Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: June 2014

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The global equity markets continued to climb higher in May. In the U.S. the S&P 500 Index hit another all-time high, gaining more than 3% for the month. The technology and telecom sectors were the top performing sectors in May, but all sectors were positive except for utilities. In a reversal of March and April, growth outpaced value across all market capitalizations, but large caps remained ahead of small caps. In the real assets space, REITs and natural resources equities continued to post solid gains despite low inflation.

International developed equity markets were slightly behind U.S. markets in May, but emerging market equities outperformed. After a weak start to the year, emerging market equities are now up +3.5% year to date through May, even with China down more than -3%. The dispersion in the performance of emerging market equities remains wide. Indian equities rallied strongly in May, gaining more than 9%, after the election of a new prime minister and his pro-business BJP party.

Despite a consensus call for higher interest rates in 2014, U.S. Treasury yields have continued to fall. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note ended the month at 2.5%, still above its recent low of 1.7% in May 2013, but well below the 3.0% level where it started the year. While lower than expected economic growth and geopolitical risks could be keeping a ceiling on U.S. rates, technical factors are also to blame. The supply of Treasuries has been lower due to the decline in the budget deficit, and the Fed remains a large purchaser, even with tapering in effect. At the same time demand has increased from both institutions that need to rebalance back to fixed income after such a strong equity market in 2013 and investors seeking relative value with extremely low interest rates in Japan and Europe.

Magnotta_Market_Update_6.10.14As interest rates have declined, fixed income has performed in line with equities so far this year. All fixed income sectors were positive again in May. Municipal bonds and investment grade credit have been the top performing fixed income sectors so far this year. Both investment grade and high yield credit spreads continue to grind tighter. Within the U.S. credit sector fundamentals are solid and the supply/demand dynamic is favorable, but valuations are elevated. Emerging market bonds have also experienced a nice rebound after a tough 2013. Municipal bonds benefited from a positive technical backdrop with strong demand for tax-free income being met with a dearth of issuance.

We approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Global monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed tapering asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near-zero until 2015 if inflation remains low. The ECB announced additional easing measures, and the Bank of Japan continues its aggressive monetary easing program.
  • Global growth stable: U.S. economic growth has been slow but steady. Economic growth declined in the first quarter, but we expect it to turn positive again in the second quarter. 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 we have continued to add jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.3%. Unemployment claims have hit cycle lows.
  • Inflation tame: With core CPI running below the Fed’s target at +1.8% and inflation expectations contained, the Fed retains flexibility to remain accommodative.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be used for acquisitions, capital expenditures, hiring, or returned to shareholders. M&A deal activity has picked up this year. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Less drag from Washington: 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. The deficit has also shown improvement in the short-term.

Risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

  • Fed Tapering/Tightening: If the Fed continues at the current pace, quantitative easing should end in the fourth quarter. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, this withdrawal is more gradual and the economy appears to be on more solid footing this time. The new Fed chairperson also adds to the uncertainty. Should economic growth and inflation pick up, market participants will shift quickly to concern over the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike.
  • Emerging markets: Slower growth could continue to weigh on emerging markets. While growth in China is slowing, there is not yet evidence of a hard landing.
  • Election year: While we noted there has been some progress in Washington, we could see market volatility pick up later this year in response to the mid-term elections.
  • Geopolitical risks: The events surrounding Russia and Ukraine are further evidence that geopolitical risks cannot be ignored.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the continued withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Economic data will be watched closely for signs that could lead to tighter monetary policy earlier than expected. Equity market valuations are fair, but are not overly rich relative to history, and may even be reasonable when considering the level of interest rates and inflation. Investor sentiment remains elevated but is not at extreme levels. Credit conditions still provide a positive backdrop for the markets.

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.

Asset Class Outlook Favored Sub-Asset Classes
U.S. Equity + Large cap bias, dividend growers
Intl Equity + Frontier markets, small cap
Fixed Income Global high-yield credit, short duration
Absolute Return + Closed-end funds, event driven
Real Assets +/- MLPs, natural resources equities
Private Equity + Diversified approach

Source: Brinker Capital

 Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting. Past performance is not a guarantee of similar future results. An investor cannot invest directly in an index.

Eurozone Crisis Report Card

Ryan DresselRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

In January 2013 Amy Magnotta wrote in detail about how the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally gave the markets confidence that policy makers could get their sovereign debt problems under control.[1] The purpose of this blog is to measure the progress of the ECB’s actions, as well as other critical steps taken to resolve the Eurozone crisis.

