2024 Investment Outlook: Threading the needle

Morgan Stanley Research


Investors face tough choices but there may be opportunities in fixed income while remaining cautious on emerging markets and commodities.

Learn more about 2024's investment outlook.

Investors may likely need to make deliberate choices in 2024, paying close attention to monetary policy and find opportunities in an imperfect world of cooling but still-too-high inflation and slowing global growth.

Markets have already baked into asset prices the idea that central banks will nail a smooth transition to reduced levels of inflation. But 2024 should be a good year for income investing, with Morgan Stanley Research strategists calling bright spots in high-quality fixed income and government bonds in developed markets.

“Central banks will have to get the balance correct between tightening just enough and easing quickly enough,” says Serena Tang, Chief Global Cross-Asset Strategist at Morgan Stanley Research. “For some investors, 2024 may be all about threading the needle and looking for small openings in markets that can generate positive returns.”

Getting through the last stretch of inflation is likely to lead to slower growth, particularly in the U.S., Europe and the UK. Meanwhile, China's tepid growth will weigh on emerging markets, and there's a risk that the country's economy could get sucked into a wider debt-deflation spiral, with ripple effects for the rest of Asia and beyond. Morgan Stanley predicts that China will avoid the worst-case scenario, and that U.S. and European policymakers will begin cutting rates in June 2024, improving the macroeconomic outlook for the second half of the year.

A tale of two halves

In 2023, equity markets showed strong performance as they recovered from recession fears, proving more resilient than analysts expected. However, 2024 is likely to be a “tale of two halves,” with a cautious first half giving way to stronger performance in the second half of the year.

For the first half of 2024, strategists suggest staying patient and being selective. Risks to global growth—driven by monetary policy—remain high, and earnings headwinds may persist into early 2024 before a recovery takes hold. Global stocks typically begin to sell off in the three months leading into a new round of monetary easing, as risk assets start pricing in slower growth. If central banks stay on track to begin cutting rates in June, global equities may see a decrease in valuation early in the year.

In the second half of the year, however, falling inflation should lead to monetary easing, bolstering growth. “We think near-term uncertainty will give way to a comeback in U.S. equities,” says Mike Wilson, Chief Investment Officer and Chief U.S. Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley. And Wilson expects earnings growth to remain robust into 2025: “Positive operating leverage and productivity growth from artificial intelligence should lead to margin expansion.”

Throughout the year, however, there should be a few constants. Overall, U.S. equities are likely to have fair returns and better outcomes than European or emerging-market stocks.

Emerging-markets equities face obstacles, including a strengthening dollar and lackluster growth in China, where policymakers face the triple challenges of debt, demographics and deflation. These risks are compounded by the corporate focus on diversifying supply chains amid geopolitical tensions and the fallout from pandemic-era disruptions. However, emerging markets could see stronger recovery in the second half as lower rates and a weakening U.S. dollar could prompt inflows.

One potential global bright spot is high-quality fixed income. Yields on a broad cross-section of U.S. corporate and government bonds reached 6%, the highest since 2009. U.S. Treasury and German Bund yields are the highest they have been in a decade, and Morgan Stanley forecasts 10-year yields on U.S. Treasurys at 3.95%, and DBR at 1.8% by the end of 2024.

2024 is likely to be a 'tale of two halves,' with a cautious first half giving way to stronger performance in the second half of the year.

An imperfect world

What might work for investors in this imperfect world? Morgan Stanley strategists discussed:

  • Looking towards core fixed income, including government and investment-grade corporate debt. It is likely to be a good year for high-quality bonds as they continue to provide attractive yields, especially when compared against the risk/reward tradeoffs of other assets.
  • Considering Japanese stocks: Japanese policymakers have been an outlier among central banks, keeping interest rates low to boost growth.
  • Maintaining appropriate allocations to U.S. equities and cash: For the past two years, the outlook was gloomier for stocks in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. However, 2024 is shaping up to be different as U.S. equities should notch better outcomes than European or emerging market equities, particularly as central bankers globally aim for target rates. Within the U.S., healthcare is forecast to outperform, and Morgan Stanley prefers industrials relative to other cyclical sectors.
  • Reducing allocations in emerging-market stocks and commodities: Allocations to emerging-market equities, EXCEPT Mexico and India, could be reduced. China’s lackluster growth will weigh on emerging markets broadly, and there is an added risk that its economy will get caught in a debt-deflation tailspin. By contrast, Mexico is likely to benefit from the post-pandemic near-shoring trend, while India is forecast to see superior growth in earnings per share compared with broader emerging markets
  • Reducing allocations in commodities: Oil is forecast to trade at relatively flat prices in 2024 and geopolitics remain a concern, while gold appears overvalued. Copper, which could outperform because of stronger-than-expected demand from China, may be an exception.

Investors should keep in mind that the markets have priced in the expectation that economic growth will go smoothly, and that central bankers will succeed in engineering a soft landing. And as always, when considering which of these investments may fit into your portfolio, be sure to keep in mind individual goals, timelines, and risk tolerance.

The source of this article, ‘2024 Investment Outlook: Threading the Needle’, was originally published on November 22, 2023.

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