with Liberty Namibia on a financial literacy project.

Linkeng Debra Letsaba

Trainee Investment Analyst

BCom (Investment Management & Banking)

BCom Hons (Financial Economics & Investment Management)

Linkeng joined Mergence Investment Managers (Lesotho) in 2022 as a Trainee Investment Analyst as part of our bigger Private Markets investment team. Her role encompasses assisting with the origination of opportunities and guiding them through the investment process, to implementation. Linkeng has team leadership skills, having been an SRC exco member at university.

Ntsbeng Chabeli

Property Analyst

BA (Economics)

PGDip (Property Management & Development)

MCom (Finance & Investments)

Ntsebeng joined Mergence Investment Managers (Lesotho) as a Property Analyst in 2022. She has five years of experience, including time spent as a real estate specialist and data analyst. Her responsibilities at Mergence include analysing the economic drivers of the commercial property portfolio and assessing the financial opportunity for existing and potential property investments.

Nandipha Kenqa

Risk Manager

BCom (Financial Accounting)

PGDip (Accounting)

CA(SA)

Nandipha joined Mergence as a Risk Manager in the Private Markets investment team in June 2017. She has six years of experience working as an external and internal investment auditor. Nandipha’s responsibilities at Mergence include ensuring that governance, risk, and control frameworks are effective and that all investment activities, across all markets, sectors, and deals, are in accordance with applicable legislation, regulation, and client mandates.

Zeenat Patel

Post Investment Analyst

BCom (Economics & Statistics)

BCom Hons (Financial Analysis & Portfolio Management)

Zeenat joined Mergence’s Private Markets investments team in 2022 as a Post-investment Analyst. She has eight years of experience working in numerous global asset managers’ Private Equity and Infrastructure investment divisions. Her principal role at Mergence is to monitor the performance of all unlisted funds’ investee companies in South Africa, Namibia, and Lesotho, as well as to guarantee that all contractual reporting requirements are completed. 

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Masimo Magerman

Non-Executive Chairman, Mergence Group
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Fabian de Beer

Chief Risk Officer
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Bongani Jack

Director: Institutional Sales, Mergence Group
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Noyonga Fofang

Independent Non-Executive Director
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Managing Director, Mergence Investment Managers
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Chief Investment Officer
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Head: Investment Risk & Analytics
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Trainee Investment Analyst
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Property Analyst
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Risk Manager
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Post Investment Analyst