Year End 2018 from the New York Times

December 24, 2018
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Christmas time outside the New York Stock Exchange.
Christmas time outside the New York Stock Exchange.  Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Today, we’re going to take a look back at what happened on Wall Street in 2018. The DealBook team will be taking a break until Jan. 2, so until then, happy holidays to you and yours! (Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here.)
This year was great for deal making. Until it wasn’t.
Companies announced a record $2.3 trillion in acquisitions through the first six months of the year, according to data from Refinitiv. That was fueled by three main factors:
A stronger economy. After almost a decade of lackluster growth globally, the American economy appeared to be at its strongest in years and business confidence was high.
A windfall from the tax overhaul and continued low interest rates meant that coffers were full and debt was cheap.
Continued fears of Silicon Valleyand its growing ambitions, particularly in areas like health care and the media, made consolidation look vital.
But uncertainty can bring an end to deal making. By the second half of the year, there was plenty of uncertainty. Plunging markets, an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, signs that the global economy is slowing and the pace of the Federal Reserve’s rate increases all raised questions about the health of the world’s economy.
That weighed on corporate minds. By the second half of the year, executives had become more cautious and deal activity slowed. Just $1.6 trillion worth of deals were struck worldwide from July 1 to Dec. 21.
So approach 2018’s blockbuster M.&.A. numbers with caution, because they’re heavily skewed toward the first half of the year. Here are two examples:
Cross-border deals hit $1.54 trillion. That’s up 33 percent from a year earlier and the highest level in more than a decade. But just $500 billion in acquisitions were announced in the second half of the year, a 50 percent drop from the first six months.
Big deals skyrocketed. Acquirers announced 123 transactions valued at more than $5 billion in 2018, worth a total of $1.5 trillion — a 70 percent increase from 2017 and the second-highest level on record. But little more than 30 percent of those deals were announced in the second half.
And one final note of caution. If history is any indicator, peaks in deal making are not necessarily a cause for celebration: There was record M.&A. activity in 1989, 2000 and 2007, and each peak was followed within months by a recession.
Today’s DealBook Briefing was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin, Stephen Grocer and Peter Eavis in New York, and Jamie Condliffe in London.
What about China and Europe?
China retreated from the global M.&.A market. Chinese companies continued to slow their purchases of foreign firms after having embarked on a global shopping spree that peaked in 2016. The value of deals made beyond China’s borders slipped to $115 billion in 2018, down 45 percent from two years ago.
Europe slammed on the brakes.M.&A. activity in the region during the second half of the year tumbled 60 percent from the first six months, the steepest slowdown of any region in the world. Blame falls in part to a host of political issues: Britain’s tortuous path toward withdrawing from the European Union, the struggles of a populist leadership in Italy, and, most recently, a public backlash against the government in France. Economic growth has also slowed in several European countries.
  Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Unicorns roared onto American exchanges
This year was the strongest for initial public offerings since 2014. (That was the year Alibaba skewed the numbers with its $25 billion I.P.O.) In all, companies raised $209 billion globally through I.P.O.s, up 6 percent from a year ago, according to Dealogic.
Unicorns made waves. In the U.S., 38 companies listed on Americanexchanges each with a value of more than $1 billion — the most since the heady days of the dot-com boom in 2000, according to Dealogic. Those deals helped lift the value of U.S.-listed I.P.O.s to more than $61 billion.
The procession of unicorns going public could continue into 2019. The list of tech companies with $1 billion valuations looking to make their public market debut next year is long: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Pinterest, Slack and Palantir are among those set to embark on I.P.O.s. Expect many of the I.P.O.s to be in the first half of the year. But the recent market volatility and investors’ recent aversion to risk may make it difficult for some to make it out. And the window for I.P.O.s could close suddenly if a recession hits.
But the real I.P.O. action was in Asia
The biggest I.P.O.s of the year happened on exchanges in Asia. SoftBank raised $21.3 billion floating shares of its mobile unit in Tokyo. China Tower raised $7.5 billion in Hong Kong, and Xiaomi also sold $5.4 billion worth of stock there.
But there was no shortage of Asian listings on U.S. exchanges. Tencent Music’s debut on the New York Stock Exchange this month capped a wave of Chinese companies going public in America. In total, 33 Chinese firms raised $9.2 billion through initial public offerings on American exchanges — up 140 percent from 2017 and the highest level since 2014.
In fact, China dominated U.S. public offerings this year. The three largest I.P.O.s by market value were all Chinese companies. And China accounted for four of the 10 largest I.P.O.s on American exchanges this year, the most of any country including the U.S.
Why the rush to list in America? President Trump’s trade war with China may have played a role. A slowdown in Chinese economic growth has accompanied the escalating trade tensions and has dragged down stock markets in Hong Kong and China. At the lows in late October, the Hang Seng stock index and benchmark stock markets in Shenzhen and Shanghai were down 15 percent to 35 percent for the year. By comparison, the S&P 500 was still up 2.5 percent at that point, making it far more attractive for offerings.
  Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters
The year’s markets in a single world: Volatile
The stock markets were defined in 2018 by record highs followed by steep sell-offs. Investors piled into the biggest tech companies, pushing the market values of Amazon and Apple above $1 trillion. But soon investors were dumping tech shares, sending the Nasdaq into a bear market for the first time since the financial crisis. Companies handed back more than a $1 trillion to investors through buybacks and dividends. But markets were also whipsawed by fears of slowing global economic growth, rising interest rates and trade wars.