Maintaining the Euro: A+
The markets put a lot of faith in the comments made by the head of the ECB Mario Draghi in July, 2012. Draghi stated that he would “Pledge to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” These words have proven to be monumental in preserving the euro as a currency. Following his announcement, the ECB still had to put together a plan that would be approved by the ECB’s governing council (comprised of banking representatives from each of the 18 EU countries)[2]. The politics of the approval essentially boiled down to whether or not each council member supported the euro as a currency. Draghi’s plan ultimately passed when Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, endorsed it in September 2012.[3] The stabilization of the euro boosted lending and borrowing for European banks, and allowed governments to introduce necessary economic reforms outlined in the plan.

Since the plan was approved, the euro’s value versus the U.S. Dollar has continued to rise; reaching levels last seen in 2011. There is still some debate as to whether or not the currency will last over the long term, but for now its stability has helped avoid the worst possible outcome (financial collapse). There are several key elections coming up over the next month, which could renew the threat of breaking up the currency if anti-EU officials are elected.

Government Deficit Levels: B
The average Eurozone government deficit came in at 3.0% in 2013, which was down from 3.7% in 2012. Budgets will need to remain tight for years to come.

Corporate Earnings: B
The MSCI Europe All Cap Index has returned 27.46% in 2013 and 5.01% so far in 2014 (as of last week). The Euro area also recorded first quarter 2014 GDP growth at +0.2% (-1.2% in Q1 2013).[4] This indicates that companies in Europe have established some positive earnings growth since the peak of the crisis. On a global scale, Europe looks like an attractive market for growth.

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14

Unemployment: C
Unemployment in the Eurozone has stabilized, but has not improved significantly enough to overcome its structural problems. The best improvements have come out of Spain, Ireland and Portugal due to a variety of reasons. In Ireland, emigration has helped reduce jobless claims while a majority of economic sectors increased employment growth. In Spain, the increased competitiveness in the manufacturing sector has been a large contributor. Portugal has seen a broad reduction in unemployment stemming from the strict labor reforms mandated by the ECB in exchange for bailout packages. These reforms are increasing worker hours, cutting overtime payments, reducing holidays, and giving companies the ability to replace poorly performing employees.[5]

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14_1[6]

There are also some important fundamental factors detracting from the overall labor market recovery. The large divide between temporary workers and permanent workers in many Eurozone countries has made labor markets especially difficult to reform. This is likely due to a mismatch of skills between employers and workers. High employment taxes and conservative decision-making by local governments and corporations have also created challenges for the recovery.

Additional Reading: Euro Area Labor Markets

Debt Levels: D
Total accumulated public debt in the Eurozone has actually gotten worse since the ECB’s plan was introduced. In 2013 it was 92.6% of gross domestic product, up from 90.7% in 2012. The stated European Union limit is 60%, which reflects the extremely high amount of government borrowing required to stabilize their economies.

Overall Recovery Progress: B-
On a positive note, governments are finally able to participate in bond markets without the fear of bankruptcy looming. Banks are lending again. Unemployment appears to have peaked and political officials recognize the importance of improving economic progress.

Unlike the 2008 U.S. recovery however, progress is noticeably slower. The social unrest, slow decision making, low confidence levels, and now geopolitical risks in Ukraine have hampered the recovery. When you consider the financial state of Europe less than two years ago, you have to give the ECB, and Europe in general, some credit. Things are slowly heading in the right direction.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

[1] January 4, 2013. “Is Europe on the Mend?” http://blog.brinkercapital.com/2013/01/04/is-europe-on-the-mend/
[2]
European Central Bank. http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/orga/decisions/govc/html/index.en.html
[3] September 6, 2012. “Technical features of Outright Monetary Transactions. European Central Bank.” http://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/pr/date/2012/html/pr120906_1.en.html
[4] Eurostat
[5] August 6, 2012. “Portugal Enforces Labour Reforms but More Demanded.” http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/08/port-a06.html
[6] Eurostat (provided by Google Public Data)

Investment Insights Podcast – April 1, 2014

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded March 31, 2014):

  • What we like: CBS’s “60 Minutes” segment on high-frequency trading; traders may have an unfair advantage on trade execution, so regulators looking into it
  • What we don’t like: Inflammatory aspect of segment saying all of Wall Street is rigged, but that isn’t the case; millisecond in time in trade execution doesn’t impact all types of investing; even with high-frequency traders, today we’re trading cheaper, better, and faster
  • What we are doing about it: Spread trades across custodians, brokers, etc.; try not to limit our trades to any one, specific entity; pleased with our order execution, but look forward to regulators taking a hard look at high-frequency traders

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

How to Become an Informed Consumer of Financial News

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

Whenever given a microphone and a stage, I take the opportunity to warn investors and financial professionals alike against the harm of keeping too close a tab on the financial news. Since my exhortations to turn off the TV are so roundly ignored, I’ve decided to take a new tack—exchanging media abstinence with “safe watching” as it were. With investors, as with unprepared teenagers, the only sure-fire way to avoid trouble is to leave it alone altogether. However, being the realist that I am, I hope to provide some tips for safe viewing that will allow you to indulge without contracting “media transmitted irrationality.”

