Amy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital
The U.S. equity market suffered a mild pullback in the second half of January, but resumed its trend higher in early February. The S&P 500 Index gained 4.3% in February to close at a record-high level. The consumer discretionary (+6.2%) and healthcare (+6.2%) sectors led during the month, while telecom (-1.8%) and financials (+3.1%) lagged. From a style perspective, growth continues to lead value across all market caps.
International equity markets edged out U.S. markets in February, helped by a weaker U.S. dollar. Performance on the developed side was mixed. Japan suffered a decline for the month (-0.5%), but Europe posted solid gains (+7.3%). Emerging markets bounced back (+3.3%) as taper fears eased somewhat; however, they remain negative for the year.
Interest rates were unchanged in February and all fixed income sectors posted small gains. The 10-year Treasury ended the month at 2.66%, 34 basis points lower than where it started the year. Credit, both investment grade and high yield, continues to perform very well as spreads grind lower. High yield gained over 2% for the month. Municipal bonds have started the year off very strong gaining more than 3% despite concerns over Puerto Rico. Flows to the asset class have turned positive again, and fundamentals continue to improve.
While we believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, it will likely be a choppy ride. Despite an expectation of rising rates, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios as a hedge to equity-oriented assets, just as we saw 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 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 tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. Federal Reserve Chair Yellen wants to see evidence of stronger growth. In addition, the European Central Bank stands ready to provide support, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program.
- Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady. While momentum picked up in the second half of 2013, the weather appears to have had a negative impact on growth to start 2014. 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. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.6%.
- Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing just +1.6% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
- U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets 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: 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 has been some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth this year. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two-year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown, and the debt ceiling was addressed.
However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:
- Fed tapering/exit: The Fed began reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and should they continue with an additional $10 billion at each meeting, quantitative easing 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 certain emerging markets. After the near 6% pullback in late January/early February, investor sentiment is now elevated again.
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. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change.