Investors had plenty of reason to be optimistic at the beginning of the year. Inflation was tame and interest rates remained low. After years of slow growth, the economy was strengthening. And there were hopes that the tax overhaul passed late last year would supercharge the economy and corporate profits.
But as 2018 comes to a close, the longest bull market in history is having its worst year since it started nearly a decade ago. Almost every major type of investment has fared poorly: Stock markets in America, Europe and Asia are all suffering from double-digit percentage losses, while commodities and bonds have tumbled.
Risks are now everywhere. The lift provided by the tax cuts has faded. The U.S.-China trade war has taken a toll on global growth. The Fed has staked out a more aggressive path to raise rates than many investors had hoped, which means the costs of borrowing are rising. And oil prices have plunged. Things look bleak.
What’s in store for stocks in 2019
Despite it all, Wall Street analysts predict that the S&P 500 will rise next year.
“The market path in 2019 will depend on investor perception of the longevity of the current economic expansion,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a note. “We expect U.S. economic growth will decelerate but remain positive for several years.”
Predictions for growth vary, but most analysts estimate that the value of the S&P 500, which currently lies at about 2,400, could reach 2,750 to 3,300 by the end of 2019. Goldman Sachs predicts that it will hit 3,000, which would be a 24 percent increase from current levels.
But there are still reasons to be pessimistic. Here’s what could spook investors next year:
The global economy looks set for a slowdown. Fifty-three percent of fund managers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch expected global growth to weaken over the next 12 months. That’s the worst outlook on the global economy since October 2008.
The Fed could tighten monetary policy too far. In 2018, concerns about the central bank bringing an end to the bull market with rate increases prompted two sell-offs. Fund managers continue to rank the Fed’s tightening among the biggest risks to the market. “The Fed should be prepared to recognize that financial conditions will soon be sufficiently tight that any further tightening might kill the very expansion it is trying to extend,” write Deutsche Bank strategists.
Peak earnings are probably behind us. Analysts expect S&P 500 companies to report average earnings growth of 8.3 percent and revenue growth of 5.5 percent in 2019, according to FactSet. By comparison, S&P 500 earnings are forecast to grow 20.5 percent this year and revenue 8.9 percent.
The Goldman Sachs headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
The Goldman Sachs headquarters in Lower Manhattan.  John Taggart for The New York Times
It was an excellent year for banks. You’d never guess.
A lot went right for banks in 2018. They were big beneficiaries of the tax overhaul enacted at the end of 2017. The Trump administration started what may become a bonanza of deregulation for them. The economy grew. Interest rates increased, bolstering profit from lending. Over all, banks’ earnings are expected to surge 34 percent in 2018. In June, Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, talked about “a golden age of banking.”
But the markets simply shrugged. The S&P 500 financials index, which measures the performance of bank stocks, is down 16 percent in 2018, compared with a 7 percent decline in the wider stock market.
Why the poor performance? Investors were clearly unimpressed, and there are two obvious reasons:
They may have simply been impatient. It will take time to tell whether deregulation will have a significant effect on banks’ bottom lines, and investors may not have been willing to wait it out.
Banks didn’t lend at the pace many had hoped. Companies that benefited from strong cash flows after the tax cuts may not have needed as much credit. And rising interest rates may have reduced demand for loans among some borrowers.
Looking into 2019, much depends on interest rates and the economy:
• If the Fed raises interest rates by more than expected and the economy slows, banks could be hit hard. Wall Street business would suffer, demand for loans would decline and more borrowers could default, causing losses for banks.
• If the Fed manages to set rates at a level that keeps the economy growing at close to current rates, and inflation is dormant, bank earnings should hold up. But as 2018 has shown, that may not be enough for investors.
  Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters
The big question: Is a recession looming?
The short answer: probably. The longer answer: It’s complicated, and opinion is divided over when it might happen.
There are some early warning signs. But so far we’re mainly seeing signals flashing orange, not red:
The market slide at the end of the year was one. After ignoring trade wars, rising interest rates and a slowing global economy for months, investors finally got spooked, threatening the longest bull run on record. But markets don’t generally crash simply because a recovery has been going on for a while.
Inversion of the yield curve is another. Essentially the difference between interest rates on short- and long-term government bonds, the curve is seen as a predictor of recession. The spread between three- and five-year yields briefly went negative at the start of December. But economists view the two- to 10-year spread as a better signifier of impending recession, and even then only when it is inverted for a sustained period. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Some economic indicators point toward a slowdown. Sales of new and existing homes have softened in recent months and auto sales have been falling, suggesting that clouds are on the horizon. But unemployment is at its lowest level in a half-century, job growth remains strong, wages are beginning to rise faster and consumer spending has been growing at a healthy pace.
“It’s foolish to ignore all these thingsand say they don’t matter at all,” David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, told the NYT. “But it’s also foolish to think that there’s some sort of law of physics here.”
And if we are headed into recession, we don’t know when. Opinion among economists and business leaders about timing is torn:
• Over half of the economists polled by the WSJ expect a recession to start in 2020, and slightly more than one in four expects one in 2021. Just one in 10 predicts a recession next year.
• Economists surveyed by Reuters put the chances of a recession in the next two years at 40 percent.
• A survey of chief financial officers found that nearly half expect a recession in 2019, as did a similar proportion of business leaders at the Yale C.E.O. Summit.
In others words: Keep your wits about you in 2019.
Thanks for reading! We’ll see you in the New Year.
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