Of course, the irony of warning you about the ills of financial media via, well, financial media, is not lost on me. However, the very fact that you are here means that you may have a problem. Gotcha! It is a strange thing that an awareness of current financial events can lead to worse investment outcomes. After all, in most endeavors, greater awareness leads to improved knowledge and results. So what accounts for the consistent finding that those who are most tuned in to the every zig and zag of the market do worse than those who are less plugged in?

Informed ViewingThe first variable at play is timing. I won’t bore you with an extended diatribe on short-term market timing, but the fact remains that average equity holding periods have gone from six years to six months in the last five decades. This national case of ADHD has been precipitated in part by advances in trading technology, but is further exacerbated by the flood of information available to us each day. Unable to separate signal from noise, we trade on a belief that we are better informed than we are.

Another damning strike against financial media is that the appetite for new content flies in the face of investing best practices. Warren Buffett famously advised investors to imagine they have a punch card with 20 punches over the course of an investing lifetime. By espousing this strategy, Buffett encourages a policy of fewer and higher-quality stock selections, encouraging downright inactivity in some cases. Compare this time-tested approach with the demands placed on the financial press. Each night, Jim Cramer picks 10 stocks to pass along to his viewers to help sate the national appetite for cheap investment advice and the erroneous belief that more is better. Cramer has used up his whole punch card before Wednesday, and it’s not because it’s a sound investment strategy, it’s because it sells commercials.

Consumers of financial media who fail to account for these sorts of perverse incentives can feel disillusioned when the advice of such vaunted “talking heads” leads them so far afield. Conversely, a more informed consumption of media can enable each of us to separate wheat from chaff and learn to recognize a bona fide expert from a circus clown in a $2,000 suit. The following tips are a great place to start:

Evaluate the source. Does this individual have the appropriate credentials to speak to this matter or were they chosen for superfluous reasons such as appearance, charisma or bombast?
Question the melodrama. While volatility can be the enemy of good investing, chaos and uncertainty are a boon to media outlets hungry for clicks and views.
Examine the tone. Does the report use loaded language or make ad hominem attacks? These are more indicative of an agenda than an actual story.
Consider motive. News outlets are not charitable organizations and are just as profit-driven as any other business. How might the tenor of this report benefit their needs over yours as a decision maker?
Check the facts. Are the things being presented consistent with best academic practices and the opinions of other experts in the field? Are facts or opinions being expressed and in what research are they grounded?

Financial media is always going to have an angle, but so do you and so does every person with whom you’ll interact. That being so, the best strategy is to become skeptical without being jaded and cautious without being paralyzed by fear. If you found yourself thinking, “Who the hell is this guy to lecture me on media consumption?” you’re off to a good start.

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

Investment Insights Podcast – February 12, 2014

Investment Insights PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded February 11, 2014, prior to Janet Yellen’s first public statements since being sworn in):

  • What we like: Emerging markets have quieted down; Improvement in the equity markets around the world, including the U.S.
  • What we don’t like: Questions on how fast the global economies are growing
  • What we are doing about it: We are hedged, but looking to remove hedges; tactical approach to Janet Yellen’s comments

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Investment Insights Podcast – January 24, 2014

Investment Insights PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded January 23, 2014):

  • What we like: Strong manufacturing data out of Europe; Global synchronized recovery.
  • What we don’t like: High-sentiment indicators; global markets fairly valued, but need to see faster growth to drive equity prices higher; China slowing
  • What we are doing about it: Minor hedging in some portfolios; buying in the U.S. and European markets; looking at underlying global synchronized recovery as powerful force.

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Technology Watch: Investing Into The Future

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference that centered on the big ideas in technology happening right now. Hearing from such people as Andrew McAfee (author of the 2012 book Race Against the Machine and his most recent The Second Machine Age), Steven Kotler (author of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think), and Charles Songhurst (former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft), I can make a few blanket statements.

First, these guys are humbled, awestruck, and blown away by the advances being made in technology; specifically in robotics, 3D printers, and in general computing power. Second, the individual and the consumer will be empowered by this technology. Lastly, don’t try to pick the winning company, rather win by picking the area as a whole.

3D PrintingThis last point may seem to some as a “coward’s way out”, but consider the CNN Money article from December 31, 1998, Year of the Internet Stock. In this article Amazon, eBay, AOL, TheGlobe.com, Cyberian Outpost, and a few other names that have since been lost to history, are listed as stocks that had a great year and are part of the revolution. In the 15 years (1/1/1999 to 12/31/2013) following this article, Amazon and eBay clearly have proven to be the winners among the group, returning a cumulative return of 644.81% and 445.81% respectively as the others essentially went to zero. However, if you broaden the technology space, Apple would have been the big winner with an astonishing 5,569.77% cumulative return for this 15-year period. In other words, the idea that the internet was going to be a game changer in the way we communicate and the technologies we use was right, but our clever execution by picking the few likely winners likely would have missed the boat.

