Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
After such a strong move higher in 2013, U.S. equity markets took a breather in January as the S&P 500 Index fell -3.5%. Volatility returned to the markets as concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and emerging economies weighed on investors. Investor sentiment, a contrarian indicator, had also climbed to extreme optimism levels, leaving the equity markets ripe for a short-term pullback.
In U.S. equity markets, the utilities (+3%) and healthcare (+1%) sectors delivered gains, while energy and consumer discretionary each declined -6%. Mid caps led both small and large caps in January, helped by the strong performance of REITs. Fourth quarter 2013 earnings season has been decent so far. Of the one-third of S&P 500 companies reporting, 73% have beat expectations.
U.S. equity markets led international markets in January, helped by a stronger currency. Performance within developed markets was mixed, with peripheral Europe outperforming (Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal), while Australia, France and Germany lagged.
Emerging markets equities significantly lagged developed markets in January, as the impact of Fed tapering, slower economic growth and higher inflation weighed on their economies. Countries with large current account deficits have seen their currencies weaken significantly. Latin America saw significant declines, with Argentina down -24%, Chile down -12% and Brazil down -11%. Asia fared slightly better, with the region down less than -5%. Emerging Europe was dragged lower with double-digit losses in Turkey.
Fixed income had a solid month of performance as interest rates fell across the yield curve. The 10-year Treasury note is now trading around 2.6%, 40 basis points lower than where it started the year. The Barclays Aggregate Index gained +1.5% in January, its best monthly return since July 2011. All major sectors were in positive territory for the month; however, higher-quality corporates led high yield. Municipal bonds edged out taxable bonds and continue to benefit from improving fundamentals.
We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely be choppy. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. Despite rising rates, fixed income still plays a role in portfolios, as a hedge to equity-oriented assets if we see weaker economic growth or major macro risks as experienced in January. Our fixed income positioning in portfolios, which includes an emphasis on yield advantaged, shorter duration and low volatility absolute return strategies, is designed to successfully navigate a rising or stable interest rate environment.
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 over the intermediate term.
- Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed beginning to taper asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the ECB stands ready to provide support, 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 slow and steady, but momentum picked up in the second half of 2013. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it is still 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 fallen to 7%.
- Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing +1.5% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
- 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 with cash that could be reinvested, returned to shareholders, or used for acquisitions. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
- Equity fund flows turned positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last three months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the pattern 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. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two-year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Fed Tapering: The Fed will begin reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and if they taper an additional $10 billion at each meeting, QE should end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time and the withdrawal is more gradual. The reaction of emerging markets to Fed tapering is cause for concern and will contribute to higher market volatility.
- 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.
Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the slow withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Valuations have certainly moved higher, but are not overly rich relative to history. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. We are not surprised that we have experienced a pull-back in equity markets to start the year as investor sentiment was elevated and it had been an extended period of time since we last experienced a correction. However, we expect it to be more short-term in nature and maintain a positive view on equities for the year.
We feel that 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.
Data points above compiled from FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, MSCI, and Barclays. Asset Class Returns data compiled from FactSet and Red Rocks Capital. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change