Record high European stocks: A time for confidence or caution?

Record high European stocks: A time for confidence or caution?

Feb 28,2024
European stocks have soared to record highs, sparking investor debates on whether to seize the momentum or secure gains amid economic uncertainties.
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European stocks are basking in the glow of record highs, prompting investors to debate between riding on their coattails or exercising caution to safeguard profits in the face of an uncertain economic landscape.

The Euro Stoxx 600 Index, which serves as a barometer for the European stock market and includes 600 companies of various sizes from 17 European countries, has seen five consecutive weeks of gains and has risen in 15 of the past 17 weeks, echoing the bullish sentiment seen in the US market.

Despite this remarkable run, the index's current level reflects a modest 15% increase from pre-pandemic levels four years ago.

Country-wise, Greece stands as the strongest performer since the start of the year, with a 9% return, while Poland tops the ranking in the annual returns with a strong 61%.

The major stock market indices of the two largest European economies, France and Germany, respectively the CAC 40 and the DAX 40, have recently set fresh near-record highs. The same is true for the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

Valuations remain far from red flags

Despite the recent rally, valuations across the Euro Stoxx 600 remain within reasonable bounds, quelling expensiveness fears and offering reassurance to investors.

Specifically, the price-to-forecasted-earnings ratio, a crucial metric for determining if investors have overly anticipated future earnings, stands at about 13 times for the broader market gauge.

This figure is marginally below the historical average, mitigating concerns over market exuberance. In practice, this suggests that prices have not outpaced underlying fundamentals, a positive indicator for bullish investors.

Assessing the risk outlook

However, some market observers caution that the current stock market exuberance may not fully align with underlying economic realities.

"European equities are trading in a narrow sweet spot," observed Sebastian Raedler, an Investment strategist at Bank of America, in a recent note. 

He said that while growth data is sufficiently robust to keep risk premiums near their current lows, it's also fragile enough to allow for the pricing in of substantial central bank easing.

Raedler anticipates disruption in the European macroeconomic landscape due to decelerating growth and a short-term uptick in inflation. 

Bank of America forecasts a 15% drop in the Stoxx 600 to a low of 420 by October, along with a 10% greater decline for cyclical stocks compared to defensive ones.

Concerns linger over the eurozone's stagnant economic growth, with recent data indicating stagnation in the final quarter. Recent updates from private sector activity surveys suggest a continued grim outlook, with the threat of a recession still present.

Of particular concern is the business sentiment in the manufacturing sector, especially in Germany, Europe's industrial heartland.

These concerns might be alleviated if the European Central Bank (ECB) decides to reduce interest rates. However, the ECB has indicated that it is too early to consider rate cuts, as reflected in the minutes from its latest meeting.

ECB President Christine Lagarde in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
ECB President Christine Lagarde in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.Michael Probst/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

On Monday, ECB President Christine Lagarde indicated the current disinflationary process is expected to continue, but the lender's governing council needs to be confident that it will lead sustainably to its 2% target.

Investors are also paying close attention to developments in the energy Markets, as the rally in continental stocks has coincided with a period of lower Brent crude oil prices, under $85, and natural gas prices that have hit their lowest levels since last summer, in line with their respective values in the summer of 2021.

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Nevertheless, early signs of emerging volatility in these Markets are beginning to surface.

While European stocks are currently experiencing a period of record highs, investors must navigate a complex landscape of economic, geopolitical, and sector-specific risks. 

The current valuations, while not excessively high, require careful analysis of future earnings potential and the macroeconomic environment.

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