Now, let’s fast forward to today as we stare upon a robotic and biotech revolution. While there are a few select names that seem to be the smart bets to land among the big winners—given the magnitude of impact these two areas will have on the way we live and the uncertainty in the specifics of the path this change will actually take—picking an individual winner involves a level of hubris, while diversification within this idea can add value.

Future of TechnologyI left the conference fully convinced that these concepts, both current and future, are going to change the world; however, I remain very cautious regarding the execution and process. Without giving any type of recommendation, there exists at least half a dozen Biotech-focused ETFs. Late last year, the first robotics-focused ETF (ROBO) was launched—and it won’t be the last. All of these are less exciting answers to investing in new technologies versus trying to pick the winner, but as the American poet Ogden Nash once wrote, “Too clever is dumb.”

2013 Review and Outlook

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

2013 was a stellar year for U.S. equities, the best since 1997. Despite major concerns relating to the Federal Reserve (tapering of asset purchases, new Chairperson) and Washington (sequestration, government shutdown, debt ceiling), as well as issues like Cyprus and Syria, the U.S. equity markets steadily rallied throughout the year, failing to experience a pullback of more than 6%.

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

In the U.S. markets, strong gains were experienced across all market capitalizations and styles, with each gaining at least 32% for the year. Small caps outperformed large caps and growth led value. Yield-oriented equities, like telecoms and utilities, generally lagged as they were impacted by the taper trade. The strongest performing sectors—consumer discretionary, healthcare and industrials—all gained more than 40%. Correlations across stocks continued to decline, which is a positive development for active managers.

YenDeveloped international markets produced solid gains for the year, but lagged the U.S. markets. Japan was the top performing country, gaining 52% in local terms; however, the gains translated to 27% in U.S. dollar terms due to a weaker yen. Performance in European markets was generally strong, led by Ireland, Germany and Spain.  Australia and Canada meaningfully lagged, delivering only mid-single-digit gains.

Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and slowing economic growth weighed on emerging economies in 2013, and their equity markets significantly lagged that of developed economies. The group’s loss of -2.2% was exacerbated due to weaker currencies, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and India. Emerging market small cap companies were able to eke out a gain of just over 1%, while less efficient frontier markets gained 4.5%.

Fixed income posted its first loss since 1999, with the Barclays Aggregate Index experiencing a decline of -2%. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury began rising in May, and moved significantly higher after then Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke signaled in his testimony to Congress that tapering of asset purchases could happen sooner than anticipated. The 10-year yield hit 3% but then declined again after the Fed decided not to begin tapering in September. It climbed steadily higher in November and December, ending the year at 3.04%—126 basis points above where it began the year.

TIPS were the worst performing fixed income sector for the year, declining more than -8%, as inflation remained low and TIPS have a longer-than-average duration. On the other hand, high-yield credit had a solid year, gaining more than 7%. Across the credit spectrum, lower quality outperformed.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_1.7.13_5We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts. 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. 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 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 begin 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with tapering beginning in January, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the European Central Bank 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 has picked up (+4.1% annualized growth in 3Q). The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust but 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 only +1.2% 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 that are flush 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 turn 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 in January. 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.
  • 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 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. Markets rarely stop when they reach fair value. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index spent all of 2013 above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back. A pull-back could be short-lived should demand for equities remain robust.

Asset Class Outlook

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.

Asset Class ReturnsAsset Class Returns

Federal Reserve: To Taper or Not To Taper

Miller, Bill 2Bill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

Today, Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is expected to announce a decision on whether to taper or not to taper.  There are good arguments to taper, namely good employment growth and a budget deal between the Republicans and the Democrats.  Likewise, there are good arguments to not taper, including low inflation and the possibility of higher interest rates.  A key consideration for the Fed, should they decide to taper, will be interest rates.  More specifically, the Fed does not want long-term interest rates to increase suddenly.  We estimate that a sharp 1% increase in the long-term Treasury bond could cause as much as a 10% correction in the stock market.

Yesterday morning (December 17), ISI Group reported that the Fed will likely announce that there will be $400 billion left to buy in their Quantitative Easing program. This strikes us as a clever compromise between the taper or not to taper decision. Most importantly, it is not sudden.  Both the stock and bond markets will have time, probably five months or more, to measure the impact of tapering. Thus, we hope to stay long stocks for normal seasonal strength in the first quarter of the new year.  On the other hand, if the Fed announces a more sudden tapering exit, adding shorts to hedge stock market risk is a likely approach.

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: December 2013

Amy MagnottaAmy 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.

12.13.13_Magnotta_MarketOutlook_2The 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.

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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.

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