Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
U.S. equities continued to climb higher in November, with major indexes gaining between 2% and 4% for the month. Year to date through November, the S&P 500 Index has posted an impressive gain of 29.1%, while the small cap Russell 2000 Index has fared even better with a return of 36.1%. The last five years have proved to be a very good time to be invested in equity markets, with a cumulative return of 125% for the S&P 500 Index.
International developed equity markets posted small gains in November, and have failed to keep up with U.S. equity markets this year. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s policies have spurred risk taking, but the currency has also weakened. The European equity markets have benefited from economies and a financial system that are on the mend. Emerging markets continued to struggle in November and are negative year to date. Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering on emerging economies, as well as slower economic growth, have weighed on the asset class this year.
Interest rates have remained range-bound after the spike in the summer in response to Bernanke’s initial talk of tapering. The 10-year Treasury ended November at a level of 2.75%, just 10 basis points higher than where it began the month. Fixed income is still negative for the year-to-date period; the Barclays Aggregate was down -1.5% through November. However, high-yield credit has had a solid year so far, gaining close to 7%. We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts.
The Fed will again face the decision to taper asset purchases at their December meeting, and we expect volatility in risk assets and interest rates surrounding this decision, just as we experienced in the second quarter. The recent economic data has surprised to the upside; however, inflation remains below the Fed’s target level. Despite their decision to reduce or end asset purchases, the Fed has signaled short-term rates will be on hold for some time. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome.
We continue to approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we move into 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets.
- Monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed remains accommodative (even with the eventual end of asset purchases, short-term interest rates will remain near-zero until 2015), the European Central Bank has provided additional support through a rate cut, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
- Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been steady and recently showing signs of picking up. The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is positive.
- Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged more than 200,000 and the unemployment rate has declined.
- Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. has been running below the Fed’s target level.
- Increase in household net worth: Household net worth rose to a new high in the third quarter, helped by both financial and real estate assets. Rising net worth is a positive for consumer confidence and future consumption.
- U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested or returned to shareholders. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
- Equity fund flows turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last two months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the patter of the last five years. Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
- Some Movement on Fiscal Policy: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, there seems to be some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth next year. It looks like Congress may sign a two-year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown in January. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Fed Tapering: The markets are anxiously awaiting the Fed’s decision on tapering asset purchases, prompting further volatility in asset prices and interest rates. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing.
- Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from current levels could stifle the economic recovery. Should mortgage rates move higher, it could jeopardize the recovery in the housing market.
- Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal. The market has not experienced a correction in some time.
Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover even in a higher interest rate environment; however, we expect continued volatility in the near term as we await the Fed’s decision on the fate of quantitative easing. Despite the strong run, valuations for large cap U.S. equities still look reasonable on a historical basis by a number of measures. Valuations in international developed markets look relatively attractive as well, while emerging markets are more mixed. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index has spent the entire year above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back surrounding the Fed’s tapering decision.
Our portfolios are positioned to take advantage of continued strength in risk assets, and we continue to emphasize high-conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.